Avalon County Entertainment System

Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)

Program start_


Thursday - Eurus Island, Avalon County

Captain's log, stardate whenever. Bored. Bored. Bored. This is the worst field trip ever. It's an atmosphere processing plant. It takes in air (which is invisible), does science to it inside big pieces of machinery (which you can't see into), and blows it out again (still invisible). There's no electroshock therapy, no unnecessary sedation, not even any elevator music.

Anya Corazón was trying not to yawn too conspicuously nor look too overtly at her watch as the tour of the Clean Air Center dragged on and on and on. She was starting to think that feigning illness and reporting to the facility's infirmary might actually be a better use of her time than listening to the chirpy PR dude blather about the station's cost-vs.-quality-of-life index and how it ensured that the inevitable air pollution from Avalon County's heavy freight spaceport, on neighboring Kaiser Island, never reached the mainland. It was just about then that she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye, turned, and looked down.

The catwalk her school group was currently crossing ran alongside a floor-to-ceiling window that went for the entire length of this side of the plant. It overlooked the gleaming Raygun Futura approach spire and heavy freight-handling facilities of Kaiser Island, providing a commanding vista of the port, and was in fact much more interesting in many particulars than what was inside the facility. The space below the catwalk was full of mysterious machinery and NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY signs, and generally was not that arresting.

While she regarded the spaceport and daydreamed, Anya noticed something that was arresting, or at least had the potential to be. A cloud of smoky dust and flying specks of debris suddenly risen from somewhere within the port complex, as though there had been an explosion over there. One of the specks seemed to grow larger and larger, until it occurred to her that it wasn't, it was just moving toward her.

The dull crump of the distant explosion reached her at the same time as this realization. She had the next three seconds or so to shout for her classmates to take cover before the approaching object hit the window she'd just been looking at, blasting it instantly into a million little safety-glass pebbles that sheeted to the floor and spattered the catwalk. Its pace slackened very little by that impact, the object proceeded to smash through catwalk itself, bending the center section almost double and snapping it off at both ends so that the whole assemblage plummeted into the basement - with Anya, but fortunately none of her classmates, still aboard.

Fortunately, this wasn't Anya's first time at the collapsing structure rodeo, and she was able to reach the lower level in reasonably good order. She ended up not going quite all the way down, instead choosing to part company with the mangled catwalk and take to the top of some large bit of unidentifiable equipment off to the side. There was quite a lot of dust, though, and she coughed and waved it away as she leaned out from her perch to investigate the mysterious projectile.

This demystified itself somewhat by stirring, hauling itself upright, shaking its head, and muttering, "That went well."

Anya blinked, recognizing the voice, and jumped down alongside him. "Chief!" she said. "You OK?"

Gryphon gave her a surprised look, then said, "Fine, super. The building broke my fall." Then he looked thoughtful, reached up with his left hand and tweaked his right shoulder into better alignment with a crunching sound that made Anya cringe slightly, winced, and added, "Starting to think Logan's onto something with the whole metalized bones thing, though." He turned to Anya. "What're you doing here?"

"School trip," Anya replied. "Boring 'til you showed up. Like a hand?"

"Love one." Gryphon looked around, assessing the position in which they found themselves.

Anya grinned, then glanced upward. The sounds of her classmates and Mrs. Riedholt calling for her filtered down from high above.

"OK," she said, "but you're going to have to write a note for my teacher."

Then, still grinning, she pulled the sleeve of her T-shirt up to her shoulder, revealing a highly stylized blue spider tattoo on her right biceps. This shimmered in the dim light of the basement, then glowed brightly and began to spread, like ink or oil. It seemed to dissolve her clothing as it passed, leaving her momentarily clad in light; then the glow collapsed in on itself and left behind a smooth, slightly glossy blackness broken only by her hair, the silvery whiteness of a large frontal spider motif, and two large white patches covering her eyes.

Anya stood regarding the Chief for a moment, faceless but for her blank white eyes; then the material covering the lower half of her face parted and drew back, readjusting itself in a curiously organic way into a proper superhero half-mask.

"That's new," Gryphon observed mildly.

This is one of the things I like about working with the Chief: he's adaptable. A lot of people would have freaked out, at least for a second, seeing Eddie and me do our Magical (Spider) Girl Change-Up thing. He just raises an eyebrow and says, "That's new."

Although I bet you anything he'll say he kind of misses the blue armor next.

"Kind of miss the blue armor, though," Gryphon went on, and wondered why that made her smirk slightly.

"Turns out you can teach an old symbiote new tricks," she replied. "Fill me in on what's going on while we find a way out of this basement."

"There's a HYDRA strike team over on Kaiser Island, just came in on a freighter from I'm not sure where yet," he told her, pulling himself the rest of the way out of the rubble. "They're headed this way. I don't know what for yet, but given that it's HYDRA... "

"Yeah, doubtful it's anything good," Anya agreed. "OK, let's go cut off a few heads. ... Metaphorically speaking. 'Cause it's HYDRA."

"Yeah, I got that."

/* Andy Sturmer
"Batman: The Brave and the Bold Theme"
Batman: The Brave and the Bold: Mayhem of the Music Meister (2010) */

Flying Yak Studios
and
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and
Avalon Broadcasting System
presents

Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
"Night of the Kissogram!"

© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited


Monday, June 20, 2411: Worcester, Massachusetts

Some days, thought Ben Hutchins to himself, the stars align.

Looking down at the empty football field from room 401 in Morgan Hall, he added to that thought, Today is not one of those days.

He turned away from the window, glanced at his watch - 8:45 PM - and wondered if it were really too early to just go to bed. Instead, he powered up his QuarTech omni-tool and put through a phone call to IPO HQ in New Avalon.

"Bureau for the Commission of Special Crimes, Depew," a slightly bored-sounding voice answered after two rings.

"Geoff. I'm stuck on Earth."

Depew was instantly businesslike. "Do you need an exit?"

"No, no. I'd have Lensed for that. No, it's all perfectly legitimate. I was supposed to testify before the Federation Senate Subcommittee on International Affairs about the Klingon situation this morning, but the hearing got postponed, so they've put me up for the night."

"Well," said Geoff pragmatically, "there's plenty to do in Paris, even on a Monday night."

Gryphon chuckled dryly. "I'm not in Paris. I'm in Worcester."

"Worcester?" Geoff blurted. "Why?"

"I'm at WPI," said Gryphon.

There was a moment's silence before Geoff's voice said, "Uh, OK... "

"The Federation Foreign Ministry took over the campus when the school closed," Gryphon told him. "I'm sure it was someone's idea of a joke. That means the Subcommittee on International Affairs meets here now, and that means I'm here now. The Dome's not happy about it, which makes me happy. But, on the downside, there's spending the night in Worcester. Anyway, I figured I'd better stick around. The Klingon thing is important, and they're supposedly going to get to it in the morning."

"Oh." Another pause. "So... are you looking for sympathy?"

"Not exactly. But someone's going to have to explain it to Emma... "

"... And I'm your favorite fall guy."

"Something like that."

"Okay, no worries, I'm on it."

Gryphon grinned. "You're indispensable."

"Remember that when my review comes up," Depew replied cheerfully.

"By the way, is there anything to do here these days?"

"Has your room got cable?"

Gryphon checked the card stuck to the wall next to the TV set. "Astonishingly, yes."

"Then you're doing it."

Gryphon sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."

"Let me put it this way," Geoff added. "BTL smuggling isn't a problem in Worcester because nobody could be arsed to plug them in."

Gryphon laughed, then wrapped up the conversation, lay down on the narrow college bed, and looked up at the ceiling with his hands behind his head. He supposed he ought to be glad of the break. It was quite rare for him to get the chance to spend 24 hours completely out of touch with the rest of the galaxy; he didn't think he'd done so since his little, er, sabbatical on Ishiyama, and that was nearly two years ago.

He didn't particularly feel like he needed the rest this time, though. In fact, in the long run it could cause more trouble than it was worth. He had a lot of stuff to do, but after that time off he'd been careful to arrange his life and work so that the flow of tasks was manageable but steady. Taking a full day off like this was liable to leave him behind the curve, and one of the things he'd promised himself was that he wouldn't put himself in a position where he had to run to stay even any longer.

Add to that, it felt deeply weird to be back in this room. Of course, it wasn't the real Morgan 401 - that was still attached to Starship Wedge, which was presently incorporated in the SDF-23 - but it was a nearly exact replica of what it had been like when he'd first arrived. When it had been an ordinary dorm room and he'd been an ordinary college freshman. Being here didn't feel like going back to the 401 he'd known for the nearly three centuries of his original WDF career, it felt like going back in time to before the WDF. Before Kei, before outer space - hell, before he'd even met Zoner.

Apart from the holovision set on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. He hadn't had one of those in 1991.

Maybe I ought to call back and get the Blink Dog out here after all, he thought, but immediately countermanded the idea. If something urgent came up back in New Avalon, sure, absolutely, but to expend that level of resources just because he didn't want to spend a night in his old dorm room? That'd be just the kind of wretched excess his detractors here on Earth were always accusing him of. Not that he really cared about them, but in this case he'd have to admit they had a point. Besides, a Zetan jumpship appearing in orbit would probably cause an alert or something.

Gryphon sighed and got up to see if there was a phone book in one of the desk drawers.


Hellfire Club, New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

As Geoff had feared, Emma Frost wasn't amused by the news that the guest of honor wasn't going to be turning up for his own birthday party at her establishment. Said shindig was already in full swing by the time he arrived at the club, and from the brightness of her eyes and the slight unsteadiness of her stance, it appeared that the Hellfire's proprietor had already started her own personal celebration.

"A Senate subcommittee?" she demanded, narrowing her eyes. "What possible use does Benjamin think the Federation is likely to be in this situation?"

Geoff shrugged. "Above my security clearance, probably." More like I don't really care, he thought, but why get into that now?

"Well, I suppose it doesn't really matter," Emma replied. "So he thinks just because the Federation Senate can't hold a subcommittee hearing when it says it will, he gets to spend a quiet, lonely night on Earth, does he? We'll see about that."

Geoff saw his cue and began to ease toward the exit. "If you'll excuse me, Miss Frost, I'm going back to HQ in case I need to testify about this later, so I can't incriminate anyone."

"Ohhh no you don't," said Emma, seizing his lapel. "You're coming to my office with me so you can provide the benefit of your... perspective."

Oh, no, thought Geoff.


One hour later: Morgan 401

Gryphon was watching an old episode of The Bill on Dave when he was startled by a brisk knock at his door.

Now who could that be? he wondered, hiking himself up on one elbow and looking quizzically toward the door. He hadn't found a phone book and he hadn't been arsed to send his omni-tool's agent system after an online listing for a pizza place yet. He got up and went to the door, looking through the peephole, and saw - to his greater puzzlement - a uniformed police constable in the British style, her bowler hat pulled low over her eyes.

"Yes? Hello?" he said.

"Police," the constable said, her voice cool and clipped, official, very English and buttoned-down. "May I come in, please?"

Now very bemused, but receiving no danger signals from his zanshin, Gryphon said, "Uh... sure. Hang on." He unlocked the door, took off the chain, and opened up. "Is there a prob - " he said, but got no further. Entirely against any expectation he might have had, the policewoman came briskly into the room, kicked the door shut behind her with an expertly applied heel, and then promptly and without any preamble whatsoever kissed the hell out of him.

Gryphon had zero idea who this woman was or, more to the point, who she thought he was, but it momentarily crossed his mind that she kissed like a panther, until it struck him what an idiotic simile that was, because A) panthers don't kiss and B) if they did, it'd probably end very badly. Then he sternly reminded his mind that this was serious business and it should stop wandering.

The funny thing is, there are people out there who think this is more or less how I spend all my evenings, he thought wryly.

After some time, she finished the job and released him, stepping back slightly with a mischievous smile on her quite competent lips. Gryphon blinked at her. "If this is how you extend inter-agency courtesy from Britain these days," he said, "all I can say is God save the King."

She looked puzzled. "Huh?" she asked.

Still gathering his wits, he looked her up and down (not an onerous task). She was around twenty, rather taller than he was, and thin - almost but not quite too thin. Her skin was a very faintly bluish light grey. For a moment he thought she might be Nebari, until he noticed that her eyes were an arresting deep blood red, not an eye color one tended to find on Nebar. Moreover, her ears were pointed - not upright like a Vulcan's, but pointing straight back - and the hair visible at her temples, below her hat, was black, not grey.

And, he realized suddenly, she looked familiar. Why did she look familiar?

As he was thinking that, she was blinking at him, apparently having the same thought. "Hey!" she said, suddenly looking delighted. The clipped British tone had vanished from her voice, leaving it neutrally accented and much livelier. As it broadened, her smile revealed startlingly pointed upper canine teeth. "You're that guy!" she went on, and then kissed him again, less intensely but - in a strange way - perhaps more sincerely.

"Er, well, I suppose I am," Gryphon said when she released him. Then, having taken on board the lack of a proper equipment belt and the rather blatantly nonregulation miniskirt, he added, "You're not really a policewoman, are you."

"Well, no," she admitted, then grinned and took off her hat, turning loose a cascade of far more jet-black hair than it could reasonably have contained. She reached into the hat and produced a card, which she handed to him.

YOU HAVE JUST RECEIVED A KISSOGRAM, it read in copperplate capitals, and on the other side, neatly handwritten, Happy birthday from the Hellfire Club.

Gryphon chuckled, shaking his head. "Emma. I might've known." Tucking the card in his top pocket, he considered his next remark for a few moments, then said, "You know, I don't think this has ever happened to me before, and that's not something I can say all that often nowadays. Thank you. That was... really lovely. Weird, but really lovely."

Her smile faltered, slipping to a faintly disappointed, faintly sad expression, but only for an instant. Then she looked around the room and said, "Sooo... this is where it all started, huh."

"Well, no, but it's a very convincing copy," said Gryphon.

She took it all in, which didn't take long in 80 square feet, nodding appreciatively. Then she turned her mischievous grin to him again and said, "You wanna get outta here?"

Gryphon arched an eyebrow. "You have something in mind?"

She looked at her wristwatch. "Well, it's 10 o'clock," she said. "Not a ton of stuff to do in this town after 10 on a Monday, but yeah, I've got a few ideas."

He thought about it for a second, then shrugged and said, "Sure, why not."

"Awesome."

"By the way," he said, double-checking that he wasn't about to wander off and leave the room key on the desk or anything. (The old-fashioned lock would've been trivial to rascal with his omni-tool, but it was the principle of the thing.) Key in pocket, he followed her out into the hall, shut the self-locking door behind her, and made for the stairs. "What's your name?"

"Oh, uh... " She gave him that strangely sad glance again, then smiled and said, "You can call me Marcy."

10:30 PM EDT: Worcester

Gryphon spent most of an enjoyable half-hour walk up Highland and Pleasant Streets furiously racking his brains as to where he knew this girl from. The more time he spent with her, the more absolutely certain he was that he did know her - but the less certain he became of how, or when, or under what circumstances they had met. He tested and discarded at least three dozen theories by the time he realized, from subliminal cues in their surroundings ticking against long-dormant neural pathways, where they were going.

When they arrived at Coffee Kingdom, which was still lit up and reasonably crowded even at this late hour, Marcy installed him at a corner table, set him up with a colossal chai latte, and then disappeared into the back room. A few minutes later, she reappeared up on the little stage at the back of the room. She'd shed the faux police constable's uniform in favor of snug, faded jeans that were out at the knees, a red tank top featuring a bold black exclamation point on the front, and a pair of well-worn cowboy boots. A few people seemed to recognize her now; there was a smattering of applause as she sat down on the stool by the stand mic and plugged the red bass guitar (styled in the shape of a double-bitted battle axe) she was carrying into the small amp next to it.

"Hey, CK, how's it goin'," she said when the applause died down. "I wasn't planning to play tonight, but what the heck... ran into an old buddy of mine and, well, hey, you know how it goes, right?"

/* The Smithereens
"Blood and Roses"
Especially for You (1986) */

Then, bowing her head over her bass, she started playing a walking-pace, slightly mournful melody. After repeating it a couple of times, she began to sing in a clear, beautiful, faintly wistful voice:

It was long ago
Seems like yesterday
I saw you standing in the rain
Then I heard you say

I want to love but it comes out wrong
I want to live but I don't belong
I close my eyes and I see blood and roses

Bought flowers in the springtime
October we were wed
In wintertime the roses died
Your blood ran cold and then you said

I want to love but it comes out wrong
I want to live but I don't belong
I close my eyes and I see blood and roses

Marcy got up from the stool, head still bowed, her face all but hidden behind her heavy fall of coal-black hair. Pacing back and forth across the narrow frontage of the small stage, she played with variations on the bassline for a little while, then spun it into a solo that was more like lower-pitched lead guitar than traditional bass work, playing chords and rising high up the instrument's range, before settling back onto the stool and the original melody line. When she began to sing again, her voice was stronger, less wistful and more plaintive:

It was long ago
Seems like yesterday
I saw you standing in the rain
Then I heard you say

I need your love but it comes out wrong
I tried to live but I don't belong
I close my eyes and I see blood and roses
Blood and roses...

She worked the outro like she had the solo, finally bringing it to a close with a long, sustained vibrato quaver that she faded off to nothing over several seconds.

"Thanks," said Marcy to the ensuing round of applause. It seemed to perk her up a little; she played three more songs, all serious and heartfelt but none of them so mournful, and left Gryphon wondering what she'd meant by the first one as she put her bass on a stand at the back of the stage, then stepped down and joined him at his table.

"You're really good," he told her as she sat down opposite him.

"Thanks," she said, a touch of color coming into her grey cheeks. She looked down at the table for a second, then gave him a speculative eyeing without really looking up. "You... really don't remember me, do you?" she said.

Gryphon shook his head. "No," he said. "I feel like I should remember you. I've been trying to, but it just won't come." He gave her a helplessly apologetic look. "I'm sorry."

Marcy propped her chin on her hand and regarded him for a second, her expression defying analysis.

Then she got up and said, "C'mon. I want to show you something. Maybe it'll jog your memory."

He weighed that for a second - still nothing on what his youngest daughter Priss occasionally called his Samurai Danger Radar - then nodded and drank the last of his chai.

"Sure," he said, standing. "Worth a try."

They left the coffee shop, but before they reached the sidewalk, Gryphon's long-dormant zanshin finally woke up and cried a warning - not about Marcy, but about the black van that suddenly lunged to the curb nearby.

Oh come on, guys, seriously? he thought as a half-dozen people in black tactical gear piled out of the van and immediately assumed a tactical formation on the sidewalk, blocking their exit from Coffee Kingdom's outdoor seating area. All around them, patrons got the hell out of Dodge, recognizing some kind of crazy bust when they saw one.

"Hardin, secure the civilian!" one of them barked, and another broke formation - to approach Gryphon.

"Sir, step away," the woman said, her eyes - the only part of her face visible through the slot in her balaclava - intent. "You're safe now, as long as you do exactly what we tell you."

"I - what?!" Gryphon blurted, unable to suppress a look of complete incredulity.

"Subject confirmed!" the one on the far left - another woman holding what appeared to be a modified tricorder, cried. "Throw it, Bentley!"

"Hey, hang on a second - " said Marcy, but the paramilitaries paid no attention.

"Deploying countermeasure," said the burly man next to the woman with the tricorder. He raised what looked like a handlamp and switched it on, directing a very bright, very white beam of light at Marcy. Where the light touched it, her skin blistered and smoked. She recoiled, emitting a startled, painful hiss, and threw up an arm to shade her face, which transformed from a pleasant human one into... something else. Her nose went away altogether, her eyes turned solid green with black vertical-slit pupils, and her mouth changed into something nightmarishly like that of a lamprey - perfectly circular, with dozens of needle-like teeth all pointing inward toward the center.

Gryphon goggled at her, not because her altered face was hideous (though it was), but because in this form, it finally tripped that memory fragment that had been trying to surface since he'd gotten his first good look at her.

Saturday, October 31, 1998
Mount Hrgknskvk, Transbelvia, Earth

Gryphon and MegaZone lay sprawled where the sudden, explosive unsealing of the sarcophagus had thrown them, trying not to cower outright at the sight of the green-eyed, lamprey-mouthed horror that now hovered above the stone coffin's broken lid. It threw its black-maned head back - eyes glittering in the shaft of moonlight pouring down from the oculus in the ceiling - and uttered an inhuman shriek that Gryphon briefly thought might cause the temple cavern to collapse around them.

"AT LAAAAAST!" the monstrous thing howled. "AT LONG LAST MY TOMB IS UNSEALED! LET THE MORTAL WORLD FEAR FOR I AM FREEEEEE!"

Then, to both men's infinite shock, the hideous creature glanced down at them, spotted the key still clutched in Gryphon's right hand, and swooped toward him. His left slapped ineffectually at the cracked flagstones, trying blindly to find a blaster that had, in fact, spun to the far corner of the chamber when he fell.

As the monster dove upon him, though, it changed, its form shrinking, eldritch flesh flowing like wax - until, much to his consternation, it resolved into the shape of a tall, slim, casually dressed woman whose pale skin picked up a pale-silver cast from the moonlight. She was pretty in an unkempt, unconcerned kind of way; as she hovered a couple of feet above his startled face, she grinned at him, displaying pointed teeth but no hint of hostility.

"Seriously, dude, thanks," she said, her voice now normal and startlingly sweet. "You're a pal." Then she darted the rest of the way down, gave him a friendly kiss... and flew away, up through the oculus and into the night, humming cheerfully.

Gryphon and Zoner looked at each other, blinking.

"All right, what the crap," said Gryphon.

"All right, what the crap," said 25th-century Gryphon.

"Just stay back, sir," the one the leader had called Hardin told him, in that authoritative tone cops used when they were dealing with Members of the Public. "Let us handle this."

"Subject contained," the man with the handlamp confirmed. His target, by this point, had crumpled into a blackened, smoking heap on the pavement, moving only spasmodically and making strangled whimpering noises.

The paramilitaries' leader nodded. "Sanderson - finish it."

In response, the man to his right advanced, removing from his belt an object Gryphon could only interpret, with its ultramodern matte-black finish and machine-precise angularity, as a tactical mallet. Holding this curious weapon in one hand, he reached to the pack on his back and produced a twelve-inch, cylindrical length of some dark wood, neatly milled to a sharp point at one end.

Gryphon still wasn't sure what was actually going the hell on here, but one of the things his long-dead kenjutsu master had drilled into him was that, at times like this, a man didn't always have time to know what was actually going the hell on. Intellect sometimes took too long for events. At that point, one had two choices: let the events take over, or fall back to instinct. The standard response in the Asagiri Katsujinkenryu was to go with option B. Instinct, finely honed by its owner and guided by the Force, trumped intellect any day in a fast-moving situation like this one.

The pitiful, smoking mass on the ground next to him was clearly some kind of supernatural creature... but, on some level, it was also a woman. One who had recognized him, who had treated him in a friendly and nonthreatening manner, who was a talented singer and guitarist, and who - whatever she was - had been minding her own frickin' business before these clowns came crashing onto the scene and went all Van Helsing on her.

Gryphon's instincts said screw that, and with no further consideration he was on the move, lunging across the patio to place himself between her and that solar-spectrum handlamp. The man who held the lamp was a head taller than he was and burly, but he was expecting nothing of the sort to happen, and before he really had a chance to react, the First Lensman had put him on the ground with a mild concussion.

The others' response was to pull back a pace and, apart from the guy with the hammer and stake at the ready, draw more conventional weapons.

"Get on the ground!" their leader barked in what he probably figured was a commanding voice. "Do it now!"

Gryphon's lightsaber was out of his portside cargo pocket and ignited in a second. That took them sufficiently aback that, with just an instant's pause to punt the handlamp into the street, he had time to edge to his right, keeping himself between them and their target.

"You guys screwed up," he said. "Pick up your buddy and go before you get in way over your heads."

"Who is this guy?!" one of the paramilitaries demanded. "Intel said this one's not supposed to have any thralls."

"Look at his eyes," the woman at the end responded. "He's no ghoul." She raised her tricorder again. "Scans are negative for HNHVV and SV."

"I'm only going to tell you one more time," Gryphon told them. "Fade. Now."

"Sir, stand down your weapon and step aside," the leader said, still trying for the Commanding Voice. "You have no idea what you're protecting."

Well, you've kind of got me there, Gryphon thought wryly, but all he said was, "Not going to happen."

The paramilitaries drew back, their eyes going wide behind their masks. The leader's voice had an edge of incipient mayhem in it as he raised his weapon a little higher and barked, "Sir, this is your last warning! Step aside now!"

For a second, Gryphon wondered why the sudden jump in intensity, since they hadn't seemed particularly intimidated by him before, even when he'd drawn his lightsaber on them. Then he felt a slim but powerful arm slip around his waist, and Marcy's voice said past his ear, "It's cute how you guys think you have this under control. C'mon, buddy, let's blow this scene."

And then, without warning, they were flying. He had he presence of mind to put away his lightsaber as they left the streetlit level and swept up into the darkened sky. No need to be waving that around up here.

"Ha haaa," said Marcy as they climbed out, heading northwest above Pleasant Street. "So long, suck - ungh."

In time with the last, inarticulate syllable, he felt her slim body jerk against his back, and then they weren't so much flying as falling. Shifting his weight, Gryphon tried to direct their path, aiming for the flat roof of one of the buildings a block or so up Pleasant. They made it - just - and he willed himself limp, treating it like a fall from a vehicle as he tumbled across the gravel-covered asphalt and fetched up against an air-conditioning unit. Scrambling to his feet, he saw that Marcy had ended up sprawled on the roof a few feet away. He rushed to her and saw what had brought them down: a thin shaft of wood, probably fired from a mini-crossbow, jutting out of the center of her back.

"Sonofa - " he snarled, took hold of its stubbily finned back end, and pulled it out. Something gleamed dully in the moonlight at the tip, partly obscured by black streaks of blood; he assumed it was silver, just to cover all the bases, as he tossed the bolt aside.

With the projectile removed, the wound in Marcy's back closed almost immediately, as he'd expected; he was reasonably sure he knew now what she was. Her body heaved, long fingers clawing at the roof, and she drew a deep, guttural breath, then went slack again and rolled slowly onto her back with a long, drawn-out moan.

"Man, tough crowd," she said weakly, one fang glinting in the moonlight from a wry half-grin. "Most people just boo or throw beer."

Geoff, he thought into his Lens. Raven. Change of situation. I do need an exit.

Understood, Geoff's voice replied at once, followed moments later by a similar acknowledgment from Raven.

Bring Saya with you, he added. I'll explain when you get here. Going to be busy for the next few minutes.

They both acknowledged again, then dropped their connections to a subliminal level - enough that Raven would be able to get a fix on his position, and both would know immediately if his situation changed, but not enough that their presence would distract him from the task at hand.

"We have to get out of here," he told Marcy. "They'll have seen which way we went, they'll be searching this area soon. Can you move?"

"Heh... just about," she replied, her voice still weak. She got unsteadily to her feet, leaning against him. "Wooo," she went on, grabbing at his shoulders to keep from falling again. "Oh, man." She looked him in the eye, her own eyes black in the low light, and grinned the one-fang grin again. "I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive."

Chief, we're hitting the motor pool now, Geoff's voice murmured in the back of his head. ETA 20 minutes. If we do it any faster than that we'll tip off Earthforce, I'm sorry.

Very well, carry on, replied Gryphon distractedly, concentrating on climbing down the fire escape at the back of the building without dropping Marcy.

"So," Marcy mumbled as he half-carried, half-dragged her to the end of the alley. "Remember me yet?"

"Yeah," he said. "I think. That face you pulled when they hit you with the light jogged my memory a bit. Transbelvia, 1998?"

She giggled punchily and tried to kiss him on the cheek, getting about half of his mouth in the process. "You do remember," she said. "Hi. Been a while."

"A long while," Gryphon agreed.

"I didn't introduce myself properly," she added, as if it had just occurred to her. "I'm Marceline." She drew herself up in an attempt - ill-fated, in her current state of disheveled exhaustion, but sincere - at grandeur and added, "The Vampire Queen." Then, sagging against his shoulder again, she said, "You can still call me Marcy if you wanna."

Gryphon glanced up and down the street, saw no sign of paramilitaries or black vans, and said, "Where are we headed? I've got backup on the way, but it's going to take them a few minutes to reach us."

Marceline peered around them. "Where are we? Pleasant? Uh... keep heading this way, I guess. I got a place on Moreland - " She blinked, head nodding, then seemed to rouse herself by an effort of will. "Aw, jeez. I knew I should've have skipped lunch. Recovering from that sun bath just about used me up before I got staked." She turned an apologetic look to him. "Listen, I hate to ask this on the first date, but may I please bite you?"

"I, uh, don't think that'd be a good idea," he said. "My blood does strange things to vampires."

She gave him a puzzled look. "You've been bitten before?"

Gryphon nodded. "Last year." He considered his options for a moment, then arranged matters so that he could carry her on his back. This was no great hardship; though tall, she was very slender, her weight negligible once properly arranged. She slumped there, her arms crossed loosely around his neck, head on his shoulder. They'd be a bit conspicuous like this, but the street was mostly empty at this hour, and he planned to stay off the main drag anyway. If anybody asked, he figured he'd just claim (ironically enough) that she'd had a little too much to drink. There were enough bars and nightclubs along this stretch for that explanation to be plausible enough.

"What happened to the one that got you?" Marceline asked as he picked his way from shadow to shadow, heading east. "You said strange things."

"She lost a few years of apparent age - regressed from looking, say, 18 to 14. Spent a few months in some kind of torpor."

"OK, yeah, that qualifies. What'd you do with her?"

"Kept her safe until she woke up," Gryphon replied.

"Huh," said Marceline. "Not a lot of people would do something like that for one of us. Humans' usual reaction to finding one of us helpless is to finish us off," she added glumly.

Gryphon chuckled. "I gave her a job. She's part of a special assignment team. I've got her on her way here now, along with her supervisory agent and my apprentice." He chuckled ruefully. "I figured her expertise might come in handy. I just hope this isn't the part where I find out you and Saya have some kind of weird vampire rivalry thing going on."

She shifted on his back, trying without much success to turn and look at his face. "Saya? Seriously? Huh. She's sorta my... niece? Kind of? It doesn't really translate. We're not directly related on the vampire side, but she was turned by my dad. I think she's the last of his originals left since Drac finally bit it for good in '38." Marceline giggled weakly. "Get it? Bit - never mind."

Now it was Gryphon's turn to try and fail to glance at her face. "Your father is the Lord of Blood?" he asked.

"Was," Marceline replied. "He's... gone now." She sniffled faintly, then went on in a soft, brittle voice, "I know, I know, he was a kinghell monster and the universe is better off without him, but... " She shrugged, the movement plain against his back. "He was my dad. You know?"

Gryphon nodded. "Yeah. I know." He edged to the corner of the next building along, a darkened storefront that appeared to be a shop specializing in sports memorabilia, and looked first up, then down the street. If he remembered the layout of the side streets right - always a dodgy proposition after so long away - he'd have to cross here in order to stay on course for Moreland, which meant passing directly under a streetlight.

Naturally, that was when the black van cruised past. Gryphon knew a thing or two about clouding the minds of men; the minds of men (and women) inside blacked-out-vans, on the other hand, were a trickier proposition, particularly when he was lugging around a slightly wilted rock-n'-roll vampire on his back. The van promptly pulled up, backed around, and came after them.

"Faaaaack," Gryphon grumbled, ducking down an alley. This was too narrow for the van to pursue; he heard doors thumping and gear clattering as at least some of the vampire hunters piled out and came after them on foot.

"OK, so, our butts are grass, right?" Marceline wondered, sounding too tired to really be that concerned about it.

"Not yet," Gryphon replied. "Hang on as tight as you can, I need my hands free."

With his lightsaber back in play, it was the work of only a moment to make a "door" in the fence at the back of the alley and cut across behind the sports shop.

"Tell you what," said Marceline, "if you can get me off this planet, I'll be your personal vampire love slave."

"I'm intrigued by your use of 'personal' there," Gryphon mused as he ducked up a side passage, heading back toward Pleasant. "As opposed to an impersonal love slave? 'Oh, very well, do as thou wilt, but no eye contact.'"

That sensation of her shrugging again. "Some people share theirs. Don't ask how I know that. Annnnnyway."

"Ah, as in exclusive love slave." With her on his back, Gryphon had to turn bodily around to check on their pursuers; they were still back there, but didn't seem to be gaining. He faced front again and put on a little more speed. if these guys were in any way smart, they'd have sent at least a couple ahead in the van to come down another of the alleys and cut them off, but there was no sign of that yet.

"That's a very tempting offer," he went on thoughtfully. "It's my 438th birthday today... "

"Oh, right, hey, happy birthday."

"Thank you - ... and I never had a love slave before." He chuckled. "I particularly like the idea of explaining it to my posse. The look I would get from Raven. Worth it right there, really."

Marceline perked up a little. "Raven? The Raven? Raven of Azarath, daughter of Trigon? You know her? What's she like?"

Gryphon nodded. "She's my apprentice."

"In what?"

"Uh, everything, kind of. It's complicated. But yeah, she's... well, she's kind of awesome, actually. Ah, crap, they are smarter than they look," he added as three or four doors down, he saw two black-clad figures emerge into the dim glow of the light above some business's rear door.

Improvising at full speed now, he doglegged right, cut around a Dumpster, and found the back door of another establishment standing open, propped with a cinder block. A sign on the inside of the door read EMERGENCY EXIT - ALARM WILL SOUND, which struck him as weirdly comical under the circumstances. Gryphon kicked away the block on his way through the door; it slammed shut behind him on one of those pneumatic things, the panic bar automatically popping out to the "locked" position.

"OK," he said. "That probably won't hold them long, but... " He paused, looking around. They were in a dimly lit hallway, plain sheetrock, grubby tile floor. From somewhere ahead of them came muffled sounds of music and crowd noise. "Hmm. Nightclub? That could be useful."

"I hope you've got a plan, 'cause I got nothin'," Marceline mumbled. "And actually, we might want to re-think the love slave thing. Not that I don't think you rate a VLS, and being one might be cool for a while, but I don't think either of us wants that full-time, you know?"

From behind the came the sound of banging on the door. Gryphon turned to look at it again, satisfied himself that it was sturdy enough they weren't getting it open without explosives, and pressed on into the building.

"If you had a normal lifespan I wouldn't even have to consider it," Marceline went on abstractly, "but... " She shrugged. "Besides, exclusivity works both ways. You'd have to cut the others off." A movement that it took him a moment to recognize as a shake of her head. "You got way too many FWBs, man."

"Oh, leave me alone," he grumbled.

"Seriously, dude, how the hell big is your Rolodex?"

He didn't answer her. At the far end of the hall, the banging ceased, which probably didn't bode that well - it meant the hunters had given up on someone opening it for them and would move on to Plan B. Gryphon stopped in front of a door marked only "A", looked it up and down, shrugged, and went inside.

The room beyond was much more brightly lit than the hallway, enough so that Marceline flinched and hissed faintly on his back, unlinking one of her arms from around his neck to shield her eyes. It appeared to be a dressing room, slightly run-down and dingy to match the hall, with threadbare furniture and cracked mirrors.

It also, to Gryphon's momentary consternation, appeared to be the site of some kind of cult meeting. Instead of some actors or a rock band or something, it contained a dozen men in weirdly ornate robes and hooded headdresses, all sporting central-casting Mystic Amulets and eyes that burned with eldritch green fire.

The tallest of them, a craggy, grey-bearded eminence with the biggest hat of the lot, rounded on the door from where he seemed to have been addressing the others.

"Who dares enter our dressing room unbidden?" he roared, a witchy edge creeping into his stentorian voice. "Know ye, foolish mortals, that ye intrude upon the sanctum of Baron Zoria and his Circle of Horns!"

Then, getting a closer look at the intruder, he blinked, relaxing his furious stance, and said in a much more normal (albeit still booming) voice, "Oh! Aha. Greetings, Gryphon of Avalon."

"What I was sayin' about your Rolodex... " Marceline mumbled.

Arching an eyebrow, Baron Zoria went on, "What be the haps?"

"Oh, the usual," said Gryphon nonchalantly. "Stuck in town for dumb bureaucratic reasons, ran into an old friend, getting chased by vampire hunters... " He went to the couch in the corner of the room and eased Marceline down into one end of it. "There we go..."

Baron Zoria looked more surprised to see her, now that Gryphon wasn't blocking his view of her, than he had been to see him, and his response startled Gryphon in turn: The Baron knelt before her, bowing his head so that it nearly touched her knee.

"Your Majesty," he said. "Welcome. It is long since you favored my humble Circle with your august presence."

Marceline blinked at him, then smiled wearily. "Oh... hey, Simon," she said absently, petting his arcane mitre. "'Sup."

Zoria looked puzzled, then shook it off. "What's wrong?" he asked, but she only managed a vague "ask somebody else" gesture and seemed to doze off. The Baron rose to his feet and turned his questioning look to Gryphon.

"The guys who are after her had some pretty advanced equipment," Gryphon explained. "They ambushed us at Coffee Kingdom. By the time we were able to get clear, they'd had a sun lamp on her for the better part of a minute, and then one of them managed to stake her with a crossbow on our way out. She's pretty well tapped out, and I'm no help. My blood... wouldn't agree with her." He looked around. "Is there another way out of here? They were right behind us when we came into this building. I locked the fire door, but that won't hold them forever."

"First things first," Zoria replied. Turning to his raptly attentive bandsmen, he pointed to one and said in a commanding tone, "Tomaak. You will aid the Vampire Queen."

The robed figure he had addressed knelt and said, "While my loyalty is both eternal and unwavering, I am compelled by my own oaths to survive and serve you to ask: Why me, my Baron?"

"Because you're perfect," the Baron replied without missing a beat.

Tomaak bowed his head. "Understood, my Baron," he said, then rose and went to Marceline's side. Seeing that she might actually be too out of it to even bite him at this point, he drew a coppery-gold dagger from under his robes, slashed his wrist without hesitation, and presented it ceremoniously to her. She roused, blinking, as the first drops fell upon her lips.

"Take, milady, for it is freely given!" Tomaak declared as, her eyes glazing, Marceline seized his arm and fell greedily upon it.

Gryphon averted his eyes - it seemed only polite - and said to the Baron, "Thank you. Now, about our exit."

Zoria nodded toward a second door at the other end of the room. "That door leads to the stage. The manager of this establishment will be coming through it at any moment to alert us that the time has come for our second set."

Another of the Circle looked up from oiling the slide of his trombone and remarked, "Not the best route by which to make a surreptitious escape. How many are your pursuers?"

"At least five that I know of," Gryphon said. "Well, six, but I doubt one of them is still in the chase. Pretty sure I at least set him up with an overnight in the ER at UMass Memorial."

A fourth Hornsman fitted a new reed to his saxophone's mouthpiece and nodded. "Some of them will have come around to the front of the house by now, then," he said. "They'll be looking for you to try and get out that way."

"Agreed," said Baron Zoria gravely. "We could try to escort you out. Rare indeed is the band of vampire hunters who would dare challenge the wrath of the Circle of Horns. The nearest entrance to Oranbega is but a block from here... "

Marceline glided up between them, wiping her mouth on the back of one hand, then grinned (slightly pink-toothed) and put one arm over each man's shoulders. Gryphon glanced down and saw that she wasn't standing, but instead levitating, her knees bent so that her toes wouldn't drag on the floor.

"Ahhh," she sighed. "Much better." She leaned and kissed first the Baron, then Gryphon on the cheek. "Thanks. Someone ought to get Tomaak some Tang and a donut, though."

"I'm all right, my Baron," Tomaak insisted from the couch, sounding a little punch-drunk.

Chief, we're in-system, Geoff's thoughtvoice informed Gryphon. Vectoring for orbit now. No sign that we've been detected. What's your status?

They've got us cornered in a nightclub, Gryphon replied. Baron Zoria's here. We're thinking about making a break for it, see if we can get to Oranbega.

If you can hold your position for a while, Raven cut in, I can get you out with a shadowgate. It'll just take me a few minutes to set up once we're in a stable orbit.

Hmm. I'll see what I can do. Get started, I'll let you know if it's not going to work.

Pulling back from his internal conversations, Gryphon quickly explained the other side of the situation to Marceline and Baron Zoria. As he finished, there was a rap at the inner door. The Hornsmen turned warily toward it, but when it opened, it was just the club's manager.

"You guys are up," he said, then noticed that the Circle had company. "Hey, who's this?" Tipping his shades down his nose, he frowned and went on, "Are you the reason we've got cops in the joint now? They came in about five minutes ago. I don't want any - "

"They're my friends from out of town who will be jamming with us tonight," the Baron interrupted. Then, fixing the man with the full intensity of his mystic gaze, he intoned, "I told you about them."

The manager gazed blankly at the Baron for a moment, then blinked. "Oh. Right. You told me about them." He shook his head. "Well, come on, you got another set to do."

When he'd gone, Marceline snorted and bumped fists with the Baron. "Slick," she told him. She reached behind her and swung her axe bass, which she hadn't been wearing when she began the gesture, around to hang in front of her on its strap. Noting Gryphon's empty-handedness, she raised her right hand and bent her fingers into an arcane sign, and suddenly he was holding a badass guitar.

"Oh hey," he said, holding it away from his body a little to admire its blood-red lacquer finish and custom tooled-leather strap. "I always wanted a Flying V."

"I know," said Marceline, winking an eye the same color as his guitar. "Happy birthday, Gryph. Let's go rock these jerks." She turned and called to the Hornsman sprawled on the couch, "You can sit this one out, Tomaak. Thanks again!"

Tomaak raised a hearty thumbs-up, then passed out.

"He'll be fine," she said cheerfully.

They took to the stage - a dozen mystic-robed jazz wizards, the queen of vampires, and an immortal who was reasonably sure this was the wackiest birthday he'd had in at least a century - to find the club, a medium-sized establishment whose front of house was in better repair than the backstage spaces, still crowded and buzzing even at this late hour. The five black-clad hunters didn't escape their notice, scattered around the room and covering all the obvious exits. They were making some of the patrons a bit nervous, but in this setting - unlike out on the street in front of Coffee Kingdom - they seemed less inclined to start outright freaking the mundanes. Maybe someone up their chain of command had given them a bollocking for that phase of the operation.

Whichever, they reacted with visible consternation when their target took the stage along with the Circle of Horns and the man they'd encountered her with at Coffee Kingdom. Without any introduction or comment at all, the band launched into a high-energy instrumental, featuring the vampire on bass guitar and her henchman, a bright red electric slung on his back, working the keys of the club's battered but game old Hammond B3 organ.

/* The Blues Brothers Band
"I Can't Turn You Loose"
Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) */

Sanderson edged across the main entrance to stand next to Hardin. "What the hell is goin' on?" he muttered.

"Search me," she replied.

They finished up their reopener with a blazing harmonica solo from Baron Zoria, then rearranged themselves slightly for the next number. The man left the organ, turned his guitar around frontways, and went up to stand next to the vampire; then Baron Zoria stepped out between them and, as they began the intro to a second number, he boomed,

"Ladies and gentlemen, as you see, two very special friends of the Circle of Horns have chosen to join us tonight. With their help, we wish to perform a classic number by the great 20th-century bluesman Taj Mahal for you now!"

The hunters regrouped as well, forming into a knot between the stage and the main entrance. "Jeez, what?" one of them said. "Could this run get any more screwed?"

Gesturing to the vampire, the Baron went on, "Please welcome, on the bass guitar, Her Dread Majesty Marceline Abadeer, Queen of Vampires!"

The hunters' team leader blanched. "Wait. What?"

"And joining us on lead vocals and the electric guitar, direct from the Republic of Zeta Cygni, Gryphon of Avalon, Mr. Benjamin Hutchins!"

Sanderson palmed his face. "Blank, me, running."

/* The Blues Brothers Band
"She Caught the Katy"
The Blues Brothers (1980) */

The whole situation should have been paralytically surreal at this point - playing a blues standard in a club in Worcester, on his birthday, backed up by the Lost Bluesmen of Oranbega - but by this point Gryphon had long since decided that he was just going to enjoy it. Besides, these guys were the tightest horn section in the history of history, he'd always wanted to play in front of them; his daughter Kate had had the honor on numerous occasions, one of many things for which he rather envied her. Furthermore, he and Marceline were clicking as a guitar-and-bass battery on a level that felt somewhere a layer or two deeper than the lizard hindbrain. Who gave a damn about the heavily armed vigilante creeps even now having serious attacks of vocational uncertainty over by the door? There were licks to lay down.

She caught the Katy
And left me a mule to ride
She caught the Katy
And left me a mule to ride
Now my baby caught the Katy, left me a mule to ride
The train pulled out, I swung on behind
Crazy 'bout that hard-headed woman of mine

Man, my baby long
Great gosh a-mighty my baby tall
You know my baby long
Great gosh a-mighty my baby tall
You know my baby she long, my baby she tall
She sleep with her head in the kitchen and her feet out in the hall
Crazy 'bout that hard-headed woman of mine

Now I love my baby, she's so fine
Wish she'd come and see me sometime
She don't believe I love her
Look what a hole I'm in
She don't believe I'm sinkin'
See what a shape I'm in

As he and Marceline kept the groove going while the Baron laid down another harp solo, Gryphon wondered idly whether anyone in the front few rows had noticed yet that the bassist's feet weren't touching the floor. Probably not. They were all too busy digging the sound.

She caught the Katy
And left me a mule to ride
She caught the Katy
And left me a mule to ride
Well my baby caught the Katy, left me a mule to ride
The train pulled out, I swung on behind
Crazy 'bout that hard-headed woman
Hard-headed woman of mine
Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!

They finished the number and swung into another, keeping it up for a solid 15 minutes without any more chatter. As he played, Gryphon kept a sort of subliminal watch on the hunters. They were getting more and more agitated - by the end of "She Caught the Katy" they actually appeared to be arguing amongst themselves - but within another couple of numbers they were starting to fan out into the club again, taking up positions for what he suspected was going to be an all-out, ill-advised rush on the stage. Did they not realize who the Baron and his men were? How could any outfit this well-equipped be that poorly informed? Who were these guys?

OK, said Raven's voice in his mind as they finished up their fifth number. Preparations are complete for the shadowgate.

Good, Gryphon replied. These guys are getting antsy.

Hold them for about three and a quarter more minutes, Raven told him.

He thought about that for a second or so, then smiled. He knew just the song for that. Before anyone else had a chance to intervene, he wound up and threw down the intro, knowing that Marceline was so attuned to his wavelength now, and the Circle's drummer was so on top of his game, that neither would miss the cue - and indeed they didn't, joining in precisely where they were supposed to.

/* The Smithereens
"Blues Before and After"
11 (1989) */

Marceline slipped into the lead vocal role, Gryphon sliding effortlessly over to backup, as they traded the lines of the first verse before blending together for the chorus.

You know I really wanna see you when you know I might not
(And you make me want you more when you hurt me a lot)
I say I really love you and you say that you don't
(And it really turns me on when you say that you won't)

The blues before and after
I get the blues before and after I'm with you
The blues before and after
I get the blues before and after lovin' you

Sometimes I need to hear your voice, sometimes I don't wanna know
(I get so tired of tryin' to win you I just don't wanna know)
You're takin' just what you need and then you're well on your way
(I hear the same old story almost every day)

The blues before and after
I get the blues before and after I'm with you
The blues before and after
I get the blues before and after lovin' you

It's a shame that you won't see me when I need you tonight
'Cause I know that if you did then everything would be right
And I tried my very best to give the things that you need
But the blues they seem to follow me, I never succeed

They kicked the solo back and forth between them. Beneath their feet, a dark area appeared on the pale-wood stage, as of the shadow of a large object that was looming over them, then began to rise from the floor around their legs like a dark mist. Gryphon and Marceline played on, the song's driving beat racing with the slow upward creep of the mist as they laid down the last verse:

I wanna take you in my arms and you just don't wanna know
(And when I finally get to touch you, feels like 40 below)
Just as always you have gotten your way
(Just a normal complication in a typical day)

The blues before and after
I get the blues before and after I'm with you
The blues before and after
I get the blues before and after lovin' you

By the second repeat of the chorus, the sounds of their voices and instruments had faded away like the mixed-down end of a single, leaving only the Circle of Horns' drummer playing - and then the dark mist cleared, revealing only empty air where the two guest artists had been. Before anyone had a chance to react, the Circle's drummer swung into the opening of the theme from Peter Gunn, and the second set carried on as it would have before Baron Zoria's guests arrived.

The vampire hunters looked at each other across the cheering, whistling club crowd, then threw up their hands and left.

11:38 PM: H/V Surprise, Earth orbit

Raven had been mildly nonplussed to discover that the two people she was rescuing arrived playing the outro to an old rock song, but then again, she'd seen weirder things in her time with the Chief, and she supposed she should've been used to it by now.

They finished the song, though the sound was a little anemic given that they'd left their amps behind, then turned grins to each other and bumped their fists together before facing the others. They were in the Surprise's dojo, the only large room aboard the ship where the floor was smooth enough to take the chalked marks of a sorcery circle. The lights were low and a scattering of candles ringed the circle, the better to cultivate the necessary shadows.

"Nicely done, ladies and gentleman," said Gryphon. He took off his new guitar and put it on the low table at the end of the room, then greeted the team, with a secret handshake for Geoff, a hug for Raven, and a high-five for Saya. He was about to introduce his companion, but before he could get to that, he looked up at a corner of the room with a thoughtful air. Then he turned to Geoff and asked,

"Why's it so hot in here?"

"We just spacefolded into the system with the IES engaged," Geoff replied, as if that were no big deal. "Shaved about fifteen minutes off our time-to-orbit."

"That's insane," said Gryphon, equally matter-of-factly.

"So's the Stig," Saya remarked wryly.

"OK, you have a point there," Gryphon conceded. Then, clapping his hands briskly together, he went on, "Anyway! Guys, this is Marceline."

"'Sup," said Marceline with a cheery throw of the horns. Her bass had gone, dismissed back to wherever it went when she wasn't using it.

"Marceline, this is Geoff Depew... "

"We spoke on the phone earlier," said Geoff with a short bow.

"... my apprentice, Raven... "

"Uh... hi," said Raven, eyeing the newcomer warily, but without hostility.

"... and you already know Saya."

"Hey, kiddo," said Marceline, gliding over to get a closer look.

"Your Majesty," Saya replied wryly, sketching a sardonic curtsey.

Scrutinizing the younger vampire carefully, Marceline drifted in a complete circle around Saya, taking her in from all angles, before remarking, "Well." She brushed her heavy fall of black hair back from her face, turned to face the Chief, and grinned at him. "You weren't kidding, man, you really did a number on her. I've been around a long time and I've seen a lot of crazy stuff, but this? This is a new one on me."

Saya flushed slightly. "It wasn't exactly what I was expecting either," she grumbled.

"I'm sorry, I'm a little lost," said Geoff mildly.

"Marceline's like me," Saya told him. "Her father was the Lord of Blood, dæmon creator of the Sanguivorus curse - king of all vampires. With him gone, that makes her the Vampire Queen." She smirked slightly and added, "Except that we're all anarchists," drawing a laugh from Marceline.

"Ah," said Geoff.

"Why is the Vampire Queen working as a kissogram in Worcester?" Raven wondered.

Marceline shrugged. "I'm 1400 years old," she said. "I was bored and it was a laugh. Travel to exotic, far-flung dorm rooms and college apartments, meet the most interesting people... " Drifting over until she was hovering almost nose-to-nose with Geoff, she smiled mischievously and added, "... and appropriate their precious bodily fluids." She held the look on him for a moment, then spun and glided away with a laugh.

Freed from the need not to attract attention on the streets of Worcester, she seemed more comfortable levitating than on foot, floating around with a casual, unstudied grace. She ended up hanging horizontally in the air behind Gryphon, knees bent, feet crossed in the air, as if lying on an invisible floor at about his head level, with her arms draped around his neck and her head on his shoulder. From there she grinned at Geoff and added,

"It doesn't actually say that last part in the brochure."

"They probably get more recruits by omitting it," Raven observed dryly.

"Speaking of which, have you got anything to drink around here?" Marceline wondered. "Tomaak took the edge off, but I'm still pretty hungry." She pushed off from Gryphon's shoulder, drifting away from him a few feet, and added wryly, "Maybe best if I put some distance between me and that neck... "

Saya shrugged out of her school backpack, dug around in it for a moment, then handed her a red-edged black drink box. Marceline turned it over in her hands, regarding it curiously from various angles, then popped up the straw, took a pull at it, and recoiled, skidding back a few inches in the air as she gave the box a reproachful look.

"Ugh, what is this?" she asked.

"Tactical blood substitute," Saya told her. "Sorry, it's all I've got on me."

Marceline tried it again, made the lamprey face for a second (visibly startling Geoff and Raven), and hissed. "It's revolting."

Saya shrugged. "Work in progress. The bio guys promise the next rev will be less disgusting. In the meantime, it's better than Version 1. This stuff at least does a decent job nutritionally. V1 tasted like crap and didn't help."

Marceline eyed the box as if expecting it to bite her fingers, then steeled herself and took another drink. "Bleh. This is worse than the time I got lost in the Paris catacombs and had to live on rats for a week." Another sip. "Does seem to be working, though," she conceded. "Thanks."

Trying to steer the conversation in more practical directions, Raven put in, "Any idea who was after you?"

Marceline shook her head. "Never seen 'em before," she said. "They were pretty well-equipped, but didn't seem to know what they were doing." She looked a bit embarrassed. "Got the drop on me when they first showed up," she admitted, then glanced at Gryphon with a little smile and added, "but I was kind of distracted."

"Well, we can work a few angles later," Gryphon said. "There was something familiar about a couple of them... "

"For right now, I say we get out of this star system so we can turn the AC back on," Geoff suggested.

"I actually have to go back down," said Gryphon glumly. "I'm still expected at that subcommittee hearing in the morning." He looked at Marceline, who lobbed her empty drink box expertly into the wastebasket in the corner, then made a little yesss gesture. "What about you? If you still want off Earth, you're welcome to come with us when we do leave tomorrow."

She laughed, glided back to her previous hugging-him-from-behind position, and kissed his cheek. "You just want to see if I'll really be your love slave."

Gryphon savored the nearly-identical blank looks on the faces of his three colleagues for a moment, then said as if she hadn't spoken, "So! Back to WPI for me, and then you guys can hop out-system and vent the IES. I'll file you a flight plan as my ride back to Zeta C with the Foreign Ministry in the morning, so you'll be able to come back and pick me up openly."

"It'd be dope if somebody could help me grab some stuff from my apartment," Marceline put in. "I pack light, but, you know, you live 1400 years, you get attached to a few things."

"Geoff and I will handle that," Saya put in. "You shouldn't risk going back there yourself. Those hunters may know where you live."

"Mm, yeah, I suppose." Marceline sighed. "Man, I finally got that place just the way I wanted it, too. Oh well."

While Raven reconfigured the shadowgate to send Gryphon back to WPI, Marceline got out a notebook and pencil, then wrote down a few things she particularly wanted and where they could be found. Meanwhile, Geoff left the room momentarily, returning just as Raven was about to reactivate the gate.

"Chief, before you go," he said, proffering a laden white plastic carrier bag with a cartoon happy face and THANK YOU FOR YOUR PURCHASE on the side. "Hunan chicken, pork fried rice, and a quart of Pepsi. I'm betting you never got around to dinner," he added with a slight smirk.

Gryphon took the bag, looked in it, and then grinned at him. "You are good at your job," he said.

"It's the best route to job security," Geoff observed.

"OK, ready on the gate," said Raven.

"Good deal. Geoff, Saya, be careful."

"Roger that, boss," said Geoff; Saya nodded in silent concurrence.

"Guess I'll see you all tomorrow, then," said Gryphon.

Marceline tore off the page from her notebook, handed it to Saya, then darted back to his side. "Heck with that, I'm going back with you," she said. At his confused look, she added with a grin, "They're not gonna look for me at WPI."

"Well... fair enough, I guess," he conceded.

Tuesday, June 21, 2411: Morgan 401

It was quarter past midnight when Gryphon finished his kingly repast, and after the evening he'd had, he was feeling every one of those 15 minutes past his bedtime. He went down the hall to the fourth-floor bathrooms (as eerie a replicated experience as everything else in this building), brushed his teeth, changed into an old pair of gym shorts and a threadbare T-shirt from the Art of Noise's first tour, then returned to 401. When he arrived, all the lights were off apart from the little one on the desk. Marceline's boots stood next to his shoes by the door; her clothes lay in a neatly folded pile on the desk. In his absence, she'd gone through his garment bag and appropriated his dress shirt as a nightdress.

She looked good in it - Gryphon had always particularly liked the way attractive women looked in his dress shirts, especially if they wore nothing else - but he felt obligated to point out that he was going to need it in the morning.

"Relax, it's not like I'm gonna sweat in it or anything," she replied cheerfully. Then, with a yawning stretch, she lay down on nothing a few feet above the bed (about, he realized with a smile, where the top bunk ought to be), turned on her side, and curled up as if under covers. "I don't know about you," she said, "but I'm beat. Make sure the blinds are closed all the way, will you?"

"Will that be enough?" Gryphon asked, doing as he was asked.

"Should be," Marceline replied. "I only have real problems with direct sunlight."

"Well, all right, then," he said. Blinds closed, he put out the lamp and made his way to the bed in the dark, then climbed in and settled down. "Good night, Marceline."

Instead of replying directly, she said thoughtfully, "Hey."

"Yeah?"

"Did I, at any point, actually thank you for saving my unlife like four times tonight?" she wondered.

"Not as such, that I can recall," he said, "but you're welcome."

There was a quiet laugh, a faint movement of air, then a gentle kiss. When Marceline spoke again, her voice came from back up where she had been before.

"Happy birthday, Gryph," she said. "G'night."

/* Santo & Johnny
"Sleepwalk"
Santo & Johnny (1959) */

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios

and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System

presented

UNDOCUMENTED FEATURES FUTURE IMPERFECT

Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
"Night of the Kissogram!"

written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

with
Geoff Depew

"Marceline, the Vampire Queen"
adapted from Adventure Time by Pendleton Ward

"Blood and Roses" and "Blues Before and After" by Pat DiNizio
"I Can't Turn You Loose" by Otis Redding
"She Caught the Katy" by Taj Mahal

Bacon Comics chief
Derek Bacon

E P U (colour) 2013