Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories

Omnibus Edition, Volume Three

As with the other Omnibus Editions, these mini-stories first appeared in the Undocumented Features Mini-Stories area on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum, with the exception of "Atomic Robo Hails a Taxi", which is presented in this Omnibus Edition for the first time anywhere.

February 9, 2009

Table of Contents

  1. Operation Unfinished Business
    April 17, 1995
  2. Mysteron
    June 22, 2384
  3. The Sheep Incident
    April 29, 2391
  4. Alberto's Mistake
    June 5, 2395
  5. Lost Technology
    March 24, 2397
  6. Get Carter
    November 27, 2408
  7. Wish You Were Here
    Summer 2409
  8. Guns 4 Hire
    November 2, 2409
  9. Field Test
    January 25, 2410
  10. That Which Does Not Kill Us
    June 2, 2410
  11. Saya
    June 14, 2410
  12. Anywhere But Here
    June 22, 2410
  13. Reassigned
    July 14, 2410
  14. Proposition
    November 9, 2410
  15. Handle of Faith
    March 16, 2411
  16. Dropping Out
    December 27, 2411
  17. Omnibus Bonus Story: Atomic Robo Hails a Taxi
    September 19, 2409

Monday, April 17, 1995

Jim Lovell smelled a rat, but he wasn't sure what kind.

As the morning went on, it had become increasingly clear to him that he was not in the studio of a documentary film company. He'd spent more than a little time in that kind of setting, and what he was seeing here was a fairly convincing replica, but there was something every so slightly off about it. It was like... like a movie set of a documentary studio, and the people manning it were like actors. And not, in a couple of cases, particularly good ones.

But if they weren't making a documentary about Project Gemini, what were they up to? And why had people he trusted, people he'd known for a long time, called him up specifically to say they thought he should come?

Sitting in the faux studio lounge, Lovell especially remembered the cryptic phone call he'd received a week or so before from his old Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 commander, Frank Borman. As usual, Borman had come straight to the point.

"Hey, Jim," he said. "I hear you turned down Apogee Films."

"Yeah," Lovell replied. "What with the movie coming out soon and everything, I'm just too busy. Besides, I want to take some time off from the talking head thing. You can only tell the war stories to a camera so many times, you know?"

"Mm. Well, for what it's worth, I think you should reconsider."

Lovell turned Borman's words over in his mind now, looking for nuances. He'd tried to get more out of him, but Borman had said his piece and that was all he was going to say. The years hadn't made him any less stubborn, that was for sure.

So, puzzled, he'd called back the slightly-harassed-sounding production assistant - they had that part down, anyway - and said he'd changed his mind and he'd be delighted to appear in their film. At least it would make a change from talking about Apollo all the time.

And now here he was, in these well-appointed but somehow phony-seeming offices, with an ever-increasing sense that something wasn't right but no idea what it might be.

He called out a couple of times, but nobody answered. Lovell looked around, wondering what there was to be done about the situation. The room had two doors, the one he'd come in through, and another through which the PA who showed him in had left, after apologetically asking him to wait a few minutes, and would he like a cup of coffee or anything? The first was locked. The second was not. Shrugging to himself, Lovell opened it and stepped through.

His immediate impression was a reinforcement of the feeling that the lounge he'd just been in was like a movie set, because what lay beyond the door wasn't a matching hallway. It was like part of some other set altogether, possibly one for a submarine movie - a narrow metal corridor with a rounded hatch opposite the ordinary door he'd just come through. More puzzled than ever, Lovell walked up to the hatch, looking for some kind of control, and it opened automatically as he approached it, revealing another corridor beyond. He realized that what he was leaving wasn't a hallway at all, but the end of a large room in which the fake studio had been set up.

What the hell... ? he wondered. He looked around, saw no one, and followed this new corridor, which extended maybe 30 feet and ended at another oval hatch. He was surprised to see English lettering on this one, in a military-style stencil typeface:


This hatch opened automatically as well, and beyond it lay... well, all right, it did look like a flight deck, the kind you might expect to find at the front of a large cargo aircraft, with five seats and a row of forward-looking windows. Four of the seats were vacant; three men were standing in the small amount of open deck space behind them, apparently conferring. When the hatch opened, they all broke off their discussion and turned, regarding Lovell with expressions equally as surprised as the one he was giving them.

The tallest of the three twentysomething men facing him, a towering, heavyset man with long dark hair and an imposing brow, turned to the shorter, stocky, lighter-haired man next to him and said in an urgent half-whisper, "(How'd he get up here?!)"

The man he'd addressed shrugged and replied, "(I guess the door wasn't locked.)"

The third man, about the second one's height but dark and wearing a tweed poorboy cap, said to the first, "(I thought you were keeping an eye on him!)"

Realizing that Lovell was staring at the three of them like a man witnessing, but not quite understanding, a Three Stooges routine, the stocky man with the lighter-colored hair coughed and, with an embarrassed smile, said, "Uh - hi! I'm, uh... I imagine you have questions."

Lovell blinked. "You might say that," he replied, a trifle indignantly. "'What the hell is going on here?' comes to mind."

"Ahem. Well. Yes. Introductions are in order, I guess. My name is Commander Benjamin Hutchins." He indicated the man with the hat. "This is Commander Rob Mandeville."

Mandeville doffed his cap in an elaborate bow. "Pleasure," he said.

"And this is Captain MegaZone," Hutchins plowed on, indicating the very tall one.

"It's an honor," said MegaZone. "Call me Zoner. He's Gryphon and that's ReRob."

Lovell blinked again. "None of which answers my question," he pointed out.

"Ah. Right." Hutchins - "Gryphon", apparently - looked faintly awkward. "Well, uh... I just want to assure you, you are not being abducted by aliens. For one thing, this isn't an abduction, and for another, we're not aliens."

"Well, except for Lieutenant Arconian," Zoner put in. "She's an alien."

The blonde woman up in the left seat - the pilot, if this thing were set up anything like the aircraft Lovell was familiar with - waved over her shoulder without getting up.

"Right," Gryphon said, nodding. "But the rest of us are from Earth."

"We're with an organization called the Wedge Defense Force," Zoner explained. "You, uh, might have heard of us."

"I've heard rumors," Lovell admitted. "I didn't think they were true."

"Hopefully some of them weren't," ReRob interjected.

"Anyway, we apologize for the ruse that brought you here, but we figured if we just walked up and told you who we were, you'd think we were crazy," Gryphon said.

"I'm leaning toward that explanation anyway," Lovell said dryly. "Now that I'm here, you mind telling me where 'here' is?" He took a couple of steps forward, bent to get a better view out of the cockpit windows, but saw nothing; the glass, if that's what it was, was blacked out.

"Better if we just show you," said Zoner. "Asrial, what's our ETA?"

The pilot consulted one of her instruments, then replied, "Skids down in five minutes."

Gryphon grinned, seeming entirely at ease for the first time. "Perfect!" he said. "If you'll just come this way, Captain Lovell, all your questions shall be answered."

The young man led his "guest" back down the corridor, through another door bearing an indecipherable alphanumeric code, down a ladder, then another, and through still another door. This deposited them in a roughly circular room that had walls lined with what looked like lockers. Gryphon opened one, demonstrating that that's exactly what they were, and indicated what lay within.

"We'll need to dress for the occasion," he said. "Let me give you a hand. It'll only take a couple of minutes."

With an increasing sense of unreality, Lovell found himself climbing into an unfamiliar hard-shelled garment that was, despite its alien (perhaps literally?) design, obviously a pressure suit. As he held out his arms and let the younger man heft the suit's clamshell torso piece onto his back, he remarked wryly,

"It's been a long time since I last wore a spacesuit."

"We've made a few improvements," Gryphon said as he clipped the suit's chestplate together and pointed out the buttons on the wrist unit that activated the pressure systems.

"I'll say," Lovell agreed. He pressed the buttons in sequence, feeling the suit stiffen slightly and the collar seal push gently against his neck. He moved an arm and was deeply impressed with the ease and range of motion. There was even a hint of what felt like power assist there; it was like the EVA suit equivalent of power steering.

Gryphon got himself suited up next, making Lovell slightly jealous of the practiced ease with which he fitted the armored pieces together; then he reached to the shelf at the top of the locker, took out a helmet with a wide-angle viewport on the front, and showed his guest how to lock it in place. As he was fitting his own in place, Gryphon felt a faint vibration under his feet. A moment later, Asrial's voice addressed the two men inside their helmets.

"Touchdown," she reported. "Right on target. You're clear anytime you like, Commander."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Gryphon replied. Then, turning to Lovell, he said, "Shall we?"

Without waiting for an answer, he punched a keycode into a number pad mounted on the wall next to the door they'd entered through. There was a momentary falling sensation, like being on an elevator. Then the lights in the room turned red and there came a loud, prolonged hiss that tailed away into utter silence. When Gryphon next spoke, his voice came to Lovell via intersuit radio.

"Captain Lovell, on behalf of the entire Wedge Defense Force, it gives me very great pleasure to say... "

He pressed another key, and there was another curious sensation; at first Lovell took it for more movement, but then realized that it was the strange feeling of gravity decreasing. A moment later, the wall in front of them silently retracted, revealing a panoramic view of a fantastically crisp, eerily monochrome landscape, and Gryphon went on.

"... welcome to the Moon."

Lovell turned to Gryphon with a look of complete astonishment on his face. Within his own helmet, the younger man's face looked to be almost all grin.

"Well? What do you say? Let's go out and make some footprints." He reached back into the locker where he'd gotten his spacesuit and removed a couple of thin metal poles with gleaming red-and-silver foil items wrapped around the tops. "I even brought flags."

Jim Lovell arrived home the next morning, still in faint shock. As he let himself into the house, his wife Marilyn came out from the living room to greet him.

"How was your interview?" she asked.

Lovell gave her a strange look for a moment - how could he even begin to explain what his "interview" had turned out to be? - then smiled, kissed her, and said, "Went great. Nice bunch of kids."

"Kids?" Marilyn asked.

"Yeah," Lovell said, walking toward his study. "Barely out of college. This was one of their first projects. To be honest, I don't know if they're going to release anything, but it was nice to talk with them, anyway."

"Oh. Well, I'm glad you had a nice time, anyway." Marilyn gave him a puzzled look as he took a small object from his pocket and put it on a shelf in the study. "What's that?"

Lovell grinned. "Just a rock."

Marilyn gave him a skeptical look, then said, "Mm," and went back to the living room. She knew Jim's moods well enough - she ought to, by now! - and she knew it was no good getting after him when he was feeling impish. Let him have his little joke, whatever it was.

Lovell watched her go, chuckled, and turned to regard the rock once more. It seemed an incongruous thing to have pride of place on the shelves of his study, amid the memorabilia of a career stretching from naval aviation to the most exciting explorations in human history to date, but only if you didn't know where it came from...

... or that the spot where it had been was now flanked by the flags of the United States and the Wedge Defense Force, and occupied by a small metal plaque reading,

Here Captain James Lovell, USN (ret.)
finally set foot upon the Moon
April 17, 1995
courtesy of the Wedge Defense Force

He'd tell her eventually, he knew. Probably someday quite soon. When his young friends were done with their little project and the coast was clear again.

In the meantime, he had a couple of phone calls to make. One of them would have to be to Borman, of course, but first there was someone his new friends had asked him if he might get in touch with on their behalf. Sitting down at his desk, he dug out his address book, looked up a number, picked up the phone, and dialed.

"Fred-o? Jim Lovell. How's things? Hey, listen, I want to talk to you for a minute about some friends of mine who are making a documentary..."

"Operation Unfinished Business" - a Golden Age mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

The Mysterons. Sworn enemies of humanity. Possessing the ability to re-create an exact likeness of an object or person...

... but first they must destroy.

Friday, June 22, 2384
Eleanor City, Meizuri

Wilton Goulet, Chief of the Worlds Welfare Work Association, sat in his office at the top of the 3WA Pyramid, regarding the large viewscreen at the end of the room gravely.

"Play it again," he said. The technician manning the playback console punched a couple of buttons and the recording ran a third time. It showed the giant 3WA sign outside the building, down at the end of the main motor traffic driveway off the Cross-City Expressway, from the point of view of the gate security camera. For a few moments nothing exceptional appeared - just traffic humming by in the background and a couple of puffy clouds cruising across the sky.

Then, from just off-camera, a pair of strange lights appeared. They looked as if they were being projected onto the sign by some kind of lamp, but Goulet knew that wasn't the case. The two rings of green light, slowly tracking across the sign as if examining it, were immediately recognizable to anybody in a position of law enforcement authority by this time. They were the hallmark of one of the strangest, most mysterious threats facing the galactic authorities.

As if on cue, the quiet traffic noises in the background were obscured by a booming, distorted voice that spoke with a slow, chilling cadence:

"This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. Prepare yourself for the next blow in our war of nerves against your pathetic civilization. For our next act of vengeance against your pitiful race, we will destroy the headquarters of the interfering Worlds Welfare Work Association. 3WA Headquarters will fall at midnight tonight. This is the voice of the Mysterons."

As the voice finished speaking, the green lights disappeared, and all was normal again. Moments later, the image froze as the excerpt reached its end.

"Analysis?" Goulet asked.

"It's just like all the others, sir," the tech reported. "The lights can't be traced to any identifiable source, nor can the voice. It's just there, on the recording. Spectral patterns match - it's genuine."

Goulet glanced at the clock on his office wall. Its hands stood at 9:20 PM.

"Just over two and a half hours to their deadline. Okay, lock down the building. No one gets in or out without proper clearance. Recall all off-duty Trouble Consultants within the city limits and enact riot control protocols. And post extra guards to all main reactor access points."

As his subordinates moved to carry out his orders, Goulet regarded the frozen image on the screen with a scowl.

Three years now they've been at this. Who the hell are they? What do they want? Vengeance for what?

Trouble Consultant First Class Yuri Daniels was well into her weekend when the emergency page came down from Headquarters, but that was no really big deal. Being a Detian, she could hold her liquor pretty well. Certainly well enough to jump in her roadster and head for the barn, letting the fresh air streaming past the open cockpit help her accelerated metabolism clear her head. By the time she reached the causeway over the Lake Eleanor Ship Channel, she was perfectly sober, capable of passing any breath or blood test anyone might care to name.

Unfortunately, sobriety does not, in itself, constitute an effective defense against anti-vehicle mines.

Yuri heard nothing, felt no premonition of danger. Her only warning was a sudden flash of green light out of the corner of her eye, as if someone had passed a green searchlight over her car. Then -

Yuri's sleek scarlet Road Arrow speeder and its driver vanished in a massive fireball that bloomed upward from the causeway beneath, cratering the duracrete road surface. Flaming debris rained down into the lake as a pall of thick black smoke, backlit by the city's nightglow, rose into the sky. The concussion smashed windows on the shore, nearly a mile away, and set off several building alarms. Chief Goulet could see the blast from the window of his office, though, of course, he had no idea of its significance.

In her office down on the 73rd floor, TC1 Kei Morgan suddenly winced, uttering a sharp, inarticulate cry. A passing TC3 paused, looking in through the door.

"Agent Morgan? Are you all right?"

Kei blinked at the younger agent, apparently as surprised as her colleague that she had just jumped in her chair and let out a yelp. "Uhh... I'm fine," she said, putting her fingertips to her forehead. "I just felt... a little weird." She looked at her watch, then at the empty desk on the other side of the room. "Where the hell is Yuri?"

Not far from the furiously burning fire on the Ship Channel Causeway, a gaunt figure dressed in black stood by the guard rail next to an idling repulsor swoop. Expressionless, he watched the fire burn with sunken, glassy, bloodshot eyes, the eyes of a living corpse. The green rings swept over and past him, playing over the blaze for a few seconds.

Then a silhouette appeared within the still-blazing fire, growing nearer and more distinct - and Yuri Daniels emerged from the flames, her uniform trailing smoke but intact, angry red burns on her body already healing and disappearing. She walked casually away from the inferno and stopped next to Captain Black. As she did so, the last of her burns disappeared.

"You know what to do," he intoned in a low, guttural voice - a voice not too different from that of the Mysterons themselves.

Yuri nodded, swung onto the saddle of the swoop, and accelerated away, heading for the 3WA pyramid. Captain Black stood for a long moment watching her taillights recede, then turned and walked away, vanishing into the night. His part in the operation was concluded.

"Took you long enough to get in, Daniels," the guard at the main gate grumbled as he took Yuri's credentials and scanned them. "You're the last agent to report."

"Sorry!" Yuri replied, looking sheepish and faintly embarrassed. "I was busy when I got the page. Took me a few minutes to, um, extricate myself," she added with a slightly blushing wink.

The guard chuckled. "Well, they say the exfil is always the hardest part of the op," he said, returning her credentials. He opened the gate and waved her through.

"You got that right!" Yuri declared, waving gaily as she rode onto the grounds.

She passed the next five checkpoints - getting into the parking garage with her swoop, getting out of the parking garage on foot, accessing the lobby level, passing the guards in the transport core, and entering an elevator bound for the office levels - with ease, chatting with everyone for a few moments about what a bummer it was to get called in for an all-hands lockdown on a Friday night. After nearly four centuries with the 3WA, she and Kei were fixtures around the building, especially since they'd been based out of Headquarters after the SDF-17 went down. They knew everybody who worked there; had often known those same people's parents, grandparents, and more.

Only after entering the elevator did Yuri drop her cheerful demeanor, becoming grim and purposeful. When the lift reached the 33rd floor, she halted it with an override code she was not, strictly speaking, supposed to know, then left the car through the emergency exit and made her way to the ventilation duct that parallelled the turboshaft.

"Has Yuri checked in with you yet?" Goulet asked on Kei's desktop vidphone.

"No," Kei replied. "She should've been here by now. And she's got her damn comm shut off again. I was starting to wonder if she'd gone up to check with you."

"I haven't seen her," Goulet said. "Strange." He sighed. "See if you can find her. This is no time for her to be off roaming around the building on one of her little sightseeing expeditions. The Security officers are all on post anyway," he added with a slightly wry expression. "There's nothing for her to see in their showers right now."

Kei nodded. "Maybe she's taking the opportunity to set up some cameras. I'm on it, Chief," she said. It'll give me something to do, anyway, she thought as she hung up the phone and turned to her computer terminal.

Okay. Securitrack shows she entered the building... five minutes ago. So where the hell is she? Kei thought. She punched a few more keys, accessing security cameras around the building. Nobody in the security officers' barracks area, not that she'd seriously expected Yuri to be there. Nobody in any of the turbolifts...

Frowning, Kei accessed the transponder tracking system. She disliked the 3WA's relatively recent habit of tagging all its agents with a homing transponder. It seemed a little unsporting, even if management insisted up, down, and sideways that the system wasn't going to be used to keep tabs on agents' personal habits - only locate them in the event of an emergency. She had been known to jam her own transponder implant just to be contrary. There was just something that pissed her off about being tagged like a migratory animal.

She looked at her watch and then went back to work at the console. If "less than an hour to go before the Mysterons blow up the building" wasn't an emergency...

Then Kei's eyebrows went up as the system reported Yuri's whereabouts.

"What the crap... " she murmured. She ran the trace again. The result was the same.

"What the fuck are you doing, Yuri?" Kei muttered. Her partner's behavior, if this trace was to be believed, made no sense. Why would she be going back to the parking level? Forgot something in her car? Or...

The thought popped into her head with complete spontaneity.

Or trying to get back-level access to the reactor?

Kei shook her head. What? That's stupid. Not Yuri.

But we don't really know how the Mysterons recruit their agents, do we? she asked herself. Remember that case on New Japan? That guy was the city commissioner of public works. Not the kind of person who's easily swayed to a terrorist cause. And he tried to take out the city water works.

No. Kei, you're being stupid again. There is no fucking way that Yuri is working for the Mysterons. The last time you let yourself think some stupid shit like that about someone you love, you fucked the galaxy in the eye for 90 years, you retard. Pull your shit together. Think. What's she doing down there?

The light dawned almost immediately. She's tracking the real Mysteron infiltrator. She's not answering her comm because it would give her away.

Yanking open her desk drawer, Kei grabbed her blaster and PDA, holstered the one and slapped a tracker module into the other, and left the office.

When their careers as 3WA Trouble Consultants began, neither Kei nor Yuri was regarded as a good prospect. Both scored high in practical exercises, but poorly in academic evaluations. Neither displayed discipline, exactitude, or even any particular cleverness. They were athletic women - girls, really, all of seventeen - with better-than-average marksmanship abilities and a propensity for violence, and that was, essentially, all. They were passable enforcers but poor investigators, and the first few years of their careers were marked by a series of spectacular failures of both judgment and execution, as well as an exceptional tendency toward sheer bad karma. The only reason the agency kept them on was the simple fact that, when the dust settled, the 3WA central computer always found sufficient extenuating circumstances to excuse the worst of their conduct.

It said something for how far they had come that both women managed, in the midst of a full-scale security lockdown, to reach the headquarters building's reactor room in Subbasement G without running afoul of any security personnel, tripping any anti-intrusion system, or setting off any alarm - and by two completely separate routes, to boot. They did it without any time to plan, without any specialized equipment beyond what they normally carried, and without outside backup.

Kei arrived in the core chamber first, emerging from a secondary service duct high in the vast room's domed ceiling. Two hundred feet below her, connected to the circular walkway that constituted Level G by a pair of radial catwalks, was the core itself, a vaguely hemispherical, heavily shielded collection of hardware about the size of a bus. Below that, the master cooling shaft stretched away to a dizzying vanishing point, seeming like it must plunge clear to the center of the planet.

Slowly turning at the end of her jumpline and scanning the chamber, Kei saw no one, no sign of movement. She let herself down, releasing the line when she was just above the core, and dropped lightly to the top of the containment housing, then crept slowly forward. The manual override controls for the core - the logical target for an infiltrator bent on taking out the building - were on the side of the core housing, at the end of the north catwalk. Kei moved toward this, staying low against the armored reactor cap, so that she could cover the approach. When the infiltrator arrived, assuming Yuri was still on his tail - and from the movement of her blip on Kei's portable tracker, it seemed she still was - they'd have him pincered between them before he ever had a chance to approach the controls.

On the far wall, at the other end of the catwalk, a series of lights above a recessed door started to blink quickly downward.

Man, how brazen is this bastard? Kei thought as a bell sounded and the elevator door opened. Whoever it is, he knows something about the way this building is put together, she mused. Or he's just a competent enough slicer to rascal the elevator without setting off an alarm - no mean feat in the middle of a full lockdown.

Rising to one knee for a better sightline, she held her blaster in a textbook two-hand grip and leveled it at the doorway. Inside the car, a figure stirred, then emerged into the low bluish light of the core chamber.

Kei blinked.

Yuri! But... where's the guy she's following?

Puzzled, Kei raised herself up and called, "Hey! What'd you, lose him?"

Yuri looked up sharply, surprise on her face -

- then drew her weapon and opened fire.

"What the CRAP - " Kei yelled as blasterfire laced the air around her. She dropped instinctively, hugging the reactor casing. Blaster bolts skipped off the housing's heavy armor. One of the ricochets clipped her in the upper arm. Kei dropped her blaster, rolled to the side, and nearly lost her balance, sliding partway down the sloped side of the casing. With her good hand, she grabbed at an irregularity in the plating, stopping herself before she could go over the side. Her weapon tumbled the rest of the way down, bounced off a secondary cooling vane, and fell into the bottomless-looking space below, disappearing from view.

"Yuri, what the hell's the matter with you?!" Kei demanded, trying to pull herself back up the side of the core housing. "It's me! Kei? Your partner? Stop shooting at me!"

The plea only seemed to spur Yuri to double her rate of fire. Cursing, Kei huddled against the reactor housing, waiting out the storm. When Yuri paused to switch in a new powerpack, Kei gritted her teeth and, with a supreme effort that brought tears to her eyes, hauled herself to the top of the housing, then leaped off. Yuri finished reloading, but Kei plowed into her in a flying tackle before she could raise her weapon. Yuri twisted away from the blow, preventing herself from being carried over backward, but Kei turned her fall into a crouch and then swept Yuri's legs from under her. The raven-haired Trouble Consultant fell, her blaster spinning from her hand and ricocheting from the safety gutter at the edge of the catwalk.

As quickly as she fell, Yuri bounced up again, launching a kick at Kei's head, and the fight was on.

/* Rollins Band
"Disappearing Act"
Come In and Burn Sessions */

Yuri and Kei had always been fairly well-matched in hand-to-hand combat. They had sparred together often enough that they knew each other's strengths and weaknesses well. Kei was the stronger of the two, and marginally the tougher, though since both women were Detians, they both had endurance and pain tolerance to rival large farm animals. Yuri was quicker and slightly more agile. Kei was a bare-knuckled street fighter with a variety of special-forces dirty tricks and tae kwon do techniques she'd picked up over the years; Yuri was a sometime practitioner of wu shu kung fu and knew a bit of aikido.

Kei was hard-pressed to stay abreast of her opponent in this fight. Yuri was holding absolutely nothing back, coming at her partner with every technique she knew and every bit of speed and strength in her body. Kei was confused, not to say entirely flummoxed, by the unexpected turn her day had taken, and she didn't want to hurt her oldest friend if she could possibly help it. Plus, only one of her arms was really working, though the blaster burn to the other was already beginning to heal.

Rather than try to take Yuri out, Kei at first just tried to keep her guard up and stay between her partner and the reactor override panel. For a few seconds, she tried talking, striving to get through, to no avail. Feverishly she tried to think what could have happened to Yuri. Some kind of mind control? Her eyes weren't blank or glassy like your average Manchurian Candidate-type carrying out a program; she seemed to know exactly what she was doing, even if she refused to reply to Kei's entreaties. Android double? No, she had Yuri's transponder tag, and not even Yuri knew exactly where on her person that was; anyway, they were designed to self-destruct if removed. Some kind of clever counterplot that relied on Kei not realizing she was faking until some critical moment? Uh... no, not likely under the circumstances. So what -

"Aaaaaaaah!" Kei yelled as Yuri caught her a little short on an attempted block, seized what had been her good arm in a painful joint lock, then deliberately overpowered the hold so that it separated the elbow. Only by sacrificing the shoulder as well, earning herself a second starburst of pain, did Kei manage to break free and reel away. Yuri pressed her advantage, launching a kick combo that Kei could only feebly try to block with her blaster-shot arm. Battered first one way and then the other, momentarily stunned, Kei was unable to defend herself effectively as Yuri closed in, seized her by the throat, and bent her backward over the catwalk's safety railing.

Grabbing ineffectually at Yuri's wrist, Kei fought back as best she could, trying to get a leg under her apparently deranged partner and push her away. Yuri's strength seemed to double; teeth gritted, she forced Kei back and down, her eyes wild.

"Yuri... why are you... doing this?" Kei managed to gasp out - and then she was overmatched, her balance pushed past its limits, and she went over the rail and vanished into the darkness below.

Yuri stood at the rail for a moment, gathering her composure. Then she turned, went to the override console, and started methodically overcoming its safety protocols.

So intent was she on this task that she failed to notice her partner's survival.

It took Kei nearly five agonizing minutes to crawl through the open steelwork superstructure underneath the catwalk to the far end. There, the walkway widened slightly into a short platform just before debouching into the elevator bay, offering a small gap in the gutter where she might be able to climb back to right side of the catwalk. Slowly, painfully, she worked her way through the crossbars and grabbed the edge of the platform. Her blaster wound, now bleeding, twinged as she closed her hand. Only her iron self-will prevented the hand from opening reflexively, sending her plunging into the cooling shaft to the doom Yuri had planned for her.

That same will fueled her as she dragged herself upward, her dislocated arm slithering along beside her like a separate entity, until she could finally get a toehold on the catwalk frame and use her legs to help propel her onto the platform. With a grunt, she pushed herself forward, falling full-length onto the catwalk. Twisting her body as she fell, she used the impact to drive her shoulder back into position, letting out another strangled cry through her teeth.

Kei would have liked to lie there for a few minutes, her face pressed to the cool metal of the catwalk, until the throbbing in her shoulder and elbow subsided a little - but there wasn't time for that, so she hauled herself to her knees, then tried to get upright. A burst of vertigo convinced her that might not be such a good idea. Blinking away tears, she saw Yuri standing at the reactor console, her back to the elevator, still working away at the keyboard there.

For a second she didn't know what to do - she was in no condition to charge back into a face-to-face confrontation, much less drag Yuri away from the console, and she had no weapons - and then she saw Yuri's compact blaster, lying where it had slid to a stop after Kei's flying leap from the reactor casing had knocked it from its owner's hand. Still dragging her right hand, Kei half-limped, half-crawled toward it, picked it up, and tried to aim it.

The enormity of what was happening to her pressed close on Kei's mind, more traumatic in its way than the pain in her battered body. She'd been beaten up before, and much more comprehensively than this, come to that. Physical pain was transitory, doubly so to a regenerative Detian. But the knowledge that she'd been beaten up by Yuri - that Yuri had tried to kill her, believed she had succeeded, and was now calmly trying to self-destruct the building and kill not only herself, but hundreds of co-workers and friends (to say nothing of the thousands of Eleanor City citizens who would perish in the blast)...

... it all reminded Kei almost paralytically of another day, decades before, when she had felt the carefully maintained order of her universe falling in around her for no understandable reason.

What if I'm wrong? she asked herself, her hand shaking violently. Like I was before? What if there's an explanation for all this that I just can't see?

But even as she asked it of herself, Kei knew the question was fallacious. What explanation could there be for Yuri shooting her, beating her up, and throwing her off a catwalk? This wasn't like Musashi, where she'd seen leading circumstances and jumped to a conclusion. She was witnessing these acts first-hand. They were terrible, they were incomprehensible, but they were happening, right in front of her.

"Yuri," she rasped, then coughed and tried again. "Yuri! Yuri, stop! Get away from that console! Do it now!"

Yuri stiffened, obviously surprised to be addressed from beyond the grave, as it were. Slowly, she turned and saw Kei half-kneeling on the catwalk a dozen yards away, braced against one of the railing uprights, Yuri's own blaster leveled at its owner in one unsteady hand.

The reactor chamber's lighting turned red and an alarm started sounding. For the first time since this strange dance began, Yuri spoke.

"You're too late," she said. "The codes are all entered. All I have to do now is press one key." Reaching behind her for the keyboard, she smiled coldly. "You won't stop me."

Tears streaming down her face, Kei cried hoarsely, "Yuri, I'm begging you. I don't know what's happened to you, but... don't make me do this."

"Goodbye, Kei," said Yuri. She started to bring her hand down.

"Yuri! Don't make me! Don't make me do this again! YURIIIII!"

The sound of the single shot was nearly drowned out by the alarm siren. Yuri's hazel-green eyes widened in shock, then went utterly blank, as she seemed to acquire a third eye - a neat-edged, dime-sized black circle, dead-center on her forehead. As if in slow motion, she fell to her knees, then pitched forward on her face and lay still.

Weeping uncontrollably, Kei threw the blaster over the edge of the catwalk, forced herself to her feet, and walked past her partner's body, then punched in a code to abort the reactor overload. As the lights returned to normal and the siren ceased to wail, she turned and crumpled to her knees next to Yuri's sprawled form.

"Yuri," she whispered, putting a hand on her partner's back. "Why? Why did you do it?"

Awkwardly - her right arm still had virtually no strength, though at least it was working again - she managed to turn Yuri's limp body over and gather it up, holding Yuri's upper body against her chest. Wracked with misery, Kei knelt there, sobbing, knowing that this time there would be no convenient replicant or GENOM plot to blame. Her partner had gone mad and Kei had killed her. That she'd had to, that she'd saved thousands of lives by doing so, meant nothing. Not right now. Right now, Kei saw only black and tasted only ashes.

Had she been slightly less wrapped up in her wretchedness, she might have noticed the blaster burn on Yuri's forehead close, fade, and disappear entirely; but had she been in any position to take note of that, she would hardly have been human.

Only when Yuri twitched, stirred, and then began to struggle did Kei snap out of her miserable fugue.

"Owww," Yuri moaned, pushing at one of Kei's arms. "Kei, you're crushing me. I can't breathe."

"AAAAAHH!" Kei yelled, recoiling. Released, Yuri fell to the catwalk, then pulled herself up to her knees and shook her head.

"What are you yelling about?" she asked irritably. Then, looking around, she blinked in surprise. "And what the hell are we doing in the reactor room? I was just on my way in for the - ... are you crying? Kei, what the fuck is going on?"

Kei blinked, staring at her, absolutely unable to believe what she was seeing. Not only was Yuri alive, she seemed completely unaware of what she had just done, what had just happened to her. The snap in her voice, the spark in her eyes - that was the Yuri Kei knew.

She would never be entirely sure why she did what she did next, but she did it anyway: lunging forward, she caught Yuri up in a crushing hug and kissed her.

When she did - when their lips touched - a flash of light filled her cerebral cortex, followed by an image of another place and time.

Somewhere hot and dusty, ash crunching underfoot. Kei in combat boots, jeans, one of those reflec-taped thermal jackets firefighters wear; she had a pair of green-lensed flare goggles hanging around her neck and a strange gold-metal rod in her hands. Yuri in black, tails of a red trenchcoat snapping in a cold wind, a hard white light from somewhere off to the side casting half her face in deep shadow under the brim of a scarlet duster hat, and a sense... a sense of heavy foreboding mingled with a strange exultation.

The Lovely Angels are going to war...

Kei snapped back to reality to see Yuri regarding her with an expression combining bafflement and faint amusement.

"I hope," she said dryly, "you weren't trying to, uh... reveal anything to me with that."

Kei blinked, then blushed slightly.

"Um... no," she said. "I just, um... got a little carried away."

"Good. 'Cause, as you well know, I'm not into that kind of thing."

"No. Uh, me neither. I... I dunno." Kei looked a little sheepish and sniffed back a fresh wave of tears, these propelled by relief rather than grief. "Been a long day. I guess you don't remember."

"I guess not." Yuri looked thoughtful for a second, then grinned faintly and said, "Though I have to admit you're not bad."

Kei snorted, a giggle supplanting the sniffles. "Er... thanks," she said.

A few seconds later, the security officers piled out of the elevator, summoned by the reactor alarms, and found them half-laughing, half-crying in each other's arms.

On the top floor, Chief Goulet listened to Kei's report via telephone from the ground-floor medical center.

"I understand," he said. "I want you both fully checked out by Med-Sci. Especially Yuri. We have to be absolutely sure whatever control the Mysterons had over her really is broken. Mm-hmm. All right. Full report in the morning. And Kei? ... Good work."

Goulet hung up the telephone, then sagged in his chair, sighing. "They came through again," he said to no one in particular.

Turning in his chair, he looked out at the lights of Eleanor City. Five million people going about their Friday nights - well, Saturday mornings now - sublimely unaware of how close they had all just come to annihilation.

Another day in the 3WA. Another day on the razor's edge.

Goulet's console beeped. Swiveling, he saw his new-mail icon blinking. A moment later, the new message popped open.




"Mysteron" - an Exile Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with thanks to Gerry & Sylvia Anderson
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

6423 Boulevard of Champions
Fort Organa, Alderaan
Monday, April 29th, 2391

"Chad? Wake up!" his mother called.

Chad cracked an eyelid and grunted. The clock next to his bed read 0600, an ungodly hour, especially given that it was "teacher planning day" and he didn't have school. What did his mother want now?

"I.. whuzzzproblem?" Chad roared back. (He couldn't really help the roaring. He'd tried. He just couldn't get the hang of raising his voice like everyone else yet.)

"I've cooked breakfast!" his mom replied-- a little too cheerily, if you asked Chad. "Come down, your father and I have a surprise for you."

Chad groaned, rolled over, and whuffed at the air a couple of times. Bacon, eggs, sausage... slightly burnt toast...

His eyes widened in alarm. Whatever that last smell was, it wasn't any breakfast food he was familiar with. He rolled out of bed and found a pair of jeans and one of his T-shirts, got dressed, wandered into the bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face, arranged his fur a little more decorously, and wandered downstairs with some trepidation.

The back porch door was open, and he could hear his father in the brush that led into the woods out back. His mother smiled, hugged him absent-mindedly, and pointed him at the kitchen table. Chad whuffed the air again-- breakfast, parents... and some sort of prey animal.

"So, uh, what's up?" he said.

"Oh, we're so proud of you, honey!" his mother replied, beaming. "It's your birthday!"

"Well, yeah," he said. "But why the early wakeup call?"

His mother turned back to the stove. "Well, we were looking through the reference books, and..."

Chad cringed inwardly.

"--and it's your Feast of Spilt Blood, son," his father said, coming in the door in a set of dirtied work clothes, rubbing a spot on his leg that seemed to pain him somewhat. "Your first solo hunt, your first real kill!"

"Kill?" Chad said, eyeing his bacon with alarm.

"Well, of course, it won't be anything like it would be on Kilrah," his father said with a laugh. "But we did get you a little something."

Chad heard it in the yard-- a faint animal noise. A Terran sheep. His eyes widened. Don't get sick on the table, he reminded himself. Don't get sick on the table...

Chad padded out into the backyard, testing the air. It wouldn't be too hard to track a sheep out here-- there weren't any other sheep in Fort Organa, as far as he knew, and they had a fairly distinctive scent. But kill it? And eat it? And come back showing off the corpse? Sure, his father and brother were hunters. He'd gone out with them and seen them shoot deer, or feral pigs, plenty of times.

He wasn't into eating raw meat, though, and he didn't really relish the thought of digging his claws into a defenseless animal who'd been brought in just for the purpose. Never even mind the "for the glory of Sivar" and the whole coming-of-age bit, he just didn't want to go there. It wasn't the same.

But his folks were expecting him to come home with a fresh kill...

He sighed heavily and scented the sheep again. "C'mere, you," he muttered. "We've gotta go talk to Tramm."

Tramm Wigzell was a pretty heavy sleeper, and Chad knew it. That was why they'd rigged the trellis near his window to be Kilrathi-accessible; of course, they'd never considered that Chad might be hauling up an outraged live animal to pay Tramm a visit. He tucked the sheep under one arm and started to climb haltingly...

...only to be kicked soundly in the hip. He lost his balance, dug his claws into the side of the house (he hoped Tramm wouldn't have to fix that later, but this was an emergency, dammit), and dangled helplessly for a moment.

"Urf!" he said, hauling himself up by the pads of his feet. "Dammit, you, fluffy THING, now I know what you did to Dad-- maybe I WILL kill you when-- ack!"

The siding let go where he'd dug in, and he pitched off the side of the house into Tramm's mother's favorite azalea. He reflected grimly that they'd known the risk when they selected the secret approach to Tramm's window, got a better grip on the wildly flailing sheep, and laid back to consider his options.

Right about then, the window opened and Tramm stuck his head out, knocking a cephalic lobe against the window frame. The Selkath boy was a couple heads shorter than Chad, and had a perpetual expression of piscine amusement. He scratched at the wayward lobe and squinted.

"Chad?" he called quietly. "Was that you... by the Progenitor, that's a sheep."

"...perceptive as ever, Little Mermaid," Chad growled. "Get DOWN here already."

Tramm idly scratched the sheep, which was placidly chewing on the lawn. "And so... we have a sheep, and your parents," he said. "And mine, if your fall woke them."

"They sleep on the other side of the house, and they sleep even sounder than you do," Chad said. "I hope."

"True," Tramm said reflectively. "And they also have the noise generator. They don't mind living on land, but they still find the sounds disconcerting at night."

Chad nodded. "Aside from the wonders of Selkath psychology," he said, a trifle irritably, "what else have we got going for us here? My parents want to see a fresh kill on the doorstep by the time they get back from work. That doesn't give us much time."

"You could just..." Tramm made a very descriptive hand gesture.

"No!" Chad said. "What did it ever do to me?"

"Potentially," Tramm pointed out, "get you in trouble with your folks."

"It's already kicked me in the hip once," Chad grumbled. "Maybe that really is enough to--"

He bared his fangs and licked one experimentally. Tramm shuddered. Chad frowned.

"...can't do it, sorry," he said.

"Well, I suppose that's heartening," Tramm said wryly. "What do you propose to do next, now that you've failed to summon your bestial nature and dispose of the prey as Mighty Sivar intended of you?"

Chad shot him a withering look.

"We could take it to the circus!" Tramm suggested brightly.

Chad's expression didn't change. "Tramm," he said. "What in the galaxy is a CIRCUS going to do with a SHEEP?"

Tramm broke. Chad cuffed him with one paw.

"Come on, fishboy," he said. "We gotta get the sheep out of here... and then we've got to figure out how to make a convincing-looking kill without actually killing something... assuming, of course, you don't bug me any more today. I wonder how Sivar would feel about me giving him a dead Selkath? You probably taste pretty good."

Tramm got up, ignoring Chad with great asperity, and eyed the sheep. "Well, first of all, we need some better way of getting it out of here, as heroic as carrying it might look," he said.

Chad jogged ahead and peered down the street. He whistled the all-clear back to Tramm, who proceeded down the street as nonchalantly as a Selkath with a sheep on a bright orange extension-cord leash could manage. Under the circumstances, Chad had to admit that his best friend was holding up pretty well.

"So," Tramm said. "Where to, mighty warrior of Sivar?"

"Don't start," Chad replied. "I... don't know."

Tramm sighed. "You know, it's not like I know these things any better than you do. I only got out of my encounter suit last year. You've been out here with the air-breathers your whole life."

"Yeah, and I'm a Kilrathi," Chad countered. "Every time I go anywhere, the Salusians look at me funny. Not to mention the kinds of questions my parents get. And now I'm going to go into town with a Selkath and a sheep. That's not going to help my reputation."

Tramm snorted. "Like you have a reputation," he replied. "Except for that time you fell asleep in math class and had the chasing-the-rabbit dream and flipped your whole desk ov—"

"Can it, fishboy," Chad replied, bristling. "How much you got in your pockets?"

Tramm stuck his hand in the pocket of his shorts and fished around. "Eight credits, and a pack of hydration lozenges, which won't help you," he replied. "You?"

"Fifteen credits, my knife, a P-38, and a T2 Torx bit," Chad replied with a sigh. "You think twenty-three credits is enough?"

"Enough for what?" Tramm said.

"I mean, lamb's expensive at the store," Chad said, apparently to himself as much as to Tramm. "That might not be enough to look convincing, unless I pretend I'm really full for the rest of the day. And then I'd miss birthday cake. There's got to be some other way."

Chad strode into the grocery store and hoped he looked at least vaguely like an adult. He was pretty big even for a Kilrathi, anyhow. It might work.

He approached the meat counter and rang the bell. A burly Daxamite butcher came out from the back, wiping his hands on a cloth, and looked down inquiringly. "Help you?"

"I have..." Chad began haltingly. "That is, I'd like to trade my live sheep—which is just outside— for your, uh, prepacked dead sheep. Preferably on a one-to-one basis."

The butcher squinted at him.

Tramm stood outside, having secured the sheep's improvised leash to the shopping-cart return, and tried to look nonchalant. "Nothing to see here, air-breathers. Just a bipedal stingray with a sheep. Move along," he muttered to himself.

It worked, mostly. No one really seemed to care that he was standing there... until the giant black van reading ROYAL ALDERA SPECIAL WEAPONS AND TACTICS UNIT pulled up. Tramm sighed. It really was going to be one of those days.

The van pulled into a parking space, its driver apparently oblivious to the Selkath boy and his charge. The door swung open, and a red-haired young man in a severe-looking armored commando uniform stepped out, frowning. His gaze swept across the parking lot and zeroed in on Tramm.

The authorities had sent a ninja. Tramm held his breath, which was even more uncomfortable than he'd expected it would be. He thought longingly of his encounter suit. Maybe no one would notice if he pulled it out when they got home.

"You want what, exactly?" the butcher said. "Son, I've got to tell you, we're not in that line of work here. I can't just take any old sheep and sell it. There are rules about that kind of thing."

"My dad takes... I mean, I take deer to the processor all the time," Chad replied.

"Sure, the processor," the butcher said. "We don't do that—and where'd you get a sheep, anyhow?"

"It's..." Chad began, then trailed off.

The butcher sighed. "Where are your parents, son?" he finally said. "Do they know you've got one of their sheep and you're looking to get it cut up?"

"No!" Chad said. "I mean, no, no, I don't want to cut it up. I want to trade it for one that's already cut up."

Tramm gulped as the policeman strode over to him. "What's going on?" the cop said, peering at him intently over a pair of dataglasses.

"Er, nothing, sir, nothing of interest," Tramm replied. "I and my sheep are waiting for my... associate... to finish grocery shopping."

"I'm curious as to where you got the sheep," the cop replied.

"Well!" Tramm said. "That's, uh, a very long story, yes. I assure you that this is, in fact, my, uh, lawful sheep property."

"I wasn't really worried," the cop replied dryly. "Is there something else..."

He removed his dataglasses.

"...going on?"

Tramm bit the corner of his cephalic lobe and looked around guiltily. "Actually, sir, there is," he said, in the tones of a man confiding the details of a grand conspiracy. "It's about my friend."

Chad sighed and exited the store; the butcher had been nice enough to let him get a Coke before throwing him out, at least. He headed over to the shopping cart return, dejected. It looked like Sivar would win this one anyways. He began to steel himself for the long walk home, after which he would commit murder in the back forty.

He'd almost made it back to Tramm before he noticed the dark-suited figure standing there with the younger boy. Tramm was waving his arms animatedly and pantomining... some sort of kicking motion. Chad scanned the parking lot and saw the SWAT van parked nearby. He took a deep breath and tried not to panic. No one actually knew what they were doing. There was no reason for a fully-armored SWAT commando to be on the scene... he hoped. On the other hand, Tramm seemed awfully nervous.

"Tramm's going to get me arrested," Chad muttered, heading over to intercede.

Tramm had stopped his re-enactment by the time Chad trotted up. "—and so we've got to do something, you understand," the Selkath was saying earnestly. "I just can't leave my best friend to face the prospect of homicide."

"Well, son, we usually call it 'animal cruelty,' except in certain religiously-motivated cases," the cop said. "Your friend could be exonerated on those grounds. Is this him?"

Chad looked from Tramm to the police officer. He tried to say something, anything, that would make some kind of sense. He locked eyes with Tramm for an uncomfortably long moment.

"Way to GO, Danny Ocean, spilling the plan to the cops!" the Kilrathi finally spluttered.

"Pfff," Tramm said, unconcerned. "I've got everything under control now. Officer Caine is going to help us fix this."

On the ride back to the house, Chad reflected on their sudden good fortune. Officer Caine had helped them fix it—he'd escorted them back into the grocery store, and persuaded the butcher to provide a bag of assorted offal, which Chad was now dubiously holding. The sheep had been loaded into the back of the van, to be taken to the Aldera Animal Protective Services' rehabilitation facility. The former sacrificial victim had protested wildly for a while, then appeared to settle into sleep. Chad couldn't really blame it.

"See?" Tramm said blithely. "Now we can present evidence of your warrior prowess, and get back to the important things. Birthday cake. Presents. Annoying your brother."

"We've still got to make it look convincing," Chad said grimly. "And we've only got about an hour and a half before my parents get home."

Tramm leaned on the shovel and sighed. "I can't sweat, you know. This is obviously air-breather work."

Chad tugged at an undefined mound of entrails with his claws. "Keep digging. I've got to at least try to tear some of this up, and your claws don't look anything like mine. They'll know."

Tramm grumbled and kept digging. "How's that? Oh, and don't forget your muzzle. Can you just stick your head in the bag a few times?"

Chad ignored that, inspected the shallow hole, and grunted. "Looks pretty good, let me just put in the claw marks..."

His head whipped around and his ears perked. "...oh, no, it's my dad's truck. They're home early. Quick, Tramm, run, get the shovel, stall them somehow while I get this all put back together."

Tramm was only too happy to run to the Colliers' machine-shop-cum-garage and dump the shovel before heading to the front yard. Meanwhile, Chad took a deep breath, held it, and shoved his face into a pile of unspecified cow parts for as long as he could bear it. Coming up, he tried not to gag and began to dump the entrails into the hole, furiously shoving loose dirt over them with both paws.

"Chad, honey!" his mother called from the kitchen. "Do you want to bring some of your kill in here?"

"Uhhhh, no thanks, Mom!" he yelled back, desperately trying to get rid of the bag. "I'll, uh, I think I should just eat it out here in the grass!"

He hurriedly smeared some of the giblety bits on his shirt and sat back on his haunches. His dad was coming out the door, a big smile on his face. Chad sighed. It was going to be a very long evening at the Collier residence.

"Man," Chad groaned, flopping out full-length on his bed. His birthday dinner was finally over, and he and Tramm were back in his room.

"Yeah, your mom's birthday cakes just get better every year," Tramm said. "And that camera Scott got you is sweet. We can make a movie this summer when I get back from Manaan."

"Not THAT," Chad said, shooting Tramm a look. "What am I gonna do?"

"Bask in the glory of Sivar War-God?" Tramm said, flipping an errant cephalic lobe out of the way. "Go to school tomorrow and horrify all the girls with tales of your conquest?"

"I can't do that!" Chad protested. "That's awful! And I lied to my parents."

"By Kilrathi standards, you're a man now, yeah?" Tramm replied. "Men lie to their parents all the time. You might as well get used to it."

Chad rolled over and buried his muzzle in his pillow. "Except for that whole part where I didn't actually kill anything," he said, voice muffled. "And the bit where I'm twelve and live in Fort Organa, not on Kilrah. And the part where I actually feel bad about this."

Tramm shrugged. "My people have a long and proud history of deception," he said. "If you can learn Selkatha, maybe you can come on vacation with me. My parents could speak to the officials and have you named an honorary Selkath."

Chad roared into his pillow. "I should have sacrificed you," he said.

Tramm shrugged again. "Some of us don't have these pressing moral concerns," he said airily. "Where'd you leave the camera?"

Later that night, Chad lay in bed, uneasy. His father was out in the machine shop across the yard, working; the blue light from his welding torch illuminated Chad's small fleet of starship models with its acetylene glow. Chad stared up at it and felt none of the usual comfort.

He tossed and turned for a while longer, and then gave up. He didn't care what Sivar thought of anything at this point—heck, he didn't even know if believed in Sivar—but he did care about what his parents thought of him. He got up and headed for the kitchen.

His mother was sitting at the table with the Sunday paper, separating out the ads and clipping the occasional coupon. Chad padded down the stairs silently and sat down at the table. "Mom."

Judy Collier looked over at her son. "You need a glass of water? Did you have a nightmare?"

Chad shook his head and bit his lip. "I—" he began, only to choke back tears. "I messed up."

"Did you have a fight with Tramm?" Judy asked. "What's wrong?"

"I messed up!" Chad repeated, feeling the tears start to spill. "I didn't want you to be upset with me and I wanted to do it right but I couldn't kill that stupid thing even after it kicked me."

He shuddered to a halt and drew a long breath. "So we had Officer Caine—he's from the SWAT team, we met him at the grocery store— take it away and we bought a bunch of junk off the butcher. And then I pretended I'd killed and eaten it. But I was wrong and I lied to you and..."

He looked back up, lip quivering. His mother said nothing, and met his gaze evenly. Somehow, that just made it worse.

"I— I wanted you to be proud of me," Chad finally managed. "Only now I'm not proud of me, and I'm sorry."

His mother looked at him and sighed. "Oh, Chad," she said. "Come here."

He looked down at his paws and went into her embrace. She rubbed his back gently and kissed the top of his head. "Little tiger," she said. "All we wanted was for you to understand where you came from. But... maybe that's not as important as appreciating where you are now."

"I know you want what's right," Chad said quietly. "But I think maybe it's OK if what's right for me means being like the other kids, like Tramm and my friends at school. I know I'm Kilrathi, but it doesn't matter to me as much as being... I don't know, me."

His mother smiled for moment, then turned serious. "It was good that you told me," she said, "but you did go to pretty great lengths to lie to us—you said something about the SWAT team?—and, well, I can't just let that go, even if you were trying to live up to some unreasonable expectations."

Chad flinched.

"Mrs. Wigzell tells me there's some nasty holes in the siding at her house, right under Tramm's bedroom window," his mom continued. "On top of that, her trellis is hanging off the house on one side, and her favorite azalea was partially crushed when she came home earlier. Now, I don't know if you know anything about all that, but I think it would be nice if you came right home from school this week and helped Mr. Wigzell and Tramm fix that up. Your father's got supplies in the shop; he'll show you what to do."

Chad's ears and whiskers drooped. "Yes, Mom," he replied. "I'm sorry."

His mom ruffled his ears gently. "You're my son, Chad," she said. "I love you because you're you, not because of what you do or don't do."

Chad rested his head in his paws and sighed. "I'm sorry," he said again. "That seems like all I can say now."

"You should get back to bed, tiger," his mother said. "You've got a busy week ahead of you."

Chad padded back up to his room and crawled into bed. This time, the blue light on the ceiling was soothing, as if something fundamental had been restored to working order. He got comfortable and fell asleep. He'd had a very long day, after all. A man could only take so much of this coming-of-age business.

"The Sheep Incident" – a Future Imperfect mini-story by Janice Collier
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Monday, June 5, 2395
Tesladyne Industries
2227 Westinghouse St.
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

Unlike most of the buildings in the Millrace district, the four-story red-brick structure at 2227 Westinghouse was not a purpose-built apartment block built to look like it had been converted from an industrial building. The painted sign above the doors wasn't just there as a decoration, to help enhance the illusion of the building's industrial origins.

Inside, the building had only two floors; the ceiling of the ground floor was three stories high, with the fourth floor above set up as offices. In the great room on the ground floor, the proprietor of the establishment stood at one of the worktables, welding together a metallic structure the purpose of which was not immediately apparent. All around him, in the largely bare room, stood pieces of esoteric equipment ranging in size from big to whopping. Most likewise lacked an immediately apparent purpose, though they did tend to convey a sense of heavy industrial purposefulness.

Like any good inventor, the building's proprietor did not immediately notice that someone had entered his workshop. Not until he finished a weld and looked up from his work did he see the visitor, a tall, broad-shouldered man with slicked-back black hair and a narrowish, rather cruel-looking face. The man wore a dark double-breasted suit with a rose in his lapel, and he walked into the workshop with an easy, arrogant gait, as though he owned the place.

The inventor switched off his welding apparatus and put the welding gun down, pushing his dark goggles up onto his forehead with his other hand.

"This laboratory is not open to the public," he said.

The visitor's face took on a faint smirk. In a deep, commanding voice, he said, "I'm here for your new particle beam amplifier."

"It's not for sale," the inventor replied calmly.

The man in the dark suit chuckled at that, reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, and removed a cigar. Without his producing a lighter or matches, the cigar's tip flared to life, then settled into a steady glow.

"I didn't say anything about buying it," he said, drawing on the cigar.

The inventor narrowed his eyes slightly. "I don't permit smoking in my laboratory," he said. Stepping away from the workbench, he untied his welder's apron, removed it, folded it neatly, and put it down next to the piece he'd been working on. Beneath it, he was in shirtsleeves, wearing braced trousers, collared shirt, and tie of a curiously archaic style. He was a taller man than the visitor, but much lighter of build - skinny as a rail, in fact, which exaggerated his height further.

"I shall have to ask you to leave," he told the visitor, still calm. When the visitor made no movement toward leaving, he added with the slightest of edges in his voice, "Now, if you please."

Shockwave Alberto, one of the most feared members of Big Fire's Magnificent Ten, smirked less faintly. "You don't know who I am, do you."

Nikola Tesla raised his right arm with the back of his hand facing Alberto, displaying his Lens to the archvillain, and replied cordially, "I could ask the same of you, sir."

Ignoring the remark, Alberto idly picked up a device from the other end of the workbench and looked it over. "You know, you really shouldn't have set up shop out here in the city. You and your inventions would have been a lot safer in the basement of IPO Headquarters with all the others."

"I prefer my own space," Tesla replied curtly. "I am not by custom a violent man, sir, but if you do not leave my laboratory immediately and undertake never to return, I shall make an exception."

Alberto shook his head, chuckling. "What is it about geniuses?" he asked rhetorically. "You always seem to need to learn your lessons the HARD way!"

So saying, he clenched his fists at his sides, seeming to expand slightly within his suit, and then burst into motion, lashing his hands forward to unleash twin crackling torrents of his trademark black-and-scarlet energy.

"HAAAAAH!" Alberto roared as his double blast tore the worktable in half and engulfed Tesla. "Maybe this will teach you to - ... wha?!"

Tesla raised his hands, not - as Alberto initially thought - in a reflexive, futile attempt to ward off the attack... but in a deliberate, successful attempt to ward off the attack. The red-edged black lightning crackled and splashed from the inventor's open palms like the stream from a hose against glass, spalling the concrete floor and blowing out several of the overhead lights.

While Alberto gaped in astonishment at this, Tesla smiled very slightly and thrust his open right palm forward - and an invisible something smashed into Alberto like a wrecking ball and catapulted him straight back out the way he'd come in, taking the door with him. He hurtled clean across Westinghouse (fortunately, not a busy street) and came to rest against the front of the vacant warehouse at number 2228.

Coughing and sputtering, Alberto pulled himself to his feet, brushing brick dust from his clothing. Across the street, Tesla stepped through the hole and out onto the sidewalk, fitting on a pair of bulky metal gauntlets. With a hair-raising high-pitched noise, his gauntlets energized, the studs on their backs beginning to glow with a bright blue light, and little crackles of electricity started playing over the corners and joints of the plates.

"Now then," he said, settling his welding goggles back over his eyes. "I trust you'll be leaving now. Technically, I imagine I should arrest you in the name of the International Police, but I have a great deal of work to do and frankly I can't be bothered."

Alberto snarled, tugged the knot in his necktie loose by an inch, and launched himself toward Tesla, fist drawn back for a punch. To his faint surprise, Tesla matched his charge, meeting him over the middle of the street, Electro-Gauntlets trailing lightning. The explosion of their meeting cracked windows all up and down the block. Both men rebounded from the blast, landed on rooftops on opposite sides of the street, and immediately took off again, throwing themselves at each other once more.

Once they began, there seemed to be no stopping them. The two men hurtled from point to point, springing from rooftops, flagpoles, the sides of buildings, the tops of delivery trucks, and whatever else was handy, hurling themselves against each other's defenses again and again. The fight ranged from one end of the Millrace to the other, eventually spilling over into Puckett's Landing.

By the time they reached the vicinity of Knights Field, both of the combatants were bloodied, winded, and bruised. They alighted on the tops of two buildings on opposite sides of the street, a block over from the baseball stadium, panting and sweating. Tesla's goggles had gone, blasted from his head by a blow that nearly scalped him even with his Electro-Kinetic Body Field Generator at full power; Alberto was nursing a cracked rib from a particularly solid body shot.

Tesla seized the moment's respite to take stock of his situation. The battle had carried him out of the limited range of the energy broadcaster back at Tesladyne, so his Electro-Gauntlets were running on internal backup cells. The EKBFG didn't have that problem, since it could, in part, power itself from the very attacks it was shielding him from, but he could tell from the disagreeable sensation against the small of his back that the coils were beginning to overheat. It wouldn't do to deflect another of Alberto's blasts of energy only to go up in flames from a coil flashover.

Most troubling was the sluggish, heavy sensation he felt as he heaved himself to his feet. It wasn't fatigue, though he was feeling plenty of that as well. It meant that his Bergenholm generator was running even lower on reserve energy than his Electro-Gauntlets, and without the ability to cancel inertia, he would lose his ability to match Alberto's maneuvers (and shrug off the physical impact of his blows). And then, an EKBFG coil flashover would be the least of his worries.

Alberto straightened first, wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth with the back of one hand, then smoothed his disheveled hair.

"Your toys are impressive," he called across the street, "but they're still only toys. They can't hope to outlast real power."

"On the contrary, my dear sir," replied Tesla, drawing himself to his full height. "I place my faith in technology every time." With a tiny smile, he added, "Unlike human vanity, it always knows its limits."

"Enough!" Alberto snarled, summoning his power to sizzle around his fists once more. "Time to send you back where you belong, dead man! HAAAAAAH!"

Tesla didn't move this time; he remained where he was and let the furious villain come to him. As Alberto hurtled across the street, Tesla slammed his Gauntlets together, setting up a sizzling nimbus of energy around both fists; when he pulled them apart, the left one had gone dark and all the lightning was concentrated solely on the right.

Alberto, still bellowing in fury, swooped down out of the sky with his own power seething all around him. If this punch connected, with all the force of his rage behind it, he was determined that it would sweep his foe completely out of existence, clever forcefield or no.

Tesla took one smooth step to the left and reversed his Bergenholm. Alberto's punch flickered past his right ear, missing his head by less than an inch. Tesla, his normal inertia hugely increased, unloaded everything he had left in a single counterpunch of his own, lashing upward in a tremendous uppercut that connected with a flash and boom like thunder.

Shockwave Alberto hurtled upward and back in a spray of smoke and blood, the left side of his face a mask of hatred and the right side completely obscured by smoke. His hands clawed at the air, sending streaks of his power raking up and down the rooftop and splashing from Tesla's flickering bodyshield - and then he reached apogee and plummeted parabolically into the Oxbow River.

Tesla switched off his Bergenholm, yanked off his spent Electro-Gauntlets, tugged out the tails of his shirt, and whipped off his smoking EKBFG before it could brand the outline of a resonance coil on the small of his back. Without hesitation, he reared back and threw the device after his foe. It had just begun to glow, its leather casing burning away, when it plopped into the river and exploded like a depth charge, sending up a huge fountain of spray and foam.

Half an hour later, disheveled, bruised, and slightly tattered, Tesla arrived back at his workshop to find a small crowd of curious onlookers looking at the hole where the door had been. Sighing, he made a mental note to call a builder.

For the moment, though, he went upstairs to the small apartment he kept next to the offices for emergencies, washed up, put on fresh clothes, and then went downstairs to clean up the mess.

Fortunately, though Alberto's first blast had split his workbench in half and scattered its contents around the laboratory, it hadn't destroyed any of his notes. He spent ten minutes gathering them up and putting them back in order, and had just finished tapping the pile square and putting it on top of the Energy Broadcaster's control console when someone else appeared in the hole where the door belonged.

Tesla opened his mouth to deliver his "not open to the public" line again, then realized that the new arrival was not another villainous interloper nor a curiosity-seeker. It was, in fact, Tesla's recently completed Greatest Invention (until the next one, anyway): a nuclear-powered, heavily armored, automatically intelligent construct he had dubbed his Atomic Robot.

"Hey, boss," said Robo, holding up a box bearing the Megadonuts logo. "Sorry it took so long, the main bakery was closed and I had to go clear to the one in Elstree to get - whoa! What'd I miss?"

"Alberto's Mistake" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited


Well, thought Ironhide through a haze of static and pain, at least I know what's waitin' on the other side this time.

Around his shattered form, he could still dimly hear the sounds of combat - explosions, metallic crunches, weapons fire, battle cries. For those he had sworn to protect, the fight was far from over... but Ironhide could do no more to help them. His chassis was wrecked, his systems crashed, his laser core sputtering. Unable to enter stasis lock, he would bleed away those last dregs of energy soon enough, and then it would all be over. He'd fallen in battle again, so at least he could hope for another trip to Valhalla.

I've been no use in my second go-'round among the livin' anyway, he reflected bitterly. An antique spark in a newfangled shell, too old to learn the new tricks. Maybe it's for the best. Just wish I wasn't goin' out by blowin' a mission. That ain't the way I wanted to be remembered.

A small but perceptible surge of energy flowed into his mangled systems, returning him to a slightly less faint awareness of the world outside his broken shell. He peered through the interference clouding his intact optic and saw the diminutive blue-and-white form of Makeshift, the Minicon medic, kneeling on what was left of his plastron, his left hand's resuscitator probe jacked into the emergency port on Ironhide's laser core - the Transformer equivalent of open heart massage.

"Makeshift," Ironhide grated, his vocabulator barely operational. "You're... you're wastin' your energy." He tried to raise a hand and put it on Makeshift's shoulder - given the scale difference between them, it would've covered most of the Minicon's body - but his sole remaining arm wouldn't move. "Best thing... to do now... is just put the old dog down."

"Can't do that, soldier," Makeshift replied brisky. "Chief Surgeon Ratchet would never forgive me," he added, his battle visor hiding the faint grin flickering beneath the expression of concentration and pain on his face. Had Ironhide been a little more with it, he'd have noticed that Makeshift was wounded as well, the armor on his right shoulder blown away by an exploding shell, leaking lubricants running down his arm.

Beyond Ironhide's limited sphere of awareness, the battle raged on. He dimly heard someone calling for covering fire, someone else demanding that a portable FFG be set up to shield the recovery operations. He cursed inwardly. They were going to evac him? He was three tons of dead weight, no damn good to anybody. They should just clear the hell out and leave him, what did he care what happened to his shell anyway?

"He ain't gonna forgive... neither one of us... if you throw away yer life tryin' ta save mine," Ironhide told Makeshift. "I know... there ain't no savin' me now." With a rattling, wry chuckle, he added, "I been here before."

"Be quiet and let me work," said Makeshift flatly. "I know what I'm doing."

Ironhide might have argued further, but at that point the medic's desperate gamble paid off. By feeding his own energy into the Autobot's systems, he'd managed to not only negate Ironhide's energy loss, but actually build up his reserves enough that Makeshift could induce stasis lock in him without extinguishing his spark.

Now, if he could just get it done before the energy drain on his own systems killed them both...

Monday, May 20, 2391

Ratchet wasn't on duty in the Reactivation Center when Protoform Chamber 1-194 reached the end of its stasis cycle. The duty surgeon at that hour was Mercy, a Minicon doctor whose tiny stature by Transformer standards belied her courage as a battlefield surgeon. Mercy was a creature of great gentleness and even greater patience, and it had given her much satisfaction to see the results of Ratchet and Rhinox's bold experiment emerge from their stasis pods and re-enter the world.

She responded to the signal from 1-194 with her usual quick efficiency, looking forward to learning which of the legendary Valhalla Autobots had awakened this time. Mercy entered the cubicle just in time to see the pod hatch swing open and its occupant climb slowly, hesitantly out.

"Easy, there," she said, climbing the steps to the catwalk that ringed the room at big-Transformer head level. "Welcome back, soldier."

The big red and grey Autobot who had emerged from the pod shook his head, his blue optics dimming and brightening again, and then straightened up with a groan.

"Wha... " he murmured. He looked at his hands and arms as if surprised to see them, turned his hands over, and then stood silent for a moment while he ran some internal diagnostics.

He didn't seem to like what they told him. Straightening up, he turned to her with a combination of confusion and nascent outrage on his face.

"Is something wrong?" Mercy asked, looking concerned.

Before he could speak, Ratchet entered the cubicle, his face breaking into a grin of delight.

"Ironhide!" he said, throwing his arms wide in welcome. "You old dog, I can't believe how good it is to see - "

"Ratchet, what th' slag is this?" Ironhide interrupted.

Ratchet pulled up short. "... What?" he asked, puzzled.

"This!" Ironhide replied, holding out his own hands as if to indicate his body.

"... That's your new body," Ratchet replied blankly.

"New body," Ironhide repeated in a tone combinining disbelief and distaste. "What happened to my old one?"

"It was lost," Ratchet replied.


"We built a mausoleum ship after the war and set it adrift as a memorial," Ratchet started to explain, but Ironhide cut him off again.

"You built a memorial and then set it randomly adrift in space?! Whose flamin' brilliant idea was that?" he demanded.

"Uh, well - " Ratchet began, feeling faintly embarrassed - in retrospect it HAD been a rather silly idea - but Ironhide abandoned the inquiry and went on to the next question.

"So you don't have any way of findin' this mausoleum?"

"Well, we would," Ratchet said uncomfortably, "but it was, uh... destroyed during a Quintesson plot a few years later."

Ironhide gave his old comrade a very dubious look. "A Quintesson... plot. Well, that's just great. What'm I s'posed to do if a Decepticon shoots at me now? Try to distract him with my sleek modern stylin'?" He thunked the scarlet paneling of his vambrace with an experimental finger and scowled. "'Cause this 'armor' sure ain't gonna do me much good."

Ratchet's patience exceeded its design limits. He'd had a long, trying last few months and he had a lot of patients on his hand; the last thing he needed now was a dose of Ironhide's old attitude, however welcome the old bastard's resurrection was.

"Look, Ironhide," he snapped, "your new body is on the absolute cutting edge, it represents the very finest Autobot body technology we have to offer nowadays. No, it's not armored with trithyllium steel like your old body, 'cause guess what - nobody knows how to make that stuff any more. The formula was lost long ago, and if you'll recall, it cost an absolute fortune to make."

Ironhide blinked, rendered momentarily speechless by the doctor's sudden outburst.

"Now a lot of Autobots have gotten by for a lot of centuries without trithyllium armor," Ratchet went on, "and you know, a few of them just do happen to get shot at from time to time. So suck it up and drive on, old buddy, 'cause this is all I have to offer you right now. We did the best we could, and if you're not prepared to show a little gratitude, then just say the word and I'll shut you right back down again. Cool?"

Ironhide stared at his old comrade for a few seconds, then relented, just a bit shamefaced.

"Aw, hell, I'm sorry, Ratchet. It's just... I got awful used to the way I was, you know? I only ever got rebuilt once, when we first went to Earth, and in Valhalla I felt the same as I ever did. It's just... gonna take some gettin' used to."

Ratchet kept glaring at him for a couple of seconds, then relaxed as well, grinning. "Yeah... I'm sorry too, old buddy. I'm just tired. It's been a hell of a long month, and I've got a hundred patients on my hands."

Ironhide nodded. "Well... thanks." Then he cracked a wry grin and added, "It ain't much, but I guess it beats bein' dead."

Over the next few weeks, Ironhide was to privately reconsider that statement.

Along with the other returning Transformers, he worked to master his new body and get back into the swing of things as regarded life on Cybertron at the same time. Most of the others settled right back in like they'd never left, but Ironhide had problems with both facets of the transition.

Cybertron without war unnerved him in a way he wouldn't have thought possible during the wars themselves. He could never quite believe that the war was really over, the Decepticons really defeated, and kept scanning the skies as if watching for the next sneak attack.

The younger Autobots, especially those created since his death in 2005, were as alien to him as if they came from a completely different planet. He was actually more comfortable with the few dispossessed Decepticons who had remained on Cybertron when the bulk of their force fled following Galvatron's defeat. At least he had something in common with them. A lot of these newer Autobots had never been in real combat before.

His biggest problems, though, were in adjusting to himself, not his new world. His new body was quicker and more sophisticated than his old one, required less maintenance, consumed less energy, and was in many ways superior - but he found that he was so accustomed to the way his old one worked that -all- the differences, whether improvements or not, worked against him.

Determined to overcome these obstacles, he worked harder - and only succeeded in making things worse.

The matter came to a head one day on the vehicle skills course, where he was testing the limits of his new vehicle mode when a training group from Hot Rod's newly organized 7th Autobot Cavalry arrived to use the facility.

Ironhide felt their optics on him - youthful and, he fancied, mocking - and gritted his mental teeth. He'd show these youngsters that he could hold his own. He hurled himself harder at the track, pushing his limits -

- pushing them too far. His new vehicle form was based on the Salusian JR5 military utility vehicle, a sturdy and reasonably speedy truck/van-type ground vehicle. In most ways, it was superior to his old, slow, clunky van mode, but it did have a couple of problems. One was the fact that, in faithfully reproducing the JR5's shape and performance, it also reproduced the JR5's infamous top-heaviness.

Ironhide lost control in the final turn, overturned, and plowed through the sandy runoff area. He tried to regain control by transforming, but his instincts for what that would do for him were off as well, and the redistribution of weight and parts only made matters worse. Completely out of control, he tumbled, cursing, through the runoff area and crashed heavily into the barricade.

The squad from the 7th Cav rushed toward the cloud of sandy dust to find him in a dented, scuffed, tangled heap against the wall. A few made sounds of concern, but one, a big, chunky blue-armored young warrior named Offroad, burst out laughing.

"Where'd you learn to drive, old-timer?" he inquired.

Ironhide got himself more or less upright on one knee, shaking his head, and snarled, "Why you tin-headed little punk! You shut yer yap before I shut it for ya!"

Offroad snorted. "You and what army, Ironbutt? You think you can take me on? You can't even stay on the road!"

Offroad's squadmates backed away a little - clumsy old scrapheap or not, you just didn't talk to one of Optimus Prime's old guard that way - but stayed silent, taking the scene in with horrified fascination.

Ironhide's fists clenched. "Awright, rookie, that's it. You just bought yourself a one-way ticket to - "

As he tried to rise, something in Ironhide's knee sparked and then exploded, sending a minor spray of shrapnel around and dropping him back to hands and knees with a cry of pain.

"Oh, what, did you bust something in that little crash?" Offroad demanded incredulously. He made a beckoning gesture. "Come on, old-timer, I'm ready for ya. I'll take you on... if you can even get up."

Another Autobot drove across from the entrance to the proving ground, transformed, and stepped between Offroad and Ironhide, who was still trying to get up. Though the newcomer was much smaller than Offroad, with light armor painted a friendly yellow color and a thoroughly non-threatening demeanor, some of the onlooking Autobots drew back slightly.

The yellow Autobot folded his arms across his chest and said, "Leave him alone, Offroad."

Offroad snorted again. "Or what, short stuff?"

Bumblebee, Chief of the Autobot Intelligence Service, smiled slightly.

"Or I'll make you," he said matter-of-factly.

"Big talk from such a little bot," Offroad scoffed. "I was the top hand-to-hand student in my training cadre. I went three falls with Optimus Prime. You get up in my grille and I'll take you apart. Bet on it."

Bumblebee's little smile faded slowly, replaced by a look of complete seriousness. Calmly, deliberately, he shifted into a fighting stance. With a soft hiss, a retractable armored guard closed over his flex-metal face, hardening his usually friendly visage into a faceless mask, its single eyeslot lens glowing with the light of his blue optics behind it.

"I'll take that bet," he said, his voice flattened and made even more metallic by the mask's transducers. "Consider me 'up in your grille,' junior."

Ironhide, who still remembered Bumblebee as the eager but none-too-tough little mascot he'd been on the mission to Earth, stared in horror. Offroad was a punk, sure, but he was a big punk, and he looked like he knew how to handle himself. Ironhide had no doubt that he could back up his boast.

Roaring with anger, Offroad lunged, his big hands balled into fists like wrecking balls.

Forty seconds later, Ironhide was still kneeling in the same spot, his face now slack-jawed with astonishment. Bumblebee retracted his battle mask and dusted flecks of blue paint from his hands.

"Come on, Offroad," he said affably. "Is that all you've got? Three falls with Optimus Prime? I mean, I know you lost them all, but still, I expected you to last longer than that."

Offroad tried to get up, felt something give in his elbow, and collapsed again, rolling onto his back this time.

"What... did you... do to me?" he panted.

Bumblebee shrugged. "Nothing much, really. I let you do most of the work. On Earth they call that taijutsu." The yellow Autobot crouched down next to his fallen adversary, put a hand on his shoulder, and went on in the same friendly, helpful tone, "Maybe next time you'll think before you put your mouth in gear. Yeah?"

With that advice delivered, he straightened and went to Ironhide's side.

"Easy, Ironhide. Let's get you down to Repair. Looks like you tore up that knee pretty bad."

Ironhide's embarrassment at having to be helped burned through his astonishment at what he'd just seen little Bumblebee do to Offroad. He tried to yank his arm out of the smaller Autobot's grasp, snarling, "I don't need your help to get to Repair!"

Bumblebee didn't release him - damn, where'd the little guy get such a grip? "Hey," he said quietly. "This isn't one of Hot Rod's new punks you're talking to, Ironhide. Now don't be stupid. Here. Lean on me. Easy does it."

After hoisting the larger Autobot to his feet and getting him moving, taking most of the weight meant for the damaged leg onto himself, Bumblebee looked back at the students.

"Class is canceled for today. You guys had better get Offroad to a repair bay too."

Bumblebee took Ironhide to the medical wing and helped him onto one of the exam tables, then went looking for Ratchet. The chief Autobot medico was just coming out of one of the automated-care rooms, where he'd supervised while the 7th Cav newbies dumped Offroad into a chassis restoration tank for auto-repairs.

"The kids tell me you happened to Offroad," he said.

Bumblebee nodded. "Ironhide needs some work."

"What happened?" Ratchet asked as the two walked back toward the room where Bumblebee had left Ironhide.

"He flipped on the vehicle skills course. His new vehicle mode is faster than he's used to, and top-heavy. Tore himself up pretty bad, and then Offroad got into him about it. You know how he is. Ironhide wanted to take him on - you know how he is - but he could barely move. I broke it up, Offroad wanted to start some slag with me... " The yellow Autobot shrugged. "... I obliged him."

"Well, I'd hate to be the one who has to explain to Hot Rod what happened," Ratchet mused.

"Yeah, I suppose I better go file something about it," Bumblebee replied. "Take care of Ironhide, willya?"

"That's my job," Ratchet replied with a grin. Then, while Bumblebee went off down the corridor, Ratchet thumbed the door to the exam room open. "Well, sport, I guess you're not quite ready for Le Mans this year, huh," he declared.

"Shut up an' fix mah leg," Ironhide grumbled.

While Ratchet worked on the damaged knee joint, Ironhide could no longer contain his curiosity.

"What th'slag happened to Bumblebee while I was gone?"

Ratchet chuckled. "He met a girl."

"... What?!"

Monday, March 24, 2397
Classified location rimward of Jyurai, Enigma Sector

Why is it, wondered Maia Sterling rhetorically, that the simple jobs always turn into the giant pains in the ass?

What she said aloud was, "What's our situation?"

Major Dashiell "Flint" Faireborne, late of the United States Army and presently an operative for Section Nine of the Royal Salusian Ministry of Public Security, considered the question for a moment before replying.

"Bad, but not as bad as it could be," he replied. "On the down side, the bad guys know where we are, we can't get out, and our heaviest hitter is down. On the up side, this area's heavily secured, so they won't be digging us out of here in anything like short order, and we've got supplies enough to hold out for quite a while."

Maia sighed and kicked at a small piece of rubble near her foot. "It's never a good day when 'we're trapped like rats' is the good news."

Flint nodded with a rueful smile. "Copy that," he said. "Also on the up side, though, it looks like our medical crew's making some headway with Ironhide."

Maia followed him to the corner of the room - it looked like a foyer of some sort, built on the same grand scale as the rest of this ancient alien installation - where Makeshift and the labcoated figure of Salusian engineer Li Kohran were laboring over the wreckage that had been the team's Autobot escort.

"Talk to me," Maia said. "How bad is it?"

"You mean, aside from the obvious?" Kohran replied in accented-but-understandable Standard. "I've seen industrial trash compactors leave things more intact."

"I've managed to get him into stasis lock and stop the energy loss," Makeshift reported, pausing to take a swig from a field canteen of liquid energon. "But his drivetrain's totally fucked. He's not going anywhere under his own power without a major overhaul. His armor couldn't take the punishment when he took those rounds covering our flank; penetration damage and spalling tore up his internal mechanisms."

"Which made him a fairly easy mark for the one with the sword," said Maia, noting the Autobot's cleanly severed right arm. "What the hell was that thing, anyway?"

"His name is Bludgeon," said one of the survey team's other two Minicon members, a search-and-rescue specialist named Pacer. "He and his crew are Decepticon war criminals. Psychopaths, even by 'Con standards. Bludgeon's obsessed with some ancient Cybertronian martial art. Got a thing for taking the heads of his foes." Pacer shrugged. "Last I heard he was dead, so don't go by me."

Flint frowned. "Togusa and the Chief are going to want to hear about this when we get back."

"Your optimism is reassuring, but first we need to get back," Maia observed.

"So noted. So what have we got to work with?"

Firebot, the leader of the three-Minicon team attached to the mission, stood in front of the massive alloy door leading from the "foyer" in which they'd taken refuge into what they all believed was the facility's innermost chamber.

"Well," he said, "there's the six of us and our gear... whatever's behind Door Number Two here... and about three tons of stasis-locked Autobot." Turning to his team's medic, he asked, "Makeshift, can we extract Ironhide's spark core and leave the rest of him here?"

Makeshift shook his head. "I don't have the equipment to construct a working spark sustainer, and his own systems are too badly damaged to modify that way. If we try that, we'll finish him off for sure."

At the other end of the chamber, a resounding CLANG sounded from the door they'd sealed behind them in their headlong retreat. The heavily armored blast bulkhead gave no visible reaction, but a second report a moment later, followed by a third and fourth, indicated that those on the other side weren't going to give up trying to penetrate it.

"So even if we find another way out, we have to figure out how to take him with us," Maia mused. "Great. Be nice if we could call for help."

"My search sensors can't even get a reading through all this rock," Pacer remarked, thumping the wall. "I'm afraid comms are out of the question with the equipment we have. Sorry."

Kohran, who had stood gazing thoughtfully at the shattered Autobot throughout the discussion, suddenly said, "Hmm. On our way down here, we saw fairly convincing evidence that this facility is, as Headquarters thought, a weapons factory." She nodded toward the closed inner door. "The main foundry is probably right through those doors."

"Right, but what good's that going to do us?" Pacer asked. "It's not like we can just go switch on an Omega Sentinel and have it clear us a path through Bludgeon and his pals."

"No, of course not," Kohran replied, then qualified her agreement: "Well, probably not. But there will be materials. Tools." She gestured at Ironhide's wreckage. "I can fix almost anything with tools."

"Just fixing him won't help," said Firebot. "See... Ironhide is... was... hell, he'd kill me for saying this, but..." The Emergency Team leader glanced at the outer door, then went on, "Well, look, he used to be unique, right, and when he became 'just another Autobot' after coming back from Valhalla, he never really got over it. That's why he was such easy scrap for Bludgeon."

Maia tilted her head. "What do you mean? Unique how?"

Firebot looked again at the outer door, as if wondering whether this was really the right time and place for a history lesson, then shrugged and told her.

"Ironhide's original shell was built for mining raw energon crystals on Cybertron's moons," he said. "It was clad in a nearly indestructible alloy. That's why he survived for so long. But it was a really rare, expensive material, and by the time he came back from Valhalla and needed a new chassis, the secrets of its manufacture had been lost for millennia. There're only ancient fragments left, scattered across Cybertron - most of them scraps from Ironhide's own construction. Jewelers sometimes make trinkets out of those, but no one's ever been able to work out how to make more of the stuff."

Firebot paused, noticing that Maia's face had taken on a look of dawning wonder. "... What?" he said.

"This indestructible alloy," Maia said. "What's it called?"

"Trithyllium steel," Firebot replied. "Why?"

Rather than answer the question, Maia turned to Kohran and said, "Gryphon told me once that you reverse-engineered Omega-2 from a sample of his blood. True?"

Kohran blinked. "Yes," she said. "Years ago. To save the other Hanagumi from a biological weapon."

"That's supposed to be impossible."

Kohran nodded. "I know."

Maia took off one of her gloves, removed a ring from her finger, and tossed it to the surprised-looking Salusian engineer.

"Do it again," she said with a grin.

Kohran looked at the ring for a second, then at Maia, and a smile spread slowly across her face.

"Right!" she said, clenching a fist around the ring. "Firebot, Pacer - get us into the inner chamber, and let's hope we find everything in there I think we will. I've got a lot of work to do... " She glanced at the outer door, which was beginning to distort slightly under the constant pounding from the other side. "... and not a lot of time."

It is a matter of some debate among Cybertronians as to whether or not one is aware of anything while in stasis lock. With all systems shut down, including the cerebration circuits, and energy used solely for the preservation of the spark, there is simply no way a Transformer's consciousness can engage in any activity whatsoever, technologists argue - but others insist that the spark itself, suspended in the limbo of an utterly deactivated shell, dreams. Dreams of what? the technologists ask archly, pointing out that all datatracks, the Transformer equivalent of memories, are unavailable in such a state. From there, the debate usually disintegrates into ad hominem exchanges regarding the participants' status as soulless calculators and/or clueless daydreamers.

It was, at least, true that Transformers emerging from stasis lock could not remember whether they had experienced anything while under. Even the warriors aboard the crashed Autobot Ark, once reawoken on Earth, could not say how long they had been out of circulation, or what (if anything) they had experienced during their long quiescence. There were strange rumors that Optimus Prime remembered awakening and fighting a battle with Megatron, then lapsing once more into dormancy, at some point in the distant past, but this was regarded as apocryphal and Prime himself would never discuss the matter with anyone.

For his part, Ironhide had always been one of the pragmatists, the ones who believed that stasis lock was stasis lock and anyone who believed otherwise was a romantic fool. As such, he would have been a bit put out to learn that, while his colleagues dragged his wrecked shell into the deepest part of the ancient Mandalorian foundry asteroid, barricaded the innermost door, and set to work trying to fathom and reactivate engines of creation ancient even by his own people's standards, his spark did, indeed, dream of past times - datatracks or no datatracks.

Thursday, May 23, 2391
Iacon, Cybertron

Optimus Prime looked up from the display on his office dataterminal, a puzzled look on his face.

"Ironhide... am I reading this right? You're asking to be posted off Cybertron?"

Ironhide, standing rigidly in parade-rest stance before Prime's desk, nodded. "Affirmative," he grunted.

Prime regarded him for a long moment, then got up and walked around the desk, putting a hand on Ironhide's shoulder.

"What's wrong, old friend?" he asked gently.

Ironhide did not drop his military stance. This would all have been easier if Prime would take the hint and handle it professionally, he grumbled to himself.

"I can't perform to acceptable standards in my present state, sir," he replied, still looking straight ahead. "I ain't fit for my old job, an' I don't want any other posting here at headquarters. Anyway, the last thing you need's a bodyguard. I'm sure I can be some use... somewhere else."

Prime withdrew his hand and went back around his desk in a thoughtful silence. He had been afraid of something like this since the first of Ironhide's poor acclimation reports had reached his inbox, and after Monday's incident he had feared it was only a matter of time. Now he saw that his fears were correct. He considered trying to talk his old bodyguard out of it, but he knew that once Ironhide's mind was made up, dissuading him from his course of action was difficult at best. The old Autobot had convinced himself he wasn't useful without his old body, and that was all there was to it. It would take time, and practical experience, to convince him he was wrong in that.

Seating himself at his console once more, Prime said, "All right, then. I won't bother trying to change your mind. If leaving Cybertron is truly what you want, then... Gryphon's new International Police Organization could use another Autobot liaison officer." Becoming brisk, since that seemed to be the way Ironhide wanted it, the Autobot commander went on, "You'll be seconded to the IPO and assigned to their New Avalon headquarters under his orders, effective immediately. See Bumper on the way out; he'll handle your travel arrangements."

Ironhide came to attention and saluted. "Sir!" he barked, then performed a perfect about-face and marched from the office.

Optimus Prime watched him go, then sagged slightly in his chair and sighed. I hope you find your way, old buddy, he thought.

And Ironhide had, after a fashion. Though he never quite regained his full confidence, he served well in his new capacity, helping the newly established galactic law enforcement agency establish its security protocols and developing the structure and operational policies of its Tactical Division. Under his tutelage, a young Autobot soldier named Hot Shot, also assigned to the IPO, grew from a headstrong idiot into something like a competent cop. With his guidance, a team of three Minicons recently recruited into the Autobot ranks became prime movers in the New Avalon public safety scene. Ironhide enjoyed the work, and it gave him purpose, but deep inside, he always knew - though rarely acknowledged - that something was still missing.

Then came the day the Chief assigned him to accompany an expedition to what was believed to be an ancient Mandalorian foundry, possibly the source of the ancient Guardians of Cybertron, the mighty Omega Sentinels. Should be a fairly routine mission, he was told. You, the Emergency Team, a guy from Section Nine, a Salusian engineer who specializes in lost and archaic technologies, and someone from the Mars Division survey that found the thing in the first place. You'll go there, check it out, and if it is what we think it is, Prime and I will send in a joint force to secure it.

Simple. Right up until the point where Bludgeon and his boys showed up and everything went to slag. Just like his last mission in 2005 had been simple - a milk run to Autobot City - until Megatron and his boys showed up and everything went to slag.

At least there was symmetry.

Thursday, March 27, 2397
Classified location rimward of Jyurai, Enigma Sector

Bludgeon knelt in a dark chamber off the main corridor of the ancient facility, an area he had declared his sanctum when his team's assault on the International Police presence in this place became a siege. If asked, the master of Metallikato would probably have claimed to be meditating, but what he was really doing was more akin to brooding.

This is what we Decepticons have sunk to, he mused. Fighting over the scraps of an ancient past with beings so insignificant we shouldn't even have to acknowledge them. Bah. And what happens if, when we breach that door, we find nothing of value beyond it? This will all have been for nothing.

Bludgeon had been nonplussed when, two days previously, Iguanus and Skullgrin had finally penetrated the blast door through which the IPO team had retreated, only to discover beyond it an abandoned antechamber and another, even larger door - though at least it was, if his calculations were right, the last door possible.

Although he was a patient robot, Bludgeon realized that the amount of time he had to work with in this case was not infinite. The IPO people couldn't call out for help, but someone would presumably miss them and come to investigate at some point - and with an Autobot and three Autobot-aligned Minicons among the missing, that investigation would probably involve a substantial Autobot force, maybe substantial enough to challenge Bludgeon's relatively small band. If that happened before he could gain access to the final chamber, he would be forced to withdraw, tail between legs, and there would be another chance at a Decepticon resurgence lost.

If we had a truly great commander to lead us, things would be different, thought Bludgeon darkly. But though I am a great warrior, I fear I am not the leader we need. Perhaps no such figure even exists among the Decepticons any longer. Megatron was lost to us centuries before Optimus Prime finally relieved us of Galvatron the Mad. Starscream is dead. Shockwave is paralyzed by logic, Onslaught by misguided loyalty, Razorclaw by laziness, Motormaster by stupidity. So it falls to me to do what I can.

But if this place is what the rumors say it is... if I can penetrate it... if I can seize it... and if I can unlock its secrets...

Bludgeon rose to his feet, turned, and went down the main corridor, through the mangled blast door, into the anteroom.

"Report, Carnivac," he ordered.

Carnivac snarled. "Progress is slow, but steady," he said, though the disgust in his voice let Bludgeon know how little compensation he thought the latter fact was for the former. "We will be through in perhaps four hours."

Bludgeon nodded. "Proceed." Then, turning, he walked to the corner of the room, surveying the unmistakable signs on the floor for perhaps the twentieth time since his forces had gained access.

"What troubles you, Commander?" asked Skullgrin, who was preparing some explosive charges for another go at the door while Iguanus continued applying his more percussive method.

Bludgeon crouched and followed the scuff marks on the metal floor with a fingertip, then rubbed the traces of lubricant left there against his thumb.

"The identity of their Autobot guard," he said. "Could that truly have been Ironhide?"

"There have been rumors of a good many Autobots of old returning from the dead somehow," Skullgrin replied. "He might have been among them. If so, though... "

Bludgeon nodded, picking up a small fragment of red-painted armor that had fallen from the wrecked Autobot when his compatriots dragged him into the innermost chamber. "If so, he's but a shadow of his former self." Bludgeon snapped the armor fragment in two with his fingers, something he could certainly never have done to a piece of Ironhide's fabled trithyllium armor. Standing, he brushed off his hands and said, "If it is Ironhide, releasing his spark from such a feeble shell will be a mercy." He looked toward the door. "You and Iguanus will double your efforts," he added with cruel irony. "We wouldn't want to keep him waiting."

On the other side, Pacer applied his highly advanced sensors - normally used for search and rescue functions - to the door, and he did not like what they told him. Transforming to vehicle mode, he raced across the vast innermost chamber to the area in the far corner that the team had restored to something like working order.

When they'd first entered this chamber, he, like all the others, had been awestruck by what they found. The rumors were true. This asteroid had been a factory where the ancient Mandalorians built Omega Sentinels for the defense of old Cybertron. There were colossal crucibles, gigantic conveyor belts, cranes hanging from the enormously high ceiling, huge machine tools that still bore tooling for making recognizable Omega Sentinel parts. There were even a few partially completed Sentinels - none complete enough for the team to finish them, but Kohran and Makeshift had managed to strip them of a number of usable parts. The place was like a window into a past so ancient Pacer had only heard of it third-hand.

And at the far end, taking shape under the careful hands of Professor Li, Maia, Flint, and the Emergency Team, just might be the only chance any of them had of having a future.

"We're almost out of time," Pacer reported as he pulled up next to Firebot and returned to robot mode. "The door's starting to go, it's only a matter of an hour or so now."

To Pacer's slight surprise, the Emergency Team leader just smiled.

"That's okay," he said, "'cause we're done."

"Or close enough to it," Makeshift allowed, detaching a fueling hose from the side of Kohran's new creation. "If we had time, I'd see about setting up another energon converter on that second plasma line we were able to get working, but even without it, we should be all right."

"If all of the connections work," Flint observed. "That was my first job of Transformer-wiring. Hopefully I did a good job."

"From what I've seen of your record, you have a habit of getting things right the first time," Maia noted.

Flint grinned. "When we get back, I want you to tell that to my wife."

"Well, here goes nothing," Kohran remarked. "Makeshift... wake him."

Makeshift flipped open an access panel, plugged a special connector into Ironhide's diagnostic computer, linked it up with his own onboard medical control system, and issued a cybernetic command.

Drivetrain READY
Bipedal Locomotion STANDBY
6pdr 57mm Gun 1.. 2.. READY
8mm Pulse Blaster 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. STANDBY
Chemical Projector 1... 2... READY
Cartridge Type 1: 0%
Cartridge Type 2: 5%
Cartridge Type 3: 25%
Cartridge Type 4: 20%
Melee Weapon STANDBY

"He's hot," Makeshift reported, his head cocked as if listening to something inaudible to the rest. "Datatracks spinning up now. All systems nominal." He retracted the probe and shut the access panel. "He'll be conscious in five."

A moment later, Ironhide's massive new form stirred, then twitched, and his familiar raspy voice said, "Unnngh. What th' flamin'... this ain't Valhalla."

"Nope," Maia replied. "Sorry to disappoint you, but you're still needed in the mortal world."

"What? Wait a minute, what in - how the slaggin' - "

Suddenly, Maia's voice was like the crack of a whip, the full command voice of a Zentraedi officer. It was a tone she had to use very rarely with the Mars Division, but it never failed to get their attention.

"Save it, soldier!" she snapped. "I know you've got a lot of questions and you probably want to bitch for at least half an hour, but the situation is critical and we've got about this much time," she added, holding up thumb and forefinger a half-inch or so apart. "On the other side of that door are the four Decepticons who nearly scrapped you Monday afternoon. Within the hour, they'll breach the door, come in here, and slaughter us all - unless you get with the program right God damned now. Am I making myself clear?"

Ironhide was silent for a moment. Then, with an unmistakable grin in his voice, he replied, "Ma'am."

"Stand back, Iguanus. The last charge is ready," commanded Skullgrin.

"That's what you said last time," Iguanus sneered.

"Well, this time I'm certain of it," Skullgrin replied in the voice of one who is being patient. "Now step aside so that I can - ... do you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Iguanus demanded -

/* Sting
"Demolition Man"
Demolition Man (1993) */

- and then, with a sound like two freight trains colliding head-on at full speed, the door Iguanus had been so diligently bashing in for the last three days suddenly bent, twisted, and burst outward, a jagged-edged hole appearing in it as if it had been struck by the fist of a god. Through the opening came the slanted prow of something, a shape so unfamiliar and so deep in shadow that none of the four Decepticons in the anteroom could identify it. With a deafening roar, black smoke billowing in its wake, it rode up onto the mound of debris that had accumulated at the base of the now-breached door, rising at a 45-degree angle, before its great weight overcame its forward momentum and it began to tip down.

" - slag!" Iguanus cried before the massive shape swung down and smashed him flat.

"Iguanus!" cried Carnivac, transforming to robo-wolf mode even as he leaped to the attack. His claws skittered uselessly across the unknown attacker's armor, sparking and shrieking but doing no damage whatsoever. Lozenge-shaped, heavily armored, studded with what looked like rivet heads, it sported two formidable-looking tracks that completely ringed the sides, making it look almost as if it could be overturned and keep going. Driving one track and stopping the other, it pivoted, tracks squeaking against the floor and grinding the fragments of Iguanus to undifferentiated scrap. Carnivac rebounded from the wall and threw himself into another attack.

"Carnivac, look out!" Bludgeon cried, but it was too late. A cannon, mounted in a sponson on the strange machine's armored flank, pivoted and fired, tagging the charging Carnivac with a bolt of what looked like phased plasma. Smoking and trailing droplets of molten armor, Carnivac tumbled into the corner of the room and didn't get up.

"What the slag is it?!" Skullgrin demanded, opening fire. His Slagmaker's laser bolts bounced off the strange vehicle's scarlet-tinted armor without even smudging it. He might as well have been throwing rocks.

"I don't know!" Bludgeon replied, transforming to his own tank mode and opening fire with his main cannon. That had as little effect as Skullgrin's Slagmaker fire, except to earn him return fire from the red tank's heavy gun, which he barely avoided. Skullgrin went to tank mode as well, backed up, and tried a flanking attack to the enemy's port side, only to discover that there was a matching plasma cannon on that side. As if that weren't bad enough, coaxial pulse blasters opened up, pinging painful hot spots on both Decepticon tanks' armor as the red vehicle advanced further into the room. As it did so, it came fully into the light of the overhead arc lamps, and Bludgeon gasped.

Emblazoned on the tank's armored flank, near the forward point of the lozenge shape, was the Autobot brand.

"Great Primus!" he blurted. "Ironhide?!"

"What?! Impossible!" Skullgrin screamed. "We destroyed that relic! There's no way!"

"Skullgrin, stay calm! Stay calm!" Bludgeon implored his subordinate, but it was too late. Skullgrin was a cool and calculating warrior - most of the time; but he had a slight cerebral defect that occasionally caused him to go berserk in situations of great stress.

Like now.

His treads throwing up spall from the metal floor, Skullgrin backed all the way to the anteroom's shattered outer door, rapid-firing frag rounds from one of his main guns and Slagmaker blasts from the other. Neither had much effect, other than to fill the chamber with noise and smoke. Desperate, his ability to reason unraveling completely, the Decepticon switched to robot mode and charged, weapons blazing.

To Bludgeon's horror, the red tank transformed as well, becoming a tall robot with massive limbs still studded with segments of the tank mode's treads and one of the heavy cannon sponsons on each forearm. As soon as the robot's head popped up, Bludgeon's fears were confirmed. That sleek helmet and smirking, battle-scarred visage could only belong to one Transformer. It was Ironhide.

Facing the charging Skullgrin, Ironhide ignored his weapons fire as completely as he had in tank mode, but - to Bludgeon's slight surprise - he didn't return fire. Instead, he reached to his back and drew a curious object that Bludgeon had previously noticed bridging the crew handhold rails that ran along the sides of his tank mode's top deck. When attached to Ironhide's tank form, this device looked like a metal crossbeam, perhaps some kind of rollover guard.

Now, in his robot mode's hands, it grew a handle and became a brutally simple melee weapon.

"Batter up, Decepticreep!" Ironhide snarled, striding into Skullgrin's headlong charge and swinging with all his might. There was a resounding metallic WHANG, followed by the rather more confused sounds of Skullgrin's body hitting the ground and his head rebounding off the far wall. Ironhide stood in the follow-through stance for a moment, letting the pieces of his foe come to rest, and then turned to Bludgeon, tapping the body of his bat against the palm of his left hand.

"Well," he said. "Looks like - "

Carnivac hauled himself to his feet and leaped, roaring. Looking only faintly bemused, Ironhide interrupted his remark, extended his right arm, and blasted the charging Decepticon again, smashing him back into the corner.

"As I was sayin'," he said, unruffled. "Looks like it's just you and me now, Bludgeon."

Bludgeon transformed to robot mode, drew his electrosword, and struck a ready stance.

"I thought finishing you would be a mercy," he remarked. "I see now I was wrong." The Decepticon Metallikato master smiled coldly. "It will be an honor."

Ironhide curled his lip. "Shut up an' fight, you pretentious chunk'a Deceptislag. It's go time."

/* Tomoyasu Hotei
"Battle Without Honor or Humanity #3"
Electric Samurai (2004) */

Of the two, Bludgeon was still the swifter, by a considerable margin, but Ironhide was ready for his tricks. Though Ironhide claimed mastery of no martial art, he was one of the oldest, most experienced, most well-traveled warriors Cybertron had ever produced. He was a veteran of the ancient Quintesson Grand Arena. Millennia before Bludgeon's construction, Ironhide was the master gladiator who taught a pair of young conscripts, Iaconian brothers named Dion and Convoy, the skills that not only kept them alive in the scrapping pits, but eventually enabled them to lead a revolt that would liberate the planet from the Quints... and found the Autobots.

Ironhide had scrapped Metallikato masters before.

He blocked Bludgeon's first strike, catching it with the barrel of his bat and turning it away. The second he deflected with an upraised forearm, striking the flat of Bludgeon's blade with his heavily armored vambrace and knocking it away. Bludgeon ducked Ironhide's counter-swing, then kicked the Autobot squarely in the midsection . It was like kicking a duracast pylon. The blow sent a shock of pain straight up Bludgeon's leg. Cursing, he hopped back, narrowly avoiding taking the next swing of Ironhide's bat on the chin.

Don't underestimate him, the Decepticon berated himself. Not for nothing was this Autobot Optimus Prime's personal bodyguard for five million years!

"Fool," he declared, flowing away from a plasma blast and deflecting another blow from the bat. "You will wish you had never been reactivated."

Ironhide didn't look impressed.

"Think I'm pretty well finished with that phase o' my life," he remarked.

"We shall see!"

So saying, Bludgeon struck with all the speed and strength he could muster, sweeping in with a lightning-fast lateral cut that would cleave through the peak of Ironhide's right shoulder and then split his head just below his optics.

That was the theory, anyway.

In practice, all it did was spark violently against Ironhide's armor and rebound, nearly snapping Bludgeon's wrists and leaving him horribly off-balance, far out of any useful defensive position.

With an easy grin, Ironhide capitalized, laying his bat across Bludgeon's midsection, then elbowing him in the chest, spinning him around, and slamming him against the wall.

"Ungh! Mistake, Autobot!" Bludgeon spat, regaining his aplomb with surprising quickness. He shot out his own elbow, jarring Ironhide's grip loose, then twisted out of the Autobot's grasp, spun, and struck at his hand. The blow didn't damage Ironhide or his weapon, but it did separate them, sending the bat spiraling into the corner of the room. Bludgeon put all his strength into a shoulder block, sending the startled Ironhide skidding away a few paces, then swept his blade into a high ready position.

"Lost your weapon: Mistake number two," Bludgeon hissed.

Holding his blade in a high arch above his head, Bludgeon gathered his strength, sinking into deep concentration. Blue-white fire danced along the edge of his sword as he summoned the power of his own spark and turned it into a weapon. Zenlike, he looked simultaneously at and through the advancing Ironhide, seeking the patterns of force that surrounded his new body. For it was new, a complete replacement for the generic Autobot shell Bludgeon and his troops had so easily wrecked several days previous, and that, if anything, was Bludgeon's greatest edge right now. No Transformer could pick up a new body and perform at peak capacity with it right away. It took time, training, practice. Ironhide's coordination would not be at its best, nor would he have learned to unlock this formidable shell's full strength.

Watching Bludgeon focus his power, Ironhide slowly, deliberately cracked the knuckles of one hand, then the other, then interlaced his fingers and cracked them in the opposite direction, rolling his neck joint from one side to the other as he did so.

"Whenever you're ready," he said, sounding bored.

"Now! Die, Autobot!" Bludgeon bellowed. He leaped forward, his sword tracing an arc of brilliant light in the air, and brought the weapon down with all his strength in a perfect vertical cut. As Bludgeon leaped high and brought his blazing sword down for a strike that would cleave any normal Autobot clean in two, Ironhide made no attempt to dodge or block the blow. He just stood there, hands at his sides. Bludgeon's blade struck the crest ridging the center of Ironhide's scarlet "helmet"...

... and shattered, fragments trailing blue fire scattering in all directions like the sparks from a detonating holiday firework. The release of energy exploded outward instead of reinforcing the cut of the blade, smacking its own creator with a shockwave that send him hurtling back the way he had come. Bludgeon hit the wall hard enough to crater the stone, sending chunks of rock flying and cracks radiating outward.

Stunned, the Decepticon rebounded from the wall, landed on his feet, and then crumpled to hands and knees. Bludgeon tried to gather his wits, but before he could, a hand like a foundry tool clamped onto his shoulder and dragged him upright. Bludgeon raised his head, blinking to clear his optics, and saw Ironhide, completely undamaged, glaring back at him.

"... that's... impossible," Bludgeon rasped.

Ironhide's reply was a punch to the gut that fractured armor plating, a second that cratered it, and a third that burst it altogether, sending spall and fragments of inner workings flying from the exit wound in Bludgeon's back. The Decepticon spasmed, optics flaring, and then slumped.

Ironhide discarded Bludgeon's wreckage, dusted off his hands, and then walked across the room to collect his bat, grumbling all the way:

"'Lost your weapon.' Hmph." Picking up the bat, he returned it to its hardpoint on his back, adding, "Day I need a weapon to take out a punk like you... "

In the jagged hole he'd left in the inner door, his six teammates appeared, looking stunned as they surveyed the carnage.

"Well, what th' slag are you all gawpin' at? Makeshift, see if you can do anything for any'a these scrapheaps. Not that I'm doin' Cybertron's taxpayers any favors by lockin' these idiots up instead o' just lettin' 'em spark out, but what the hell," he added with mock resignation. "I am an Autobot, after all. The rest o' you, look alive. We got drive systems to reactivate if we're gonna get this chunk o' rock back to Zeta C before more Deceptitrash shows up."

The other two members of the Emergency Team glanced at each other, bemused, as Makeshift went to see what he could do. Next to them, the three humanoids mirrored the gesture among themselves, then smiled.

"Yes sir, Sergeant Ironhide, sir," Maia remarked, saluting.

Monday, March 31, 2397

Optimus Prime looked from the document display window on his office dataterminal to the comm display window, a faintly amused look on his face.

"Am I reading this right, Ironhide?" he asked. "You want to leave the IPO?"

"Well, it ain't that I don't like 'em. Just that I've done about everything I can for 'em," Ironhide explained. "Hot Shot can take it from here. He's still a young fool, o' course, but the others can keep him in line. Anyway, I've been away from Cybertron too long."

"And what duties do you think you might request if I reassign you back to Cybertron?" Prime asked knowingly.

"Well, I don't know exactly," Ironhide replied. "I thought you might be lookin' for a bodyguard."

Prime smiled.

"Old buddy," he said, "I can't think of anything I'd like better."

"Lost Technology" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Plotting and setup assistance: Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Tuesday, November 27, 2408
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England Administrative District
Earth, Earth Alliance, Centaurus sector

A thin, cold rain fell from a grey afternoon sky onto the even greyer city of Newcastle. Like many coastal cities around the world, Newcastle's fortunes waxed and waned in cycles. Right now they were in a waning phase. After taking a beating during the War of Corporate Occupation thanks to its situation as a major spaceport, the city had experienced a renaissance of sorts in the early days of the Earth Alliance, when it had been chosen as the ground station for the Britain Skylink, an ambitious project to build the highest-latitude space elevator ever attempted on Earth. It seemed like the ride would never end... right up until the moment when it did.

The colossal mooring station for the Skylink still stood, about three-quarters completed, the weighty bulk of its lower levels contrasting weirdly with the skeletal silhouette of its half-built upper tower against the grey sky. The orbital end was never built, the project called off after billions of credits' expenditure. The construction jobs vanished and the operational jobs, obviously, never materialized. Fenced off and abandoned, a ruin that had never had a heyday, the "Lielink" loomed over the city, a constant reminder of Earthdome's broken promises to the people of Tyne and Wear.

A hatless young man in a belted grey trenchcoat stepped from the Interurban maglev from London at Newcastle Central Station, passed through the terminal and out onto the street. There he stood for a moment, gazing between the buildings surrounding the station at the ungainly bulk of the Lielink, his thin face expressionless as the rain darkened and flattened his wavy sandy-blond hair. Then he turned and walked away into the city.

He moved through the streets with a familiar ease, not pausing to consult a map or navigation device. He ignored other pedestrians, paid only cursory attention to the light downtown car traffic, and passed by the police and Nightwatch patrol posts on alternate street corners without concern. Cops and Nightwatch officers randomly stopped passing pedestrians to check their credentials, but none of them paid the man in the grey coat any attention. He might as well not have been there.

In the more residential neighborhoods, further from the city center, the security presence thinned, and there was no watch post just then on either corner of the block containing the small pub into which he turned. The pub was fairly crowded for the time of day, and apart from the man in grey, everyone there was a regular. Men in shabby clothes and women in cheap ones were watching a turfball match on the television in the corner. It was the sort of place where a stranger walking in off the street would have immediately silenced two dozen conversations and attracted the gaze of four dozen eyes... but no such thing happened here. Only a few people even glanced his way when his entrance jangled the bell on the door, and they turned disinterestedly back to their business almost at once.

The grey-coated man went to the end of the bar and slipped onto a vacant stool, waited until the bartender turned his way, and raised a single finger. The bartender finished seeing to a customer closer to the door, then made his way over.

"Get you something, sir?" he asked.

"Hullo, Charley," said the man in grey, a hint of a smile stealing across his face.

Charley glanced sharply at the stranger, surprised to be addressed so familiarly, and then blinked as if seeing him for the first time.

"Carter?" he muttered, leaning closer and striving to keep his voice down. "What th'ell're you doin' here?! I heard you was a Zetan now."

Carter shook his head. "Nah. Not my style, Charley, livin' in a birdcage."

Charley looked skeptical. "Yeah, well where you been then? Them psychic coppers was here lookin' f'you, oh, three year back."

"Oh, you know, Charley. Here 'n there," said Carter vaguely. "Away at school, mostly." He glanced around the bar, then turned his bright blue eyes back to the bartender and said in a lower voice, "Heard from Jax lately?"

The bartender eyed Carter narrowly. "I ain't seen seen her since the crackdown. Nobody has. I heard she was in New Zealand, but... " He shrugged. "People said all kinds o' stuff about all kinds o' people."

"You know anyone who might have a better idea? I need to talk to her." Carter made eye contact again, holding the barman's gaze. "It's important, Charley."

"Yeah, ain't it always," Charley replied. "Okay, look. You didn't hear this from me, y'understand? I hear Betty's dancin' at the Silverdome. For Bobby Weiss, get it? If anyone'd know where Jax really went, it'd be her... but nobody gets in there these days. It's reserved for security types. Them Nightwatch blokes an' that."

Carter chuckled dryly. "Bobby's moved up in the world."

"Yeah, well he paid enough for the license, didn't he. You know how this town works. Take more'n new badges for the cops to change that."

"That's so true," said Carter. "Thanks, Charley." He made a small gesture with his right hand and put a small bunch of folded money he hadn't been holding a moment before down on the bar. "If anyone comes looking for me," he added, catching the barman's eye once more, "I was never here, understand?"

"Right," said Charley, removing the money from the bar almost as deftly as Carter had put it there. "You got it."

Carter slid off his stool and straightened his coat slightly. "Be seeing you, Charley," he said, then left the bar and disappeared into the gathering twilight.

"Who was that?" a waitress asked as she rounded the end of the bar with an empty tray.

"Search me," Charley replied with a faint scowl. "Some out-of-town bloke wantin' to know where the girls are, thought we was the fucking tourist bureau."

Bobby Weiss's office, overlooking the main floor of the Silverdome nightclub just outside the city, was something of a contrast to the rest of the club. The Silverdome was a thoroughly modern establishment as far as its equipment went; it even had a variable-gravity dance floor and stage, the latter of which the club owner considered indispensable. You couldn't have zero-G pole dancing without a zero-G pole, after all. It also had the very latest in laser holography and the kind of sound system that, if you unleashed its full power, could annoy seismologists in Berkeley.

For all that his club was cutting-edge, though, Weiss was kind of an old-fashioned man, and his office reflected that, with its real wood paneling and its shelves of imposing leatherbound books. It looked more like the manager's study from a 19th-century gentlemen's club than the boss's office in a 25th-century topless bar, which was, at its heart, what the Silverdome truly was. Weiss's old-fashioned streak showed in the staffing of the club, too. Most modern joints of this type, especially the high-end ones, employed robots as waitstaff, security, sometimes even the performers themselves, but Weiss would have none of that. He didn't trust mechanicals; never had, never would. A robot bouncer might be more effective, strictly speaking, than a human one, but it couldn't be kept in line by threats or bribes, and those were the only two languages in which Bobby Weiss was really comfortable speaking.

He stood at the one-way window, watching the proceedings on the club floor below with an air of smug invincibility, when he suddenly noticed the reflection of another person in the blastproof glass. Whirling, he saw the thin young man in the grey coat standing just inside his office doors, hands in his pockets.

"Hullo, Bobby," he said.

"Carter! How the fuck did you get in here?"

Carter shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh, you know, Bobby. I turned this bit here," he said, indicating the doorknob, "and - "

"Save the cute routine," Weiss snapped. "You got five seconds to tell me what you want."

"You're open past chucking-out time," Carter said blandly. "I ought to get the law on ya."

Weiss gave that remark the hollow laugh it deserved. "They're my best customers." Angling a thumb back over his shoulder at the window, he went on, "The Nightwatch division chief for Tyne and Wear is in Booth 12. Maybe I should introduce you."

"Relax, Bobby. I'm not here to make trouble for you."

"You can make trouble for me just by being here," Weiss snarled. "You think I don't know about you? After you and your friends left Earth, the fucking cops almost shut me down. It didn't take them much digging to find out you used to work for me. They thought I knew where you went."

"Well, you didn't. And you seem to be doing all right now. Look, I just need to talk to Betty. Two minutes, then I'm out of your hair forever."

Weiss shook his head, his jowls wobbling. "No. Forget it. Get the fuck out of here and never come back. The only reason I don't turn you in to the cops is out of respect for your father, God rest him."

Carter raised one eyebrow. "That's touching, Bobby. It really is." His face and voice became colder, harder, as he went on, "You know what my father would've done if you'd taken that tone with him?"

Weiss snorted. "You're not your father."

"No." Carter walked slowly across the office, shaking his head in agreement. "That is very true. I'm not my father." Weiss felt an irrational little peak of fear and backed away a step, bumping into the window, as Carter invaded his personal space and stood gazing calmly down into his moon face with his strangely intense blue eyes.

Then he leaned down until he was nearly nose-to-nose with the gangster and said in a very low voice, "I'm a lot worse."

Behind him, the office doors opened and Carlo, one of the Sardinian twins Weiss employed as his personal security detail, poked his head in.

"Boss? Everything okay?"

Weiss's flushed face went slightly pale with relief. "It is now," he said, straightening up. "Mr. Carter was just leaving."

Carlo couldn't see Carter's face, so he didn't know that this news only elicited a small, sardonic smile.

"That was a mistake, Bobby," he murmured before Carlo's meaty hand clamped onto one of his shoulders.

Weiss wasn't entirely certain what happened next. Whatever it was, it all happened very fast. One moment Carlo was peeling Carter away from their little tableau while Emilio moved up on the thin man's left to provide support (not that he thought his brother needed any with a skinny weed like this guy). The next, Carter ducked his right shoulder from under Carlo's hand, pivoted inside his arm, took both his fists from the pockets of his trenchcoat, and drove one of them into Carlo's solar plexus with a power and speed that the Sardinian ex-prizefighter was entirely unprepared for.

Carlo let out an explosive grunt of pain and surprise, reeled back, and crumpled to one knee, trying to remember how that "breathing" thing worked. Emilio lunged, thinking to grab hold of Carter's coat and pull it down to trap his arms, but Carter was faster; continuing the turn, he lashed out his other fist at the end of a long, wiry arm and belted Emilio across the face, fracturing his jaw and liberating three teeth. Emilio made a half-turn of his own, spraying blood from his mouth against the inside of Weiss's window, and hit the floor like a sack of flour falling off a truck.

Carlo made an inarticulate sound at the sight and tried to get up, but Carter turned back and gave him a vicious kick to the forehead with one black-brogued heel. Halfway upright when the blow landed, Carlo flipped backward and crashed against the front of Weiss's desk, nearly overturning it, then slid down its face to lie inert on the floor.

Carter stood for a moment, satisfying himself that neither brother was likely to get up and give him more trouble. Then he slipped off his brass knuckles, put them back in his coat pockets, straightened his tie, and turned calmly back to the pale and trembling Weiss.

"Betty," he said. "Two minutes. Then I'm gone. All right?"

Weiss tried to speak, but no sound came out. He coughed, cleared his throat, and edged around Carter toward his desk, nearly tripping over one of Carlo's outstretched arms.

"A-all right," said Weiss. He fumbled at the intercom panel built into the top of his desk; then, trying to sound calm and authoritative as normal (but coming off a little more shrill than he'd really wanted), he barked, "Sarna. Send Betty to my office now."

Betty, slim and dark-haired, arrived a few moments later wearing spangly sequins and not a lot else.

"You wanted to see - oh my God!" she blurted at the sight of Carlo and Emilio scattered on the office floor like discarded toys. So shocked was she by that sight that she didn't immediately register who the thin man standing next to Weiss's desk was. She didn't even really notice him until he spoke, his voice softer and warmer than it had been when he addressed Weiss:

"Hullo, Betty."

Blinking, she looked at his face for the first time and, for a moment, didn't appear to recognize him. Then her eyes went wide and she gasped, "Carter!"

"Been a long time, hasn't it? Bobby treating you okay?"

"I... I can't complain," said Betty. "My God, Carter, what are you doing here? There must be a dozen cops down on the floor. If they find out you're here - "

"I'm not staying long. I need to find Jax. Charley said you might know where she was."

Betty looked him in the eye for a moment, then glanced away, biting at her lower lip. "I... I don't know. Last I heard she was in Wellington. You know, in New Zealand. I haven't seen her in years."

Carter gazed silently at her for a few moments, then nodded, his face a little sad.

"Okay," he said. "Thanks, Betty. See you around." He walked to the office door, touching Betty's shoulder briefly as he passed her, then turned back as if he'd just remembered something, taking a hand from his pocket. Weiss nearly flinched, expecting some new mayhem, but Carter only tossed a coin onto his desk.

"Sorry about Emilio," he said nonchalantly. "I hear there's some good dentists in Gateshead."

Then he was gone. Weiss and Betty exchanged baffled looks before Weiss picked up the coin and examined it.

When Carter got off the return train in London the next afternoon, he was still wondering whether Weiss would be clever enough to realize that what he'd left behind was an extremely rare double-struck 2407 United States quarter-dollar, one of only a few hundred made the previous year, just before the EA's abolishment of its individual member states obsoleted all such currency. Probably not. The dumb bastard would probably just assume it was a worthless pre-crackdown American quarter and throw it in a desk drawer, not realizing for a moment that Carter had left him a fortune to pay for Emilio's dental work.

Upon his return to London, Carter didn't go to Gatwick and book a transorbital flight to Wellington, to pick up his search there. Nor did he go to Heathrow and buy an offworld starliner ticket. Instead, he changed to the Tube at Kings Cross and went straight to Camden Town (by way of Mornington Crescent, which made him smile a little). Once off the train, he walked briskly along progressively less crowded pavements through a network of back streets, moving with slightly less confidence than he had on home ground in Newcastle, but still with the definite air of a man following detailed directions.

His course brought him, in time, to a brown brick apartment building, four stories high, slumping back from the street as if vaguely embarrassed to be in its present surroundings. He climbed a grimy, smelly stairway to the fourth floor, rang the bell, and waited. Nothing happened. He rang again. Still nothing. After a third ring and a further 30 seconds of no response, he took a small tool from inside his coat, deftly unlocked the door, and slipped silently inside.

The apartment fitted the building it was in; low-rent, shabby, and dirty, though it was too barren to be cluttered. The kitchen featured appliances that dated to sometime before World War IV and the glowstrips, poorly and crookedly affixed to the sagging plaster ceilings, didn't work when he threw the switch just inside the door. Navigating by the dim light filtering through the grungy windows and torn roller blinds, Carter walked quietly down the narrow hallway off the kitchen, through the empty sitting room, and into the bedroom at the end.

A single dark figure lay on the bed in the corner, facing the wall. Carter crossed to it, crouched down, and put a hand gently on its shoulder, murmuring softly,

"Hullo, Jax."

With an explosive motion, the figure recoiled from his touch and turned over at the same time, pulling a nasty-looking military knife from under the pillow and brandishing it in his face. Carter backed away, holding up his open hands.

"Whoa, easy, Jax. It's me," he said.

The woman on the bed blinked through her long, disordered hair, then reached up with her free hand and swept it out of her face. Her grey eyes widened in shock.

"Carter!" she rasped in a voice like a three-day bender. "God Almighty, what are you doing here?"

"I've come to get you out," Carter told her.

Jax lowered, but didn't put down, the knife, levering herself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. As she did, a slanting ray of light from a hole in the blind crossed her face, and it struck Carter how bad she looked. She'd never been the most chipper of people - bit of a goth, really - but now she looked as bad as she sounded, with heavy dark circles around her eyes that owed nothing to makeup and a gauntness that the Jax in his memory didn't have.

"And not a moment too soon, I think," he added in a quieter voice. "Christ, Jax. What's happened?"

Jax crossed one thin arm across her midsection, still holding the knife slackly in the other hand, and glared at him as well as her haggard face could glare.

"You fucking happened," she said. "We had to shut down the whole network because we didn't know what you might have told them, and you never bothered to let us know after making your big getaway, did you. So everyone scattered and here I am. No network, no support, no cover. Next year your pals cause the fucking crackdown, now I can't go out to work, can barely stick my head out of this fucking hole or I'll get nicked. Thanks. Well done."

"I couldn't risk trying to make contact after I got caught, you know that," Carter said. "It would've made things worse for all of us. And I'm sorry about '06, but I had nothing to do with that. I wasn't anywhere near Earth at the time. And I don't think it's right, you blamin' my friends for Bill Clark bein' a psychotic tyrant, either. What the hell happened to you? You used to be the toughest person I knew. You wouldn't let a reversal like that push you into this kind of hole!"

"Don't presume to tell me what I would or wouldn't do!" Jax snapped, something like her old fire coming back into her for a moment; but then it sputtered and burned out again, and she sagged, looking exhausted, and said, "Just go. Fucking get out of here. I wish you hadn't come."

Carter shook his head. "I came to get you out and I'm going to," he said. "Come on. I don't know what's happened to you, but I know people who can help - "

Jax bolted up from the bed in another flash of fury, the blade of her knife making a faint hiss in the air as she slashed at nothing just in front of Carter. He straightened up and backed away a pace, not in panic, but with dismay plain on his face.

"Get out of here, I said!" she screamed. "Get out and don't come back or I swear to Christ I'll kill you!"

Carter looked sadly at her for a few moments, then sighed, shoulders slumping. "All right, if that's the way you want it." He turned to go, hesitated, and seemed on the verge of making one last try; then, withing turning back, he left. As he let himself out of the apartment, he could hear her dry, racking sobs, almost like a smoker's cough, rattling up the hallways behind him.

Well, that didn't go quite the way I'd envisioned it, he mused to himself as he shut the door and locked it again. Glumly, he turned to go -

- and walked straight into a blinding flash of light that wiped immediately to blackness.

He came to and found himself strapped to a chair. Not a good start.

The next few observations didn't do anything to improve the prospect, either. The chair was fastened to the floor in the middle of a small grey room, the only other furnishings in which were a plain grey metal table with a second chair behind it. A middle-aged man with close-cropped grey hair stood by the table with a PDA in his hand, apparently reading something with eyes narrowed and lips pursed in concentration. Behind him was what looked like a window with a view of St. James's Court, though of course it could've been a hologram, and its real view could've been anything from a brick wall to the salt flats of Morton's Moon. For that matter, it might not really have been a window at all.

That possibility didn't really concern Carter, though. Most of his attention was focused on the uniform the grey-haired man was wearing: black and severely cut, with tight-fitting leather gloves and a golden badge adorned with a Greek letter.

The man seemed to notice that his guest was awake; raising his eyes from the PDA, he eyed the figure in the chair coldly for a few moments, then said without preamble,

"Devlin Carter. Fugitive 2405-3C-175. Eluded classification for three years, eventually identified and captured by the North American enforcement bureau... from whom you promptly escaped with the aid of a terrorist organization now under the protection of the International Police." He smiled slightly. "That incident rolled more than a few heads at the higher levels of Enforcement, I can tell you."

"Happy to oblige," Carter replied, sounding unconcerned with his predicament. "And I'm talking to... ?"

The Psi Cop shook his head. "You don't get to know my name, blip. All you need to know is that it's over. You're caught. As soon as my colleagues from Fugitive Debriefing get here, we're going to find out everything you know about the IPO, and then... well, what happens after that isn't up to me, but I have a pretty good idea what it'll be." He reached to the table, where Devlin's things were piled, and picked up the IPO agent's own badge, which was also gold and marked with a capital Psi, but was larger and also bore the IPO's stylized star.

"You know," he said, "the IPO likes to make a lot of noise about their amazing AEGIS operatives." He tossed the badge contemptuously back on the table and gave his prisoner a sardonic look. "So much for that. I didn't even think this operation would work. 'He'll never go for that,' I said. 'The bait's much too obvious. A fifth-grader would see through it.'" He shook his head. "You cost me 50 credits, blip."

"Happy to oblige," Devlin repeated. "It'll cost you more than that when I get out of here."

The Psi Cop snorted. "Don't even try to threaten me," he said. "Talk about pathetic. The only way you're getting out of here is in the back of a Prisoner Services transport. Or a bag, if you're stubborn enough with the Dominators when they get here."

Devlin smiled slightly and shook his head. "I'm going to get up and walk out that door within the next 60 seconds."

"Oh really. How do you figure?"

"Well, for starters I'm going to kill you," said Devlin conversationally. "After that... well, you won't really be in a position to care about the details after that."

Forty-seven seconds after Carter's initial pronouncement, the door of the interrogation room opened and he emerged, stuffing his things back into the pockets of his coat. Behind him, the Psi Cop lay sprawled on the floor, eyes staring blankly at the industrial ceiling. He wasn't quite dead, but he soon would be, having suffered what medical professionals still referred to, with the euphemistic delicacy of their profession's jargon, as a massive cerebral accident.

The problem with telepathic combat is, Devlin mused to himself as he looked up and down the hall to get his bearings, there'll never be a movie about it because it looks shit on film. Two blokes stare at each other for 30 seconds and then one falls over dead. Not really something you can set to heavy metal and shoot from creative angles.

As he walked quickly down the hall toward the fire stairs, he fished in one of the hidden pockets of his coat and found a single-use spray-hypo loaded with cordrazine, then fired it into the inside of his wrist. Cordrazine was tricky stuff, and Devlin didn't like messing with it any more than he had to, but he suspected he was going to need the boost to get out of here alive. Any moment now, someone was going to notice his dying friend back in the interrogation room; he was, in fact, vaguely surprised that they hadn't been under surveillance right from the start. He supposed the Psi Cop didn't think it necessary, since the Dominators hadn't arrived yet.

It was absolutely imperative that Devlin be gone by the time they did.

He had just reached the fire stairs when a man in the grey coverall and modular armor of a lower-grade Enforcement Division telepath appeared at the other end of the hall, did a double-take, and then yelled, "Hey! Stop right there!" Without slackening his pace, Devlin reached out and pulled down the fire alarm handle on the wall next to the door while simultaneously shoving the door open and lunging through.

That'll give them something to think about, Devlin said to himself as alarms started hooting and the PA system delivered a canned instruction to evacuate.

The sign on the wall opposite the stairwell door indicated that he was on the sixth floor of wherever he was. Taking the stairs three at a time in a barely-controlled sprint, bounce-rolling off the walls at each mid-flight landing, he had reached the third floor by the time the door above him banged open and the voice of that Enforcement cop echoed, "Hold it!" up and down the stairs. By this time office personnel were starting to stream into the stairwell in response to the alarms; they slowed Devlin down, but they also provided cover. That ED officer was unlikely to start shooting if he was just as likely to tag a member of staff.

Devlin blended into the traffic, trying to seem as if he belonged there, and indeed none of the office workers paid him much notice. All was going well, until the group Devlin had slipped into reached the last flight of stairs to the ground floor and bottlenecked against some congestion on the first-floor landing. Two people were trying to come up the stairs, against the traffic. This was causing considerable difficulty.

Until one of them fired a PPG into the ceiling and bellowed, "Everybody down!" The office workers, some screaming in sudden fright, hit the floor, leaving Devlin looking eye-to-eye over their huddled backs at two rather surprised Psi Cops.

"Don't move!" the one who'd drawn his weapon yelled, leveling it as his partner grabbed at her belt holster.

Devlin moved, if by "moved" you mean "produced his AEGIS-issue blaster from his sleeve and shot him." The other Psi Cop stood dumbfounded, like a child who's just seen a magic trick, as her partner crumpled, Devlin faded back to the first-floor fire door, and the already spooked office workers shifted into outright panic and stampeded.

The first floor appeared to be administrative offices, which fit with what Devlin knew of Psi Corps field offices. The area immediately paying onto the fire exit was a cubicle farm full of catercornered little desklets, idled workstations, and networked printers, and it seemed to be deserted. Semi-crouched so that his head wouldn't show above the cubicle dividers, Devlin made for the opposite side of the building, hoping there would be a second set of fire stairs giving onto an alley or loading dock or the like. Behind him, he heard the fire door clunk as the second Psi Cop finally forced her way through the fleeing crowd and made it onto the floor.

Devlin rounded a corner and pressed himself against a wall, trying to control his breathing and get his thoughts under control. That was the downside to cordrazine; it smoothed over the neural shock from a telepathic fight and boosted the metabolic rate to provide a useful shot of energy for an escape, but it also made both body and mind harder to control, and right now control was the only thing that was going to keep him alive. He'd got the drop on the first Dominator because he'd been so surprised. This second one wasn't going to be so easy. These people were trained to track, hunt, and kill people just like him.

On the other hand, he was trained to do exactly the same thing... so it was going to come down to who was better at the job, or who was luckier.

Devlin could feel the Dominator's mind sweeping through the empty cube farm like a searchlight beam, feeling for his own consciousness. With all the office workers gone, his would be the only mind in here, and both of them knew it. If she could sense his presence, lock onto where he was, even if she couldn't initiate a psychic battle with him on the spot - very difficult without a line of sight - she could at least pin down his location.

He ran through a couple of the calming techniques he'd learned at the AEGIS Academy, mental and physical exercises adapted from ancient methods employed by Jedi Knights and Salusian warrior monks, and wondered abstractly what similar things, if any, Psi Cops were taught. His hunter had just seen her partner gunned down before her eyes by a fugitive neither expected to meet where they did; she was liable to be agitated, off-balance, running on adrenaline, herself.

Besides which, as any night watchman in any warehouse in the galaxy could tell you, there's always a problem with looking for someone in a dark room with a flashlight. You may find him; but the beam of your light will tell him where you are first.

Got you.

Devlin swung out from his cover, aiming his blaster as he did, and came face-to-face down the central aisle with the pursuing Psi Cop, a youngish-looking woman with the dark hair and dusky skin of the Indian subcontinent, five or six cubicle doorways between them. Her expression was one of continued astonishment - the blip had just materialized out of thin air right in front of her again! - but she recovered almost instantly and aimed her own weapon.

"I'd rather not kill you," said Devlin, "but I will if I have to. What say you just put down your weapon and I'll get out of here?"

She snorted. "Forget it," she said. "Drop your weapon right now or you're dead."

For a few seconds they stared hard at each other across the dozen yards or so that separated them, each over the sights of a weapon. Devlin could feel her probing at his mental defenses, sizing him up to see whether a telepathic assault was worth attempting at this range. She was strong, and no amateur, but she wasn't convinced. One of them had to blink.

Suddenly, a man in the semicasual dress of an office worker emerged from a cubicle between them, apparently oblivious to the alarms and the conversation. He had a coffee cup in his hand and the white leads of a portable music player's headphones connecting his shirt pocket to his ears. Noticing the Psi Cop with her weapon aimed at him, he pulled up short.

"What the hell?" he said.

Whether startled by his sudden appearance or just angry that he'd blundered into her way, the Psi Cop shot him.

As he fell out from between them, Devlin shot her.

Then, despite having absolutely no time to lose, he walked toward her, checked on the office worker - dead - and then crouched next to the Psi Cop and picked up her weapon. She was alive, shot high in the right side of the chest; she was trying to reach for her commbadge, trying to talk, and not getting very far with either.

"Sorry about this," said Devlin, reaching down to tap her commbadge. "Medical emergency in the administration area," he said. "Officer down, officer needs assistance."

"Who is this? Pradesh?" a confused voice replied. Devlin reached again and tapped the channel shut, then straightened up and walked away.

As he'd hoped, there was a back stairwell, and it did lead to an alley behind the building. Even better, a deserted one; apparently all the office workers, except that one poor sod who was too wrapped up in his tunes to notice, had gone together toward the front stairwell, even those whose desks were nearer the back.

Tch, Devlin thought, that's poor fire discipline. They must not drill regularly enough.

He was engaged in this random woolgathering - a defense mechanism against the stresses he'd just endured - when he walked into a fist.

I've got to stop doing that, he remarked to himself as he sprawled on his back, his weapon clattering out of his hand. His assailant followed him down, one knee on either side of his hips, and laid the cold steel of a blade across his throat.

"Jax?!" Devlin blurted, looking up in shock at the face of his attacker.

"Going somewhere, Dev?" Jax replied, her voice a low, hate-filled hiss. "You don't think I'm going to let my ticket out of the shit pool just walk away, do you? After I went to all the trouble of bringing you here?"

Devlin blinked. "What?" Then his eyes went wide as, all at once, he realized what had happened, and his face fell. "Aw, Jax," he said, his hushed voice full of grief. "Not you."

"Get up," she snarled, backing up and dragging him upright by the collar of his coat. "You're worth more to me alive, but I'll cut you if you make me."

Devlin gazed mournfully at her for a moment, remembering her face as it had been before he left Earth. She was fifteen years older than he was, and he'd first met her when he was twelve, so there was nothing of that kind of history between them, but they had been close, all the same. Closer than family, maybe. Certainly closer than his family, at least the immediate one. Devlin had no idea where his mother was and never knew his father, only heard of him - and what little Devlin's uncle Edison and cousin Sam knew of the late Jack Carter hadn't been very complimentary.

By any measure, Jax was the closest thing to family he had left on Earth, at the least, which was why he'd risked everything to come back for her... only to find out now, at the end, that he'd come too late. His Jax was already gone.

"I'd rather not kill you," he said for the second time that day, "but I will if I have to."

Jax gave him a venomous look and pressed her knife against him a little harder, as if by way of reminding him it was there.

"What makes you think you're in any position to do that? Think you can stroke me out like you did Vukâciç? I taught you that fucking trick."

Devlin gave her a look of infinite regret for a couple of seconds, then said in a calmer voice than he felt, "Last chance."

"Don't fucking move," Jax told him, then reached into her beat-up leather jacket, flipped the corner back to reveal a differently colored Psi Corps badge - gold on black, the undercover division - and tapped it.

"This is 3C216," she said. "I have a blip in hand at - "

"Jax," said Devlin softly.

"Wait one, Control. What?"

Devlin looked into her angry, cold eyes a moment longer, saw no trace of anything human there, and then said, in a barely audible voice,


"What the fuck are you - " Jax demanded, then stopped, looked faintly confused, and collapsed lifeless to the ground.

Devlin stood over her for a few seconds, gazing down, tears silently tracing his stress-hollowed cheeks. Then he crouched beside her, bent low, silenced the insistent inquiries of her commbadge, and kissed her gently on the forehead.

"Goodbye, Jacqueline," he said, then rose and walked away, disappearing into the city.

Friday, November 30, 2408
International Police Station Babylon 6
Orbiting Bajor, B'hava'el system, Centaurus sector

Her Highness Amanda Elektra Dessler, Crown Princess and Empress-Designate of the Gamilon Empire and that state's present ambassador to the Babylon Foundation, looked up at the sound of her diplomatic office door opening to see Devlin entering. At once she knew that his mission to Earth had not gone well. He looked like he hadn't slept since he left.

"Hullo, Amanda," he said.

Amanda rose from her desk and came around to him. "What went wrong?"

He smiled very slightly at her. "It's that obvious, is it?"

"Yes. Now tell me."

Devlin sighed. "She wasn't there."

"Could you find no leads as to where she had gone?"

"No, I mean... I don't mean it that way. I mean... sometime while I was gone, they got her. I don't know exactly how it happened, and probably now I never will, but... her body was still alive, and it knew some of what she once knew, but it had a shell personality doing the driving. They'd already killed what made her Jax."

Amanda's face hardened into the look of anger that it almost always took on during any discussion of the Psi Corps. "They used her to entrap you."

"Yeah. And it almost worked." He shook his head. "I should've gone back sooner."

"You weren't ready," Amanda countered at once. "You would have been killed."

"Maybe. But three people would still be alive now. One of them didn't even have anything to do with... anything. And God only knows what they'll do to the people I made contact with in Newcastle if they find out." He clenched a fist, weighed it a couple of times, and then let his hand fall with another sigh.

"Anyway," he said, "it's over now. Jax is gone. Two Psi Cops are dead and their London bureau office is probably in chaos. And I can confirm that our intelligence about the killwords they implant in turned blip doubles is accurate, though I'm sure they'll change the actual word now. I s'pose that's something, what?"

With a tsk of concern that might have made some of her rivals in the Babylon 6 diplomatic corps soil themselves with shock, Amanda drew him into an embrace.

"You did all that you could," she said, "and at no small risk. Honor is satisfied." Then, releasing him, she said, "Come. You look as if you haven't rested since Monday."

"I haven't," Devlin said. "And... thank you."

Amanda smiled a full, warm smile, the one she reserved for her closest intimates. "You're welcome, my love. If ever I chanced to wonder why you are my husband, you constantly remind me."

"Well," Devlin said wryly, "I'm not very smart, but I am persistent."

They met Kitarina Dragonaar in the corridor as they left, arm in arm; she immediately took his other arm, sensing that he was troubled even though she knew nothing about the specifics.

"Welcome back, Carter," she said. "How was Earth?"

Devlin considered his answer a moment before working his arm out of her grasp and putting it around her shoulders instead.

"Earth was shit," he said. "It's good to be home."

"Get Carter" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

They say that when a man is in extremis - when he's staring straight down the barrel of death - one behavior is damn near universal. Mortally wounded soldiers on battlefields, sensing the approach of oblivion, have almost always done one thing, throughout history and across the galaxy, if they're part of any species that's even remotely human: They call for their mothers.

So that's me doubly screwed, then.

I suppose it's not fair to say that I'm facing imminent death. In fact, if what Jabba said is to be taken literally - and my offline copy of the Encyclopedia Galactica seems to indicate that it can - I'm not going to die for a very long time. A lot longer than would have been the case just a few minutes ago. In fact, I can expect to live nearly another thousand years, where this morning, with luck and care, I was looking at another 160, 180 tops.

On the minus side, I will be spending that entire time trapped all but immobile in a tiny, very foul-smelling room, being digested. This is really not how I saw myself spending my summer vacation, never mind the next thousand years.

Anyway, I don't know if the thing about soldiers and their mothers is true, but as for us motherless boys, well, I can tell you what we do first thing in a situation like this: We reflect on how we got into this mess.

I was born on a planet you'll never have heard of and won't find on any chart, but that's all right because you don't want to go there anyway. The weather's rubbish and the locals redefine that good old Anglo-Standard term assholes. Seriously, these are people who not only think it's okay to snuff newborns for having the wrong color eyes, but also insist you'd be stupid not to. Not the sort of folks you make a mental note to send chatty Christmas cards later on.

Technically born isn't the right word - I guess the correct term would be more like decanted - but a man's got to stand on his dignity sometimes.

Mind you, my memories of the place aren't from when I was first there. We left when I was just a baby, and chances are I wouldn't have known where it was myself if we hadn't had to go back when I was twelve. But that's neither here nor there. It's not a nice place and they aren't nice people. Just take my word for it.

My earliest really distinct memory is of a firefight.

Ironically, my most recent memory is also of a firefight.

"Tom, I don't know if you've noticed, but Jabba's people are a tiny bit pissed off at us."

"Really," Tom calls back. He has to raise his voice, partly because we're standing at opposite ends of a sand skiff, partly because there's a bit of a crosswind, and mostly because the guys on the other sand skiff - not to mention the upper deck of the sail barge - are shooting at us a lot.

"Yep," I reply. "That is my professional assessment of the situation." I take a shot at the pilot of the other skiff, which is jockeying for position, trying to get alongside us for boarding, but he's still pretty far away and I'm using a blaster pistol, so I miss.

The reason I'm using a blaster pistol and not my DC-15 - the reason, in other words, why my hard-to-acquire, GENOM White Legion-exclusive Deece is lying in two pieces on the deck at my feet - stands beside me, deflecting incoming blasterfire and making me fear for my limbs. Now, I don't have anything against Jedi Knights. I have no particular sensitivity to the Force, but I believe it exists, and I respect the Jedi for their nerve, their toughness, and their dedication to justice. I just wish this one's nerve and toughness came with a little skill to back it up, is all. If he keeps waving that lightsaber around like that, it's only a matter of time before he takes somebody's head off, and with my luck it'll be mine.

"Will you watch where you're swinging that kriffing thing!" I snap as he deflects another flurry of blasterfire and nearly shortens my right arm for me. "Bad enough you've wrecked my favorite blaster - "

"I said I was bloody sorry!" the Jedi snaps back.

His accent's even thicker than mine - New Caledonia, I think, rather than Concord Dawn - and his choice of words, along with his expression, rather puts the lie to the whole "Jedi dispassion" thing, but then, we've already established that he's not the most skillful Jedi in the galaxy. I have to smile a little inside my helmet, even as I'm thinking how glad I'll be when he's out of my way. His name's Ray and, God love 'im, he's trying his best. I don't know why Jedi Masters like to send their padawan learners off on their own like this, but I wish they wouldn't do it when and where I'm trying to rescue someone.

The shootout on the Ventari Station marketplace deck probably wasn't my first firefight, but it was the first one I took special notice of, because it was the first one I participated in, as opposed to just being a spectator. In those days I was very small, and I went most everywhere strapped to my father's back along with his Merr-Sonn jetpack and his emergency rations. That particular day, I had a blaster of my own - I think he gave it to me just to keep my hands busy while he did some work - and I used it to drill a turian merc who tried to get the drop on him from behind. Dad likes to joke that it was the first day I ever really earned my keep, though I have to point out that, given my position, the guy was trying to shoot me too. I was about two and a half years old. That turian - I never did find out his name - was the first sapient I ever had to kill.

That probably seems shocking to you, and now you're thinking I must be psychologically scarred, like those boy soldiers on third-galaxy hellhole planets with permanent civil wars you read about on the GNN feedsite all the time. You can relax. It's not like that. For my kind, that sort of thing is as perfectly normal - as happy and festive a childhood memory - as a kid from São Paulo Novo's first distinct memory being of his dad taking him to a futebol game. Hell, it's better. That Paulian kid might've seen a great game, but I bet he didn't score a goal for the home team. To me, that's pretty much what clearing that turian off my old man's six was.

See, I'm Mandalorian. We're... not like other people.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking. "But Boba," you're thinking, "the Mandalorians are extinct. They wiped themselves out in a civil war, shit, thousands of years before the fall of Atlantis."

And you're right about that last part, but we're not extinct, not quite. There are four of us left.

My father's name is Jango Fett. He served in the 229th Distrovi Brigade of the Third Mandalor Guards (most people nowadays see any Mandalorian armor and think, "Oh, the Death Watch," but by Dad's time, the Death Watch was just one brigade) until a mishap with a coldsleep transport ship stranded him in the 24th century along with two of his training buddies. Since none of them knew anything other than how to fight, they took jobs as hunter-investigators - legal guns-for-hire - and set out to have a look around their new era.

I'm told things got... interesting from there.

"Tom, talk to me," I say, trying to keep the worst of the tension out of my voice. "I'm running low on rocket darts over here and that sprocking skiff driver's lining up to ram us."

"He's close enough now - I'll handle him," says Ray, and before anyone else can say anything about his plan's relative inadvisability, he gets a running start and takes one of those Jedi leaps from the prow of our skiff to the prow of the other one, hops over the rail, and wades into the crew with his lightsaber blazing.

"Well," I remark wryly to Tom as I take a few potshots at the guys up on the sail barge's deck, "I give him full marks for enthusiasm, anyway."

"That's so comforting," Tom replies. "Come on, Jase, up you get."

That last isn't directed at me, but at the man we were hired to help rescue. Internationally infamous freelance freighter pilot, gambler, alleged smuggler, and occasional mercenary Jason Solo has undoubtedly had better days, days that didn't involve waking up from carbonite freeze only to be scheduled for a day trip to the Pit of Carkoon by the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. He's certainly looked better. He looks better in the holo his sister Jane provided so we'd know who we were looking for when we infiltrated Jabba's palace. In the holo he's grinning. In person he looks like he's trying not to puke on Tom.

Thinking of Jane, I peg another Weequay before he can make it to that giant blaster cannon that's mounted on the sail barge's foredeck and key my helmet com. "Jane, I hate to be a noodge."

"I'm working on it," Jane replies testily through a wash of narrowband digital compression artifacts. "I've got my own problems here, you know? Nobody told me Jabba had an air force. Gonna take me a few minutes to deal with these guys with no gunners aboard."

"Fine, fine, take your time. We'll just be here fighting every other lifeform Jabba's ever hired. And some droids."

I have a look across the way; Ray seems to have the situation on the other skiff well in hand. For all that he can't quite control his lightsaber in polite company, he looks to be pretty good with it when there's nothing around he doesn't want to be cutting off. I have to kind of wonder how he made it to this point in his training with both of his arms, but hey, not my problem.

I'm really starting to not like the look of that deck cannon. If anybody halfway competent gets into that saddle, we have a serious problem. I don't really relish fighting everybody on the sail barge, but it might be preferable in the long run to shooting them one at a time as they make that run down the portside rail for the cannon. I load up the guidance software for my trusty Merr-Sonn and start eyeing the distance for the jump.

It was Fenn who first accepted that the three survivors of the Extinction weren't going to be able to preserve the Mandalorian people as a biological species. Even if Khyra had been interested in playing Eve - and she wasn't - the gene pool would have been catastrophically shallow. One sunny day, over about 20 beers apiece in the Mos Eisley cantina, he broke this sad truth to the other two. At which point, according to Khyra's version, Dad took a swing at him and they all had about 20 more beers apiece and passed out. This was, morale-wise, the historical low point for the Mandalorian race.

The next day, presumably after some waffles and a lot of coffee, Dad apologized to Fenn for punching him, which Fenn didn't remember anyway, and announced that he'd had an idea. If they couldn't preserve the Mandalorian people biologically, he said, that didn't really matter anyway. We're not anything biologically interesting; we're just humans. Species that are biologically similar are a dime a dozen. What Dad proposed was that they instead focus on preserving their race culturally.

The others thought it over, decided this was a damn good idea, and went their separate ways again. Khyra likes to point out, a little archly, that it was right after this little speech that Dad went to Kamino and inquired as to the possibility of preserving the race through genetic engineering, only to be informed that yes, such a thing was possible, and they'd be happy to get started right away... just as soon as Mr. Fett paid a deposit of at least ten percent of the expected final cost of the project.

The story goes that Dad didn't bat an eye; he just told them he'd get right on it, but he didn't have 12 billion credits on him, and in the meantime, how about a one-off sample as a good-faith demonstration that they could actually do the job? That sounded reasonable to them, so they cloned him once to prove they could do it, and he cheerfully declared that he'd be back with their credits as soon as he'd given the prototype a good thorough field testing.

So there you go. Technically? I started life as stolen test equipment. It doesn't keep me up at night.

"Tom," I declare, "I'm going up and see about disabling that deck cannon before somebody manages to blow us to Dantooine with it."

"Works for me."

Jason Solo struggles to his feet, leaning on a force pike one of the mooks on this boat tried to gaff Tom with earlier in the day. "Who's that?" he asks. I leave the explanations for Tom and turn back to the sail barge, getting ready to fire up my jets.

"You didn't think I got into this mess alone, did you?" Tom replies cheerfully. "Have a nice flight, Boba."

"Boba? Boba Fett?" Jason sounds more startled than pleased, though I couldn't say why. Probably still a bit disoriented from carbon freeze. (He'll probably try to use it later on as an excuse for forgetting the money he owes me from last Friday's pazaak game.)

And then he says, "Where?!"

I am not, to the best of my knowledge, Force-sensitive, but for just an instant I have the impression of what it must be like to get one of those little Jedi premonitions. Today is not my day for people nearby flailing around with melee weapons. If I'd had Chinese for lunch, I'm sure that's what it would have said in my fortune cookie.

On the plus side, if it'd been Ray this time, I'd have been impaled. That seems fairly small consolation, though, as Jason slams his force pike into the control cluster on my jetpack and sends me on a brief, uncontrolled sub-orbital flight. Origination: half-wrecked sand skiff. Destination: the port side of Jabba the Hutt's sail barge, about halfway up.

That would've sucked enough, to be honest. The subsequent 50-foot fall into the Sarlacc is just icing on that cake.

A memory fragment: the first time I ever took an active part in one of Dad's investigations (as opposed to just participating in a firefight that found him, which we've already covered). I was five. He was tracking a low-level Hutt crimeboss - nobody of Jabba's caliber, but he was good at hiding his boltholes. We knew two important things about our quarry, though. One: He was the kind of craven slime (even by Hutt standards) who would threaten a kid to try and get a hunter off his back. Two: He had the sort of ego (this part's Hutt-normal, anyway) that would demand that he do it in person.

So I drank some blue milk spiked with a slug of nanobot trackers and then went out and indulged in some really sloppy tradecraft. I remember feeling a little insulted that the Hutt's goons actually thought I was clueless enough to get captured that way by accident. Didn't they know I was Mando'ad? I mean, please.

Anyway, they caught me and dragged me off to the Hutt's hidey-hole so he could slobber at me in person and tell me about all the awful things he was going to do to me if he didn't get Dad's assurance that he was off the case, and how he was thinking about doing them anyway just on principle. And Dad tracked the nanos, blew in the skylight, jetted on in, tossed me a blaster, and we killed everybody in the room. Apart from the Hutt, of course. We weren't getting paid to kill him.

And now you're back to where you were when I was talking about my first firefight (hmm, there's an idea for a Fisher-Price set), getting all horrified and wanting to know how a man could possibly ask his five-year-old son to do such a dangerous and unpleasant thing.

I'll have you know it was my idea. Not that Dad resisted, of course, because it was a damn good idea, if I do say so myself. It's not that he was callous about my safety; hell, he'd have died for me any day of the week. Probably still would even now that I'm an adult. But we were partners and I was the one who could make the tactic work, so we went for it. That's the way we are. We're practical men. We're Mandalorians.

I haven't just been lying here in the dark and the corrosive slime woolgathering about the good old days for lack of anything better to do, by the way. I'm thinking. So far I've thought of four different ways I could get out of the Sarlacc. In none of the scenarios does the beast survive. Unfortunately, I don't either, which is why I'm still thinking.

The reason for all the little walks down memory lane is simple. I've figured out that the Sarlacc is telepathic. This makes a certain amount of sense if you think about it. It has no eyes, no ears, and (as far as anyone can tell) no sense of smell, but it can sense when prey is near its mouth and grab onto it with its tentacles. That information has to come from somewhere, and I've worked out over the - check helmet chron - 53 minutes I've been in here that it comes from telepathy.

Not only can it sense when prey is near, it's also apparently smart enough to figure out when that prey is trying to think of a way to get out. I spent the first ten minutes of my time down here getting knocked all the hell around what I can only assume is the beast's stomach by whiplike tentacles or cilia or whatever the hell you want to call them, because it didn't like the idea of me scheming to escape. I think it's also annoyed that it can't get through my armor to pin me permanently with these tentacles and start absorbing me into the stomach lining, like it has to all the other poor bastards I saw for the couple of seconds I was fool enough to turn on my handlamp.

However, though it's telepathic and at least semi-sapient, the Sarlacc is apparently not very smart. It can't follow multiple trains of thought at once. That's my theory, anyway, since at the point where I sat down and started reminiscing, it hasn't tried to beat me senseless. I guess it can't tell that I'm working on escape plans with the other half of my mind.

Useful trick, this. I learned it from Khyra. It's intended as a defense against telepathic interrogation and Jedi mind tricks, but it seems to be working nicely for Sarlacc-fooling as well. I'll have to mention it to her next time I see her.

A memory fragment: the only time I've ever heard my father talk about why he went to all the trouble of having me made.

He's never spoken about it to me; what I know, I overheard, though I think he knew I was listening. I woke up in the night once, when I was ten or so, and went downstairs to get something to drink. I was surprised to hear Dad talking to someone in the living room; when I went to bed, we didn't have company, and it's not like people were just dropping by chez Fett at all hours of the day and night. By then I had the habit of moving silently at all times anyway, just for practice, so I crept to the living room doorway to see who was there. It turned out to be Khyra, and I was just about to break cover and go say hello when I heard her ask Dad,

"Jango... why did you go to Kamino? I can understand a man wanting a son to raise, but... well, there is another method that many lifeforms have had some success with."

Dad sat back in his favorite chair and made a dismissive gesture. "Ahh, you know me, Khyra," he said. "What woman would put up with me?"

Khyra gave him the I'm-not-in-the-mood-for-your-wit face, unintentionally proving his point, I thought. "Jango."

Dad sighed. "Okay. You're right. Really, asking them to clone me was just an impulse. I really did go to see if they could... could bring us back. And when they said they could, but it'd cost more money than I'm ever going to see, I just... had an idea and jumped on it. And I've never regretted it." He sat forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped in front of him, and looked at her intently. "He's my life, Khyra. And he gives me hope."

Khyra smiled. To this day, my mental image of what a beautiful woman should look like is Khyra, sitting on my father's couch in her beskar'gam, helmet on her knee, smiling.

"Yeah," she said. "I know what you mean, Jan'ika."

I think I've got my plan figured out. I chance another quick look with the handlamp, to pin the final details down. This place is going to give me nightmares, and I'm not too macho to admit it, but I have to double-check a couple of things, there's no getting around it. I turn it off the instant I've confirmed what I want to know.

I slosh through the nearly-knee-deep muck, trying not to think about what I'm stepping on and occasionally almost tripping over. If I move slowly enough, and stay distracted, I don't get the tentacles' attention. I don't think the Sarlacc can really feel what's going on in here very much; it just senses if its prey is thinking about trying to escape, and right now, as far as it knows, I'm not.

Just for the sake of being a bastard about it, in case this thing has any sort of sexual intelligence, I've switched from reminiscences to the most lurid fantasies I can come up with. Bit embarrassing, if you think about it, that the Sarlacc now knows everything I'd have liked to do with those twi'lek dancers Tom tried to pick up the other day, and a few of the things I've found myself wondering about our ever-masked friends the quarians over the years.

It's doing the trick, though. It's certainly distracting.

Right. Time to see if this plan is going to work.

In one of the pouches on my utility belt is a Malkite poisoner's kit. I'm not a fan of poisonings - after all, I'm an investigator, not an assassin, whatever misconceptions the Outer Rim press like to nurture about bounty hunters - but there are some interesting non-lethal options in there that occasionally come in handy, and it's always helpful to know about things that may be used against you.

There's a Nikto about ten feet off to my right. He's one of Jabba's guards; Ray knocked him down here early in the fight with one of those Force shoves. He's already good and tentacled up, completely helpless and immobile, but when I shine my light on him, his eyes move toward me, so I know he's still more or less conscious. I'm banking on the paralysis being a matter of nerve impulse interdiction rather than something in the Sarlacc's digestive juices that stops the muscles from working. If I'm wrong, this is going to be a waste of time. If I'm right, though, that Nikto is my ticket out of here.

My hands move automatically, without the need for conscious direction - one of the many things I can, and do, thank my father for. My upbringing was certainly unusual, and by the comfortable standards of people accustomed to safe, soft lives lived behind desks, it's probably considered shockingly brutal, but I don't see it that way. It's left me with two things I wouldn't trade for anything else: the skills to earn a living in one of the galaxy's most dangerous and exciting trades; and the rock-solid conviction that I am, clone or no clone, the galaxy's most beloved son.

I finish freighting a saber dart with one of the nastier things in the Malkite arsenal, load it into the dart launcher on my left gauntlet, turn, and fire it into my Nikto friend. The Sarlacc gets a whiff of my intentions at the last - unavoidable, I have to focus to make sure I don't miss my only shot - but before it can react, the Nikto goes berserk. This particular treat was designed by the Malkites to cause a high-ranking target's death by sending him into an insane, murderous rage, at which point, if the psychological factors were weighted right, he'd be put down by his own guards. Clever, if you're into that kind of thing. Done right, it can cause whole governments to topple amid scandals involving traitors on the inside.

I'm not looking for anything quite so politically dynamic. What I'm looking for is a distraction for the Sarlacc, and I get it. The Nikto's fury is enough to override his neural paralysis with such strength that he snaps free from the tentacles that hold him down and starts ripping them out of the Sarlacc's stomach wall. Instantly the Sarlacc's internal defense systems go to high alert and more of them whip out of wherever they come from, trying to snag the Nikto's limbs and secure him again. It's way too busy now to worry about little old me.

This is my cue to launch my right arm's grapple line into the ceiling and hope the meat is substantial enough to support my weight. It is. I reel myself up next to the closed sphincter that I entered through, pop the vibroblade in my left gauntlet, and start hacking. This isn't pretty, but it gets the job done. I don't need a really big hole; just enough to make my way through. The tricky part is getting up into the thing's esophagus, or whatever it is, and getting my climbing spikes planted without falling back into the stomach or losing my grapple line.

I inch my way upward, jamming my elbow and boot spikes into the soft, slimy meat of the Sarlacc's throat. It's a bit like climbing a duct, except the duct is squidgy and coated in a slick acid mucus, and smells so bad I can smell it even through the filters in my helmet. I'm going to shower for a month when I get out of here.

I estimated how far I'd have to climb before I started, but it feels like I've gone that far and I'm not seeing daylight yet. I hope I haven't taken a wrong turn and tried to climb out through the secondary esophagus in the monster's tongue. That would be a tight fit for a man my size. Of course, if I am climbing out the right hole, I'll have to deal with that tongue when I get to the top anyway, but that's part of my plan too.

Down below, I hear the faint sounds of the Nikto's bellowing and thrashing taper off. Fierfek, I think. He didn't last as long as I'd hoped.

I keep climbing, the muscles in my back and shoulders aching. I wonder vaguely whether the Sarlacc's stomach tentacles can reach this far back up its throat. A moment later I get my answer when one wraps around my ankle and tries to drag me back down. It doesn't much like the result, though, since that drags my climbing blades back like barbs in a fishhook. While it's trying to decide what to do about that, I give that tentacle a shot from my flamethrower to help it make up its mind. It unwraps and disappears, but now I can actually feel the Sarlacc shaking as it comes as close as a completely immobile buried meat/plant/thing can come to thrashing in displeasure.

There! Daylight. I am in the right hole, as it were. Now I've got tentacles coming at me from this end, trying to shove me back down. The flamethrower discourages them, too, but some of them are pretty substantial. It only has to clip me once or twice to pry me from my perch and send me back into the pit.

I hadn't wanted to do this, but I don't see that I have much choice. My jetpack's damaged. It may not work at all, and even if it does, it probably won't function predictably... but I have to get out of here now. I don't think I have the strength left to battle my way past all those damn tentacles, and I don't know if Tom and the others are even still out here.

It'll be a hell of a note if I claw my way out of the Sarlacc to find Jabba and his boys out there mopping up.

Here goes nothing, I think, and hit the gas.

For a second, nothing happens, and I begin to resign myself to a fight I don't have the gas for. Then the trusty old Merr-Sonn sputters and coughs, twitching against my beskar'gam's back plate. A moment of suspense...

... and I am out of there. The toothy outer maw of the Sarlacc whips past as the Merr-Sonn delivers me into a daylight that would be blinding if my helmet didn't have automatic filters. Something whacks me hard in the left forearm; a tentacle smacks the side of my head, snapping off my flip-down teleoptic. I feel a vague pang of annoyance about that - it's the hardest, most expensive bit of a beskar'gam set to replace - but it's quickly subsumed in my absolute glee to be getting out of the kriffing Sarlacc.

That lasts for about a second, until it dawns on me that the Merr-Sonn's not shutting off, and that my flight guidance authority seems a bit... lacking. I'm really picking up some altitude now! I could see my house from here, if I was fool enough to live in the middle of the Dune Sea. The Sarlacc looks like a sewer manhole, albeit a sewer manhole surrounded by tentacles and made of meat. The only thing taller than my flight path right now is the towering plume of greasy black smoke rising from the burned-out carcass of what I'm guessing used to be Jabba the Hutt's sail barge. Oh, and there's the flattened disk shape of the Millennium Falcon, parked a couple of hundred yards from the Sarlacc's pit. Nice of Jane to show up, finally.

I wonder, vaguely, how high I'll end up going.

A moment later the Merr-Sonn overheats and shuts down, and I get my answer as the receding desert hesitates, then starts coming back toward me.

Fortunately, I'm going in a ballistic parabola; I didn't fly straight up. This is good, because frankly after all that I would spend the next thousand years feeling irredeemably stupid if I fell straight back down into the Sarlacc again. A few seconds later I will myself limp as my helmet informs me that my ground speed is about 35 miles per hour. Hell, no problem there. I've jumped off hovers going faster than that.

All the same, I hope that sand is as soft as it looks.

A memory fragment: I was thirteen when my father decided, for reasons that were not entirely clear to me at first, that it'd be a good thing if I went away to school.

This struck me as a stupid idea, and, being my father's son, I told him so without any attempt at diplomacy.

"What would I ever need to know that you can't teach me?" I asked. "School is for aruteiise. Besides, we're a team."

Dad shot me a look; he'd chosen to bring this topic up while he was lining the Slave I up for approach to the Victrix II metagate, which was not his best plan if he expected - as he certainly should have by then - an argument. He didn't answer until we were in metaspace and he could lock down the control board and turn his seat to face me.

"Boba," he said, "there may come a day when you decide you want to do something else with your life."

"Not bloody likely," I replied.

"Don't interrupt me," Dad said, and he had that look in his eyes that said he meant it. "That day may come, and there's no shame in that. Being Mando'ade doesn't automatically mean spending your whole life at one end of a gun or the other. If it does, you're going to need to know other things than just what I can teach you. And even if it doesn't, more education than a man needs can never hurt him."

"But I can't leave you alone," I protested. The idea was almost literally unthinkable. I'd been with him, apart from brief times when circumstances had separated us during jobs, for my whole life. There were no trips to the grandparents' or stag nights with the boys for Boba and Jango Fett. And it wasn't that I thought I couldn't handle being apart from him; it was that I couldn't imagine what he would do without me to watch his back.

He seemed to sense all that, and smiled, putting his hand on my shoulder.

"I'll survive, ad'ika," he said. "I've been preparing myself for this moment since you were born. There comes a time in every man's life when he has to leave his father's side and go see what else there is in the galaxy, and your time is almost here. You've learned everything I've ever tried to teach you. You've made me very proud. Now it's time for you to get a different view of the universe. Make some friends your own age. Have some fun."

It suddenly occurred to me what might have brought this on. "Dad," I said, trying to be stern. "This is not about what that woman said to you, is it?"

He looked blankly at me for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed, clapping me hard on the shoulder.

"No, no," he said. "That government flunky on Bestana Prime? She didn't have a clue who we are, son. It has nothing to do with her. I don't regret bringing you up the way I have. But that doesn't mean I can't want you to see what else is out there. Okay?"

I thought it over. "Okay," I said. "But I'll be back when I decide it's not worth it."

Dad laughed again, not as raucously this time, and mussed my hair. "That's your choice, ad'ika," he said, amused. "Anyway, trust me. It's not like I'm sending you to any old school. I think you're going to like the place I have in mind... "

"Boba? Boba? Can you hear me?"

"Nnngh. 'Course I can hear you. I'm not deaf," I reply. I feel like I've been run over by a Juggernaut. I get slowly to elbows and knees, then pull myself upright. Tom moves to help me, then seems to think better of it, and a glance down at myself makes it clear why. I'm covered in acid, mucus, blood, and whateverthehell else I had to drag myself through to get out of the Sarlacc. Even so, I pop my neck seal and pull my helmet off. It's too hot, and it's too dry, and I reek just as much as I was afraid I would, but it's still fresher air than I was getting with the bucket on.

"That was... dramatic," Jane Solo remarks, staying judiciously upwind.

"Eh heh... sorry about that, kid," Jason adds, scratching his head. He's not quite facing the right way; Jane takes his elbow and adjusts him about ten degrees.

"Are ye all righ'?" Ray asks, flat astonishment on his face.

"I will be, once I get this crap off my armor," I reply.

"I'll hook up the hose," Jane remarks with a grin, then sets off across the sand for the Falcon. As she goes, she tosses back over her shoulder, "You're not coming in my nice clean spacecraft like that!"

"No one's e'er coom ou' of a Sarlacc alive," says Ray, still looking amazed. "Wha' was i' like?"

"I... don't want to talk about it," I tell him, and he seems to realize belatedly what a morbid question it was and looks away, embarrassed. The rest of us start trudging after Jane toward the ship. "I see you took care of Jabba."

"Blew up his barge, anyway," Tom agrees. "The slug himself got away. Who knew a Hutt could beat it to an escape launch that fast?"

"Just as well," says Jason, who has one hand on Ray's shoulder for guidance. "The last thing this sector needs is the kind of gang war that would start if Jabba got it in a firefight."

"This isn't going to get us on his Christmas card list, though," I say.

"Eh, don't worry about it," says Jason. "I was going to pay the big idiot off anyway, before he got all uppity and had me carbon-frozen. When I send him word of that through an intermediary, after he's had a chance to cool down, he'll feel so stupid that he'll want us all to just forget about the whole thing."

We've just reached the Falcon's ramp, where Jane, true to her word, is hooking up a maintenance hose to a pressure fitting on the outer hull, when I remember that there's one more thing I have to do before I can leave the Dune Sea.

I couldn't get anybody else out of the Sarlacc with me, and for that matter I didn't really want to. They were criminal scum, the most recent of whom had been trying to kill me and my friends, and in my book they deserved to get topped.

Still, I'm not totally without compassion, and that Nikto did me a favor, however unwittingly, so before I left I made arrangements to do the rest of my temporary roommates, and the galaxy at large, a favor in return.

I reach to my right vambrace, scrape acid snot off a safety cover, flip it open, and push the button underneath. For a second, as Tom and Ray give me curious looks, nothing happens.

The ground shivers beneath our feet, then jumps with a percussive, nearly subsonic whump. A hundred yards away, a fountain of fire and meat erupts from the bottom of the Pit of Carkoon as the permacrete detonator I left in the belly of the Sarlacc blows the monster and all those poor bastards sealed within it straight to wherever Sarlaccs, incompetent Hutt enforcers, and people stupid enough to cheat Jabba the Hutt go when this world is finished with them. A moment later, the crackling roar of the primary explosion reaches us, along with a brief but nauseating wave of inside-the-Sarlacc stink.

"Holy shit!" Tom yells.

"What? What was that?" Jason wants to know, squinting vaguely in the direction of the blast. "All I can see is a big bright blur."

"Just tying up a loose end," I tell him. "No worries."

"Wish You Were Here" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Monday, November 2, 2409
Fairfield, Faliszek III
Booth sector, United Federation of Planets

Master Sergeant William B. Overbeck, WDF Tactical Corps (ret.), had seen a lot of seriously crazy shit go down in his day. He'd been with the 14th Armored Cav when they hit the dirt - except there wasn't any dirt - on Cybertron in 2026, MPed for Tactical Detachment Command when they turned a transport-load of Marines and Salusian swabbies loose on Kooken's Pleasure Pit for R&R during the 12th Kilrathi, and even helped recover relics of some ancient pre-Salusian civilization or another on a planet that turned out to be completely artificial, damned if he could remember the name of it now.

It was the kind of thing he'd lived for since, hell, since before First Contact. Where other kids had gotten drafted and bitched the whole time they were there, Bill Overbeck had volunteered to go to 'Nam because somebody had to, and it might as well be someone who was interested in getting the hell out of Pittsburgh for a while. And if he'd retired after the WDF went bust in 2288, well, a man was entitled to take it easy for a while, wasn't he? Besides, he'd be back in action again someday. The virus would see to that.

When selecting Faliszek III as his place of refuge, Bill would never have figured that it would end up being the site of the weirdest goddamn thing that he had ever witnessed, bar none. But it was. The other virus had seen to that.

Well, he assumed it was a virus. What the hell else could it be? He and Francis had had this argument three or four times while the four of them fought their way across Fairfield, trying to reach the evac point they'd heard of, crosstown at Mercy Hospital. Francis thought it might be magic.

"That's the biggest bunch'a horseshit I ever heard," Bill growled, taking a drag on his cigarette. "I've seen magic zombies before, on Karelvi. Raised by goddamn Lughebu worshipers. This is completely different. These people ain't dead."

"They are when we get through with them," Zoey said, giggling just a little hysterically.

Bill put a hand on her shoulder. "Steady, girl," he said. "You done great so far. Don't come apart on us now."

"I'm okay," Zoey replied. "Really. I am. Let's just get the hell out of the city."

"Good plan," Louis agreed. He checked the charge status of his blaster carbine, then looked around the room at his companions. "I'm ready to go if y'all are."

Francis laughed harshly and clapped Louis on the shoulder, nearly knocking him over. "Let's get it done!"

"Stay frosty, people," Bill cautioned. "We're not outta this yet." He hefted his BR55 and kicked away the pipe wedging shut the exit, then swung the door open and slipped out, checking left. After all they'd been through, he knew without looking that Zoey was already at his back, covering them to the right - but the alley was empty.

"Huh," said Louis. "Where is everybody?"

"How do I know?" Francis replied. "Maybe it's league night at Zombie Bowl. Am I some kind of motherfuckin' zombologist now?"

"Shut up, Francis," Bill grumbled.

"Yes, sir, Sgt. Overbeck, sir," Francis replied, sketching a mock salute.

"Son, if you'd spent any time in uniform, you'd know that not even the most clueless scumdog recruit calls a master sergeant 'sir'. Now secure the jaw and keep that shotgun ready. Let's move, people."

Weapons at the ready, the four moved cautiously toward the end of the alley. Louis poked his head out, looked up and down the street, and then edged onto the sidewalk.

"Nobody out here either," he said. Then, pointing, he added, "There's the hospital!"

The others joined him in the street and looked. Sure enough, there was Mercy Hospital, the huge white letters near the roof still glowing despite the rest of the city having lost power around it.

Bill sized up the distance they had left to go. "Maybe half a mile," he said. "Then we gotta get to the roof. That might be the hardest part. I heard the outbreak started there. God only knows what's inside that place."

"Well, we ain't gonna find out standin' around in the street," said Francis. "Let's go!"

"For once, you got a good idea there," said Bill with a half-smile. He lit a cigarette and started leading the way up the street.

The eerie silence grated on all their nerves. They knew from hard-won experience that Fairfield never stayed this quiet for this long. They kept glancing nervously at each other, checking their weapons, waiting for the other shoe to drop, as they covered each empty alley and doorway. One block. Two blocks. Three. Stick to the shadows. A few streetlights still on in this area, probably fed by the hospital's own fusion plant. There was an orange glow in the sky near the hospital; something over there was on fire, the fire's light reflecting from the overcast that made the night even darker. Silence.


Zoey heard it first, freezing suddenly, holstering one of her pistols so she could hold up a hand. "Shh! Listen."

The survivors halted, straining their ears. Francis was just about to say "I don't hear anything" when he heard it. A low rumbling, like the sound of a distant river going over rocks.

"Must be the fire," said Louis, his voice hushed.

Bill shook his head. "No... it's getting louder."

Whatever it was came into view a moment later, cresting a small rise in the street perhaps 300 yards away. At first it was just an indistinct wavering shadow, a strip of darkness deeper than that of the surrounding night, stretching across the street, and for a second Francis thought, improbably, that it was a river, some kind of approaching flash-flood. That was absurd - the sky had so far only threatened, not actually rained, and anyway, this was downtown Fairfield, not the New Los Angeles flood control canal system.

Then, with a sinking feeling of horror, he saw. They all saw. As the leading edge of the wave passed under one of the still-functioning streelights, it became apparent to the survivors that the dark shape was a flood of sorts, but it wasn't made of water. It was a crowd, an absolute horde, of Infected, all of them maddened into the kind of frenzy that usually required a loud noise in a confined space, all of them running as fast as they could possibly run. They stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk, pouring down the full width of the street, gibbering and snarling, trampling the slower members of their own mass underfoot without the slightest hesitation. There had to be hundreds, maybe even thousands of them.

"Holy shit!" Louis yelled. Reacting instinctively, he planted himself, swung his E-11 into position, and opened up, firing full-auto from the hip. The E-11 was a notoriously inaccurate weapon when used in such a mode, but it wasn't as if he could possibly miss. Scarlet blasterfire raked the oncoming wave, but he might as well have been shooting at an avalanche. Those few Infected he hit stumbled, fell, were subsumed by the mass, but the mass kept coming.

"We gotta get outta this street!" Bill yelled, grabbing Louis by the upper arm.

"Where?" said Francis.

Zoey looked around, then pointed. "There!"

Bill turned to see that she was pointing to a fire escape on the front of a building on the nearest cross street. If they could get to it, climb up, and pull the ladder up after them, the wave might pass by beneath. From the looks of them, they might not even stop - Bill couldn't say for sure that the charging Infected horde was even aware that he and the others were in its way.

"Go! Go!" he yelled.

Louis tried to shake off his target fixation - now was not the time to get locked into a full-powerpack rock-'n-roll - but he was still looking down the street as he started to sidle after the others, and that meant he was the only one who saw, toward the back of the onrushing mob (now close enough that he could recognize individual Infected in the front rows), bodies flying into the air and plummeting back into the crowd. He knew well what that meant. It was the worst possible thing that could happen right now, the thing that could and probably would ruin Zoey's escape plan and spell the end of them all, this close to their ultimate goal.

Freezing again, he pointed and yelled in a tone of abject terror, "TAAAAAANKwait. What the hell is that?!"

He sounded so puzzled at the end that the other three all halted their headlong dash for safety, turned, and looked. Something was charging up from the back of the zombie mob, all right, its impact flinging unlucky Infected out of its path... but it wasn't one of the hugely mutated Tanks with their hideously overdeveloped arms and little stunted legs, loping gorilla-like along and smashing everything in its way.

It was a giant vehicle of some kind, like a double-decker bus or a locomotive, complete with huge floodlights that they could now see shining through the frontmost ranks of the packed Infected. It had a curving wraparound windshield up on the "top deck", above the lights and a giant chrome T-in-a-ring logo, and the rest of it was either chromed or painted some dark color that looked black in the dim streetlights.

With a deafening blare of pneumatic horns, this monstrous vehicle plowed out of the Infected wave like a surfacing submarine, pulled away from them as it raced toward the survivors, and then went into a gigantic power slide, clouds of smoke billowing from the twelve huge whitewall tires on its three rear axles. For one horrified moment, Bill thought it was either going to topple over on its side or clip Louis with its skidding tail, but it did neither of those things, instead coming to rest perfectly square in the center of the street, its air brakes letting out a satisifed honk as the bus/train/thing came to rest.

At which point a large door on its side accordioned open, a set of stairs dropped down, and two glowing blue eyes looked out from the shadows within before their owner leaned out into the glow of the streetlight.

"Come with me if you want to live," said Atomic Robo.

The survivors blinked, looked at each other, looked at the still-charging Infected horde, and then ran like hell for the bus. They had just reached it when the Infected arrived, their en-masse impact actually shaking the huge vehicle on its suspension as they crashed against its prow and flowed down the sides. Louis, Francis, and Bill got aboard safely; Zoey was right behind them, holstering her other pistol and grabbing the handrails on either side of the bus stairs with both hands, when the tentacle-like tongue of a Smoker whipped out of the crowd, encircled her waist, and yanked her bodily off the steps.

"Zoey!" yelled Francis, but Atomic Robo put up a hand to forestall him and jumped out after her himself.

One of the odd things about the contagion was that those afflicted by it seemed to be able to sense those who were immune. They wouldn't even bother trying to bite someone who was. They would, however, do their damnedest to punch, claw, kick, and/or stomp such an individual to death, and being torn limb from limb had no more appeal for Zoey than becoming a zombie. She couldn't get to her weapons, so she tried her best to protect her face with her half-pinned arms while digging in her heels in a futile effort to keep the Smoker from dragging her too far from the bus.

Atomic Robo appeared at her side, elbowing his way through the mob of common Infected, then grabbed the tongue a few feet from where it wrapped around her with the hand that wasn't clutching a heavy autopistol, took a turn of it around his hand, and gave it a solid yank, dragging the Smoker clean out of the cover of the crowd. It blinked in a sort of rudimentary shock, its eyes barely visible amid the mass of tumors that covered its face, and Atomic Robo emptied his weapon into its body, blazing away until it exploded.

The giant cloud of green smoke that always burst out at that point blinded and choked Zoey, setting her to coughing and her eyes to tearing; she felt herself being hustled in the other direction, Atomic Robo's hand on her back, and then the stairs beneath her feet. When her eyes cleared, she saw her robotic savior standing in the doorway, punching Infected out of the way while the stairs retracted, the bus already starting to pull away. Just before the doors closed, he unwound the severed Smoker tongue from his hand and tossed it out the window, then eyed his hand with an air of marked distaste.

"... Gross," he said, wiping his hand on his battle-dress pants. "You okay?"

Zoey coughed once more, wiping at her eyes, and managed to nod. "Fine."

"Good. 'Scuse me." Robo shuffled past her on the narrow staircase, hung a right, and headed forward. Zoey climbed after him, shaking the last of the cobwebs from her head.

The little hallway led to another short staircase. This led up to a space reminiscent of a starliner's flight deck as decorated by a 1930s diner manufacturer, all chrome and black Bakelite with quilted stainless steel wall panels and red-piped black leather seats. The driver sat dead-center behind that big wraparound windshield they'd seen from outside, surrounded by banks of controls and instruments that also would've looked less out of place in a starliner. Behind his station were two rows of four seats, each divided into pairs by a central aisle. On the curving bulkhead just above the brow of the windshield there was a gleaming aluminum panel bearing the legend,

The figure behind the Teslaliner's giant steering wheel, handling it with the same cool aplomb all the survivors had seen him show in everything from supercars to asteroid racers on TV, wore a white fireproof racing suit and black-visored white helmet. He said nothing, didn't even turn to acknowledge his passengers, as Robo gestured to the seats and told the survivors,

"You guys better strap in."

Then, body language countering the slight swaying of the Teslaliner as the Infected outside thumped and pounded and clawed at its exterior panels, Robo went up and braced a hand on the back of the driver's seat.

"We all set, Stig?" he asked.

The Stig nodded.

"Then let's get the hell outta here," said Robo, dropping himself into the seat just behind and to the driver's right.

The Stig's only response was to tug his seat harness slightly tighter before downshifting and putting the Teslaliner's accelerator to the floor. The enormous vehicle lunged forward, rear tires barking against the tarmac as they hurled down its engine's vast power, and the liner began gathering speed with the smooth inevitability of an asteroid. Within a block or two, they'd left the entire horde behind.

It didn't escape the survivors, however, that what they were accelerating toward was a blank concrete wall at the far end of what had been Fairfield's Main Street. It was part of the retaining-wall structure that had once isolated the business district from the noise of the Crosstown Expressway, and it was adorned with an enormous yellow sign advising oncoming vehicles that they really, really needed to turn right. Immediately.

Zoey glanced from the back of the Stig's seat to a monitor showing the rear view. The Infected were pursuing, though hopelessly outpaced by the Teslaliner. From the front of their teeming, thrashing ranks, she saw a Tank bound out and take up the chase in its weird but startlingly fast arms-and-toes lope. Her eyes flicked back to the windshield, where the wall with its huge sign was approaching awfully fast now.

"Oh, man, I knew this was gonna go wrong," Francis muttered, hurriedly buckling his seat harness. "I hate buses!"

The Stig ignored him. In fact, the driver's only response to the fact that they were barrelling straight toward certain death was to reach down and flick a single toggle switch on the right side of his impossibly complex instrument panel. Something inside the panel made a cheery electronic chirping noise...

... and a beam of brilliant white light shot from somewhere just below the windshield to splash against the wall in a curiously un-light-like manner. The bright spot spread, shimmering, as the Teslaliner hurtled toward the wall. The survivors flinched - and the wall was gone, replaced by something that looked for all the world like a purple version of hyperspace. Zoey looked at the rearview scanner again; it showed nothing behind them but more of the same.

Atomic Robo sagged slightly in his seat, letting out a synthetic sigh of relief.

"Glad that's over with," he said. "Nice job, Stig."

The Stig nodded.

Robo unbuckled and got up from his seat. "Okay, you guys. Let's go down and get you checked out in the medical bay. We'll be in New Avalon in about half an hour, and then the Chief is gonna want to talk to you."

"Hold on, wait a second, I ain't goin' anywhere until I get some answers," Francis protested. "Like what the hell happened back there, for a start. One minute I'm workin' on my bike, next thing I know the whole goddamn planet is all Night of the Living What the Fuck."

"Yeah, we'd all like to know what happened," said Louis.

"And why we were immune," Zoey put in. "I mean, I can guess why Bill is, but what about the rest of us?"

Robo held up a hand. "Take it easy. You'll get everything we know soon enough. Right now I just want to make sure you're not walking around with some internal injury you've been too keyed up to notice yet." He led them down the short staircase from the control room and down a narrow hallway to a tiny but well-equipped sickbay, complete with droid doctor.

"We don't know much yet," Robo admitted as the doctor set about examining the survivors. "We've only had agents on the ground back there for about 12 hours, and not all of them have reported in yet. The only thing we know for sure is that it was no accident."

Zoey looked up from watching the doctor bandage her arm, horrified. "You mean it was some kind of weapon?"

Robo nodded. "And it was deliberately deployed on Faliszek III. What we don't know yet is who by or why. But we'll find out, and when we do, we'll track down the people responsible and stop them."

Bill checked his BR-55, slung it on his back, and took out another cigarette, but sighed and didn't light it after the droid doctor raised a warning finger.

"And I'm gonna help you do it," Bill said to Robo.

Louis nodded. "So am I."

"Yeah, me too!" Francis yelled. "I hate bioterrorists."

Robo tilted his head at Zoey, who gave him a tired smile. "It's not like any of us has got anything else left. If they're in, I'm in."

There was a pause while Atomic Robo looked slowly from one survivor to the next. No one spoke; no one moved apart from the droid doctor, who carried on his work with complete indifference to the conversation.

Then Robo nodded again, extended his hand to Bill, and said, "Fair enough. Welcome to Tesladyne."

"Guns 4 Hire" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
(based on
Left 4 Dead by Valve Corporation)
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Monday, January 25, 2410
IPS Empire Builder (NCC-07005)
Deep space, Cygnus sector

When he came aboard the Empire Builder, Ben Hutchins felt a little bit odd. It was the first time he'd been aboard an International Police Space Force vessel since he'd relinquished his field rank in that branch of the IPO, and while he was still chief of the organization as a whole, it took a surprisingly tough mental adjustment to get hold of the fact that he wasn't aboard as part of the ship's company or even as a visiting flag officer. He was, essentially, baggage, a (semi-)civilian VIP, and naval custom called for a whole different set of protocols in dealing with that. Captain Tarrant and his crew were perfectly correct, perfectly courteous, but still, the whole thing was a weirder experience than Gryphon had been expecting.

He put it out of his mind as he made his way from the ship's small docking bay forward to the Steamrunner-class destroyer's main conference room, where the purpose for this clandestine rendezvous awaited. Upon entering, he found the ship's other passenger, the one the Empire Builder had been tasked with transporting and assisting for the past three weeks, examining a small display on the side of a large duraplast cylinder that stood on the conference table. When he heard the door, Anthony Stark straightened and turned with a smile toward the door.

"Tony," said Gryphon, extending a hand.

"Ben," Stark replied, shaking it. "Good to see you. I'm glad you could make it."

Gryphon grinned. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this." He stepped closer to the table and took a closer look at the cylindrical object, which stood about four feet tall. It was mostly white, with four equally spaced bands of dark grey material running from top to bottom. One of the bands had a small holodisplay and keypad on it.

"Is this the prototype?" Gryphon went on, indicating the cylinder.

Stark nodded. "I just finished final diagnostics."

"Well, don't keep me in suspense."

Now it was Stark's turn to grin. "Okay!" he said. Walking to the table, he reached and punched a code into the keypad. "Entering startup sequence... " A green key at the bottom of the pad started flashing; as he pressed it, Stark went on, "Now." Then, backing away, he gestured warningly to Gryphon and added, "Uh, you might want to stand back a little. The transport module panels sometimes... blow off a bit at startup." Gryphon backed up, giving Stark an eyebrow. The inventor shrugged. "I'm still working on it."

For a moment, nothing happened; then, with a faint sound a little like a turbine spooling up, the transport module quivered slightly - after which the four panels delineated by the grey parts did, indeed, blow off, landing on the floor all around the conference table. They left behind the circular base of the module, a small cloud of steam, and... something else.

The object that the module had been concealing was, in shape, somewhere between a cone and an egg, too rounded to be the one and too pointed to be the other. It stood balanced on the slimmer of its two curved ends, held upright by the ring around the module base. Its surface was perfectly smooth and unbroken, a clean and gleaming white except for an ovalish black area near the top that, in shape, put Gryphon rather in mind of a scuba mask. This item sat silently for a moment, and then, with the faint hum of a well-tuned repulsorlift, it rose from the base to levitate above the table. At the same time, it divided, its smooth surface splitting along faintly glowing lines. The topmost part, with the black area, lifted away from the central mass by an inch or two, becoming a "head", while thin panels broke cleanly out of slight recesses in the sides to take up flanking positions as a pair of slim, flipper-like arms.

The black bit on the front of the head flickered. A blue scan line traced it from top to bottom a couple of times, then resolved into a pair of glowing patches that approximated eyes. Looking a little more closely, Gryphon could see that each was made up of many small points of blue light grouped together, like the lamps on a kinescope-style display. The area he'd taken for a featureless black patch was actually a matrix of thousands of these tiny cells, each a fiendishly complex little sensor package.

Fully activated, the hovering droid glided smoothly forward, "stepped" down from the table so that it was at its default altitude relative to the two men, then glanced from Tony to Gryphon and back. The "eye" display flickered with the scan line again, which Gryphon realized, with mild delight, was the way it denoted blinking.

Smiling like a proud parent at a child's piano recital, Tony said, "Enhanced Versatile Engineer Mark XXXV, production number zero zero one, this is Gryphon. Gryphon: Meet Eve."

The droid pivoted slightly to face Gryphon again, then surprised him by raising one arm angled in a salute and saying in a voice that was at once obviously electronic and obviously female, "Chief."

Gryphon blinked, then returned the salute. "Eve. It's nice to finally meet you. Tony's told me so much about you."

Eve lowered her arm, then turned to Stark again, the angle of her head and the shape of her "eyes" changing to mimic an inquisitive expression. "Directive?" she inquired.

Tony gestured to Gryphon. "You said it yourself, Eve - he's the chief. From now on, you'll take directives from him, or whoever he designates."

Eve's "expression" went blank for a moment while she digested this; then she turned back to Gryphon once more and repeated, "Directive?"

Gryphon kept his smile to himself, but he had one on the inside. Since reading the full specification document for the EVE Mk 35, he'd been thinking about a suitable "final exam" for the prototype once Tony deemed it ready for an informal acceptance trial. It had taken a lot of brain-racking, but he thought he'd finally come up with a good one.

"This will primarily be a test of your probe droid and search-and-recovery functions," he said. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a microcompact datatab. "Your search target information is encoded here."

Eve glided forward and reached an arm toward him. With the same faint light along the otherwise invisible seam lines, the curved tip of her arm divided into four intricately planed segments - three fingers and a thumb, Gryphon realized as they assumed their correct relative positioning. Thus equipped with a hand, she took the tab. For a moment Gryphon wondered where she was going to slot it, whether a socket was going to appear with that same slight glow somewhere else on her gleaming white surface, but no; she merely regarded it for a moment, a blue beam of light playing over it from a spot on her "chest". Then there was a quiet chiming noise, a green light glowed momentarily through her white casing next to the source of the beam, and both lights went out as she handed back the tab.

"The item you're looking for was lost in 2296 on planet 03F8, a few miles from the south gate to the city of Uart," Gryphon told her. "No further information is available. Please find it and return it to me."

"Understood," said Eve, saluting once more. Then, without a further look at either man, she pivoted 90 degrees and glided silently out of the room. Gryphon gave Tony a quizzical look, but the engineer just grinned and pointed to the room's observation window.

A few moments later, Eve appeared in the window, having left the ship via the portside airlock. Entirely unconcerned with the vacuum of space, she banked smoothly to starboard, flying away from the ship and leaving a faint, short-lived blue ion glow in her wake. Then, just as she was about to disappear from Gryphon's view anyway, she suddenly accelerated into a hyperspace transition, her ion wake redshifting and then winking out altogether.

Gryphon turned to Tony. "I didn't finish giving her instructions," he said.

"Sure you did," Tony replied. "You told her what to find and what to do with it when she finds it. That's all she needs."

Gryphon gestured vaguely at the complete emptiness of the immediate vicinity. "I'm not going to be anywhere near here when she finds it," he said. "How's she supposed to know where to deliver it?"

Tony gave his friend a wry look. "Ben," he said. "She's a probe droid. She'll find what you sent her for; then she'll find you. It's all part of the mission."

"Hmm," said Gryphon. He gave the window another glance, looking unconvinced, then turned back to Tony and said, "Well... I hope so. And however this test turns out, I'm certainly impressed with her construction. She's like something out of a vid. Some special effects department's idea of what droids will look like in the 30th century."

Tony frowned. "Hm."

"You look disappointed."

"I was going for 35th."

Gryphon laughed.

Wednesday, March 3, 2410
International Police Station Babylon 6
B'hava'el system, Centaurus sector

Susan Ivanova felt an inescapable sense of déjà vu when, at about 10:30 on an otherwise unobjectionable Wednesday morning, an unidentified ship barged out of the Bajor metaspace gate and caused a textbook anomalous situation.

She stood at the command deck's observation port, observing the vessel with a curious combination of awe and annoyance. Awe because the ship was like nothing she'd ever seen before, and had clearly come a very long way; annoyance because it was blocking her traffic lane, complicating her day, and, now that she looked more closely at it, in truly terrible condition. What she had initially taken for a reddish thermocoat color was, on closer inspection, rust on a hull from which most of the paint had bleached and flaked away long ago. This same rust had, so far as she could see, obliterated any markings the vessel might once have had, leaving it completely anonymous as it drifted in front of the command deck.

"Corwin," she said. "You ever seen a ship like this one before? Because it's a new one on me."

Her ops officer, Lieutenant "Bruce" Corwin, shook his head. "Configuration's completely unfamiliar to me, Commander. Nothing in the recognition database matches either. Judging by her size, I'd say she's either a cruiser or a spaceliner, and I can't see any obvious armaments. She's not responding to hails."

As Corwin said that last part, though, the mystery ship made a liar of him. His panel suddenly bleeped with the tone of an incoming message. He looked down at his display, blinked twice, and then looked back up at Ivanova. "Commander, I'm receiving an IPO priority break code. I think it's coming from the unidentified vessel. It's code A-one-one-three - special agent requests permission to dock. My comm protocol says the Chief's to be notified."

Ivanova scowled. "What the hell are they playing at now?" she wondered rhetorically. Then, not so rhetorically, she asked, "Probability that the signal's been spoofed?"

Corwin shook his head. "Almost zero. It's triple-encrypted and on the appropriate variable sub-ether band."

Ivanova looked out the window at the strange vessel for a further long moment, then sighed.

"Give them a place to park, Lieutenant," she said resignedly. "And put me through to Headquarters."

Gryphon responded to the call immediately - a code A113 was high-priority, and the number of agents it might have come from was extremely low. Thanks to the miracle of stargate technology, he actually arrived in the internal docking bay assigned to the mystery ship before the ship itself. Along with Ivanova and B6 security chief Michael Garibaldi, he got to watch it come in, maneuvered deftly into place by the station's massive internal vessel-handling system and parked alongside their viewing platform like a seagoing vessel eased up to a dock.

The ship was nearly the maximum size that B6's internal docking facilities could handle, both in length and beam. Ivanova glanced at Gryphon as it arrived, but he shook his head; he didn't know what it was either. With its sleek lines and gently curved armor plating, it was a handsome vessel, or it would have been had it not been in such fantastic disrepair, but its shape was entirely unfamiliar.

Then, as the tractor beam projectors snugged it up to the docking platform, powerful floodlights in the bay ceiling played over the curving upper surface of the mystery ship's hull forward, and the different angle and intensity of the light revealed the faded outlines of markings that had been invisible in the ambient light outside the station.

Gryphon's eyes matched the pattern first, after a couple of false starts in which his brain tried to work out whether the faded lettering said anything in Standard or Cheltarese, the two most likely languages for starship identification markings. It didn't; the characters were in an obscure, long-dead Minbari dialect. The only reason Gryphon recognized them at all was because he'd gone through a phase, some years before, in which he was fascinated by legendary shipwrecks and ghost ships.

So it was that he gasped, realizing all at once that what they had before them was one of the most legendary ghost ships of them all.

"My God," he murmured.

"What?" Ivanova asked. "What is it?"

"It's the Queen of Ranroon," Gryphon said, gazing in awe at the derelict vessel.

Ivanova blinked. "No way," she said.

Gryphon nodded. "Look," he said, pointing to another near-invisible marking just forward of the letters. "There's the death's head."

"The Queen of what?" Garibaldi inquired, completely lost.

"The Queen of Ranroon," Gryphon said. "One of the great ghosts of the spacelanes."

"Treasure ship of the ancient Minbari warlord Xim the Despot," Ivanova filled in, seeing that Garibaldi still hadn't caught the thread. "They say she was carrying half the riches of the Rim back to Minbar when she was lost to a hyperdrive malfunction in... " She paused, dredging her memory - it had been many years since she'd first heard the legend of the Queen, back in her plebe year at Starfleet Academy. "... 5500 BSC or so."

Garibaldi blinked. "You're saying this ship is eight thousand years old?"

"If the legend is true," Gryphon confirmed. He walked slowly across the platform to stand in front of what looked like a boarding hatch. "I wonder which of my field agents found her... "

A moment later, the hatch ground slowly open, corroded metal shrieking in protest, and he had his answer.

EVE-35-001, her formerly immaculate white casing scuffed and smudged, glided out of the Queen of Ranroon's docking corridor and halted in front of him. Two panels on her chest appeared and divided with that same white-edged glow, reveaing a small storage compartment, and a small tractor beam delivered the item within into Gryphon's hands. Thus divested of her cargo, Eve sealed her plastron again, the seams glowing and vanishing altogether, then saluted.

"Directive accomplished," she reported.

Dumbfounded, Gryphon looked down at the object she'd just placed in his hands: the left gauntlet from the Mark III Griffin power suit he'd been forced to strip for parts and abandon back on 03F8 more than a century before. For a few seconds, he just stared at it as if unable to process all he was seeing before him. Then he turned, handed it to Ivanova (who took it automatically, then looked at it in complete bafflement), turned back to Eve, and returned her salute.

"... Damn," he said admiringly when he was able to find his voice again.

To his surprise, given the blankly businesslike way she'd accepted the assignment a month earlier, Eve seemed to find this amusing. Her "eyes" adopted an upward crescent configuration and she bobbed in place, making a sound that, though filtered and electronic, was unmistakably a bubbly giggle.

From behind Eve, the still-astonished Gryphon heard a distinctly mechanical sound, like tracks moving across steel decking, followed by a second, more mechanical voice asking curiously, "Ee-va?"

Eve's optics blinked, then looked surprised. "Oh!" she said. Moving aside, she gestured with one finlike arm, as if making an introduction, and said, "Chief... "

Rolling up from behind her came a smaller, much earlier robot - a squat box-shape with tracks on either side, spindly hydraulic arms, and a turreted head that looked like nothing so much as a pair of binoculars. The new arrival bore the scars of long and rugged service, reminding Gryphon slightly of the ship the two robots had arrived aboard, with streaks of rust, flaking paint, and a general air of hard-traveled sturdiness.

To Gryphon's stunned amazement - he was beginning, abstractly, to wonder how many iterations of "stunned amazement" he could manage before his brain locked up altogether - he recognized the tracked robot immediately. It was a U.S. Robotics E-class WALL unit, one of the small trash compactor/utility droids that had once, several centuries before, been ubiquitous in the human-influenced galaxy. The old SDF-17 had had hundreds of them aboard, but Gryphon hadn't seen a working one for at least 200 years.

The WALL unit rolled right up to Gryphon, raised itself up on its suspension, and extended a two-fingered flat manipulator in a clearly friendly gesture. As the bemused Chief of the IPO shook its hand, it spoke, after a fashion. Its "voice", Gryphon realized, wasn't the automatically adapted speech of a Standard vocabulator, as a protocol droid would speak with. Instead, it was a rather cleverly adapted series of electronic sounds, almost as if an R2 unit had figured out how to speak to humans with only its regular industrial communicator.

"Waaaaall-E," the small robot introduced itself - himself, Gryphon corrected himself, for something about the robot's bearing carried an undefinable, but also unmistakable, air of self-awareness. He found himself immediately charmed.

"Well, I'll be damned," he heard Garibaldi remark behind him.

Gryphon released Wall-E's hand and turned to Eve. "Friend of yours?" he asked, unable to keep the smile from his face. He had the distinct impression that, had the surprisingly broad range of the more sophisticated robot's "expressions" included the ability to blush, she would have.

Gryphon's little smile broadened slightly as he realized that she, too, showed the telltale signs. When he'd dispatched her on her test mission, she'd been cool, businesslike - a clever machine, but a machine all the same. Now, she was clearly more.

That was quick, he remarked wryly to himself. I don't know whether Tony will be pleased or depressed.

"Welllll... " she said in answer to his query, pivoting to face slightly away from her battered companion and attempting unsuccessfully to look nonchalant.

"Ee-va!" said Wall-E in a tone combining reproach with dismay.

She remained turned away for a second more, then relented and turned back, extending her arm. Gryphon watched, fascinated anew - he wasn't sure he'd ever get tired of seeing that system work - as her "hand" separated and unfolded. With an air of relief and enormous contentment, Wall-E opened his own manipulator and laced his fingers with hers.

Then, looking the Chief straight in the eye, Eve declared firmly, "Yes."

Gryphon sighed, but his continued smile put the lie to his show of resignation. "Another mouth to feed," he said.

"Eee!" said Wall-E, apparently pleased with his reception.

Turning to Garibaldi and Ivanova, Gryphon addressed the former first. "Put a couple of guards on this bay, will you please, Michael? We'll figure out what to do with the ghost ship later."

"I'm on it," Garibaldi said with a nod.

"Thanks. Commander?"

"Chief?" Ivanova replied.

"Would you do me a favor and ask the Turing advocate to meet me in my office after lunch? It looks," he said with a smiling glance at Eve, "as if I have some very expensive equipment to lose."

Ivanova blinked, caught his meaning, and couldn't help but smile herself, just a little. "I'll set it up," she said.

"Great. Thanks. And thanks for calling me so quickly." With a sly edge to his grin, he took the gauntlet back from her, tucked it under his arm, and added, "I told you this job would be more interesting than a survey of the Dark Sectors."

Then, turning, he gestured for Eve and Wall-E to follow him and set off across the docking bay toward the exit, announcing as he went, "C'mon, let's get you two cleaned up. You look like you've been through a war."

"Debriefing?" Eve inquired as, hand in hand, she and Wall-E followed.

"Eh. It'll keep," Gryphon said.

"Field Test" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
Eve and Wall-E created by Andrew Stanton
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Wednesday, June 2, 2410
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

If you had asked Courtney Whitmore to predict where one might find a temple devoted to the worship of a sun god, she would probably have made some smartass remark about the Great Ziggurat of Ur, about which she'd read in Mr. Hall's history class. She would certainly not have suggested that you try looking in the basement of a mixed-use commercial building in the Millrace district of New Avalon. That was the kind of place a person of Courtney's age and general persuasion would expect to find a sushi bar, or maybe a rave. Certainly not a sun temple. I mean, in the basement? Hello!

And yet, that was exactly where she was, in both senses of the phrase. In the basement of a mixed-use commercial building in the Millrace; and in a sun temple.

Mind you, it wasn't her sun temple. Like most 25th-century humans who could trace their primary ancestry back to Earth, Courtney subscribed to no particular religion, beyond a vague acknowledgement that there had to be something greater than individual mortals out there. She found the view of the ancient Jedi Knights, their all- encompassing but curiously non-judgmental Force, interesting, or at least more comforting than the often vengeful anthropomorphic gods with which her own species had grappled for most of its sapient career.

What she'd heard about the religion to which this particular temple was devoted was also interesting, though it struck Courtney as a little too specific for her to get much out of it herself. She stopped just inside the entrance, moving to one side of the doorway, and looked around in silence as the friend she'd come with entered the sanctuary.

It didn't look much like traditional Earth churches, like the one Courtney's cousin Wilda had gotten married in a few years ago. In her limited experience, those tended to be long, narrow rectangular rooms filled with ranks of high-backed benches, all focused on a raised area with an altar and an image of the deity in question at one end. This was a circular room with a domed ceiling, not particularly big or grand, and its decor was very sparse. In fact, it couldn't be said to have any, beyond a subtle decorative coaming around the rim of the dome. It had benches, too, but these were backless - simple black alloy platforms, a thing to sit on and no more - and arranged not in rows, but in concentric rings. The focus of this room was clearly toward the center.

In the center of the room was a big floor-mounted holoprojector, of the kind often seen in military briefing rooms on TV. It was maybe five feet in diameter, recessed slightly into the floor, and above it floated a fully three-dimensional, true-color hologram. And here, at least, was a similarity with Earth churches, because this was certainly an image of the deity, if you wanted to call it that, to which the temple was consecrated,and it utterly dominated the room. Glowing in brilliant true-color holography, filling the temple with a beautiful blood-red light (Courtney supposed the walls, floor, and ceiling were white, but she couldn't say for certain), it was instantly recognizable to anyone with moderate education as a red star, though without scale references, it wasn't immediately apparent whether it was a dwarf or giant.

From context, of course, the answer was obvious. This was a red giant star - indeed, a very specific one. It was the star which, until it had blown itself to pieces in the year 2005, the planet Krypton had orbited.

Its name, and the name of the ancient Kryptonian sun god it had inspired, was Rao.

Kara Zor-El sat down on the innermost of the rings of benches, hands on knees, and raised her eyes to the image of her dead homeworld's primary. (One did not bow one's head in the presence of Rao; that would, in effect, constitute spurning its gift of light.)

Great Rao, she said silently, thank you for sheltering and nurturing the Krypto'saii through the millennia it took us to grow strong and wise. Know that we did not leave your light willingly, and that you are always in our hearts. Please watch over those who perished with Krypton and know that they are not forgotten.

Then, with the standard, formal (if no less heartfelt) prayer out of the way, she added, I ask that you maintain your eternal vigil over my father and mother, Zor-El and Alura, who were among the last to perish within your sight; and my uncle and aunt, Jor-El and Lara, who were murdered far from your loving gaze.

I ask that you take notice of my lost cousin Kal-El, wherever he may be, and know that I think of him with love and hope.

I ask that you watch over me and my friends, though they are not Krypto'saii, and give us always the courage to fight against evil.

I ask that you give me the strength and the wisdom to confront the renegade Dru-Zod and bring him to justice for his crimes when next we meet.

Kara remained motionless after completing her requests, keeping her eyes on the ever-shifting face of Rao for a few more seconds. Then she rose, fished in a pocket for a second, and plugged a few coins into a paystation at the end of the bench.

Her business apparently finished, Kara spread her open hands before Rao in a sort of unbowing obeisance, then turned and walked back out of the ring of benches toward the door.

"All set?" Courtney asked, her voice hushed slightly, as one does in a church.

Kara nodded. "Thanks for coming with. I figured since we were in the neighborhood anyway... "

As they climbed the stairs back to street level, Courtney patted Kara's shoulder. "Hey," she said, "compared to the Catholic Mass I had to sit through at my cousin's wedding, that was nothing. Besides, I kind of find the whole thing fascinating."

Kara turned a questioning look to her friend as they emerged onto the sidewalk in front of the building. "Fascinating how?"

"Well... " Courtney considered her response. "I never met a real live Kryptonian before you, so I didn't know much about the culture. But they - you - have a reputation for being such a rational people, I'd never have thought of you worshipping a sun god. It seems kind of... tribal. No offense," she added hastily. "I think it's cool, just... not what I was expecting."

"We don't really worship Rao as a god," Kara said. "Not for a long time. It's more that Rao is the face we put on the wonders of the universe."

"Come again?"

"Well, look. Thousands of years ago, we were like any other civilization, right? We did worship our sun as a god. That's what most sapients do on planets with visible suns. Even the Vulcans reverenced a sun god at one point in their distant past. It's just that most of them drift away from the idea during their early eras of scientific inquiry. Once they figure out that the sun is a giant thermonuclear reaction rather than some kind of all-powerful thinking being, that pretty much wraps it up for their sun gods."

Courtney nodded. "Right. That's exactly what I mean."

Kara grinned. "Well, on Krypton, when we figured out what Rao really is, we thought about it for a while, said, 'Huh. That's even more wondrous and cosmic than we thought,' rearranged the seating, and carried on. I mean, it's not like we sincerely believe that our sun is a sapience that will hear and answer our prayers; it's more of a metaphor. And sapient or not, it is still responsible for our existence as lifeforms. No Rao, no Krypto'saii. So we have a great respect and... fondness for it. Even though none of us live under its light any longer."

They began descending again, this time into an N station. "Where does the image they use in the temples come from?" Courtney wondered.

"There's a ring of survey satellites in orbit around the sun," Kara said. "They were originally used to monitor Rao's stability - it's a red giant, after all, and some of our scientists thought that would be a problem long before Krypton's core would ever collapse. It was only after they were in place that someone realized their visual sensors could be coordinated to produce a real-time image for the temples. Before that, they usually had a model. The one in the central temple in Kryptopolis was made from 300 tons of bronzium. I heard they were planning to take it to New Krypton, but I don't know if they managed it or not."

"That's cool. Maybe we should go see someday. My mom's got a Bottle City of Kandor from a trip she took there before I was born." They boarded a train heading downtown. "She says it's really nice."

Kara nodded. "Yeah... one of these days," she said, but she seemed to have something else on her mind.

Courtney sensed the sudden preoccupation and decided she'd asked enough questions for one day. She had to remind herself occasionally that, though Krypton's destruction was ancient history from her perspective, from Kara's point of view it had happened only a few months ago. She couldn't expect the wound to be entirely healed yet.

"Tosci's?" she said instead.

Kara seemed to come back from some distance away, looked at her friend, and smirked. "You even have to ask if I'm up for ice cream?"

It might've surprised Courtney to learn that the shadow that had briefly settled on Kara's mind that afternoon had nothing to do with the destruction of Krypton. The Kryptonian teen didn't mention it, or seem preoccupied again, for the rest of their ramble around Claremont and Salutown.

It wasn't until early that evening, after Courtney headed home to see what her mother and stepfather were up to and Kara flew out to Titans Tower, that Kara found her thoughts returning to the matter that had occurred to her earlier. It was something Courtney had said that put her onto the track, though not directly, and it wasn't anything anyone said that got her thinking about it again.

She stood on the observation balcony on the upper level of the Titans Tower gym and watched while two of her friends and colleagues fought. Technically, Robin and Batgirl were sparring, not fighting, but the distinction was unusually academic where those two were concerned. To an untrained eye - and Kara's qualified, after only a month of crimefighting alongside them - it tended to look more like the two Gotham expatriates were seriously trying to kill each other with their bare hands.

Kara watched them go at each other with nearly full force for several minutes and marveled at their skill, their athleticism, and their sheer audacity. That last part always struck her when she watched either of them in action, really. Neither one had any superpowers. Batgirl came close - her powers of perception and battlefield awareness were arguably paranormal, and in any case damned creepy - but physically she was still only human. Neither of them ever let that stop them. She'd seen both go up against opponents who were their physical betters many times over, hurling themselves into battle without a second thought, and emerge victorious.

Far from feeling superior because of the astonishing abilities yellow Zeta Cygni's light bestowed upon her, as General Zod had once predicted she would, Kara felt profoundly humbled by "ordinary" people like Batgirl and Robin. It amazed and disturbed her that Zod and his minions could be so shallow and arrogant as to think that an accident of xenogenetics made them better than humans simply because it made them stronger than humans...

... but that was rather beside the point right now.

Kara waited for the sparring match to end, wondering with an idle smile whether Batgirl would kiss Robin as a sort of closing move. Sometimes she did that, and sometimes she didn't - just to keep the Boy Wonder on his toes, apparently.

Today she didn't, which was just as well. It wouldn't really have set the proper tone for the conversation Kara wanted to have with her afterward.

When she emerged from the showers a few minutes later, Batgirl had traded her black costume for nondescript civvies and become regular old Cassandra Cain again, although in practical terms all that meant was that it would take her two seconds to get out her grapple gun instead of one. She had most of her gear in a duffel bag over her shoulder.

Cassie paused as she saw Kara waiting for her in the darkened gym; apparently Robin had finished showering first and killed the lights on his way out, knowing Cassie wouldn't care about the dark. She wondering what to make of the Kryptonian's presence. She didn't really know Kara all that well. They were teammates - Cassie would even go so far as to call them friends, which wasn't something she did lightly - but they didn't really hang out. That didn't bother Cassie any; she saw it as a natural state of affairs. Kara was a creature of the day and she preferred the night. Outside of Titans business, Cassie wouldn't expect their lives to overlap much.

"Hi," she said, leaving her question unasked.

"Hi," Kara replied. "Listen, uh... do you have a minute? I have... well... I want to ask a favor."

Cassie considered this for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure," she said. "I'm headed back to town. You can explain on the way."

Kara brightened. "Do you have the sub?"

Cassie smiled. "You can fly," she said, "and you're impressed by the Batsub?"

"When I was in school, I spent a semester at the seahab at the edge of the continental shelf outside Kryptopolis Harbor," Kara explained as they entered the elevator together. "Getting permission to solo the minisubs was one of the rites of passage."

They chatted like that during the short trip across from Pérez Island to the underground submarine pen adjoining Batgirl's miniature crimefighting headquarters, Batcave jr., and though Cassie knew there was something on Kara's mind, she didn't press until they arrived.

"Okay," she said when they'd finished tying up the Batsub alongside the dock. "Come on in. I'm going to make some cup-o'-shyam and you're going to tell me what's bugging you."

Kara blushed slightly. "Okay."

It took her only a few minutes to make her request and explaining the reasoning behind it; she finished just as the photonic oven in Cassie's cave-corner kitchenette dinged. Frowning slightly in thought, Cassie got up from her chair, retrieved the styrofoam cup from the oven, dug around in the utensil drawer until she located a mini-hoop, and returned to her seat, stirring the noodles.

"Hmm," she said. "That could be tricky." Then she smiled. "But I do love a challenge."

"Then you'll do it?" Kara asked.

"Give me a few days to look into it," Cassie replied. "I think we can at least give it a shot."

Saturday, June 5, 2410
Elstree, Avalon County

Kara stood in front of the building and wondered if she had the right address. Not only could she not think of any particular reason why her appointment should be in Elstree, a western suburb of New Avalon known for leafy streets of quiet houses, the building she was in front of appeared to be a warehouse, which wasn't what she'd have expected of the neighborhood or the occasion. Moreover, it was a warehouse that apparently, if the sign above the door was to be believed, belonged to a visual effects company.

She knocked, but there was no answer, so she opened the door and stepped inside.

The interior of the warehouse was almost entirely bare. There were no stacks of crates, no pallets, no forklifts - in short, she thought with a mental smirk, no wares. The place was empty except for a small room carved out of one corner with prefab wall segments. Everything else was just a bare concrete floor, a two-story-high ceiling studded with glowstrips and barrel-shaped lamps (only the former of which were turned on), and empty space between.

Cassie Cain was standing in the exact center of the room, arms folded, waiting. She was wearing her Batgirl costume, sans the cape and mask, which were hanging on a hook on one wall of the little room in the corner.

"Uh... hi," said Kara, her voice echoing in the empty space.

"Not what you expected, huh," Cassie replied with a faint smile. "Best I could do on short notice."

"Does this building really belong to M5 Industries?" Kara asked as she walked toward the center.

Cassie nodded. "Adam and Jamie found my challenge intriguing. Is that what you're going to wear?"

Kara looked down at herself. She had on basic warmup clothes and sneakers, nothing fancy. "Sure. Why?"

"You're more likely to be wearing your costume when the time comes," Cassie replied. "But we can get into that later. Cape handling is an advanced skill anyway," she added with that same little wry smile.

Then she sobered, her face becoming entirely serious, and she took a couple of steps toward Kara. "Listen. Before we do this, I have to be absolutely certain you know what you're getting into. This is going to hurt. It's probably going to hurt a lot. You're not used to things hurting."

Kara's jaw jutted slightly. "I'm not afraid, if that's what you're getting at."

Cassie shook her head. "No, I wouldn't expect you to be. Not yet. You don't have the sense to be afraid yet." It seemed like a remark intended to be humorous, but not the way she delivered it.

"I've been hurt, Cassie. General Zod beat the stang out of me. That's why I'm here. Why I asked you to help me. Because I want to know how to defend myself when I'm not stronger, not faster, not invulnerable. So that when Zod comes back - and he will come back - I can do something about it."

Cassie regarded her for a moment, then nodded solemnly. She reached to her utility belt and pressed a button.

With a loud CLUNK, the barrel lights in the ceiling came on and filled the warehouse with green light.

Kara blinked, more surprised than affected for the first second or so; then she crumpled to hands and knees, fighting an urge to throw up. With an effort she raised her head and stared wide-eyed at her teammate, shock written on her face.

"You were expecting red-sun lamps," Cassie observed. Still stunned, Kara nodded. "They don't work fast enough. These take effect instantly, and when they're turned off you'll recover your full strength a lot quicker. We can't have a half-strength Supergirl trying to protect the city... "

"These... will... kill me," Kara gasped, but Cassie shook her head again.

"You just feel that way because of the initial shock. It's not real kryptonite radiation. Adam and Jamie developed it from that fake kryptonite the IPO's been working on. Now come on, get up. Let's get started. I told you this was going to hurt."

Kara gathered herself for a moment, every instinct in her body screaming at her to flee, get out of here, get away from this crazy bitch and her kryptonite-chamber warehouse - who the hell thought this was a good idea anyway -

- and pushed it all down, calming herself with an act of will.

This was your idea, sunshine, she told herself. Now buck up and get with the program. Cassie's not going to kill you. Sure, she scares the hell out of you, and that's when you have your superpowers and you don't feel like you're going to throw up and start bleeding from both eyes... but she's a hero... and she's your friend. Now get up.



She pushed herself upright, then got slowly to her feet. Now that the initial wave of nausea and fright had passed, she did feel stronger than she should've under this kind of exposure. There was no way she'd ever be able to stand up under her own power in the presence of so much k-rad.

"Okay? Ready?" Cassie asked.

Kara nodded. "Rea- " she said, but before she could finish, Cassie had leaped across the space between them and kicked her in the side of the head, sending her sprawling.

The next half-hour went no better.

"Look," Cassie said as Kara dragged herself to her feet for the nth time, "we don't have to do this. I feel like a sadist. Seriously. You're making me feel like my mother, and that's never a good thing." She looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling. "Maybe the PK lamps are set too high... "

Kara took a couple of deep breaths, wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth.

"I think... I'm getting... used to it," she said.

Cassie considered that, looking unconvinced.

"You can stop me any time you like," she warned, "but I'm not going to ask again."

Kara's only response was to unzip her warmup jacket and toss it away.

"If I learn to fight... through this," she said, "so much the better."

Cassie gave her a long, hard look, then smiled ever so slightly.

"Good," she said. Then she darted in again, brushed aside Kara's clumsy attempt at a defense, and launched a full-power punch at her head. The Kryptonian could see it coming, knew she wasn't going to be able to do anything about it other than get hit... but she didn't flinch.

And the blow didn't land.

"Very good," said Cassie, opening her hand to give Kara a gentle pat on the cheek. "You're ready."

"Ready for what?" Kara asked, looking puzzled.

"Ready to start," Cassie replied.

"Start? What was all that about if we hadn't started?"

"You said you were ready," said Cassie. "I had to know... if you were right." She backed up a few paces, facing Kara, and told her, "This isn't going to be like you've seen in the movies. I'm not going to pass on to you what I was taught before you. I was taught to murder people. It's not pretty, but it's the truth. What I'm going to teach you... is how to stop people like me." She gave her little wry smile again. "That seems more in keeping with your personality."

Kara gave her a wondering look for a moment, then smiled slightly and nodded.

"I get it," she said.

"Okay. Let's start from the beginning, then. The system I'm going to show you is called jitkyundou... "

"That Which Does Not Kill Us" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Monday, June 14, 2410
Otonashi Mountains, Tomodachi

The relentless pounding of the rotor blades drowned out the usual jungle noises as an Mi-24 Hind helicopter eased into the courtyard of the castle at the top of a tropical mountain miles from anywhere. Built in the style of a French château-fort, the structure was a bit out of place in the middle of a mountainous jungle, doubly so because Tomodachi had originally been a Japanese colony, but there it stood, all the same.

The Hind settled on its landing gear, enormous rotors still turning. It bore the markings of the International Police Organization's Class A station in Nekomikoka, the planetary capital. The side door opened and two figures jumped down - one a man of average height and stocky build, the other a slim, petite woman. The man thumped the side of the chopper with the flat of his hand as soon as they were down. The turbines revved, the rotors beat the air, and the Hind lifted away, its downwash making the woman's long, midnight-blue cloak and the tails of the man's dark green trenchcoat flap furiously for a few seconds... and then they were alone.

Benjamin Hutchins, also known as Gryphon - or simply "the Chief" to much of the IPO - looked around at his surroundings for a moment, getting his bearings.

"Wow," he said. "Takeshi wasn't kidding."

Raven flopped back the hood of her cloak and swept the courtyard with her dark gaze, pausing nowhere long, but missing little.

"I guess not," she agreed, her voice low.

All around them, scattered on the flagstones of the courtyard like discarded toys, lay the corpses of men and women, all dressed in black. Many still clutched weapons, most of them broken, in their dead hands. An entire clan of ninja... wiped out in what looked like it had been one hell of a battle.

"What could do something like this?" Gryphon wondered rhetorically as he walked from body to body, examining the way they sprawled, the rents in their uniforms and their flesh, the damage to their weapons.

"Quite a few things, actually," Raven mused. She walked carefully to the middle of the courtyard, clasped her hands before her, and bowed her head in concentration. Shadows seemed to gather around her, though it was mid-afternoon on a brilliantly sunny day. She murmured a few words in a language like the mutterings of ancient gods. The ring of shadows that had started racing across the stones at her feet wavered, seemed to rise a few inches, then dissipated. Raven dropped her hands and opened her eyes.

"No lower-plane activity," she said. "Whatever did this, it wasn't infernal. I do sense something... but I don't know what it is." She shook her head. "Only what it isn't. It's not infernal... it's not any kind of sorcerous construct I know the traces of... " She looked across the carnage and met Gryphon's eyes. "... and it's not friendly."

Gryphon nodded. "Let's see if we can find the tac team."

They scouted the rest of the area outside the castle, finding nothing, then regrouped at the entrance. Gryphon drew an old-fashioned .45 automatic pistol from a holster on his belt, carefully opened the massive timber door with his free hand - it swung easily and silently on well-oiled hinges - and slid into the entrance hall.

There were more bodies here. A few were ninja. The rest were dressed in the blue coveralls and light body armor of IPO Tactical Division troopers. As with the ninja, they were scattered around the room as if they'd been hurled about by something huge and angry. Broken weapons littered the floor. Gryphon crouched and examined one, a DC-15 blaster carbine.

"Look at this," he said, gesturing. "This isn't broken, it's been -cut-. Look at how bright the edges are. A duralloy blaster chassis, cut into four pieces."

Raven examined the cut edges without touching the weapon. "If I didn't know better, I'd almost say Logan had been here," she observed.

Gryphon straightened up and looked around. "It does resemble his style a bit." He rubbed at the back of his neck and looked up at the hall's vaulted ceiling. Sunlight slanted from the windows, moving slowly down the wall. Night would fall within a half-hour or so.

"I don't like this at all," he admitted. "If I were a Jedi, I'd say I feel a disturbance in the Force."

"What were the ninja doing here?" Raven wondered.

"This castle was their headquarters," Gryphon said. "They were a small clan, but making a name for themselves... " He looked around the room again. "Fifteen... sixteen... seventeen. We've got a man missing."

At the far end of the entrance hall, another tall door - probably the door to the great hall - stood partially open, only darkness visible beyond it. Without audibly discussing it, Gryphon and Raven moved toward the door, then through it.

The great hall was as trashed as the entrance, but without the mass casualties. Tapestries were torn down, dummies wearing suits of Japanese-style armor lay overturned, and weapons both ceremonial and practical were scattered everywhere. The long table in the center of the room was broken in the middle, as if something very heavy had landed on it and snapped it in two, the halves leaning sharply toward each other on their still-intact legs. Wind whispered in through shattered windows.

Sprawled in the middle of the room was the eighteenth member of the tac team, the commanding officer, still clutching the remains of his blaster in one hand and a fighting knife in the other. Well, half of him was in the middle of the room. The other half was a dozen yards away, against the wall under one of the windows.

"Damn," Gryphon muttered. "What the hell happened here?"

Before Raven could hazard a guess, something up in the shadowy vault of the ceiling, perhaps 30 feet above them, hissed and shifted, a black shape moving in black space. Gryphon faded back a half-step, raising his weapon - and whatever the thing was came diving down at him.

He had a snap impression, like a mental flash photograph, of a vaguely humanoid shape with leathery wings and a hideous, fanged face - glowing scarlet eyes - a deafening, monstrous screech. He shot it three times, twice in the chest and once in the forehead, but it kept coming, kept keening. It had talons, the fingers of its hands hugely elongated to sharp points, and they reached for him as the creature, whatever it was, dove toward him. He set himself to dive underneath its strike -

Another figure suddenly appeared, smashing into the room through the remains of one of the windows. Time, already slowed, went into a complete freeze-frame for a moment. Sparkling glass fragments and spinning chunks of mullion formed a little cloud of debris, the glass catching the dying orange sunlight. Gryphon's mental snapshot this time was more detailed: a human girl, somewhere in her late teens, with black hair and very white skin, dressed in a white blouse and black pleated skirt, with a viciously curved sword in her hands. She yelled what might have been a challenge and intercepted the monstrous beast in mid-dive.

Time snapped back to normal as all three hit the floor, diving one way while the creature and its attacker smashed down and tumbled the other. Gryphon rolled to his feet, spinning to face the action as Raven appeared at his side.

"What the crap was that?" Gryphon asked.

"My guess is 'high school senior'," Raven replied, deadpan.

"No, the other thing," Gryphon said.

"Chiropteran," Raven told him. "It's a kind of vampire. I've read about them. Never seen one before."

"Damn," Gryphon muttered. "They grow them big around here." He put the .45 away - a gun was obviously not going to do any good at all in this situation - and drew his own sword from his back.

The girl with the sword knew how to handle it, which surprised Gryphon a little; he had known some prodigies in his time, but she was very small - almost frail-looking. The sword - Ō-dachi-like, but with a weird jog in the blade near the hilt - was almost as long as she was tall. Still, she wielded it with authority, not to say ferocity, and kept the monstrous vampire at bay despite its huge reach advantage. It fought cannily for a creature of such clearly feral disposition, though, and didn't give her a decent opening for a counterattack.

She feinted to her right, spun with incredible swiftness, and struck, but the chiropteran anticipated the move and caught her with a backhanded swipe. She rolled with it, managing to avoid being cut to pieces by the beast's talons, but the blow still hurled her across the room. She hit the far wall and rebounded, her sword falling from her hand and bouncing toward the corner, then fell to the floor and lay face-down, stunned - or worse; Gryphon couldn't really tell.

He looked at Raven; she nodded and disappeared, her own shadow rising up from the floor to consume her. The chiropteran, seeking to capitalize on its advantage, leaped across the room toward the girl, then snarled in consternation as Raven suddenly sprang up from nowhere, her cloak flying around her like the wings of her namesake. Standing firm in the monster's path, she drew a line in the air in front of herself with a hand. The charging chiropteran smashed into nothingness, its talons inches from her, then reeled backward and regrouped for another assault. Before it could launch that assault, Gryphon jumped onto its back - the thing had to be ten feet tall - and drove his blade into the top of the monster's skull.

The chiropteran wavered, staggering, and fell to one knee, but then it flailed violently, flinging him from its back. He landed hard but rolled to his feet, ready to meet it as its charged. His blade struck home twice more, opening wounds in its chest and abdomen that would have been fatal to any normal lifeform, however hardy.

On this thing, they just closed up again in a few seconds, leaving it none the worse for wear. Cutting it up just seemed to make it mad.

"Crap," Gryphon observed as he backpedaled, fending off claw strikes. Just as the chiropteran was about to gain the upper hand, it was suddenly engulfed in a storm of broken sword blades, chunks of masonry, discarded throwing stars, and other detritus, all animated by Raven's will and sent hurtling against the beast's hide. That gave Gryphon the moment he needed; gathering his concentration, he forced his ki into the blade, making the edge of the steel glow with a white light. He kept on the defensive for a few more moments, then reversed a parry and sliced the creature's fingers off at the first knuckle.

The chiropteran recoiled, roaring, smoke pouring from its hand. Gryphon took advantage of the opportunity to disengage and fade back toward Raven. The chiropteran stayed where it was for a few moments, clutching at its maimed hand, staring at him with seething hatred in its glowing eyes. Then, as both Gryphon and Raven watched, the damaged hand started to writhe and pulsate, growing new fingers with remarkable speed. The gashes and abrasions caused by Raven's barrage were already vanishing as well.

"Hum," Gryphon remarked. "That's inconvenient."

Behind the two IPO agents, unnoticed, the dark-haired girl pulled herself to her feet. She wobbled slightly for a second, then regained her composure and took in the situation.

"Fools," she spat, causing both Gryphon and Raven to glance at her in surprise. "Who do you think you are? Amateur monster hunters, I suppose. Know a few tricks and think that qualifies you to go into the dark places." She shook her head, her whole mien conveying a world-weary disgust decades beyond her apparent youth. "You're too stupid to live."

"Says the schoolgirl with a sword," Raven replied acidly.

The chiropteran, its recovery complete to its apparent satisfaction, hissed and spread its wings.

"Get out of here," the girl snarled, picking up her sword. "I won't warn you again."

Then, without waiting for an answer, she threw herself back into combat, racing past Gryphon to meet the chiropteran's lunge. This time the two passed each other in mid-air, and each wounded the other; when they landed, the monster's side was bloody and the girl's white blouse was going crimson at the shoulder. Gryphon noticed as the chiropteran turned that the wound she had just opened in its side was closing, but not nearly as fast as the ones he'd inflicted had done.

Gryphon and Raven didn't hesitate further; they moved in to support the girl, whether she wanted their help or not. Months after their transforming experience high over Muspelheim, their cooperation was honed to a razor's edge. The two seemed to be everywhere, each moving to support the other at exactly the right moment. The only problem was that they had to adjust their pattern to allow for the unknown player in this particular version of the game - which they were able to do easily enough, for their part, but the interloper didn't know them and couldn't properly read them. An unfortunate outcome was inevitable.

It came soon enough, when the mysterious girl moved to flank the creature at exactly the wrong time. Raven, moving in for a flanking attack of her own, had to check her lunge at the last moment to avoid ending up in the sword's path herself, and when she did, she made herself a perfect target. The chiropteran capitalized, twisting around the sword-wielding girl's strike and nailing Raven with a backhanded blow that threw her nearly half the length of the great hall, demolishing what remained of the table with her hurtling body.

Teeth gritted in a furious snarl, Gryphon ducked its attempt to do likewise to him, came up from the floor with all the strength in his body, and ran the monster through, smack in the middle of its chest. That seemed to get its attention; it shrieked, nearly deafening Gryphon, and then reared backward, flailing. He hung onto his sword for dear life as he fell backward, but the blade caught on something inside it and was jerked from his hands. The beast howled, clutching at the embedded weapon. Gryphon hit the floor, skipped backward, barely avoided falling flat on his ass, and then recovered his balance.

Too slowly. The chiropteran, still transfixed by his sword, roared and leaped. "Aw, crap," he said before its outstretched claws punched straight through the middle of his body and out of his back. Still conscious - after as many years and as many battles as he'd faced, getting impaled tended just to focus the mind for the first minute or so - Gryphon bared his teeth and reached for his sword, which was still jutting from the monster's chest.

The girl with the Ō-dachi appeared, bloodied but still very much in the fight, and severed the chiropteran's impaling hand neatly at the wrist. Gryphon noticed two things with a sort of detached interest: that the flesh actually blackened and shriveled, as if burned, at the edges of the cut; and that the girl had red eyes, eyes that seemed to glow from within with the same kind of strange light as the chiropteran's.

Suddenly released from the bulk of the creature, he fell backward, the katana's grip slipping away from his fingertips. He hit the floor hard, grabbed hold of the severed hand, and yanked it out of his body, grunting from the fresh nova of pain that brought him. Then he slumped, gathering his concentration.

The sword-wielding girl backed the raging chiropteran a few yards away, but her own injuries were starting to slow down even her remarkable reaction speed. The chiropteran accepted a glancing wound to its arm in order to lunge, seize her with its remaining hand, and hurl her with all its might against the wall.

Raven regained consciousness quickly; only a few seconds had elapsed by the time she got to her feet. In an instant, she saw that her partner was badly wounded, kneeling on the floor with blood all around him. While she was still taking that in, she heard the interloper scream and looked up to see her smash into the wall. Whether by design or just blind luck, the chiropteran had thrown her against the point of a ten-inch-long wrought-iron lamp bracket, pinning her gruesomely to the wall. The point of the bracket jutted bloodily from the right side of her upper chest.

"That looks like it hurt," Raven growled. She threw her cloak back over her shoulders and uttered an incantation, sending another fusillade of sharp things and bits of rubble hurtling at the chiropteran. It keened, swatting away missiles, and began charging toward her, slowly at first but with rapidly increasing speed. Chunks of masonry and damaged weapons punched holes in the leathery membranes of its wings, slashed at it, bashed it as it charged.

Raven stood her ground, hands open at her sides, not slackening the bombardment for a moment. With the room in the condition it was in, there was certainly no shortage of ammunition. The chiropteran bulled through the barrage, reaching for her with its remaining hand and its slavering jaws. Raven waited until the last possible moment, then ducked under its sweeping claws, seized the grip of Gryphon's katana, jerked it from the monster's chest, and threw herself forward and down. She passed under it, raking it as she went with the reversed blade, then rolled to her feet and whirled as it crashed to the floor behind her.

Howling with fury, the chiropteran rolled over a couple of times, got to its feet, and turned to attack again.

Raven's eyes were slashes of featureless white light in the deep shadow of her cowl. She levitated, cloak fluttering, a few inches from the floor, and spread her hands in ancient signs, intoning in an eerily polyphonic voice, "Azarath. Metrion - "

With a howl, the chiropteran scooped up a chunk of the floor and flung it at her. Aborting her spell, Raven deflected the missile instead. The monster raised itself to its full height, let out another hideous shriek, and charged her again.

"That's it. I'm through with you," she snarled. Instead of starting the spell again - not enough time for that now - she dropped back to the floor, transferred Gryphon's blade to her left hand, and reached into the folds of her cloak with her right.

The hand emerged an instant later gripping a weapon unlike any of the primitive ninja tools or cutting-edge military hardware scattered in pieces around the room - a chunky, rounded handgun festooned with deco protrusions, a couple of small whip antennae, and what looked for all the world like a truncated test tube full of some glowing blue liquid attached to the back of the main body, pointing upward at a jaunty angle. The round barrel sported a row of cunningly machined cooling fins set back from the inch-diameter muzzle.

This unique weapon, a gift from a fellow IPO agent, emitted a deep electrical growl as it powered up, blue light flashing through vents in the sides of the body and between the cooling vanes -

- and the Teslamatic Tri-Polar Atomic Dissociator Ray-Pistol raved forth azure destruction, spitting a beam of brilliant blue light capable of reducing an armored fighting vehicle to smoke and slag in seconds. It punched a massive hole through the chiropteran's center of mass, instantly vaporizing a manhole-sized chunk of its torso, and passed through to wreak havoc on the wall beyond. Part of the room collapsed as a swath of the wall, and the entrance hall beyond that, was instantly disintegrated.

The chiropteran writhed, arms flailing - but incredibly, it still didn't seem to be going down. Raven was shocked. The few other times she'd actually fired the Teslamatic at anything, the target had pretty much ceased to be entirely.

What in Azarath is this thing made of? she wondered. The hole in the monster's chest, though gigantic - she could clearly see the night sky beyond the fallen wall through it at a few dozen paces - wasn't putting it down, and was even starting, very slowly, to shrink. The beast staggered, the light in its eyes dim but not going out, and then lunged forward as if determined to take Raven down with it when it fell.

Gryphon appeared behind her, snatching his sword from her hand as he passed, and took advantage of the chiropteran's much-reduced reaction speed to sever its head with a passing cut. Head and body went their separate ways, the head bouncing across the room to wind up near the wreckage of the table, the body crashing to the floor and sliding to rest at Raven's feet. As Gryphon, still kneeling in his strike's follow-through, cleaned his blade and put it away, the chiropteran's carcass finally crumbled to dust.

The Chief remained where he was for a moment, then opened his eyes, looked up, and took in the destruction wrought on the far side of the room. Turning around to regard Raven with a wry grin, he said,

"Teslamatic got away from you a little, huh."

Raven put the weapon away and gave a small shrug.

"The power selector stuck again," she said. "I have to have Nikola look at it when we get back to Headquarters."

"What happened to - oh," Gryphon said, his voice becoming subdued, as he saw what had become of their mysterious interloper.

With a creak, the lamp bracket bent under its unaccustomed burden, allowing the girl to slide off and fall face-first to the floor. She lay motionless for a moment, blood slowly pooling around her - and then, impossibly, began to stir.

"My God," Gryphon blurted. He rushed to her side, arriving just a few paces ahead of Raven, and knelt by her. "Don't try to move," he said. "We'll get - "

Suddenly, with quick, almost angry-looking motions, the terribly wounded girl raised herself up, first to hands and knees, then into a kind of crouch. Then she raised her head and looked with wild scarlet eyes at Gryphon, whose clothes and face were still spattered with blood from his regenerated wounds. As he watched, startled, her pupils contracted to near-invisible points. Her face (which, now that he got a good look at it, would've been pleasant enough under normal circumstances) took on a look of utter animal madness -

- moving so fast he couldn't even consider doing anything about it, she lunged at Gryphon and bit him. He had just the most fleeting glimpse, the impression of wickedly elongated canines, before her teeth sank into the side of his neck.

"GAAAH!" he observed.

Raven started to intervene, then realized that there wasn't much she could do - if she struck the girl or tried to pry her off, she'd probably just end up making her rip Gryphon's throat out. Gryphon had apparently reached the same conclusion in the nick of time; though he'd seized the girl's shoulders, he'd managed to stop himself from shoving her away.

A moment later she took care of the problem for them by recoiling with a guttural cry that sounded like equal parts surprise, pain, and fright. Writhing as if in anguish, she fell to the floor again, face down, back arched, arms crossed over her belly. Gryphon took a couple of scrabbling half-steps backward and sat down hard, a hand pressed to his neck, blood oozing between his fingers.

"Jesus!" he blurted. "What the crap!"

"Are you okay?" Raven asked, moving to his side. "Move your hand."

"Not yet. Give it a few seconds to finish closing," Gryphon replied. "Ow! Fuckin' A, that was nothing like it says in the manual." Keeping his hand on his neck, he sat and watched the girl thrash around, making awful noises, her hands now clawing at the stone floor. Before his and Raven's startled eyes, she seemed to shrink slightly, as though reverting in age.

After a few more moments the pain seemed to subside. She stopped writhing, rolled into a huddled ball for a few seconds, and then slowly dragged herself to hands and knees. Though her clothes were torn and bloody, there was no sign of the wounds that had marred her body just moments ago. She looked up at Gryphon again, this time with a look of tremendous confusion on her face. She was younger now, he realized - she'd regressed perhaps four years, from late to early high school age - and her eyes, wide with shock, were brown now that the crimson light had gone out of them. She crawled hesitantly toward him, reaching out a quivering hand. Raven bristled, ready to take action if she tried to attack again, but Gryphon gently put a hand on her arm. This girl had no fight left in her now.

"... what... did you do... to me?" she whispered, then lost what little strength she had left and fell toward him. Gryphon caught her, barely registering her slight weight in his arms. She was trembling violently.

"Easy," Gryphon said, trying to sound soothing. "It's okay. You're safe now. We're not going to hurt you. Who are you?" he asked. "What's your name?"

"... Saya," she said. "I think... my name is Saya."

"Where are you from?" Raven asked. "How did you get here?"

Saya turned her head and looked at Raven as if the simple movement cost her the last shreds of energy in her body.

"... I don't know," she said in a frightened voice, and then she slumped, unconscious.

Gryphon considered this turn of events for a few moments, then slowly gathered her up in his arms and got painfully to his feet.

"Raven," he said after a pause for thought, "why do these things always seem to happen to me?"

Raven cracked a tiny smile.

"Some guys just have it," she said.

Friday, June 18, 2410
Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense
Avalon County, Zeta Cygni

Gryphon stood next to the hibernation chamber a couple of the BPRD's paratechnicians had constructed for his mystery girl, wondering if it were an actual requirement of the design that made the thing shaped like a coffin, or just the builders' perversity.

"She's a true vampire, all right," BPRD Director Tom Manning reported, looking through a file folder one of the techs had just handed him. "The most impressive intact specimen we've ever had here, in fact. The guys in Paragenetics are still looking over her genome, but right now indications are that she's first-generation, whoever she is. Turned into one of the undead by the Lord of Blood himself."

"Why is she in a coma?" Gryphon asked.

"That, we don't know," Manning replied, shrugging. "True vampirism isn't very well-understood, medically speaking, because examples are rare and don't usually volunteer for study. Our best guess is that she had a weird reaction to the Detian factors in your blood. Triggered some kind of partial cellular regeneration. Sort of like what happens to Time Lords, near as our guys can figure. It must've been quite a shock. She's gone into a deep suspension - pretty much all cellular functioning stopped, no metabolic activity, nothing. The only reason we can't call her dead is because she's already undead. I couldn't tell you if she'll ever come out of it - or what she'll be like when she does." Manning looked around, then added in a confidential tone, "We, uh, could finish her off if you want. It's pretty easy when they're not fighting back."

"No," Gryphon said, giving Manning a hard look. "We don't operate like that. She's no danger to anyone in her present condition... and she was fighting the other one."

"Different breed. Your high-class bloodsuckers like this one think of chiropterans pretty much the same way you and I think of mad dogs. They spook the game. Meaning us." Manning eyed the chamber warily. "I don't like the idea of keeping one of these things around this place. You remember what happened when we all thought that freak Krönen was dead for good."

"She's not a 'thing', Tom," Gryphon said sharply. "But if you're uncomfortable with monitoring her condition, I'll transfer her to one of the biolabs at Headquarters. Maybe I should do that anyway, just in case you get antsy and decide you'd better 'finish her off'."

Manning held up his hands in surrender. "All right, I'm sorry," he said. "That was out of line. I just... " He sighed. "Okay, okay, fine. I got used to Hellboy, I got used to Abe, I got used to that acid-freak datatech you sent me... I'll get used to this. We'll look after her. Really. You have my word."

Gryphon held his eyes for a moment, then nodded. "All right. Call me the instant anything about her condition changes."

"Okay." Manning turned to leave, then hesitated in the doorway and turned back. "Oh... listen... can you at least take the weapon with you?"

Gryphon nodded again. "Sure."

"Thanks. That'll put my mind a little at ease, anyway." So saying, the director left the room.

Gryphon picked up the girl's sword from the table where it lay and examined it, then went and looked at her face through the window in the hibernation chamber's lid. Below the window was a label, blank except for the BPRD specimen tracking number assigned to her.

Gryphon looked at her face, then at the weapon he held and the object that contained it. Then, smiling, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a Sharpie, wrote a single word on the chamber tag above the tracking number, pocketed the marker, and left.

"Saya" - A Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Tuesday, June 22, 2410
Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital
Earth, Centaurus Sector

Dr. Gregory House knew when he got up that morning that it was going to be a bad day. He wasn't in any way precognitive; it was just that he pretty much always knew when he got up that it was going to be a bad day. And it usually was, so the law of averages was on his side.

For about half of the day, though, it seemed he might be wrong. In fact, it started out as a nearly perfect day by House's standards. Nobody was bugging him to do anything irritating, like practice medicine. He had the morning to just sit around his office playing video games. In an hour or so, he figured he'd limp down to the cafeteria and steal the better-looking parts of Wilson's lunch. After that, perhaps he'd he'd track Foreman down and abuse him just on general principles. Wouldn't do to let the bastard get complacent just because he was the only fellow in the department who hadn't taken it on the lam.

House's office door opened without his consent, something that always annoyed him. He looked up to see Eric Foreman entering with another man on his heels. House didn't recognize the other guy specifically, but if he didn't know who he was, it was hard to mistake what he was. The black uniform and gold Greek-letter badge made that part pretty well unmistakable.

"Dammit, Foreman, how many times do I have to tell you?" House grumbled, putting down his GameZark Portable. "Don't bring patients to my office." With an expression of exaggerated distaste, he added, "They might have germs. And why is he wearing that ridiculous getup?"

The Psi Cop gave House a frosty look. "I see your reputation as an alleged wit is not entirely unearned, Dr. House," he said.

House raised his eyebrows. "Ooh," he said.

"This is Officer Baransky," Foreman said. "He's with the Psi Corps."

"Well, I'm glad we got that cleared up. I was starting to wonder if I'd missed the memo about Let's Play Dress-Up Day." House looked glum. "On the other hand, that probably means Cuddy isn't wearing the Hello Nurse outfit."

"Dr. House," Baransky cut imperturbably in. "I'm here to talk to you about the present whereabouts of your colleagues, Doctors Cameron and Chase."

House regarded the Psi Cop thoughtfully for a moment, then sighed and gave his desktop a regretful slap. He fished a prescription bottle out of his pocket, popped a couple of pills, and then said, "Okay, well, there's no point in lying to a Psi Cop, is there? I might as well level with you."

Baransky smiled thinly. "That would simplify matters."

House nodded, then said in the tone of a man admitting a shameful truth, "... I sent Cameron to Kooken's Pleasure Pit for remedial love slave training. Part of the department's continuing education requirement," he added helpfully. Then he hesitated and went on in an even more reluctant tone than before, "And I sold Chase to the Sisterhood of Ishtar."

Baransky's smile switched off like a light. "Doctor," he said testily.

"What? I needed cash and Venus needs men!" said House defensively. "They wouldn't take Foreman, though," he added, fixing the younger doctor with a venomous glare. "Seems they have a strict 'no Nightwatch moles' policy."

Foreman returned the glare with interest, but said nothing.

"You know," House went on thoughtfully, "I liked it better when you people could only harass other telepaths. This 'let's just let the Psi Corps investigate all security matters' thing is a huge pain in the ass."

"Dr. House, I'm trying to be patient with you owing to your reputation and your condition," Baransky said. "I have to say, though, that you are trying that patience gravely. If you persist in your flippancy, I will have no choice but to resort to more... invasive measures in order to ascertain what you know."

House half-smiled, his eyes twinkling with malicious glee. "To be honest," he said, "I doubt your head could hold what I know." Then, leaning back casually in his desk chair, he went on, "But in this case it wouldn't matter. I have no idea where the hell they are. They just up and didn't come into work one day. Ungrateful children. After all I've done for them." He gave the Psi Cop a look of utter sadness. "You work your fingers to the bone to provide for them and this is the thanks you get."

Baransky seemed undaunted. "The two of them worked for you for several years. No one would put up with you for that long without holding you in some kind of perverse esteem."

House agreed readily. "Well, sure. (In Chase's case, very perverse,)" he added confidentially. "Except for Foreman, of course. He had to stay because those were his orders. Poor bastard."

"As such," Baransky plowed on, "they would be quite unlikely to depart without leaving you some way of keeping in contact."

"If a Psi Cop barks up the wrong tree and no one's there to hear it, does it make a sound?" House asked philosophically. "I told you, I don't have a clue where they went or how to get in touch with them. All they left me was two months' worth of unfiled case notes. Young doctors today are such sloppy documentarians," he added self-righteously. "You want to find them, try wherever the hell Chase is from. Concord Dawn or New Brisbane or one of those other colonies where they don't talk right. They're probably kicking back on a beach and putting spork chops on the barbie or whatever it is they do in those places."

Baransky regarded House coldly for a few moments, then gave his thin smile again. "Well. I can see I'm not going to get anywhere with you, Doctor."

"Better late than never," House said. "Don't leave the door open when you leave. It causes a draft."

"If I can't impress on you the seriousness of this situation, perhaps someone else can," Baransky went on. House gave him a curious look, but the Psi Cop remained impassive until, a few moments later, another man entered the office, looking a trifle harried.

"Did you page me?" James Wilson asked House. Then he noticed the Psi Cop and did a double-take before turning back to House and asking, "What's he doing here?"

"Dr. Wilson," said Baransky calmly. "Please explain to your colleague here the true way of the world."

Wilson gave the Psi Cop a baffled look. "Huh?"

Baransky's air of imperturbability slipped a little. "I said," he repeated, "please explain to Dr. House the true way of the world."

Wilson looked utterly confused. "... I don't follow you," he said.

House laughed, causing all three of the other men in his office to turn identical incredulous looks his way.

"Trying to activate Wilson's sleeper personality? Don't bother," House said. "I destroyed it."

"You what?!" Wilson blurted, and then, "My what?!"

"That symposium you went to six months ago," said House conversationally as he got to his feet, picked up his cane, and limped around his desk. "You thought you got some bad shellfish at the opening dinner? What you got was an overnight stay in a Psi Corps processing center, some memory editing, and an implanted shell personality. They figured they'd need someone on this place's board eventually, when the time came to start forcing members of the staff to take part in their weird science."

"A shell personality?" said Wilson, horrified.

"Yep! A replacement Wilson. Same qualifications, more... malleable ethics. And totally loyal to the Cause, of course. I noticed when you got back that you spent a week or so yawning a lot, but the real clincher was the touch of temporary proxyglossolalia you had. It's a trademark symptom of neural overlay programming." House turned a sympathetic look to Baransky. "Sorry. I told Bill the orbital mind control lasers were the better way to go."

"But... why would they do that?" Wilson asked.

"Same reason Cameron and Chase took off," House answered, shrugging. "The Dome is getting into some strange areas, medically speaking, and there aren't enough qualified people willingly signing up to be their Mengeles. Won't be long before they have to start drafting. Isn't that right, Officer Baransky?"

Baransky tried on his thin, cold smile again, though it rather lacked conviction. "You'll never prove any of that," he said. "In fact, when I'm through with you, you won't even remember it."

"Ah, I wouldn't," said House. "Those pills I took a few minutes ago? One thousand milligrams of chlorozaphrexadine sulfate hydrochloride. I'm tripping my ass off. Come into my head now and you'll probably never find your way out again." At the Psi Cop's incredulous stare, he added with a regretful shake of his head, "It's a sad little trick of evolution, really. All that power wasted on such a tiny intellect."

"You planned this all out very well, Doctor," said Baransky grudgingly.

"I've had a lot of time to think about it," House replied. "I've known this was coming since the Ministry of Peace planted Foreman on me. It's the real reason why Cuddy's never been able to fire me. The Dome wanted to make sure it knew where to find me when the time came."

"You are clever, Dr. House," Baransky admitted. Then, his voice hardening, he produced a compact plasma pistol from inside his uniform tunic and added, "And you're under arrest."

House seemed unimpressed by the weapon. "No," he said, "I don't think so."

"And why not?" Baransky inquired.

"Because," House replied mildly. "You made one of the elementary mistakes." He smiled darkly. "You turned your back on Foreman."

"What are you - ... oh," said Baransky, and then he keeled over and sprawled face-down on the floor.

Wilson blinked at the scene, looking from House to Foreman as the former picked up Baransky's PPG and the latter pocketed a spray-hypo.

"... I thought House just said you were a Nightwatch mole," Wilson said to Foreman.

"I am," Foreman replied. "Among other things. You two had better get out of here. Baransky probably paged for backup. They'll hit this place with everything they've got trying to keep you from escaping."

"I'm very confused," said Wilson.

House picked up a duffel bag from the floor next to his desk, chucked a few things into it from his desktop and bookshelves, and tossed it to Wilson. "Come on," he said. "We've got to get to the roof, and you know how much I love stairs." He started to lead the way out of the office, then paused and turned back.

"You didn't do this out of any love of justice, and you certainly didn't do it for love of me," he said to Foreman.

"You're right. I didn't," Foreman replied. Then he added with a smug grin, "And now there's at least one thing I know you don't know."

House regarded him expressionlessly for a moment, then smirked slightly.

"Except you just gave it away," he said before pivoting on his good leg and hobbling off down the hall.

"What the hell just happened?" Wilson demanded.

"Not now," House replied.

"I had a sleeper personality?!"

"Are you still hung up on that?" House grumbled as he struggled up the fire stairs. "Yes. You did. It's gone now. Don't be such a baby."

"Gone, gone how? I've read about those things. They don't just go away."

"Remember last month when I whacked you up on L-dopa and Cortex Bomb?"

"Let me see, do I remember that - oh, yes, I do remember suffering an induced serotonin storm, now that you mention it," Wilson blustered.

"You're welcome," said House as he flung the roof access door open. "I didn't do that just because your reactions were entertaining." He paused. "Although they were."

"I - you - they were - ... fine. What are we doing on the roof?"

"My calculations indicated that it would be difficult to launch an escape shuttle from the basement," House replied sarcastically.

Wilson stopped in his tracks, staring in amazement at the small, blocky vehicle parked near the air conditioning stacks. His mouth worked ineffectively for a moment before he finally found the voice to ask,

"Where are we going?"

House punched an access code into the keypad next to the shuttle door before replying:

"Anywhere but here."

"Anywhere But Here" - A Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Based on characters from
House, MD created by David Shore
Special to the Eyrie Productions, Unlimited Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

International Police Station Babylon 6
B'hava'el system, Centaurus sector
Wednesday, July 14, 2410

In the IPO office complex in Blue Sector, Janice Barlow and Xander Cage sat in a conference room and wondered what the hell they were doing there.

Well, Janice wondered, anyway. X didn't seem to be too concerned about it; he was sitting with his feet up on the table, his hands in the pockets of his disreputable old sherpa coat, and his shoulders slumped against the wall, his chair balanced on its back two legs. He might be asleep; it was hard to tell with his shades on.

That was all right. Janice was puzzled enough for both of them. It had been a hectic last few months; after the Klingon mess the previous November, requests for their services had come in from Tactical Division no fewer than five times, keeping the two of them, plus Janice's combat remote Mitra and X's dog Riddick, hopping all over the galaxy.

They were supposed to be on Tomodachi working support for an infiltration op for Criminal Investigations, but they kept getting pulled off for these run-and-gun Tac Div ops. This last time, they hadn't been back on Tomodachi for more than a day before the word came down - grab your gear and report to Babylon 6 for priority briefing. Twice in one week? The hell was Command thinking? Did they want that BTL ring in Beiwiru cracked or not?

The conference room door whined open. Janice glanced up, expecting to see a briefing officer from CID or Intel, and instead was startled to see a very tall, burly humanized Salusian in the dark green fatigues of a Royal Salusian Navy NCO.

She shot to her feet, almost overturning her chair. X didn't move - apparently he was asleep - so she did the only thing she could think of to rouse him.

"Attention on deck!" she barked. That woke him, all right, and nearly dumped him out of his chair before he realized what was going on and got to his feet. He didn't really come to attention, but he was definitely paying attention.

That was good enough for Master Chief Petty Officer John Spartan.

"As you were," he said with only the faintest touch of amusement in his rough voice.

"What's the deal, sir?" Janice asked. "Why'd they drag us back from Tomodachi so quick?"

"New assignment," the Master Chief replied. "By request, you two have been pulled off the BTL job, effective immediately, and placed under my command for a special mission."

Janice blinked. "Wha - ?! Who requested that?"

The Master Chief's weatherbeaten face was touched by a slight smile.

"I did," he said.

"... Oh."

A woman who seemed be composed of purplish light and streaming numbers appeared on the conference room's display screen.

"What John means," Cortana said, "is that the pair of you handled yourselves so well on Kronos that he wants your help on another job."

The tips of the Master Chief's primary ears twitched almost imperceptibly. "That's what I said."

"So what's the job?" X asked.

"Chancellor Krojaar has asked the IPO to provide special forces support for his efforts to reclaim the Empire," the Master Chief replied. "He's amassed about 60% of the Navy, but the bulk of the Klingons' own special forces operators went to Klayvor's side. We're going to help the loyalists' remaining SF unit even the odds."

Janice arched an eyebrow. "... 'remaining SF unit'? Singular?"

The Master Chief nodded. "Cortana, I think it's time they met the General."

Cortana smiled. "I couldn't agree more."

Down in Green Sector, in the part of the diplomatic area reserved for the Babylon Foundation's executive offices, Chad Collier was doing his best not to yawn - A, because it was rude, and B, because some people tended to get the wrong idea when they saw a Kilrathi put the full set of ivory on display, as it were.

Not that that was likely to be a problem with the person he was here to see. In his centuries of life, most of them spent roaming the infinite reaches of both space and time, James Burke had seen things a lot more threatening than a Kilrathi yawn.

Not that Burke's actual job description was that adventurous-sounding; he was the Babylon Foundation's chief archivist, the person in charge of maintaining the historical record both for posterity and the Foundation's reference. He didn't look like an adventurer, either. Burke was a man just a bit on the far side of middle age, white-haired and scholarly, with a kindly face and tweedy clothes.

Chad didn't have the urge to yawn because Burke was boring. Far from it - the man was one of Chad's heroes, a historian and documentary filmmaker of the first order, and what he was discussing now was very interesting indeed. It was just that in the space of the last week or so, Collier had gone from Tomodachi to Babylon 6, then to New Avalon, then back to Babylon 6, then to Alderaan, then out to Ishiyama, then back to Tomodachi, and then back to Babylon 6. Granted, he'd made some of those trips by stargate, but even so, that was a lot of mileage for a guy to put on in a week, especially with some combat and a storyboard session with Sumire Kanzaki thrown into the mix.

He gathered his wits together and paid attention. Burke was offering him a job, and what a job - to ride along with a Klingon special forces unit expected to play a pivotal role in Chancellor Krojaar's effort to take back the half of his empire usurped by Klayvor vestai-Klavaar, chronicling their operations. The material would be classified during the war, of course, but once it was over, Burke assured Chad that he'd have full publication rights.

The Kilrathi was by nature a dramatic, not a documentary, filmmaker, but even so, this was a hell of an opportunity. Not only was an insider's look at the Klingon Civil War certain to be of great interest once it was over, there was also sure to be at least one great movie somewhere in all the experiences he was bound to have along the way...

... if he survived.

"Why pick me for this job, Professor Burke?" he asked. "There have to be a hundred real reporters who would jump at the chance to cover something like this, even for delayed publication."

Burke smiled. "That's true," he allowed in his calm, clipped English accent, "but not many of them could keep up with a Klingon special forces group led by a SPARTAN. After your performance in the Qo'noS incident last year, we think you can."

"Who's we?" Chad wondered.

"Myself, Chancellor Krojaar, and MegaZone."

Chad blinked. "... Oh."

He hadn't been aware that MegaZone, the legendary founder of the Babylon Foundation, even knew of his existence, but he supposed it shouldn't have surprised him. MegaZone seemed to know a little bit about everybody. He'd never have been able to start the Foundation otherwise.

"What can I take for equipment?" he asked.

"Anything you like, within reason," Burke said. "You'll be headquartered at an IPO safehouse in New Avalon at first. Once the time comes for you to enter the Empire, you'll be traveling aboard a Klingon B'rel-class destroyer, the type popularly known as a bird-of-prey, so space won't be abundant, but it should be adequate."

"Will I be under military orders?"

"Yes and no," Burke replied. "You'll be officially listed as a member of the IPO Signal Corps, so you'll answer to Master Chief Spartan, but he's been instructed to give you a free hand. In an emergency, you may be asked to do some soldiering, but most of the time your duties will be left to your discretion."

Chad nodded. "I've pulled emergency duty before," he said. "I can handle it."

Burke chuckled. "As you did on Qo'noS," he said.

"Which is why you tapped me in the first place," Chad added with a faint smirk. "Well, Professor, it looks like you've hired yourself a war correspondent." The Kilrathi filmmaker extended a paw, which Burke didn't hesitate to shake.

"Mission briefing starts at 1030 in the master situation room on Blue 2," the archivist said. "Good luck, Mr. Collier."

"Thanks," Chad said, gave a sketchy salute, and left the room.

In the corridor, on his way to the turbolift, he activated his wristcom. "Chad to Spark."

"Go ahead, sir," replied the voice of his master camera droid, 343 Guilty Spark.

"Prep the Train for transit, then meet me on Blue 2. We've got a new job."

"I don't think I like the sound of that," Spark observed. "I'll get right on it. 343 Guilty Spark out."

Chad grinned and thumbed the call button for the turbolift. When it arrived a moment later, it contained a young, dark-suited woman with short honey-blonde hair. She made no attempt to leave the lift when it opened; apparently she'd found what she was looking for.

"Chad Collier, right?" she asked as he boarded the lift.

"That's right," he said. "And you're Nanami Jinnai. I recognize you from the shows you do with John Trussell."

Nanami smiled. "Aren't you going to say you thought I'd be taller?"

Chad shook his head. "Nope. You're actually a little taller than you look on TV. So maybe it's Trussell I'd expect to be taller." He turned his attention to the lift computer for a moment. "Blue 2." With a beep, the lift started moving. He turned back to Nanami. "Anyway, I take it you were looking for me?"

She nodded. "You just met with James Burke. Are they going to send you in with the Klingon Special Forces?"

Chad blinked. "Uh... I wouldn't know about that," he said, but Nanami just made a dismissive noise.

"Please. It's no secret there's a Klingon SF unit here on the station getting ready to deploy into the Empire, or that it's getting backup from the IPO. You worked with the IPO contingent on the Homeworld during the Klavaar coup. You're the natural choice for a correspondent to go in with them."

"Well, I, uh... " Chad fumbled for a second, then said, "Computer, hold."

The computer beeped an acknowledgement and stopped the lift.

"Listen," Chad said, "I haven't even had my briefing or anything yet. I don't know what I can and can't talk about."

Nanami nodded. "That's fine. I'm not asking you for any information, anyway, and I'm not the kind of reporter who releases secrets during wartime. I want to see the Krojaar government win. If Klayvor vestai-Klavaar successfully defends his claim, it'll set Klingon relations with everybody back 500 years, and we're going to need them when the Earth Alliance and Zeta Cygni come to blows."

Chad scratched his chin, nodding. "So what do you want?" he asked.

"Nothing right now," Nanami said. "Computer, proceed." The lift started moving again. "I just wanted to make contact, introduce myself, and let you know that when you are allowed to share your footage, I'd be happy to carry it on Big Time News."

Chad grinned. "Just how much interest in the Klingon Civil War is there in the greater Bajor area?" he asked.

Nanami laughed. "Well, you'd be free to work out any galactic distribution deal you like, although I'd recommend Network 23. But if you make your own documentary, the big networks will be more likely to take it unedited if you run it with us first. We're small, but we've got credibility."

"Your alliance with Trussell can't hurt," Chad noted. "Everybody knows he's going to be 23's next news director."

"Probably. And working with him does help me," she acknowledged. "Professionally as well as from a business standpoint. He makes me a better reporter."

The lift stopped, doors hissing open.

"Think about it," she said as Chad disembarked.

"I will," he said, and meant it. "See you later, Miss Jinnai."

"When you get back," she said with a grin, "call me Nanami."

Then the lift shut again and he was alone in the corridor.

Chuckling, he turned and went in search of the briefing room.

The Master Chief led Janice and X through another door and into a briefing room. It looked not unlike the conference room they'd just left, but it was larger and the table was circular instead of oblong, with a tactical holotank in the center.

There was a bulky man in the metallic uniform of the Klingon Defense Forces sitting at one side of the table, his back half-turned to the door, looking something over on a datapad.

"General?" the Master Chief said as the door shut behind them.

The Klingon put down his datapad, swiveled, and rose to his feet, crossing toward them.

"Well, Master Chief," he said, his voice a raspy growl. "These are the ones you were telling me about?"

He was a wild-looking specimen, even for a Klingon, with long, slightly curly black hair worn loose and a snaggletoothed, bulldog-ugly
face that wasn't notably improved by a nasty expanse of scar tissue where his left eye belonged. Janice sized him up - the way he walked, the scars, the spark in his remaining eye, the bounce in his gravelly voice - and decided she was going to like hanging with him.

The Master Chief nodded in response to his question.

"They are," he said. "Sergeants Janice Barlow and Xander Cage: General Martok."

Janice opened her mouth to make some greeting, but Martok looked her up and down and pre-empted her, saying with a faint sneer,

"Hmph. This one doesn't look like much."

Before she could help herself, Janice replied with easy contempt, "Guess you haven't looked in a mirror lately, huh, General? You're no dabo girl yourself."

Martok stepped forward, lowering his face directly into Janice's, and growled, "Do you have something to say, human? Don't be shy; just come out and say it!"

"Okay," Janice replied, standing up slightly straighter so that her nose almost touched Martok's. "You're the ugliest son of a Klingon I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of 'em. Who did that facial reconstruction, your barber?"

Martok glowered down into her face for a couple of seconds, seeming almost ready to make his displeasure painfully known.

Then he reared back his head and laughed, deep, raucous laughter that set his wild black mane flying around his head.

"You're right, Chief," he declared, whacking her on the shoulder and almost knocking her into X. "This one's got spirit. I think she'll do all right!" He turned to X. "As for you, Mr. Cage, there'll be no subspace wake surfing behind my ship! No matter how bitchin' it would look on your website. Understood?"

X gave him a lazy grin.

"I only do that shit on vacation," he said.

Martok laughed again, not as raucously as before, but with the air of a man well satisfied.

"Has the Master Chief told you what you'll be doing?" he asked.

"Providing special forces support to the Krojaar government," Janice said.

Martok nodded. "My crew is the only unconventional unit in the Defense Forces to remain on the Chancellor's side in this miserable split," he said, "and we suffered losses in our last assignment, out at the edge of the Empire. Apart from the core of my ship's crew, the ones I have left are good soldiers, but green. They need experienced hands to guide them. Naturally, I would prefer those hands to be Klingon, but it seems the traitor Klayvor was especially persuasive in those circles." He snorted. "Still, the Master Chief's reputation precedes him even in the Empire, and if he vouches for you two... well, we'll see."

"You want us to help train your operators?" X inquired.

Martok grimaced as though he found the idea just as unsettling as Cage obviously did. "We don't have the time or the space to conduct proper training," he said. "They'll learn on the move. It'll make warriors of them, or kill them, whichever. You're here to do what you can to make the former outcome more likely."

The door opened again and Chad Collier came in, his muzzled face wearing the Kilrathi equivalent of the "is this the right room?" expression.

"And you," Martok went on, addressing him as though the Klingon had expected him to come in at that moment all along, "will try to stay out of the way, although with your furry bulk that will be a challenge."

Chad blinked. "And a cheery good morning to you too, General," he said.

"Taking the reporter along is part of the IPO's price for lending me the Master Chief," Martok said to Janice's questioning look.

"He's pretty good in a fight," Janice said. "And he doesn't eat as much as he looks like he does."

Martok chuckled. "That's fortunate," he said. "From the looks of him, he could tax a bird-of-prey's resources all by himself."

"Well, you'd better hope your ship has more than one head, that's all I'm saying," Chad observed casually.

Martok let that pass. "My crew and I will remain here for the next six to ten weeks, refitting the Rotarran for operations," he said. "In the meantime, I understand you four have business to attend to in New Avalon."

The Master Chief nodded. "We have our own preparations to make."

"Very well. Until then."

As they left the conference room, Janice asked the Master Chief, "What preparations?"

The Master Chief smiled. "Planning and rehearsing our first operation," he said. "Before the Rotarran is ready to ship out, we're going to show the skeptics in the Krojaar government - and General Martok - the way we get business done."

"Reassigned" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Tuesday, November 9, 2410
Zeta Cygni Penitentiary
Terminal Island, Avalon County

At the time, Block D at the Zeta Cygni Penitentiary was the newest part of the facility. Built in the wake of the great Big Fire prison break of the year before, when a strike force of Magnificent Ten members and Kempu Clan ninja had nearly leveled the south wing breaking out the renegade Sith Lord called Darth Venger, it was specifically designed to both contain and keep out the hardest of cases, inmates and potential attackers with powers well beyond those of most ordinary sentient beings.

Not that all the prisoners incarcerated in Block D were great threats to galactic civilization, as such. Prisoner 10-293, for instance, was in all respects a model inmate. Since her arrival on Terminal Island in the first week of May, she'd kept out of trouble, not even associating with the other defendants in the case that had laned her here. She never offered the guards the slightest attitude, never showed any interest in escaping, and displayed only a sort of academic curiosity about the mechanisms that kept her superhuman abilities in check. 10-293 just went about her daily routine, followed the rules, and didn't rock the boat. As such, she was something of a favorite with the Block D staff, to say nothing of the prison's administration. If only some of the normal prisoners were so well-behaved.

Just now she was in her cell, a twelve-by-twelve room built a bit like a bank vault, reading a book. She had quite a few of those, some scattered on her basic prison-issue desk, others shelved along one wall. Both the books, most of them having to do with galactic sociology and the rule of law, and the bookshelf itself were privileges awarded for her continued good behavior. Today she was about halfway through an introductory college textbook on the sovereignty of nations when she noticed the guard standing outside.

"Strange time for you to stop by, Vinson," she observed, marking her place and putting the book aside.

"You have a visitor," Vinson replied.

10-293 looked surprised. "Nobody ever visits me. Can you give me a hint? If it's that guy from the embassy again, you can just tell him I'm still not interested."

Vinson shook his head, a slight grin showing beneath the visor of his helmet. "It's a surprise," he said.

The prisoner gave him a confused look, then shrugged and got up from her bunk. "Well, as it happens, my schedule is clear this afternoon," she said. "Lead on."

To her continuing surprise, Vinson conducted her not to one of Block D's special visiting rooms (which were built, like everything else in the block, with the possibility of trouble from both inmate and visitor in mind), but instead to one of the conventional police interrogation rooms in Block A. For a prisoner of 10-293's status, just getting out of D for a little while made it a red-letter day, but at the same time, she remained baffled as to what was going on as Vinson let her into the room.

"There's going to be a heavy weapons team just the other side of this door," Vinson informed her. "Not that I expect you to pull anything, but for form's sake, I have to tell you it'll be a very big mistake if you do."

Then he was gone, and for a few moments, the prisoner was alone - until the door at the far end of the room opened and another person entered. This was a tall, ruggedly built man dressed like the popular conception of a police detective - blue suit, blue trenchcoat, fedora. The only really remarkable thing about him was that he had no face.

"Prisoner number 10-293," he said in a quiet voice. "Zira Cho-Zar. Nineteen Standard years old. Neo-Kryptonian citizen, former member of the New Krypton National Police. Please sit down."

Zira sat. "You're The Question," she said. "I saw your picture in a briefing file before we came to New Avalon."

The Question sat down at the opposite end of the table and inclined his head. "I am," he acknowledged. Reaching into his inside coat pocket, he produced a small holographic PDA and thumbed it to life, pulling up a copy of Zira's file. "You were convicted in New Avalon Superior Court on May 3 of... let's see. Assault on an International Police officer... criminal mischief, to wit: throwing a bus through the front doors of the Neo-Kryptonian embassy on April 26... destruction of city property, to wit: the aforementioned bus; conspiracy to abduct a Zetan citizen; and reckless flying within the city's aerospace control zone." The Question chuckled. "Nice touch. That's how you know the prosecutor's really out to get you."

"They threw the book at all of us," Zira replied.

"Mm, yes." The Question put away the PDA, steepled his gloved hands in front of him, and regarded her for a long moment with his eerily blank face. "I came here to ask you something."

Well, that's apropos, thought Zira irreverently, but what she said out loud was, "Go ahead."

"Alone among the members of General Zod's strike force, you offered no defense," The Question observed. "You didn't try to involve anyone from the Neo-Kryptonian government; you didn't claim, as some of your fellows did, that you were only following the general's orders; you didn't even hire a lawyer. You pleaded guilty to all the charges laid against you and accepted a five-to-ten-year sentence without demur." The Question folded his hands on the table in front of him. "Why?"

Zira blinked. "Why?"

The Question nodded. "None of the others accepted any responsibility for their actions that day. What makes you different?"

"I'm not really sure," said Zira after a while. "I think part of it was just that I got beaten. I was trained to believe that that could never happen, and... it did."

"Damaging the central theme of General Zod's indoctrination: the invincibility of the Kryptonian," The Question mused.

"Something like that. I didn't think of it in those terms at the time, but yeah... if he was wrong about that, what else might he be wrong about? And then there was the news report about the general's fight with Kara Zor-El and your chief. I mean... I knew he could be cruel. You can't be in General Zod's position without having that element of ruthlessness in you somewhere. But watching the footage of that fight... realizing that she wasn't any kind of credible threat, that the general just wanted to kill her because, well, he wanted to... " Zira shook her head. "That was a shock. And from there, it was easy to follow the chain of logic and realize that he must have been responsible for what happened to Science Councilor Jor-El and his wife...

"You have to understand, Zod was more than just a leader to us. He represented... " She sighed. "I'm not sure I can make you understand. You're not Kryptonian. Imagine if there were a common environment that would give you the kind of power we have in an Earthlike place. Imagine if someone told you that the only reason you didn't have that power was because of fearful politicians and manipulative aliens. Do you think that might make you angry?"

"It might," The Question allowed, but then he immediately followed it with, "If I were so hopelessly naïve as to believe that in the first place."

Zira didn't rile, if he'd been expecting her to. "But that's just it," she said. "I was hopelessly naïve. I understand now that the general only recruited two kinds of people. Those he had some kind of personal hold over, like Ursa and Non... and impressionable idiots like Faora and me."

"The kind of power he preached the use of can be very seductive," The Question noted.

Zira nodded. "He really made us believe that we had this power for a reason... that our people were destined to rule the stars, and that he was the best chance to make that happen."

The Question's voice was completely impassive as he said, "The master race."


"And now?"

Zira shrugged slightly. "Not so much. I still think we have the power we have for a reason, but... I think Zod was wrong about what that reason is." She looked ruefully around the room. "Not that my life choices to date have left me in a position to do anything useful with this newfound wisdom, but... " She trailed off and looked across the table, managing to ask with a straight face, "Does that answer your question?"

The Question regarded her with his unnervingly blank visage for a few moments. Then he rose to his feet and said abruptly, "Yes. Come with me."

"I can't," Zira replied, looking at him strangely. "I'm a prisoner. It'll be at least three years before I'm even up for parole."

"Before I came here, I met with Judge Kemp," The Question told her. "We had a long conversation about... potential." Putting his hands in his coat pockets, he went on flatly, "You have it. Your former colleagues don't. I don't believe in wasting it. Neither does the judge. Come and work for me, and your sentence will be commuted to time served for as long as you do."

Zira blinked, then looked slightly skeptical and asked, "Work for you doing what, exactly?"

With complete impassivity, The Question replied, "Whatever I ask."

"Trade blind loyalty to one man for blind loyalty to another?" Zira's look of skepticism deepened. "Even from a Lensman, that's a strange proposition for someone in my position."

"If you decide you've made a bad bargain, you can always come back here and finish serving your sentence the old-fashioned way," The Question pointed out; then, removing his hands from his pockets, he spread them and added with just a hint of wryness, "My way will almost certainly be more interesting, but I can see why you'd be hesitant to give up all this."

Zira looked around the shabby interrogation room and had to admit he had a point.

"Okay," she said, smiling. "I'm in."

"Proposition" - A Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Note to the reader: please check the datestamps carefully; this actually takes place in 2411, a year after the CSI stories available at time of posting.

Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it by the handle of anxiety, or by the handle of faith. ~Author Unknown

MARCH 16, 2411

Sister Destiny was quietly reading in the living room when she heard the clicking of the lock. As she and her roommate Konoko were both home, and Destiny was awake, the alarm wasn't set. (As long as Destiny was awake, she reasoned, why bother possibly waking Konoko?)

The door opened, and the man who entered looked into the barrels of the twin pistols aimed at him.

"My name is the one on the lease," Geoff Depew said tiredly. "Which means I'm responsible for bloodstains if you shoot me."

Sister Destiny holstered her pistols. "Perhaps if you'd let us know you were coming?"

"Eeh. Tramp freighter from Deneb, in hyperspace, with a crew that was fond of Sirian opera. And they told me their hyperdrive was faster than it actually WAS. I'm lucky I got here before next week." He dropped his duffle bag to the side of the door, then regarded her. "You're looking well."

"So are you," she said, "but I hadn't expected to see you for a couple of years."

"There's a story there..."

MARCH 17, 2411

He was repeating the story in the office of the Chief of the International Police.

"I was back on Barsaan for a month, and everything was going fine. I was back into the swing of things, Brother Partridge had decided my, uh, independent work had made me eligible for promotion. It was all going really well, but then I realized something. I thought I'd hidden it, but Brother Ghost... well, he's Ghost.

"I hadn't lost my faith, but I didn't feel the calling. I didn't even know if I ever actually DID, or just fooled myself into thinking it was my path to finding a way clean. And I didn't know if I could go on without feeling the call, or if it was betraying the first people to completely believe in my ability to redeem myself.

"Brother Ghost called me into his private chambers, and engaged me in an argument, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. And let me tell you, Brother Ghost argues like a Minbari philosopher who's spent time studying the spiritualism of the t'skrang."

Gryphon had an expression on his face that mixed bemused, amused, and sympathetic.

"When it was over, we went to see Brother Partridge and Father Talesio - well, he did, I sat in the office and when it was over they called me in."

"So, after all this time, you've wasted ours," Brother Partridge said acidly. "The teachings of the Order, and loyalty to it, are not just things you can pick up and put down!"

"Brother Partridge," Father Talesio said quietly, but with force behind it, "please cease. A crisis of faith is not to be taken lightly." The Master-at-Arms stilled himself, but his eyes remained dark and angry.

"I beg your pardon, Father," Geoff said, "but my faith remains strong. What is - was - weak is my sense of being called. I came here to find redemption, I left because it wasn't something you thought I could find here. I returned to finish my training, but if I doubt my calling, as Brother Ghost noticed and counseled me on, then is it fair to the Order for me to remain when another can take my place?" He bowed his head. "I apologize if I speak out of turn, Abbot, but my loyalty and faith remain strong. I just don't think I feel the call to vocation. I wanted to so badly I may have deluded myself."

"Father," Ghost said mildly, "I have a solution. It is one not used in centuries, but I think it may fit our situation. I propose he be formally granted lay brotherhood."

Partridge's face shifted from angry to thoughtful. "It would solve many problems for him and for us. Still, there's one question to be answered before I think about this proceeding. Brother Geoffrey," he said, his voice snapping with the authority of the armsmaster, "What will you do, should we allow you go into the world as a lay brother?"

"Begging your pardon, Master Partridge," Geoff said, snapping himself into training mode, "should this be allowed, I will return to New Avalon and offer my services to the International Police. I have served them well, I believe, and I think they will take me back. They are good and honorable people, and they will guide me. My first loyalty will be to the Order and its teachings and goals, but the International Police is good and just."

Brother Errol Partridge relaxed, even smiling a little bit. "Then I agree with Brother Ghost's plan."

"And now I'm back. And as the saying goes, if you have need of me, I have need of work. I've learned a few tricks, and I'm ready to go to work as soon as you want."

Gryphon leaned back, quietly, and then smiled.

"The fact your instincts were to come back makes me proud." He reached over to tap his intercom - a show, what with he and his yeoman both having Lenses. "Lu, would you-"

"Permits, ID card, all ready for when he comes out of your office."

"Lu, what if I told you he wasn't coming back to the IPO?"

"I have Jim Brass on speed-dial."

"Ah. Carry on, then." He clicked it off. "Well! Looks like my office is too efficient. I'll have to get her drunk and see what happens. What's your plan?"

"Well, assuming you don't have something for me right now, I thought about heading back to Tomodachi on the 4 o'clock metashuttle. Konoko was talking about hitting some St. Patrick's Day parties, and asked Destiny and I to come along to, and I quote, 'pour her into bed when we get home.'"

"Bah," Gryphon said, waving his hand. "Go get some lunch, then head down to the stargate. I'll authorize it."

"Isn't that ridiculously expensive for one person?"

"Costs a lot to build it, not to use it. Besides! It's my money."

"Objection withdrawn, Chief."

Gryphon laughed. "What will it take for you to call me Gryphon?"

Geoff pondered a moment. "Probably a Lens. But I don't think I'm there yet."

They shook hands, and Geoff left the office.

"Closer than you might think," Gryphon mused, then went back to paperwork.

As Geoff left the building to head to the Entire State Building's Marché, he picked up two shadows, each moving from one side of the building's entrance. One of them was short, wore a leather jacket, and held in his mouth a cheroot of abnormal stench. The other was tall, broad, wearing a light jacket and jeans.

As they moved into place on either side of him, Geoff glanced at Logan, then at Pete Rasputin.

"Lunch on me?"

The shorter man grinned, and took the cigar out of his mouth.

"Welcome back, kid."

"Handle of Faith" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Geoff Depew
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

December 27, 2411
11:22 AM

It was, Geoff Depew considered, a terrible way to spend a birthday.

Most people would agree with him: being six hundred and fifty feet above the Avenue Queen Shiva and accelerating couldn't be a good time, and promised to only get worse at thirty feet per second, squared. Time seemed to stretch for a moment as he considered his options. Canon: on the blimp he'd just fallen off of. Stormwind: pinned in its holster by the knife stuck into his side. Arm grapple: broken in a block.

Yeah, this was going to be some day.

About thirty feet later he curled up and started to rotate slowly. about a third of the way in, he pulled the trigger on Stormwind; the custom automatic fired a single shot through his coat and the meat of his left thigh. The recoil was just barely enough to shove him towards a building.

The next part was going to take some doing. He uncurled and spread arms and legs to get a little braking in, his coat flapping in the updraft. Geoff had about a second to spare before his hands hit the klaster of the building, three hundred twenty five feet up. For just a moment, he touched, and then the rest of him slammed into the window. It spider-marked, but didn't break.

With this done, he continued to fall; a little more slowly, but not quite enough. He spared a half-second to glance down, and then shifted to the right, just in time for his armpit (instead of his groin) to catch on an flagpole. It remained stable as his arm was flung up, partially dislocated.

He stifled the desire to scream in pain, and continued to fall, sliding down the side of the building. His coat no longer had buttons, and the lapels were about to catch fire, and his shirt was looking pretty ratty, but he had a hundred feet to go and might just live through this.

Geoff gave up some deceleration friction just long enough to slide his left arm out of the coat, using it to wrap around a second flagpole. The pain in the right shoulder was even more excruciating than the left, as it completely dislocated.

Half-blind with pain, he barely controlled the rest of his fall; an awning, and then, finally, the street. He didn't feel anything else break as he hit. He opened his eyes and watched the small airship that had held a Big Fire special agent - the bastard hadn't even introduced himself! - start to drop out of the air towards Lake Daniels. He smiled, and let himself pass out.

The next people Geoff Depew saw were people he expected to see: BJ Hunnicutt, the Chief, and Paige 'Spitfire' Guthrie. The last he expected because her face was the last one he saw before falling out - entering the windscreen at a pretty solid clip.

"I am SO sorry about that, Agent Depew. I just didn't see you go out the door!"

"I lived through it, Agent Guthrie." He turned to look at BJ. "The usual?"

BJ nodded, with a grin. "The usual."

Geoff nodded, and looked at the Chief, who was remarkably cheerful. "One hundred kilos of V-9 taken off the streets. Nice work."

"Eh," Geoff replied. "I just kind of fell into the situation."

"Dropping Out"- a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Geoff Depew
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

I'm a pretty easygoing robot. I've learned to take life as it comes and not get too worked up about things. I don't take the vicissitudes of fate personally and it takes a lot to get me really annoyed. That said, there are a few things that would really get up my nose if I had one. Being targeted for assassination is one of them. I mean, how evil is that? Someone deliberately setting out to ruin my day and make it my last. What kind of bastard wants someone's last day to be a bad one?

Saturday, September 19, 2409
Nekomikoka, Tomodachi

Things were fairly quiet in downtown Nekomikoka for a Saturday afternoon. There were the usual cut-and-thrust traffic and the usual throngs of pedestrians, but both moved briskly along, as was the custom in this businesslike metropolis. This was a place with too much to do to waste time in traffic jams.

One particular point of pride for the city's citizens was that the good people of Nekomikoka were also too busy to go around panicking whenever anything went wrong. Take this afternoon, for example. Plenty of people heard the crash, looked up, and saw the object come flying out of an upper floor of the Fujiwara Building in a cloud of shattered glass. An elementary understanding of physics and gravity made it clear to anyone who saw that said object would plummet along a parabolic arc and hit the middle of the street. But was there screaming and running around? No there was not. Everybody just got out of the way and watched it make a crater.

A few seconds after the crash, a figure clambered out of the crater, wobbled slightly on its edge, and then stepped out of the cloud of dust surrounding it, shaking his head woozily. Some of the onlookers didn't know quite what to make of him. He was a robot, or possibly a man in armor, covered head to toe in heavy-looking dull grey armor plate. His head (helmet?) was a sleek Machine Deco shape, like an old-fashioned radio, with two large, round, glowing blue optics and no other facial features. Curiously, he was wearing clothes over his armor plate - khaki shirt, battle fatigue pants, old-fashioned combat boots, the shirt and trousers now dusty and torn - and over that, a gunbelt and webbing harness festooned with pockets and gear pouches.

"Aaaaa!" cried the leader of a small gaggle of schoolgirls who had been window shopping outside the electronics shops in the Fujiwara's ground floor. Pointing, she raised a camera and added, "Atomiku Robo!"

Her comrades followed suit with their cameras, waving and squealing. Atomic Robo waved to them in obvious puzzlement, gave his head another bleary shake, and then looked up in the direction he'd come. His boots crunched on shards of broken glass as he turned to take stock of his situation; then he put up a hand and yelled,


The nearest passing cab, a bright yellow Sunrise G-Type, drew up alongside, rear door opening, and Robo unhesitatingly piled in.

"Get me outta here!" he declared.

The driver, a young woman with neatly bobbed auburn hair and a perfectly pressed black cabbie's uniform, hit the button to close the rear door behind him, regarded him for a moment in the rearview mirror with very dark eyes, and then asked calmly,

"Where to?"

"Doesn't matter," Robo replied. "I've just got to get away from here before it comes down after me. There are too many people around here, somebody would get hurt. Just drive!"

The driver gazed unblinkingly at him in the mirror for a moment, then switched on the meter, put the Sunrise in gear, and accelerated smoothly away from the crater and the gathering crowd.

With a moment to reflect and regroup, Robo looked around and, for the first time, realized that the cab he'd entered really was a late-model Sunrise G-Type limousine, not at all your usual sort of hack. The back seat was vast and comfy, the usual leg-room-stealing divider between front and back wasn't there, and the whole interior was spotlessly clean, gleaming in well-tended black leather, sleek chrome, and deep-pile carpets.

"Say," he said. "This is a nice cab."

"Thank you," the driver replied. "You're Atomic Robo, aren't you?"

"That's me."

"It's nice to finally meet you. I'm Dorothy Wayneright. I think our former masters know each other."

Robo blinked, then looked at the framed hack license attached to the back of the front seat. Yup, there it was, in big bold type. Your driver is: R. DOROTHY WAYNERIGHT.

"What brings you to Tomodachi?" Dorothy inquired. She took a right, hand-over-hand, getting the Sunrise's tail out just a touch with a precisely applied measure of throttle. "More importantly, what's chasing you?"

"My archfoe," Robo replied. "Well, one of my several archfoes," he added, a touch ruefully. "I thought I had a chance to finally capture the damn thing, but it turns out it was a trap. I figured it might be, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. You play drums in the Art of Noise, don't you?"


"So that'd make your ex-master... who, Corwin Ravenhair? Yeah, Mr. Tesla knows him. Knows his mom better, though."

"Really," said Dorothy, deadpan.

If Robo's face could've gone pink, it would have. "Uh... not like that. I don't think, anyway. I'm not sure Mr. Tesla, er... "

I don't know why Mr. Tesla programmed me to appreciate human female beauty. I don't really know how Mr. Tesla programmed me to appreciate human female beauty, since it's a subject about which he himself knows next to nothing, as far as I've ever been able to tell. But he did, and now I was finding this girl's black eyes really distracting every time she glanced at me in the rearview mirror. It didn't help any knowing that she wasn't really a human woman, but in fact a robot like me. If anything, that might've made it worse.

Dorothy smiled slightly and let the matter drop. "I'm taking you out to Beiwiru," she said. "It's less crowded, and there might be backup available." She touched one of the keys surrounding the multifunction display in the middle of the dash, changing the outside of the car from taxicab yellow to black.

"So, uh... " Robo looked around a little, trying to think of a good way of raising the subject, and then just shrugged internally and went for the blunt approach: "How come you're driving a cab?"

Dorothy glanced at him again, then returned her eyes to the road as she slithered the G-Type around a tour bus bound for Ninja World and accelerated up the on-ramp to the Beiwiru Bypass.

"The pay's decent for a weekend job," she said. "Mostly, though, it's because you meet all kinds of interesting people. For the last few years I've been trying to be a more social creature."

"You seem to be doing pretty well with that. I caught the show from Kane's World on TV last month."

Unlike Robo's, Dorothy's face could, and now did, go slightly pink. "That was a special occasion," she said, "but - "

She was cut off by a sudden rending crash, as from out of nowhere something struck the back of the car a tremendous blow. As the G-Type was flung end-over-end into the air, Atomic Robo realized that the impact came from underneath the car, as if they'd driven over a land mine and it hadn't gone off until the rear axle was passing over. He looked out the window and felt a sort of abstract wonder as one of the rear wheels bounced away on a tangential course, then vanished over the edge of the freeway.

A moment later, the tumbling wreckage of the G-Type followed it, bouncing over the guard rail and plunging into the light industrial district below. It hit the corner of a roof, which translated its end-over-end plunge into a violent roll, then fell into the street, rolled across, and came to rest on its side against the front of a small factory.

Robo kicked out the remains of the rear window, climbed out onto the near-vertical decklid, fell to the street, and then clambered to his feet. The crackling and tinkling sounds of the wrecked G-Type settling came to him in a sort of tinny mono as his audio systems restarted. He turned to see about his driver.

"Miss Wayneright?" he asked in a much louder voice than he really intended. "Dorothy?"

Before he could work out his best course for rescue, the upturned front passenger door burst open as if hit by a battering ram, revealing one small black-gloved fist. A moment later the fist was withdrawn, after which R. Dorothy Wayneright sprang straight up out of the car, turning a neat forward somersault at apogee and landing on her feet next to him.

"That was impressive," Dorothy remarked dryly.

"Have to admit I wasn't expecting that," Robo conceded. "Sorry about your car."

"I can fix it," she replied. "Would you care to elaborate on what happened to it?"

"Well," Robo began, but he was interrupted by the high-pitched whine of jets, and his shoulders slumped slightly in resignation. "You're about to see for yourself," he said as his archfoe dropped out of the sky to land in the street in front of them.

Over the years I've made a few enemies. I'm not proud of it, but in my line of work it's pretty much unavoidable. The creature before us now, though, has the interesting distinction of having been bent on my destruction since before I came online. See, Mr. Tesla started designing me in 1922, but he didn't have the money (or the materials science - it was 1922, after all) to actually build me.

But that didn't stop his archfoe from hearing about it and planning a machine of his own. A machine packed with all the twisted science its cruel, demented creator could stuff into it. A machine with no conscience, no remorse, and no pity. A machine with only one purpose burned into its (patent-infringing) automatic consciousness: to destroy Nikola Tesla's Atomic Robot.

By the time Mr. Tesla returned from Valhalla and completed my construction in 2393, it had waited 470 years for a chance to fulfill its directive. (Four hundred seventy years in a secret bunker in New Jersey. I'd probably be pretty pissed off too.) Since that time, it had tried to kill me at least a dozen times, and though it had always failed, it got meaner and tougher each time I defeated it, and it always, always came back.

It was my nemesis in the strictest sense of the word, constructed to counter my capabilities, learn from my behavior, and never let anything stand in its way. Not a freeway deck in Nekomikoka. Not the lives of innocent bystanders. Not even a really cute cabdriver.

The hulking machine before them was vaguely humanoid, in that it had two arms and two legs arranged in the usual way around a central torso, but that torso was enormous and roughly the same shape as an astromech droid - really nothing but a cylinder with a domed top. The whole assemblage stood about 15 feet tall. Its arms and legs were elaborately jointed, the arms with huge pneumatic rams and fists cast as solid blocks of metal, and it looked to be banded and plated in a combination of pig iron and bronze. The top third or so of the central body, including the domed top, looked to be made of some glass-like material, glowing faintly with an eerie green light, but nothing could be seen within it but a few vaguely shifting dark shapes within a swirling cloud of green... mist? Smoke? Maybe a milky liquid? It was hard to tell.

"What," Dorothy inquired, "is that."

"That's the one and only Model 1931 Automatic Public Protector," Robo told her. "That's what the guy who built it wanted to call it, anyway. He always had an eye for good PR strategy. The rest of us just call it the Edisonoid."

"What was it supposed to protect the public from?" Dorothy wondered.

"Me," Robo replied. "You better get out of here."

Dorothy shook her head. "I can't do that."

"Listen," said Robo, his eyes on the Edisonoid as it stalked toward him, its footsteps leaving small craters in the street. "This thing has nothing in its tiny mind but my destruction. It doesn't care what happens to anyone else. You get in its way, even by mistake, and it will kill you. Now scram!"

He had no more time to address the matter; as he was saying the last part, the Edisonoid struck, lunging forward with one of its air-ram fists. Atomic Robo threw himself out of its path just in time, tumbling aside as the punch took out what part of the factory's façade the G-Type hadn't.

"You know what your problem is, Eddie?" he asked as the Edisonoid wrenched its fist from the rubble and turned to come after him again. "After all your upgrades, you're still too slow." He avoided another punch, springing backward into the street and giving himself more room to maneuver, and continued, "I bet you're pretty frustrated that Edison couldn't give you any real weapons without compromising his image. I mean, he could hardly claim that he'd never built a weapon, and that you were only intended to protect the public, if he'd given you a missile launcher or something."

Removing a few small items from the pouches around his belt, Robo started assembling a modular pulse detonator, staying out of the Edisonoid's range and keeping up his patter at the same time. He didn't think the thing really had a personality, as such, and so it was more for his benefit than its, but what the hell, a little outfield chatter never hurt anyone.

"Failing that, though, you have to catch me to do any serious harm. And what are the odds of that when you clank around like a boiler on stilts?"

Boiler on stilts or no, Robo knew the next part was going to be hard enough. He had to get in close enough to stick the PD on the Edisonoid's back, within four inches of its master energy junction, without getting his head punched off at the same time. He'd done it before, but it wasn't the kind of thing he considered a routine maneuver.

Wish Jenkins was here, he thought. We could do the old alley-oop with this and -

"Whoa!" he yelled as a panel popped open on the front of the Edisonoid's body and a segmented alloy tentacle shot out from behind it, whipped through the air, and wrapped around his waist. Without hesitation, the Edisonoid used this new hold to yank Robo into the air, then start smashing him against anything nearby. To his credit, Robo managed to hang onto his pulse detonator until the Edisonoid took out the mailbox with him, which was the third or fourth solid hit he took.

Okay, that's a new trick. I guess Eddie's automatic intelligence really is adaptable. I didn't know the same was true of its superstructure. Worse, it didn't take it too long to figure out that just bashing me against random nearby objects, all of which weren't as hard as my armor, wasn't going to do me any real harm. Now I really wished Jenkins was there.

"Oh, crap," Robo observed as the Edisonoid started retracting the tentacle, dragging him toward the range of its crushing fists. He managed to roll to his feet, facing his nemesis, and dug his heels into the ground, hands scrambling for purchase on the smooth alloy surface of the tentacle. Pavement cracked and blistered beneath his bootsoles as the monstrous machine dragged him slowly, inexorably toward its cocked and waiting fist.

Just before it would have fired that fist into Robo's face, something happened that wasn't in any of the Edisonoid's calculations. A tiny dark shape, too small for its optics to make out, dropped out of the sky between the two struggling automatons and, with a crash and a fireburst of sparks, severed the tentacle. The Edisonoid reeled backward, retracting the sparking stump into its compartment; Robo, still pushing with all his strength to avoid being pulled in, was flung across the street and came to rest against the base of a lamppost.

The Edisonoid regained its balance and took stock of the interloper. If it had been capable of surprise, it might have felt some at the realization that the figure in the middle of the street, a small-framed humanoid woman in a dark double-breasted chauffeur jacket, dressy pants, and low-heeled shoes, had just demonstrated the kind of strength necessary to sever its grappling tentacle with a single blow.

It wasn't, though, so it just registered her as a new threat and charged, fists primed for damage.

Atomic Robo hauled himself to his feet, shaking his head, to see R. Dorothy meet the Edisonoid's charge. From the way she carried herself and the way she held her black-gloved hands, it was clear that she'd had some form of martial-arts training, and her reaction speed was faster than his own, let alone the Edisonoid's. She avoided its air-driven punch as if it were standing still, then dealt it a deceptively powerful punch to the middle of its body that sent it skidding back, rivet-treaded feet screeching against tarmac, and dented the bronze-colored body panel next to the hatch where the tentacle had come out.

Say, thought Robo, she's fast enough...

He trotted across the street, scooped up the fallen pulse detonator in his left hand, and drew his sidearm with his right. The handgun wasn't anywhere near powerful enough to defeat the Edisonoid's heavy armor, but he could get its attention, anyway.

"That's right, Eddie, remember me? Your prime directive? Try to stay focused, now!" he called as the Edisonoid pivoted its bulk and started stomping toward him again. When Dorothy glanced at him, he held up the PD, then threw it to her, shouting, "Catch!"

She caught it easily, then gave it and Robo questioning looks in sequence as he started backpedaling and fending off a series of wild swings from the Edisonoid's pneumatic fists.

"On its back!" Robo yelled. "Where the pipes - argh!"

The "argh" was occasioned by a glancing blow that, while it didn't strike him with anything like full power, was enough to stun the Teslatronic robot for a few seconds, hurl him fifty feet up the street, and, most disastrously, embed him a foot deep in the pavement, where he'd be an easy target for a follow-up attack. Dorothy scanned the back of the Edisonoid, saw a point where what looked like conduits emerged from, crossed on the outside of, and returned into the main body, and decided that must be what he meant. Launching herself in a flat-out run, she caught up with the distracted destroyer, jumped into the air, slapped the detonator onto the metal just above the crossed pipes, kicked lightly off the top of the dome, twisted in midair, and landed with one foot on either side of Robo's crater, prepared to meet the Edisonoid's charge head-on.

Pulling himself together, Robo reached to his belt, hoping the transmitter hadn't been wrecked, and pressed a key. For a second, nothing happened; then the Edisonoid stiffened, blue-white lightning playing over all its surfaces. Its charge slowed, slowed, and then stopped, like a wind-up toy running down, until it loomed over Dorothy and Atomic Robo with its right fist drawn back and just... stood there.

"Phew," said Robo, struggling to extricate himself from the street. "Glad that still works."

He accepted Dorothy's hand and was impressed by the effortless way she hauled him out of the street. "Thanks. And thanks for the save, too. I'm pretty sure I told you to run away," he added half-jokingly.

"I'm not very good at that," Dorothy said. "I think it comes of spending too much time with Captain Tenjou."

"Well, whatever the reason, I'm glad you didn't," Robo said. He stepped around her, looked over the Edisonoid, then struck a pose leaning against its arm and said wryly, "Maybe this time my guys can figure out a containment system that'll actually keep this thing locked - "

Which was as far as he got, because at that moment the Edisonoid's new automatic bypass relays cut in, at which point it came back to life and shrugged him off its arm like a man shooing a fly.

" - craaaap!" Robo yelled as, caught entirely off-guard, he hurtled across the street again and vanished in a cloud of fracturing brickwork.

The Edisonoid turned to pursue him, but Dorothy got in its way, batting aside its first attempt to swat her out of its path and giving it another solid body blow that made it check and reassess its situation.

Failing to think of anything cleverer, it launched another full-power punch at her head. This time, instead of avoiding it, Dorothy turned its power against its owner, catching the huge iron fist in a sort of amped-up version of one of the Kirishima Empty Hand punch blocks and then using the Edisonoid's own momentum to throw it up and over. It smashed down in the same crater Atomic Robo had recently vacated and, limbs flailing, tried without immediate success to get up.

Trailing wisps of waste steam from under the hem of her jacket, Dorothy went across the street and started pulling chunks of debris off the heap where Robo had disappeared. It was the work of only a few seconds to uncover his head.

"Robo? Are you all right?" she asked, starting to clear away the rubble from his body.

"No," Robo replied. "I can't feel my right leg below the knee. Either the sensor trunk is severed or - " Dorothy pulled his right boot from the rubble and held it up with a wry expression. " - yeah, or that. Crap."

Dorothy put his leg down, then turned to see the Edisonoid completing the struggle to its feet. Dusting off her hands, she climbed down the rubble heap and out onto the sidewalk.

"It's not after you," Robo pointed out. "If you don't get in its way, it'll leave you alone. Maybe I can - "

"Robo," said Dorothy flatly. "Relax." She turned to look back over her shoulder at him and added with a very faint smile, "I've got this."

As she walked slowly toward the regrouping Edisonoid, Robo hitched himself up on his elbows to watch.

She walked like a gunfighter in an old movie, unhurried, graceful, but with a strong sense of underlying purpose. It was a little bit mesmerising, but that might've been just a residual aftereffect of the shock to my neurosystems.

I thought she was going to charge Eddie, like she did the last time it tried a head-to-head attack, but she didn't. She just stood there, at the edge of the street, watching it get its act together. Then it started toward her, slowly at first, gathering more speed as it realized that she was between it and me again. Now she didn't seem like a gunfighter so much as a bullfighter, letting the bull come to her.

I paused my active thought processes for a moment to envision her in one of those bullfighter costumes. Nice.

And then...

Right, thought Dorothy as the Edisonoid began its charge. I am through fooling around with this thing.

Her new body, built by the Ishiyaman robotics expert Li Kohran, had many features that the old one had lacked. Its much-increased strength, reaction speed, and durability had already served her well in this fight, but the Edisonoid was incredibly strong and tough in its own right, and even with her speed advantage it would take her a long time to pound it into submission - if indeed she could.

Fortunately, thanks to Kohran's genius and the inspiration Dorothy's own ex-master's example had provided to the Salusian expat, Dorothy had other options here. Diverting power to a system she'd only tried in testing before, she felt her internal steam reactor kick up another notch, causing a brief, weird, but not unpleasant vibration in her superstructure. Facing down the onrushing Edisonoid, her feet solidly planted, she raised first one hand, then the other, balled her fists, and punched them together in front of her chest.

A brilliant white beam of light lanced out from the inlaid band high on her forehead, slashed off the Edisonoid's right leg at the hip joint, tracked a glowing scar up its frontal armor, and then crossed onto the green crystalline dome. This cracked with a sound like a cannon shot, releasing a gush of green smoke that completely obscured the charging mechanoid from view - and then, within that cloud, its main body exploded. The concussion raced up the street and smashed windows for a block around, made the tail of Dorothy's driving jacket snap like a flag in a stiff wind, and sent a small hailstorm of pebbles swirling through the wrecked building where Atomic Robo lay watching in gobsmacked astonishment.

Dorothy folded her arms across her chest and felt her steam pile's hammering beat, her mechanical equivalent of a pulse, slow back to its normal pace. On her back, just below her shoulder blades, two tapering sets of cunningly designed louvers opened in her synthetic skin and vented the excess steam outboard in an explosive rush, blowing past concealed baffles built into her jacket for just this purpose. The thick steam hid her from sight for a second before a breeze coming down the street blew it away.

Satisfied that the tangled wreckage of the Edisonoid wasn't going anywhere, she returned to the task of extracting Atomic Robo from his prison of rubble.

"That... was awesome," Robo said. "Assuming I can get my leg fixed in the next little while, are you doing anything tonight?"

"Atomic Robo Hails a Taxi" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to
Forum Mini-Stories Omnibus Volume 3
©2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories
Omnibus Edition Volume Three

Written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Janice Collier
Geoff Depew

With the gracious assistance of
Chad Collier
Philip J. Moyer
and all the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects

Compilation and prettification
Benjamin D. Hutchins

E P U (colour) 2009