No sooner than we walked through the door, Aaliyah pulled out her secretary glasses and marched into the ballroom, where the computer chairs were still in position. I’d never seen her wear her glasses to play Ancient Tribes of Earth, so I followed her, abandoning my things in the hallway for later. To my surprise, she brought up my company’s website the moment she sat down. I never had even seen the part she accessed for scheduling, and the inbox somehow had hundreds of jobs in it. As I watched, Aaliyah began dragging jobs from the inbox and dropping them onto different employees, which somehow added the job to their schedule. If that system worked as well as it seemed, scheduling was far less tedious than I had imagined. I didn’t understand how she knew which ones to move where or why she skipped some, but I could guess that she might be reading the emails in her head, an ability of which I was a bit jealous. If that were the case, I wondered why I was seeing her work at all. I never had before. As I sat there in wonder, the others had piled into the room as well. “I think I’ll go tell Marco that we’re back.” I said, already thinking of dinner. I didn’t want him to feel ignored either though.
“Oh, master, Marco has known when you would be arriving for days now. The Princess is very organized. I can’t believe that you’d doubt her,” said Mila, her voice coming from all around me. “Must she really call you ‘master’ in that fashion, James? I don’t feel it’s appropriate.” stated Alma from her chair. “Thank you, Mila” I replied before telling Alma “She has a mind of her own, and I’ve found what I say has little bearing on what she does and doesn’t decide to do.” Alma didn’t reply, but her tight grip on the chair’s arm made me feel she wasn’t pleased with my response. The others were logging into Ancient Tribes of Earth, so I sat down to join them. Why not play the game we spent the past several days representing? I needed to make another appearance in the guild anyway, not wanting them to feel that I had forgotten about them. I laughed when, shortly after numerous people greeted me, I saw some bragging about meeting me in person. Aaliyah’s video feed of the convention seemed to have been a hit for the guild, since countless people were wanting to tell me their favorite parts. Guild chat was truly a bit overwhelming. I was going to comment to Aaliyah about it, but she was busy typing away while looking back and forth between her screen, mine, and Emma’s.
After a while, Aaliyah either finished her work or gave up to join us in the game. We all played around for most of the night, hardly even breaking when Marco brought us food. I did stop long enough to chat with him a bit and thank him for holding down the fort. Apparently, cooking for one was too weird for him, so he had gone to help out at Papa Stefano’s a few times. I was sure they didn’t mind. Marco was truly an amazing chef. Jarod was, surprisingly, the first to take off, saying he had to check on something before he slept. Chad arrived by eight, and visited a while before taking Aaliyah home. I stayed up for a bit longer after Brandon woke his sister, who had fallen asleep in her chair, and took off. After wishing Emma, Portentia, and Alma a good night, I went straight to bed. I fell asleep almost instantly, too worn out from the weekend for my mind to wander much.
A pounding in my dream turned into a pounding at my door as I woke up. Realizing what I was hearing, I jumped out of bed and ran to the door. Swinging the door open, I found Jarod looking frantic. “We’ve gotta talk now. This is crazy. This is so, so crazy.” he started. I put my finger to my lips and then waved him inside, despite knowing that no one else should be on this floor. I had never seen Jarod quite like this before. I offered him the chair by the table, but he just shook his head and started pacing. I took a seat on my bed and waited for him to speak. When he started, he was speaking in a rush, saying, “This is some heavy, heavy shit. First off, I screwed up, man. I think I really screwed up.” I raised my hand, interrupting him, and said, “What happened? Start from the beginning.” He nodded, still pacing, and told me “Yeah-yeah. Okay, so Brandon was telling me about this cute girl you two met who went by Maxine. Well, I didn’t think anything of it at first, but as we were playing downstairs, some pieces started clicking together. You remember that tablet I got from Aaliyah for my birthday?” I nodded. “Well,” he continued, “there was a sort of game on there. The thing is that the game was actually instructions, walking me through the life’s work of some guy who was trying to make robotic parts to strengthen humans back in the late sixties.”
“Sounds like an impressive guy if he made any progress, but I don’t see what the problem is.” I admitted. Jarod replied “Just hear me out. To unlock the next part of the instructions, I had to answer questions about the workings of what I had seen so far. Some of that got pretty tough rather fast, since I don’t have the background to understand all of it. Well, I didn’t want to ask Aaliyah, because that seemed like cheating, since I felt she gave me the program to challenge me. I started browsing forums and talking with people about specific aspects of what I read. There was this one girl, Maxine, who was super knowledgeable. She was great to talk with, since she really seemed to understand me. We started talking through direct messages rather than on the forums where the others made stupid comments. No offense intended, but they did. Some of the stuff she said just seemed weird to me, like ‘Imagine trying to design a servo blindfolded.’ That’d be crazy, right? Except that putting her comments together with you meeting a blind, intelligent girl named Maxine makes me believe that she did do it blindfolded.”
“Wait. Why are you assuming that the Maxine I met was that intelligent? We hardly talked, really. ‘Maxine’ can’t be that uncommon of a name.” I told him. Jarod stopped pacing to stare at me dubiously for a moment before explaining “Really, dude? This blind girl’s attempting to hack Ancient Tribes of Earth according to Aaliyah. Then she’s working with part of Alma’s family. We’ve met the twins and Alma so far, and all three are very intelligent. How useful to them could Maxine be if she wasn’t bright?” She could be a dupe, but I imagined a blind hacker would have to be fairly smart. “Okay, so how did you goof?” I asked. “She helped me with problems. I helped her with some. If she’s a criminal like Brandon made her sound, I just assisted a criminal in a robotics project. I really doubt she’s going to use whatever she’s working on for world peace.” he explained. I nodded, understanding how that could bother him. Then I said, “Look, you had no way of knowing that you were helping a possible criminal. You just have to be a bit more careful in the future.” He shook his head and said, “Yeah, I know. Just bothers me. That’s actually the lesser of what’s bothering me at the moment. As I was trying to figure out what harm she could do, I was reading through that program some more. Then something else clicked for me. I think Aaliyah’s a cyborg.”
I panicked. Ai and Mai were terrified when I had casually spoken to them about Aaliyah’s secrets. Aaliyah was an assassin and kept her secrets by killing anyone who found out what they shouldn’t know. As far as I knew, Mila could be reporting to her this instant. “Jarod, don’t say anything until I get a response. Not one word.” I told him, the last as he started to speak. He looked at me with obvious concern on his face, and my fingers shook as I typed the message to Aaliyah. I needed to make sure she didn’t kill my best friend. The moment the text sent, a message arrived.
Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. I gave him the tablet, knowing he’d figure it out. Talk with him about it, and make sure he understands the rules. XOX Aaliyah OXO
“Dude, what was that about?” asked Jarod. I smiled, caught up in my relief, and said, “You just stumbled across something dangerous to know. You can’t let anyone else find out that Aaliyah’s a cyborg. Ai, Mai, and Alma know as well. If you mention it around them, they’ll have you in a sealed room in a second.” Jarod plopped into the nearby chair and stared at me for a moment. Then he asked, “You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?” I sighed, the smile leaving my face, and explained “Aaliyah’s the assassin, Jarod, as in the only assassin. The twins explained to me that if you reveal her secret, whomever you tell dies. You die. Your family dies. Aaliyah apparently doesn’t make exceptions for friends. At least, I think she considers Ai and Mai her friends.” He looked incredulous and asked, “How could you know she’s the only assassin or an assassin at all for that matter?” I looked at him seriously and said, “I found out after she let me see her kill two people, though I can’t say I actually saw her even move. She told me afterward that she had killed off all other assassins years ago.” The half-smile left his face as he stared at me.
“Okay, so I can see how she would be deadly given what was done to her. I don’t understand how she could be that fast though. It’s too much from what I saw. I really feel sorry for her. It had to hurt so, so much. No one should have to go through that, much less a kid.” stated Jarod. I was confused though. “Go through what?” I inquired. “The operation, James,” he said. Seeing my confusion, he then explained “‘The subject was brought in with injuries all over her body, internal bleeding, and broken bones throughout both arms and legs. Her skull was fractured. I commenced with the operation, replacing her bones with those of my own design. The subject’s remarkable healing ability kept her alive, but her body burned through the anesthetic rapidly. The surgery was a success.’ is a somewhat rough summary of her doctor’s notes on the surgery. She woke up countless times during the surgery, James. Her body healed rapidly, but she was in pain for at least a couple weeks while she recovered. I don’t know what they did to save her, but her body was outgrowing the implants after nearly a year, causing her constant pain. Aaliyah was a military test subject. The descriptions led me to believe it was her. The blonde hair and blue eyes. The dimensions of the implants given would put the test subject at around thirty-five inches tall.”
I never considered what becoming a cyborg really meant. Aaliyah was generally so completely happy and always adorable. She was such a talented girl with a strong personality. I couldn’t imagine putting her through such an operation. I couldn’t imagine coming out of a year as a test subject without being seriously traumatized. When I looked up to say something to Jarod, I found Aaliyah sitting on his lap, hugging him as a tear went down his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Aaliyah.” he told her. “Don’t cry, Jarod. I’m fine now. Honest.” she replied. So much for Chad putting her to bed, but I hadn’t even considered her sleeping when I texted her. Aaliyah handed Jarod his phone, which was ringing. He laughed after he answered it. “Yeah, I suppose that is like telepathy.” he told her, a somewhat sad smile on his face as he looked at her. He hugged her and said, “Still, I’m sorry you went through that.” She looked up at him and said, “Just don’t tell, especially not my daddy.” He nodded and promised her he wouldn’t. I felt this must have been similar to how I looked when I found out she was an assassin, but knowing what becoming a cyborg entailed made the story even more tragic to me. As I watched and listened to them talk, I thought about how I was really lucky to have Jarod and Aaliyah as friends. Life would be much worse without them.