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ATTENTION: ABS SPECIAL PRESENTATION

Friday, October 28, 2411: West New Excellent Beach, Mambo Island #5, Funkotron

They had been staying in the beach house at the far end of West New Excellent Beach for three weeks by this time, the movie star and his lady friend. They were popular with the locals, these two, because they were laid-back and friendly and good tippers, and they seemed to have taken to the spirit of the place within minutes of arriving. White-skinned in a way that somehow neither tanned nor burned in the climate of the Mambo Islands, the woman did nice things to a black bikini, which - sometimes with a beach towel tied around her waist, sometimes not - was mainly what she had worn since arriving. That kind of thing also helped relations with the natives.

No one on Mambo Island #5 really knew what they were there for, and nobody thought it his business to ask. Discretion was part of the business in Funkotron's thriving worldwide hospitality industry, and nowhere was that more so than in the Mambos, that equatorial ocean paradise where the elite (and more or less everybody else) went when they did not wish to meet or greet. Possibly the movie star was just enjoying some downtime before shooting began on his next project. If so, he had chosen the right place in which, and the right company with which, to do it.

Now the movie star stood on the verandah of the rented beach house, puffing contentedly on a big cigar and looking out to sea. An aloha shirt, emblazoned with brilliant red parrots and green palm trees against a background of vivid sea blue, was stretched taut across his barrel chest.

Off in the distance, beyond the combers coming up the pure white beach and the vacationers playing in the surf, he could see the only flaw in this scene of tranquil fun he had inhabited, with great comfort, for the last twenty-two days. On the horizon, barely visible, a wisp of black smoke rose from the sea - actually, he knew, from the island that was just hidden behind the curve of the sea. That was Mambo #1, over there, the largest island in the chain and the location of the archipelago's central transportation hub - and, though no one else on Mambo #5 had noticed it yet, the movie star knew that smoke meant big trouble had just kicked off in the Mambo Islands.

The beach house door opened behind him and his female companion emerged onto the verandah. She'd shed her usual black bikini in favor of a much more extensive, and yet in its way no less body-accentuating, set of midnight-blue tactical gear, all straps and zippered pockets and holsters. Her normally carefree air was muted and serious as she said,

"It's started. Tac Team 2 finally identified the strike team, but they moved in too late to prevent activation." She scowled. "I knew I should've gone with them. Anyway, it's up to us now."

The movie star nodded with a look of evident satisfaction. "It's about damn time," he said.

Unbuttoning his shirt with methodical care, he hung it on the back of a deck chair, then walked down the six steps to the beach. At the water's edge, people were starting to notice the huge figure wading chest-deep toward them through the 20-fathom-deep channel separating their island from Mambo #1. Alarm was spreading up and down the beach; soon it would progress to panic.

The woman - Beatrice Watanabe, Experts of Justice codename Domino - descended the steps to stand next to him, surveying the scene through a miniature pair of electrobinoculars.

"Civvies are clearing out in good order," she noted approvingly. "Good, I hate having to do crowd control. I've got... five... six landing craft inbound, about 500 yards out. Say 200 goons."

"They're all yours, Bea," said the movie star, standing barechested on the sand as he faced down his approaching foe with intent eyes. "I'm gonna have my hands full with the main event."

"Roger that," Domino said. Drawing and priming her twin blaster pistols, she leaned and kissed his cheek. "Be careful."

The movie star smirked. "I'm always careful," he said.

With a laugh, Domino moved off to meet the enemy's amphibious troops. Out in the channel, more of the approaching Big Fire K-unit started rising from the water as it climbed the shallowing slope toward the beach. Shortly it would be within weapons range of the beach houses, cabanas, and still-withdrawing crowd of civilians.

Just before that time came, the movie star gave its combat intelligence something else to think about. Keeping his eyes locked on the empty mockery of its face, he drew hard on his cigar, making the coal glow brightly. Then, flicking the butt into the surf, he let out, along with a cloud of smoke, a gigantic noise somewhere between the roar of a huge and savage animal and the shriek of a vast and ill-maintained door.

/* Akira Ifukube
"Gojira (Main Theme)"
Gojira (1954) */

When it began, this sound seemed entirely too vast for its utterer to contain it. When it ended, though, Lensman Gojira Nakajima was fully 150 feet tall and looked equal to the job of encompassing any sound he cared to.

The K-unit wasn't impressed - that wasn't within its programming - but the Black Hoods just coming ashore from their landing craft were. Domino heard a few of them blurting out appropriate expletives before she, in her turn, gave them something else to think about, and then they were much too busy having a gunfight to stand around and watch as their giant robot threw down with the King of the Kaiju.

Half a dozen vacationing Funkotroni with video cameras weren't, though, and the resulting footage, edited and presented as part of a Big Time TV documentary, would eventually win a Golden Galaxy for battlefield cinematography.

/* 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

Weapon of Choice
A Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold Special Event

© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

[ The opening titles to Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold look about like you would expect them to look if you've ever seen an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Among the various "guest stars" who can briefly be seen in the course of the titles are the Juggernaut and Spitfire, Iron Man, Nabeshin, an unidentified (female) Thanagarian police officer, PCHammer, Domino, Judge Friday from Dragnet, Space Ghost, and - perhaps a bit incongruously - Mordin Solus. ]

Wednesday, November 2, 2411: Chengdu, New Avalon

Gryphon wasn't sure what had possessed the local branch of the Hand to raid a middle-echelon Chinese restaurant in downtown New Avalon at midday on a Wednesday, but he was sure he didn't appreciate it. Particularly since, as he was lunching alone, he'd have to take care of it himself. The comedy value would have been much higher if he'd been here with any one of his usual lunch partners. Particularly Kara, say, or Cassie. Then he could've just sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed the mayhem.

As it was, he was going to have to get up out of his corner booth, leave his frankly excellent Hunan-style chicken to get cold, and teach a few lessons. If he were honest, he'd much rather have stayed where he was and finished both the dish and the Cornet-Scientifer article on last week's Funkotron incident, which had a truly excellent front-page photo of Gojira doing his thing.

He sighed, folded the paper, and put it down on the table, then made ready to rise from his seat. Before he reached his feet, however, he found himself facing down with one of the anonymous ninja of the Hand and his miniature crossbow.

"You should know better than to place yourself at the disadvantage of sitting in a booth, Gryphon-san," said the ninja. "Today it will cost you."

Gryphon gave the man a skeptical look. "A pistol crossbow? Really? If you put a hole in my nice new War Machine shirt I'm going to be really annoyed. I just bought it yesterday."

"The hole in your shirt will be the least of your wor - " said the ninja, and then he paused for a moment to look down at the two gleaming metal points that had just emerged from his chest. " - oh," he said, and then sagged, slid forward off the blades, and fell face-down to the floor.

The ninja's fall revealed a woman who had been standing behind him. She was not the kind of woman who particularly stood out in a place like this - average height or a little bit shorter, slender build, nondescript dark clothes with a dressy black leather jacket. She appeared to be twentyish, pretty but not prepossessing, with long dark hair and a calm - perhaps slightly too calm - mien. At first glance, the only really striking thing about her was the color of her eyes, a remarkable sort of jade green.

On second glance, there were also the gleaming metal blades protruding from both her hands, one pair of which she had just thrust - rather casually, to judge from the rest of her stance - through the body of the ninja with the crossbow. Behind her, the rest of the ninja strike team lay scattered like very large discarded action figures. Restaurant patrons and staff hid behind partitions and seats, peeking tentatively out to see what was going on.

"Hello, Benjamin," the woman said, her voice low and slightly husky. With a metallic sound, her claws retracted into the backs of her hands, leaving small vertical wounds between her knuckles that closed and vanished within a second or so.

Gryphon blinked at her in profound surprise, then recovered his aplomb and said cheerfully, "Well, Laura Kinney, as I live and breathe. I haven't seen you for dog's years." He gestured to the opposite side of the booth. "Have a seat. How've you been? What's going on lately?"

Laura sat, folded her hands loosely in front of her on the table, and regarded him solemnly for a moment before saying, "I need... a favor."

Gryphon smiled nostalgically. "Good to see you haven't changed. Straight to the point. What do you need?"

"I want you to complete me," Laura replied without a hint of humor.

There was a momentary silence while Gryphon gave that remark the consideration it deserved; then he took a sip of his tea and said, "Now... coming from an ordinary woman, I'd interpret that as a very flattering metaphor, but when you say something like that, I know you must mean it in some startlingly literal way." An oh-I-get-it look came onto his face. "Ah. Of course. We're talking about the bones thing, aren't we."

Laura nodded. "There are five organizations in the galaxy today which may conceivably have the scientific and technical resources to complete the Weapon X process. Yours is the only one I feel I can trust."

Gryphon took another drink and frowned thoughtfully. "Y'know," he said after a few moments' thought, "it seems to me we burned down one such outfit, back in the day, because of certain ... ethical reservations... we harbored about the whole idea."

This got another nod. "We did."

"So why," he wondered, "are you now seeking me out and asking me to perform such a painful, invasive, potentially fatal procedure upon your, if I may say, externally unimprovable person?"

That drew a very small smile, one which became a trifle wry as she replied, "Suffice it to say that I have grown tired of reattaching limbs."

Gryphon nodded. "Fair enough. Please understand, however, that I am not an actual, practicing mad scientist at this time."

"You must employ several," said Laura, deadpan again.

Gryphon grinned. "You've got me there. OK, let me finish my lunch and we'll see what we can arrange. Have you eaten? The lo mein here is fantastic. Garçon!"

An hour later: Special Technologies Computer Aided Enrichment Center - IPO Headquarters

Skuld Ravenhair didn't bother to conceal her delight.

"Sure I can do that," she said. "And contrary to Big Chief Gloomy's assumptions, it doesn't necessarily have to be painful or dangerous." She shot a look at Gryphon, who shrugged. "Well, did you think I was just going to do it the way they did it 400 years ago? They used drills, for Pete's sake. Drills." She shook her head in disgust. "Stone knives and bearskins. We have nanites now."

"I can withstand a great deal of discomfort," Laura assured her calmly, but Skuld shook her head again, reassuringly this time.

"It's great that you can, but it's better that you won't have to," Skuld said. "Honestly, there's no need for it to hurt at all nowadays. I just need to recalibrate the nanosurgeons we use for our tactical agents' standard ferroceramic bone reinforcement treatments. Adamantium is trickier to work with, and it'll cost some astonishing number of credits, but if I don't care about that, why should you?" she added with a grin. Then, becoming businesslike (but still cheerful), she said, "Do you want to get started right away?"

Laura nodded. "As soon as it is convenient for you, Dr. Ravenhair."

Skuld grinned. "If we waited for that it'd never get done, so no time like the present. Wheatley! Hold my calls."

"Right-o," said a synthetic West Country accent from somewhere unseen.

"Now give your jacket to Ben, that's what he's here for, and get comfortable on the diagnostic table." As Laura complied, Skuld started tweaking controls and sensor heads above the slightly-sinister-looking table/bed, keeping up a running commentary as she did so. "I'm going to have to run a bunch of scans and make sure you're properly prepped before the main event - probably take two or three hours. Oh," she added as if in passing, "and of course once the IVs are in and the treatment's actually started, you will have to keep absolutely still for 12 hours."

"I can do that," Laura agreed immediately. "Thank you."

"As for you," Skuld said to Gryphon, "you can wait over there or you can come back at 4:30. Your call. There's not going to be a lot to see."

He waited over there.

/* The Crystal Method
"High Roller"
Vegas (1997) */

There was, indeed, not a lot to see, but the Coatrack-in-Chief stuck around anyway, staying out of the way and smiling an inner smile as Skuld did her thing. For the next three hours, Laura lay uncomplaining and still as the Goddess of Technology scanned, measured, prodded, sequenced, crossmatched, temporarily immunosuppressed, and electrostatically neutralized her.

"Hmm," said Skuld at one point early in the scanning process. "Existing bionics. Quality blades, half-assed install." She glanced at her patient's face, smiling apologetically. "No offense, but your original augmentors were hacks. We can do way better. Do these things just cut holes in your hand every time you use them?" Laura nodded. "Jeezus," Skuld sighed, rolling her eyes. "Amateurs. Some people should just not be allowed to make super soldiers."

"You have no idea," Laura replied.

The rest of the process passed mostly in silence. Eventually Skuld finished the preliminaries, dusted off her hands symbolically, and declared, "OK. I've got all the data I need. Now it'll take me about an hour to set everything up, and we're in business." She pointed to Gryphon. "And we need to make ourselves scarce before the procedure starts, because before the needles come out it has to be cleanroom alpha in here. So if you two have anything you need to say or anything, now's the time."

Gryphon approached the table, stopping a hygienically discreet distance away, and grinned. "You don't get service this speedy just anywhere," he said.

Laura smiled slightly - maybe even, Skuld thought, a little shyly - and replied, "Benjamin... thank you. I will do my best to repay - "

"Hey, whoa there," he said, holding up a hand. "We see each other for the first time in all these years and you want to start talking about debts? Forget about it. Once this is done, if you want to come help me defend the galaxy, you've got a place. If you don't, that's fine too." He smiled wryly. "I know what happens to people who try to fence you in."

She chuckled and put up a hand; he held up his own about a foot away, then made a peace sign and allowed himself to be ushered from the room by Skuld.

"Just when I think I know your history," she mock-grumbled as she led the way up the hall to the control room, "another new challenger appears from somewhere in the mists of time."

"Heh, hardly," Gryphon replied. "No history of that kind there, I assure you. When we met, she was a 15-year-old assassin doll and I was the galaxy's anger manager."

"You haven't said anything there that helps your case," Skuld pointed out.

"Please. Seriously, just no."

Skuld keyed them into the control room and seated herself at the main console, powering up the systems. Magnifications of the procedure table from several different angles rezzed up around the direct view afforded by the room's panoramic window.

"OK. Laura? Can you hear me?"

"Five by five," Laura replied.

"Excellent. I'm starting the decon cycle and configuring the nanosystems. Just be cool and I'll be back with you presently."

"Roger."

Skuld shut off the mic and turned to Gryphon, who had taken another seat by the door. "She seems like a sweetheart now. Kind of quiet, and she talks like a Vulcan, but... "

Gryphon nodded. "Yeah, you'd hardly know now that she was raised in an environment that made Arkham Asylum seem like Chuck E. Cheese's. I had a little to do with that, but not in that way."

"Tell me about it," Skuld said as she started working on the nanoconfiguration. "When and where?"

"It was the fall of 2335. I'd just left New Japan. Didn't know where I was going, what I was doing. I'd abandoned my life in Mega Tokyo to chase Largo offworld and then lost his trail out in the Terminus." He chuckled darkly. "Whenever I found myself in the Terminus in those days, it all tended to go wrong in a hurry."

Monday, October 7, 2335: Omega

It could be argued that going to Omega was a mistake. Partly, that's because it can always be argued that going to Omega is a mistake, but in this case it's more to do with the obvious fact that I wasn't very likely to find Largo there.

To be fair, though, it wasn't Largo himself I was looking for. It was the vibrations Largo made in the web of illicit connections to the dark underside of GENOM. Wherever the man went within the colossal structure of the company, his presence made things happen that were more secret and sinister than ordinary dealings. Secret laboratories and deniable operations sprang up in close proximity to wherever he established his headquarters, the better to enhance security by having shorter lines of communication. Largo was a control freak; he liked to have direct interaction with his darkest of black projects.

That was what had brought me to the Terminus; the rustlings and whisperings of some new atrocity that had GENOM Black Operations' greasy fingerprints at its edges. It was said that there was a nameless organization, newly established (or possibly just newly revealed) on Omega, which operated independent of the three major mercenary-criminal syndicates that ruled the place in an uneasy balance. This organization conducted no operations itself, maintained no army, and cared nothing for the usual activities of such outfits. They didn't run drugs or guns or slaves from place to place within the tottering United Galactica.

All they did, so the word on the street went, was control, maintain, and rent out the galaxy's deadliest weapon, a creature so vicious, so powerful, and so bloodthirsty that it, like its masters, had no need of a name. The murmurs I had heard in the underworld called it simply, and a bit melodramatically, X.

I thought the room behind the noodle shop in the Fourth District was going to be just another waystation on a longer investigative chain. I didn't realize until I was inside that my inquiries had attracted more attention than I'd expected at this stage. I came to Omega looking for a connection between X, the growing reputation of which had all the hallmarks of a GENOM black project, and Largo's recent relocation from New Japan.

Instead, though I didn't realize it at that moment, I was about 30 seconds from encountering X itself.

Gryphon knew as soon as the door closed behind him that this wasn't going to be a straightforward meeting with an informant after all. At least 33 percent of him had been expecting that. He waited for a few seconds, eyes scanning the dusty, mostly empty storeroom to see what would happen next. Eclipse troopers? Vat-grown cyborg assassins? Ninja?

Instead, the only out-of-place thing he saw there was a single person, small and dark-clad, sitting on a box in the middle of the room. At the sound of the door, she looked up, meeting his eyes. Hers, he noticed instantly, were the most amazing shade of green.

"You should not have come here," she said softly. She rose to her feet, hands hanging slack at her sides. Standing, she could have been no more than five feet or so tall, slightly built, with long, dark, slightly disordered hair. She was dressed in anonymous black tactical gear - a bit incongruously, given that she couldn't have been more than 14 or 15 years old.

"You're telling me," Gryphon replied wryly. "You should probably get out of here," he told her. "I'm pretty sure I'm about to get ambushed."

"You are right," the girl said in the same hushed voice.

She took two brisk walking strides toward him, then broke into a trot, then a run. Fifteen feet out, she sprang, silent and expressionless, with metal blades suddenly sprouting from the backs of her hands.

"Oh, for - " Gryphon said, sounding more outraged than anything else.

/* Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet
"Having an Average Weekend (Theme from The Kids in the Hall)"
Savvy Show Stoppers (1988) */

In hindsight, I shouldn't have been that surprised. I mean, this whole thing involved me proceeding from the assumption that X was one of Largo's weird-science black projects, and he always made them look like girls. Sure, the stories I had heard painted the creature as about 20 feet tall and possibly related to the xenomorphs of Acheron, but I should have known that there was likely to be a certain degree of exaggeration involved there.

What followed was the most exciting fight the residents of the Fourth District had witnessed in some time - miles beyond the usual 15-second gunfights and cursory shivvings they tended to indulge in themselves. Over the course of maybe a third of an hour, the silent girl in black and the markedly less silent man in grey and brown rampaged across half the district, through shops and storage areas, up staircases and down turboshafts, collaterally laying waste to almost everything before them as they passed.

The double blades in the girl's hands - and a pair in her feet Gryphon found out about with an expletive-producing unexpectedness - seemed to be able to cut through pretty much anything, to judge by the ease with which they parted stanchions, carved slots in durasteel bulkheads, and shredded any obstacle he might contrive to put in her way. She had seemed surprised - the first indication of anything in the way of human feelings she might have possessed - when she'd failed to cut his swords on first parry. In fact, the phenomenon seemed to unnerve her out of proportion to the problem it caused her. From that point on, she regarded him with a hint of something that might have been a distant, muted cousin of fear, far in the back of her jade-green eyes.

She said nothing, engaged in no banter or smacktalk - didn't even cry out in consternation or pain when he scored a hit. That happened only occasionally anyway, and was how he learned the second interesting fact about her, which was that she regenerated like nobody's business. Much faster than he did, as it happened, which meant that even with her inability to sever his swords, she stood a reasonable statistical chance of winning the fight eventually.

The girl was very young, but wily and obviously well-trained. As he applied all his own training, experience, energy, and initiative to staying alive, Gryphon could believe that she really was the product of an intensive development effort, upon which massive resources had been expended. He wondered as to the motives of her makers. Surely it couldn't be profit, despite the colossal sums he'd heard they charged their clients for the use of her. If their only motivation was money, they must have had a giant heap of it to start with.

That fit with the profile of a GENOM black project, too. Profit wasn't the motivation behind those. Largo's inexplicable, inbuilt drive to create ever more powerful and elegant tools of destruction - or make his underlings create them - was... and that was really the only thing Gryphon could think of that explained this strange and highly specialized little creature.

At length they found themselves, ragged, sweat-soaked, blood-smeared, in some sort of abandoned industrial facility left over from the days when Omega had been a mining and metals-refining station. It was a grimy, dusty, ill-lit, sprawling space littered with discarded crucibles, rust-frozen chainfalls, and crumbling sheets of printout flimsy from long-darkened process control systems. Gryphon thought it had probably been used for making tritanium ingots, back when the asteroid that had become Omega had still had tritanium ore to yield. That would have been at least 200 years ago, and when the ore ran out, the processors had simply abandoned the facility.

Here, at last, the girl in black made a mistake.

She came at me from above, diving down from the top of one of the derelict crucibles, maybe 20 feet high. It was the wrong choice. The height differential between us was just exactly enough for me to sense her coming and have time to react, but not enough for her to adapt to my response. The whole fight, we'd both been like chess players, always trying to see two moves ahead. Now, by her choice of launching point, she'd cut herself down to one and given me three. Either she misjudged the height or how far into the zone I was by that point. We both had pretty good zanshin, and her training was impeccable, but I had the experience.

At that point I basically had three options. I could refuse the engagement entirely and fade into the industrial jumble. I knew by then that she had spectacular tracking abilities, though; she'd find me, and she wouldn't make this mistake a second time. I could take her head and (probably) end the whole matter then and there. Or I could try to cripple her in some manner not immediately fatal and... improvise. Of the three, the first was right out and the third was fraught with uncertainty. The smart money was on option two.

But I couldn't do it. I might have been little more than a vaguely man-shaped mass of bitterness and disillusion by that point, but I had standards, dammit, and they did not involve the decapitation of teenage girls. Even homicidal ones.

As it was, I had to steel myself considerably to do what I had to do for option three. It might not be instantly fatal, but it was definitely going to be brutal and ruthless. I had to tell myself sternly, This is not a girl, muchacho. It's just a weapon that happens to look like one. But even then I didn't really believe it, and it cost me something deep and private to do what I did next.

X realized her mistake a millisecond after committing it. Knowing what she would have done if he had been the one to make it, she fully expected the next second to be her last. She went into it with her eyes wide open, unflinching, accepting her fate as due and proper payment for such an amateurish blunder.

As such, she was pleasantly surprised (in an abstract kind of way) when, instead of taking her head or filleting her up the middle as he ought to have done, her target - with one flashing arc of his long blade, beautifully, even artistically done - relieved her of her outstretched right arm and both legs.

She hit the deckplates a short way beyond him in a surprisingly small spray of blood, all things considered. Gryphon turned, his face hard - to stop himself weeping at what he'd just had to do - and pinned her remaining hand to the deck with his wakizashi before she could raise it or, however improbable such a maneuver might seem, try to get up.

On one knee before her with his right hand still on the wakizashi's grip and his katana across her throat in his left, he asked her sharply, "Where's Largo?"

Her face wore an expression that was as much surprise - presumably that even she could feel this much pain - as anything else, but at that question, a note of real puzzlement was added to the mix. Looking into her eyes, Gryphon saw that she genuinely did not know what the hell he was on about. If Largo was responsible for her making, and if he'd ever chosen to inspect his creation, he'd done so without introducing himself.

"Damn," he muttered. "All right, here's what we're going to - "

At that moment, the chronometer strapped to the one wrist the girl had left started to vibrate, pulsing gently - almost inaudibly, but that they were so close together now. Gryphon glanced down at it.

00:00:00.00

He made surprised eye contact with the girl again, then looked more closely at her. Taking his hand off the wakizashi's grip for a moment, he darted it to her left ear before she could recoil out of his reach and snatched the tactical commbud from it.

Danger, his zanshin whispered. He turned, looking up and back along the line of fire, and saw that the upper catwalks and rafters of the room were full of silhouetted figures with the faintly glowing red eyes of tactical optics. There had to be 20 or 30 of them up there. His mind, still running at full military power, ran through the possibilities. Blue Suns? Crimson Lance? Eclipse didn't use red optics last time he knew.

One of them moved forward, partly into the feeble glow coming from one of the overhead glowpot lamps. His armor was black and featureless, which in this setting was as good as having a GENOM Covert Ops logo painted on the chestplate in neon orange.

Gryphon plugged his newly captured commbud into his ear and heard a filtered voice say,

"Control, X-23 has failed to terminate the objective. Mission time has expired and the weapon is disabled. Request instructions."

A pause; then another unfamiliar voice - Damn, he thought, it's not Largo - replied, with a paradoxical note of satisfaction, "Well, we knew this day would come sooner or later. Liquidate."

"Roger that, Control," said the first voice - and then all the armored figures opened fire.

On both of them.

Moving on blind instinct, Gryphon yanked Ryû-no-ha out of the girl's hand, removed Ryû-no-tsume from under her chin, and flung himself down on top of her, shielding her almost completely with his body. The scorching agony of blasterfire tearing into his back through the light armor weave of his shirt nearly knocked him cold, but with a grim effort of will he retained enough presence of mind to let go of one sword, draw one of his Bryar heavy blasters from under his coat, and fire it - not at any of his myriad attackers, but at the one remaining, bent and weakened, hinge of the crucible from which the girl had jumped.

It took three shots to sever the hinge, by which time he was barely hanging onto consciousness, but his persistence was rewarded as the crucible tore free of its mount with a shriek of tearing metal and dropped with a rending crash to the deck below. The overloaded floor collapsed, bearing crucible, deckplates, debris, swords, man and girl down in a welter of wreckage to some unfathomable abandoned level further below.

"Crazy son of a - " Gryphon heard in his ear, and then everything went black.

Wednesday: IPO Headquarters

"That was pretty crazy," Skuld agreed.

Gryphon shrugged. "It got them to stop shooting me. That was basically my only goal at the time."

Skuld nodded, putting the discussion on hold for a moment, and pressed the intercom key. "Laura, prep is complete. Still OK in there?"

"No problems, Dr. Ravenhair," Laura replied.

"All right, I'm going to start the initialization sequence. Try not to move; the automed's going to be putting intravenous catheters in both arms, both legs, and your neck. They're just IVs, we're not going all the way to bone like they did in the old days, and it'll only hurt for a second," she added out of habit, remarking to herself that that was a damned silly thing to say to someone who'd once had an arm and both legs cut off in a swordfight.

Laura seemed to take it entirely at face value, though, replying without evident irony, "Thank you, Doctor. I am ready."

"OK, here we go." Skuld pressed the green button. "Initialization sequence starts in five. Four. Three. Two... one."

/* Valve Software
"Subject Name Here"
The Orange Box (2007) */

On the automed table, arms moved positioning cuffs to the ends of all four of the patient's limbs and her neck, gently stabilizing them, and then - with the quick deftness of an expert nurse, captured to the automed's positronic systems from the muscle memory of same - installed IV catheters in all five sites. The whole procedure, from needle insertion to retraction, took perhaps a quarter-second. Laura didn't even blink.

"All right, looks good," Skuld said, looking over the status displays. "Flushing the lines... all lines open and normal. Commencing nanosurgeon infusion... now." She waited a couple of seconds for the status indicators for all five lines to go blue, then asked, "Feel anything?"

"It's cold," Laura reported. "No pain, minimal discomfort. Proceed."

Skuld smiled at the clinical tone in her patient's voice and, responding with the gravity it deserved, replied, "Roger, infusion proceeding. First stage process will commence once this batch is fully on board; estimate 30 minutes."

"Understood."

Skuld reached to switch off the intercom, then thought better of it and said, "Since you're not going anywhere for a while, would you care to run a skillsoft install or two? Might help pass the time. I've got... " She opened a drawer and rummaged around a little. "... knitting... Centauri drunken boxing... and how to draw comics the Bacon Comics way."

"Yes, please," Laura replied.

Skuld slotted the first of the skillsoft modules into the appropriate slot on the automed console, verified that the electrodes were positioned correctly and making good contact, and started the install. "There you go. Holler if you need anything."

Laura's eyes were already closed and twitching in the REM-like state of a normally proceeding skillsoft install; she made no reply. Smiling, Skuld closed her end of the intercom channel, then turned to Gryphon and said, "So. Where were we? You caused a cave-in."

Gryphon nodded. "Yup."

"That's one way to solve a problem."

2335: Omega

Did you ever have one of those days where you reach a point at which you know, in your innermost heart - in your secret place - that before the day is out, you owe somebody a beating?

Yeah.

To be absolutely fair, I was having a lot of those in the 2330s, but even so. When I came to in the dark and quiet wreckage of that nameless, forgotten lower level of Omega's Fourth District, the very first conclusion I reached was that someone out there was owed a response from my fists in a very big way.

Gryphon stirred, groaned, and slowly dragged himself upright, shedding bits of rubble from his back and shoulders. For a second he stood there, rubbing at his face and blinking into the semidarkness; then he seemed to remember what he'd been doing to end up down here. He looked down and found his dance partner, out cold but still breathing, and wondered briefly what the hell he was going to do now.

Well, he thought, she regenerates, right?

By the time she came to, the girl he'd heard called by the codename X-23 had all her relevant parts back more or less where they belonged, and Gryphon was mightily impressed with her powers of recuperation. Putting the severed bits back where they belonged and seeing what happened had been a pretty weak plan, he'd thought, but it had worked like magic.

She sat up, blinking in the dim light and feeling at the places where her injuries had been, then extended her claws, rose to an unsteady crouch, and backed away, regarding him warily.

"Easy now," he said. "Given what just happened, I don't think we've got any reason to keep fighting... do you?"

She considered this, then retracted her claws and sat down.

"No," she admitted almost inaudibly.

Gryphon nodded, satisfied. "Right. Good." He gestured to their half-collapsed surroundings. "I think we're going to have to work together to get out of here."

"Why?" she asked.

"Because it's a mess down here." Rising from his seat on a chunk of debris, he turned and started examining the tangle of wreckage that formed one pseudo-wall. "This level's been abandoned for centuries."

"No," said X-23. "Why did you save me?"

Gryphon hesitated, glancing back at her, then turned back to his investigation of the rubble and said only, "Character flaw."

She didn't seem to know what to make of that. After a few minutes, she rose and started helping him search for a path out.

It took us something like two days to find a way out of there, through maintenance ducts that were probably abandoned during the Eisenhower administration, ancient machinery spaces for who knows what, and structural support areas that hadn't seen sapient beings since the original construction crews.

The first 12 hours or so, I might as well have been alone. I kept up a running stream of patter, basically just to keep myself from going crazy, and to distract myself from the fact that my back still hurt like hell. I needed a good meal and a solid nine hours of sleep, and I wasn't going to get either one down here. We were lucky just to have water, after a fashion. At least I think what was in those pipes was water.

Then, suddenly, while I was using Ryû-no-tsume to clear away a bunch of fallen cables that were blocking our path, she said the first spontaneous thing I'd ever heard her say.

"Sensei Tanaka had a sword like that."

Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "'Had'?" he asked.

"He is dead," X-23 replied.

"What happened?" Gryphon wondered.

"They made me kill him," she told him tonelessly. "He broke the rules."

Gryphon gazed at her with a look of growing concern. "What rules?" he asked, uncertain whether he really wanted to know.

"He was... kind to me."

"I see." Gryphon frowned thoughtfully, put the sword away, and sat down seiza, facing her. Automatically, she adopted the same posture a few feet away.

"I think you had better tell me about it," he said.

Without really understanding why, she did.

The story of her life to date didn't take much telling - it hadn't been a very long time, and it was largely made up of the same things happening over and over again. Born in a sterile laboratory, raised (from, he would later learn, the very moment of her birth) in an environment deliberately devoid of any but the faintest traces of sapient warmth or kindness, she was indeed a product of exactly the kind of weird-science madness he had feared was going on. The only thing he'd been wrong about was that it'd been going on for far longer than Largo had been off New Japan. It wasn't a new project. She was (as far as she knew) 15 and had grown normally, so she'd been born in about 2320 and who knew how long it had taken her makers to even get that far.

At this point, though, Largo's involvement or lack thereof was academic.

There were only three people involved with the project of whom she spoke with any emotion at all. One was her sensei, an elderly Neo-Japanese who had begun teaching her several martial arts as soon as she could stand. He had been in the habit of whispering encouragement and praise to her in his native language, and though he was harsh and tough with her in the manner of sensei everywhere, he had also, unlike everyone else around her, recognized her as a child and a human being.

So the scientist in charge, a man named Rice, had used some kind of conditioned response trigger to induce her to murder him. Lesson: You are not a person, you are a weapon, and anyone who tells you otherwise will die by your own hand.

(Strangely, given that he was obviously the chief architect of all her misery, X-23 didn't seem to have any particular response to Rice himself. Perhaps his involvement was just too abstract for her damaged sense of self to take personally. That, Gryphon suspected, would change in time.)

Another was one of the lead scientists on the project, a geneticist named Kinney. She had never shown any particular warmth for the subject, or presumably the bosses would have had her killed as another object lesson, but she was the only one of the science team who ever seemed to care what happened to her to any extent. This often led her into subtle conflicts X-23 sensed, but only vaguely understood, with Dr. Rice, but Kinney evidently had always backed off when push came to shove, since she was still alive. It was a pretty sad state of affairs, Gryphon thought, when that was the best a person could expect to do in terms of anybody giving a damn.

Well, and a bit in spite of himself, now he gave a damn, and there were a bunch of people who were going to have cause to regret that he did. Particularly in light of what she'd told him about the third person.

After absorbing all that she had told him and contemplating it all for several silent minutes, he asked, "Listen... do you think you can find this facility again?"

"Of course," said X-23 without hesitation.

"Good. When we get out of here, I want you to show me the way there."

She looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Because I'm going to destroy it," he said flatly.

That only seemed to confuse her more. "... Why?" she eventually repeated.

Gryphon got to his feet, wincing only slightly, and turned back to the task of chopping the cables out of their way. "Because I can and somebody has to."

Wednesday - IPO Headquarters

Gryphon became aware that he had lost his audience. Skuld was staring at the console with a slowly deepening look of dismay on her face.

"Oh, no," she muttered, then started prodding switches and changing display modes. "No, no - dammit!"

"What's wrong?" Gryphon asked.

Skuld kept rechecking readings for a few more seconds, then seemed to stop herself toggling the displays with an act of will, steadied herself, and turned a look of mixed apology and alarm to him.

"It's... it's not going to work," she said, as if forcing the words out. "The immunosuppressants had no effect; her healing factor is killing the nanosurgeons. Flushing the foreign material from her system before it can adhere." She raked her fingers into her thick black hair, pressing on her forehead with the heels of both hands. "We'd have to overwhelm it before we'd ever get anything to stick." Scowling at him, she went on, "This is presumably something the original inventors of this process discovered for themselves. I hate repeating other engineers' mistakes." She sighed. "I'll have to completely re-think the process. Probably develop a whole new strain of nanos, and then only when I've doped out the exact mechanism by which her body's actually destroying them."

"How long?"

Skuld managed to crack a wry little smile as she replied, "I've got to figure out what's wrong first! It could be a problem with the liquid helium, or maybe the superconductors." She shook her head. "Days. Maybe weeks."

"Hmm." Gryphon scratched his chin. "What about magic?"

"Magic and adamantium don't get along very well," she told him. "I'm not sure it was specifically designed to be sorcery-resistant? But it is. Oh, I could do it, I'm a goddess after all, but it'd take so much research and experimentation we'd be better off just sticking to the technological route. That's completely uncharted sorcerous territory, and - you may remember this from the Ragnarok - when I improvise a big Working things tend to go in... unexpected directions." She sighed. "Of course, I could sub in adamantite, that takes magical direction just fine, but it'd probably kill her, because her healing factor isn't magical and adamantite is, um, not really meant to be taken internally. Ditto for uru, plus her bones would end up so heavy she wouldn't be able to move."

"Hmph," Gryphon said. "I have to admit I was sorely disappointed when I first learned that magic has rules. I always sort of assumed that was the whole point of it being magic."

Skuld smirked. "Yeah, welcome to my world right around when we first met." She glanced at another indicator. "The skilldump is finished, we'd better get her out of there." She clicked on the intercom and tried to make her voice bright. "Laura? Hey, sorry to get you all dressed up with nowhere to go, but this isn't... quite working like I was hoping it would. We're going to have to back on out of it and try again after I've had a chance to do a bit of a re-think."

Her question was the same as Gryphon's: "How long?"

"I don't know for sure," Skuld admitted. "I have to come up with a new breed of nanosurgeons that can operate in your system. I should have realized you'd be so resistant to the ordinary kind. I'm sorry. It'll probably be a couple of weeks."

"That will not do," said Laura, her voice ever so slightly sharp.

Gryphon frowned and left the control room; after initiating the automed shutdown sequence, Skuld had to trot to catch up with him as he strode down the hall to the main lab door. Laura was sitting up on the edge of the table, rubbing at the side of her neck where the IV site had already healed, when he entered.

"Laura, what's - " he began, but she interrupted him.

"There is a fully documented procedure for completing the Weapon X process," she said. "I know you possess this data. You must be able to construct the apparatus with the resources you have here."

Gryphon blinked, at what she was implying and at her sudden vehemence. "Laura, the 'traditional' adamantium bonding process is torture," he protested. "The only person I know who's been through it barely survived, and he's the toughest SOB I know, which should tell you something. I wouldn't subject my worst enemy to something like that, much less you. Give Skuld a couple of weeks, she can - "

"I do not have a couple of weeks!" Laura snapped, nearly shouting.

Gryphon gazed silently at her for a second or two, then said softly, "OK. Laura. What the hell is going on?"

Laura hesitated for a moment, then met his eyes and said, "Kimura is about 24 hours behind me."

He blinked. "Huh. So she's not only still alive, she's found your trail after all these years. That's dedication." Then, smiling wryly, he went on, "I tell you what, though, this is the wrong town to be pursuing a vendetta in. I know people."

Laura shook her head. "No," she said firmly.

Gryphon sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that. You weren't even planning to tell me about her until we hit this little snag, were you?" She shook her head. "I have to say that hurts a little."

"I am sorry. I thought if I told you, you would mobilize your forces against her... and I must do this myself." She put a hand on his arm. "You know that."

Gryphon rubbed a hand down his face, nodding reluctantly. "And you really think this is the way you want to play it?"

"I have never defeated her incomplete."

He shook his head. "I don't like it. I mean I really don't like it."

Laura moved her hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye, and said in a gentler voice, "You do not have to like it."

Gryphon looked back at her for a few moments, then sighed again, patted her hand, and turned to Skuld.

"You'll find the specs in my personal files," he told her. "Tell Vision I said to let you have the whole X-23 archive. The equipment shouldn't be that hard to put together... it's not exactly what you would call sophisticated. Have it ready as fast as you can. I need to make some calls."

Skuld didn't know quite what was going on, but she knew him well enough to spot how troubled he was by the situation. "Ben, I - "

"I'll take full responsibility," he said, then turned to leave the room. "Just build it."

2335: Omega

One of the good things about the general frontiertown semi-lawlessness of Omega was that there was no shortage of places for an enterprising outlaw to hole up and heal. Once they got out of the ruined underlevels and back to what passed for civilization, Gryphon and his unexpected companion found sketchy but acceptably clean lodgings in the kind of resblock that rented cubicles by the hour, day, or week. Judging by the sneer on the clerk's face when she saw X-23, she was expecting the visit to be one of the hourly variety, despite the fact that Gryphon had paid for a week.

After a shower, a large pepperoni pizza, a long sleep, and some fresh clothes (in that order), Gryphon set to work modifying the stellarcomm terminal in the room so that it a) worked again and b) didn't leave the usual sorts of forensic data traces, then made a call.

The person who answered the call was a leonine-looking man with bushy sidewhiskers and old-fashioned clothes to match. "Creed speaking," he said.

"Victor. It's Gryphon."

Victor Creed's face brightened. "Good to hear from you, my friend. What can I do for you?"

"For me, directly, nothing this time. I want you to meet a friend of mine." He gestured X-23 into the field of view beside him. "Does she look familiar?"

Creed gave her a thoughtful look and then said, "No, I can't say that she does."

Gryphon nodded to the girl; she held up her hands and deployed her claws. "How about now?" he asked.

Victor's golden eyes widened. "Oh my," he said. Then, shaking his head, he asked rhetorically, "Where does Thomas find the time?"

"I don't think he was involved in the conventional sense," Gryphon said. "In fact, chances are he doesn't know she exists, which I think we should do everything we can to prolong, don't you?"

"Quite."

"Anyway. She and I are planning to go do something... messy, soon."

"Do you require assistance?"

Gryphon shook his head. "I wouldn't say no, but that's not why I called. I don't think there's time for you to get here anyway. It's just that when we're done she's going to need a place to go. Obviously she can't come with me."

Creed drew himself up grandly and declared, "Benjamin, in my wilder days, as you well know, I was a notorious rakehell; since, I have spent rather a lot of time and energy and personal reserves to make good what I despoiled." With a courtly gesture, he went on, "If this young lady requires sanctuary from my former friend, or indeed the galaxy at large, be assured that I give it freely and unreservedly. Once you've finished your errand, come here and I shall give what succour I can to you both."

Gryphon nodded. "Thanks, Victor. We'll see you soon."

"Good luck, my friend."

"Thanks. See you." Gryphon switched off and turned to the girl. "You don't have to come all the way with me," he told her. "Once you point me in the right direction, as far as I'm concerned, you can head for New Snowdonia. Victor will take care of you."

"But you will still attack the Facility."

He got out his katana and started giving the edge a final honing. "That's my aim," he agreed.

"Alone."

"If need be."

X-23 shook her head. "I will go with you," she said. "I know the layout."

"If you're sure," he said. "I'm doing this because I have to. It's... it's in my dharma to fight people like the ones who made you. But you... you can be done with fighting, if you want, right now. Leave it all behind."

She thought about it for a second, then said, "It is all I know."

He smiled grimly. "I know that feeling."

Then, rising, he picked up Ryû-no-tsume's scabbard and began sheathing the sword. "The Klingon thought admirals teach us that revenge is a dish that is best served cold. In this case, I say... " The blade slid home with a final decisive click. "... nah." He put on his new coat, hung the sword on the strap he'd sewn inside for it, secured his other sword on the other side, and then turned a dark little grin to his companion.

"Let's ride," he said.

Wednesday: IPO Headquarters

Geoff Depew arrived in the Enrichment Center to find Gryphon looking pensive and discontent, just barely not pacing up and down. A good-looking young woman stood over in the corner, arms folded; her green eyes flicked to Geoff and gave him what his instincts told him was a very professional once-over when he entered, and she nodded cordially, but did not speak.

"You called, O Chief?" he asked.

Gryphon nodded. "Thanks for coming," he said. "First things first: I want you to meet an old friend of mine." He didn't add, as he usually felt he had to when introducing women he knew to Geoff, "not in that way," but something in the air in here made the younger man think this was not the time to make that joke, so he kept silent as Gryphon went on, "Laura Kinney; Lensman Geoff Depew, SA1."

"Hello," said Laura quietly.

"Charmed," said Geoff automatically. The part of his mind that was forever making these judgment calls, whether he wanted them on file or not, decided she was at least a Class B threat. Also that, though (or possibly because) she was making no effort to be so, she actually was rather charming.

"We've got a situation developing in town that may turn into full-blown craziness by midday tomorrow," Gryphon said. "I've got Lu handling all the official angles... "

"... but you need someone to look after a few unofficial ones." Geoff smiled. "I can do that. What's going on?" He turned and looked through the control room window into the lab itself. Skuld, a small team of technicians, and a ceiling-track-mounted AI core were in there, clustered around the automed table and deeply involved in the process of converting it into...

"... what the crap?" Geoff murmured.

"I assume Logan's told you about his less obvious bionic augmentations?" Gryphon asked.

Geoff nodded. "The bone reinforcements? Yeah."

Gryphon gestured. "Well, that's our version of the machine they did it with."

Geoff looked again, blinked, and turned back to the Chief. "He also told me it wasn't a lot of fun."

Gryphon chuckled mirthlessly. "Understatement of the month."

"Then what - "

"It is for me," Laura said. "Excuse me. I think Dr. Ravenhair is ready for me again."

Geoff watched her leave the room, then turned to Gryphon and said, "It's for her?"

"It's a long story," Gryphon said. "She has the same innate healing factor as Logan, and she's had similar claws for years. Now we're finishing the job... at her insistence. An old 'friend' of us both is coming to town, and... " He sighed. "Laura wants - needs - to deal with her alone. Completing the Weapon X process gives her the best chance of surviving. What I want from you is to get hold of everyone you can round up from Class A and have them ready to contain. SAs 1, 7, 11, and anyone from Zero who can plausibly show up without going overt, all need to be on full standby."

Geoff knew full well that the Chief could have arranged all that himself in less time than it took him, Geoff, to ride the elevator down to this sublevel and walk down the hall. He wondered what message the man was trying to send to him, the SA contingent, or both by having it done this way. The thought made him smirk slightly at himself. The day he could second-guess all the boss's motivations was the day he declared himself president for life.

He nodded. "I'm on it." He turned away to start concentrating on all the calls he had to make; as he did so, he caught sight through the window of Skuld strapping Laura into the frame of the frightening contraption the automed had become. The thought of what she was about to experience sobered him, making him turn back to Gryphon and ask, "Is she going to be OK?"

"I don't know," Gryphon replied honestly.

"Are you?" Geoff asked, catching the tone of slightly desperate control in his voice.

"I don't know," he repeated. Then, sitting down in one of the console chairs, he swiveled to face the younger man and went on, "I'm about to sanction something that goes against a good many of my principles. We're supposed to be the good guys, Geoff." Gesturing toward the fearsome engine into which Skuld was securing his friend, he added, "We don't torture people to create human superweapons. That's villain crap."

Geoff considered that, for a moment, then asked, "Is there any other option, at all, that lets you get this done in the timeframe you have to work with?" Before Gryphon could answer, he went on, "Because if the answer is no, and she understands the situation and has given her consent to doing it the hard way... if there's no other choice for letting her do what she needs to do... " He shrugged. "Then speaking as another human superweapon experiment - as somebody who's been there - I say, do what you did with me, Gryphon: the best you know how, to help out when it's all over."

Gryphon blinked - it was the first time he could recall that Geoff had ever called him anything other than "Chief" or "sir" - and then nodded. "Thanks," he said. "I know it has to be done. Or at least that she believes it does, which is good enough. It just... leaves a bad taste." He sighed. "But you're right. It's her call. I just have to be ready to pick up the pieces."

Geoff nodded. "For what it's worth," he said, "you're good at that." He turned away again, thought of one more thing, and looked back. "Oh, and speaking from experience? It'd be nice if you were in there when it goes down. I'd have given everything I had, which admittedly wasn't much, to have anybody in the room who gave a damn when the same kind of thing happened to me."

Gryphon got up from his seat. "Yeah. Good idea, Geoff." He met Skuld in the doorway, pausing to let her enter and then lingering while she took her seat at the control console.

"Just for the record," she said without looking at him, "I would not only not do this for anyone but you, if you had asked me to do it to anyone else I'd have laughed in your face. And probably punched you."

"And you'd have been right," he said. "But Laura's special."

Skuld nodded. "I could see that right away," she said.

They made silent eye contact for a second; then Gryphon left the control room, went down the hall, and entered the lab.

/* Valve Software
"4000 Degrees Kelvin"
The Orange Box (2007) */

Stripped to her underwear and adorned with Sharpied alignment marks along the lines of all her long bones, Laura was strapped flat on her back to what had once been the automed table, and now more resembled the working space of some demented horror-movie dentist. She was surrounded by a small forest of articulated arms, each bearing what looked for all the world like a power drill. The technicians had all cleared out before Skuld had prepped her; only the glowing eyeball of Wheatley remained in the room, silently observing from his track on the ceiling.

"OK," Skuld's voice said from the intercom. "Anomalous Materials just confirmed that the adamantium supply is primed and ready. It's just about showtime. Not too late call the whole thing off, though."

"Don't worry!" Wheatley assured Laura earnestly. "It's a standard human neurophysical response not to retain direct memory of really, really intense pain, the kind you're about to experience, once it's stopped. If you survive the process itself, you should be perfectly fine in six to eight weeks!"

"Wheatley," Skuld snapped. "Opposite of helping. We've talked about this."

The AI core tilted downward, managing to look surprisingly abashed for a basketball-sized, disembodied metal eyeball. "Sorry."

"Go down to Sublevel D and make sure the feedlines from AM Central stay stable."

"Right-o. Uh, well... goodbye then! Good luck! I hope you don't die!" Wheatley declared, then slid sideways on his track and through a wall hatch out of the room.

There was a brief pause.

"I'm sorry about that," Skuld said. "He's a prototype."

"I understand," replied Laura with a faint smile. It disappeared as she looked up at the gleaming teeth of the apparatus, the faintest flicker of fear stirring in her eyes; then she seemed to turn inward, centering herself in a manner that was very familiar to one with Gryphon's training and experience, and was perfectly calm again.

"I am ready," she said.

"OK. You'd better get clear, Ben."

Gryphon reached out and placed his hand briefly on Laura's forehead, smiling, then said, "I'll be right over there."

She nodded. "Thank you."

"Good luck." He walked to the side of the room, outside the safety perimeter quickly but carefully taped on the floor by one of the technicians, and stood where she could easily see him if she wanted to.

"Here we go," Skuld announced. "Powering up containment and cooling fields... now." The air around the apparatus rippled, acquiring a faintly bluish cast out to the perimeter tape. "Looks good. Verifying final injector positioning." With a faint whir, the arms swung inward, laser-aligning their points with the alignment marks Skuld had made on Laura's skin, then stopped just short of touching her.

"Last chance," Skuld said.

"Do it," Laura replied without hesitation.

"Pater, ne in me irrumabo," Skuld murmured, and then, in a clear voice, "Injection sequence start in three. Two. One."

2335: Omega

/* Cavo
"Thick as Thieves"
Thick as Thieves (2012) */

The night shift security personnel were a bit surprised to see the rolling steel door in the Deployment Center start to open for no reason, and a bit more when it revealed two people standing there in the doorway, just as plain as you please. They were more surprised still when they saw that one of those people was their department's most recent target, the man who had been poking into all the dark places of the Terminus lately, investigating the rumors of X-23.

But all of that was basically just a warmup for the deep, reverberating shock they felt when they realized that the person with him was X-23.

They had nearly a half-second to ponder that before the man drew his swords, the girl's claws came out, and the killing started.

Neither she nor I bothered trying to stop anyone from sounding the alarm. Indeed, getting the alarm sounded was rather the point of the exercise. If we had wanted to infiltrate the Facility without being detected, we would've done. Drawing the biggest possible security response was the whole idea.

The nice thing about GENOM black ops outfits, from the standpoint of a person semi-obsessed with revenge, was that they generally didn't HAVE noncombatants. As a rule, the science teams were always armed and aggro just like the security goons. No inconvenient ethical quandaries or innocent bystanders there.

Well, in this case one, for some values of "innocent"; but I had that handled, or so I thought.

Fighting against each other, Gryphon and X-23 had managed to carve a pretty impressive path of collateral destruction across part of the Fourth District. Pursuing a common goal, they ripped through the Facility like a tornado through a trailer park. Each always seemed to be exactly where the other's tactical needs required, sensing each other's moves cooperatively as readily as they'd done it while opposed. Security officers, tactical troopers, armed criminal scientists, and embedded combat boomers fell before them like grain.

More than once during the fifteen minutes or so of furious combat that followed, Gryphon caught himself regretting that he and this unearthly child would have to part company when they were finished here. Under other, better circumstances, she would have made an almost ideal apprentice. Her spirit was muted, pushed into a corner by all that had been done to her in her short life, but he knew it was in there, and that it was strong, and he felt a certain kinship with it. They were both strangers in a strange land, out of place in the savage garden of the 24th century. Something Raoul Duke had once said about an old friend of his, and later applied to the WDF's founders, came to mind: We're high-powered mutants of a kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die.

During a lull in the action, when they had temporarily run out of tactical troopers to fight and were making their way through the evidently deserted central resblock area, he considered the situation. He suspected that, if he asked her, X-23 actually would go with him, but even as he had the thought he knew that he could never do it. Drag a child - even one as peculiar as this - into the maelstrom that was his life nowadays? That would make him no better than the monsters who made her in the first place. No, she would be far, far better off on New Snowdonia with Victor. He'd give her a life. All Gryphon could possibly offer was a different series of perilous emergencies. A kinder, gentler exploitation, but exploitation all the same.

"Wait here," he said, and left her standing watch in the main corridor while he went down one of the branch hallways, following careful directions she'd given him before they arrived. His destination's outer door stood partly open, its lock panel broken. With a sense of danger and foreboding fizzing across his nerve endings, he slipped inside.

/* Looking Glass Studios
"MedSci 1: Science Sector"
System Shock 2 (1999) */

"Dr. Kinney?" he called softly. "Sarah? Are you here? I've come to get you - " He trailed off as he rounded the end of a built-in sofa and discovered that Dr. Sarah Kinney was indeed at home, but that she wasn't going to answer him. "... out."

Feeling time pressing, he knelt by the body and quickly checked for some indication of what had happened to her. That wasn't hard to work out; he might not have had much formal medical training, but he knew a broken neck when he touched one.

"Damn," Gryphon said. He straightened up and was about to leave when he noticed something in one of the dead woman's outstretched hands. Bending again, he gently prised her fingers away from what they held. It was a data solid of the kind used by most consumer-grade computer consoles these days. She hadn't been dead long enough for rigor to set in; she must have had a literal deathgrip on the module, which meant it had to have been important to her. He tucked it away inside his coat, took a moment to pay her a silent respect, then turned and left the room.

"Let's go," he said, rejoining X-23 in the main corridor.

"Where is Dr. Kinney?" X-23 asked.

"She's not coming," Gryphon said tersely. She understood at once, of course; such things were part of the regular rules of the world she lived in. If she had any feelings about the news, she kept them, as always, to herself. Neither one had time for them right now anyway.

They were deep in the Facility now, on what X-23's mental floorplan said was the administrative level - located near the bottom, rather than the top as it would probably have been in a normal office complex. They had to deal with one more security hardpoint, a fortified choke point in the hallway network leading into the central office area. This was the work of no more than a couple of minutes. The security setup in this place, Gryphon had noticed, was configured with the expectation that attackers would be conventional paramilitary types with ranged weapons. Against a swordsman and someone who was essentially armed with chef's knives, the confined spaces of the corridor chokepoints and barricade areas hampered the defenders much more.

After the noise and flash of the checkpoint battle, the halls of the admin area were eerily silent and dark. X-23, with her superior - indeed, unlike Gryphon's, extant - knowledge of the layout, had taken point as the two penetrated the dark heart of the Facility. Suddenly, within sight of some kind of central atrium, she paused, quietly but intently sniffing the air -

- then turned, her right hand's claws flashing out, and struck at the external controls of the door to her right. It opened to reveal a sandy-haired man in a lab coat, a blaster pistol in his hand; he had evidently been waiting for them to pass, intending to ambush them from behind. With an inarticulate curse at having been discovered, he raised his blaster. He got off a single shot, striking X-23 in the shoulder and knocking her down, then stepped out of the room he'd been hiding in and leveled the weapon at her head.

"Little monster," he said, with a sneer that was almost a parody of affection somehow. "Now that Kinney's been dealt with, you're my last loose end. This project is a complete wash, but we can always start again somewhere else. Maybe X-24 will be a little more stable."

Ah. Dr. Rice, I presume, thought Gryphon, edging forward. He was musing abstractly about how pleasant it was going to be to take the man's arm off at the elbow - Rice had completely failed to notice that X-23 was not alone - when he saw her eyes first go flat as slate, then widen ever so slightly, nostrils flaring minutely below.

She offered no comment on the prospect of X-24's stability. Instead she brought her left foot up and across, neatly slicing the blaster in two with the claw protruding from the toecap of her boot. Rice recoiled, swearing and grabbing at his hand, as his trigger finger fell with the gun's remains to the floor.

X-23 sprang to her feet and stood over him for a moment as he crumpled to his knees, cursing her. Gryphon stood silent and waited to see what she would do. What she did, after regarding the man most responsible for the ordeal her life to date had been, was a rather peculiar thing.

She put her claws away and then precisely, methodically, furiously beat the tar out of him with her bare hands (and elbows, knees, and feet). A foot shorter and maybe half his weight, she nevertheless overmatched the man completely, deploying what Gryphon's practiced eye registered as parts of at least four martial arts in the single-minded pursuit of causing Doctor Zander Rice to experience as much pain and debility as she had time to inflict upon him. This was not a teenager's tantrum, all flying fists and incoherent rage; this was payback, grown-up, fully considered, and administered with excellent technique. It was the kind of workover a man could expect from a renegade ninja whose clan he had wronged in a Tomodachi film noir.

Gryphon smiled faintly and darkly. Guess I was wrong about her not being able to take it personally yet, he thought.

At length, she stood over Rice, blood dripping from her knuckles, breathing hard, her fury not spent but possibly sated for the moment. He lay face-down on the floor, a broken doll, groaning and wheezing but evidently not mortally damaged.

"Feel better?" Gryphon asked mildly, advancing until he stood next to her.

"Much," X-23 replied.

"Shall we?" he asked, gesturing onward into the facility.

She nodded. "Yes."

"Planning to finish him?"

X-23 gave the huddled mass a disdainful look, then turned away and said, "Not worth it," before striding off down the corridor.

Gryphon watched her go until she'd rounded the corner and disappeared. Then he crouched next to the bloodied, battered scientist and almost casually flopped him onto his back.

"heh... she couldn't do it," Rice rasped, still managing to muster a faint smirk even under the circumstances.

"She's welcome to her opinion," Gryphon said, and then he plunged the short blade of Kankiri, his tanto, squarely into the middle of Rice's chest.

"Me, on the other hand," he went on as the man gave one startled, gargling cry and expired, "I say guys like you are always worth it."

That's a very direct way of dealing with evil.

It was the 2330s. "Get your murder on" was my default response to people like him back then. I mean, viz. what we had done just to get that far. To be brutally honest, it was in many ways a lot more satisfying than due process, but don't quote me.

Hey, I didn't say it disapprovingly. Remember who you're talking to here. She-Who-Severs says "hell yeah" to that guy taking the express elevator to Muspelheim.

No pun intended.

"Now I'll just loot your body, 'cause that's how I roll..." Gryphon mumbled under his breath to the dead man, rifling his pockets for access cards and a credit module that displayed a startling balance when queried; then he retrieved his weapon, cleaned it, and went on his way.

X-23 was waiting for him around the corner. The look she gave him as he appeared made it plain that she knew exactly what he'd just done - with her senses, she could hardly have failed to hear it, nor to smell the fresh blood on him - but she made no comment as she led the way toward their final objective.

By this point, the troopers and boomers had stopped coming. Once beyond the now-deserted admin area, they were nearing the control vault for the central reactor. This was on the lowest, or outermost, level of the base. The reactor core itself, as such things often were on Omega, was mounted outside the pressure hull.

As they entered the long hallway leading to the control vault, they saw a single figure standing between them and the door. By Gryphon's side, X-23 palpably stiffened at the sight of her, a spark of real fear coming into her eyes. Gryphon, sizing up the opposition, understood why.

This was the third person to elicit any emotion in X-23's explanation of her life. A brawnily built, dark-skinned woman with an air of casual menace, she wore a lazily cruel expression as she took a couple of steps toward them.

Not content with isolating Laura from all traces of human warmth and kindness, and forcing her to murder anyone who broke that isolation herself, the warped geniuses of the Facility decided to go one better. They found a pathologically abusive headcase named Kimura, managed to make her effectively invulnerable - a nifty science trick that I would have thought could've been put to better use - and then tasked her with terrorizing and brutalizing the girl whenever possible. Mainly that took the form of setting Laura impossible tasks and then beating her savagely when she inevitably failed to accomplish them, then beating her again for fighting back, even when she hadn't - all the while explaining cheerfully how and why she deserved all that and worse.

I hated her with an incandescence that was remarkable even for that period in my life, and until that moment I'd only ever heard her described. As for Laura... in those days she was the only thing in the galaxy, as far as I know, that Laura feared. The trace of fear she'd shown during her fight with me was because her claws couldn't cut my swords - a trait she'd only ever encountered before when being tortured by Kimura.

And now here she was. We knew that would probably happen. We'd talked about it while we planned the op, but there wasn't a lot of time to prepare. I had a plan that I thought stood a decent chance of working. I just hoped X-23, as I still knew her then, would be able to hold it together in the face of her own, literal, personal childhood monster. To be fair, I'm not at all sure I could have in her place.

"You know," Kimura remarked, "when they woke me up and told me what was going on upstairs, I thought they were messin' with me. I really did. No way, I said, no way is even the clone stupid enough to come back here after blowing a mission, much less come back and start tearing up the place." She shrugged. "Shows you what I know, huh?" She shook her head. "You know what? I think I'm really going to have to kill you this time."

"I am not afraid of you," said X-23, audibly striving to make her voice as cold as she could.

"Yeah, you are," Kimura replied casually, and all three knew she was right. Gryphon could almost hear X-23 trembling beside him.

Kimura turned her eyes to him. They were flat, lusterless, like a shark's or a snake's. "Who's your friend?" she asked in a repellent parody of a friendly, chatty tone. "He's kind of cute. Who knew you were such a fast worker, clone?"

Given her life experiences at this point, X-23 had no idea what Kimura was getting at with the "fast worker" remark. Neither did she understand the principles of the limbic fight-or-flight response in mammals. In that moment, she knew only that she had just gone from the most satisfied she'd ever been in her life to the least, she was trapped in a confined space with her nemesis, the world had gone red at the edges, and the only way out was through. She dimly registered Gryphon's voice calling for her to stick to the plan, but by that point, he might as well have been shouting in Aramaic.

/* Bad Religion
"Incomplete"
Stranger than Fiction (1994) */

Before I could so much as move, X-23 had launched herself down that narrow corridor like a rifle bullet, the claws on her feet gouging deep furrows in the deck plating as she sprinted headlong into battle against a foe against whom her weapons were useless.

One of the things that struck me about Laura almost from the very first, before I even knew her name, was this: There is no give-up in her at all. Not even the trace amount you find in the conventionally psychotic. If you broke every bone in her body but one, she would keep trying to hit you with that one. I know that because I pretty much saw that exact thing happen.

It seemed like several minutes, but couldn't possibly have been, because I wouldn't just stand around sucking my thumb for several minutes while some invulnerable, sadistic 'roid freak beat a friend into a scarlet paste. The plan was out the window and I knew I wouldn't fare any better if I launched my own frontal attack. I knew a technique that would probably avail me against Kimura's supposedly impenetrable skin - I wouldn't have been able to call myself a Katsujinkenryû master otherwise - but in those days it was doubtful whether I could have concentrated enough to pull it off under these conditions.

So I improvised.

Gryphon expected his blasterfire to have only one effect, and he was not disappointed. It got Kimura's attention.

Smirking, she tossed the limp and bloody form of her erstwhile opponent aside. "Hey, man, if you don't wanna wait your turn, that's cool," she said, advancing toward him. "I mean, I can always beat the clone to death later."

Gryphon let her come halfway up the corridor, then set to work. Jacking the power levels of his Bryars to full, he sprang into motion, laying down a blanket of fire that filled the hallway with blinding light and the scorched smell of ozone and burned thermocoat. Using all the focus and mobility he could muster, he stayed just ahead of her, dodging every attempt she made to grab or punch him, and kept shooting until both blasters overheated and went automatically into cooldown mode. By the time he was finished, they had almost completely exchanged positions so that he was next to his fallen companion - already trying unsuccessfully to rise on broken limbs - and Kimura was halfway back to the entrance.

Waving aside smoke, Kimura crowed, "Holy cow, are you a bad shot. Not that it would've done you any good if you had, but you didn't even hit me once."

Gryphon gave her an ice-cold smile.

"I wasn't shooting at you," he said, then holstered his right-hand blaster and pointed downward. Kimura looked down to find the deckplates beneath her feet pitted, scarred, heat-warped, and creaking - and then, under the pinging sound of overheated metal, she registered a faint but growing, high-pitched, hissing squeal.

"You son of a - " she said, but just then Gryphon's left-hand blaster clicked back online and he pumped one last shot into the floor at her feet.

With that last insult, the whole warped and pitted area gave a tortured screech and then burst outward, evacuating the area immediately above it into space. In an eyeblink, Kimura was gone as if she'd never existed.

Holstering his blasters, Gryphon threw himself to the floor, flinging an arm over X-23's huddled form. The outrushing atmosphere clawed at them, making the tails of his coat whip forward over his head; he drove Kankiri into the deck and hung on with all his might.

Four seconds later, emergency bulkheads clanged down on either side of the breach, isolating it, and the wind ceased instantly. Raising his head, Gryphon yawned to pop his ears, then clambered to his feet and went to the little viewport in the bulkhead to have a look at the vented section. Empty. Nobody hanging onto the jagged edges of the breach. Nothing, really, to hang onto there anyway.

"Well," he muttered, "that ought to hold you for a while," and then he turned back to kneel by X-23.

"Easy there, slugger," he said gently, putting a hand to her forehead.

Wednesday: IPO Headquarters

"Easy there, slugger," he said gently, putting a hand to her forehead.

Laura's jade eyes flickered open. "Benjamin?"

"I'm right here. Take it slow. You just took a helluva ride."

She tried to sit up, then let herself flop back into bed. "This is not the lab," she observed.

Gryphon shook his head. "No, it's Recovery 1." Gesturing to the bedclothes and pillows, as well as the generally homier and less clinical decor of the room, he added with a smile, "More comfortable."

"The procedure... ?"

"A complete success, as far as we can tell right now," said Skuld from the doorway. "You blacked out at around 85%, which is not that surprising given that your body temperature hit 115 degrees and your heart rate topped 300 BPM right about then. By rights you should be dead about six different ways. Still, I want to observe things for a little while. You need rest anyway. We pushed even your system right to the edge of the envelope tonight."

Laura shook her head and tried to rise. "I have to prepare - "

"Relax, Laura," said Gryphon, pushing her gently back down by one shoulder. "I've got my people on full alert. We'll know when she enters the city, and then we can get excited. For now, get some sleep."

She looked like she might protest further for a moment, but then subsided, perhaps realizing how tired she was.

"All right," she said, "but tell me the moment she arrives."

He nodded. "I will. I told you, I understand what this all means to you. I wouldn't have done what we just did otherwise, even if you insisted on it. You have my word, my people and I won't interfere. Just let us be your eyes for the moment." He bent and kissed her forehead. "Rest."

"I will." As he straightened to go, she reached up, took his hand for a moment, then let it go. "Thank you."

Gryphon nodded and left the recovery room. As soon as he was in the hall with the door closed behind him, he sagged visibly, trudged to a couch along the opposite wall, and threw himself into it, dragging his hands down his face.

"I never want to see that happen to another person as long as I live," he said. "Destroy that goddamned machine."

"Already done," Skuld said. She sat down next to him, a hand on his arm. "It was scrap before she got down here."

"Good." He sat fully back, face upturned to the ceiling, and let out a huge sigh. "Monsters. Monsters."

"That they were, old friend," a voice agreed, and Gryphon lifted and turned his head to see Victor Creed approaching down the hall, followed closely by Geoff Depew.

"Victor!" he said, surprised. Dragging himself out of the couch, he went to have his forearm clasped, then asked, "How did you get here so fast?"

"Your organization saw fit to spare no expense on my behalf, for which I am profoundly grateful." Creed turned to Skuld, his leonine face breaking into a winning, slightly fangy smile. "You can be none other than the famous Dr. Skuld Ravenhair. I must say your universal reputation for beauty and brilliance is now revealed to have been naught but the palest intimation of the truth." He bowed deeply, kissed her hand, and said, "Sir Victor Creed, Baronet Creedmanse of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, your servant, madam."

Skuld went slightly pink, but she'd learned court manners in Asgard, so she didn't falter as she replied, "The pleasure is mine, Sir Victor. Welcome to the Enrichment Center."

"Thank you very kindly." Turning back to Gryphon, Creed asked, "I trust the procedure went well?"

"As well as can be expected. She's pretty well wrung out. We've got her resting right now. You can go say hello if you like, but I want her to stay in bed for at least the next six hours."

Creed nodded. "I shan't disturb her, then. Enough for now that I know she's recovering." His golden eyes twinkling with a not altogether pleasant animation, he went on, "Now. Pray, what are we doing about the miserable harridan who has driven her to this reckless extremity?"

"There'll be a briefing in my situation room upstairs in 10 minutes," Gryphon told him. "I'll introduce you to the team and we'll get all the information we have out on the table."

"Fair enough. I shall await your convenience." He bowed once more, kissed Skuld's hand again, and swept off toward the elevators in a manner that reminded them both a bit of Lord Fahrvergnügen.

"Well," said Skuld when he'd gone. "He's an original."

"One of your dad's own prototypes," Gryphon agreed. "Geoff, how did you know to call Victor?"

"Remember when I went to New Snowdonia last August for that poetry competition?"

"Yeah. That seemed a bit odd for you."

Geoff shrugged. "Well, when you've got a personal invite from one of the nobility, it's bad form to turn it down. Anyway, he has a picture of her on his desk, and when I asked who she was he got a little misty and changed the subject. I assumed she was his daughter or something. When I saw her here, I called him and then the transport pool."

Gryphon smiled. "Well, good call, anyway. Is Logan here yet?"

"He and the Griffins just hit the lobby. I came to tell you that everybody's here who's coming."

"Right. Well, let's get this show on the road, then."

2335: Omega

Gryphon sat on the sofa in another, somewhat more substantial rented resblock on a higher, tonier level of Omega. Two hundred seventy-three million credits - a sum which, while substantial in its own right, had probably represented little more than the Facility's petty cash - could go pretty far even in a place like this.

In the corner of the room, the TV was running the evening newscast with the sound off. Under footage of a crew of maintenance droids securing a permanent hull patch over what had been the Facility's main entrance, a ticker crawl was saying, ... REACTOR MALFUNCTION DESTROYS ABANDONED 4TH DISTRICT UNDER-WARD... NO CASUALTIES REPORTED... Which was true as far as it went. Certainly nobody in the Facility had reported any casualties to what passed for the authorities around here.

By the time the modified reactor had flashed all the complex's EPS lines to plasma and gutted its interior spaces in a microsecond of incandescent glory, there was nobody alive in there anyway.

I wasn't really watching the TV; my attention was on the portable computer I'd set up on the coffee table. For the last six or so hours, I'd been completely engrossed in the contents of the data solid I found on the late Dr. Sarah Kinney.

It contained the complete specifications of Weapon X Mk 23, right down to the full sequence of her genome, as well as dossiers on a number of the key players in the project (Dr. Rice's, in particular, did nothing to cause me second thoughts about having dispatched the man), schematics for modifications that had not yet been performed, and mission development templates for use by operational planners.

None of that particularly surprised me. What surprised me was the cover letter, so to speak, that enclosed the whole package. This consisted of a video message recorded by Dr. Kinney herself: one in which, occasionally tearfully, she explained her role in the project. On her part, if her account was to be believed (and I suspected it could, for the most part), it was a classic story of good intentions gone wrong. I figured she was leaving out at least part of the story - surely she hadn't originally agreed to join such an effort thinking they were going to be doing good things for the galaxy at large, after all - but the woman who recorded the message was clearly at her wits' end with remorse and horror at what she had helped to happen.

She'd spent the last few hours of her life trying to make things right. She'd failed, and it could be argued that the effort was too little and far too late, but at least she'd made the attempt. I could respect that.

And if nothing else, at least she'd included in her message the name her daughter Laura had never known she had.

I'd watched the message three times and had it pretty well memorized before I stirred myself to close the viewer, eject the data solid from the computer, and pack both items away in my kit bag. We would have to move out as soon as Laura woke up.

(Kind of a weird feeling, knowing someone's name before she learns it herself.)

The chances were good that there were no loose ends from this operation - GENOM's black labs were usually so well-compartmented that there'd be no one else in the Terminus who even knew it was there. It'd take days, maybe even weeks, for the destruction of this lab to come to the attention of the company hierarchy.

There were other people, though, who would probably hear about it sooner, and I didn't want to be around if any of them came to investigate.

As he had the thought, he heard the familiar sound of the door being overridden. Grumbling internally about the ever-increasing efficiency of the universe's machinery for annoying him, he drew one of his blasters and positioned himself in a crouch behind the end of the sofa, out of the direct line of the doorway. A moment later the door opened and a single figure entered.

"You might as well come out," said Aria T'Loak calmly. "I know you're here, and if I wanted a throwdown we'd already be having it."

Gryphon straightened up, putting away the weapon. He knew Aria spoke the truth. She very generally did, which was a curious trait for an avowed underworld kingpin - but then, Aria was a collection of many curious traits, even for an asari crimeboss.

"Aria," he said with a cordial nod.

"Gryph," she replied, and then, without further preamble, "You want to tell me what you were up to in the Fourth Ward last night?"

Gryphon shrugged. "Well, you know me and GENOM."

"So it was a GENOM black facility. I had my suspicions, but they never did anything to make me curious enough to involve myself. Any loose ends?"

"Not as far as I know."

She gave him a skeptical look. "The front desk said you checked in with a young girl. Looked to be in pretty bad shape." Aria advanced a few paces into the room with a languid stride, settled herself on an arm of the couch, and said, "Now, I happen to know that getting your freak on with underage trinkets is not one of your usual kicks, and damaging the merchandise even less so. So I'm betting credits to kleinhuringar she's not your entertainment - she's involved in whatever's going on."

"Well," Gryphon replied with an ease that the look in his eyes belied, "far be it from me to bet against you in your own establishment, but... " He shook his head. "She's nothing you'd be interested in."

Aria arched a brow ridge. "Really."

"Really."

"I don't believe you."

Gryphon shrugged again. "That's not my problem."

Aria narrowed her eyes. "I can make it your problem."

"Let it go, Aria," Gryphon said. "She's a 15-year-old girl who's been tortured all her life. She's never even been allowed to learn her own name. You aren't heartless enough to exploit that, and even if you were, I wouldn't let you." He locked eyes with her and said coldly, "Go ahead and try me. Her makers did."

The air rippled faintly around Aria as she stood up and met his arctic stare; then she smirked, relaxing, and the effect faded away.

"You are such a soft touch," she said. "It'll get you killed one day."

"Maybe," Gryphon agreed. "But on the other hand, someday it might save me."

Aria laughed lightly. "Don't ever change, rescue ranger," she said. Then, in a slightly harder tone, she added, "And be off my station by 1630. The Crimson Lance knows you took something valuable from that lab, and they're going to come looking for it. I don't want another bloodbath this week."

Gryphon inclined his head, acknowledging the elegance with which Aria could phrase a warning as a threat to preserve her badass image of herself, and assured her that they would be long gone by then. With one final bit of posturing for form's sake - "You'd better!" - she took her leave. He finished packing up what few things he had out here, then went into the bedroom.

X-23 was sitting up in bed. All but the worst of the outward signs of her injuries had gone, and those which remained had faded. She still looked like she'd been in a car crash, but now an uninformed observer would have guessed that it had happened a month or so ago, or that she'd been in a fairly minor fistfight the day before.

"Good morning, Laura," he said, smiling. "You look a lot better than you did last night."

She gave him a puzzled look. "What did you call me?"

"Laura. It's your name," he explained.

"I have a name?"

"You do. You always have," Gryphon told her gently. "Dr. Kinney just wasn't allowed to tell you what it was."

X-23 - Laura - looked like she wasn't sure exactly how to take that on board. After a moment she seemed to give up trying for the moment in favor of observing, "Aria was here."

Gryphon nodded. "She was."

"You nearly fought her."

"Nah," he said with a dismissive wave. "Her heart wasn't in it. She just had to make the gesture." He went into the bathroom and started gathering things up. "Can you walk? We need to get gone."

She got carefully out of bed, testing the soundness of her limbs, then reported, "I can walk."

"Good."

By the time Gryphon emerged from the bathroom and stuffed his washbag into its pocket on the end of his duffel, she had dressed in the unobtrusive civvies he'd acquired for her and was slowly, methodically lacing up her boots. Her fingers were still stiff and obviously a little painful, but she got the job done, then straightened with nary a wince and reported herself ready to go.

Checkout, the first of the three potential crisis points in their exfil plan, went without a hitch; so did the ride on the Omega internal transit system to the docking ring. As they approached the ring, though, gaining access to it looked like it might become the problem of the day. A squad of Crimson Lance troopers had set up an impromptu security checkpoint at the docking ring companionway and were checking everyone's documents.

"Uh-oh," Gryphon muttered. "This could get awkward."

"I will handle it," said Laura. Before he could stop her, she'd broken away from him and headed straight for the checkpoint. For a second, Gryphon thought she was going to attack them, which was straightforward enough, he supposed, but not very advisable...

... until he realized that, two strides away from him and just before the Crimson Lancers noticed her, her body language had abruptly transformed into the stiff-legged, fists-clenched carriage of a very angry teenager.

"Are you guys the law in this hellhole?" she demanded of the Lancers.

"... What?" the one with sergeant's stripes replied.

"I said are you guys the law in this hellhole," Laura snapped. her voice full of teenage disdain. "Gawd. Take your head outta that bucket and listen if you can't do it from in there."

"What?" the sergeant said again.

"I'm only asking 'cause well look at me," Laura went on, gesturing expansively. "I mean stuff like this isn't supposed to happen on the upper levels, amirite? But noooo, I go out dancing last night and the next thing I know these three goganger punks are kickin' the stang outta me and so long to my bag. If Daddy hadn't shown up when he did, I'd be chained to some Hutt's throne by now. As it is I gotta explain to the government back on Earth what happened to my passport. I mean do you guys have some kind of deal with the Revnoks where you just let them pull that crap or were you just all too busy down the donut shop?"

"Uhhh... " the sergeant replied, too confused by all this to speak. People didn't talk to members of the Crimson Lance that way on Omega, not unless they were Eclipsers or Blue Suns looking for a firefight.

"Oh for - what planet are you from?!" Laura asked.

Behind the now-completely-flummoxed sergeant, his three subordinates were struggling not to laugh as their superior was faced off by this tiny, bruised, and toweringly pissed off tourist girl.

"What?!" the sergeant said.

Laura put on an obviously fake look of puzzlement. "Really! I never heard of Planet What." Then, in a voice that carried clearly to the other end of the concourse, she demanded, "Do they speak Standard on What?"

"I - " the sergeant said.

"Oh, for Zarquon's sake. I'm done with you," Laura said, and, shoving him aside, she marched between his giggling subordinates and past the checkpoint into the docking ring. "Come on, Daddy," she barked over her shoulder.

"Uh... sorry about that," Gryphon said as he eased past the sputtering sergeant. "Gets it from her Uncle Tom. Wait up, sweetheart!" he added in a harried-dad voice, trotting after Laura.

She maintained the same agitated-princess body language until they rounded the corner out of sight of the concourse, then - as if a switch had been thrown - instantly reverted to her usual quiet, self-contained mien.

"OK, that was pretty amazing," Gryphon acknowledged as he fell in beside her.

"Infiltration tradecraft," she replied matter-of-factly in her normal voice. "That was a variation on strategy number 16 for gaining entry to a Quinceañera without an invitation."

By the time the Lancers sorted themselves out from that little experience, we were aboard a shorthopper to Barca. From there we caught a Cunard-Salusian longliner to New Snowdonia.

Victor was hospitality itself, as ever, opening his home and his enormous heart to Laura in a way that warmed what was left of mine. She was extremely wary of him at first, but no one - not even an ex-weapon with extensive training in faking social interactions but absolutely no experience of actually having them - can stay wary of Victor for long. It took a little while for it to sink in that she wasn't expected to kill anyone - not being stockpiled or trained for some new mission; that she was out from under, free and clear, and at large in a galaxy that, quite frankly, owed her some good times.

I stayed for nearly a month, which was a day or two longer than I dared. New Snowdonia was out at the arse-end of the Crown Colonies, but it was still in the Rigel sector - one of the Core Sectors - and even as secure and isolated as Creedmoor was, it was only a matter of time before somebody got suspicious and word started getting around to people I didn't want to find me here.

I thought to slip out unnoticed in the night, but I really should have known better by then.

"You are leaving," Laura said, her voice quiet but accusing, in the empty great hall of Victor Creed's country mansion.

"I have to," Gryphon told her. "I've already stayed too long. It's not safe. People are hunting me."

"Let them come," she said, her jade eyes flashing.

He shook his head, smiling sadly. "That wouldn't be a very good way of repaying Victor for his hospitality, would it? Besides, I have to get back to work. My name isn't going to clear itself."

"Then I will come with you."

"I wish I could let you," Gryphon said. "I really do. But it's not your fight. Nothing's your fight any more. After all we went through to get you this far, do you think I could do that to you?"

"I... " Laura hesitated, as if surprised to find within herself a genuine desire to define a course of action; then she said, "I want it to be my fight."

I considered it.

I genuinely did, gods help me, and I won't deny it. Because she was such a fierce little creature; because she'd never actually wanted anything before in her life and I hated to have to deny her; because she was handy in a fight and I knew we worked well together; because she would have been the greatest apprentice any Asagiri Katusjinkenryû master had ever had. Because I'd gotten used to having her around and I would miss her. Because I knew she could handle the ride if I let her buy the ticket.

But even as I did, I remembered picturing it during the battle in the Facility and knowing then that I could never do it. That I'd be no better than Rice and his cronies if I took her away from this safe haven and made her my weapon, even if she thought she wanted me to.

Twenty years later, before Goodyear, I'd have done it anyway.

On that day I still had enough of a heart left in me to tell her "no" - and, paradoxically, still enough of one left in me that doing so broke another little piece off.

Seeing that she wasn't convinced, Gryphon put down his bag, crossed to her, and took her shoulders in his hands.

"Laura," he said, "please. Do you trust me?"

She searched his face with her eyes, grappling with the still-alien concepts in the question he'd just asked. Then she nodded and said softly, "Yes."

"Then stay here. Learn what Victor has to teach you. You don't need to fight any more. Later on, when you're older, you may decide that you want to. That's fine. But... give it a while." He smiled his sad smile again. "Be a kid first."

"I do not know... what that means."

"I know. But you will. You've got time."

"I... " Another wrestling match with unfamiliar feelings and the words that described them. "I will miss you."

Gryphon bent and kissed her forehead. "I'll miss you too, Laura. But we'll see each other again someday. In the meantime... live. Grab your life with both hands. And always remember that you have the right to."

Laura nodded again. "I will," she said quietly. "I... " She hesitated once more, and then, with the jerky motion of someone carrying out an unfamiliar action, hugged him. "Goodbye."

"Oh, it's not goodbye," Gryphon said gently, his hand on the back of her head. "It's - on Salusia they say chiren ayyâr." Half-stepping back to look her in the eye, he translated, "'I await our next meeting.'" Then, hugging her again, he murmured, "Chiren ayyâr, Laura."

She said it back, her pronunciation perfect, and then went solemnly back to bed. Gryphon stood alone in the hall for a moment, then picked up his bag and slipped quietly out the door.

"That was nicely done, my friend," Victor rumbled from the shadows near his garden gate.

Gryphon didn't seem surprised to find his host waiting for him in the night. "Thank you," he said. "Don't let her come after me."

Victor chuckled, a sound like a lion stretching after a nap. "I suspect there breathes not a man who can stop that child from doing anything she pleases," he said, "but I also believe your words will have their desired effect. Until she feels she's been a child long enough, at any rate. Then, as Thomas is wont to say, all flamin' bets are off."

Gryphon gave a hollow laugh. "May it be a long time coming."

"May it indeed."

"Listen... thanks for this," said Gryphon.

"Not at all, my friend," Victor replied. "It's but the smallest part of the favor I owe you, and besides, she and I are family, after a peculiar fashion. My home shall ever be open to her. And to you, so long as you need sanctuary. Permit me, in fact, to echo one of our young friend's sentiments. Should those who hunt you find you here, let them come."

Gryphon shook his head. "Thank you, Victor, but no. Like I told Laura, I have to get back to work anyway."

"Very well. I know what it is to be driven by business one has left unfinished. But I mean what I say: Return whenever you like."

"I may well one day," Gryphon said. "In the meantime... " He considered something, came to an internal conclusion, and removed the data solid he'd recovered at the Facility from an inside pocket. "She's not ready for this yet," he said. "She may not be for a long time. But when she is, she has a right to it."

Victor took the module and turned it over in his hand. "What is it?" he asked.

"Her birthright," Gryphon said. "Her inheritance. Every scrap of information her makers had about her... and a message from her mother."

Victor raised his eyebrows, then nodded gravely and tucked the module into his own pocket. "I shall see that she receives it when the time is right," he promised.

"Thanks. For everything."

"You are most welcome." Victor clasped his arm and clapped his shoulder. "Clear skies, my friend. May you find what you seek."

With one glance back at the dark house on the hill, Gryphon walked slowly out of the hills and into Llanfairpwllgwyngyll proper. It would be daylight by the time he reached the train station, midday before he'd be off-planet, but his mind was already looking to the next phase. Back to where he'd left Eight-Ball One, then on to the next waystation. Chasing leads. Picking up the trail.

9:45 AM, Thursday: IPO Headquarters

The wall clock in Recovery 1 said it was mid-morning - 14 hours or thereabouts after the procedure - when the door opened and Wheatley arrived on his ceiling track.

"Hullo! All right?" he asked cheerfully, then paused and blinked in confusion at the sight which greeted him. The patient was out of bed, still dressed in the loose-fitting grey institutional PJs she'd been issued. She had made the bed so neatly it looked like it had been made by some kind of special bed-making machine, and now she was standing in the empty space between the foot of the bed and the wall, moving in what looked to the AI like a very slow and deliberate - and oddly silent - dance.

"Uh... what're you doing?" Wheatley asked after watching her for a few seconds.

"Taijiquan," she replied without breaking her flow.

Wheatley remained silent for a few more moments, observing, then rocked his housing after the fashion of a person shaking his head and said, "That is weird. Humans and their... bodies. With limbs and everything."

Laura ignored him and finished the pattern, then turned to him and said, "Was there something you needed?"

Wheatley appeared lost in contemplation of something for a moment; then he recoiled slightly on his track, optic going wide. "Oh! Uh... right! Yes! I'm suppose to show you the way to Quartermaster Division so you can draw equipment, and then they want you in Danger 5."

10:07 AM: Combat Simulation Training Center ("Danger Room") #5

Laura arrived in the staging area of Danger Room Five 20 minutes later to find Gryphon and Skuld waiting for her. Freshly outfitted in the midnight-blue Special Assignment version of the IPO's standard tactical gear, she reminded Gryphon immediately of their first meeting, though she was no longer the slightly skinny teenager she'd been then.

Smiling a little at the memory, he said, "You look good."

"I feel good," she confirmed.

Skuld completed a medical scan, closed her tricorder and nodded confirmation. "All your systems check out," she said, then added wryly, "A person would never know we took you to the shivering edge of mortality last night."

"It had to be done," Laura told her. "I regret nothing. Neither should you."

Skuld's smile became a little less wry. "You're a plain-spoken soul, aren't you?" she said. "You'd fit right in where I come from."

"One of my agents spotted Kimura getting off a freighter at the depot out on Kaiser Island at 0540 this morning," Gryphon said. "They tracked her onto one of the relay ships. She should be arriving on the mainland about 1630. Once she's in the Docklands, we'll steer her toward a place where you can fight it out without endangering the city."

"Where?" Laura asked.

He told her. The answer made her smile, just a little. It was an excellent, even inspired choice.

"For right now, I want to see how well you're adapting to your new reality," Gryphon went on. "Your mass has changed because of the bone plating, and your center of gravity may be slightly altered. I need to see for myself that you're really fit to fight. Then you can meet the gang and we'll start working on the plan."

Laura nodded. "Fair enough."

Skuld and Gryphon left the staging area and went up to the control booth. A moment later, his voice addressed Laura from the overhead: "Ready?"

"Ready," she confirmed.

There was a moment's silence before a synthetic voice announced, "Simulation scenario loaded: 'Lobby Assault'. Program commences in three. Two. One." The door in front of Laura opened onto a long, broad, marble-floored and granite-paneled room with a double row of heavy square columns - the lobby, it appeared, of some high-class but anonymous office building. A blinking red holomarker at the far end indicated her objective, the elevator.

Between it and her stood a public security checkpoint manned by several bored-looking rentacops. A public security checkpoint that included a very prominent old-fashioned archway metal detector.

/* Propellerheads
"Spybreak!"
Decksandrumsandrockandroll (1998) */

Laura smiled slightly and stepped toward the checkpoint.

5:20 PM: New Avalon

After-work time, an hour or so to sunset, and even on a Thursday, Salutown's Queen Shiva Square was humming. Groups of young people moved here and there, getting warmed up for an evening's pub crawling or clubhopping or just being out and about, filling the crisp autumn air with cheerful chatter in a dozen languages. They moved all unaware that the rooftops around the square were almost crowded with IPO Tactical Division officers, that no fewer than a dozen Experts of Justice were on alert in the general area, and that the tall woman in the dark overcoat who had just emerged from the underground N station at the south end of the square was classified as a Class B threat to public safety.

Kimura stood for a moment, getting her bearings. She'd never been in this city before, and already she didn't like it. Too crowded, too noisy, too many cops. She had preferred Omega.

On the other hand, there was something to be said for being at large anywhere with solid ground and ambient temperatures above three Kelvin. She hadn't suffered during her seven decades and change as part of the Omega debris field, because she hadn't been conscious for them, but all the same, she figured she owed somebody a beating for wasting her damn time. (Besides those Trando salvagers who thought they could sell her to the Hutt syndicate. What did they think she was, product?) So it was just as well that the clone had come to this town, because once she finished with it, it was here she'd need to be anyway, to deal with the man responsible for that little inconvenience.

She swept her eyes over the square, taking in the tactical picture. There were a couple of transit cops standing around by the other entrance to the N station, at the opposite corner of the square. Apart from that, she couldn't see anybody who looked like any kind of threat; just clumps of college kids out on the town.

/* Bill Bailey
"Attention! (Ambulance Musette)"
Bewilderness (2001) */

Near the stairway she'd just emerged from, a young woman was busking with an accordion, playing a cheery little French bal-musette number; she had a small audience of mostly Salusian youths. As Kimura stood sizing up the situation, the busker began to sing, her voice sweet and a little bit husky. The effect was lost on Kimura, as were the lyrics, though both seemed to amuse the girl's audience.

Attention! Nous sommes blessés.
Nous avons un homme, il s'appelle Jean-Michel
Sa jambe est cassée.

Kimura turned her back on the music, tried to tune out the noise and focus. Her informant on Jisatsu had told her the clone had developed the habit of gravitating toward places with a jumping nightlife - places like this. Some kind of reflexive impulse to observe the sapient contact its programming ensured it could never participate in, presumably. So it'd almost certainly be here, or in one of the other spots like this one in the city. Most likely lurking on the periphery, trying to wrap its tiny clone mind around the reason why it could never tap into the human energy it saw all around it.

Avec une jeune fille, elle s'appelle Gisèle
(C'est si belle)
Ils ont monté dans un arbre
Pour faire l'amour.

If it had been living that way for the last 75 years, it must have come as close as such a limited intelligence could get to a state of constant misery. The thought made Kimura smile.

Il a adopté la position missionnaire;
C'est populaire!
Il est tombé, sa jambe est cassée, attention!

The song finished with a reedy flourish. Behind her, Kimura heard the musician's audience start applauding, the sound of coins being dropped into the accordion case.

"Thank you," said the busker quietly, and Kimura felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Impossible, she thought.

She whirled. The accordion stood abandoned next to its open case. The small group of young people who had been listening to its player didn't seem to think anything odd had happened. By the retaining wall at the back of the N station staircase, Kimura's quarry hesitated just long enough to make undeniable eye contact with her, then turned and ran.

Ignoring the oddly unconcerned bystanders, Kimura let out a furious noise and charged after her.

The George and Vulture (alt. 3500 ft.)

Gryphon stood in the beautifully decorated mobile situation room tucked away in the Employees Only area of the Hellfire Club's pleasure zeppelin, his hands clasped behind his back, and watched with satisfaction as the various tags and markers depicting his assets in the city below started moving, inserted holographically into the view through the crystal floor on which he stood.

Command, this is Red Robin, a member of Laura's erstwhile audience in Queen Shiva Square reported through the Lens network as Kimura set out in pursuit. The game's afoot, I repeat, the game's afoot.

Thank you, Mr. Drake, Gryphon replied. Widening his Lens contact to include all the Lensmen involved in this operation, the Chief went on, All units, look sharp, it's showtime. Captain Kessler, make your course west-sou'west, if you please.

Aye aye, sire, the zeppelin's mistress of ceremonies replied from up on the bridge - making a game, as she always did, of the honorary title he held as a member of the Hellfire Club's board of directors. He could feel that impish, smoldering smile of hers through the Lens link, but he paid it little mind. Heather Kessler was another man's rhubarb, and besides, he was far too preoccupied with the tactical situation displayed beneath his feet.

The icons of Lensmen, Tac Div Special Mission Force troopers, and NAPD SWAT officers converged from all over the city to line the route being taken by the foot chase in progress below. This was a tricky business; the city had to be protected, the safety of the public assured, without tipping off Kimura that her every move was being watched from two dozen angles.

"I know this is important to Laura, and I've given my word not to interfere, but by all the gods, I just want to set Deadpool on her," he remarked to the woman standing next to him. "I really, really do."

"It's not too late," Emma Frost noted hopefully.

"Emma, be good," Gryphon replied without taking his eyes off the tactical plot.

"Pah," said Emma dismissively. "Why start now?"

Connaught Street West

As she had since she realized that Kimura was alive and hunting for her, Laura Kinney ran. If you wanted to get sufficiently metaphorical, she'd been running from Kimura, or at least Kimura's legacy, all her life. The difference being that this time, she was running toward something, though, of course, her pursuer did not know that.

As she ran, she heard the rasping voice of one of her many mentors, dispensing out-of-context but unbeatable wisdom from a corner of her memory:

Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop-heart.

Make the bastard chase you. He will follow.

/* Booker T. & the MG's
"Time Is Tight"
Up Tight (1969) */

She rounded a corner, nearly skidding out on the damp pavement despite the sturdy lugged soles of her tactical boots, caught herself on the opposite wall, and sprinted down the adjoining alley, hurdling a cluster of trash cans as she went. She was cutting across the corner of Hell's Kitchen, taking the direct route from Salutown to City Center and bypassing Claremont entirely. Unconsciously, she counted the seconds until she heard the crash of Kimura plowing through those same trash cans, knowing the Facility's old enforcer wouldn't bother to avoid them. Seven seconds. Not much of a lead, but enough.

"Every foot you make me run is another minute you'll wish I hadn't left you alive!" Kimura bellowed from somewhere behind her.

That does not even make sense, does it? Laura thought abstractly. She let the question drop and swarmed over a section of chain link fence dividing the alley, then slammed through a fire door and into the basement of a building on the unofficial Kitchen/Center boundary line. She took the stairs in a single long leap, rolling and springing up at the bottom, doglegged left, yanked open a metal service door, and bolted into the utilities tunnel beyond.

She'd rehearsed this route in the IPO's Danger Room #5 all day, until the path was as familiar to her as the way from the southeast corner bedroom of Victor Creed's country house to the dojo in the back garden, as familiar as the well-worn datatrack that was the only message she'd ever had from her mother.

You are my daughter, and I love you.

Through the steam tunnel, up the slope, second branch on the right. Putting on a little more speed now; objective in sight. Kimura was committed now. Even if Laura got out of her line of sight, there was only one place she would emerge. Only one place she could emerge.

Squarely in the jaws of Gryphon's trap.

Laura smiled as she crashed through the last of the panic-barred doors and into the darkness beyond.

1984 Weisman Avenue, New Avalon

Gryphon strode briskly through the double doors at the end of the corridor from the zeppelin-dock elevator, his face all business. The room he entered was already coming to life, its regular staff at their posts; Geoff Depew had arrived before him to coordinate the opening stages. The rest of his team, Gryphon knew, were already scattered at key positions around the operation area, along with the Titans and half a dozen of the IPO's other heavy hitters. All had strict instructions not to provide backup. They were here to keep the situation contained, period. The Chief's word and honor were involved.

He had made a private promise, though, that if Kimura won the contest that was about to happen, she would have precious little time to savor her triumph.

"She's here," Geoff reported.

"Confirmed, sir," one of the white-suited technicians reported from his station at the master situation display. "Two signatures. Second one's just entering the zone now."

Gryphon nodded. "Initiate lockdown and run program."

"Roger," the technician replied, his hands moving deftly over the controls. "Containment fields are online. Sector secured." Outside, visible through the panoramic windows of the control room, a holographic sky rezzed into life above a war-torn cityscape. From hidden PA speakers, the complex resounded with a synthetic voice announcing the facility's name.

Satisfied with his readouts, the tech turned to Gryphon and reported firmly, "The Battledrome is live."

/* Nine Inch Nails
"My Violent Heart"
Year Zero (2007) */

New Avalon Battledrome Main Fighting Floor
Urban Apocalypse Scenario Loaded

Kimura was understandably disoriented to emerge from a service tunnel which she had entered from a crisp fall afternoon in New Avalon to find herself in a twilit, shattered, deserted urban hell, beneath a sky illuminated by the baleful blood-red glow of distant fires on an overcast night. Hot winds scented with burning wood and melted metal brushed past her. She turned, thinking to reopen the bulkhead she'd come out of, but her hand slid off the frictionless resistance of a forcefield instead of grasping the handle.

"What the hell," she muttered. Then, turning back to face the ruined streetscape that had confronted her, she shouted, "Do you really think even this can help you, clone? Do you think you can run from me forever?"

"No," X-23's voice replied from above her. Looking up, Kimura saw her quarry crouching like a gargoyle on the cornice of the half-ruined building opposite. In the heat of this place, she'd discarded the black leather jacket she had been wearing in the square; above her midnight-blue tactical trousers, she wore only a black T-shirt marked with the stark white logo of an old Earth band.

Laura felt the familiar twinges of pain as her claws shot through the backs of her hands; Skuld hadn't had time yet to keep her promise of repairing that small design flaw. Truth be told, she didn't really mind. She'd never minded that particular pain. In her darkest times, it had served a useful purpose: It reminded her that she was alive.

And right now it reminded her of, well, everything else.

"I am done running," she said, and went to war.

Kimura met her attack with contempt at first, as she always had. She made her usual speech about how pointless the effort was, how useless X-23's weapons were against her, how much she was going to suffer for her resistance this time. And, indeed, Laura's claws did seem to have no measurable effect on Kimura's uniform or skin, just as always.

In the control room, Geoff watched the opening of the fight, the ever-detached observer in the back of his mind noting the wide range and excellent execution of Laura's technique, Kimura's contrasting relative lack of skill, and the ever-increasingly-evident fact that it wasn't making any difference.

"This isn't working," he mused under his breath.

"Wait for it," Gryphon told him, a note of grim satisfaction in his voice. Geoff darted a sidelong glance at his boss, unwilling to take his eyes off the fight for more than an instant. Gryphon's own gaze was riveted on the battle, but he didn't seem worried. Geoff wondered what the man was seeing that he was missing himself - and then he thought he might have seen it.

At first sight, it seemed that Kimura's invincibility had naturally enough given her the upper hand. True, Laura hadn't been almost instantly rendered helpless, as in all their previous clashes; she had gotten much better at avoiding the worst of her old foe's onslaught. Instead of charging blindly in, fueled by panic and rage, and constantly destined to take the worst of every exchange, she was fighting tactically, using position and mobility to avoid taking serious damage. That did mean, however, that Kimura was constantly keeping her on the run, and before long she'd been forced into one of the half-ruined buildings lining the street.

It seemed to have been an office building in its prior life; the ground floor was a cavernous lobby not unlike that in the morning's tactical simulation, full of columns and crumbling marble panels, that had once been quite grand. Here, Laura changed up her strategy and made oblique pass after oblique pass, coming at Kimura from every angle and trying again and again to score a solid hit. All her efforts seemed to come to nothing, though. More often than not she missed outright, her blades ripping through marble and concrete instead of even glancing uselessly off her enemy's body.

By this time Kimura had gotten over being thrown off by how much the clone had grown, not just physically but mentally, while she had been in the deep freeze. She might be a grown woman now, and a confident one, moving with an assured grace that was all at odds with the frantic, panic-driven slashing of their old sessions, but she was still doing no harm at all and she was still going to lose.

"You're pathetic, clone," Kimura said scornfully after X-23's eleventh or twelfth failed pass. "You've been flailing around in here forever and you haven't even hit me more than once or twice, much less cut me."

Laura gave her an ice-cold smile.

"I was not trying to cut you," she said, and then faded back through the doorway behind her into the street. Scowling in puzzled annoyance, Kimura moved to pursue.

The building around her groaned, shifted, and then - its supporting columns methodically weakened one by one over the last few minutes - collapsed.

In the control room, Gryphon smiled a cold smile of his own. "You never studied," he murmured.

Kimura pulled herself free of the wreckage, coughing clouds of dust, and staggered upright. She took a moment to collect herself, shaking her head and waiting for her ears to stop ringing. Then, as fury replaced confusion, she bellowed, "You're dead, clone! Do you hear me? Dead!"

"You said that 75 years ago," Laura replied from her perch atop a mailbox on the far side of the streetcorner. "I am still alive."

With a wordless cry of rage, Kimura flung herself off the rubble pile and toward her quarry.

Round 2.

/* Bad Religion
"Don't Sell Me Short"
The New America (2000) */

Years before, one of the many teacher figures who had passed through Laura Kinney's life had warned her against a tendency to fixate exclusively on the most obvious weapons with which the Facility had equipped her. ("Claws poor substitute for brains!" was actually the phrase Miyagi-sensei had used, usually while avoiding her fastest strikes and causing her to fall out of boats into icy mountain lakes.) It was one of the hardest lessons for her to take on board, since the blades were so much a part of who she was, but she had always at least tried to bear it in mind ever since.

Now, faced with their evident continued uselessness against this foe, she called those lessons, and others, back to mind and started using other items from her toolbox. Kimura's condition after the building's collapse showed that, while her skin was functionally unbreakable, but what was within it was merely very tough. Rather than keep trying to cut her, Laura decided to shift gears and see how far she could get by piling up blunt force trauma.

It shortly became clear that this was not the best plan, though, because of the problem of reach. Even full-grown, Laura was not a particularly tall woman. Her principle genetic template had been short for a man, and her mother's contribution had not helped that situation much. Kimura remained at least a couple of inches taller, and in short order she capitalized on Laura's tactical switch by doing exactly what Laura didn't want her to do and getting first one, then both hands on her.

That seemed to rekindle the cocky spark she'd been missing since the building had come down on her. Dragging her smaller quarry close, she smirked into Laura's face and said, "Hey clone - you know what I've really missed? That great sound your skull makes when I crack it."

She had just enough time to wonder, before her headbutt connected, why that remark made the clone smile slightly. Then it did connect - and rebounded, with a dull metallic WHANG, hard enough to make her see stars and lose her grip on X-23's shoulders.

"What the - " she blurted, but before she could recover her wits enough to comment further, Laura had - as conversational protocol demanded - hauled off and headbutted her back even harder, sending Kimura sprawling on her back in the street.

On a high rooftop two simulated city blocks east, Virginia Shepard lay in a prone sniping position, observing the situation through the telesight of her custom Valkyrie anti-matèriel rifle, "George". As Kimura fell, Shepard nudged her partner with an elbow and said delightedly, "She speaks Tuchankan!"

"Like a native," Garrus Vakarian agreed, keeping his eye glued to his spotter's scope.

Kimura was only out for half a second or so, not even long enough to know she'd been unconscious. As she got back to her feet, she spied a glint of metal under the blood on X-23's forehead before the wound disappeared. Laura reached up, wiped the blood from her face with one hand, and casually flicked it onto the ground.

"This is pointless," she said. "Rice is dead. Largo is dead. GENOM as you knew it is dead. Your continued pursuit of me serves no purpose. The galaxy turns. History has moved on." She made a general gesture of "out there" with her bloody hand. "I am giving you one chance. Walk away."

Kimura stared at her in utter disbelief, unable to even form words for a few seconds. Then she burst out laughing.

"You really don't get it, do you, clone?" she said. "It's not about Rice, or Largo, or GENOM. It's about me and you, and you knowing your place, and me putting you in it. That's it. That's all there is."

Laura gazed silently at her for a moment, then assumed a ready stance. "Then it seems we have no choice but to finish this."

Kimura cracked her knuckles, smirking. "That's the only time in your miserable life you're ever gonna be right about anything," she said, and waded in for Round 3.

/* Chris Cornell
"You Know My Name"
Carry On (2007) */

Laura seemed to have turned a corner now. Knowing first-hand that Kimura could be hurt, and having had her one extraordinary overture rebuffed, she met her enemy's charge head-on. Before long her fists were bloody, the soft tissues abraded away by repeated impacts with Kimura's steel-hard skin, but she kept punching anyway. In all their previous battles, Kimura had been able to win almost instantly by exploiting a combination of Laura's tendency to panic when facing her, and her inability to prosecute an effective defense with all her arms and legs broken. Now both those advantages were gone.

Even so, the balance seemed to remain on Kimura's side. Laura was by far the better fighter, but try as she might - brilliant as she might be - she still had no real answer for Kimura's durability. The punches, kicks, and throws hurt her, but didn't really injure her, and without giving her foe time to recover, Laura wasn't giving herself time to recover either.

"Enough!" Kimura snarled, dealing Laura the kind of punch that would have broken five of her ribs the day before, and still sent her sprawling and gasping for air. Rolling a crick out of her neck, the enforcer remarked, "I have to give it to you, clone, you put up a good fight this time, but you still can't win. You never could." She sneered. "Kinney made you weak. I always told Rice he should've let me deal with her, but nooo, he had to leave it to the last minute."

Laura pulled herself slowly to her feet, fixed Kimura with an intent stare, and said quietly, "Say that again."

"What, you didn't know?" Kimura replied. "I caught her on her way out the door while you and your boyfriend were taking out the security department." She grinned cruelly. "Not the hardest job I've ever been given, but after beating you to a paste every couple weeks for 10 years, it might've been the most satisfying."

In the official Experts of Justice report on the incident, the sound Laura made in response to this intelligence defied transcription. It is recorded simply as, "<scream>".

Faster than the observers' eyes could follow, she hurled herself across the space between them, her claws like streaks of lightning. They seemed to come at Kimura from all angles, as though her attacker had become legion. She disappeared briefly in a welter of glittering blades, flying sparks, and flecks of blood, caught completely wrong-footed by the sudden onslaught. Her nervous system lit up with a sensation so completely unfamiliar that it took her a few moments to identify it as pain. Roaring with rage, she counterattacked, seizing her assailant by the throat and hurling her with all her strength across the street.

Laura hit the wall of the opposite building hard enough to depress the bricks behind her, then toppled forward in a cloud of mortar dust and sprawled face-down on the sidewalk, hacking and coughing through a partially crushed larynx. She stayed there for a couple of seconds, letting her airway regenerate, and then dragged herself to her feet. The blow had erased the red mist from her mind, replacing it with a sort of crystalline hyperclarity that she'd felt only a few times in her long life. The fury was still there, and the gnawing hunger for revenge, but instead of blotting out her conscious mind, they now accelerated it.

As if in slow motion, she saw Kimura charging across the street toward her, her head, shoulders, and arms covered in a fine network of shallow, oozing cuts, screaming, "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?" As deliberately as though she had all the time in the world, she retracted all but her right foreclaw and felt it become the center of the entire universe. The syllables of the Ryôzan Oath of Total Commitment, which she had once learned from a black-clad holy man on some forgotten world beyond the Rim, sprang spontaneously to her mind and fell in a growing whisper from her lips as the moment shrank to a singularity.

"Gemu giru gan go gufo... "

Having thus pledged all that dwelt within her to the pursuit of this one goal, whatever the cost, Laura moved, meeting Kimura's charge with a tiger spring. Her blood afire, eyes blazing, single unsheathed blade shining torchlike under the Battledrome's blood-red sky, she cried the last word of the Oath - the one that bound her very life to success or failure of the effort - at the top of her voice from a throat still raw and bleeding:

"... VITAS!"

The collision resounded in her metallized bones, felt like it had nearly jarred her very soul clean out of her body. Kimura's fist skidded across unbreakable ribs, tearing Laura's shirt and the skin beneath, the partially deflected impact still displacing soft parts beyond. At the same instant, the knuckles of Laura's right fist struck Kimura's forehead, sending a recoil shock up her arm that nearly dislocated her shoulder. For a full second they stood there, leaning together like the halves of an arch, Laura's fist against Kimura's forehead, the enforcer's eyes rolling upward as if to look at it.

Then, with a soft metallic sound, Laura withdrew her blade, staggered one step to the right, and fell on her side to the ground, her heart no longer beating.

Kimura stood where she was a moment longer as blood began to flow from the neat vertical slot in the center of her forehead; then she pitched backward and sprawled full-length on the pavement, and all was silent in the Battledrome.

Nearly a full minute passed before Laura stirred, then drew a deep, ragged breath. A moment later she took another, then pulled herself to hands and knees, wincing as she felt her various internal organs move back to their accustomed places. Lightheaded with pain and fatigue, she opened her eyes and saw her archfoe, already being zipped into a body bag by a couple of IPO bluesuiters.

A pair of deep brown boots came to a stop in front of her, and a familiar voice said, "My dear, allow me to give you a hand and declare you today's, if you'll pardon the expression, victor." She looked up, neck protesting a little, and actually smiled a bit at the sight of Victor Creed, holding her jacket in one hand and offering the other.

She took it and let him help her to her feet, then took back her jacket and shrugged it on. A small crowd was forming around the battle zone now, as all the Experts of Justice who had observed the fight left their posts and congregated like spectators at a car crash. Most of them she recognized from the briefing earlier that afternoon.

One she recognized from an entirely different place: the files on her own creation. So unexpected was his appearance here that, as he emerged from the little crowd that was gathering and approached, Laura could only stare at him. She felt her body draw very slightly into a reflexive, defensive crouch, her claws shifting within her arms but not quite deploying.

"Relax, kid," said Logan with a wry little smile. He held up his wrist, displayed his Lens to her, and added, "It ain't what you're thinkin'."

"Lensman Logan is a very good friend," Victor told her. "Not at all like the late, unlamented gentleman he so unfortunately resembles."

Laura eyed him. "You're not... ?" she asked, leaving the rest of the question unvoiced.

Logan shook his head. "Nah," he said, and then, as though it were the simplest explanation in the world, "Parallel universe." He stood for a moment and watched the bluesuiters cart away Kimura's earthly remains, then turned back to Laura and said, "Not bad work, kid. You got potential. Beer?"

She looked at the tin of Kirin Ichiban he was holding out to her, reflected that mortal combat was after all very thirsty work, and accepted it with quiet thanks. Even after the surreal whirlwind this day had been, she had to smile slightly at the exasperated look Victor gave Logan at this point. He was a dear, dear man, Sir Victor Creed, but he did have a tendency still to think of her as 15 years old.

Gryphon appeared then, having supervised the removal of the body (given the circumstances, not bound for the regular city mortuary). He thanked the assembled Experts for their help in providing coverage for the operation and told them to consider themselves at liberty. When the whole crowd of them emerged onto the sidewalk in front of the Battledrome's main entrance, night had fully fallen and the City Center thrummed with light and activity.

Laura finished the beer Logan had given her, tossed the tin expertly into the nearest city rubbish bin, and then turned to the others.

"I... am not very good with words," she said haltingly, "but... thank you. All of you. I could not have succeeded tonight without your help... but thank you, also, for... for not helping too much."

With expressions of welcome, gestures of friendly camaraderie, and even the occasional fist bump for her, most of the Experts dispersed, leaving only Gryphon and Skuld standing by the Battledrome entrance with Laura, and Victor and Logan a little way off.

Gryphon, hands in his pockets, gave her a questioning look. "What now?" he asked.

"I do not know," Laura replied.

"Well... " Gryphon gestured around with exaggerated casualness. "You're welcome to stick around here for a while. No pressure," he added. "Just an open door."

"Thank you," Laura said. Then, hesitating, she went on, "I have... much to consider." She seemed to consider something for a moment, then hugged him. "For right now... chiren ayyâr." Bidding the others good evening, she turned and started walking off toward the N station on the corner.

She's going to fade, Skuld predicted by Lens. Thinks she has to. She's been doing the wandering samurai thing too long.

Maybe, maybe not, Gryphon replied with a private smile. Skuld, looking puzzled, followed his eyeline and saw a figure in a long yellow coat darting to intercept Laura's path to the subway.

"Hey!" said Jubilation Lee cheerfully. "You're not takin' off, are you?" While Laura was considering how to reply to that, she went on, "Listen, you're, like, really old buds with the Chief, right?"

"In a manner of speaking... " Laura replied, unsure where this conversation was going.

"Yeah, so you're not going anywhere, girlfriend," said Jubilee, throwing an arm around her shoulders. "I need intel. Not for me, mind," she continued as she led Laura back in the other direction. "I mean I love the guy to bits, but NITW, you dig? It's for my roomie. She's got it super bad for him, but she's so hella shy she can't even talk to him, except about work, until about her fifth drink. And by fifth I mean 25.6 fluid ounces. I'm hoping you can find her an angle, 'cause right now the whole thing is just sad."

Laura blinked at this onslaught, managing to reply only, "I... what?"

Jubilee grinned. "What you need is a quick trip to Dr. Jubilee's Social Wellness Clinic, my friend. I'll have you au courant with all the latest around here by the time they chuck us out of McLeary's tonight," she added expansively.

"Miss Lee," Victor put in as they reached him.

Jubilee paused. "Yes, man who looks terrifyingly like Sabretooth as Sherlock Holmes."

Victor was momentarily taken aback, then soldiered on. "... uhm. Yes." Withdrawing a card from his inside pocket, he handed it to her with a flourish and said, "Do present this item to the proprietor with my compliments. Enjoy your evening. Try not to kill anyone undeserving."

"Words I live by, man," said Jubilee breezily. "G'night, everybody. Don't worry, everything is under control."

Skuld stood and watched them walk away uptown, then turned to the others and asked rhetorically, "Why do I feel like we've just witnessed one of those Butch meets Sundance moments that should have been prevented?"

Smiling, Logan lit a cigar. "Story'a my flamin' life, darlin'," he said.

At the corner, just before Jubilee shepherded her around it, Laura paused and looked back, making momentary, questioning eye contact with Gryphon. He grinned and made a go-on-with-you-then gesture, and then they were gone.

"They grow up so fast," he sighed, then turned and started walking toward the N station himself. "Who's for Tosci's?"

/* Duran Duran
"A View to a Kill"
A View to a Kill (1985) */

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
Weapon of Choice

A Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold Special Event

written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

with
Geoff Depew

in consultation with
Chris Pinard
and the rest of the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects

X-23 created by Craig Kyle

Bacon Comics chief
Derek Bacon

Laura Kinney will return

E P U (colour) 2012