[Starfall/ACRA/REPOST] Metal Fire #8, False Maria 02

Wil Alambre wilalambre at gmail.com
Thu Sep 7 21:38:58 PDT 2006

Starfall Comics presents...


"False Maria 02" by Wil Alambre

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 He sat in a windowless, off-white office, enduring the dilbert-esque
monotony of fluorescent lights and endless paper work. His in-box was long
ago buried with time reports and project status updates and requisition
requests from computer bound employees who no doubt blamed the molasses
response time on inefficient management and unclear direction. None of them,
of course, had to deal with a dozen or so of unhappy lazy programmers.
He'd loved for them to try this job for a while, to deal with the nit
picky little whiners and actually try make any drastic headway in an eight
hour workday.

 His desktop computer was crunching through a spreadsheet, manipulating
numbers in formulas and cells to make a schedule that didn't go too far
over budget or deadline. He left it on a programmed script that ran it
through hundreds of combinations, an hour here, a temp worker there, to
eventually spit out the top four possibilities based on his pre-defined

 None of them would be completely satisfactory, of course. It wasn't
management's job to be satisfactory, though, it was their job to make the
best of what almost always turned out to be a bad situation.

 While that was going on, he had his laptop opened up, and was looking over
some pre-compiled code one of his special projects programmers had emailed
him. He had an email window open, and was already making a short list of
needed changes. He really wished these guys would be a little more
careful in their work. Or even, heaven forbid, take a look or two over it
before sending it in as 'complete'. Somewhere in the world he could
imagine a handful of dotcoms going under for just this reason.

 The phone buzzed cheerfully, hidden by a stack of overdue placement forms.
He brushed them away, and was puzzled to see it was his direct line, not
the one guarded by his secretary. Very few people knew the number to that

 None of them ever called with good news.

 He coughed a few times, clearing his throat before picking up the receiver
and leaning back in his chair. "Gregory Reeves, Direct Market Programming.
How can I help you?"

 "It's Poe."

 His heart caught in his throat, and he sat up straight again.

 "Mr. Hamilton is interested in the project," Poe continued, with unflinching
calm. "More specifically, he was wondering how far along we are."

 "Very far, sir, we're really close," he replied, cradling the phone
between his chin and shoulder and brought the laptop up beside him. "I was just
going over one of the updates for the next upload. We're going in again
tonight to see how a couple of our benchmarks are doing, and then it's
just a matter of configuring the variables for compilng."

 "Not the patch. The final product."

 "Final?" he paused, confused. "Not for a month, at the outside. We're
still stabilizing the operating system."

 "We'd like to be done by the end of the week."

 He didn't say a word. Truth be told, he nearly dropped the phone. He was
completely blanked on how to reply to such an unreasonable request. He just
stared at the laptop screen, the flat haze staring back at him expectantly.

 "Is there a problem?" Poe prodded, snapping him back into real time.

 "We can't be ready in a week."

 "You'll be ready for week."

 "We don't have enough time to stabilize the system. The test periods don't
allow for that aggressive a time schedule."

 "Stick the subtle approach. Sleep the system for longer periods and code
the OS directly."

 "She'll know... What if she finds out?"

 "Then you better make sure to get it done right the first time." He could
almost hear Poe grin maliciously on the other end. "This won't be something
your marketing department can put good spin on." Click and dial tone.

 He hung up the phone, and turned to the code on his laptop. The bare bones
text and numerical code of computer operating system and user interface
stared back at him, looking for a few nips and tucks before being
transformed into a fully fledged usable program. And somehow he had to convince
a dozen white collar department computer programmers it would be in everyone's
best interests to work overtime to get this project done weeks ahead
of schedule.

 He looked at the phone, a now silent partner in his predicament. He saw
his name stenciled on the handle, Gregory Reeves. He hoped the next time he
saw his name stenciled on anything, it would be on a pink slip and a very
generous paycheck signed by Mr Hamilton. He was afraid he'd see in chiselled
in stone above his grave, instead.

- - -

 Eddy blinked his eyes a couple times as he painfully regained
consciousness. It wasn't the same thing as waking up after sleeping, this was
a lot more drawn out, a lot more painful, and quite usually a lot more jarring.
And, as he kind of suspected, was accompanied by a splitting headache and an
unfamiliar room.

 It was badly lit, the only light being cast was a few candles burning away
on a card table beside him and the tell tale flickering colors of television
monitors somewhere behind him. Quiet bass music popped his eardrums, and a
subtle vanilla smell mixed with the scent of matches and ozone.

 Getting a better look was out of the question. He had been expertly tied
to a plastic and metal kitchen chair, facing a wall. His hands and arms were
bound behind him, and his legs were knotted to the sides of the chair.
Short of twisting his head around slightly, his range of movement consisted
shuffling against his ropes uncomfortably.

 He heard typing behind him, just out of his field of vision. Quick,
hurried typing, but very methodical, very ordered and precise. Someone else
was in the room with him, most likely his kidnapper. The last thing he
remembered was being at his apartment getting ready to hit the sack after a
long night's work when the side wall exploded. Literally exploded.

 "Hey," he said weakly, his voice dry and cracked. He had no idea how long
he had been out, but his stomach was stabbing at him just as bad as his
headache, if not worse. "Hello. Hey, I'm awake over here."

 The typing stopped suddenly, and a chair screeched backwards, the person
interrupted from their work. But he didn't hear any footsteps in his
direction, he heard no reply.

 "Hey, anyone there, can I get some water or something?" he croaked out.
He wanted to get a look at this person, maybe it would jog some memory. He
couldn't think of anyone he could have pissed off enough to have caused
such massive property damage and risk federal offense. That wasn't to say
he didn't have enemies. Hackers like him have telephone books full of people
who wouldn't mind seeing him get his, but last he checked, most of them were
the call-the-police or shake-an-angry-fist type.

 He wondered if his voice had been to quiet to hear, if the kidnapper had
not made out what he said. He was about to try again when he heard the chair
against the floor again, and heavy footsteps walking away from the room into
another. A cupboard, the clink of a glass, the pouring of water from a
kitchen faucet. If he hadn't been so bone dry, he'd be salivating about now.
Maybe afterwards he could negotiate for some corn nuts or pork rinds or

 As he heard the footsteps return, the little light there was all but
disappeared with the sound of a subtle click. Ambient light from a window
somewhere was the only thing keeping pitch black away, and the blue
moonlight gave his eyes a challenge to adjust to. The footsteps can beside him,
a shadow of a figure vaguely feminine in shape holding a tall glass to him.
She seemed much smaller then he imagined, considering the heavy footfalls,
but he wasn't going to complain before gulping down the water. It took a
bit getting used to, seeing as she had to tip the glass at his mouth, and
more probably dribbled down the front of his shirt that down his throat, but
never before had the tinny taste of tap water been more appreciated.

 She took the glass away from his mouth, and walked over to put it on the
nearby table. He licked the last few drops from his lips as he looked the
shadow over. It was a woman. Or more correctly, a kid, she couldn't be older
then fourteen or so, by his guess. Interestingly enough, he couldn't help
but notice, even in the darkness, he curves were too well defined to be
obscured by clothes.

 Despite the absurdity of it, he had to face the facts. He'd been
apparently been assaulted and kidnapped by a naked junior high drop out. Wonder
what Val would think of that.

 "Ed Babbage," she spoke up to him, a near familiar garble barely noticeable
behind the words. She had what he guessed to be his wallet in her hands,
waving it generally at him. "That's you right? Babbage?"

 He nodded, watching her start to pulled cards out from his wallet, some of
them glancing at the contents, most of the time just letting them drop to
the floor. She did the same to the paper money he had, apparently not
interested. He just watched her silently for what had to be a handful of

 "I went through your stuff, you know," she said again, holding up a
credit card to the light to read. "When you were knocked out. I went through
your apartment. Your tapes and CDs and books and stuff. I went through
your mail too." She let the sentence hang there, waiting for his reaction.

 She needn't have bothered. Eddy just stared at her quietly.

 She dropped the empty wallet on the table, and walked nearer to him,
leaning a bit to get closer to his face. Despite himself, he couldn't help
his eyes from drifting to her chest.

 "I found your computer too. Your disks and stuff. I threw them out your
window before bringing you here." His head jerked up to look at the outline
of her face in the shadows. He could almost see her grin. "Your monitor
and everything."

 "You tossed my... I live on the fourth floor."

 She stood upright again, satisfied he was responding. "Yeah. It made a
hell of a mess when it hit bottom. Too bad, it looked like nice stuff."

 "It was nice stuff," he said rejected. "It was MY stuff."

 She snorted, that way teenagers do when they know their right, even in
the face of opposing proof. She trodded away behind him, beyond the turn
of his neck, and it sounded like she was ruffling through papers. She wasn't
long, and she came back with a few sheets she was flipping through, skimming
as she approached him again.

 "There's phone numbers and ip addresses here. Some of these are dated
weeks ago. I tried a couple of them, but I either couldn't connect or
I wasn't allowed inside the system." A pause, rehearsed just for this. "You
a hacker or something? Someone pay you to get into these places?"

 "Something like that."

 "Alright then," she nodded, pulling a crumpled sheet from the others, and
holding it in the light, in front of his face. It was his latest list of
jobs, requests for info from systems, and paying prices. There was a single
line circled and circled again in highlighter, standing out. A user list
from an underground bulletin board system. "Who told you to do this one?"

 He stared at the sheet dumbfounded. That was the job he had been working
on all night just before his apartment became a scene from Apocalypse Now.
He never did get the user list, it had taken him forever to get past the
ridiculously tight security. He suddenly was worried he had been lead into
something bigger then what was originally let on.

 "Is that what this is all about?" he managed eventually. She pulled the
paper away from him, looking him directly in the eyes. He looked at her
confused a second, then tried again. "The user list? Look, I don't know
anything about nothing, okay. I didn't think that system belonged to a
terrorist cell or anything, I was just doing a job."

 She didn't seemed impressed, even in the dark.

 "I didn't get the list," he added, hoping it helped.

 "You were inside. I know you were."

 "I didn't get in."

 "I KNOW you WERE," she snarled at him. He didn't like the way this was
heading. She was definitely getting impatient with him, she had let the
sheets fall to the floor, stepping closer to him. If she decked him now, he
couldn't even defend himself, his arms tied behind him. Instinctively, he
jerked his hands against his bonds, trying to loosen the knots.

 Her hands came out, and grabbed his shoulders, leaning the chair forward.
He was caught by surprise at how easily she did that. He wasn't a heavy guy
or anything, but there was no way a kid like her could move that much dead

 "What DID you see?" he spat at him. She was losing it, he had seen Val
flip out like this once.

 "Nothing, I didn't see nothing. I didn't get in," He called desperately.
He grit his teeth, pain shooting from his arms up to his neck. Her grip was
a vice, he could feel his muscles burning and bone weakening.

 He looked at one of her hands in the low light, and stared at the glint it
gave off. Shit, she was wearing a metal glove or something. What kind of
nut was she?

 "You GOT past the WALLS! You GOT in! I SAW you!"

 "I didn't see anything, I just had junk on my screen OW!"

 "WHAT junk?"

 He clenched his eyes, his shoulders were on fire. "I DON'T KNOW! I DON'T
KNOW!" He breathed shallow, opening his eyes in fear. "IT WAS JUST SOME

 The pain let up suddenly, as she eased her grip. He breathed easier,
hoping that was the answer she was looking for. She stood stock still, frozen
at his answer.

 Then she was on top of him. She had pounced on him, tackled him, chair and
all. He heard the chair legs snap, and he had the mind knocked out of him.
She was right on top of him, his head between her iron fingers, her face
just inches from his, and feral expression of hate. She was going to kill
him, oh god, she was going to kill him.

 "THAT WAS MY HEAD, YOU FUCK! THAT WAS MY HEAD!" she screamed at him.

 She banged his head against the floor repeatedly, he saw stars, and felt
the tell tale stickiness of blood on his scalp. "YOU WERE IN MY BRAIN! YOU
his head, he could feel his consciousness drifting off again. "YOU HEAR ME,

 The pain was blissfully fading into the background. He was losing it. This
might be it, the big five oh, the end. Buying the farm, kicking the bucket.
Bashed to death somewhere in the big city, another university dropout. But
he didn't care. He wasn't thinking about that. He couldn't.

 All he could do is stare at the face of the murderous teenaged girl,
finally close enough to see, finally in the light. The slickness and shine
from the moonlight, the seamless movement around her eyes, the nearly silent
whirs of hidden gyros and motors and unimaginable more.

 Her face wasn't her face. It wasn't anyone's face. It was like her hands
ands arms. It was like the rest of her crushing weight, slight but more
then it seemed.

 It was metal.

 She was a robot. He was getting killed by a robot. The television like
flicker in the pupil of her eye was the last thing he saw before everything
faded to dark.

- - -

 She didn't stop when his eyes closed.

 But she did when his breathing rasped. She stopped when she saw the
blood behind his head, slick in his hair and dull against her fingers.

 She let go of his head, sitting up. She breathed hard, vents in her back
and in her throat working together to oxygenate her systems. She felt her
arms loosed up, as hydraulics eased up, joints slowly worked themselves back
to normal. The red tint over her vision slid through the spectrum, out
from a furious view of the world to a contrast green, showing the room in
grainy light amplification. Nearly real, if not appeasing.

 She didn't do this. She refused to believe it for a second. She'd nearly
killed him. She had WANTED to kill him. She had wanted to beat him to death
against the floor, to feel his skull crack between her palms.

 Now he was bleeding.


 It took a minuted to make the connection. He was bleeding, he was
breathing funny. He might be dying, she might have killed him. She started
to breathe quicker, panicking. He couldn't die, not now. She didn't mean it,
she'd never killed anyone.

 She quickly got up, and ran to the kitchen, grabbing the remains of the
first aid kit sitting on the counter by the sink. It was the same kit she
had used to clean him up when she first brought him here. When she had
blown the side of his home in. When she had nearly killed him the first

 She shook her head, and ran back to him, crouching. She started working
on him, acting instinctively. Cleaning the wound, stopping the bleeding. She
got a needle and thread, and gave him a couple stitches, then bandaged him
up. It was a bit of a blur, her hands were doing all the work without
instruction from her. Accessing knowledge from her mind, saved in a file
somewhere in her head she couldn't consciously get to. She just watched.

 She righted him in his chair when she was done, kicking out the few
remaining legs to even it out. He looked kind of dumb, sitting on the floor
tied to the remains of a kitchen chair. She'd have laid him down on the card
table or the bed down the hall, but she didn't think she could effectively
tie him down with the amount of rope she had.

 Tie him down. She couldn't believe what she had gotten into. She felt like
she was out of control, seeing red more and more often. She was flipping
out, and lashing out violently. Screaming and yelling. Acting before thinking.

 She had thought about taking him to a hospital. He might need it. But
there was no way looking the way she did. She looked at her hands, the
exact shape and feel as she remembered them. They moved like she remembered.
They sometimes hurt like she remembered they used to. But now they were
more than her hands.

 Skin and flesh replaced by steel and platinum. Bones replaced with armored
endoskeleton and gold internal structural bars. Muscles and blood replaced
with motors and pistons and drives and wires. Her head filled with micro
chips and sensors and god knows what else.

 Less then a year ago, she was Kimberly Roberts, fifteen year old girl,
with friends and school and a father. She was looking forward to getting her
license. She was looking forward to graduating highschool. She was looking
forward to losing her virginity. She was looking forward to the look on her
father's face when he found out.

 Now she was a thing. Some science experiment out of control. A comic book
character. A prop from a black and white german art film. She was the
result of the manipulation of others. She was the result of the manipulation
of herself, of her emotions. She was a freak, a metal freak.

 She looked at the unconscious man, slumped over, arms tied behind him.
He had been attacked and his home destroyed and threatened and beaten to
an inch of his life. He probably didn't even know why.

 And she hadn't cared. She was a metal freak, and she was freaking out all
over him. And she had nearly killed him.

 She sat down on the floor beside him, and wrapped her arms around her
legs. She would have cried if she could. She knew she had the ability, she
knew she wanted to. God, she wanted to. But she couldn't. Maybe some switch
she tripped, maybe another setting in a file in the computer in her skull
that was her mind.

 She was losing control.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Author's Notes

 So, this was the second issue I wrote in this series. It was originally posted
way back Sept 2001, more than three months after issue 7. The problem
was that I wasn't actually *plotting* this storyline. Oh, I knew where I
wanted it to go, and I knew all the beats... but I had nothing on paper
(well, on screen, whatever) regarding issue 8 until I wrote, revisited, and
posted 7. I hadn't even *started* 8 when 7 hit the 'net, and I hadn't even
started 9 when I finally posted 8. The same problem is evident with the
Marlo Vivo series.

 So I'm going to try this again. I have 9 done by the time you read this,
read to post next week, and I have finished a first draft of 10. Also, I
have on papaer (on screen, whatever) the outline for the next two issues
after that. I'll try to stick to at *least* posting a complete arc in
one sitting :)

 So, first of all, a couple corrections! Issue seven should have been
posted with the ACRA imprint. There's nothing serious in it, in my
opinion, but this issue gets rougher. Also, I made the cardinal sin of
not providing credits at the end! Shame!

 Starfall and Metal Fire were created by Arsenal, who also wrote
the first two issues. Issues 4 through 6 were written by John Green.

 There, all better :)

 Final thing... letters page! Tom Russell was kind enough to give a
quick review of issue 7.
You can find it here:

 Tom seems to echo what other reviews I've read on my writing: I do
a good job on first issues, introducing characters, and setting up mood.
The first issue of Marlo Vivo got the same response back in the day.
In my opinion, however, all this does is build up hype for what will
probably be a cookie cutter bit of storytelling.

 For instance, Tom sees all the characters defined by technology.
Wow, it's a neat idea, wish I had thought of that when I was writing it :) If
you see it, there's a 90% chance it's by luck only. Admittedly, it's a
line of thouvght I definately want to explore in future issues, but all credit
for finding that element goes to the reader, not the writer.

 This is most apparent in two cases: Hamilton and Val. Tom is right
that the scene with Hamilton is bland. It's very much a storybook element,
"Oh, look at the manupulative business man type". Worse yet, Hamilton
doesn't appear again until (tentively) issue 11. Val is worse. She's there,
and at least she seems to have *some* character to her, but she does
show up for the rest of the arc. Hell, at least Hamilton is *mentioned*
later! :)

 Issue 9 was written a couple years ago, but never posted. I only had a
good friend with better grammar and spelling skills do a read over (by the
way, I never let him proof these author's notes before I submit the email...
just to drive him nuts). 10 is actually freshly written, though at this writing,
it needs some polishing. Hopefully, you'll start seeing some improvement
with 10, as I try to take some of the feedback to heart, while trying not
to go overboard with it.

 Well, until next week, remember: you can always read back issues
(including the first 6, originally posted 1995-1997) by going to my RACC
site and clicking the Past Issues link :)

Wil Alambre

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