"Modena this is Tifosi, report."
"Modena here, fratelli are in position...awaiting your order to execute."
"Stand by Modena; we are still awaiting final confirmation from Scuderia at this time."
"Understood, Tifosi, standing by."
Giusepppe Croce turned to his team and shrugged his shoulders. It was not the most comfortable place to be left waiting for orders, a wet alley that reeked of garbage, and all of them had been hoping for a speedy resolution to the night's mission so they could finally go home to their warm, dry beds. "It won't be long" Giuse assured them, but all knew these were empty platitudes. They would move when Ferro had clearance from their AISI contact inside and not a minute sooner.
Henrietta took a step back to avoid water dripping from a broken gutter pipe only to plant her foot in a deep puddle, soaking her shoe & sock. She knew better than to make a sound, but looked up at her handler with a disgruntled frown that said more than words could have. All he could give her in return was a wan, sympathetic smile and a pat on the shoulder. Behind them, Lucretia was less patient. "Are you kidding me?" she whispered, "We waited in the van all day and they still can't confirm our target?" That earned her a poke from her handler Enzo, who placed his finger to his lips as a reminder to stay quiet. She rolled her eyes petulantly but did not make another sound.
On a rooftop across from the Padania safe-house that held their target Ferro struggled with communications gear that liked the wet weather even less than Henrietta. "Damn it," she growled "this stuff was designed to be used inside...not out in the rain."
"Mari," ordered Elio, "go hold an umbrella for Ms. Milani." The red-head, feeling just as tired, damp and cranky as everyone else on the team muttered something under her breath as she got up to provide Ferro some cover. "I beg your pardon?" growled her handler.
"Nothing sir" Marisa sighed, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor on this occasion. Feeling he might have been a bit sharp with her Elio softened his tone and added "We're all tired and uncomfortable, but that never stops us from doing our best, aye lass?" Her master's words ameliorated some of the frustration Marisa was feeling; she gave him a nod and a small grin before scampering over to shield Ferro and her gear from the thin, persistent drizzle.
Ferro did not acknowledge her help, she just continued struggling with the radio set. "Our contact could be giving us the password at this very second and I wouldn't hear him!" she spat, trying to filter out the static that poured through her head set.
"Is he in any danger?" Rachel asked.
"He's an experienced AISI agent under deep cover," Ferro muttered, never stopping her work, "he's always in danger but he's very good at managing it."
Fernando spoke up to remind them "You all remember what he's wearing, right?"
The three cyborgs on the roof, Marisa, Rachel and Stefania all answered in chorus "Grey sport coat, yellow tie, black slacks."
"Good" replied Fernando "he'll be wearing a bullet-proof vest but it's best if we avoid shooting him all the same." That drew a little laugh from the girls...an important morale booster on the cold, wet night. Elio grinned as well before returning to his binoculars, watching the windows in the building across from him. He have a quick glance from side to side, noting Giuseppe Croce & Enzo Desimone's fratelli in an alley to his left...to his right, hidden from view in the entryway to a bank waited Fio & Etienne with their respective cyborgs Soni & Emilie. At least they're somewhat dry considered Alboreto. As he renewed his attention on the building something caught his eye. A tall, thin man...bald but wearing a thick moustache opened a window on the 3rd floor. He seemed to be looking around nervously, and then he tapped his ear. "Ferro, shut that piece of junk off and come have a look" Elio called out to her.
"What is it, Mr. A?"
"Male in a gray jacket...yellow neck-tie...tapping his ear like he's got something inside that's not working" the older man pointed out, handing her the binoculars.
"That's him alright" she muttered "he can't make contact. Pezzo di merda radio...try to get his attention! Marisa, can you bounce a pebble off that window?"
With a eager grin the girl replied "Sure thing ma'am!" Without waiting for the actual order Mari picked up a small stone from the rooftop and hurled it down toward their contact. It ricocheted off the window and hit the AISI man directly on his bald head. "Oops...sorry" whispered Marisa.
The act had the desired effect though, as he looked straight up (rubbing his head) and saw the SWA team peering down at him from the rooftop. Pointing toward his ear he tossed both hands up in the air before giving a thumbs-down sign. "Yes, we know the fucking radio isn't working" mouthed Ferro silently, "is our target inside or not?" In classic Italian fashion she attempted to convey all this through wild gesticulations of her hands. Finally the AISI agent understood what she was asking and signaled to the affirmative. "Alright, that's good enough for me! All teams this is Scuderia...commence action now...go, go go!"
The seven cyborgs needed no further urging. Releasing hours of pent-up energy and frustration they exploded from their hiding spots...Henrietta & Lucretia from the South, Soni & Emilie from the North, Rachel, Stefania & Marisa leaping onto the rooftop of the target building. Soni and Emilie reached their door first, the blonde teenager blasting through it with a 10-gauge shotgun slug. Two door guards with machine guns were waiting for them but both fell to knives thrown by Emilie.
Lucretia & 'Etta got slowed down by hostile fire from the windows, but their handlers were quick to respond, covering them from behind so they could advance. A blast from the little Series One cyborg's P90 destroyed the door frame, allowing the pair to push through into the building.
Inside, the central stairwell became the focal point of the action. Assuming they held the advantage of high ground Padania soldiers rushed to spray their attackers from the levels above...only to find themselves exposed to an unexpected attack from higher. Rachel, Marisa & Stefania busted out a skylight and dropped down to the top floor, catching their enemies off guard.
With organized resistance broken it became a exercise in clearing rooms. Each cyborg had her orders, and a specific target to go after. Lucretia found hers first; a frantic Padania technician trying to destroy a bank of outdated Pentium 4 desktop computers. He was unarmed, and made no attempt to attack so Lucy jammed a stun-gun into his neck, rendering him unconscious but alive for questioning. She fought the powerful temptation to dive straight into the enemy network, waiting until Enzo & Etienne converged on her position to provide cover. They arrived not a minute too soon...the tech had unleashed a file shredder virus that had already destroyed the data on one computer. Rather than attempt to fight it on its own terms Lucy went for the low-tech solution and ripped the network cable out before it could spread. A quick scan with her smart phone confirmed that there was no wireless network across which the virus could jump to the other units. "Objective Beta secured!" she called out triumphantly.
Emilie & Henrietta joined up and sprinted to the second floor. Both armed with P90's they eliminated a pair of guards who had been protecting an important asset. Those were not the only barriers in their path; another pair had set up a wall of furniture blocking the door they wanted access to.
"Heavier resistance than we expected," panted the Belgian girl, "do you want to call in backup?"
"No, watch this" answered Henrietta confidently, "this works every time." Leaving her rifle behind she stood up and strode directly into the enemy line of fire. "Please don't shoot! There are scary..."
'Etta's signature maneuver did not provide the desired effects. The two gunmen looked at her incredulously before unleashing a hail of bullets which the cyborg only managed to dodge by centimeters. "Okay, so it doesn't work every time" she grumbled.
"This does" giggled Emilie, tossing a flash grenade. The Padans were savvy though, and ducked behind cover to avoid the worst of it. When the noise cleared they poked their heads out only to be hit by a second blast. "They never expect the second grenade!" She and Henrietta charged out and jumped straight over their stunned enemies, both rolling over in unison and hitting their stunned opponents in the back with deadly 5.7mm fire.
Only one opponent remained between Henrietta, Emilie and the Five Republics Faction commander they were tasked with capturing. A lone female bodyguard shot at them from behind an overturned table. The barrier would not have been sufficient to stop bullets but neither used their rifles; firing wildly carried too much risk of hitting the mark they wished to capture.
They split in both directions, and by chance it was Henrietta who drew the woman's fire to herself. Either way the bodyguard was doomed. As 'Etta provided the distraction Emilie ran, bounced off the wall to her right and came down on the woman with her knife. Outnumbered by Agency cyborgs she never had a chance.
Placing her knee in the back of her captive Padania cell commander Emilie shouted out "Objective Gamma secure!"
Soni was the only one of the ground attack team to continue upward. She linked up with Marisa, Stefania & Rachel, who were clearing the top two floors room by room. "How are we doing down there?" Rachel asked as she kicked in a door and checked under the beds.
"Bottom floors should are secure" she answered, checking the closets, "They never saw you coming from above."
"They never do" laughed Rachel, "DUCK!" Without question Soni hit the floor, just in time to avoid a burst of machine gun fire that came through the wall. One bullet did manage to catch Rachel in the shoulder, but slowed down by layers of insulation and paneling it merely glanced off, taking a bit of skin with it. Rather than blindly return fire through a standing wall the two cyborgs scrambled out on their hands and knees, pausing at the door frame to ensure the hall was safe.
"Well, that leaves no doubt about where the Padans are" Soni muttered, "you wanna do this or me?"
"Duh, I don't want either of us to do it" snapped Rachel, "but I guess I will. My blouse already has a bullet hole in it." She hopped to her feet and sprinted down the hallway, drawing fire as she passed the open door where they both knew Republican Faction terrorists were holed-up. They took the bait, thinking Rachel was running to escape. Two gunmen exited the room and fired at her...each meeting their end by a shotgun blast from Soni behind them.
"You okay?" asked the blonde.
Rachel looked herself over and muttered "Aww man; not another one! Right in the shoulder-blade. Come dig this out for me."
"Ewww...no way, get your handler to do it!"
Marisa & Stefania took the third floor, clearing rooms one by one just as their sisters above and below did. Somewhere on the floor was the undercover AISI man, so an extra measure of caution was warranted. Their part of the plan had been rehearsed multiple times in the SWA shoot-house; Mari covering the hallway, Stefania entering the prearranged room where their agent was supposed to be hiding. "You're clear! Go, go!" called out the red-head, taking a knee in the hallway to guard against attack. Her partner dashed past but made a mistake. "No! Stefi! Right, not left!"
Instead of finding their informant's hiding spot the cyborg ran straight into three Padania soldiers attempting to escape out the window. All three unleashed machine gun fire straight at the doorway where she stood, and with a shriek Stefania fell. She managed to roll over and get a few shots off, killing one of the escaping FRF men, but she'd been hit as well. The other two bailed out of the window.
"Stefi? How bad are you hit?" demanded Marisa, rushing to her side.
"I can walk," she wheezed, the wind knocked out of her. Luckily it had not been an armor piercing round, but she had taken the bullet straight to the flexible armor in her abdomen. "I'm sorry...I screwed up, but I can keep going."
Accepting what she said Marisa nodded. "Okay...you go get our informant, I'm going after those two that escaped." She rushed to the open window and found a bed-sheet rope which had been used by the escaping Padanians. Slinging her Kel-Tech onto her back Mari rappelled down, passing the very window where Emilie & Henrietta had just taken the FRF cell commander hostage.
With lightning reflexes 'Etta drew a bead on the dark shape passing her window, but she recognized a friendly in time. "Marisa, what are you doing now?" demanded the brunette.
"Two bastardos got away," reported Mari, never slowing her drop.
Henrietta turned to Emilie, still sitting on the struggling Padanian's back, and asked "Have you got him under control?"
"Of course" replied her dark haired partner, "he's no trouble, go help Mari!"
"Marisa! I'm coming too!" shouted 'Etta as she climbed out the window.
The two cyborgs could see their quarry ahead, running at a full sprint through the dark streets of Rome. Even at top speed they were no match for the speed of the cyborgs, who gained rapidly. Realizing this the two men stopped, broke a window and climbed through over the display into a garden & hardware store.
Henrietta & Marisa followed hot on their heels, but once inside the dark store it was totally silent. "Can you hear them?" whispered Mari in a voice so low only another cyborg could hear.
"Two heartbeats, heavy breathing but I can't pinpoint them."
"Then they've split up."
The two youngsters advanced carefully, checking down each aisle. Crouched behind a display of fibreglass insulation was a single heat signature, almost glowing in their eyes. "There's one" breathed 'Etta quietly; she signaled Marisa to go down the adjacent aisle and flank him. Giving a nod the red-head agreed and they split up. With superb hearing, along with eyes that could see in the dark and detect heat the cyborgs held a distinct advantage. That did not mean their prey was utterly helpless, so they moved silently and with great caution.
Marisa ducked for cover when she heard a machine gun blast from Henrietta's aisle. In a flash she recognized the sound as 5.7x28mm...'Etta's own P90. Several more shots were fired, these sounded like .45 ACP pistol rounds. Abandoning stealth the red-head ran down her own aisle in an effort to engage from behind but she was blinded and hit in the face. Mari fell on her back, dazed, but regained her senses in time to see the second FRF man standing over her with a shovel. He dropped the implement and drew a pistol from his belt, drawing a bead on her vulnerable eye.
Too much time spent aiming was his undoing, as he severely over-estimated how badly Marisa was hurt. Like a coiled spring the cyborg rolled backward, kicking the weapon out of his hand and regaining her feet. Her Kel-Tech was 5 meters away, so rather than make a run for it she attacked head-on.
"They told us about you," the Padania man growled, sidestepping her charge "I didn't think it could be true but I guess it would take some kind of government monster to shake off a blow like that."
"What, that shovel whack? I've been hit harder playing tag" hissed Mari.
"Then maybe I need a bigger stick!" Showing surprising strength the man picked up a sledge hammer and swung it straight for her head. That genuinely had the potential to hurt her, so Marisa retreated a few steps and looked for a weapon of her own.
For the first time she looked around and realized she was in a wonderland of sharp, pointy tools, most of which could be utilized as weapons. Gleaming steel hatchets hung on the wall to her left, so Marisa grabbed two. She tossed the first one, not really expecting to hit anything, just to distract. Before she could charge in with the second in her hand a hail of bullets from Henrietta's P90 ripped through the shelves that separated them, causing both Mari and her opponent to leap for safety.
The Padania man got to his feet first and attacked with the sledge hammer, keeping the young cyborg rolling and dodging to avoid its blows. In spite of her temporary disadvantage Marisa stayed calm. He can't keep this up forever, he'll get tired. She was right...exhausted by his run, followed by the fight he paused to catch his breath. That was all the advantage Mari needed, kicking his feet out from under him and jumping on top. She used the hatchet with brutal efficiency, cleaving her opponent's skull open with the first blow and giving a few more chops for good measure.
There was one final burst of P90 fire, followed by a scream and the rapid pattering of feet. Marisa stood up in time to see Henrietta round the corner, ready for more action. "It's okay, I got mine too" Mari assured her and 'Etta finally lowered her weapon.
The adults finally caught up; they could be heard outside surveying the broken glass. "It's safe, both targets neutralized!" chirped Henrietta, happy to see Giuseppe was there. Fio was the first to climb through the window into the store, followed by Fernando and finally Elio.
"Hot damn, I do not want to be around when Ferro explains this one to Jean" chuckled the Puerto Rican handler, looking over the mess.
"Are you already planning an excuse why you can't make it to the what went wrong meeting?" grumbled Alboreto.
Flashing a toothy grin Fernando answered "I think Rachel & I might need to drive down to Reggio di Calabria tomorrow to check up on...I dunno, something."
Fio only shook her head and turned her attention to the girls. "Are you two alright? Mari it looks like you got hit in the face."
"Um, yeah, with a shovel" she replied, unable to take her eyes off the bloody hatchet in her hand "I'm fine though."
"And you Henrietta?" asked Giuseppe, "did you get hit?"
Sticking her chin up haughtily the brunette answered "Nobody even touched me...and I didn't get all covered in gross Padania blood either!"
"What-ever" scoffed Marisa at her prissy sister, "this is the coolest thing I have ever used in a fight. Elio, can I keep it, please?"
Rolling his eyes her gray haired handler muttered "Well I doubt anyone will want it back after what it's been used for. Do not start bringing it on missions though; it stays at the dorm, capito?"
"Yes sir!" she chirped happily, "Just a souvenir...or for when we go camping."
Elio turned to Henrietta and muttered "I suppose you want one now too?"
The Series One girl looked at Marisa, gleefully clutching her new murder weapon like a macabre carnival prize. There was just something about it that made Henrietta feel uneasy...especially that blade covered in blood. She shook her head. "No...no sir...I don't need one" she said timidly, and went to go lean on Giuseppe, who eased her anxiety by putting an arm around her shoulder.
_"What Went Wrong?" Meeting_
Although objectives had been met the safe-house raid had not gone as well as it could have. Upon reviewing everyone's mission statements Jean Croce confirmed what everyone involved was dreading and called for a "Mission failure analysis"...colloquially known around the Agency as a "What Went Wrong?" meeting. Handler and cyborgs hated these sessions. Although on paper they were not meant to single out any individual or apply blame there was always enough criticism to go around and nobody escaped their time in the undesirable spotlight.
Jean stood at the front of the mission planning room, a floor-plan of each level already drawn out on the white dry erase board. It was hot and the windowless room was crowded. "Couldn't we have done this in the classroom?" whispered Soni, but Fio shushed her.
"Gentlemen, Ladies, as you know we achieved objectives Alpha, Beta & Gamma, but not without problems and that's what we're here to discuss." Jean paused, took off his jacket and loosened his tie. "First of all, radio communication with our AISI contact inside utterly failed due to the rain. The entire attack was delayed due to this. Ferro is already looking into getting waterproof encrypted radio sets for future missions." He flipped the page on his stack of notes and continued; "The delay did not cost us much, as the entire team maintained good discipline and did not tip the hostiles off to our presence. Now lets review our three primary objectives." The assembled audience groaned; they'd been over this a dozen times in pre-mission briefings, but Croce continued: "Objective Alpha was to make contact with our AISI mole and extract him safely. While we were successful he was hit in the shin with a bullet."
"Was it one of ours or one of theirs?" asked Fernando. He'd been unable to escape to Reggio di Calabria before Jean roped him into this meeting...the Field Commander was getting savvy to his tricks.
"He did not go to our hospital so a forensics report on the bullet may take weeks" Jean answered. "Honestly it does not matter. He was shot while already in our custody. The plan called for two cyborgs to secure him...there was only one."
Marisa cringed when he said that. She had been the second cyborg tasked with guarding the agent, but the escape of those two Padanians had screwed up the whole plan. Jean did not single her out though, he proceeded with the mission objectives. "Objective Beta was the capture of their computers. For the most part that was successful, although we lost one entire hard drive to a file shredder virus. We will never know what information could have been captured if Lucretia had been able to get to those units faster."
"We got into our covering positions as fast as we could" muttered Etienne, "are you implying we should have risked our lives even more for the sake of computer data?"
"I am implying that we need to train harder and be faster next time" answered Croce, putting an end to the argument. Jean took a drink of his water and continued; "Objective Gamma was the capture of the Padania cell commander. Well done, he's currently in our holding cell and I can guarantee it's even hotter in there than it is here." Few people laughed at his attempt at humor. "Which brings us to standing orders; here we had mixed results with."
Jean dimmed the lights and turned on a projector, advancing to still photos of the destroyed hardware store. "Due to an incorrect turn by one of our team members two FRF terrorists escaped out a 3rd floor window. Correctly following their standing orders, two cyborgs gave chase and cornered them in a local business. At this point they failed to follow standing orders, engaging the hostiles on their own and causing over €13,000 in damage to the business."
Marisa did the right thing, keeping her head down and absorbing her fair share of the blame, but Henrietta was not used to such criticism. She sat up from her seat and complained "I didn't hack a man to pieces with a camping axe!"
"No," snapped the Field Commander, angry at being interrupted, "you discharged two full magazines of exotic, easy to trace 5.7mm ammunition in the store. Which do you think cost more to clean up?"
At this point Henrietta should have accepted her scolding and sat back down...indeed most of her cyborg sisters where whispering at her to do just that. She did not; and pushed the situation one step too far. "Well none of this would have happened if Stefania hadn't turned the wrong way and missed clearing her room!"
Giuseppe had reached the limit of his patience and grasped her by the ear. "Sit down!" he hissed, and the young cyborg finally returned to her seat, despondent over her brother's disapproval.
Jean let the uncomfortable silence simmer for a few moments before setting down his notes. "Alright, there is no point in denying that this chain of events was triggered by an incorrect turn by Stefania. This was investigated and determined to be a conditioning problem which is being addressed as we speak. You will note that neither Stefania nor her handler Flavio are here in this briefing...they are both at the medical center. The problem is being dealt with appropriately so I will allow no further discussion of it, understood?" He was answered by a mumbled chorus of Yes Sir's. "Fine...now let's focus on what we can discuss. What would have been the appropriate response, instead of destroying a downtown hardware store?" He brought up the lights, turned and wrote on the white board.
"Isolate the hostiles. Communicate to command and Wait. Isolate, Communicate and Wait! This should not be difficult to remember, ladies...repeat after me..."
The entire room droned along with their commander "Isolate, Communicate and Wait."
"Remember that. Now let's move on to our attack timing cues..."
A damp fog hung in the air that next morning...the official Vernal Equinox, but it stood no chance against the first rays of the sun climbing over the Eastern horizon. It was going to be another hot day.
"Thanks for doing this" muttered Chief Lorenzo "on a Saturday no less. I'm sure there's better things you could be doing with your weekend."
"Well, no doubt this is going to be difficult, but it's exactly the sort of thing you brought me on board for" sighed Elio. They rode in the Chief's Maserati but did not go straight to Section Two's part of the compound, instead taking the left then right turns on the way to the Medical complex. Pieri parked in front and the two middle aged men walked in together.
A somber looking group was already assembled; Dr. Bianchi, Dr. Belisario and Stefania's handler Flavio, all milling around making uncomfortable small talk. When the two older men arrived they were greeted with handshakes and muted greetings of good morning. After a few time wasting comments about the hot weather Belisario finally addressed the topic that had brought them all in so early on a Saturday; "Gentlemen, are we all sure we want to do this?"
"We've tried everything else" sighed Dr. Bianchi, "I hate the idea of it with every fiber of my being, but I can offer no alternative."
Lorenzo waited a moment before adding "There have just been too many mistakes. What happened Thursday night could have gotten someone killed. Section Two can't continue taking risks while the Medical Department tinkers. Doctors, I don't mean to disparage your efforts...we all know you've exhausted every option on this case...but we have a mission to accomplish."
"How about you, Flavio?" asked Elio, "How are you doing with this?" The former MI-6 man did not consider this his decision to make, he was only there for moral support and therefore expressed no opinion of his own. Privately he had agreed with his old friend though; there had been too many failures to ignore.
Looking haggard and depressed, Flavio Giuffre just nodded. He had come to the Agency 6 months ago, enthusiastic, motivated and wearing a full head of hair. The strain of having a cyborg who was not working out had aged him dramatically since then. He had lost a good deal of his hair, his eyes were bloodshot and surrounded by dark bags at all hours of the day. Nobody doubted his commitment...he had sacrificed his own health working non-stop with Stefania. Flavio had not taken a day off since he arrived and few could remember the last time he slept at home. "There's no...no other choice" he muttered weakly.
"Alright, here comes our lass of the hour" warned Alboreto, "cheerful faces everyone...this is a happy day, remember."
Down the hall came the neurologist Mariana, pushing Stefania along in a wheelchair. By their side walked Dr. Bergonzi, not a conditioning or neurological science expert, but a favorite with the girls, able to put them at ease. "You're all here?" asked the cyborg nervously.
"Certainly" said the Chief with a smile, "Dr. Belisario says today is the day we finally get all your issues sorted out. All your hard work is about to pay off and we all want to be here to see the results."
"Thank you sir" she replied, but nobody was really fooled by the collective brave face being shown. Stefania knew Thursday night's screw up at the safe-house raid was her last straw. Even though everyone assured her it was not her fault, that the conditioning process was to blame, she knew these might be her last minutes as the girl she was.
Reconditioning was a mysterious bugaboo amongst the cyborgs. An intangible horror to be inflicted on errant cyborgs who could not meet the standards of the Agency. It had entered their parlance as the ultimate sanction for transgressions; "If my handler finds out about that he'll recondition me!" "Ms. Ferro was so mad I thought I was gonna get reconditioned!" "They're going to recondition you if you get another score like that on the next test."
As much as they talked about it, no cyborg actually knew another girl who had been reconditioned. They all assumed it happened...but nobody knew to whom and when. In fact, a total re-write had never been attempted in the history of the Agency. Claes embodied the closest they had ever come, and her recondition was only partial. Today would change all that; Stefania was scheduled for a total memory wipe and re-write. She hadn't been told the truth about it, but there was little doubt in the girl's mind that in a few minutes she would be losing all of her memories and everything that constituted her conscious existence.
"We need to get started, sweetie" said Mariana, offering her a hand. Flavio hurried over to help her out of the wheelchair. As a precaution, drugs had been administered to dampen the majority of her cyborg strength.
"Take it easy" the handler told her, "this will only take a few hours and I'll be right here when you wake up."
"Yes sir" replied the girl, but even without her mechanical strength she was practically crushing his hand. With Flavio on one side and Mariana on the other Stefania slowly walked to the door of the lab.
"Sorry, your handler will have to wait outside," Mariana said, "we have to maintain a sterile environment in here."
Stefania turned and wrapped her arms around Flavio. "Thank you for everything," she wept, "and I'm so sorry I couldn't be a better cyborg for you."
"Don't say that" whispered Flavio, returning the hug "you worked harder than any girl I know...and once this procedure is done your problems are going to be nothing more than a bad memory."
A gentle push from Mariana told them it was time, and with a last little wave to her handler Stefania followed her into the lab, Dr. Belisario close behind them. The door closed behind them, but the audience could watch through a large plate-glass window.
Emotionally drained, Flavio sat down on the bench and buried his face in his hands. "Steady mate" said Elio, placing a hand on his shoulder, "you know this is what's best for her."
Shifting his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably, Dr. Bianchi felt the need to explain; "We really did try everything to save her memories. It's just that she had a flaw with her original conditioning. Stefania lost any ability to form mental maps of places, objects, anything. It's really quite astonishing that she was able to function as well as she did, all by rote memorization. She could not visualize the inside of a building she was tasked with attacking...or even the route from her room to the dining hall. She had to label all of her dresser drawers because she was unable to visualize where she kept her clothes. Once we realized what the issue was we attempted to write a patch for her operating system...but that did not eliminate her problems, the damage was too deeply ingrained. I'm afraid this is the only option we're left with."
"We know, Doctor" replied Lorenzo, putting up his hand to signal that further explanation was not necessary, "your efforts to remedy the situation while preserving her memories are not under question...we know you did all you could."
"I just wish..." Bianchi could not finish his last sentence.
On the other side of the glass the techs fit a visor over Stefania's eyes. "You're going to feel a prick...it's just a sedative so you can sleep through the procedure, nothing to worry about."
Upon feeling the needle the cyborg began to become agitated. Her nerve left her and she began to fight against the restraints that held her. "No...no! I don't want this! No! Please don't erase my mind! I'll try harder...I'll do better! Please don't do this!"
For the men outside it was heart-wrenching. Stefania had done nothing wrong, she had worked twice as hard than any cyborg could be expected to, but none of that had made a difference. It was like witnessing the execution of an innocent girl. Flavio stood up and pressed himself against the glass. "Stefi...it's going to be alright! Please be brave like I know you can! I promise everything is going to be okay!"
"Flavio I'm sorry! I'm sorry...I'm...so..." her voice trailed off as the sedative took effect.
Everyone was silent, nobody wanted to be the first one to speak. At last Dr. Bianchi broke the weighty silence. "Well, it's started. If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have other duties." He paused, putting a hand on Giuffre's shoulder. "She's in good hands, Flavio. I promise you we won't fail her again."
Before drifting away himself the Chief asked "What do you plan to do with yourself until she's ready?"
"I'll stay here," the handler replied "just like I said I would."
Dr. Bianchi, who had not gone far yet, turned around & shook his head. "Flavio, this is a complete re-write, it will take 6 days at least. Her brain needs rest periods in-between sessions. You need to go home, get some rest yourself."
"The Doc is right, mate" concurred Elio, "when she wakes up she's going to need you...and you'll have a brand new cyborg to train from the ground up. You need to get some R&R while you have the opportunity." That raised Bianchi's eyebrows a bit; it was exactly the opposite of what Alboreto had done when he lost his first cyborg, but the psychiatrist held his tongue.
"I agree" Lorenzo said "in fact I'm making it a direct order. Go home, take a trip, do whatever you need to do to get your head clear. Next week starts a whole new life for Stefania and she's not going to give you a moment's peace."
Flavio Giuffre sighed and accepted what his colleagues were telling him. It had been a long six months and a few days visiting his brother's family in Manfredonia did not sound too bad. "Alright...yes sir. Doctor, you'll call me if anything goes wrong, per favore?" Bianchi nodded in agreement. After shaking hands with the other men Flavio gave his sedated cyborg one last look and headed down the hall silently.
"Well that was grim" muttered Elio.
"All the same I'm glad you were here" Lorenzo thanked him "what are your plans for the rest of the day?"
Alboreto thought for a minute and replied "As long as I'm here I think I'll do a bit of work on that package I'm preparing for Draghi...recommended training guidelines for Section One desk agents sent out on temporary field duty."
Pieri curled his lip in disdain. "Surely you can think of a better thing to do with Saturday than work up a report for that asshole."
Elio laughed. "Someone has to do it. If we don't then Section One will write the policy with no input from our side at all. And since you refuse to work with Draghi it falls in Jean's lap...which would turn into a fucking disaster. So it's better that I just do it myself and spare us all a lot of trouble. Fear not, I don't plan on spending all day on it...I'll cut out early and we'll get dinner at the club this evening."
"Sounds good" answered Lorenzo, "we came together in my car this morning, how are you getting home?"
"I'm set; I left the BMW here on Friday."
"That's thinking ahead" Pieri said with a nod, "I'll see you this evening then." He fished his keys out of his pocket and returned to his Maserati. It was well worth giving up his spare bedroom for an indefinite amount of time if it meant having an old friend on staff who was willing to deal with Chief Draghi so he wouldn't have to.
By 10am the temperature had already reached 30º Celsius so the rooftop air conditioners on the dormitory kicked on for the first time of the season. Thirty seconds later they shut off with a gruesome crunch of twisted metal. A quick check confirmed that the main blower had a bad bearing and would turn no more. The cyborg warehouse was without air conditioning until at least Monday.
The lucky cyborgs were out on missions. Those left behind wished the engineers had favored them with an enhanced system of internal cooling...simply sweating was just not doing the trick. "Weren't we just complaining about it being too cold a few weeks ago?" moaned Kara, sitting at the foot of Petrushka's bed with an oriental hand fan. It was intended as a wall decoration but in this time of crisis the ornament was seeing actual service.
"A few days ago" Allison muttered, sprawled out on her own bed. Both of their room-mates were gone, working together on a stake-out in Padua, where hopefully it was cooler. "I called Brian and told him how miserable it was here...he said he'd requisition some electric fans for us but that won't be until Monday."
"Ugh...the AC will be fixed by then" complained Kara. "I called Michele and asked him to rescue me but he's got some thing in Ostia with the Prime Minister today and it's adults only."
"When I called Hillshire he told me 'it'll build character', can you believe that?" The two Series Two girls looked up to see Triela standing in the doorway, dressed only in a tee shirt and loose shorts.
"More like it'll melt our characters" snorted Kara. "So how you holdin' up, Tree?"
The Senior Cyborg sauntered in lazily and sat down on the foot of Petra's bed, directly over Kara. "Have either of you ever lost so much blood that you started to feel cold?"
Allison shook her head but Kara replied "Yeah, that time I took a few in the gut."
Triela asked "Then would you mind shooting me so I can get that sensation?" Despite their miserable situation all three girls laughed.
"Lets all shoot each other," Allison suggested "I'll bet the air conditioners are working at the medical building." Laughter made the situation tolerable for a few minutes. The brunette walked over and inspected a suction-cup mounted thermometer stuck to her window. "32 degrees already, and it's just gonna get worse. What are we going to do?"
"The pool" suggested Kara.
"That's way over on Section One's side of the compound" muttered Triela, "unfriendly territory. And they're not gonna let us use it unless we provide our own lifeguard."
Kara stood up and declared with her finger in the air "Desperate times call for desperate measures! I call for an invasion of Section One's territory! Besides, we have lifeguards; Rachel and Marisa both have their certification."
"Rachel & Mr. Fernando took off for Reggio di Calabria right after that What Went Wrong meeting yesterday," Allison informed them, "so we'll have to get Copper-Top. I know she's home."
"Then onward!" trumpeted Kara grandiosely, "you two go get changed, I'll fetch Mari and meet you outside in 15 minutes.
Kara found their prospective lifeguard in her room, reading a book with a wet towel draped over her head. "Hey Marisa, doing anything important?"
"Last 60 pages" answered the red-head, never looking away from the page "why, what's up?"
"Well, as you may have noticed, it's pretty hot" Kara joked, drawing a wilting stare from Marisa. "A few of us are gonna head over to the pool on Sec One's half of the compound, but we need a certified lifeguard. Wanna come?"
Mari put down her book and replied "That pool sucks. It's too small, too shallow and they put too much chlorine in it. But I can't concentrate on reading anyway so sure...I'm game."
"Great" Kara chirped, "get changed, we'll be waiting downstairs near the front door."
The walk to Section One's side of the SWA compound was not a long one, but under the scorching late-morning sun it may as well have been an epic trek across the sands of Egypt. Eschewing the main roads the girls cut through the wooded groves which dotted the compound, taking advantage of shade where it was available.
At last they arrived at Section One's training area, finding it mostly deserted...it was Saturday after all. Before the quartet of hot & tired cyborgs finally appeared the pool, glistening like a chlorine filled oasis in the desert. "I'm not getting out until sundown" groaned Triela, as they approached and swung the gate open.
"Hold on there," warned a short but athletically built Section One man. Dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, he was obviously the pool manager. "You can't use the pool without a lifeguard."
"Got it covered!" responded Kara, pushing Marisa to the fore. The youngest cyborg of the group brandished her certifications, issued by the Federazione Italiana Nuoto & the Società Nazionale Salvamento. Suspecting forgery he scrutinized the cards intensely, not ready to accept that someone so young could have earned credentials it had taken him years to achieve. There was no flaw with Marisa's cards though, so with a shrug the pool manager accepted that working with cyborgs called for a re-evaluation of what he considered possible.
Just as the Section One man was about to relent a roll of thunder in the background caught his attention. He handed back Marisa's cards and said "Sorry ladies, if there's lightning in the area I can't let you in."
"What?" "Are you serious?" "No fucking way!" the girls all objected in unison, but the pool manager held his ground. "Just following regulations, girls. If there's lightning nearby I have to close the pool."
"It's just summer heat lightning!" Kara argued, "It'll pass in a few minutes!"
He shook his head and turned to put a padlock on the gate. "The regs do not differentiate between types of lightning. The pool is closed...I'm going home."
"Asino buco" growled Allison as they all watched the Section One man get into his car (which probably had air conditioning) and drive away (to a home which probably had air conditioning).
"You know, this fence isn't very high..." suggested Marisa.
Triela shook her head and muttered "It's not worth the risk. You know Section One is watching us right now, and Chief Draghi would just love to catch four cyborgs getting into trouble on his side of the base. It's already hot enough without getting into hot water."
With groans and curses the other three agreed that she was right before enduring the humiliating walk back to Section Two's side of the compound with dry hair & swimsuits.
By the time they got back the dining hall had opened for lunch. Lacking anything better to do the four girls changed back out of their swimsuits and headed down to see what was on the menu...hoping desperately that the kitchen staff had been sensible enough to prepare some nice cool salads.
The kitchen staff had indeed been sensible; sensible enough to stay home when they heard that the air conditioners were busted. With all of the senior chefs mysteriously calling in sick on the first day of spring, lunch was left to the apprentices and dish washers, resulting in several huge trays of very questionable casserole.
"Is it safe?" queried Allison, watching a bite jiggle un-naturally on Triela's fork.
The Senior Cyborg hesitated and answered "I don't know...you try it first. I'm way too important to the Agency."
"Hasn't killed me yet" muttered Marisa, wolfing down a mouthful. She had almost finished her plate.
Still not entirely convinced, Allison asked "Is it any good?"
"Oh hell no" replied Mari, "it's god-awful."
Triela rolled her eyes and grabbed the younger girl's hand, stopping her fork on the way to her mouth. "Then why are you eating it?"
Marisa did not have a chance to answer; she was interrupted by a shriek from Kara. "Oh my god...is that a brussels sprout? Who the hell puts brussels sprouts in a casserole?" She pushed her plate away and exclaimed "That's it...we need to get out of here. We need to go off compound and have some fun."
"Who's gonna take us off compound?" muttered Triela, "None of our handlers are here."
"Mine is here today" Marisa injected, stealing the brussels sprout off Kara's tray.
Triela scoffed; "Yeah, the last time Mr. Alboreto took a bunch of girls off base for an outing da Vinci airport ended up getting shut down for a bomb threat. I doubt you're gonna talk him into escorting us."
"Who needs an escort?" Kara asked "Don't you remember last week's Monday briefing? Chief Lorenzo & Jean are considering limited unescorted passes off compound. As long as we fill out the proper form...give Jean a full itinerary of where we plan to go...carry a GPS tracker and provide our own transportation. Allie, you have a car so that's one box checked off already."
"Eh, uncheck that box" muttered Allison, "my Delta broke a half-shaft and I'm still saving up to replace it. I haven't been able to pilfer dead Padania bodies as much lately."
Kara was not slowed down by this minor setback. "No big deal. We can sign out an Agency van."
"You're serious?" asked Marisa.
"Hell yes I'm serious!" Kara assured her, and all of them. "I know this roadside place up in the hills, less than 20km from here. It's got like...fifty different flavors of gelato. Either we can sit here and roast or we can try to get a pass. It couldn't hurt to ask."
Allison ventured the question "Who do we have to ask?"
"Jean." The other three girls laughed, but Kara was serious. "Fine, I'll ask if you're all chicken."
"Have fun getting reconditioned" muttered Triela.
Shrugging her shoulders, Allison finally agreed in part; "If you get the pass...I'll get us a vehicle."
"See, that's the spirit!" Kara trumpeted. She was about to take off but stopped and asked "Do you mind if Henrietta goes along?"
"Does the pass require us to have at least one dork with us?" inquired Marisa, earning her a poke in the ribs from Triela.
Kara explained; "She & Giuseppe took me along to their favorite dessert place a few weeks ago, so I kinda owe her one." The others had no objection to having one more along. "Okay, great...I'll meet you back up in Allie's room." With that, Kara rushed off.
Nobody seemed to be present in 'Etta & Rico's room. "Henrietta, are you here?" Kara called out. There were blankets draped from her top bunk, totally enclosing Rico's bed below. At Kara's call the blonde girl popped her head out.
"Heya Rico, nice fort."
Rico tumbled out, slick with sweat, her bangs matted to her forehead. She wore only a tank-top and boxer shorts. "I thought I might be able to keep the heat out, but it's not working very well."
Kara stifled a laugh and replied "Yeah, it doesn't look like it. Is Henrietta around?"
Looking a bit nervous, Rico broke off eye contact and asked "Um, what do you need her for?"
"Well, a few of us are hoping to get a pass to go off compound and grab some gelato to beat the heat. I kind of owe her one so I was gonna ask her to come along."
Rico had a reputation around the Agency for being unable to tell a lie...even when she wanted to. From her body language Kara could tell she was struggling with what to say. She felt like telling the truth would be gossiping, and betraying an embarrassing situation her room-mate was in, but didn't know what else to say. "Henrietta is down in the music conservatory...but I don't think she can come off compound with you. Mr. Giuse was pretty angry at her for how she behaved in that meeting on Friday, and he said she's not allowed to leave the dorm all weekend."
"Oh, yeah, I heard about that" replied Kara, "alright then." She was about to turn and depart when she cast another glance in Rico's direction. The blonde girl had her locked in a hopeful gaze, practically trembling with anticipation. For a moment it confused the older Series Two cyborg until she realized what her younger sister was hoping to hear. How could I be so thoughtless? Kara scolded herself internally, but recovered quickly and said "Well, I guess it's just you then. Wanna come along?"
Rico actually popped a few inches off the ground as she exclaimed "Yes!"
"Well, I still need to see Jean and ask for the pass. He might..."
"I'll go with you!" offered the younger girl.
Kara did not think that was a great idea. She was the one with diplomatic training; she preferred to tackle this daunting task alone. "Why don't you let me worry about that. Get dressed and meet me in Allison's room, okay?"
_The Lion's Den_
While the second floor of Section Two's office building, which held their handlers' rooms as well as Claes' library, was a familiar & welcoming place for cyborgs the third floor was intimidating & mysterious. Here Pieri Lorenzo's office was located, and though most of the cyborgs loved their Chief they very seldom had reason to set foot in his office unless they had done something very wrong. Kara's destination was at the other end of the hall however, the office of Sec Two's second in command, Jean Croce. To say that she was regretting some of the bravado she'd displayed earlier, in the presence of her sisters would be an understatement. At this moment Kara would rather have asked Giacomo Dante himself for an off-compound pass than Jean Croce.
The unpleasant climate wasn't making things easier either. As she passed an air conditioning vent Kara felt warm, damp air blowing out. The AC units in this building were working no better than those in the dormitory. "That's gonna make Jean irritable..." the girl thought nervously as she reached to knock on his door.
"Come in, it's open" answered a gruff voice. Kara timidly stepped inside to find the Field Commander pouring over a stack of recently decoded intelligence reports. His jacket hung from the coat-rack, his tie was undone and his shirt unbuttoned. "What is it, Kara?"
"Well, sir...remember what you said in the briefing last Monday?"
Croce never looked up. "The briefing that I gave? Yes, I think I should remember what I said less than a week ago."
Kara cringed; he was irritable. "Well, a few of us were hoping we could get one of those off-compound passes you were talking about...you know, to..."
"There's no training today, and as long as none of you are on the alert fratello I see no problem with it" muttered Croce.
Dumbstruck at how easy that had been Kara could only stammer "R-really?"
Jean finally looked up from his paperwork, his entire face sweaty and flushed. "Frankly, the less of you there are hanging around compound the better. I swear, if one more cyborg comes in here complaining about the air conditioners I'll have her running laps until Pasquetta." He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a form. "I'll need the names of the cyborgs, the destination and route you plan to take...limit of 30km radius from the compound and not in the City of Rome. Put the make, model and license number of the vehicle you plan to take here. Check out a GPS transmitter from the Special Weapons Lab and bring the form back here for approval."
"Thank you sir!" chirped Kara, eliciting no more than a dismissive wave from Croce.
Idling around Allison's room, Rico's attention was drawn to the multitude of 1/43 scale model automobiles that decorated her shelves. These were not ordinary looking cars like you saw on the street everyday; most were race cars with numbers & colorful paint jobs, each model as intricately detailed as a jewel. Some wore outrageous air intake scoops and exciting looking wings. She picked a favorite and dreamed of what it would be like to ride in such a fearsome machine. Carefully, Rico placed her hand on the car and pushed it around the shelf, quietly providing the engine sounds with her voice. But when Allison's head snapped up with a look of alarm on her face the blonde girl yanked her hand back quickly. She did not want a repeat of the drama with Henrietta's kaleidoscope. "I'm sorry!"
The look on Allison's face turned from surprise to embarrassment when she realized she'd been misunderstood. "Oh go ahead, Rico, you can play with them all you want," she assured her younger sister, "it's just that...well, that's a Ferrari 333SP, it's got a V-12 engine. You're making 4-cylinder sounds."
"Huh?" was the only response Rico could deliver.
Quite seriously, Allison explained "You were making a sound like 'Whhhiiiiiii-whiiiaaaa-whaaaooo.' but a V-12 sounds more like Grrraaaaaaa-bwhhhaaaaa-more of a howling sound...not a scream like a 4-banger." From across the room Triela and Marisa gave each other a look with raised eyebrows.
The odd moment was interrupted by the return of Kara, who waved a piece of paper triumphantly, exclaiming "I got it!"
"Jean agreed?" muttered Triela, incredulously.
The Asian girl wore a broad grin and nodded enthusiastically. "Jean was totally cool about it."
"Jean is always cool" commented Rico with complete sincerity, drawing awkward stares from around the room. It was poor cyborg etiquette to criticize another girl's handler right in front of her, so no one said anything to dispute her statement.
Steering them back on topic, Marisa asked "So that's it, we can go?"
"We need to get a car and write down its license number, and sign out a GPS tracker from the Special Weapons Lab" explained Kara.
"Okay, I'll get the car" said Allison, grabbing Marisa's wrist.
"And we'll go fetch the GPS tracker" Triela volunteered, taking Rico along with her.
Kara nodded and fetched Allison's road atlas from the bookshelf. "Jean wants a detailed description of our destination & route...I'll work on that."
"Alright, let's get going!" exclaimed Mari, and the cyborgs took off to accomplish their tasks.
Alfonso scowled as he looked over the vehicle request form. "Sorry Allison, but the terms of those off compound passes demand that you provide your own car. I can't authorize you an Agency vehicle just to go joy riding in."
"But my Lancia is laid up with a broken half-shaft" pleaded Allison.
"That seems like a problem between you and your mechanic" Alfonso deadpanned.
Her indignation boiling over, Allison snapped "I am the mechanic!"
Despite the heat the Charge of Quarters Officer kept his cool and replied "Really? In that case I really ought to keep the keys locked up tight." Defying the conditioning induced nausea building up in her stomach the brunette cyborg was prepared to unleash a piece of her mind on Alfonso, but Marisa jumped in between and pushed her out of the office forcibly.
"The nerve of him!" spat Allison, "After all the extra work I do on Agency equipment! They can't see it in their hearts to lend us one lousy Fiat?"
"Calm down, Allie," Marisa tried to defuse the situation as they walked down the hall "I know lunch was bad but you don't want to lose it all over the floor."
"Maybe I ought to!" growled the older cyborg, "That would show...oh jeeze..." Just then the conditioning response kicked in violently, and Allison lost her balance. As she stumbled Marisa caught her and helped her to a bench. "Oh, happy thoughts, happy thoughts...damn it this would be a lot easier if it wasn't so stinkin' hot." Allison thumped her head backwards against the wood paneling.
"We'll find another way" Marisa assured her "Elio is in today, maybe he can help."
"Help with what?" asked a deep voice which seemed to have come out of nowhere. Marisa jumped...it annoyed her that he could always sneak up on her, no other human could do that.
As the three walked into his office Marisa poured out all the details of their plight. "...and Mr. Croce actually gave Kara the form but we need to get our own car, but Alfonso is CQ today and he's being a big jerk and says it can't be an Agency car but Allison's car has a half broken shaft or something so..."
"I understand" interrupted the handler, putting a hand up to halt the non-stop flow of words from his cyborg. "But Alfonso is not being a jerk, he's right. When we discussed these passes Chief Lorenzo was very clear that they did not mean open season on the Agency motor pool."
Like a defense attorney Marisa pressed her case using precedent; "But you signed out an Agency van that time you took us sightseeing at the airport!"
Elio did not appreciate having a favor he had done for the girls turned against him but she made a valid point so he did not get angry. "As I have pointed out many times before, Mari, the rules are different for cyborgs and adults. That trip was a supervised field-trip...this is a joyride on a hot day. You'll have to find another car."
Finally regaining some composure after her conditioning episode Allison said "Well Brian isn't here with his Audi today, Mr. Pagani & Mr. Hillshire are away, and we'd have to be crazy to ask Rico's handler for his car." She snorted and joked "I don't suppose we could borrow your car?"
On any other day such a question would have gotten her literally booted out of Alboreto's office, but the grim events of the morning had put him in a sympathetic mood toward the cyborgs. He thought back to when he was Allison's age, to his Triumph TR6, recalling how much the simple feeling of freedom it gave meant to him. Of course, cyborgs would never be that free, but if he was able to provide a small taste of that feeling was it really such a bad thing? "Well," he mused "that's certainly one option."
Marisa & Allison both perked up in disbelief. "Are you serious?" gasped the red-head.
Elio opened his desk drawer and fished the keys to his BMW M3 out. "Not a scratch on it, capito?"
"Not one scratch!" exclaimed Allison, grabbing the keys before he could come to his senses, "And we'll bring her back with a full tank of petrol!"
Nodding gravely, Elio added "Have fun."
Allison had to resist the urge to throw her arms around him. She had admired the BMW from afar but thus far had not even had the chance to ride in it...much less drive it...unsupervised. "Thank you!" she squeaked, backing out the door with an equally appreciative Marisa. As soon as they were clear all pretense at dignity was abandoned and the pair sprinted back to the cyborg dormitory, shrieking with glee.
"Play it cool" Allison whispered as they walked back to the room where their friends waited. They entered with sunken shoulders, wearing depressed visages.
Triela & Rico were already back with the compact GPS tracking unit, Kara had finished the pass request form. "So did you get an Agency vehicle?" asked Kara.
"No" sighed Allison, flopping down on her bed, "Alfonso is CQ today and he was being a total jerk. We didn't get an Agency Fiat."
Triela tossed a pillow in frustration. In a disappointed voice Rico asked "So we can't go to the place with 50 different kinds of gelato?"
"Oh no...we're going" answered Marisa with a wicked grin. Allison held up and jingled a set of keys emblazoned with the blue & white roundel logo of the Bayerische Motoren Werke.
The other three girls gasped. "Who...?" finally ventured Kara.
"Mr. A's M3." announced Allison with great satisfaction, but Triela immediately sprang up out of her seat.
"Oh, no no no no no no No!" objected the Senior Cyborg, "What did you do, Allison? Did you sneak into his office, did you break into his desk? This is not funny! Forget being re-conditioned, Mr. Alboreto will have us recycled for spare parts if he finds out you nicked his car keys! Haven't you listened to any of the stories about him? And Mari, are you crazy...he's gonna..."
"Relax blondie," laughed Allison, "he gave them to us."
The three girls were speechless for almost a full minute; Allison & Marisa stayed silent to let it soak in. Finally Kara broke the silence by asking "Why?"
Mari shrugged her shoulders and replied "I dunno, he was acting weird, but I've seen him like this before. Kinda like when I do something really, really dumb...and I think he's gonna wring my neck...but he just sort of laughs and tells a story about something he did when he was young."
"Alright, have we had enough talk?" Allison exclaimed "Let's get that form over to Jean and get on the road!"
Fighting great temptation, Allison kept her right foot under control as they cruised out of the Section Two parking lot, past the wooded grove they had walked through on their failed attempt to use the swimming pool, and under the buildings that housed Public Safety administration and the visiting VIP apartments. At the gate their pass was heavily scrutinized and checked against each cyborg's ID card. Calls were made to both Jean Croce and Elio Alboreto, but once every excuse to detain them was exhausted the girls were at last set loose upon the world.
In the front passenger seat was Kara, tasked with navigating (she was, after all, the one who knew where to find 50 different flavors of gelato) and controlling the stereo. Triela & Rico had the back window seats, with Marisa in the center. Allison waited until they were well out of sight of the compound and finally said "Okay, let's see what you've got." When she dropped down a gear and romped on the throttle, breaking the rear tires loose. The BMW yawed sideways in a graceful arc, but just the right amount of counter-steer kept things moving in the right direction. "Oh boy..." she laughed gleefully before making a quick upshift, flicking the wheel and power-sliding the car the other way. "Kara, you have got to try this!" exclaimed the ecstatic driver, "It is totally raw! There is so much torque and almost zero traction control to spoil things!"
"Really?" questioned the Asian girl, "Top Gear said this new M3 is a lot more refined, tamer than previous generations."
"Screw what Top Gear said," giggled Allison, tossing the BMW through a set of well cambered esses, "there is no way this thing is stock!"
From the back seat Marisa commented "Elio says he did a lot of work on the engine, and ripped out most of the techno-fluff that was put there to keep bankers and real-estate agents from crashing. Also, the Special Weapons Lab replaced the hood, the doors and the trunk lid with carbon fibre reenforced plastic, so it's lighter."
"What is this knob?" inquired Allison, exploring every control in the cockpit as she maintained a speed which was making Triela turn pale in the face. "Ohmygosh...it's a brake balance controller! It's got a brake balance controller!" She immediately cranked the bias toward the rear and used the brakes to slide around a hairpin turn.
"Alright, slow it down Allie!" protested Triela, "You're scaring the younger kids!"
"I'm not scared" replied Rico, thoroughly enjoying the ride.
Marisa agreed "Me neither."
"Well I'm younger too" grumbled Triela, but it did not slow Allison down much.
"Seriously Kara, you have to take a turn at this."
Feeling a bit threatened, Kara asked "How fast is it? Like, faster than Michele's 458?"
Allison thought for a few seconds and answered "Maybe not the 458, but on the right road it could beat his 430. It transitions incredibly for a big 4-door and the brakes are ferocious."
"Okay, I'm curious," admitted Kara, "but Mr. Alboreto trusted the car to you, not me."
"I'm sure Mr. A won't mind!" scoffed Allison, "He knows you're a good driver. Not as good as me, but pretty good."
Kara snorted in contempt of her boastfulness. "Oh it is on next time we go to the Vallelunga kart track, bitch. Okay, you've convinced me...I'll take a turn."
"Good," replied Allison, "but on the way back...I'm having too much fun."
After loaning his car to the girls Elio decided he needed to get out of the office as well. He'd finished most of the training recommendations he planned to offer to Draghi and a walk felt appropriate right now. Shedding his jacket and tie in the office he rolled up his sleeves and went for the circuit of Section Two's facilities.
Most of the cyborgs who were still present had vacated the dorm, lounging outside on the laws in what precious shade that could be found. In her garden Claes braved the sun, working under a big straw hat. Elio waved to her as he passed but did not interrupt. Laine and Britney were out on the lawn behind the dormitory, sunning in bikinis...at least the bottom half of their bikinis. Rolling his eyes, Alboreto made a mental note to have a word with each of their handlers. If they insist on laying out half naked at least do it out of direct view of the Monastery next door!
He went in the back entrance of the dormitory, walking past the empty classroom and laundry room. To his surprise Elio heard music coming down the hall; he had assumed the dorm was deserted. Stepping lightly he came to the conservatory and looked inside. All the windows were open, a slight breeze made the temperature tolerable. Henrietta stood near the windows playing a piece on her Amati violin. It was a piece Alboreto knew well; the first movement to Vivaldi's fourth violin concerto in F minor, the beginning of the Winter portion of Le quattro stagioni (wishful thinking on Henrietta's part?). Elio listened in silence for a while until she flubbed a note badly, eliciting a screech of protest from her violin. The young cyborg stamped her foot and spat "Violino bastoni!"
The exclamation, probably the closest anyone could expect to hearing an expletive from Henrietta, made Elio laugh. It meant fiddlesticks in English, but made little sense when translated literally into Italian. Alboreto could only wonder where she had picked that up.
His laugh did not go unnoticed; 'Etta whipped around and squeaked "I'm sorry, I didn't know anyone was there. Am I bothering you?"
"Not at all" chuckled Elio. "It should be me apologizing, you've caught me eavesdropping." He walked across the room and had a look at her sheet music. "It's this bit giving you trouble, isn't it?"
"Ummm...yes" admitted a confused Henrietta.
The gray haired man nodded and replied in a low rumble "Aye, it always vexed me as well. Try positioning your wrist bit early, like here..." he pointed out the bars & notes he was talking about "...these will be a bit harder to get through but now your wrist will be in the right position for the quick change to this." Elio punctuated his advice by pointing to the spot that had been giving her difficulty. Tentatively, Henrietta raised her violin to her chin and tried it. She stumbled the first time, began to see logic in it the second time, and on the third try made it through the problematic bit slowly but successfully. "You just need to practice it a few times that way...it's what worked for me."
She looked at the middle-aged handler curiously. "Signor Alboreto, how do you know so much about the violin?"
Elio sighed and sat down on the nearby piano bench. "When I was your age, even younger, I took violin lessons from a Pakistani man in my neighborhood. I didn't really want to do it, I'd much rather have learned guitar, but my mum insisted."
"Your mother?" gasped Henrietta.
That caused him to laugh. "Yes. Is it so hard to imagine that I had a mother?"
'Etta blushed and tried to correct her faux-pas "Well...no...I mean, obviously you have to have a mother. It's just that...it's really hard to imagine what she must be like." Implying that Mr. Alboreto had a mother inferred that he must have been a child one, and that idea was difficult to accept...she could not picture him without his wrinkles, scars and bushy gray beard. Even her own Giuse never even discussed his childhood with her. Feeling as if she'd wandered into forbidden conversation territory Henrietta added a meek "Sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry about" Elio reassured her. "My mother is gone, passed away a long time ago but it's always nice to remember her. There's a picture of her in my office, set in a frame Marisa made for me last Christmas."
The concept of a mother was fascinating to Henrietta, who had no memory of her own. None of the cyborgs remembered their mothers except Rico, and she had already pushed her room-mate to the limit with questions...leading to one of the few times in memory that she had managed to provoke her easy going sister's temper. Feeling emboldened 'Etta pressed a bit; "What was she like, sir?"
That question made Elio pause to think. He'd considered it many times himself and never arrived at a satisfactory answer. "My mother, Sarah Marlowe, was a very hard working woman. It was not an easy time to be an unmarried single woman with a child, sometimes she had to work three jobs to pay the rent and keep food on the table but I never once heard her complain. Cooking, factory jobs, cleaning, doing seamstress work, mum took whatever work she could get. She had to learn all that; my mother actually grew up in a wealthy household. Unfortunately she disagreed with her father about many things...not the least of which was my own father...so we got no help from my rich grandfather." Hoping he was not going on too long and boring the young cyborg Elio continued, "Emotionally she was...well...she was kind of like a handler. I never doubted that she loved me but there was always a distance between us. Sometimes, especially when I became old enough to work and take care of myself we felt like partners rather than mother and son. At least that's the way I remember it."
Changing the subject before the cyborg had time to brood on her own lack of a mother, Elio took a deep breath and commented "Well it's very diligent of you to be standing here practicing your violin instead of being outside like all the others."
With a dour look on her face Henrietta confessed "It's all I'm allowed to do. Giuse was pretty angry about what I said in the meeting on Friday, and said I had to stay in the dorm all weekend."
"I see" commented Alboreto in a tone measured to imply that he did not disagree with his fellow handler, "well, he probably didn't know it was going to be so hot this weekend...but two days is not so long."
Playing up the melodrama a bit Henrietta sighed "As a cyborg I am stripped of every bit of my free will."
With a short laugh Elio replied "Sorry to break it to you kiddo, but at your age you wouldn't be exercising too much free will even as a normal girl. Keep practicing!"
Saturday; and the dirt parking lot at the gelato place Kara recommended was abuzz with activity. When the girls went out on missions or outings to public places they saw a cross section of humanity, the young, the old, the in-between. This place was a revelation to all of them. Save for the busy proprietor dishing out ice cream and cold drinks it seemed that there was not a single person here yet out of their teenage years. Boys yelled and sprayed each other with water pistols, girls chattered on cell phones and exchanged magazines, couples made out in full public view in ways that only Italians were capable of.
There were a few cars in the parking lot, mostly beat up Fiats. The more expensive autos were obviously borrowed from parents. What did fill the dusty lot were scooters, dozens of them; Vespa, Aprilia, Piaggio, Honda, Derbi & Suzuki were all represented. These seemed to be the conveyance of choice for the cash strapped youthful set of Rome.
The BMW M3 caused a stir when it arrived, with several boys flocking to admire it. Allison would have loved to stick around and bask in its glow for a while but Triela grabbed her arm and pulled her along with the others. "Come on! It's okay to have fun but we still have to limit contact with civilians."
"Aww come on," protested Allison, "It's not like I'm gonna talk about the Agency or the fact that we're you-know-what!"
The Senior Cyborg leaned in and in a low voice asked "Oh, so you weren't planning to mention a thing about how it's lightened with carbon-fiber reenforced plastic? Top secret carbon fiber reenforced plastic that only the government is supposed to know about?"
Allison scowled but admitted that Triela was right. "Fine," she grumbled, "lets just go get some gelato."
"Finally!" exclaimed Rico, "That's what we came here for after all...fifty different flavors!"
The girls took their places in line for the window, allowing Marisa the honor of first choice as it had been her handler who provided the car. When at last it became her turn to order she waved Rico past, studying her little black notebook intently and saying "Go ahead, I haven't decided yet."
In spite of her excitement at having fifty flavors to choose from Rico wound up with plain vanilla...then covered it with so many toppings the gelato could barely be seen. Marisa waved Triela through next, who selected a dark chocolate cherry mix. It surprised no one that Allison chose coffee, leaving only Kara and Marisa, the younger girl still studying her notebook and the available flavors. "Um, Mari," Kara finally ventured "I know it's an important choice, but aren't you taking this a bit seriously?"
"I just need another minute...go ahead of me" answered the red-head without looking up.
Kara leaned down and whispered so that even the other cyborgs could not hear "Do you have money?" While in the car they had agreed to "go dutch" to avoid squabbling over the bill, but it had not crossed her mind to check that the younger girls actually had the cash to pay for themselves.
"Yeah, I'm fine" Marisa replied, flashing a few euro bills to put Kara's fears to rest, "it's just taking a while to choose. If it's possible I never have the same flavor twice, and I've tried a lot of different flavors so it's taking me a few minutes to review them all."
"You never have the same flavor twice?" Kara asked "So that means you don't have a favorite flavor?"
"Not at all" answered Mari, "if they don't have anything new...nothing I haven't ever tried, I fall back on my favorites. But as long as they have something I've never had before I'm gonna try it. Aha! Got one." She handed the man in the window a €5 note and ordered "Cranberry-Pomegranate per favore."
"What's a cranberry?" asked Kara.
Marisa shrugged her shoulders and replied "I have no idea, but I'm gonna try it."
"That's actually a very good philosophy" the older cyborg mused. As Mari got her dish and change Kara declared "I've never tried Ginger-Mango, I'll have that please."
"Oh that's a good one" commented the red-head.
Kara's jaw dropped in dismay. She thought her selection was something so exotic that none of the girls had ever tried it. "You've already had that one?"
"Yeah, I've tried a lot of gelato flavors." explained Marisa, showing off a few filled pages in her Lifetime Things to do List notebook, "Why do you think it took me so long to review the entire list?"
The last two cyborgs joined their friends, who had already staked out a picnic table under some shade trees. They walked in on the middle of a joke Rico was trying to tell; "...the next day the Carabinieri man tells his Sergeant 'Okay, I took the penguin to the zoo, where should I take him today?' So he took the penguin to the movies!"
Allison & Triela gave her strange look. "I don't think that's how the joke is supposed to go" muttered the brunette.
"Don't you get it?" Rico groaned, "You can't take a penguin to the movies, they wouldn't even understand what was going on! I'm gonna tell Jean when we get back...I'm sure he'll like the joke."
Triela nearly choked on her gelato. "Eh...Rico, maybe you ought to practice it a little more before you tell Jean."
There was a nice view overlooking Rome and on a less humid day it might be possible to see all the way to the Tyrrhenian Sea, but it was not scenic vistas that held the cyborgs' attention. The chaos of so many young people around them was intoxicating. Even Triela, who took her role as Senior Cyborg very seriously, relaxed and laughed with the others at the antics of people ostensibly their own age. Cries of warning went up when an errant kick sent a football flying toward the picnic tables but at the critical instant Rico looked away from her gelato, stood up straight and returned the ball with a flawless header. Her play drew applause and hails of "La Ragazza d'Oro!" and "Piccolo Totti!" both in reference to A.S. Roma's superstar Captain. The blonde cyborg flushed with pride at their praise but was more interested in finishing her gelato than joining the informal game.
A few boys came over to flirt with the two older cyborgs but here Marisa filled the role of the snarling (figuratively, to Kara & Allison's relief), challenging little sister. "Who do you think you are? What's your angle?" she scowled and narrowed her eyes menacingly "Are you trying to touch my sisters' boobs?" The diminutive red demon proved a better protector of her sisters' honor than any father (or handler) could have been, chasing each hopeful Casanova off with his tail between his legs. As embarrassing as it was Allison & Kara could not help but laugh.
As things calmed down the girls were able to enjoy a breeze, not exactly cool but enough to ameliorate the blazing afternoon heat. Before the gelato melted in their dishes the girls each reached across the table, curiously sampling the others' choices. "What's a cranberry?" asked Rico, but Marisa still had no answer. They lowered their voices to the point where only one with cybernetic ears could hear, although with all the chaos around them it was hardly necessary to hide their conversation. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could do this every day" sighed Kara.
Triela scoffed; "Yeah, not much chance of that happening. I think we've got range practice, a communications security briefing and a geography test scheduled for Monday."
"You know, if we didn't have to do that stuff" Kara clarified.
"You mean no Agency? No Sec Two?" muttered Allison. It was a shocking idea to the others but one that each of them had considered at one point or another.
"What do you think will happen," asked Marisa "if we defeat the Padania and the Agency breaks up before we die?"
Triela shook her head "Even if we eliminate every last Republican Factionist there'll always be an enemy to fight."
"Sure, but you know what I mean."
That gave them all plenty to think about. "I can't really imagine not being part of Section Two. I don't honestly think we could." conjectured Triela "Even if we didn't fight anymore we'd still have to live near the hospital to have our bodies serviced."
"We'd still have our handlers, right?" injected Allison with a note of concern in her voice.
Kara took the speculation down a notch by reminding her "It's just idle talk...we all know it'll never happen. But just for fun, what would you do if we suddenly had our freedom? No Agency, no fighting, no hospital...the Blue Fairy just showed up and made us all into normal girls."
"I expect we'd still have to go to school" mused Marisa, but Kara waved off that suggestion.
"No, no, no! You have to choose something you'd want to do...not predict what reality would be like."
Allison was the first to come up with an answer "I'm already too old to start up the ladder to become a Formula One driver...but I think I could still make a stab at the World Rally Championship."
"I don't know what I'd do" Marisa sighed, "I sure as heck wouldn't want to give up the things we do now...fighting bad guys, having adventures, diving...but I supposed I'd have to if I suddenly became normal."
"I don't think I'd mind it," opined Kara, swirling her gelato in its dish with a plastic spoon, "as long as I could travel the world with Michele. I'd come visit you girls of course."
"Once, when we were in Venice" said Rico, "Jean and I saw a huge ship that travels the world, visiting a different port every week. I would love to sail around the world and see so many new things, but after a while I think it would get lonely. I would want somebody to come with me, so we could talk about the things we've seen." She paused for a moment and added "I don't think Jean would want to come."
"Well, it's all just daydreaming anyway" Triela put the topic to rest, "we're Agency girls, and we'd better make the best of it because that's not going to change. Today is special so let's enjoy it. Who's up for another round?"
Her suggestion was met with hearty approval. "Wow..." Rico muttered "Jean never let me get a second gelato...even that one time I killed six Padanians on one mission."
"Well Jean isn't here" giggled Kara, "let's go!"
The girls would have loved nothing better than to spend all afternoon at the hangout, but their pass was for a limited number of hours. As they'd previously agreed upon Allison ceded the keys to Kara for the drive home, which took them over the same twisty mountain roads they'd raced through before.
After a brief but fun exploration of the hot-rodded M3's capabilities Kara settled down to a fast but relaxed pace, working the gearbox less and relying on the 4.0 liter V-8's prodigious amounts of torque to propel them out of the turns. There was no particular hurry in getting back to the compound, so the cyborgs enjoyed their last hour of freedom with the windows down and Roxette's Greatest Hits blaring from the speakers.
Allison & Kara had each been charged with ferrying a car before, and Triela had gone along with Kara once, but for the two younger girls this was their first time riding in a automobile without a "grown up" present. Rico in particular was relishing it...hanging her hand out the back window, enjoying how the air danced over her hand differently with each subtle move of her fingers. Next to her Marisa sat in the middle, swollen with pride at being the one whose cool handler provided the car for this adventure. Even Triela had loosened up and was having fun, letting the wind whip her two long ponytails around.
"Think we could do this every weekend? It could be our regular thing" conjectured Allison, "I'll have my Delta fixed soon so we won't have to borrow a car every time."
"Well, word is going to spread," Kara pointed out, "other girls are gonna want to go next time."
"That's cool" replied the brunette with a shrug of her shoulders, "but I think I might have to talk Brian into letting me get a van."
Kara laughed, and as if to punctuate her sister's sentence hit the accelerator and launched down a short straightaway at triple digit speed. She could not have chosen a worse instant to do so. A human eye would have missed it but Allison's cybernetic eyes caught an unwelcome sight in the bushes by the side of the road. "Oh crap...that was a cop."
The driver's face went pale "Are you sure?"
"Well I hope not!" Allison replied, turning around in her seat.
"Punch it!" exclaimed Marisa, "We can totally outrun him!"
Triela silenced her "Mari be quiet! Kara, were you over the speed limit?"
"Eh..." muttered the driver, "...yeah...kinda...a lot." Uncertainty turned into a leaden feeling in all of their stomachs when an unmistakable blue & white car appeared behind them, flashing bright pursuit lights. Dutifully, Kara pulled over to the side, hoping the officer was on his or her way to some more pressing emergency, but karma was not on her side this day. The Polizia car rolled to a stop right behind the BMW. "Awww man..." groaned Kara, slumping against the steering wheel.
Distraught with guilt Allison tried to console her "I'm so sorry Kara...this is my fault, I shouldn't have pressured you to drive."
"You didn't have to twist my arm" sighed Kara, "and you didn't make me speed."
They could hear the crunch of boots on gravel as the Polizia officer approached the car. "Alright," muttered Marisa, "looks like we don't have too many options here." She hiked up her skirt, pulled her Beretta out of its thigh holster and chambered a round.
Triela practically tackled her, covering the weapon up. "Put that away you twit!"
"Fine" grumbled Mari, hiding the pistol under her seat, "but you're gonna wish we took out the cop when it's time to explain this to Mr. Jean."
The officer reached Kara's window and asked "License, registration and insurance documents, per favore." Trying to smile, looking cute yet contrite at the same time, Kara produced the papers he asked for. "Do you know why I stopped you?"
"I was probably going too fast" she admitted sheepishly, "I'm really not used to this car."
"The limit on this road is 120kph...I clocked you at 167."
"Sorry" she squeaked.
With a nod the officer instructed "Wait here."
"Oh man, this sucks" muttered Allison, watching the officer return to his Alfa Romeo. "Is that license you gave him legit? It's not going to be traced back to the Agency, is it?"
"It's safe" replied Kara, "Michele got it for me over Christmas...it's issued by Olga same as yours. Problem is, this isn't my first time."
Triela leaned forward in her seat. "Wait...you've gotten a ticket before?"
"Yeah," Kara admitted, slumping back against her headrest, "I was picking up a British SIS agent from the airport in Michele's Murciélago and the Carabinieri nailed me for 70 over. Oh man...Michele is going to skin me alive. I mean literally, he's going to use his katana and make my hide into curtains."
"I don't think he's going to do that" mused Rico, eager to contribute to the conversation. "The window in Mr. Pagani's office is pretty big, you don't have enough skin to make curtains for it. Maybe he could make a lamp-shade..."
"Rico" snapped Triela, "this is not helping."
Marisa, who had been watching out the back window the whole time warned them "Cool it, he's coming back!"
Returning to the driver's window the Polizia officer leaned down and asked "What relation do you have to the registered owner of this vehicle...Signor Elio Alboreto?"
"He's my father" answered Marisa. Without being asked she whipped out identification, handing it forward to the policeman. He accepted and inspected the card.
"A Junior SCUBA certification?" he muttered with raised eyebrows.
"It's the only ID I have."
The officer returned Marisa her card and returned his attention to Kara. "I have no reason to suspect you have this automobile illegally, but I still have to cite you for speeding. Since you are under 18 and hold a provisional license your parents or legal guardians will be notified as well."
"Yes sir" groaned Kara.
"The owner of the vehicle will also receive notification of the violation." He handed Kara a copy of the traffic ticket and informed her "You pulled right over and made no attempt to talk your way out of this...so I only gave you 140 in a 120 zone. Slow down and drive safely, ladies." With that he left, returning to his car but not pulling out.
A tense, heavy silence filled the BMW. Still feeling guilty, Allison spoke first "You wouldn't have been driving if I hadn't talked you into it...I'm sorry, Kara."
The Asian girl sighed and muttered "Then it would be you holding the ticket, and you can't lose your license, you need it for work."
"We were all having fun," Triela reminded them, "so we all share in the guilt here...and I'm afraid we're all gonna go down together." There were nods of agreement all over the car.
Kara looked at the ticket in her hand and replied "If it were up to me I'd take the blame myself, it's only fair, but this is probably gonna be out of my hands. I just hope we didn't blow the off-compound pass program for everyone." She unbuckled her seat belt and said directly to Allison "Would you mind driving? I kinda feel like throwing up right now."
Upon returning to the compound the five cyborgs went their separate ways, judging it better to tell their individual handlers what had happened on a one-on-one basis. They did not see each other until dinnertime, when they met in the dining hall. It had cooled off by this point in the day and the weekend dinner crew had done a far better job than those who'd conjured the lunchtime repast, but anti-pasta, rigatoni & garden salad were not on the minds of the five girls.
"So how did Mr. Pagani take the news?" asked Triela timidly.
Poking at her pasta Kara sighed "He wasn't in today, so I called him and confessed everything...it's better than having him find out in front of Jean & Chief Lorenzo at the Monday morning meeting. He's coming in tonight, as soon as his business in Ostia is done, and he says we're not done talking about it."
"Yikes" replied Triela, sharply inhaling against her clenched teeth.
"Yeah, and in addition to whatever else he says Michele already told me I'm paying for this one myself. How did Mr. Hillshire react?"
The Senior Cyborg rolled her eyes and said "I got Standardized Handler Speech #134; I'm not angry I'm just disappointed." That drew cringes and commiserations from all around the table.
"Ugh...I hate that one" Kara muttered. "What about you two?" she asked the younger girls, "Were your handlers angry?"
Rico answered first "Jean said a lot of bad words about you Kara...and a lot about Mr. Pagani & Mr. Alboreto, but he really wasn't mad at me."
"Elio's been weird all day" confessed Marisa, "but this time I really don't mind. He was only 17% as angry as I thought he would be. He just kinda laughed to himself when I brought his keys back and told him what happened."
"How about you, Allison?" asked Triela.
Clutching her fifth cup of coffee Allison twitched and answered "I haven't told Brian yet."
"Allie!" Triela scolded "You know it's just gonna be worse the longer you wait!"
"I know, I know...I'll tell him soon. Maybe just one more cup of coffee."
"No more coffee!"
Eager to change the subject, Allison asked Kara "So Michele says he's not going to help pay the fine?"
"Nope" sighed Kara, "I don't know how much it's gonna be but I don't think I'm gonna be doing too many shopping trips for the next few weeks."
"Hey, you weren't alone in that car and you're not alone in this" Triela assured her "as soon as you get the notice of fine I'll pony up for my fair share."
"Yeah, me too" added Allison "I can wait a little while longer to get a new half-shaft for my Delta." She turned to the two younger girls and assured them "You two shouldn't have to worry about it."
With a shrug Marisa said "I don't see why not." She pulled out her black notebook, which also served as a wallet and pulled out a surprising wad of small bills. "I can pay my fair share just like you."
"Mari, where did you get all that?" muttered Kara, suspecting the younger girls were getting in on the risky practice of body pilfering. "I mean...nothing personal but your handler is a total skinflint."
"My first real mission got totally screwed up because Elio & I got separated and I didn't even have money for a phone call" explained the pigtailed red-head. "So now he makes sure I have some cash on me every time we go on a mission...except he never asks for it back."
"I can pay my share too" Rico chimed in, "but I'll have to walk over to the pay window over on Section One's part of the compound." That drew puzzled looks from all her cyborg sisters so Rico stood up and began to empty her pockets, searching for something that would explain. Onto the table she unloaded several euro coins, three hard candies; two wrapped, one unwrapped, an empty 9mm shell, a plastic zebra, a pocket knife, a short pencil, two marbles, some piano wire and finally a black plastic card with few markings. That set the other girls' tongues wagging in awe...Rico held an Agency credit card. Seeing the confusion in their faces the blonde girl explained "Jean says its too much hassle to go shopping for every little thing I need, so he gave the card to me. Anything he needs he just buys himself, since he's the one who approves reimbursable expenses anyway. If he needs the card on a mission I'm right there next to him, so he always has it."
"And they just give you cash advances at the pay window?" muttered Triela, incredulously. She wondered how she could have worked with Rico all this time and never known this.
She nodded. "Yup. They're really nice over there. I go over whenever I need a little bit of money for something...and sometimes to just say hello." Her sisters could only shake their heads in disbelief and accept that amongst all the cyborgs only Rico...honest, incorruptible, zen-like Rico...could be trusted with such a powerful and tempting thing.
Kara finally broke the astonished silence; "Okay, I guess this ticket won't be the financial killer I was afraid of." She smiled and added "Thank you all."
With a nod Triela steered the conversation back to Allison. "Just one thing left to do...you need to tell Brian what happened today. We can use the phone in the classroom."
"Just let me finish this coffee..." answered the brunette, clutching her cup with a death-grip. It took the combined strength of both Series One cyborgs to pry it out of her hands and force an unwilling Allison down the hall to telephone her handler.
Just moments after Triela, Rico and Allison had gone Claes sat down. "How was your day?" she asked.
Sensing that Claes was only asking as a courtesy, Kara muttered "It could have been better...and you?"
"Got some gardening done...finished my History report...did a little reading, a pretty much normal day."
There was a pause of about thirty seconds as the girl in glasses began her dinner, but Kara finally asked "Hey Claes, what's a cranberry?"
"A sour fruit that grows in the bogs of Eastern North America" she replied.
Kara looked at Marisa, wrinkled her nose and muttered "That sounds disgusting."
It was just getting dark as Elio collected his papers and locked them in his desk drawer. He'd promised Pieri that he'd get home early and they'd head over to their Gentlemen's Club for dinner. As long as nothing else came up in the seconds it took him to grab his car keys and reach the parking lot he would have plenty of time.
Alboreto was blocked at his office door; halted by the unexpected arrival of Michele Pagani. "Elio, glad I caught you...were you just heading out?"
"To be honest, yes, I was..."
"Well it's a good thing I caught you" Pagani interrupted. "Just wanted to apologize for what happened today...Kara called me and confessed everything."
"It's really not that big a deal, mate" replied Elio, looking at his watch and hoping his colleague got the hint. "Let's be honest; you and I have both run that very same road at well above the posted limit."
"But not in a borrowed car!" Michele contended, "She should have been more careful."
Still feeling the lingering effects of the tragic scene he had witnessed that very morning Elio put his hand up and said "Just don't be too hard on her for my sake. I'll be the first to admit these partners of ours can get your blood boiling sometimes but after I've been cross with mine I usually feel guilty about it just a few hours later. These girls have a lot of living to pack into a short lifespan and that includes a fair amount of mischief."
"Be that as it may," answered Pagani, "I've already taken steps to make sure this never happens again."
Another voice joined their conversation. "And what steps would those be?" asked Ferro, her arms crossed, toe tapping on the ground "I'd be very eager to hear that."
Michele puffed up his chest, proud of the action he had taken, announcing "I have ordered Kara a radar detector which she will be required to use every time she leaves the compound!"
The ex-policewoman's eyes grew wide with disbelief. "She got caught breaking the law and you bought her a gift for it?"
"Well, it's not exactly a gift," Michele defended himself, "more like a piece of equipment."
Stamping her foot on the ground Ferro exclaimed "Not a gift? The cyborgs consider anything they get from their handler's a gift! You have got to be kidding me!"
Looking at his watch again, Elio tried to usher the pair from his door. "As I said, this really isn't any of my concern..." but neither of them were listening to him.
"How do you expect me to maintain order and discipline in the dormitory with you handlers buying your cyborgs gifts for breaking the rules?"
"Who asked you to do that anyway? I don't recall that being in your job description!"
"I'm sure you both have strong positions on this debate but..." Elio just gave up. Michele and Ferro were each focused on their argument so he sidestepped, slipped past them both and walked out of his office into the hall. "Just lock up when you leave." Neither even noticed his departure.
The grey haired handler walked down to the parking lot and hopped into his M3, firing up the V-8 and adjusting the stereo (which, curiously, had been loaded with a playlist of girl-pop from the 1980's) as it warmed up. Switching over to a favorite Dire Straits album he allowed the tires a little chirp leaving his parking spot, knowing Ferro was too preoccupied to wag her finger at him. Alboreto left the compound and headed for home, looking forward to dinner with Lorenzo, fine cognac and a hand rolled cigar at the club.