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					Grace Under Fire
  (AKA: Book Two)
      By Erin Cassell
                                      1: Civilian Life
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



        “THEY DESERVE TO DIE, LONG AND SLOW!”
        “IT’S INHUMANE AND YOU KNOW IT!”
        Say what you want about crashing through reality, learning medicine under dragons, and
sharing the house with talking animals, a shapeshifter, two Dellan warriors, and an Earthling tee-
nager. Strange as these events were, none could compare to witnessing possibly the loudest,
most passionate argument that‟d taken place in the house. Yes, that‟s right, I didn‟t say partici-
pating, I said witnessing. Not for long, either: I was the first one out the door.
        Not that there was anything wrong with me. I still love shouting for no reason, really. I
just wasn‟t in the mood for it at that moment, that‟s all, and I had work to do. Couldn‟t let my-
self get caught up in the violence—there was enough of that outside. In fact, I got an example
five steps out the door, when a large maroon ape bared fangs at me for getting in its way and re-
fusing to be trampled like a decent person.
        Ah, yes. Treehouse traffic. Really, I should‟ve given up on quiet and safety the moment
I crashed down onto this overlap (dimension, for the less cultured) and found out trees were car-
nivorous. I wouldn‟t describe the morning bustle that hyperbolically, but it was still a hazard.
The dirt trail was cluttered with people coming and going, toting wares, selling them on the go,
chattering with others, all without any concept of the word „lanes‟ and at a speed that made inte-
grating with traffic a bit of a trick. No organization, no authority, and certainly no homogeneity.
Treehouse was beyond backwater; you ended up here only after slipping through the cracks of
reality and getting dumped through every other overlap on the way down. We did just that.
        Beating the traffic, I shoved and elbowed my way to the squat, fire-scarred tree that my
bosses lived in. Even from outside, I could smell the herbs, and the moment I walked through
the door, I went into a coughing fit.
        The red wyvern perched across the room gave me as amused a look as her reptilian face
would allow. “You didn‟t used to hack.” She remarked in Draconis. “Have you really been gone
that long?”
        “No, you just got some awful new air freshener that I‟m allergic to, despite having an
immune system that could probably handle a plague.”
        “Ah, sarcasm, so you‟re back to your old self again. I miss it being somewhere else.”
        My response was a grunt and shrug.
        “I don‟t speak Earthling.”
        I winced. “New habit, sorry.” Telepathic incident, actually. After spending five minutes
sharing my consciousness with a Vaygan thug, I‟d found myself developing a few, though this
one had developed late and still clung.
        Her upper lip curled. “Charming.”
        So was he. “Where‟s Scorch?” I inquired, listening for the telltale thumps and mutterings
of Flame‟s mate.
        “Busy on a hunting expedition. The old bruiser needed some vacation.” Flame respond-
ed, gliding to her favorite perch on my upper arm; I wore so many shirts that she didn‟t puncture
anything if she was careful. “He said he would be back, but until then, you‟re with me.”
        “So, I‟m back to work full-time?”
        Flame grinned at me through needle-sharp teeth. “And about time too. Recently you‟ve
spent more time in our ward as a patient than you did as a healer.”
        “Hey, I could‟ve been there much longer. Recovering from a fight with a sorcerer isn‟t
like pitching off a cold. Other people would‟ve been healing up those broken bones and getting
weaned off the jumper cables for months. I was only in there for a one.”
        “And a quarter. And the three and a half weeks recovering physical abilities.”
        “Hey, I‟m better now.”
        “And oh, how we celebrated! You‟re one of the worst patients I‟ve ever had.” An impa-
tient, Raige had argued. “It still wasn‟t fast enough; you‟d named those jumper cables by the
time I took them away from you. But that wasn‟t what I meant. I‟m talking about your… physi-
cal therapy.”
        I winced, rubbing my bruised shoulder in remembrance. “What Venna does to me is not
physical therapy. It‟s her excuse to beat me up in the name of tradition. Luckily for me, Bobcat
decided there were limits to his tolerance of native beliefs.”
        Venna and Mngleh had made less fuss than expected. They‟d found out what I‟d known
years ago: I wasn‟t unskilled; I was just plain bad. It‟d also helped that on the same day they‟d
discovered Raige was a pacifist on par with Gandhi‟s long lost white great-grandson.
        Now that was funny. You‟d think he‟d stabbed his mother in the back with a hatchet for
insurance money, the way Venna soliloquized. Oh, the disgrace! How could they, two Dellan
warriors, be living with some weak little creature for months without realizing this dastardly
flaw! How horrible, how disgusting, how immoral!
        To quote Raige: “I can‟t believe you came from the same planet they did.”
        Indeed.
        Anyway, they‟d tried to talk Raige out of his sinful nonviolent ways, but for once he‟d
been less than diplomatic in his refusal. Remember that blistering argument I left earlier? That
was their discussion of the death penalty. Not much will drive Raige up to voice-cracking pitch,
but Venna had achieved it.
        “Good for you.” Flame grinned at me. “Though if you ask me, it‟s better for everyone if
you can‟t win a fight.”
        I frowned. It wasn‟t that amusing. “Flame… what‟s the job you needed me for?”
        She only kept grinning. And on second thought, maybe I should‟ve stayed and watched
the War of the Worlds back at the house. It would‟ve been just as bloody and probably a heck of
a lot more entertaining to watch, because if she was grinning like that…
        I tilted my head back to the ceiling and closed my eyes. “No. Nooo.”
        “You‟ve finally developed your psychic skills? My congratulations!”
          “Don‟t you dare congratulate me, you sarcastic dinosaur! This isn‟t clairvoyance, this is
cynicism!” I snapped, clutching at my hair. Then I proceeded to beg and whine. “Come on,
Flame, you can‟t keep doing this to me, I don‟t like being up to my elbows in stomach con-
tents…”
          “Oh, you are good. But too late now, you‟re working full-time, remember? Now let‟s go
fetch the surgery gear.” As I dragged my feet to the storage room, she added, “One day, you will
need to operate on a humanoid abdominal cavity and not pass out, and you will thank me—thank
me—for all this practice the Guijja clan is so kindly giving you.”
          Sure.
                                                          
          I stormed out of the tree, cursing the Guijja clan‟s learning curve, their sensitive digestive
tracts, their disturbing human-like appearance, their ability to make me woozy despite how ag-
gravating they were, and most of all, their sibling love. Frogging little brothers asking when his
big sister—big houseplant sister—will be up to coming back home, completely throwing me off
and making me feel sympathy for the frogging things…
          The slick elbow-length gloves stuck to my skin, but I finally tore them off and flung them
to the dust with the end of my incoherent rant and with it, my energy. After this, all I wanted
was food, quiet, and sane company.
          Food I could do, and quiet would be possible, depending on whether that argument over
the death penalty had wound down yet. The sane company, on the other hand…
          Triggered by my dithyramb, a male form appeared out of the crowd in front of me.
“Babe!” He spread his arms like he hadn‟t seen me in years.
          “No fair!” I howled in response. Interpreting that as a polite greeting because he‟d been
around me for too long, Thomas moved to put his arm around me, only for me to dodge and
snarl, “Go away. Not now.”
          “What do you mean? Now is good, carpe diem, and all that crud.” He answered amiably,
grabbing my sleeve and dragging me through the crowd, which parted for him. Since I was still
a little light-headed after the surgery, his unexpected yank was strong enough to nearly make me
fall over. Once I‟d recovered my balance, he put his arm around me. He never had been one to
take subtle hints.
          My bad mood was getting worse by the second, and lately, my vocabulary had been ab-
andoning me in moments of frustration. So I just groaned, and Thomas understood.
          “What, and interrupt our bonding session?”
          “Bondage session. It‟s a frogging bondage session.”
          “Only if you want it.” He chortled, plucking between his fingers a tendril of my hair
that‟d worked its way out of the ponytail and been crusted over with something blue. “Oh, hey,
you‟re working full-time again, cool. Looks like it was a doozy. What‟s this, slime?”
          “Stomach contents.”
          “Why does your job always have squishy, disgusting stuff?”
          “Good question, Thomas, good question.” I said, pulling my hair out of his fingers and
shoving his arm off me, leaving a streak of blue that he wiped off on my back. “I need to ask
Flame that same thing, because this is just too regular for me to accept.”
          His lips twisted and he plucked a thread of black stuff from where it‟d taken residence on
my shoulder. “No wonder you‟re less cuddly than usual.” He said, flicking the substance off his
fingers.
          “Go bother somebody else before I bleed on you or something.”
        He shrugged. “I feel bad for you, really I do, but right now, you and Venna are the closest
thing to human girls around.”
        I gave him a look. “Raige is the closest thing to a human girl around.”
        That was undeniably true, both genetically and emotionally.
        “Teasing him is too easy, and he has enough trouble already.” Thomas said. “And Ven-
na‟s taken. I‟m not getting between her and Mngleh; I know when I‟m beat.”
         I growled in exasperation and went back to walking, hoping to just leave him behind.
With one quick stride, he caught up to me. Stupid older males and their longer legs.
        “Hey, come back! You gotta tell me what happened!”
        I scratched some blood on my sleeve. “Do you really want to know the specifics of my
work?”
        “Not that. The other thing.”
        “Enh?” Dang it, I was grunting again.
        “Come on, like you‟re not used to being covered in gross stuff—I‟m starting to think it‟s
a kink for you or something. You‟ve been acting even more PMS-y than usual since you got out
of the Paradox‟s ward, except its been weeks. So what‟s up?”
        “Isn‟t communication supposed to be a feminine trait?” I grumbled.
        “Sorry, I‟m secure.” Couldn‟t argue that. Thomas‟s confidence in his own masculinity
exceeded Arnold Schwarzenegger‟s. “Look, you‟re like my dad‟s ‟79 Chevy.” See what I mean?
“You need body work and a muffler and practically explode every time someone tries to turn you
on, but you usually work well enough if you‟re left alone.”
        “And I drink gasoline too. Wow!”
        “—But your transmission sucks. Sometimes you stick in the upper gears and need to
downshift before you blow out the engine.” He continued. “Like now. Someone has to believe in
„communicating,‟ since you think violence solves everything.”
        Darn, I‟d actually started to enjoy his version of symbolic monologue. “Hey, don‟t bad-
mouth violence. Violence solved Hitler. Violence solved the Depression.”
        “Violence solved Lincoln and Gandhi.”
        I hated it when he made sense. “Raige believes in communication. Go communicate with
him, have a communication-fest.”
        “Communicating with him is like communicating with a five-year-old!”
        “Where is that in comparison to the ‟79 Chevy?”
        “Below; at least the Chevy understood me. Raige thinks lube is for car engines.” He
shook his head. “I still can‟t get over that.”
        How did every conversation with Thomas, no matter how it started, end up in sexual ter-
ritory? Just a second ago, we were talking car engines.
        “Exactly why I shouldn‟t bother talking to you!” I shouted, throwing my arms out. “Your
answer to everything is „get laid‟!”
        He shrugged. “Hey, it works.”
        “Right.” I said. “You know you haven‟t gotten any since you got booted off Earth a year
and a half ago. No humanoid girls have turned up here, so…”
        At his burst of surprised laughter, I shuffled a step farther away. He stared at me in won-
der. “My god, you‟re as bad as he is, aren‟t you?”
        “I… what?” For a few seconds, I just stared at him blankly, which seemed to enhance his
amusement, but then my eyes widened. Before I could put my subconscious defenses to work
and happily suppress everything, Thomas performed some eyebrow acrobatics that put Groucho
Marx to shame.
         I did a full-body recoil. “Eeuuuh! You‟re… you‟re… unhygienic!”
         He blinked. “To be honest, I hoped for something a little better.”
         “So repulsive—but with disease, how did you—gah! No! Agh!” I clutched my head.
I‟d just had to think about it, hadn‟t I?
         “Whatever sinks your boat, babe.” Thomas soothed, enjoying my traumatized incohe-
rence. “I didn‟t say anything; you brought it on yourself.” When I continued to shake and gibber,
he said, “See? You‟re fun to torment.”
         Never had I been so happy to come to the huge tree that I called home. Thomas might
not leave or shut up, but at least he might show a hint of restraint in his conversation topics.
Since it would probably only make him want to stay longer, I decided not to bother trying to get
rid of him and hauled open the front door. That and the three deadbolts on the inside were recent
installments, thanks to Bobcat, our resident technological genius, and Venna and Mngleh, our
resident paranoids. The latter‟s insistence that we would get robbed/killed/dishonored had final-
ly driven Bobby to action. The door was heavy and stubborn as a rhino, but at least it shut them
up.
         The moment we walked in, a plate whizzed through the air a foot from our noses,
smashed into the wall, and shattered.
         “Well, dang.” I said, delighted to have something to occupy my mind with. “Guess the
death sentence argument got worse.”
         Thomas sent a skeptical look my way.
         “What? Don‟t tell me you don‟t remember the infamous Aqua Cheese War?”
         “Raige?” He said meaningfully.
         I thought for a second. “Right.” I agreed. “Too far-fetched.”
         It didn‟t take two brain cells to come up with the most likely suspect. “Aqua!”
         “It wasn‟t me.” The little blue shapeshifter called from across the hall, sounding a bit hurt
that we would accuse him so immediately. “It was Bogart!”
         Right on time, Bogart spoke from a room over at a booming roar about forty psychic de-
cibels higher than usual. It’s a piece of junk! Worthless junk! Pointless, stupid, useless
junk!
         This angry rant quickly became a repeating litany of near-religious passion. I waited
through a few repetitions until deciding it was relatively safe to speak.
         “Bad spell?”
         It’s junk! The toad declared, hopping into the room. He looked at Thomas and his face
knotted into an even larger glower than before. It’s you. His tone was identical to what he‟d said
about the spell. Wonderful. More junk.
         “Hey Bogart.” Thomas said, taking no notice of his welcome. “Have I told you how hap-
py your face makes me?”
         Yeah, yeah, every day. What are you doing here?
         “Giving the babe therapy.”
         Bogart raised a brow-ridge at me. Contorting my face into one of a nursery employee on
the verge of nervous breakdown, I spread my arms helplessly and rolled my eyes to the sky.
Acting on my behalf, he whipped his wand out of the air with dramatic flair and waved it as
though he planned to cast some gruesome spell. Seeing how his magic had been going recently,
more likely he was just planning to beat Thomas over the head with it. Out! Out! I’ll give her
therapy! You make her need it! He levitated up to Thomas‟s eye level to give the unfazed
teenager his most powerful weapon: the Bogart Deathstare. People have been known to cower
and whimper under its cranky power, which leaves mine choking in the dust.
        Thomas held his gleaming grin for a few seconds, but then it finally disappeared and he
rolled his eyes, unable to take my master‟s bad mood. Proof that despite his proclamations, he
wasn‟t superhuman. “But y‟all love me.” He protested.
        Bogart and I exchanged looks.
        I certainly don’t. Do you, apprentice?
        “No, can‟t say I do. Must‟ve missed that memo.”
        Well, I guess he’s of some value to somebody.
        Venna and Mngleh marched into the room toting some large haunch of meat, and Tho-
mas‟s grin reappeared.
        “Venna, baby! What‟s up?” Thomas said, spreading his arms as though he expected her
to run into them. He knew full well how Dellans weren‟t as touchy-feely as Earthlings, but he
didn‟t seem to expect her to follow that rule any more than he expected me to.
        Bogart grimaced. Never mind. We couldn’t sell him on E-bay.
        Since Venna was far older than Thomas in every way but physically, she wouldn‟t allow
herself the luxury of losing her dignity to him or touching him. After a few seconds, she decided
his behavior was another one of those many quaint, incomprehensible Earthling things, like so-
cialism, neon lights, and the tango.
        “As long as you stand over there and don‟t touch anything, you can stay.” She replied in
Dellan, though Thomas didn‟t understand it. She‟d force-fed herself some simple English from
my mind, but only emergency phrases like, “House on fire!” “Where is n_____?” “I don‟t speak
English,” and, most importantly, “No.” (“Yes,” was not necessary.) She still preferred her native
tongue, leaving me to translate unless circumstances demanded it. Her telepathy was strong
enough to communicate on her own, but for some strange reason she didn‟t like entering Tho-
mas‟s mind.
        She gave my bloody body a disinterested glance. “Oh, so you‟ve gone back to work.”
        “Uh huh.” I tossed her the bag of beads I‟d earned from the surgery and gesturing for
Mngleh to share some of the meat. Using his bare hands, he tore off a chunk, sending fluids
dripping down his wrists. I averted my gaze. Sometimes, being at home was much like being at
work.
        “Is that enough?” Venna asked, though her back was to the both of us. For reasons of his
own, Mngleh didn‟t like conversation, so his other half did the talking. Their psychic bond was
so thick that it didn‟t strike them as odd, and it didn‟t to the rest of us either anymore.
        “Yeah, thanks.” I took a bite and grimaced. What was it with them and near-raw meat?
They were going to kill one of us someday and blame it on our puny non-warrior stomachs.
“And just so you know, Thomas‟s trying to hit on you again.”
        “Tell him he wouldn‟t know what to do with me.”
        “No, he‟s hard enough to bear as it is.”
        “Fine. Tell him something that‟ll make him go away and make it convincing this time.”
        Oh, so she wanted convincing, did she? All right then, I‟d give convincing. “She says
Mngleh‟s better endowed.” I obliged around my mouthful.
        I‟d expected Thomas to perform wounded innocence, but he was constantly thinking up
new ways to scar my mind. With a lazy smile, he leaned back and purred in a voice of velvet
testosterone, “Hey now, don‟t count me out right off the bat. Everything‟s bigger in Texas, ba-
by.” He snapped his waistband with a wink.
         Venna could work that answer out herself; I was busy keeping my nose from bleeding.
“Why are you here again?”
         Bouncing out of his disturbing porn-star posturing, Thomas spread his hands. “What‟d I
tell ya? Fun to torment!”
         Bogart lost patience. All right, that’s it. I tried to be patient, but you crossed the
line when you corrupted my poor apprentice’s mind.
         He gave me a look that needed neither words nor translation, and because I‟m a nice, ob-
edient little apprentice, I put both hands to the sides of my head and whimpered, “My mind. My
precious innocent mind. Sullied. Sullied forever.” I broke into a theatric sob.
         I don‟t think anyone, least of all Bogart, believed me. They probably wouldn‟t have even
if I‟d been making the effort not to act like a ham.
         Probably just as desperate as my master was to remove Thomas, Mngleh came forward.
His body language wasn‟t aggressive, but it didn‟t need to be. Since he wasn‟t suicidal, Thomas
immediately left, though he did it with a swagger and a slow enough pace to make it seem like
his departure was his own idea. I made a mental note to thank Venna and Mngleh profusely for
saving me from Thomas‟s warped idea of mental therapy.
         Bogart sighed in relief and examined the broken plate. At least this one didn’t blow up.
He didn‟t seem too pleased about the improvement, which didn‟t surprise me a bit. With a twirl
of his wand, the plate pieced itself together, albeit not quite perfectly. I could see weld marks
where the shards had glued together.
         You see, while I‟d been busy rotting in the Paradox‟s emergency ward and trying to zap
flies on the wall with my fingertip, Bogart had started practicing his magic again. When I‟d first
become his apprentice, it‟d take threat of death to convince him to use his powers. However,
that fight with Mr. Rawls had made him realize how out of practice he‟d become. The sorcerer
had knocked him out in seconds before my master had even finished pulling up his wards. Dis-
graced that he‟d been so easily overpowered, Bogart had taken upon himself the task to bring his
magic up to par again. This meant that many incidents like the flying plate occurred and that my
master was almost constantly sore, or constipated, or nauseous, or somehow in physical discom-
fort. This made him even more irritable than usual. Sometimes I wondered why he‟d ever be-
come a wizard in the first place, since magic affected him so adversely.
         “You can‟t expect it to suddenly be good as new in just a few weeks.” I told him.
         He jabbed his wand at my nose. You’re hardly the person to preach patience to me.
         True enough. “Says the master who tells me over and over the virtue of practicing.”
         He had no answer for that.
         “Where‟s Bobby?” I asked.
         Even though he was across the house, my kitty heard me. Group telepathy is useful that
way. The south side. I’m attempting to install a back door.
         “Venna and Mngleh again?”
         “It‟s for your own good!” Venna snapped.
         Bobcat avoided a direct response. I require some assistance. Physical power, if you
please.
         I automatically looked to Mngleh, who handled about three-fourths of the muscle work
around the house. As a way of explanation, he held up the meat in one hand and his sword in the
other.
         “We‟re making dinner.” Venna said with a sour expression, her shoulders slumping a
millimeter. She knew she couldn‟t get out of it. Even Mngleh‟s stony face seemed to hold a bit
of weary resignation in it.
         “Coming.” I told Bobby. I started to leave, but then turned to the statue duo again. “And
actually cook this time, instead of stick it over a flame for five seconds! Poison one of us and I‟ll
make your life miserable.”
         “You‟re already doing fine, thank you.” She replied, impaling the meat with her knife for
no real reason I could tell. This was Venna‟s way of saying, “Shut up, insolent peon.” After liv-
ing with her for a month or so, not many people complained about me being belligerent.
         Bobcat was going at it with style in the back of the house. He had safety goggles and a
blowtorch and was doing an excellent job of welding. His talents never ceased to amaze me.
         All right, I know what you‟re thinking. Bobcat is a cat. An exceptionally intelligent one,
and telepathic, but still a cat. Therefore, he has no hands. Now, you ask me, how can a cat with
no hands handle a blowtorch, much less welding?
         Simple. He can‟t. Not alone anyway. However, recent circumstances had given Bobcat
some help. While I was decomposing in Intensive Care and Bogart was detonating in the kitch-
en, Bobcat had talked to the Boss, the head honcho of the Jaunter‟s League, the organization my
furry little buddies worked for. Since I was the reason that the Boss had sent the three to Earth in
the first place, Bobcat had seen fit to tell her that unexpected things had happened, mainly that
we were no longer on Earth and I‟d had a little… personal space issue with the PIN. Mainly that
theirs constituted the entire country, and I wasn‟t a part of it. Although I didn‟t know the details
of the conversation between the Boss and Bobcat, I did know that she‟d given my kitty numerous
widgets and supplies from his home planet, since on Treehouse, such things weren‟t nearly as
bizarre as they would‟ve been on Earth.
         Anyway, his main accessory, something he informed me all of his kind wore the way
Earthlings carried their wallets, was a kitty-pack. (Bobby‟s race had a fancy name for it, of
course, but after I proclaimed it a kitty-pack, everyone else in the house had picked it up.) It
looked like a metal backpack for housecats but in function acted more like a Swiss army knife.
It was crammed full of stuff made to make up for the lack of opposable thumbs, including drills,
hypodermic needles, robotic arms, and yes, blowtorches. Powered and controlled by Bobcat‟s
brainwaves, the thing ended up being our main tool for everything requiring mechanical assis-
tance. It tended to have less bizarre effects than magic.
         Wiping my hands on my jeans, I bent over and hefted the door. It was heavy, but not as
unmanageable as I‟d feared, and it wasn‟t too hard to hold it steady. A little higher please. He
requested. I obliged.
         The blowtorch exploded into sparks and the hinge quickly became fused to the bottom of
the door. Bobby claimed that that was easier than trying to operate a screwdriver, even with his
technological expertise. He repeated the process with the other hinge, then sat back and admired
his handiwork, the blowtorch withdrawing into his pack with a smooth mechanical whir.
         Excellent. He said, sounding very pleased. The Boss gave me the newest edition.
         “Hey, whatever help we can get is fine with me.” I said, leaning back to stretch my back.
“Good to see that conversation with her went all right.”
         Actually, I’ve been hoping to discuss that with you.
         Uh oh. Bobcat‟s telepathic voice, while still paternal and very intellectual, possessed a
slight grudging edge to it, as though he didn‟t want to tell me but knew it must be done.
         “This isn‟t good news, is it?” I asked.
        Nay. My kitty sat down, a sure sign that this might take a while. I joined him on the
floor. The Boss is very pleased about the Vortex, but other events have made her… quite dis-
pleased.
        I winced. “The PIN.” I said.
        The PIN. He agreed. They can be quite vocal if they think we trespass on their jurisdic-
tion, and I’m afraid that Houdini, Bogart, and I are treading thin ice. His voice was deathly se-
rious.
        My stomach decided to migrate south. “It‟s because of me, isn‟t it?”
        He sighed. It’s not directly your fault. Our mission was to discover what species you
were, determine whether you should remain on Earth, and take you somewhere else if you
shouldn’t. As you know, things went awry. I snorted. Loose ends can’t be afforded in the Jaun-
ter’s League, M.D., and the Boss wishes the three of us returning to jaunting duty, preferably
with something less risky than you.
        “Wait, since when did I become risky?” I asked, laughing nervously. “I‟m not risky.
Everything‟s settled down now, and we‟re not on Earth, so…”
        M.D., you assisted in the ruination of a PIN facility! Do you understand the signific-
ance?
        I‟m pretty hard to scold effectively, but Bobcat could do it. “All I wanted was to get out.”
        I’m not saying I blame you, either. Once deported, you would’ve been sent to the Jaun-
ter’s League, and then you would’ve been placed with jaunters more qualified for your upbring-
ing than us.
        It was then that his earlier sentence fully sunk in: „returning to jaunting duty… something
less risky than you…‟ “You mean the Boss wants to send me somewhere?” I asked. The atmos-
phere lost its oxygen.
        Nay, of course not. Bobcat agreed. His warm tones reassured me. Worry not; she under-
stands that to take you from us would do you psychological harm. For now, you are with us.
        For now? Bobcat always chose his words to say exactly what he wanted them to. “That‟s
not reassuring.” I said, pulling my knees to my chest and wrapping my skinny arms around them.
        Bobcat‟s tail twitched a few times, a sign of discomfort. M.D., you must understand what
position this puts us in. Bogart, Houdini, and I are taking up space on the Jaunter’s League ros-
ter; we are getting paid for something we weren’t meant to do.
        For a moment, I wondered how much it could really matter, as long as they were doing
something the Jaunter League was meant to do. Then I thought what would happen if you put an
accountant in charge of marketing.
        “What happens if you get fired?” I asked instead.
        Bobcat‟s tail began twitching more frenetically. Obviously that was a question he didn‟t
want me to know the answer to, but he was naturally honest. Income aside, we aren’t protected
any longer from planetary governments under the blanket of the Jaunter’s League. He admitted.
We can not blip whenever or wherever we desire, and we cannot ignore legal circumstances.
        In other words, no treading on any important toes, and no joyride blipping. “I‟m sorry; I
didn‟t know.” I said.
        He rubbed his head against my elbow affectionately. I scratched behind his ears out of
habit, though Raige had long since proved to be the master of sending my kitty into ecstasy.
Worry not. We will never give you up. We are self-sufficient here in Treehouse and since orga-
nized law is nonexistent here, there aren’t any constrictions on blipping away. We simply need
to make another meeting with the Boss and find a compromise. He sensed my doubt. Everything
will be fine, M.D. Houdini echoes my sentiments, and so does Bogart, although he would never
admit it in public.
        “Yeah.” I said absently. Convinced was not one of the adjectives for me right then. I
was trying to decide whether now would be a decent time to ask about Todd, or if I should wait
for when things weren‟t quite so unsure.
        Bobcat sighed. I have much on my mind, just as you do. This was one of the reasons I
liked my cat; he didn‟t try and pretend he knew and could handle everything. If he had concerns,
he told me. With the Boss, and you and Todd and all of this… I must admit that although I enjoy
Treehouse, I would not want to live here forever.
        “Of course. You lived on a tech world.” I said. On the whole, Treehouse was not; ad-
vanced stuff like Bobby‟s kitty-pack was always imported, and the most sophisticated tech any-
one made here was the occasional simple clockwork. Everything else was generally at the
wheel-and-pulley stage.
        Todd should live on a tech world. Bobcat emphasized.
        I sighed. So he knew that‟s what‟d been bothering me. No surprise there. “Are you tell-
ing me we find another world with him, or are you telling me he should stay on Earth?”
        Bobcat tilted his head in a feline shrug. I don’t think he should stay with Tom and Angeli-
ca. Good, they were fascists. However, I’m not sure if his place is really with you either. He saw
me wilt. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but I believe in being honest with you. None of
us are trained in childcare.
        I was trying hard not to sound like I was pathetic and begging. “But he‟s my brother.”
        I understand, and I don’t believe you should be kept apart from him. Things are simply…
complicated right now. Once we get this business sorted out with the Boss, we can return for
him.
        “When will that be?” I saw him wince. “Oh. Eventually.”
        He sighed. Something like that.
        My heart sunk, and I remembered my patient‟s little brother. I may not have known the
language used, but I wasn‟t ignorant. He‟d been asking if my patient was okay. Todd probably
was wondering the same thing about me.




                      2: Work and Play and Guilty Boys
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



       Despite my frustration, I eventually fell asleep that night. Then, joy of all joys, the
nightmares began, something I‟m positive my negative mood facilitated. This one had become
almost traditional, seeing as I‟d been having it fairly regularly for a few months, but of course,
nightmares terrify you no matter what.
         I was a little kid again, standing facing a wall of sand. A muffled rhythm started beating.
I still didn‟t know exactly what the sound was; it didn‟t sound exactly like a drum, nor did it
sound the same as a door slamming, but it had properties of each. WHAM. WHAM. Over and
over, as unstoppable as time.
         I knew the drill. Soon I‟d start hearing Dellan classical music. A few seconds after that,
a huge blot of blood would appear about ten feet above my head on the wall and start trickling
down the wall. Then it‟d course to the floor and get deeper, while I screamed and fled.
         However, this time the dream got skewed. Instead of old Dellan music, I started hear-
ing—
         Wait a second, hold up. Why the heck was I hearing „Amazing Grace‟? It was the polar
opposite of all Dellan music! I didn‟t even know all the words, so why was that old Earthling
church song playing here?
         For the first time, the dream didn‟t unnerve me properly. One of the powers of the dream
is that you don‟t realize you‟re dreaming, and in this nightmare, I‟d always been Dellan to the
core with no thoughts of anything even remotely Earthling. This time, however, „Amazing
Grace‟ had come onto the scene, and though I was as religious as your average slice of pepper
jack, I recognized the song for what it was. With that realization came all my memory; I knew
exactly who I was, exactly what I was experiencing, and that, really, it shouldn‟t be scary.
         The blood dripped down the wall as usual, but I didn‟t feel fear this time. I was too con-
fused trying to figure out what was going on and what had shifted in my subconscious to ruin
what had once been a perfectly good nightmare. Blood crawled past my boots and came up to
my ankles, but I ignored it. I was busy turning around in an attempt to find where the old hymn
was coming from and why the heck it was here.
         The music and WHAM stopped in unison and the lights went out, while the texture of
blood against my legs disappeared. This was new. I‟d never stayed asleep this long; usually I‟d
scream myself awake before the blood even finished coursing down the wall.
         Then I heard a deep voice. It should‟ve been purely mental, a voice used in telepathy,
because that was the only one I‟d experienced recently. However, it was physical, and I recog-
nized it as clearly as though I‟d heard it yesterday. Number One, my old buddy, fellow inmate
and lab rat of Della. I‟d come out a little weird and with no conscious memory of the expe-
rience; he‟d come out with a predilection for mind-control and an obsession with surviving
members of our planet, like me. It hadn‟t done much for his personality.
         No matter what the situation was, Number One terrified me, and he still terrified me
when I was aware that I was dreaming, even when his words weren‟t truly frightening, just soft
words you use to comfort little children. Then again, maybe that‟s what made it so creepy.
Number One wasn‟t exactly the nurturing sort.
         All right, he wasn‟t doing anything. This was a dream, so I should be able to wake up.
Wake up, kid. Wake up, wake up, wake up.
         Then warm, strong arms went around me, and all thoughts of trying to wake up went out
the window in favor of homicidal panic as the dream canon snapped back into place, leaving me
Dellan again. This was wrong. Totally wrong. No one could get that close to me, except maybe
Bobby and Todd.
         “Let go of me.” I said, pulling back, but the huge arms were too powerful.
         He chuckled. “Can‟t.”
         “Let me go!”
         He didn‟t. “M.D.—” His voice sounded oddly higher than normal, more of an Earthling
pitch.
         “Stop it! I told you to let go of me!”
         I drew a glass knife from my side and lunged. His voice grew loud with alarm.
         “M.D.!”
         Wait, he didn‟t call me M.D., he called me Midaz, so that was wrong, and if that was
wrong, then that meant everything else was wrong, which meant…
         The familiar walls of my room swirled into focus as I forced myself to wake up. Despe-
rately trying to cancel all the attack-commands my brain had uploaded, I managed to twist ninety
degrees, and instead of slicing into the person calling me, my blade slammed into the floor. I
pressed my forehead to the rough bark, trying to camouflage my heavy breathing but not so sure
of my success.
         “Sorry.” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. It came out snappy.
         Pathetically, this was not nearly the first time I‟d nearly killed Raige by accident when he
woke me up. Sometimes I wondered why he didn‟t make someone else do it.
         “You okay?”
         “Are you?” I asked, trying to shake off the disorientation from waking up so abruptly.
         “Yeah, you missed.”
         I nodded, suddenly feeling a dangerous urge to grin and giggle. “Yes, yes, good, good.
Sorry I woke you up.”
         “I wasn‟t sleeping.”
         Leaving my knife embedded in the floor, I got up to my feet and nodded. Of course.
Raige‟s mental condition at waking was infamous. “Right, right. Night-owl.”
         “You okay?” He repeated.
         Unable to control myself, I smiled and giggled, rubbing my gloved hands together. “Fine
and dandy, milquetoast, fine and dandy.”
         His lips thinned.
         “Well dang. You don‟t believe me, do you?” I shrugged feverishly. “Don‟t worry about
it, I don‟t believe me anymore either.”
         Raige sighed and bent to make our heights closer to equal. Even on his knees, he was tall
enough that he didn‟t have to tilt his head back to meet my eyes when I was standing. If you
didn‟t know him he might make you nervous. But I‟d met people who were a lot more intimidat-
ing (Mngleh, for example) and Raige was shy and soft. Which meant he did most of the dirty
work, like waking me up even though sometimes it risked some vital viscera.
         “It wasn‟t so bad this time. I might be growing out of it.” I said, anticipating his ques-
tion, pacing back and forth a little, not even stretching to work the kinks out of my spine. He
made as if to step forward towards me, thought better of it when he saw me skitter back, and ges-
tured helplessly for a few seconds before slumping with a sigh.
         “You want to talk about it?” By the tone of his voice, he had a pretty good idea of how
I‟d answer, and I didn‟t surprise him.
         I shook my head. “Nah, nah, I‟m smitch.” I said, absently tucking a thick tendril of blond
hair behind my ear.
         “You haven‟t talked to Bobby about this, have you?”
         I groaned. Oh goody, here we went again. “Look, he has enough worries on his mind.” I
said. “Besides, he‟s telepathic and perceptive. I‟m sure he already knows. If it was a big deal,
he would‟ve brought it up and tied me down to analyze me.” Seeing his frustrated expression, I
added, “Really, Raige. I‟m fine. Sorry for bothering you. Thanks for intervening.”
        He stood again. “If you ever need anything…”
        “Don‟t worry about it.” I squirmed. “Really, I‟m fine. Please, go back to bed.”
        “I told you, I wasn‟t sleeping.”
        “Well, go back to star-gazing or whatever it was you were doing.” I said, rubbing the
bridge of my nose.
        He gave me a long, searching stare, then said, “Only because you asked me to,” and left
the room. I remained standing there for a few seconds before finally lying down again, chewing
on the flesh around my thumbnail as I focused on something indirectly related to the nightmare.
After ten minutes, I still couldn‟t figure out why „Amazing Grace‟ had shown up, and I fell as-
leep again.
                                                       
        I woke up depressed. Usually that doesn‟t happen because when you wake up it‟s the
start of a wholesome new day that you haven‟t screwed up yet, but I already knew that this day
was going to be awful. How, you ask? Well, in the past few months I had learned that some
things were bad omens. Being yanked out of sleep early because Venna just set the house on fire
was one of them.
        Her cry of horror sent me jolting upright. I smelled smoke.
        “Coming, coming.” I grunted, and groped my way downstairs, fishing through my herb
belt.
        Sure enough, Venna was trying to suffocate the flames on the floor, without notable suc-
cess. Mind-weavers are terrible at working with fire; we can‟t absorb the intensity of the heat
energy in such heavy doses and we just burn. Mngleh was gone, presumably for water.
        “Hold your breath, close your eyes, and move your butt.” I ordered in Dellan. In an un-
usual state of obedience, she jumped out of my way so I didn‟t have to shove her.
        My herb belt finally yielded the vial of pale blue liquid I was looking for. I forced out the
cork with my thumb, and chucked the contents down. Almost before it hit the floor, the liquid
hissed into a blinding cloud of icy fog. I followed my own advice and screwed my eyes shut.
The stuff would dissipate in seconds, but until then, it would be pure poison to inhale. As the
temperature returned to normal, I cautiously inhaled and opened my eyes. The smell of bleach
hung in the air, and only a tiny flame remained of the fire, one small enough for Venna to snuff,
which she did.
        “Still on cooking duty?” I asked.
        Mngleh arrived with a full bucket, called back by his partner‟s telepathy. By the way he
held it and his slow pace, it was obvious he already knew there was no danger. “You always
complain that we don‟t cook our food and now you see what happens when we do. There‟s no
pleasing you, insolent pest.” Venna said haughtily. Had to give her credit; she acted as though
the floor had always been scorched. When I kept up my wry look, she slumped with a sigh and
said, “We‟ll buy this morning.”
        Now, you‟d think that with eight beings living in the house, at least one of us could cook.
Not true. Only Aqua showed any passion or skill for it, and that was guided more by aesthetics
than edibility. After the infamous Pyramid of Cheesa, which led to what became known as the
Aqua Cheese War, we had unanimously banned him from the job. As a result, we regularly gave
up hope on our abilities and lived on the Treehouse equivalent of Chinese take-out.
        Mngleh swiped a bag of bartering material and headed out to get something for breakfast.
         If Venna weren‟t so disciplined, she would‟ve pouted. “Now would‟ve been a perfect
time for combat practice.”
         “Yup. Isn‟t it too bad you can‟t?” I said cheerfully. Oh, how I loved my cat. “Afraid I‟m
just not warrior material.”
         She nodded. “Not a lover, not a fighter—what are you going to do with yourself?”
         “Dunno.” I said, chewing at a callus on my palm. “Live, I guess.”
         Aqua poked his head into the room. “Where? Astallionica?”
         “Definitely not.”
         “But Todd-brother‟s there.”
         “That‟s visiting, not living. Visiting is fine, just not living.”
         “Are we going to there today?”
         I wished his attention span would fail. “Sorry. Not today.”
         “That‟s too bad. I want to go.” He said. “Pretty country with blue grass…”
         “Green grass, Aqua.” I corrected idly.
         “But blue grass sounds so nice! Green grass just rustles.”
         “Blue grass rustles too.” I said.
         “No it doesn‟t!” Aqua proclaimed triumphantly. “Raige told me it had singing and ban-
jos! I like banjos. It‟s a cool name.”
         I realized I had completely lost track of what exactly this conversation was about.
         “Guitar.” I said, the only thing I could think of that sounded safe to say.
         “Exactly!” Aqua cried, thrilled that he‟d been understood for once.
         Venna stared at us as though we were speaking in code. The prickle I‟d felt in my mind
meant that she‟d listened in via telepathy, but obviously that hadn‟t helped.
         “Neither of you make sense.” She remarked.
         “The Tree is watching you, Venna.” I answered soothingly in Dellan. “And so is the
Sheep.”
         “I knew it!” Aqua declared.
         “Make sense, Earthling!” Venna bellowed.
         “Never!”
         Bobcat came into the scene. Ah, Venna, you’re still on cooking duty. When do you and
your other half plan to be finished?
         Venna‟s lips twisted because she wouldn‟t let herself sigh. “Not for a while.”
         Nay difficulty. We’ve got a job for us this morning. Without anyone ever mentioning the
matter, Bobcat had been unanimously decided as the household coordinator. It’s horse labor.
Well, since you’re busy—M.D.? Would you kindly wake Raige? You’re both needed in half an
hour.
         I shook my hands. “Bobby, your timing…” My expression emphasized my pain. I‟d
been hoping to spend the morning playing word games with Aqua or trying to be happy or some-
thing.
         Yes, I know it’s short notice, and I apologize. Was it possible for a telepathic voice to
ooze sincerity? But it must be. Use whatever means necessary.
         That alleviated my growing annoyance, and though I kept my face generally straight, I
know my eyebrows must‟ve quirked up. “You‟re the boss.” I agreed, and pranced up the ramp to
Raige‟s room.
         Realizing his mistake, Bobcat quickly added, Physical harm is not included!
         My cheer wasn‟t dampened. “You want him up in half in hour? You want physical
harm.”
        At least attempt to be civil. Bobby pleaded.
        “Civil as Caesar, my solemn vow.” And before Bobcat could finish analyzing my histori-
cal accuracy, I skipped on to Raige‟s room. He was the one person in the house who had insisted
on a bed, or as close to a bed as Treehouse could replicate, which was a thin pad on the floor like
those in Japan. This pad was currently occupied by the sprawl of overgrown, sedated flesh that
constituted Raige in the morning. The sheets had been hauled messily over his head, and from
this beige mass protruded an arm and a tuft of vivid red hair like victims of the Blob.
        Making a guess at the location of his ribs, I nudged the mass with the toe of my shoe.
“Morning, milquetoast!” I greeted at a borderline shout, knowing nothing less would even come
near his perception. “Time to rise and shine!”
        Not even a grunt. Another nudge in the ribs didn‟t bring a response either. I quickly
glanced over my shoulders for witnesses. None. Privacy assured, I grinned and drew back my
leg.
        “Fore!”
        Whump!
        “Ngwaoooorrrrr.” The Blob complained.
        “Don‟t give me that. You‟ve got layers of cotton insulation and I didn‟t kick you that
hard. We‟ve got a job in half an hour, so get your butt up, will you?”
        The Blob paused, then decided that my request could be safely ignored for the time being
and rolled over. With the toe of my sneaker, I prodded him where I assumed his stomach was.
The whimper of protest and reflexive curling of the lump proved I‟d guessed correctly.
        “Come on, buddy boy. Up.” I ordered.
        “Noooo…” Words were encouraging, even in a fuzzy droning whine.
        Lecturing at a lump of cotton was a bit ridiculous, even considering my life standards. I
bent over and yanked the sheets down, baring him from the waist up. On exposure to sunlight,
Raige hissed and flipped over to bury his face in his arm. The other hand groped blindly for the
sheets. I snatched them away, and he made a mewling sound that, in his current condition, trans-
lated as a polite request for their return.
        “No. „Up‟ wasn‟t a suggestion. Danged if I‟m going to sweat a gallon on my own. Now
move before I drag you down the stairs, sit on you, or both.”
        The look on what I could see of his face was so painful that I did actually feel a little bad
for him. (A habit only recently acquired and still resisting extinction.) It was early, even for me,
and he‟d been up in the middle of the night on my account. With a sigh, I let up a bit, sat down
next to him, and tuned my voice maybe ten decibels lower. “Look, I really am sorry about
springing this on you so fast, but there‟s nothing either of us can do about it and somebody needs
horse labor. Mngleh and Venna are on cooking duty, so it‟s you and me, and you know I‟m the
weakest of all of you. So come on, get up. Do you want a repeat performance of being a tobog-
gan?”
        Using the heel of his hand to rub his eyes, Raige emitted a wake-up moan and laboriously
levered himself up to a half-sitting position. “Gawwwwd.” He mumbled sleepily.
        “I agree. Thank you.” I turned to go. “Get dressed. I‟ll meet you downstairs. Will you
do that for me?”
        He kept rubbing his eyes. “Mmm.”
        “All right, I‟ll see you then.”
         I left the room and began to descend the ramp, but a nagging feeling of doubtfulness rung
in the back of my skull. That‟d been surprisingly easy, and I was of the school of thinking that if
it took you less time than you thought it would, then you did something wrong. I ran my check
list of actions through my head, ticking off the various activities required to rouse my best friend.
Let‟s see, I‟d kept my sentences short, my grammar simple, my tone clear, my—
         Wait. I had gotten him to repeat my instructions back to me, hadn‟t I?
         My foot froze above a stair. My eyes narrowed. Why, no, I hadn‟t.
         I turned around and stalked back into Raige‟s room. And yup, he was huddled under the
covers again, dead to the world and curled up into a position that would not allow me to kick him
somewhere sensitive.
         Raige had fooled me. Raige! In the morning! To save my pride, I would‟ve preferred to
be outwitted by a head of lettuce, but I was reassured by the fact that the intelligence had been
just a flash in the pan, since he seemed to have thought that my humiliation wouldn‟t encourage
me.
         “All right, Lazarus,” I snarled, rolling up my sleeves, “time to rise!”
         Shouting, shoving, sitting, and general bullying didn‟t seem to have an effect this time.
Raige had been getting better and better at ignoring me, and that he was succeeding only seemed
to add to his determination to stay rooted. Since Bobcat had made a fuss the last time I‟d levi-
tated/dragged him down the stairs and I didn‟t want to actually hurt him (because then he would
be in no condition for hard labor), I took the cheap way out. I left the room and called Aqua.
         He was there in a flash, flipper held to his forehead in good imitation of a soldier being
called to arms.
         I cocked my thumb over my shoulder towards the blob and grunted eloquently to explain
that Raige was in a borderline comatose state.
         “„Happy Bouncy Shiny Morning Song‟?” Aqua asked hopefully.
         “Bingo.” I agreed.
         “Aye-aye, boss-lady!” Aqua saluted, then zoomed into Raige‟s room. I leaned against
the wall with my back to the proceedings and waited.
         Having infinitely malleable vocal cords, our resident shapeshifter prides himself on his
singing. Unfortunately, though his ditties are original and entertaining, they have a tendency to
stick in your head the moment you hear them, and Aqua is at the stage of development where he
believes that repetition is good. It was irritating, inescapable, and the perfect remedy for obsti-
nate housemates. As Aqua burst into exuberant sound, I could imagine his little happy-dance
with it, complete with conducting flippers and gravity-defying bouncing to keep time. Against
my will, I found myself mouthing the words as he warbled on.
         “Good morning! Good morning! It‟s a happy shiny new day!
         “Good morning! Good morning! It‟ll chase your blues away!
         “It‟s time to wakey wakey, time to lift your butt and shakey,
         “It‟s a happy bouncy shiny morning daaa—!”
         An adolescent howl of “Goddammit!” cut Aqua off in the climax of his triumph. Some-
thing heavy crashed to the floor, and after a minute or so of shouting, shrieking, and general
sounds of mayhem, Aqua came rocketing out the door, wrapped in a sweatshirt and squealing
like a hyperactive banshee. Waiting for the smoke to clear a bit, I examined my fingernails for
excess cuticle until Raige charged into the doorway, as awake as his body chemistry would allow
and still haphazardly buttoning his jeans. He was so fully engaged in simultaneously coming up
with coherent phrases to shout at the fleeing blue creature and figuring out the complex mechan-
ics involved in buttons that he didn‟t notice my presence.
        “Do that again, Aqua, and I swear to God, I swear to God—”
        Time to cut him off before he got creative and racked up demerits by swearing in front of
an impressionable protist. I smoothly planted myself between teenager and shapeshifter, thereby
hopefully ending the former‟s awareness of the latter.
        “Good morning, sunshine.” I said. “How is life on your planet?”
        He blinked at me for a few seconds before he recognized my face. “You did that.”
        “You brought it on yourself, buddy boy. You should‟ve just gotten up the first time I
kicked you.”
        Suddenly losing the energy his drowsy fury had given him, he slouched, squinted at me,
and shoved some hair out of his face. “What time‟s it?” He mumbled.
        “You know I can‟t answer that, but sunlight‟s still on its way.”
        “Goddammit.” He mumbled, rubbing his face.
        “We‟ve already been through all that, milquetoast.” I said. “Now come on, get dressed;
we‟ll dunk some caffeine into you; you‟ll be good to go.”
        “Gahh.”
        “Exactly. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.”
        With another incoherent moan, he looked down, verified that yes, he was wearing pants,
and shuffled back into his room to finish the dressing process.
                                                        
        Twenty-eight and a half minutes later, Raige had unearthed more clothing, gotten a good
breakfast, regained sentience, and we were off to what promised to be hard work. But we were
used to it.
        Like I said, Mngleh did three fourths of the grunt-sweat-bleed work in the household.
However, that still left a quarter to the rest of us. That „rest of us‟ there really boiled down to
just Raige and me. Generally, people didn‟t complain about our performance, so we decided that
if Mngleh didn‟t have the time or was busy, we came instead and went for half price. So far, no
one had complained; we had Mngleh in charge of our PR. Being a massive furry hulk, he was
rarely required to do anything except occasionally glare, and that always seemed to be the end of
it.
        The work was just as dull as I expected it would be.
        “Firewood.” One of our two employers said. They were hairless, humanoid beings that
made Raige look short and stocky. “There‟s a mass of timber on the side of the house. Hack it
into manageable pieces, stack it in an organized pile.”
        They were speaking Draconis, which meant I was doing all the talking. (No problem;
Raige had quickly learned to leave the details to me.) I glanced at the pile of wood. It looked
like a mess of drunken frat boys had decided to have a bonfire, accumulated the necessary tinder
but forgotten to organize it, and then lost interest and wandered off.
        “We‟re cutting that?” Raige asked, guessing by my face. “All of it?”
        “And stacking, yeah. Fun, huh?” I went back to our employers. “That‟s a half-day job.”
        “Indeed.”
        “Are you planning to give us water breaks? Our species can‟t work that long without.”
Forgetting to mention stuff like this had ruined many an employment—not to mention caused a
few cases of heat stroke.
         It was easy to settle on getting a meal out of the employers; that was usually part of the
work. Then came the more important component: pay.
         “We‟ll give you three pounds of flour for the job.”
         “No you won‟t.” I said immediately. “This one‟s worth twelve.”
         Actually, that was expensive, but if they were being this stingy, we wouldn‟t get decent
pay unless I was just as extreme as they were.
         Their hides became notably greener. “Twelve? You‟re a thief! Five.”
         “Make it ten or you can go looking for someone else to do it.” That could take a while
and they knew it. I was gambling that if they were lazy enough to make someone else chop their
wood, they were lazy enough to not want to look for other workers.
         They were still cagey. “Perhaps the rest of the town would like to hear about your goug-
ing.”
         “Perhaps you‟d like a visit from Mngleh, so you can talk it over properly.” I replied.
         “Are you threatening us?”
         “No. If I were threatening you, I would‟ve said that Mngleh would come over and cause
you massive internal damage. That‟s against Treehouse rules. He‟s quite amenable to hag-
gling.”
         “That won‟t be necessary. Eight.”
         And they say lying doesn‟t get things done. “Ten.”
         “Eight.”
         “Ten.”
         “Fine. Ten and forget the meal.”
         “Accepted. Thank you for doing business with us.” I fetched up a chopper, tossed one to
Raige, and headed into the yard to get this over with.
         “What was that about?” Raige asked.
         My voice drawled with annoyance. “They might be rich enough for hired labor, but they
don‟t think so.” I shook my head in disgust. “Three pounds of flour, honestly…”
         Raige‟s lips quirked. “What‟d you talk them up to?”
         I grinned at him and waggled my eyebrows, something I‟ve heard is quite disturbing
when I have something sharp in my hands. When I told him, he tossed his head back and laugh-
ed.
         I swung my chopper over my shoulder proudly. “That‟s why I do all the talking.”
         “You‟re as bad as they are.”
         “Just be glad I‟m using it for your benefit. Now let‟s get chopping. The faster we finish
this, the more time we‟ll have to whine about it later.”
         The wood split only reluctantly under the hatchets, promising hours of torturous spine-
wrecking fun. Within half an hour, my shoulders were burning and Raige was pouring sweat.
To make things worse, wood dust boiled out of those frogging logs with each chop we gave it,
making us filthy in short time and clogging our throats until Raige got the bright idea to tie our
bandannas over our noses and mouths like old highway robbers.
         All in all, it was hard, mind-killing work. Boring as death. Naturally, it didn‟t take long
before Raige began trying to distract himself with talk. The bandanna muffled his words, but he
remained comprehensible.
         “Whenever I think about it, I can‟t believe I‟m doing this. Back in the day,” for us, this
phrase had come to refer to the period of time before the flight to Canandria, back when we
could feign normalcy, “the worst, hardest job I thought I‟d get stuck with was McDonalds.”
         “Enh.” I said, tossing a log onto the foundation of a pile we were making. It made a
cloud like a stage magician‟s act. “I‟ve had worse.”
         “Really? Like what?”
         “Having no job at all.”
         “That‟s not bad.”
         “Having no money at all.” I clarified.
         The axe bit into wood. “Ah.”
         “Don‟t worry about it.” I said, noticing his look of discomfort. Raige had come from an
upper-class family. I had not. “I still think you‟d look hysterical in a burger boy outfit.”
         The mental image kept me going for a couple minutes. After a while, Raige paused to
ponder whether his current log needed more cutting or whether it was small enough already. He
decided to err on the side of less work and added it to the pile. “You‟re kind of quiet today.”
         I howled in exasperation. “Come on, milquetoast, you and Bobby have been pumping me
on this all week. Even Thomas is joining in the fun. For peat‟s sake, I‟m all right! I‟m okay!
Now leave me alone before I satisfy you and take this axe to your neck.”
         He let me simmer a little, then gave me a knowing look. “He said no to Earth, didn‟t he?”
         I grunted and slammed my chopper into the wood.
         “I thought so.”
         I grunted again.
         “So… why not?”
         “Look, there‟s this thing called red tape. The Earthling government owns tons of the
stuff; you could wrap three elephants in it for Christmas and still have spare.”
         He opened his mouth, then shrugged and went back to chopping.
         “What?” I asked.
         “Nothing.”
         I slammed my chopper into my log again to accentuate my persuasive prowess. “Don‟t
humor me.”
         “Well, just… knowing you, I‟d figure you would‟ve gone yourself by now.”
         “If wishes were weapons, I‟d have killed the whole world.” I said, picking up my be-
headed log and adding it to the pile. “Do you honestly think Bogart would teach me to blip?”
         “Why wouldn‟t he?”
         I spread my arms and tried to look as obviously me as possible.
         He winced. “Oh.”
         Nodding, I strode back to the chopping block. “Exactly. So that means I can wait until
the Boss relents, until the pinheads relent, or until Bobcat, Bogart, and Houdini relent. Either
way, I‟m stuck.” I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “This is depressing; I‟ve gone over this a
hundred times with just about everyone else, and it‟s proof that communication isn‟t a cure for
all the soul‟s ills.”
         “Do you think it might have something to do with your nightmares?”
         I glared at him, then thrust my nose into the air and wrestled over a new chunk of wood
to mutilate. “I‟ve always had nightmares. They‟ve just gotten… a little more noticeable.”
         “You scream at night.”
         “Only sometimes.”
         “Four times this week.”
         “Sometimes is relative.”
         “You tried to gut me twice.”
          I bruised my foot kicking the wood into place. “Then get Venna to do it. It‟s not your
God-given duty to wake me up, you know. In fact, it‟d probably be better for you to give up on
it.” I slammed my axe into the wood. “It doesn‟t matter; Bobby doesn‟t lie to me.”
          “I never meant that.”
          I sighed. “No. You didn‟t, unfortunately.” The bad thing about knowing him was that I
couldn‟t blame bad thoughts on him. “Why, did you want to come back with me?”
          It‟d been sarcastic, but when he didn‟t answer, I turned to see that expression on his face.
Not as bad as the teary one—that one was the worst—but the vague unhappy one, which I didn‟t
see often, thank goodness, because I never knew out to deal with it. His response dismayed and
surprised me, because he hadn‟t voiced anything about it. I recalled Thomas‟s complaints that
didn‟t involve lack of female companionship. “TV, Internet, and pepperoni pizza?” I guessed.
           “Well, I‟d be lying if I didn‟t dream about the deep-dish Carnivore special every once in
a while.” He admitted, trying to salvage the comedic timing he used sometimes. “I mean, after
the whole Pyramid of Cheesa thing, I would‟ve died for it—but that‟s not the thing. I know you
hate it there, but Earth‟s got all the stuff I grew up with, all the trees that don‟t eat you and the
slugs that don‟t talk. High school marching band and stupid fashions and newspapers always
telling you you‟re going to die, god, I miss it all. It‟s home for me.” He paused, then added ru-
efully, “Fanfiction would be nice too.”
          I stared at him.
          “What?”
          I snorted. “Freak.”
          “You listen to Eminem!”
          “That‟s not in the same league; Eminem has won awards.”
           He paused in his work to look at me, and dang it, he had that expression again. “So…
what‟ll happen after?”
          Chop. “After what?”
          “You know. After it all ends, when you get Todd back. Seeing how you left, I don‟t
think the pinheads would really put up with you on Earth. And Treehouse is nice, but… well…”
          “…You don‟t really want to stay here forever.” I finished for him.
          “Not really.” He admitted, finishing another log. “I mean, it‟s beautiful, and everyone‟s
nice, but it‟s… just not home.”
          I paused. “It‟s the lack of plumbing, isn‟t it?”
          “That and the man-eating trees, yeah, mostly.”
          “Well, where would you go?” I asked wryly. “Back to Daddy Dearest?”
          On meeting Mr. Unnigrutt, he‟d chased me around the house with a baseball bat and mis-
taken me for either a robber or Raige‟s boyfriend—I still wasn‟t quite clear on that matter. Ei-
ther way, it hadn‟t left me with a good impression.
          Raige threw his arms up and kicked the log over towards the pile. “Christ, kid, I don‟t
know. Maybe I‟ll go back with Thomas, stay with his family or something.” Then his frown be-
came more pensive. “I wonder what Daddy thinks happened to me. I mean, I just ran off.”
          I shrugged. “I would‟ve.”
          “Kid, you just can‟t leave people!”
          “Why not? You obviously can, or you wouldn‟t be here.”
          His kicks were getting a little vicious, by his standards. Obviously I was hitting a sore
point, but I refused to let my best friend flagellate himself with idiotic guilt for escaping doom.
“Yeah, but I shouldn‟t have done it.”
         “Hey, if it hadn‟t been for you, Number One would‟ve finished beating me up and taken
me home to be his little playmate for the rest of my life. I think that balances your karma.”
         “No, no, I don‟t regret helping you out, and I don‟t regret leaving; I just regret how I did
it. I could‟ve at least had the spine to tell him what I was doing.”
         “He wouldn‟t have believed you, and he probably would‟ve talked you into staying. I
say, you did the right thing, and if maybe it wasn‟t the most upright thing you‟ve done, so what?
You can‟t go back and do anything about it. Now stop worrying about it.”
         “I can‟t help but worry about it. Don‟t you worry about what Todd thinks happened to
you?”
         I stopped chopping.
         “I‟m sorry. That wasn‟t fair.”
         I shook my head. “No, no, it was perfectly fair.”
         “No, it wasn‟t. You didn‟t leave willingly. The only reason you left was because you
knew you couldn‟t keep Todd from getting hurt; I left because I wanted to.”
         “Of course, altruism had absolutely nothing to do with it, Mr. Pacifist. You left Earth for
jollies and not because you weren‟t determined to keep us from getting killed—”
         “Us? You mean you.”
         “Ouch, now that was unfair! Is it my fault I tend to get in trouble?”
         “Well, half the time—”
         “Don‟t distract me. The fact is, we both have guilt. We‟ve been gone a long time.” I
paused to rest my chin on the chopper handle and murmured, “When you‟re four years old, four
months is a long time.”
         “It‟s been six since the plane.”
         “Six? Already?”
         “You spent a pretty good amount of time in the ICU, kid.”
         “I hoped it was part of the temporal dysmorphic stuck-in-bed syndrome.” I groaned. “I
missed Todd‟s birthday. Six months is even longer when you‟re five years old.” Some big sister
I was.
         “Six months is a long time, no matter how old you are.” He sighed, and the energy
seemed to drain out of him.
         Raige was one of the most well balanced people I knew, and I didn‟t like to see him un-
happy, because I couldn‟t cheer him up very well. “It‟ll work out.” I assured. I returned to chop-
ping. “Everything‟ll work out. It always does. Sure, it always works out in a really messed-up,
crashing-down-the-stairs-way—but still, haven‟t we always somehow managed to get through
the big parts of it okay?”
         “What big parts?”
         “Well, kicking a mind-controller out of the master of the universe‟s head, getting both
you and me out of lousy home lives, surviving a plane wreck, making a decent living. Not to
mention we still have all our requisite body parts. Considering the plane wreck, the volcano, the
man-eating trees, and our cooking, that‟s pretty good.”
         He was staring at me. “You‟re… being optimistic.” He put the back of his hand to my
forehead, but since he couldn‟t touch me without an accident, he let it hover about half an inch
away instead. “Are you feeling okay?”
         My eyes narrowed. “Don‟t push your luck, milquetoast. I‟m only doing this for you, and
it‟s frogging hard.”
         He shook his head in wonder and let his hand drop. “Even though I know you‟re lying, I
still believe you.”
         “I wouldn‟t be a good liar if you didn‟t. It‟s why you‟re friends with me.” I said, punch-
ing him lightly in the upper arm. “Here, if it soothes your soul, we can work it out together and
make sure we don‟t act too adolescent, all right?”
         “Really?” His voice proved he was humoring me, but he wanted to believe it.
         “Sure. I‟ll even say I‟m sorry for trashing your dad. How‟s that for altruism?” Since his
expression hadn‟t changed, I sighed and started chewing at my sawdust-covered fingernails.
“Dang it. No, seriously, I‟m really… serious. I hate it when you get masochistic; we‟ll slaughter
our sins together, all right? If—no, dang it, I‟m supposed to be optimistic here (darn, this is
hard)—so not if, but when we get there, I‟ll try to be nice and behave and everything and help.”
         Under the bandanna, he was grinning. “Can you at least sound enthusiastic about it?”
         “Now you‟re just pushing it.” Then I punched him in the arm again, hard this time.
         “Hey! What was that for?” He protested, rubbing at it.
         “For karmatically unbalancing me. Shut up and chop your wood—I said nothing.”
         Still rubbing at his arm but giving me what on anyone else I would‟ve considered a smug
look, he returned to chopping, and for a while, I thought I‟d gotten away with the whole thing.
         Then he inquired, “So how do you feel?”
         “Unclean.”
         As he laughed, I was glad to find a diversion behind us. Our employers du jour were eye-
ing us from their house. This on its own wasn‟t too unusual (a lot of first-time bosses are a little
paranoid about whether their hired labor will actually work or not) but they hadn‟t moved for the
whole hour-plus we‟d been working. And that was unusual. I didn‟t care what planet they came
from or how their brains were wired; watching the job couldn‟t have been any more interesting
than doing the job.
         I returned to chopping wood, but this time I was watching our beneficiaries out of my
peripheral vision. Wrapped in his own goofy thoughts, Raige didn‟t notice that they were staring
in glassy-eyed, hypnotic fascination at us. No, not at us—at him.
         I really hoped they weren‟t going to try and eat him. Hardly, but I didn‟t realize the real
reason until a few minutes later, after Raige started complaining about the heat. As a Senyan, I
was hardly sweating, and I was in no mood to hear how lucky I was.
         “If it‟s that bad, you can always strip. I won‟t care.”
         Raige‟s modesty was, if possible, as conservative as mine was. “Thomas would. We‟d
never hear the end of it.”
         I spread my arms and made a show of looking around as though for lost treasure. “Oh my
goodness, Raige, you‟d never believe it!”
         Even though he knew what was coming, he owed me one for my earlier altruism.
“What?”
         I turned towards him and gasped. “There isn‟t a Thomas here. Well, I‟ll be danged! I
thought he was a permanent fixture or something, but apparently he actually has a life of his
own.”
         He paused, then shrugged, dropped his axe, and turned his back to me to pull his shirt off.
“Whatever. You‟ve probably got at least three kinds of goo if I sunburn.”
         “Four, buddy boy.” I corrected. “And I‟m determined to find something that doesn‟t
make you break out in a rash.”
        Raige straightened up, panting, and wiped sweat off his brow with the back of one gloved
hand, smearing sawdust across his forehead. This display made our employers du jour change
color to a definitely bluer hue.
        A truly disturbing idea crossed my mind.
        “What?” Raige asked, noticing my shudder. “What is it? You aren‟t cold, are you?”
        “If only. No, just intrusive, delusional thoughts.” I replied, and returned to my wood.
        Maybe my recalcitrance made him think that this was another Important Topic that
needed to be discussed for the sake of my mental health. “Your mom was talking about mi-
niskirts, the last time I saw you look that disturbed.” Raige informed me, getting back to work.
        “How can you tell when I‟m dressed like Billy the Kid?” I said, following suit.
        “I don‟t need your face.” To demonstrate, he struck a pose like a Vhambie with catatonia
and squinched up his eyes. “What do you call this? Disturbed.”
        “I do not look like that. Disturbed? Me?” I asked. “You must mean someone else; I‟m as
sweet as an angel on Prozac.” I happily slammed my chopper into a log and cackled blissfully.
“Die, tree flesh, die! Taste my regressive wrath!”
        He ignored me. “Well?”
        I glanced back at our employers du jour. They were now frantically gesticulating at each
other, jabbering in excitement. “I‟m wrong, if there‟s any justice in the world, I will be wrong…
but I think they like you.” Whack!
        He paused. “Well, good, they‟ll hire us again.”
        I knew denial when I heard it. “Didn‟t you hear me? I didn‟t say they like you, I said
they like you.”
        Raige might‟ve had cloth covering half his face, but I could still see a flush travel up his
neck. He froze dead. His posture went Vhambie catatonic and his eyes squinched up.
        “I tell you, I don‟t look like that.”
        He wasn‟t paying attention. “No. Not again.”
        “Don‟t take it so hard, buddy boy. Come on, you should be happy!”
        “I‟m not happy! Now give me my shirt!”
        I snatched it and held it away from him. “Aw, don‟t do that! We could make them pay us
extra for watching you!”
        “Give me my goddamn shirt, M.D.!” His voice gave out with a squeak.
        Few things could drive Raige to physical action; this was one of them. After a brief tug-
o-war that he won by taking advantage of my disliking for physical contact, he regained his shirt,
and not even bothering to turn it right side out again, he bolted into it like a fox down a hole.
        “Great, our bosses look bored. You just got us cheated out of extra money. It‟s a good
thing Bogart and I handle the funds here and not you; we‟d be broke.”
        He threw a stick in my direction, but his aim was deplorable, and I finally decided to stop
teasing him. Despite my remarks on making a profit, I found our employers‟ behavior a little
creepy too, and the sooner we finished this job, the better. Weird things could happen in Treeh-
ouse if you weren‟t careful.
        The occurrence made Raige a regular chopping machine, and we finished earlier than ex-
pected. I was grateful, and not just because of the end of work. Raige was going to dislocate a
vertebra if he didn‟t stop looking over his shoulder, and he fidgeted all the while I asked for our
pay. Our employers gave it up unhappily, but without prompting, and they weren‟t done with us.
Somehow I wasn‟t surprised.
        “How much for him?” One of them asked me.
        I paused in weighing the flour and reverted to English. “Oh, here we go.”
        Raige made a sound so quiet I didn‟t quite make it out. It might‟ve been a squeak.
        “Come again?” They inquired.
        I quickly got my tongue in order. The last thing I wanted was to insult them by accident
via language barrier. “How much for… Raige?” Pray tell me Thomas had just sickened my
mind.
        “Strictly on a temporary basis.” One of the beings hastily reassured. “He has quite a nice
skin, very pale and interestingly spotted; could we buy him for the day?”
        “He wouldn‟t agree to it.”
        “Oh, then he doesn‟t belong to you? We thought he was yours.”
        “Uh, no.” I said with a cough, trying to keep my visualizing brain blind. Somewhere in
my head, I had a vague impression of black leather and whips. I shoved back the impulse to
mimic Raige‟s Parkinson‟s Vhambie performance.
        “Then it is not your decision to make. Let him decide.”
        “Hey Raige?” I asked in English.
        Silence.
        “Raige?”
        “Yeah?” His voice was higher than mine; he knew what was coming, but he was hoping
against hope that I would have a merciful streak and lie to him. Unfortunately, I only lie about
things that I can smooth over.
        So I just grinned at him pathetically. It did the job.
        “AGAIN?”
        Loud, short, and emphatic. It‟d do. I turned back to my employers. “He says no.”
        “How much will it take to change his mind?”
        “I don‟t think—”
        The price they named made my mouth drop open.
        “I… ooh. Ooh.”
        Being the reasonable guy he was, Raige panicked.
        “No! Whatever it is, no, no, no!”
        I shook my head in awe. “But—but—”
        “No buts!” Parkinson‟s Vhambie again. “No! No! I didn‟t think that!”
        “Milquetoast, you‟re worth more than a solid month of Mngleh‟s pay.” I breathed. “I
mean, do you know what—”
        “NO! I am NOT selling my ass!”
        He had no idea how hard this was to turn down. The going rate for Raige‟s virginity was
getting up there with gold, plutonium, and heroin. But still, he was my best friend, and best
friends don‟t sell each other for dubious carnal purposes.
        Back to my employers. “Still no.”
        “Tell him to be reasonable.”
        No need to glance back at Raige; I could hear him hyperventilating behind me. “I‟m
afraid that‟s not possible.”
        They were getting indignant. “You can‟t parade wares like that and then refuse to sell
them!”
        That stopped me short. This was the first time someone had gotten pushy about this. The
logic would‟ve been ridiculous on Earth, but this was Treehouse, and I knew just enough about
its legal system to know that I didn‟t know the first thing about it. More ridiculous things had
gone through the council before. My inner rat scrambled, and I was forced to do something I
knew Raige would hate me for later.
        “He already belongs to someone.” I told them as smoothly as I could. “They‟re protective
and he‟s not allowed anyone else.”
        “Who‟s his master?” Was that a hint of skepticism I detected? Had my reputation spread
that fast? I needed something to keep them from probing.
        Lucky I had many roommates. I kept my voice bland. “Mngleh.”
        Their skins became distinctly greenish. “Ah. We understand.” They said anxiously.
Then they added mournfully, “Unfortunate creature.”
        And they let us go immediately. Needless to say, we weren‟t reluctant to leave. I wanted
to get us out of the vicinity before they got up their courage to argue with me.
        “Don‟t worry.” I told Raige. “You‟re safe. I talked them out of it.”
        “Finally!” He breathed, burying a filthy hand in his sweaty hair. Then he suddenly
straightened and gave me a narrow stare. “What did you tell them?”
        I let my eyes go wide with innocence.
        “Oh yeah right, Miss „Taste My Regressive Wrath.‟ What did you say to them?”
        He had to ask. “You‟re Mngleh‟s.”
        His response was the blank silence and loose jaw that made him look thirty IQ points
short of a norm.
        I cleared my throat. “I said he was. Uh. Protective. Of you. And you weren‟t allowed
any other. Um. Prospects.” Long pause. I finally concluded, “Yeah.”
        Now he got it. What he did next I can only describe as an attempt to withdraw into his
internal organs. “Oh my god! Oh my god! That‟s even worse than anything I thought you might
come up with!”
        “Yes, well…”
        “That‟s just… ugh! He‟s old enough to be my dad!”
        “Actually, considering the centuries he was dead…” I started, but that just renewed
Raige‟s hysterics and I changed subjects before his central nervous system suffered permanent
damage. “Look, they don‟t know that and even so, they‟d see it as some odd social custom.” I
pointed out. “He was the first person who came to mind, all right? They thought you belonged to
me at first, but I told them you didn‟t before I figured out the problem, so I had to come up with
someone without looking like a complete liar. Mngleh has the best reputation out of all of us;
they‟re not going to challenge him over it. Where‟s the open-minded liberal tolerance you‟re so
proud of?”
        “This isn‟t about tolerance! This is about Mngleh—and his other half! Do you know
what Venna will do to me when she hears about this?” He shrieked. The tone of his voice and
that he was fussing with his hair proved he was far from comforted.
        “Don‟t worry, I‟ll explain to her before she gets a different version from the Treehouse
grapevine.” That should give me, at most, two hours. “Just arrange to be out of the house when I
do it.”
        “Jeezus, do you really tune out her threats as easily as she complains you do? Do you
actually not remember them?”
        Oh, I remembered them. Even my powers of ignoring people had limits. “Bobby should
calm her down first before she can act on them.” And I was a Klingon from Mars, but Raige had
enough stress right now. “Look, I‟m not happy about what I had to say either. I know how
Treehouse gossip goes. I just think having to explain to Mngleh and Venna is more healthful
than you spending the rest of the day on your back. No telling what exotic STDs you might pick
up.”
        He shuddered and we walked in silence for a while more.
        “Aren‟t you curious about exactly how much they offered for you?” I asked.
        “No!” He squeaked, rubbing his hands up and down his arms as though to block a chill.
“Why do all these people think I‟m for sale? Do I look like a sofa?”
        “You act as though this is something unusual. Treehouse sells everything. Remember
that guy who tried to buy Bobcat‟s tail off him?”
        “Yes, but that was a part of his body. They want all of mine!”
        I snorted. “Don‟t be stupid. They don‟t want all your body—just a few select parts and
your freckles. Don‟t ask me why, but that‟s what really seems to get them.”
        He was sounding a little sulky. “No one on Earth seemed to care.”
        “Yeah, well, we both know that Earthlings are off in the deep end. They think high heels
are good, for crying out loud, and they care way too much about acne; single alien males trapped
on another galaxy aren‟t nearly as picky. Really, you‟re not a bad example of your species. You
understand the joy that is punning.”
        “Gee, thanks. That‟s a stand-up compliment from you.”
        You could always tell when Raige was starting to really get annoyed because it was one
of the few times he ever became sarcastic. It only encouraged me. “What, you want more? Your
muscle tone is decent, your skin is a rarity here, you can handle an axe, you can pet Bobcat into
joyful oblivion—”
        “Shut up!” Squeak.
        I grinned. Thomas was right; this was too easy. “That‟s what you get when you try to
fish for compliments with an asexual being from another planet. And you‟re turning red.”
        “Shut up, or I‟ll tell Thomas that you were being nice and ruin your reputation.”
        No fair. I shut up and left him at the lake to try and wash the sweat and sawdust and
mental trauma off his body. I would‟ve been happy to clean off myself, but was too exhausted
after labor to go through all the required rigmarole. Along with my ease in snapping people had
come a renewed sensitivity around conductors. That would be handy if I wanted to electrically
shock someone through a boxcar wall, but it also meant that bathing now made me go psychic
with whatever creatures happened to reside in the water. The last time I‟d tried to swim, I
would‟ve drowned if Mngleh hadn‟t fished me out so Venna could tell me off. Dragging a huge
tub full of water up to somewhere private to wash off sounded like too much work at that mo-
ment.
        I figured I‟d just head home while Raige was busy and break the news about his owner-
ship before there was time for Venna to work up a serious head of steam. Might as well get the
worst part over with, after all.
        Ready to duck more flying plates, I poked my head through the door, equipped with my
broadest grin and most soothing tones. “Hey, Venna? I have a story for you. Now, it‟s not as
bad as… Venna? Hello?”
        No raging mind-weaver descended upon me, and nobody shouted for me to shut up.
        “Guys?” I called. “Anyone home?”
        Apparently not. After a moment‟s thought, I shrugged and decided it was for the best.
Rare was the time when everybody in the house was at work, and the silence and lack of may-
hem might as well be used properly. Some anatomy involving tentacles awaited my study.
Whether I told her now or later, Venna would still be enraged about the suggestion that Mngleh
would ever toy around with someone as useless as Raige. Having decided on my course of ac-
tion, I shuffled on up to my room, only to find it already occupied by the master of reality as we
knew it. Never gamble with him.
         My life considered flashing before my eyes. The last time I‟d seen Mr. Rawls, he‟d had
his brain hijacked by Number One—yes, that old army buddy of mine from Della I mentioned—
who‟d broken my arm and was directly responsible for that prolonged stay with the Paradox.
Did I mention that Dellans have some very strange ideas about friendship, and that we weren‟t
on the best of terms anymore? Needless to say, I wasn‟t entirely excited to see Mr. Rawls, even
though I‟d exorcised his psyche three months ago.
         “Oh no…” I moaned.
         Mr. Rawls removed the cigarette from his lips and attempted eye contact but failed. “If
this is a bad time, I can‟t come back later.”
         I groaned. “I guess now‟s fine. Not like I have anything more pressing to do.” Whatever
he was here for, chances were good that it was important, and chances were better that is was a
disaster. That seemed to be Mr. Rawls‟s normal reason for visitation.
         “Don‟t start to complain.” Mr. Rawls said. “This is important, and I have to be fast.” His
voice was rapid and flat, as though he‟d memorized his lines.
         I sighed. “It‟s disaster, isn‟t it?”
         “I can‟t say.”
         I groaned again. “Fine, be enigmatic; maybe I don‟t want to know how I‟ll die.”
         “It‟s for the best.”
         “Oh, like you and Number One playing body hockey and giving us the crash course on
down here in the first place was?”
         “Shut up!” He snapped, cutting me off. I don‟t know who was more shocked at his own
uncharacteristic aggression, him or me. Before I could recover and comment on it, he pointed at
the Bowie knife thrust in my belt. “My Elemental knife isn‟t broken.”
         “It isn‟t?” So far, I‟d been using it to cut up dinner and opening cans, since the only mag-
ical property it had shown so far was being self-sharpening.
         “No. Stop distracting me.” He snapped, and impatiently rattled off, “it‟s one of the less
famous weapons, so it isn‟t widely recognized, but you can determine its veracity by the chip of
emerald embedded in the core of its hilt, and the atomic structure of the metal in the blade. It has
some sort of abstruse emotional trigger—”
         “What?”
         “—Doesn‟t matter—and it‟s worth four and a half billion standard cred. Remember that:
four and a half billion standard.”
         “Why‟re you—”
         “Just remember, four and a half billion standard.” He chanted. “You‟re looking for your
brother, right? Been looking.” He sighed and bit his lip. “You don‟t have transportation to Earth
yet. I‟ll do it.”
         “What? Now?”
         “Sure, why not?” He said with a nervous, almost delirious laugh. “No time like the
present! Hurry up and come on.”
         “But I… uh, why?” I stammered.
          If I didn‟t hurry up and stop pestering him with necessary questions, I had the feeling he
would turn me into a newt. “It‟s safer.”
        This was getting ridiculous. “Mr. Rawls, the last time you said „safer,‟ you booted me to
Earth, and the PIN tossed me into the desert for violating intergalactic immigration laws. Even
my definition of „safer‟ doesn‟t cover that.”
        “Look,” Mr. Rawls snapped impatiently, “you can risk me and fetch your darling brother,
or you can wait until your cat works out some diplomatic agreement allowing him to set foot on
Earth. I can promise at least five years.”
        He shoots; he scores. Two points for the man in the maroon bathrobe. “Fine, I guess I
can‟t be picky.” I said. “Open the Vortex and blip me there.”
        “No!” He cried. With a nervous laugh, he lowered his voice to a normal volume again
and said quietly but adamantly, “Not the Vortex. Not safe anymore.”
        “Wait, wait, the Vortex was safe?” It was settled; I‟d missed some vital information dur-
ing this conversation. Like why exactly all this was happening. “Have you forgotten that whole
dropping-us-down-the-volcano thing?”
        He winced. “Accident!”
        “And the toothy-monster thing?”
        “Accident!”
        “And the Cher‟s-walk-in-closet thing?”
        “All right, fine, so it was never safe!” He cried. “But it‟s less safe now!”
        I gazed at him in distinct lack of amusement. “The universe is melting, isn‟t it?”
        The cigarette was burning into his fingers, and he hadn‟t even noticed yet. “Look, I don‟t
have time for this nonsense.” He was calling what I said nonsense? “Are we going to help each
other or not?”
        At the time, I didn‟t consider the true meaning of his sentence. All I considered was that
this was about the one chance I‟d ever get and if I thought about it too long, that Mr. Rawls
would just vanish in his usual way. “All right. I accept.”
        “Good. Let‟s go.”
        “But Scorch and—”
        He snapped his fingers. “Done. You‟re on leave.”
        Dealing with a being that warped reality at a whim was like moving in fast-forward. “But
everyone else—” When he raised his hand to snap his fingers again, I added, “No you don‟t. I
like to have some control over my destiny.”
        Rolling his eyes, Mr. Rawls thrust a quill pen at me and something that looked like paper
but wasn‟t, and with a nod of thanks, I quickly scribbled down a message, so nobody would
think I‟d gotten eaten by giant rabbits or something.
        “Is that all?” I asked.
        “Almost.” He thrust a jar into my hand. “Take these when you need sleep.”
        “What?” I was completely bewildered now. “Why—”
        “You‟ll need them. All right, you have eight days, if you‟re lucky.”
        “Eight—but—”
        “Best I can do. Good luck. Have a nice time on terra firma. Stay out of sight. Stay out
of court.”
        “Court?”
        “Trouble. I meant trouble.” He giggled. “Don‟t forget, four and a half billion standard,
emerald chip, and atomic structure!”
        And he shoved me backward into the abyss that obligingly opened up behind me. I
didn‟t even have time to finish my blank look and wonder exactly what I‟d just gotten myself
into. Suddenly I began to realize just how Raige must feel half the time.




                             3: Bring On the Disaster!
                                  Charlene Unnigrutt



        My second job was patching sheets for a creature that looked like a Care Bear. It was
easy and boring, so I had plenty of time to mull over all the ways M.D. could‟ve planned to ex-
plain the whole disturbing Mngleh and me thing to Venna. My imagination was pretty good, and
so was M.D.‟s mouth, but I just couldn‟t envision a way she could pull it off without getting
them angry. And no matter how fast-talking she is, M.D. just can‟t hold her own in a fight.
        I was worrying too much, I decided as I stitched my way around the corner. Venna was a
fairly reasonable person. Most likely, I‟d come home and M.D. would greet me happily and
smiling. Yeah, she‟d be wearing bandages and a blood-flecked grin and she‟d say, “It went over
pretty frogging well. Have you seen my morphine? Some part of my insides with a really long
name you‟ve never heard of, while you‟re at it?”
        I stabbed myself in the thumb for the third time with my sewing needle and jerked back
with a muffled exclamation. With M.D., you couldn’t worry too much, and Venna either. I had
to finish up my mending and give her some backup before she went right back into the Paradox‟s
care. Okay, so I couldn‟t hold my own in a fight either, but at least I could give her moral sup-
port or something—for some reason, people prefer punching M.D. to punching me.
        My job went quickly, because the patching itself was easy. Getting the money, on the
other hand, was another thing altogether. Bobcat had done the translating earlier, but he was off
arbitrating something now, and the Care Bear spoke Tree-speech even worse than I did. This
wasn‟t the first time I‟d tried to have a conversation in these conditions, and it always made me
yearn for home and Vaygo. Sure, sometimes people‟s accents were thick, but not like this!
        “Money me now.” I asked.
        “No understand.” It replied.
        “Money. Me. Now.” I repeated.
        “No. Understand.” It repeated.
        God, what was the Tree-speech word for „pay‟? I couldn‟t remember. „Give,‟ either.
How could Thomas remember this, Spanish, and English every day? “Money to me. For…”
Christ, I didn‟t know the word for „sheet‟ either, “Cloth.”
        “Yes. How much?”
         I was delighted. Progress! One of the few things M.D. and Thomas had been able to get
me to remember was how to say exactly how much I was supposed to be paid. “Two bags.”
         The Care Bear puffed out like it‟d been hit with static electricity. “Much! No!”
         I bit my lip. I hated haggling; it always made me feel like a jerk taking advantage of
another‟s generosity. “One and a half.”
         “Much! No! Half!”
         “Half?” Bogart had already cried twice this week with what I‟d brought home; I had a
feeling I might be getting cheated. “Small, yes?”
         “Half.” It was beginning to sound annoyed.
         M.D. was probably getting into a fight already; I didn‟t have time to argue it. Let Bobcat
and Bogart worry about the money. I snatched the half bag, gave it the sheets, rushed out, and
began weaving through traffic.
         Venna‟s reaction, it seemed, wasn‟t what I should‟ve been worried about. Before I got
within even ten yards of the house, my eyes started to water and my throat began to tickle like I
was about to sneeze. Passing it off as something it the air, I sniffed, kept going, and by the time I
got within a few feet of the door, my throat had closed up, and I felt like I was breathing without
taking in any air. Before I made them any worse, I sat down to rest and pulled out the inhaler I‟d
gotten used to carrying around. A couple huffs of bitter tasting air, and I settled down to wait.
         I‟ve never heard of anybody but me being allergic to magic, but I guess it doesn‟t really
bother too many people on Earth, seeing as magic isn‟t too thick there. Treehouse has more, but
still not enough to bother me unless I wander into a bad patch, something that‟s happened rarely
ever since Bobcat had put me on cold iron supplements. Even when Bogart or M.D. were prac-
ticing something that violated the laws of physics, they usually did it delicately enough and far
enough away to keep me from doing anything worse than coughing when I was in the house, and
even then, it usually cleared up quickly. I hadn‟t felt this bad this fast since I‟d been hit with Mr.
Rawls‟s ambiance without cold iron as a buffer.
         My allergies didn‟t completely clear up, but they didn‟t get worse either, so I was still
sitting by the door with my fingers buried in my hair and my inhaler in my hand when Venna
and Mngleh came home. They must not have known anything, because they didn‟t look at me
like I was scum, but I was beyond thinking about that at the moment.
         “What?” She asked in English comparable to my Tree-speech, though telepathy made her
understand anything I said. “Sick?”
         “I think Mr. Rawls dropped by.” I said, twirling my inhaler through my fingers nervous-
ly. There was no reason he should‟ve come that I knew of, and no offense to him, but he wasn‟t
a bearer of good news most of the time.
         Her eyes narrowed. “Is no way?”
         “Not unless Bogart‟s practicing something a lot stronger than usual. Did he mention he‟d
be doing anything like that?”
         She shook her head and exchanged one of those glances with Mngleh that didn‟t seem to
convey anything but always did. Cranky as he was, Bogart was always good about telling me
whenever he planned something; he wouldn‟t have forgotten. “Here? Now?” She asked me.
         “Not for a while. Otherwise I couldn‟t have gotten this close to the house, even with my
inhaler.” I said. I‟d still be outside for quite a while, though.
         Mngleh sniffed. Then, to my shock, his facial features moved. He frowned—not an an-
gry frown, nor a big one, but that didn‟t matter. His expression hadn‟t changed much from the
days he was a statue; any emotion he conveyed had to be important. He advanced towards the
door, cautiously inhaling again. When he paused, Venna growled. Both of them stiffened and
sprouted weaponry at the same time.
        “What is it?” I squeaked. Every time their weapons appeared in their hands that quickly,
I knew someone was going to get sliced.
        “Person.” Venna hissed, gesturing at me to be quiet. She reached up to wrap an arm
around Mngleh‟s massive forearm and closed her eyes. Her muscles relaxed and her head listed
forward, though she stayed standing and her knife didn‟t fall out of her hand. After a second, she
straightened up and opened her eyes.
        “What‟s going on?” I asked nervously.
        I felt the whiplash zing in my temples that came when Venna or M.D. snapped me. Ven-
na didn‟t do it unless M.D. or Bobby weren‟t around to translate and she had to quickly explain
something complicated that her English vocabulary didn‟t cover. She didn‟t do it often, because
Dellan telepathy isn‟t nearly as clean as Bobcat‟s. You didn‟t get just conscious thought; you
got emotions, sensations, even flickers of mental pictures. I felt wariness, paranoia, and smelled
something musky, kind of like Mngleh, and the hard electric smell of magic, amplified about
twenty times. I reflexively sneezed. “Someone besides Mr. Rawls was here, after he left. Some-
one who shouldn‟t be here.” Venna and Mngleh said in one mental voice. Another thing I‟d tak-
en a while getting used to.
        “Who?”
        “We can‟t tell.” I couldn‟t blame them; the smell of Mr. Rawls‟s magic covered just
about everything. “Familiar, though.” The connection broke with another zing.
        I still couldn‟t go into the house, but Venna and Mngleh could and they didn‟t wait for
backup because they didn‟t need it. Mngleh reached to open the door with his free hand, then
blinked when he tried to pull it open, only to find it was still locked. He and Venna exchanged
another one of those odd stares, and her developing glower didn‟t do anything for my nerves.
She unlocked the door, and then she and Mngleh crept in with their weaponry. I waited with my
knee jumping nervously as they scanned the place, waiting for either their spine-freezing battle
cry or for them to come out. When they did roughly twenty minutes later. Of course, you could
never tell what Mngleh was feeling, but Venna looked cranky.
        “Nothing.” She said, which I figured.
        “That‟s good, right?” I said hopefully, though the squeak in my voice got higher. “If they
didn‟t rob us, nothing to worry about, right?”
        “No.” Venna said coldly, and you could see that the warrior part of her had taken over. It
didn‟t matter that she had the body of a nine-year-old; she was nobody to mess with. Her telepa-
thy snapped in again, and now I could feel her nervousness. “Unless someone wanted something
I wouldn‟t recognize—we‟ll need to ask Bobcat and Bogart, I don‟t know all the garbage they
carry—if they didn‟t need the door and left everything as it was, they wanted one of us.” Then
she expanded the link. I felt her draw on Mngleh for a power boost, and after a second of strain,
she managed to reach Bobcat, even though he was half the town away.
        Is something wrong? He inquired.
        “Where is everyone?” Venna and Mngleh asked.
        Bobcat had a much stronger grasp of telepathy than she did, and so he felt their anxiety
immediately. Without more than token effort, he quickly, nervously herded everyone else into
the link like a mother hen gathering her chicks. In his hurry, he forgot to brief everyone, giving
them only the jolt of suddenly being in mental contact with everyone else.
         What’s going on? Houdini asked. He was on the fringe of the forest, stuffing his face
with sunflower seeds.
         Now what? Bogart grumped. The distraction had just caught him in mid-spell, and he‟d
almost let it slide.
         “Sorry, I‟m kinda busy right now!” Aqua cried. His attention was divided; he was prob-
ably chasing something indescribable.
         Venna, Mngleh, and I knew perfectly well who was missing, and none of us were that
surprised. Bobby beat us to it. Where’s M.D.?
         There was a general chorus of „I don‟t know‟ from everyone. “She doesn‟t have a job
right now, I thought. The Paradox always let her off mid-mornings.” Aqua said, showing his un-
usual bent for remembering random details. “So she should be at home.”
         Bogart groaned. Let me guess: she’s missing again.
         Venna and Mngleh broke in. One good thing about Dellan telepathy is that it‟s a fast and
sloppy way to download information in bulk into your head, and that‟s exactly what they did
with the current situation. Bobcat, however, was able to refine it down into a more comprehens-
ible format, and soon everyone knew more or less what had happened.
         “We investigated.” Venna and Mngleh said. “If M.D. left word, it‟d be in English.”
Which they couldn‟t read. “Raige can go look for it.”
         “Wait!” I protested before they could kick me into the house and take bets on how fast
I‟d go into shock. “You know what Mr. Rawls does to me!”
         Mr. Rawls was in the house? Houdini asked. Why?
         “Ooh! Ooh!” Aqua said, like an eager kid in class. “I know! It‟s disaster, right?”
         The most pathetic part was that he didn‟t know what disaster even meant. He‟d just
heard the word often enough to assume that it was relevant.
         Yes, Aqua. Houdini said in as soothing a voice he could while still being utterly dry.
Yes, that’s probably why.
         “Yay! I‟m right!” Aqua cried.
         Bogart became helpful. Look, I should have a chunk of cold iron in my room; I use
it for training. It should hold off the allergies Raige might get. Tell us what’s going on
in there, will you? I’m cutting off what I’m doing and coming home.
         “Me too.” Aqua said, and Houdini echoed him.
         Venna and Bobcat broke the link. Mngleh had already disappeared inside the house, and
he came out within a couple seconds with a chunk of metal roughly the size of my fist on a cord.
Since a throw from Mngleh would probably break my hand, he held it out to drop it gently into
my grasp. The moment it touched my skin, I could breathe easily, and I stood up without any
tightness in my lungs. Pausing only to twist the cord around my hand to ensure that the iron
wouldn‟t go anywhere, I jogged into the house, leaving Venna and Mngleh polishing their
swords outside. Shoving my hand back through my hair, I headed upstairs to M.D.‟s room.
         Venna and Mngleh had been right about everything looking all right. M.D.‟s room
wasn‟t disturbed at all; in fact, it was terrifyingly neat, just the way she liked it, her textbooks
organized and everything in a neat little stack. However, I did notice that her herb belt and her
knife were missing. Oddly enough, that made me feel a little less worried. Sure, it meant that
M.D. wouldn‟t be back in five minutes, but it also meant that if she had gone somewhere, it was
willingly since she never went anywhere without them unless you dragged her. Maybe she was
just working another job that‟d come in at the last time. I mean, the simplest explanation is
usually right, isn‟t it? Occam‟s Razor?
         Okay, so that was all bull. M.D. never followed Occam‟s Razor, and Mr. Rawls broke it
shaving one day. Still, I kept trying to believe it anyway until I saw the note in her handwriting,
which pretty much ruined my wishful thinking. For a second, I had a nice daydream that it was
just research on magic history or diphtheria or something nice and M.D.-ish like that, but then I
remembered that this was the same girl who‟d nearly attacked me for leaving her notes in the
wrong book. No, this thing was meant to be found. I snatched it up, feeling relief underlain by
looming, icy dread. Still tried for optimism, though. Maybe she‟d tell us she‟d been called out
by the Paradox for just another case.
         Yeah. Of course it was.
         Don’t worry, I’m not getting myself killed. Crap. She was in jail already. Just gone to
finish up forgotten business and getting a ride from Mr. Rawls. Todd’s waited long enough; it’s
time to get him up and gone. It’s already been checked with the Paradox. Don’t worry, I prom-
ise I’ll be back, so you shouldn’t need to panic.
         I moaned, burying my fingers in my hair. If M.D. knew something would go right, she
figured you knew it too, so she didn‟t waste her time trying to reassure you. On the other hand,
not many things with her went right, and that‟s when she did waste her time trying to reassure
you—or maybe herself. At least she hadn‟t gotten in the way of whoever our mystery guy was;
she was aggressive enough to fight back if someone broke in, even if they were benign.
         I‟d hoped that the last line said where she was going, or at least when she‟d be coming
back. But nope, she was too busy being macho, self-reliant, and totally unhelpful.
         PS: Raige (it IS you reading this, right? RIGHT?), come after me and I’ll gut you. The
last phrase was underlined twice.
         I would‟ve laughed any other time. God, that was rich. Her gutting me was the least of
my worries, and so was Venna finding out I was Mngleh‟s. Right now, I had to stress over the
house being broken into and M.D. being her normal gung-ho self.
         No, wait. Later, I would stress about the house being broken into and M.D. being her
normal gung-ho self. Right now, I had something even worse to worry about.
         You see, I still had to explain all this to everyone else. Including Bogart.
                                                          
         So. She did it. Bogart‟s voice didn‟t show anything, despite the telepathy. She did the
one thing that we told her, quite explicitly, not to do. He twitched twice but didn‟t say any-
thing, and for a second, I thought I just might‟ve passed it by him. Then the shock wore off, and
he exploded. I’ll kill her! I will kill that stubborn disobedient brat! I’ll throttle her! Curse
her to speak in rhyme! I’ll disintegrate her myself! No! Wait! Turn her into a newt
and beat her with a hammer! He cackled insanely and began to strangle an invisible throat
under him. His twitch was in full swing now. Yes, yes, I will beat her with a hammer!
         On second thought, maybe M.D. had actually been vague on purpose. She might‟ve es-
caped getting killed by our visitor, but her master would‟ve taken care of the job. After blowing
off steam, he‟d calm down in a couple hours or so, but until then, M.D. really was better off on
Earth with the PIN agents. At least all they wanted was to deport her.
         Bogart, control yourself! Bobcat ordered. I am hardly ecstatic about her decision either,
but you know that M.D. trusts herself infinitely more than any other being on this planet. Be-
sides, it is best that she left. Otherwise she would have been here when our house was broken in
and likely ended up in the ICU again.
         Bogart stayed furious but at least he stopped discussing ways to kill his apprentice. What
are we supposed to do? He screamed. What are we going to tell the Boss?
        We lost her. Houdini said resignedly.
        We lost her? Bogart echoed incredulously. How do you lose eighty pounds of loud-
mouthed Senyan?
        You should know; we’ve already managed it twice. Houdini replied with a wry, sickly
flick of his whiskers.
        Bogart groaned. Don’t remind me. We can’t even say she’s been abducted again;
we used that excuse last time. Think we could get by with the mental instability case?
        Nah, we used that back in her seventh grade year and it might be a bit risky to use it
again, if you know what I mean. Houdini reminded meaningfully.
        Bobcat made the mental equivalent of a frown. Are you sure we’ve used it?
        Sure, you remember, Houdini encouraged, back when she tried to hitchhike to Ari-
zona and we had to arrange for the authorities to drag her home? Back when Bogart was
still bashing it out with the Venusians?
        Oh, yes. I’d forgotten about that.
        They sorta blur together after a while, eh? Houdini agreed, sounding nostalgic.
        Bogart wasn‟t taking it nearly as well. Exactly! Ever since we made that mistake of
agreeing to watch after her, we’ve been on the verge of becoming abruptly let go,
which is what’s going to happen if the Boss finds out about this. And I don’t know
about you, but my savings can’t take that shock!
        Your darling savings needn’t worry. I thought it was fairly obvious that we weren’t
going to tell the Boss anything. Houdini said wryly.
        “Wait, you aren‟t?” I asked, but Bogart had built up too much a head of steam for anyone
to interrupt.
        Don’t you get it? We can’t tell the Boss because we’ll lose our job, so we can’t
get official permission to go to Earth, and we’ll be deported if we set foot on Earth
without permission and lose our jobs that way!
        “The PIN won‟t let you on Earth?” Venna asked sharply.
        Most planets don’t allow free blipping traffic. Bobcat replied. Paperwork is required, just
as with any other form of international travel, unless you leave so quickly the inhabitants don’t
realize you’ve arrived.
        “No, I understand that.” Venna said. “But you spent years on Earth beforehand. Surely
they‟d let you return.”
        Of course not! Houdini said with a bark of laughter. After that fiasco in the desert—
        Bogart groaned. Only she could manage so much trouble in so little time.
        —The PIN doesn’t want anyone even remotely associated with her on their planet.
Houdini continued. Not that I blame them. They’re probably positive that we’re her legal
guardians and therefore directly responsible for controlling her.
        Yes. Bobcat agreed. Without The Boss’s permission, the PIN would never allow our pres-
ence. If we tried to blip in illegally, our superiors would be contacted and… he winced. Unplea-
santness implied. Our blipping is monitored.
        “But, Mr. Rawls—” I started.
        That wasn’t us. That was him. And it wasn’t a thing like my blipping, thank you.
Houdini interrupted. Now let the kitty talk.
        Thank you. Bobcat said, his tail flicking in annoyance. As I was saying, the Boss will
know we blipped to Earth and desire to know why we did so without requesting her permission
beforehand if our lives weren’t in danger. We are already in poor standing; she’d fire us for
breaking the rules.
         Again. Houdini reminded wryly.
         Yes. Again. Bobcat said stiffly. He sighed. I suppose I might be able to convince her to
give us permission, as long as I stay supremely discreet, but upper class, it would take at least
two days to simply get an appointment. Much longer before she agreed to it, if at all.
         Houdini spoke up. Well, we sure can’t just wait a couple days for you to talk to The
Boss. You know M.D.; come at breakfast, jailed by lunch. Let’s call Mr. Rawls and make
a deal with him.
         Deal, nothing. Bogart retorted. He sent the little brat to Earth; he can jolly well
send her back! I’m summoning that snot. Someone as magical as he is, it shouldn’t be
too hard, especially since his ambience is still floating around.
         For the next few minutes or so, Bogart rummaged around pulling equipment out of his
little storage overlap, which is pretty much the jaunter version of storage space that you can
reach anywhere. I can‟t actually see a storage overlap, so to my eyes, Bogart reached forward
and abruptly lost a foreleg. The stuff he brought out looked like junk to me; a half-empty bottle
of something that looked like mustard, a dented copper tub you could broil a turkey in, and five
candles that had nothing in common besides a half-melted pyramid shape. Bogart wrapped his
tiny toad legs around the mustard bottle, lifted it, and laid it down on its side without effort, even
though it towered over him, and after sticking a toe into the mustard, started drawing on the
floor. I took a step forward, planning to offer to help, but Bobby stopped me.
         Don’t bother. He’ll refuse. He said to me. The telepathy was private from Bogart, a
mental whisper. The insignia required for a summoning is delicate work, something he won’t
trust to anyone else.
         Bogart was so grouchy most of the time, it was hard for me to imagine him getting en-
thused about anything, never mind his work. But still, he‟d become a sorcerer against his own
body chemistry for a reason, and soon he was drawn into the painting of mustard on the floor,
droning something so low it was almost inaudible. Since Mr. Rawls was the size of an average
human being and Bogart was tiny, it took him over an hour to finish the huge painting, but when
he did, he looked pretty pleased with himself.
         Nice—the next word didn‟t translate, but Houdini‟s nods of admiration made his opinion
obvious enough. Bogart nodded happily, wiping the gunk off his flippers. When he saw my
blank look, he made an effort, and finally managed to find an English equivalent. Pentacle, I
think.
         It still took a moment for my blank look to fade. I‟d always thought a pentacle was a
five-pointed star. Then again, seeing as that symbol came out of ancient paganism, it doesn‟t
make much sense to assume that every single belief system will come up with the same symbol
for a summoning. Bogart‟s „pentacle‟ was more of a loopy, Spirograph-looking thing with a
bunch of swirls and circles, though it did have five arms and its own bizarre symmetry. At the
end of each one stood one of those lumpy candles, which Bogart lit all at the same time with just
a glance.
         You probably want to leave the room, Raige. Bobcat advised privately to me. If Mr.
Rawls comes into the room, that cold iron might not be enough.
         “I‟ve already taken my meds.” I said. “And I want to stay for this. I think I‟ll be okay.” I
still squeezed the cold iron, making sure I was getting the best of it.
         Bobcat nodded. It is a show you would want to stay for. Just stay back.
        Bogart made his way out of the pentacle, careful not to smudge any lines, and came to the
copper tub. He‟d sent Aqua to fill it with water, and now he gestured towards Aqua to hover
over and bring it into the center of the pentacle. He was precise about it too; at least twice he
made Aqua scoot it over about half an inch because it wasn‟t quite in the middle. Finally he was
satisfied and called Aqua out.
        Don’t say anything until Bogart does. Houdini told me, and then Bogart began his
work.
        He sat outside the lines, closed his eyes and began to hum, which echoed around the
room in ways it shouldn‟t have. The mustard lines of the pentacle began to shimmer a hard gold.
As I watched, the shimmer became a glow, then a light so intense I couldn‟t look directly at it.
Then Bogart‟s hum jumped a minor sixth, making an eerie, unfinished sound echo through the
room. The lines stayed the same brightness, but the light began to leak out of the lines, slowly
turning the whole pentacle gold. The candles, I saw, were melting like crazy, and Bogart‟s hum
began to grow in volume, running eerily sharp without changing notes. Just when it started to
burn my ears, the candles abruptly went out and the light collapsed in on itself. Since the room
didn‟t have any windows, the whole place went pitch black, leaving bluish green afterimages in
my eyes. I heard a splash, something that sounded like dropping a frying pan on the floor, and a
dull thud. Then something wet soaked into my shoes, making me jump back. Something slip-
pery skidded under my sneakers and I toppled backwards with a shout, whacking the back of my
head on the wall.
        Venna! Light! Bogart ordered.
        Globes of blue suddenly sprouted in Venna‟s palms, giving the room a ghostly illumina-
tion. I heard Bogart swear in his native language.
        Mr. Rawls had been summoned, but he was out cold, a pile of robes lying in the pool of
water from the overturned tub. Steam was rising up, and I thought it was some weird effect of
the spell until I saw the thick, heavy iron bands soldered around his forearms.
        Bogart leaped forward, but immediately doubled over and threw up before he got two
inches.
        Get them off him! Bobcat cried, but he didn‟t need to tell us. Far as we could tell, Mr.
Rawls was pretty much immortal, but cold iron was the one thing that seemed to really hurt him.
Aqua had already zoomed through the air, sprouting half-formed limbs to manipulate the cuffs.
        “There‟s no lock!” He cried, trying to squeeze his flesh between Mr. Rawls‟s skin and the
metal to try and pull it off, but Venna had already half-sprinted, half-skidded through the puddle
of water on the floor, smearing mustard everywhere.
        “Move it!” She shouted in Dellan, or something like that I‟m sure, and pitched the shape-
shifter at me. I caught him, thank god, though it knocked me back into the wall, and she turned
to focus on the metal. There was a horrible hiss as the more water on the floor turned to steam,
and the metal bands turned molten and oozed off Mr. Rawls‟s arms. The lights went out again,
and for a while there was chaos as people tried to figure out what was going on until Bobcat
pulled a flashlight out of his kitty-pack and managed to light up the room.
        Venna sat slumped on the floor, panting and shivering. Mngleh was next to her, a huge
arm wrapped tenderly around her shoulders. Melting five or ten pounds of iron had completely
worn her out. The pool of metal lay smoking on the floor in front of them; the only reason it
hadn‟t set the whole house on fire was the water that was still everywhere. Bogart had fled to the
edge of the room, looking sick, and Bobcat and Houdini had edged backwards too, not as sick as
Bogart but still bothered. Aqua was tugging at Mr. Rawls, trying to pull him farther away from
the cold iron, but the sorcerer was way too heavy for him. I absently came over to help him, un-
twisting the cold iron in my hand and popping it into my mouth since I couldn‟t think of any oth-
er place to put it that would help me and not hurt Mr. Rawls. He was surprisingly light, as
though he was only air under his skin, and it was easy for me to pick him up and carry him into
another, lighter room, though I felt my arms break out in an itchy rash.
        “N-n-not table!” Venna barked from the dark room. Well, if she was shouting at me
about cleanliness, she had to be feeling less exhausted.
        I ignored her and laid Mr. Rawls down, scratching at my forearms, which had cracked
and turned red. He didn‟t move, and I could swear he wasn‟t breathing. Then I realized late that
the billowing maroon sleeves of his robe were scorched, which I should‟ve figured on as soon as
Venna went to work. Even though I don‟t know crap about healing, I made the mistake of pull-
ing his sleeve back and immediately dropped his arm with a yelp that nearly made me swallow
the cold iron in my mouth. The flesh of Mr. Rawls‟s arm from wrist to elbow was just… gone,
leaving his hand attached to nothing but a faint shimmer, though when I‟d let go of his hand, it‟d
flopped to the table just as though his arm was still there. I quickly spat the iron back into my
hand so I could scream.
        “Bobby!”
        The cat raced in. He took one look at Mr. Rawls‟s arm and called Bogart, who stumbled
in wanly. I hastily backed away from the table; Mr. Rawls‟s fingertips were smoking from the
cold iron in my hand.
        This is your expertise, not mine. Bobby told Bogart.
        The toad frowned. Well, I can’t say I wasn’t suspecting this. He said thoughtfully.
        “What‟s with his arm?” I squeaked. “Where‟s the… the blood and the muscle and stuff?
It‟s… not there!”
        Bobby, fetch Houdini, will you? After that summoning, I’m going to need him to
help with this. He turned back to me. He doesn’t have them and never did. You probably
noticed he wasn’t breathing; probably doesn’t have a pulse either. Mr. Rawls isn’t hu-
man. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was nothing more than just a chunk of solid sentient
magic. A place with magical fields as strong as the ones in the Vortex, it was bound to
happen sooner or later. Only reason he looks human is to keep us from screaming and
running. Never run into one this sophisticated before, though. The Vortex must be
older than I thought.
        At this time, Houdini came into the room. He examined Mr. Rawls‟s arm and remarked,
Word.
        I might‟ve gotten used to weird things, but I wasn‟t up to Houdini‟s level of blasé yet.
“Well, if he‟s nothing but magic, what‟d the cold iron do to him?” I asked.
        Tore parts of him off and annihilated it. No wonder it hurts. Which means that
Houdini and I have to give him an infusion before he falls apart, which would really be
disturbing. You will definitely have to leave the room for this; even if what we’re doing
doesn’t kill you, the cold iron in your hand will ruin it.
        I left and sat in the other room with Aqua in my lap, waiting.
        “At least I‟m not the only body morpher in this place.” He said perkily. Conversation
was beyond me, so I just patted him on the head and nodded, which made him happy enough.
        After a few minutes of Aqua talking to me about shades of grass, I heard a groan.
        Come on in, Raige. Houdini said. He sounded tired. He’s up.
        I came into the room, but now that Mr. Rawls was back up to his usual magic strength, I
couldn‟t get too close to him without feeling sick, cold iron or not. From my position at the
doorway, I gave him a wave, but he wasn‟t focusing on me.
        “…Profound thanks.” Mr. Rawls was saying to Bogart. He was sitting up, but slumped
forward as though the weight of his body was too much for him.
        Bogart was not softened. I can get a thank you anywhere I go. How about repay-
ment?
        Mr. Rawls spread his hands. “Go at it. You saved my life.”
        “What are you?” I asked before Bogart could speak. The toad shot me an angry glare, as
though I was ruining everything.
        Mr. Rawls sighed. His arms, I noticed, had regrown mostly, though there were huge
scars across them and sparks crackling across them as though trying to repair the damage. As he
spoke, he began pulling white ribbon out of the air and wrapping it around his forearms with the
ease and resignation of long practice. “To be completely honest, I‟m not sure. I‟m a part of the
Vortex—or maybe the Vortex is a part of me. I‟m old, probably, but only fairly recently have I
been able to really think, so I‟m not too sure of that either. All I know is that the Vortex is for
me to take care of.”
        Yeah, that’s nice. Bogart cut in. I already knew all that. I’ve met constructs like
you before. My question is, where is my apprentice and what ever possessed you to let
her persuade you into blipping her to Earth?
        Mr. Rawls paused in wrapping his arms. His face had suddenly gone pale. “Oh dear.” He
said. He sounded very calm, but that didn‟t make me feel any better; it was more the kind of
calm when things are beyond help. Then he snapped back into focus. “It was necessary.”
        Bogart gave him a stare that would‟ve had me squirming, but Mr. Rawls drew himself up.
“She was in danger; I simply ameliorated it.”
        Bogart sighed. Raige, I’ve finally found something for you to do now that I can’t
do myself. He sounded very annoyed.
        “Really?” I asked excitedly. Bogart had always seen me as mostly useless. “What can I
do?”
        Slap him.
        “No way.” I said, holding up my red arms.
        Venna shuffled slowly in, half-supported by Mngleh. She had her hand raised, volun-
teered.
        Not seeming to notice he was about to have Venna beat on him, Mr. Rawls absently
rubbed a forearm. “I really did it this time.” He said to himself, twisting his wrists.
        I decided to get my foot in the conversation door before either Venna knocked him out or
Bogart took control again. If that happened, I wouldn‟t get any of my questions answered.
        “How do you get beat up like this?” I blurted. Venna put her arm down, looking fru-
strated. “You‟re the master of the Vortex.”
        Mr. Rawls sighed. “There are rules.”
        “Rules?” In the Vortex? That pretty much contradicted everything I‟d seen of it.
        “Well, yes. Unless they‟re the kind I can break, or unless they‟re the ones with other
rules saying I can.” He saw my face. “It‟s complicated, and they change. When I was under…
control, rules were made to keep me from ending the existence of my controller.”
        “Number One.” Aqua said.
         Going pale again, Mr. Rawls nodded. His voice was quiet but still firm. “He also made
rules so he could affect me. Which he does quite well, as you have just seen. I probably would
have died if you hadn‟t summoned me. I‟ve done it before; it‟s hard to recover from.”
         I’ll bet. Houdini said, taking over for Bogart, who was starting to twitch from me jump-
ing in. Now, how about M.D.?
         “She didn‟t persuade me to do anything. If anything, it was I who persuaded her. I sent
her to Earth. I thought it‟d be safer for her.”
         Bogart couldn‟t stay quiet through that. Are you out of your mind again? He shrieked.
Earth is the last place she should be!
         “I know, all right?” Mr. Rawls shouted. “I‟m the one who sent her there last time, unless
you forget! I‟m full aware of the trouble she can get into!” He suddenly slumped, back to his
quiet self. “And I‟m sorry. But I thought it better than the alternative.”
         “Disaster!” Aqua cried, delighted that he knew the answer.
         He paused, then said, “Someone else came for her, didn‟t they?”
         Venna‟s eyes narrowed.
         Bogart‟s voice was deathly quiet. Your sense of smell can’t be that good. You knew
someone was coming. Who was it?
         “I‟d think that‟d be obvious. Number One wasn‟t trained to give up.”
         Bogart made a smothered sound. Houdini shuddered. Venna and Mngleh exchanged
those glances only they understood.
         Why now? Bobcat asked. I didn‟t know how he could be so calm. Why didn’t he remain,
and what leads you to believe that he wouldn’t simply follow her to Earth?
         “Like me, he was busy recovering from the last battle.” He replied. “As for why he didn‟t
stay, it was because he knew she was gone.”
         How?
         Mr. Rawls looked shifty for a second. “He‟s fluent in English.” He admitted. “He learned
it while controlling me. He read her note just as you did, and left. Taking one of you as hostages
would take effort, and M.D. wouldn‟t know about it until he arrived. As for why he can‟t follow
her, I can‟t directly confront or defy him, but loopholes are my specialty, and he never could
cover everything. I‟ve taken precautions. He… he can‟t follow her.”
         That seems unusually nonviolent for him. Bobcat remarked.
         “He certainly would‟ve gone after Todd Rawlins if I hadn‟t moved before he did. It‟s
been a drain; I‟ve been very busy.” He did look wrecked. He must‟ve been planning this all out
when he was still torn up from the first time he‟d been hit with cold iron.
         “Why‟re you doing this for us?” Venna and Mngleh asked telepathically. “You have
nothing to gain.”
         Mr. Rawls‟s smile gave me the creeps. “I don‟t have any friends, but you‟re my enemy‟s
enemy. Helping you is the best way for me to harm him.”
         So you’re implying that you can’t blip her back. If you do, Number One will pop
up again. Bogart said.
         “Exactly.” Mr. Rawls said. “The only thing you can do to help is expedite her mission.
I‟ll help as best I can.”
         “But what about when she comes back?” I asked. “I mean, won‟t he…”
         “He can‟t.” Mr. Rawls said firmly. “He won‟t. I‟ve made sure of it.”
         That sounded wrong to me, but no one can lie to a telepath, and Mr. Rawls did have a lot
of power, even if he didn‟t act like he did. We had a lot to worry about already, so we had to
take his word for it. Venna was frowning, like she felt something was wrong too, but she didn‟t
say anything.
        Bobcat had it all figured out by now. Really, this isn’t too much of a development from
what I had thought before, except that now you’re here, we can blip someone else without the
Boss knowing, since you are completely beyond her radar. Therefore we go ahead as planned.
Send someone there to help and make sure she doesn’t get too deeply into trouble, and bring her,
and Todd, home as quickly as possible before the PIN involves itself.
        We’ll have to send someone who isn’t part of the Jaunter’s League. Houdini re-
minded. Even if it isn’t us doing the blipping, we’ll draw notice just because we jumped
overlaps. The last thing we want is for one of our coworkers to show up, worrying we were
attacked.
        Aqua immediately opened his mouth to volunteer, but Bobcat added, They have to be
able to blend in on Earth, both physically and culturally.
        Aqua pouted. “It‟s cuz I‟m blue, isn‟t it?”
        “That takes Venna and Mngleh out of it too.” I said, a little relieved. They would proba-
bly be the best for the job, as far as „search and containment‟ went, but they weren‟t exactly
friendly.
        There was only one problem; that knocked everyone off the roster. Everyone except…
        Simultaneously, everyone‟s eyes moved to me. Their expressions slowly shifted from
frustration and anxiety to cheerful contemplation. I knew that look. I was screwed.
        You know, Houdini mused, The Boss doesn’t know he exists.
        Giving me an appraising look, Bogart smiled in a froglike way. And he speaks English
perfectly and knows all the rules.
        Not even mentioning that as a full-blood human, the PIN cannot legally harm him with-
out reasonable cause. Bobcat purred smoothly.
        “All right.” Mr. Rawls said with a shrug. “I can do it so gently he won‟t get sick.”
        Okay, now I agreed that the faster M.D. got back to Earth, the better, but god knows the
girl had a big enough problem with disaster already. If I went to Earth after her, things would
get even worse. I mean, come on. The PIN had seen me with me before, and my dad was there.
Two very good reasons to tell them I couldn‟t do it. But there was one thing that unraveled it
all. No matter what she said, how loud she said it, and how often she said it, M.D. couldn‟t do
this alone. I couldn‟t just leave her there, no matter how happy she‟d be.
        I sighed. Bogart took it as a refusal.
        You’re full-blood human. Even better, you’re an upper class white male with…
connections, shall we say? I winced. Yeah, my dad. The „Baron of Booze,‟ who I‟d just
ditched on Earth without having the decency to say why. Even if they did know you were
coming, which they won’t, you’ll be fine. The PIN can bother you, but they can’t hurt
you unless you assault them, which, seeing it’s you we’re talking about, we can safely
assume won’t happen.
        Nay, Bogart. Bobcat said. Raige has reason to be doubtful. He can’t go alone; he can’t
physically protect himself if the PIN manage to acquire a carte blanche on him— after all, he
was involved last time. He grinned at my look of relief. He’ll have to take Thomas with him.
        I bit back a groan. I knew it. As soon as they got those looks, I knew I was screwed.
                                                       
        “Okay. You have that look on your face, so I‟m guessing something‟s gone wrong.”
Thomas drawled. “What‟s up?”
        “M.D.‟s back on Earth to get her brother.”
        “Oh! Good for her.”
        “No, not good for her! Number One will kill her if she comes back, but she‟s on Earth.”
        “Good for her.” He repeated, louder.
        “No, not good for her, because now the PIN‟s going to kill her!”
        “For someone with no social life, she sure has them lining up. My uncles were illegal
too, but they never had that many people after them…”
        “Thomas!”
        “Will you take it easy? From what you‟re telling me, there‟s nothing to worry about.
Number One can‟t go to Earth after the PMS-y one, and that Mr. Rawls guy says he won‟t be
coming back here.”
        “That‟s what bothers me.” I said. “I‟ve never seen Mr. Rawls look too sure about much
of anything, never mind something this big.”
        “Good for him. If he‟s confident about this, then that means we‟re home free.”
        “I don‟t know… I still have a feeling that this is working out way too well…”
        “Christ, you sound more like M.D. every day. Next thing you‟re going to say is that
you‟re so paranoid you want me to come with.”
        “Oh thank god, you‟re making it easy for me.” I said.
        He groaned. “Oh, come on, you can‟t be serious; what do y‟all need me for?” He asked.
“No kidding, I appreciate it and all, and I‟m getting back to Austin one way or another, but what
makes them think you need help?”
        “Look, it was Bobcat‟s idea.” I said. “The Jaunter‟s League has no authority over you,
you can fight without a glass sword, and you speak English.”
        He grinned. “Y‟all‟re going to kill me with all this love.”
        “She could get herself killed!” I protested.
        He gave me a look that told me to really think about what I‟d just said. And I did.
        “Well, we can‟t just leave her there!” I protested.
        “Why not?”
        I sighed. “Because I‟m her best friend, and it‟s my job to be the voice of reason. Or at
least do damage control.”
        “Oh, oh, I get that, I‟m not arguing M.D. needs someone to tell her jumping off cliffs is
bad. What I‟m arguing is the „we.‟ „You‟ can‟t just leave her there. I still don‟t get why „we‟ just
can‟t leave her there. You‟re a wuss, but you‟re not completely pathetic. Strap on your shining
armor and go charge in on your white stallion and save your PMS-y princess before she gets her
royal butt shot.” He paused. “No, wait, this was Bobcat‟s idea, so that means there‟s a reason. I
must‟ve missed when you said the disaster; what is it?”
        “The PIN.”
        “Yeah. So? Like I said, you‟re human. They can‟t bother you.”
        “Well, yeah, but they kind of met me after M.D. got on their bad side…”
        He groaned. “Aw, now that‟s just not right. Look, man, I‟m good, but if la migra inter-
galáctica is going to get involved, I really don‟t know if my stuff‟s enough to keep you alive. If
what y‟all‟ve told me is even close to right, they‟re trained to kill people like me.”
        Thomas has the self-confidence of a god, but hey, I‟d have good self-esteem too if I‟d
made a living on my own in Treehouse for a year and a half and survived football practice and
could change most creatures into others just by touching them. He knew his limits, but it still
took a lot to worry him; he was a lot braver than I was and loved the occasional adventure. Es-
pecially if it involved saving a girl. Even if that girl seemed to forget the fact herself most of the
time.
        “Well, M.D. got by them…”
        He put his hands to his chest. “Do I look skinny, blond, and sarcastic to you?”
        “Well, I don‟t know about the skinny and blond part, but the sarcasm… if she can do it,
we can do it, right?”
        “Don‟t sound so unsure, sure we can. She might be better at planning, but our luck is so
much better it‟s not even funny. Something‟s gotta kill me, and so far, the ogres and the clutch
trees haven‟t had much luck. Besides, I haven‟t seen my family since I was fourteen. Man, I
want to go home!” He said it with a chuckle, but I caught the hint of pain behind his grin. “Any-
way, y‟all‟re my buddies, even if y‟all‟re all completely nuts. Plus, I‟m worried I‟m going to
start getting really perverted if I don‟t find an Earthling girl soon.”
        “You‟re missing the cool part.” I said, and dug into my back pocket to show him a teal
debit card. “Bobby, Bogart, and Houdini are funding us.”
        “Ooh!” He snatched it from my hand and held it up to the light. He frowned. “The Nexus
Bank? Where the heck is that?”
        I shrugged. “Houdini said something about 3000 BC and the end of time, and then he
cackled.”
        “They never make sense anyway.” I guess the debit card was good enough for him, and
his eyes lit up. He looked up at me again. “You know, my parents never let me have one of
these.”
        “Mine either. Cool, huh? Hurry up and get your fatigues on. Bogart wants us to get
M.D. home so he can kill her before the PIN does.”
        “The faster the better. Once it sinks in that he‟s giving us money, he‟ll make sure we on-
ly spend it on Ramen, cat food, and bail.”
                                                         
        “So what do we do?”
        It’s really quite simple. Bobcat said, a mechanical arm unfolding from his kittypack and
handing us a map. You shouldn’t need this, since we’re blipping you straight there and Raige has
been to the house before, but just in case. You’ll arrive at Old Faithful, as close to her home as
Mr. Rawls can manage, and then you wait. It’s the only place we know she’ll go. As long as
Raige stays out of sight, Tom and Angelica won’t notice; they’ve never met you before in their
lives, Thomas.
        “Y‟all‟re going to send us to Austin too, right?” Thomas added.
        Bobcat looked to Mr. Rawls, who twitched. “Sorry.” He said. “I still have a lot to do, and
after this, I won‟t be available. I won‟t stop you going to Austin, but you‟ll have to get there the
old-fashioned way.”
        Thomas shrugged. “No problem.”
        “M.D. already has a head-start.” I said. “What if she‟s already come and gone?”
        “Well, where‟s she going to go?” Thomas said. “Todd‟s all she‟s interested in.”
        Nevertheless, we have planned in case she’s had uncharacteristically good luck and al-
ready gotten to Todd. Bobcat said. If she has, I’m sure it will be obvious that something’s hap-
pened.
        You know, Houdini said, cop cars, pinhead Corvettes, maybe a couple ninjas lurking
in the hedges…
        “Ninjas?”
         Astallionica, not China. Bogart reminded.
         “But ninjas aren‟t from—” I began.
         Yes, we know. Bobcat took the conversation again. All you’ll need to do is find her. For-
tunately for us, M.D. has an old friend who happens to be very good at finding information and
will have an interest in finding her.
         Houdini shuddered. Ugh, that Peaknuckle guy. I hated him; he never gave me sun-
flower seeds.
         Quiet. We’ve marked Herman Peaknuckle’s address on the map, so you can find him if
you need to.
         “So, if the kid disappears, we depend on this one guy?” Thomas asked doubtfully.
         Trust me, he’s good. Houdini said. If he can’t find her, you can’t either. Besides,
since when has M.D. ever been successful at doing something like this quietly?
         “Come on, surely there must‟ve been one time she was able to walk to a gas station with-
out nearly getting herself killed…” I began.
         “Yeah. When she was five.” Thomas retorted. “Go on, Bobcat.”
         She will never agree to return until Todd’s found, so you’ll have to help her with that and
keep her out of trouble. I trust in your combined ability to reason with or physically restrain her.
         “Restrain her?” Thomas asked. “Heck, why don‟t you give us a tranquilizer gun then?”
         Get your own tranq-gun. Houdini said. You’ll probably be seeing a lot of them on
Earth.
         Mr. Rawls smiled and chuckled a little. It was the first time I‟d seen him look anything
but frightened, worried, or worse, and it made him look only twenty. “Only if they notice you‟re
there.” He said.
         Sorry, but we can’t load you two down with much in the way of alien goodies. Hou-
dini added. Nothing too off-world or the PIN will bag you on customs charges. The last
thing you want is to be detained for something like that; it’s a pain and they’ll make it as
nasty for you as possible. The debit card should do okay, even if it’s a little weird, but oth-
er than that, this is the only thing we can give you.
         Bobcat‟s kitty-pack handed me something flat and silvery. For a second, I thought it was
a toy; it was smaller than my palm. Thomas peered at it over my shoulder.
         “A cell-phone?” He asked, sounding both astounded and skeptical.
         Bogart acted like we‟d called Stan Lee some comic book guy. It’s more than just any
old cell-phone. It’s a cross-overlap communicator.
         It’s a really, really, really good cell-phone. Houdini translated.
         You can talk to guys anywhere in the known multiverse with this thing, and it’s
just about impossible to track.
         It also sends e-mail, plays Gameboy games, and takes pictures. Houdini added quick-
ly before Bogart could shush him.
         “Does it take Pokemon Blue?” Thomas asked.
         Yup.
         He grinned. “Cool with me then.”
         Bogart looked like he was in agony, so Bobcat took over. When you open it, my pack’s
number will appear on the screen. You can keep us informed through it. We expect a call every
once in a while, to keep us up to date on your location and your condition. I believe that’s all
you need to know. Raige, did you have your medication?
         “Already taken it.” I said. “I‟m ready.”
         Very good. The magic fields are much weaker on Earth, but Thomas may need to trans-
form you for some reason or other. You will take care of him, won’t you, Thomas?
         He clapped an arm around my shoulders. “Don‟t I always?”
         Bogart grinned. Have fun dodging pinheads, suckers. You’ll be right outside
M.D.’s front door.
         Mr. Rawls gestured fluidly.
         The world warped. It was pretty cool to watch when I knew I wouldn‟t go into shock af-
terward. All the trees and the surroundings melted like wax and rearranged, then changed a
couple colors. Then everything refocused, and we stood on Earth in cold autumn weather. It
was drizzling but we barely noticed. The weather was the least of our problems.
         “This is it?” Thomas said, staring at the building in front of us.
         I looked around the neighborhood. My memory wasn‟t too good of this place, since I‟d
only been here for less than a day, but I recognized one of the houses across the street because it
still had a bunch of tacky pink plastic flamingos in the front lawn.
         “Yup.” I said, feeling my stomach sink.
         “There‟s no way this can be her house. So either M.D. went to the wrong overlap, or we
did.”
         “Yup.” I repeated.
         We stared at the towering load of concrete that had once been the creepy, drafty old
house the Rawlins family once used.
         “Well. I guess we‟re screwed.” Thomas remarked.
         “Yup.” I agreed. What more could be said?




                              4: Time is of the Essence
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



        I hit the ground on my back and nearly split my skull open on a garden gnome.
        “Gah!” Rubbing the back of my head, I sat up and glared at the object of my pain. “Mr.
Rawls just had to try and get me hurt one way or another, didn‟t he? And on you, of all things,
you awful, gaudy, tasteless piece of…” the meaning of its existence sunk in, “…wonderful
Earthling kitsch! You‟re part of Mrs. Sanders‟s back yard, aren‟t you?”
        It smiled back at me in agreement.
        “I knew it! How could I ever forget a cheesy little face like yours? I‟m back! Old Faith-
ful! And Todd‟s a street over!” I was so happy I hugged that stupid little piece of ceramic.
        Then it passed, and I nearly broke my neck trying to look in all directions at once. The
pinheads had shown a talent for tracking me down, and in some irrational paranoia I somehow
expected them to just know I was here, even though I‟d been on their planet for all of five
seconds. It wouldn‟t have surprised me a bit if one of them, on sensing my presence, had spon-
taneously burst into existence at Old Faithful, popped his head up over Mrs. Sanders‟s picket
fence, and pointed a tranq-gun at me to accent his shout of, “Freeze!”
        None did, of course, but I still didn‟t want to risk catching attention. With concentration,
I let my body disappear. Even with the amount of practicing I‟d been doing, I couldn‟t hold it
indefinitely, but I wouldn‟t need much time. Mrs. Sanders lived only a couple streets away from
my house, and all I‟d have to do was get there, knock on the door, grab my brother, and run.
Hopefully my ex-parents had gotten rid of that gun.
        It was an idea brilliant in its simplicity, so naturally it failed. The first cue I had that
something was wrong was that there were no pinhead cars around. Considering this was my
„hometown‟ and that I‟d disappeared, I would‟ve thought they‟d be lurking in the area.
        Maybe that could be shrugged off as good fortune, but I really should‟ve figured it out
when I noticed the amount of development that‟d occurred at my neighborhood. But even with
cues like that, I didn‟t figure it out until I got to my house. Which was now a concrete parking
garage a few stories high.
        At first, I admit that I panicked. That lasted maybe three tenths of a second, just long
enough for me to realize that if I let my illusion crash, things would get worse. I tried to think it
out, only to find that the more I tried, the less sense everything made. Six months was a long
time, and maybe Tom and Angelica could move out that fast, but there was no way a house that
big could‟ve been bulldozed and replaced in that amount of time. The only conclusion I could
come up with was that I lacked an important piece of information.
        I needed someone to give me answers with a minimum of questioning. Hopefully the
bookstore was open.
                                                         
        The tiny shop was squished on both sides by a McCoy‟s and a pool supply store, but the
sign still said Mess O‟ Porridge and it was still operating in the evening. In the face of so many
things that didn‟t make sense, it was good to have something stable around. Even better, no cars
or bikes were parked in front, so I might have a lone audience.
        I strode through the doorway and kicked the door shut behind me. “Any customers right
now?” I shouted into the dusty aisles.
        “No.” An old voice replied.
        “Excellent!” I let my invisibility drop. “In that case, old coot, I‟m here to rob you blind!”
        A head sprouted out from behind one of the many shelves. Magnifying glasses were
strapped around his eyes, making them look huge and frog-like, and the straps were covered with
small wrenches and other such things until his bald head looked like a planet with an unusual
asteroid belt. His mouth was already opening for an angry reproach, but then he recognized my
face and just stared at me.
        “M.D.?” Mr. Daub asked. His expression would be fitting if I‟d dug myself out of my
grave in front of him and said hi. “Is that… it is you!”
        “Uh. Hi.” I said uncomfortably. I knew I‟d been gone a while, but I didn‟t know that I‟d
been declared legally dead too. I hadn‟t been in the emergency ward that long.
        After recovering from the shock of my appearance, the old bookkeeper became feverishly
agitated. He seemed simultaneously thrilled to see me and appalled I‟d done something so stupid
as to visit.
        “What are you doing here?” He hissed, grabbing me by one skinny arm, hauling down
the blinds behind me, and flicking the sign to „closed.‟
        I was getting the same bewildered feeling I‟d been having all day, from Aqua and his
bluegrass conversation to Mr. Rawls and his inane babble. “To discuss existential philosophy
over milk and cookies?” I suggested weakly.
        “You don‟t even seem to know what trouble you‟ve gotten into!” He cried.
        “Mr. Daub, I‟m always in trouble.” I said. My befuddlement wasn‟t going away; had I
lost brain matter lately? “This‟s nothing new.”
        “You‟ve been wanted before?” Mr. Daub asked in shock.
        “I‟m wanted?” I asked, also in shock.
        “You didn‟t know they stopped?”
        My emotion wasn‟t changed. “I was wanted?”
        “You didn‟t know that?” He replied, still in shock.
        “Who wanted me?” I asked, also still in shock.
        “Who do you think, the milkman?” Mr. Daub shrieked, grabbing me by the shoulders and
shaking me. “The police!”
        Oh. For a moment there, I‟d been really confused. “Well, yeah.” I said. “I knew that. So
they quit? Weird.”
        “Why?” Mr. Daub asked.
        “That I was wanted, that I knew, that it‟s weird, or that they quit?”
        “The first one.”
        “No idea.” I replied honestly. I knew why the PIN wanted me, but not the cops.
        “You know you were wanted by the law, but you don‟t know what for?”
        I put my hand to my temple as a migraine took residence. “Hold it, hold it, rewind.
What‟s going on?”
        “That‟s what I want to know!” He cried.
        “You don‟t know?” I asked.
        “No!” He cried. “Do you know?”
        “No, of course not!” I retorted. “How would I? I‟ve been gone several months!”
        “What?” Mr. Daub shrieked.
        “Exactly!” I cried, throwing my arms out. “Good to see we‟re in agreement!”
        “Okay, stop, stop, we‟re not communicating.” Mr. Daub said.
        “What could‟ve given you that idea?”
        “Ssh.” He intoned, putting his hands out to silence me. “Find your center.”
        I groaned “You know I—”
        “Find your goshdarn center!” Out of habit, I followed his full inhalation and exhalation,
though not without rolling my eyes. “Okay, let‟s keep the questions short and simple and try this
again. You‟ve been gone a few months?”
        I nodded. “Yes.”
        “Then where have you been those other years and why didn‟t you tell me?”
        I stared at him. “We‟re not communicating again.” I said, moving my hands between us
to demonstrate the malnourished flow of information.
        “What could be harder to understand?” Mr. Daub cried, stamping the floor. “Are you get-
ting Alzheimer‟s? Five years and you say you‟ve been gone a few months?”
        “Yeah, that‟s right, I‟ve been gone a few— five years?” I bellowed the last two words.
        Mr. Daub looked jubilant. “Yes! Five years! We‟re communicating!”
        “No we‟re not communicating!” I shouted. “I haven‟t been gone five years.”
        “Oh yes you have!” Mr. Daub said.
        “Oh no I haven‟t!” I shot back. “It‟s impossible! My sense of time isn‟t that bad! I‟ve
only been away… a few… months…?” My voice trailed off. I‟d gotten it.
        Mr. Daub was nodding at me.
        “Five years?” I finally asked weakly.
        “Five years.” Mr. Daub agreed.
        I took a deep breath and let my shoulders fall. “Five years.”
        The next few seconds I spent trying to kick myself to death. It was so obvious! An idiot
would‟ve seen it! Raige in the morning would‟ve seen it! When Mr. Rawls came down offering
you a free ride in that twitchy, nervous way of his, and if you had a functioning neuron, you
would‟ve known immediately something was about to go bent. And really, I wasn‟t too sur-
prised. I now knew what that „something‟ was, and it explained why my house was a parking
garage and why everything was so strange. It was also more creative than I‟d planned.
        Mr. Rawls had sent me five years into the future.
        For a few seconds, I pondered whether it was probable (or even possible) to murder the
gatekeeper of the universe.
        However, once again, confusion took over my frustration as I thought about it. Contrary
to my personality, I do sometimes try and reason my way through things, and things still weren‟t
adding up right. No blipping spell was that inaccurate, not for someone of Mr. Rawls‟s power,
so why had he done this to me? Tempting as it was, he couldn‟t have been trying to infuriate me
as revenge for bringing Number One on his back in the past. Even if such deception was his
style, he could have achieved it far more efficiently and cheaply by simply offering to blip me
and then taking the offer back, or just blipping me straight to the PIN. Sending me to the correct
location at the wrong time actually gave me a chance to figure things out; after five years, it‟d be
highly unlikely that the pinheads were still actively searching for me. Oh, no kidding, this was
bad, but it wasn‟t nearly as bad as he could‟ve easily made it.
        “Hmm.” I began chewing absently on the closest fingernail. It still didn‟t make sense to
me, and that wasn‟t a good sign. More often than not, it meant I was still missing something im-
portant. And/or malignant.
        Less upset but no less concerned, I walked over to the wooden counter, sat down at the
desk chair, and set my elbows on it in silent thought, just as I had months—years—ago when
confronted with tricky homework. Thankfully, Mr. Daub didn‟t interrupt me. He was so con-
fused by this time (and I couldn‟t blame him) that he couldn‟t do anything other than shake his
head and lean against a bookshelf. After I had thought for a while without reward, I gave it up,
rested my forehead against the counter, and turned to look at him. He didn‟t look five years old-
er, but somewhere after the age of sixty, it gets harder to tell. He certainly was a little skinnier
and more hunched over than when I had last seen him. I didn‟t know how I could possibly ex-
plain this to him (though open-minded, he was your average-life Earthling) so I just tried to skip
the whole business.
        “Where‟s Todd?”
        “Something important went devastatingly wrong, didn‟t it?” He said.
        Dang it. “What makes you think that?”
        “You‟re frowning, but you‟re quiet.” He said. “The only time you‟re both frowning and
quiet is when something important went devastatingly wrong.”
        I paused. “Only a little.”
        “A little?” His incredulity made me embarrassed that I couldn‟t come up with anything
better. “I‟d like to know what that little thing is, like where you‟ve been for five years and why
you‟ve suddenly come back looking and acting the way you used to do.”
        “The way I still do!” I roared, slamming my fists into the counter. All right, maybe I
wasn‟t as calm as I‟d thought. Taking a deep breath, I pulled myself together and rested my head
in my hands with a long sigh. “I was on a long vacation in Bulgaria with some distant cousins
twice removed.”
        A long pause.
        “Bulgaria?” Mr. Daub asked skeptically.
        “Bulgaria.” I replied.
        “That‟s a terrible cover-up.” He retorted.
        I threw my hands up. “Considering how today‟s been shaping up, it‟s really not bad.”
        “Just, for once, tell me the truth.” He said wearily.
        “I already told you the truth. Vacation, Bulgaria, distant cousins—”
        “—Twice removed, I know. I want the truth.”
        “Oh.” I fidgeted. “That truth.”
        “Exactly. Hit me with it.”
        “The truth?”
        “Yes, the truth.”
        “My cat talks.”
        Brief pause. Then he spread his arms in a gesture of resignation. “Fine. You were on a
long vacation in Bulgaria with some distant cousins twice removed.”
        “Really? Spiffy.” Enough of this nonsense. “Mr. Daub, the only reason I‟m here is for
Todd. And he‟s gone. Where is he?”
        “How should I know?” Mr. Daub said. “Your family moved years ago to parts unknown.
They could be in Hahowgum, they could be in Texas, they could be in Tibet for all I know.” He
paused. “How come you don‟t know that?”
        “I‟ve been disowned.” I said flatly.
        “Another truth?” He asked dryly.
        “No, considering how we parted ways, that one‟s probably the truth.”
        Mr. Daub paused. “You don‟t know what went wrong, do you?”
        “No.” I confessed. “But I have a feeling I‟ll find out sooner or later. Right now, I have
the vanishing little brother on my mind, because I have no idea how I‟m going to find—”
        A battered green rotary-dial phone slid down the counter to bump gently against my el-
bow. When I looked up, Mr. Daub shrugged and gave me a loose gesture that said to go at it.
        I groaned. “Not him.”
        “He knows more about computers than Michael Dell. If he doesn‟t know, he‟ll find out,
and you know it. Also, he‟s still in town, which is a big bonus for you.”
        „He‟ was Herman Peaknuckle. Self-titled the Robotic Bloodhound for his abilities to
track down information, he was the king of all techies and computer geeks. He could hack just
about anything. However, we weren‟t friends, mainly because he had a habit of going the full
twelve yards to find what he wanted to know, no matter if insignificant things like firewalls,
passwords, or lives got in his way. Once you interested Herman, he could plot out your life on a
graph and make a pretty good guess about where you‟d be in five years. Right now, however, I
had to admit that that would be useful. If he couldn‟t find my brother then I might as well just
give it up and go back home.
        “He would know,” I admitted, “but there‟s one huge problem. I tell him anything, and
the entire Internet will know about it tomorrow.” I paused. “On second thought, seeing my cir-
cumstances, he‟ll probably just call the cops right off the bat.”
        “Not if you don‟t act stupid. Just don‟t get off the phone. He can‟t trace numbers yet,
can he?”
        “He‟s got caller ID.”
        “I run a clandestine business, young lady. Don‟t worry about it.”
        Herman was good, but I doubted that even he couldn‟t break through whatever blocking
process Mr. Daub had implemented, at least, not in the amount of time I planned to be on the
line. Course decided, I picked up the receiver and dialed his emergency number. If I tried his
normal home phone or his cell phone, he‟d never leave his computer to pick it up. The receiver
rang four, five times. My fingers began drumming.
        Herman‟s creaky nasal voice answered. “You know the drill; you can‟t remember your
passcode, you‟re not worth my time.”
        The machine message was still the same, I noted wryly. Five years and Herman hadn‟t
even bothered to change it, for all his paranoia.
        I punched in five digits.
        After a few moments, the answering machine finally said, “Sorry, Robotic Bloodhound is
away right now.” The answering machine made it sound like it was my own fault for my rotten
timing. “That or he‟s blocking you.”
        “What?” I cried. How could Herman not be at his desk where the emergency number
was? His right hand was welded to the mouse! But then, five years had passed. Maybe he‟d
decided to ignore me. If so, I‟d have to search through the phone book and call the Rawlins fam-
ilies. And that was only if they hadn‟t skipped the city…
        I suddenly got a lot more desperate.
        “Dang it, Herman, pick up the phone!” I shouted. “Pick up! I know you‟re ignoring me!”
        The answering machine loyally chugged on. “And now for a song! „Call me,‟” Blondie.
Herman, you little punk, “„a liiiiiiine! You can call me any day or night—‟”
        I took a deep breath but it didn‟t help. He‟d torn through my patience.
        “I‟m going to kick this receiver up your frogging rectum, white boy!” I bellowed over the
tune. Across the room, Mr. Daub rolled his eyes and picked up a thick book with which to pass
the time while I relieved my annoyance. “Try ignoring your frogging calls when you‟ve got eight
inches of vibrating puke-green plastic ringing up—”
        A click cut me, and the answering machine, off in mid-word. I paused in the middle of
passionate gesture for a second, but heard nothing but the hiss of static.
        “That‟d better be you picking up, Herman.” I growled. I couldn‟t work a threat into my
words, so I let my tone do it for me.
        “My dear child, you really need to learn patience.” He replied.
        I felt simultaneously relieved and annoyed. Herman‟s voice was screechier than I re-
membered and no longer had a retainer-caused lisp but it still remained nasal and high-pitched
and rapid, as though he thought pausing between words was a waste of time.
        “What kept you?” I snarled, using lower reaches of my voice I didn‟t know I possessed.
This had better be good.
        “Red Line‟s been dusty for years.” Herman replied innocently. “Thought it was a wrong
number or a fake. Like you‟d call our humble hacker after five years. It was only once you
started ranting that we knew it was you. Nobody nowadays threatens anyone sexually unless
they‟re horribly uncouth.” I could hear typing in the background; Herman was probably talking
to nine people at the same time in a chat room. Maybe that was the reason he talked so fast—at
least he‟d gotten off that Internet abbreviation kick he‟d been on years ago. “Still mad at the
world at large, dear?”
         I exhaled slowly, making a conscious effort to relax. Threatening him with pain would
only amuse him, and I needed his help. “I‟m looking for some information. Here‟s what—”
         “Enh, shut up.” Herman interrupted. “You‟ve been AWOL for five years. You know
what that does to the Robotic Bloodhound? We tried to trace you, but no go. You owe us four
root beers, a Dr. Pepper, and a beef jerky. The Robotic Bloodhound was up for three days
straight looking for you. He fell asleep at the keyboard. Do you know how bad that is for our
rep?”
         “Has the Barracuda ever told the Robotic Bloodhound how charming he is when he refers
to himself in the royal third person?” I chirped cheerfully.
         “Oh, now you‟re just being sullen.” He sounded sulky. Good. Hadn‟t lost my touch.
“Jeez, why‟re you so pissy? Years got you down, darling?”
         I grunted, then winced. Grunting was a bad habit I‟d picked up from Biff, but though it
was grossly unrefined, the blunt undertone of physical threat in it was very effective at ending
conversation. The fact was, I had never found Herman annoying before. Egotistic, but not an-
noying. Now I found the way he rubbed in his intelligence patronizing. I still did the same
thing. In fact, I‟d pulled it on Biff when I‟d first met him. Huh. No wonder he‟d hated me.
         “What happened to you?” Herman asked, and I could tell he didn‟t mean my grunting.
         “I can tell you over the phone.” I said smoothly.
         “Five years over the phone? You must be joking. Come by and we trade info.”
         “No way, I‟m not stupid. They‟ll be waiting for me when I get there.”
         “I can offer you my word they won‟t.”
         I snorted.
         He paused and chuckled. “Well, I didn‟t think you were that stupid. You‟ve intrigued
me, darling. Your story is totally WTF-mates, and despite my brilliance, I haven‟t been able to
clear it up. My word‟s useless, but I can tell you that as curious as you‟ve made me, I won‟t do
anything to you until I find out what happened. We‟ll trade your story for my information. Then
I‟ll call the mods on your ass.”
         “In that case, I‟m telling you beans.”
         “Nice try. If you‟re calling me, you‟re desperate.”
         “If you‟re listening to me, you are too. I can leave you in the dark if I want.”
         That was a flat-out lie, but fortunately for me, Herman knew me from my public school
days, when mutually assured destruction was what kept me going. In person, I‟m not sure I
could‟ve pulled it off, but it was easier to lie on the phone, when he couldn‟t see my face. After
a pause, he believed me.
         “Fine. You have my word that I won‟t call the police.”
         “I don‟t want your word.”
         “Garbage in, garbage out, darling. You coming or not?”
         I thought for a second. This was the closest to a bargain I‟d ever get out of him. I could
probably outrun the police if he did call them, and it might take him some time to convince them,
seeing as I was now legally dead. Since I wasn‟t planning to stay in Old Faithful, hopefully
some district jurisdiction issue would pop up and give me more time. If five years had passed,
the pinheads wouldn‟t be looking for me nearly as hard as they would have normally. I‟d still
need to be careful in public places, but I could relax a little.
        “Yeah, I‟m coming.” I said finally. “Is your house the same?”
        “Of course it is.” He agreed. “Too much crap to move. Hurry up.” And he hung up on
me. Typical manners from him.
        “All right.” I told Mr. Daub. “I have to go, just in case Herman‟s curiosity doesn‟t get the
better of him and he calls the cops down on you.”
        “I‟ll be fast in giving my advice then. Be careful, stay out of sight, and bring a sweater.”
        “Come on, Mr. Daub, just because I‟m making a deal with Herman doesn‟t mean I‟m
stupid.”
        “Yes it does. And make sure you have money on you.” He cast me a fierce bespectacled
gaze that forbade any lying. “You do have money on you, don‟t you?”
        “Money?” I asked. “What‟s—oh, you mean money. That‟s the stuff rich people have,
right? You use it to… what‟s that word… „buy‟ things.”
        “You‟re broke.”
        “Just a little.” Among other things, Treehouse didn‟t believe in currency. My payment
was in beads, bread, and baubles. I saw him reach back for his wallet and barked, “No! Put that
thing back!”
        “You need it.”
        “How many times do I have to tell you, I don‟t need money! All I need is to find my old
poker gang, cheat them out of a couple twenties, and I‟ll be smitch.”
        “Brilliant idea. Except Ace moved to Miami, the Count died of lung cancer, and Fatboy
got shipped to the Golden Years home, and you‟re a walking target.” Well, that did put a damper
on things. “You have nothing to bet with, and even if you did, your luck would put you in debt
before you could blink.” He flourished a couple bills in front of my face. “Change your mind
yet?”
        “No.”
        “Too bad. Without money, you‟ll never find your brother.”
        Maybe I didn‟t accept that answer, but I didn‟t put up as much of a fight as I could have
when he shoved the colored paper into my hand.
        “There, you‟re set.” He paused, then added, “You‟re not coming back, are you?”
        For a few seconds, I stayed silent. Then I shook my head. “No. I‟m getting Todd, and
then chances are that no one will hear from me again.”
        “Is where you‟re going better than here, at least?”
        I grinned. “I‟ve dislocated both shoulders, broken my ankle and my wrist, gone blind for
a day, and been sunk into a hypoglycemic coma. It‟s the most fun I‟ve had since I was born.”
        “What a surprise. Well, take care of yourself.”
        I spread my arms. “Don‟t I always?”
                                                        
        After a half mile of walking, I stood in front of a beat up one-story house. For an accom-
plished hacker, Herman had never been the materialistic type—unless they were shiny and
transmitted data, that is. He barely looked at anything besides his computer and rarely left his
room.
        I rang the doorbell, (which obligingly played some techno) and the door opened automat-
ically. I looked at the array of cords and pulleys with reverence; back when I‟d been on Earth,
Herman had constantly been saying he‟d get the door to open by itself so he wouldn‟t have to
leave his computer. Apparently he‟d succeeded some time in those past five years.
         “Herman?” I yelled.
         “You come; I‟m not moving.” He snapped over the constant rapping of his keyboard.
         I sighed and found my way to his room. It wasn‟t hard; all you had to do was follow the
extension cords and try not to trip.
         Herman‟s room was a haven of electronics, all circled around the position of his comput-
er the way lesser planets orbited around the great sun. I saw at least three telephones, including
the scarlet Red Line, a monstrous plasma-screen TV, which was playing muted and with closed
caption, a half-fixed computer monitor, headphones connected to his stereo, and of course, his
PC. The PC was the love of Herman‟s life. If his house was on fire, he‟d probably rather die
with it than leave.
         Compared to his ultra-electronics room, Herman seemed very out of place. He looked
like he should‟ve been made of chrome so as to try and fit in. Since he rarely left his computer,
he didn‟t get out much or look in the mirror too often, and anyway, people never hired him for
his looks. As a result, his skin was pasty and oily, and his curly hair was in dire need of a wash
and a cut. The shirt he wore had more wrinkles than elephant skin and would‟ve fit poorly even
if it had been properly washed and ironed. Because the only exercise he did willingly was typing
reports and because he lived off sodas and snack food, he was fairly chubby. He said he pre-
ferred it that way. When the Robotic Bloodhound was on a trail, sometimes he wouldn‟t sleep or
eat or make any sudden movements for days at a time, and those excess calories would pay their
due. So he had changed very little, besides growing a couple inches.
         “Haven‟t you gotten contacts yet?” I asked, figuring I wouldn‟t get his attention if I
didn‟t say anything.
         Instead of responding, he pulled his headphones off and shut down the four chat-rooms
and hacking project he was currently working on, then spun his roller chair around to face me so
he wouldn‟t be distracted by the constantly popping up IM calls. I saw the canny expression on
his face and became apprehensive. As a rule, Herman rarely put his whole mind to one thing at a
time; it was the only thing that‟d kept his grades average. If he was focusing all of that attention
on me, he was very interested, and that could be very bad. I was a tricky little thing, but I knew I
couldn‟t keep up with him if he really put his brainpower to the racetrack.
         “So.” He said, putting his hands together like an evil CEO. “What‟ve you been doing
these past five years?”
         I couldn‟t help but smile. “You couldn‟t find me.” I teased, leaning against his desk.
         “The Robotic Bloodhound‟s never had a trail go cold on him before.” He said. “You‟re
smart, but even you can‟t disappear.” Haha, not then I couldn‟t, but I was a bit more talented
now. “Someone else had a hand in this.”
         I clicked my tongue and grinned. “Did you check the Missing Persons Bureau?”
         “Do I look stupid?” He replied. “Of course I did. Heh. Like your parents would even
notice if you disappeared for a week. I contacted all the teen-help phone lines, crime labs for
unnamed DBs, pediatric wards— even the rape centers. Started at Old Faithful and spiraled on
out. Nada.”
         “Rape centers?” I asked skeptically.
         Herman spread surprisingly slim hands. “Your life isn‟t exactly Disney Channel. The
way you worked all hours, I‟m surprised you didn‟t get dragged behind Vic‟s Diner one night.”
He saw my face and rolled his eyes. “What, you‟re surprised? I‟m the Robotic Bloodhound,
darling. I know these things. Something had to be driving you to emo.”
         “I don‟t do that anymore.” I snapped, then bit my tongue at the reflex to defend myself.
         His smile widened. “I know. The scars are all old, so you have been somewhere interest-
ing. What got you off the stuff, huh? Institution? Halfway home? No, you hate authority. The
question is, rather, who got you off it? Must‟ve had quite an influence. Has the established ba-
chelor girl finally found someone?”
         It never failed to unnerve me how I could never hide things from Herman. At least he
was on the wrong track; despite his lack of direct contact with the real world, he was too steeped
in reality to decide I‟d jaunted off-planet. The rest of his digging I forced myself to ignore.
         I shrugged. “You‟re the Bloodhound. You figure it out.”
         “I‟ve tried. Now, you know the deal. Tell us where you‟ve been and why you haven‟t
changed.”
         Clearing a few electronic widgets away, I sat on his desk. “How about you tell me why
you haven‟t changed.” I evaded. When he frowned, I elaborated, “You still have the same frog-
ging haircut.”
         He shrugged. “Says you. I could swear you‟re wearing the same rubber band you were
the day you skipped off to Mommy Mental.”
         Actually, I was, but I wasn‟t saying so. I shrugged again. Talking was my forte, but I
was so wary of Herman‟s brain that it‟d be easier to say as little as possible than try and talk
around him.
         He changed tactics. “So you‟ve made your way to the wanted list. How‟d you manage
that, dear? There‟s really no story on exactly what you did, and I must say that interests me quite
a bit.” Understand right now that he wasn‟t calling me „dear‟ and „darling‟ out of affection. Re-
gardless of gender or age, Herman called anyone „dear‟ and „darling‟ who he considered intellec-
tually beneath him—just about everybody.
         “If I‟m wanted, then why aren‟t you worried about suits busting in on you?” I inquired.
         He waved a dismissive hand. “They won‟t bother me.” Pale green eyes scanned my face.
Then his puffy cheeks lifted his glasses in a disconcertingly knowing grin.
         “What?”
         “I just find it so horribly amusing. I know why you‟re wanted but not what you did. And
you know what you did but not why you‟re wanted.” He said, shaking a thin finger at me. “Just
how long have you been out of the loop?”
         I rammed my nose in the air. “I‟ll have you know I‟ve been on vacation in Bulgaria.” I
said. He snorted, but I ignored him. “Why the suits have their underwear twisted up, I don‟t
know.” I crossed my arms. “Inform me, then. What am I wanted for?”
         “Want „em by date or by magnitude? You‟ve gotten yourself a long list, dear. Starting
with resisting arrest.”
         Resisting? That was a little understated, if you asked me.
         “Over six million dollars in property damages.”
         Ah yes, that was more on track…
         “Assault.”
         You‟d be feeling pretty aggressive too after a horse tranquilizer hangover.
         “Homicide.”
         Oh. That.
         “So it isn’t all bull.” Herman said, noting my expression. “You‟ve really got to deal with
those anger issues in a more constructive way, dear. You‟re not even wanted just by the police,
which, since you keep saying „suits‟ and not „cops,‟ you already know. You‟ve got half the gov-
ernment on your ass, darling.”
         Uh oh. “Are you exaggerating?” I asked queasily.
         “Maybe. Shouldn‟t you know that? That you don‟t, you must really be in trouble. How
did you manage that?”
         I bit my lip and renewed my resolve to be silent.
         “Come on, now.” He teased. “Tell Robotic Bloodhound what went down that made you
stop having fun with knives and got anyone in the country with any martial authority to know
your name and face.”
         “You‟d call me a liar.” I told him.
         Those pale eyes scanned my face again. He knew that I was being truthful, ironically.
         “That interesting, is it?”
         “You have no idea.” I said honestly. Heck, the past six months shocked me, if I really
thought about it. Which was why I tried not to. When reality gets that strange, you either have
to just shrug and accept it, or lose your sanity.
         “You weren‟t actually in Bulgaria, were you?” He asked skeptically.
         I just stared blankly and tried not to smile. No telling what he‟d interpret.
         Herman suddenly spun to his computer and quickly started typing.
         “You‟re not telling me squat till you get your brother‟s location, aren‟t you? Might as
well get this over with, then.”
         Still not quite trusting him, I peered over his shoulder, making sure he wasn‟t just grab-
bing a random location. But nope, he sought out the name Todd Rawlins and after some search-
ing I didn‟t quite understand, probably to narrow down to the correct Todd Rawlins, he found the
address listed for him.
         “He lives on 457 Tequila Street, north Vaygo. Cheap part of the neighborhood, and the
house is just hideous. Guess they got downsized after they lost you; they sure moved out fast.”
He informed me, adjusting his glasses.
         I didn‟t care about their taste in real estate. “Directions.” I ordered.
         “Short or scenic?”
         “Short.” Like he needed to ask, with my current state of reputation.
         “Any particular place you want to avoid?”
         “No.” I said.
         He paused to look up at me. “Interesting.”
         With a few clacks of keys, the printer started cranking out paper. I dived to grab them,
but typing gave Herman‟s fingers the speed of lightning, and he got there first and clutched them
close to his chest, where he waved a chiding finger at me.
         “Ah-ah-ah. Your word is worth about as much as mine. I don‟t intend to let you shaft
me in our deal.”
         Still in my half-lunging position, I wiggled my fingers indecisively as I eyed the papers
he was gripping and weighed my chances. By the look on his round face, Herman wasn‟t about
to let me get them from him without a fight. Though hardly in the best of shape, he was still
bigger than I was, and my puniness was well renowned. Then again, I was in a lot better condi-
tion than I was when I‟d left, thanks to a better diet and more sleep. And the special powers.
Mustn‟t forget the special powers. After a moment, I decided I wouldn‟t mind punching him that
much and resumed preparations to go into motion.
        Herman pulled out a taser. “I don‟t want to risk my flesh or time bludgeoning you either.
We have a deal. Now sit down and we can talk this over like civilized people, not fight it out
like apes.”
        I paused again, chewing my lip. “How many volts does that thing shoot?” I asked.
        And for once, Herman‟s reflex to show off his knowledge served me in good stead. “Fifty
thousand. Why?”
        “Ooh-ooh ah-ah.” I replied with a grin, and then I threw myself at him.
        Out of reflex, he defensively raised both hands. The one with the papers took a strong
grip on my collar, while the other jabbed the taser into my neck.
        Although Venna had told me I could take a hit like that, I‟d never actually experienced
one. She‟d never mentioned it was like OD‟ing in reverse. For an instant, my muscles jerked
and I smelled rain, but then my body did its job and safely redirected the energy away from my
brain, converting it to fuel and dumping what it couldn‟t store into my bloodstream. My heart
rate rocketed up, my brain began to sprint, and I felt a bizarre urge to squeal like Aqua on sugar.
I grabbed the hand gripping my collar and released my own little electric shock on him. That
made him squeal, and his hands unconsciously relaxed as soon as the pain ended, so I whipped
the papers away, slammed my foot hard into his rolly-chair, and was out the door before I heard
the crash of him smashing into the wall.
        Then I was out of the house and on my merry way at a breakneck sprint/prance (because I
was still goofy with energy overload). Halfway down the street, I managed to slow my thoughts
down enough to make myself invisible.
        Surprisingly, the Robotic Bloodhound didn‟t jump in his car and try to run me down so
he could get his information. Maybe he‟d seen my disappearance, or maybe he‟d lost some of
his monomania over the years. Either way, it didn‟t matter; that electric shock I‟d given him
would definitely keep his mind busy for a while, trying to figure out what I was.
        Now for me to just get as far as I could before the police arrived on the scene.




                  5: Meanwhile, Back on the Dark Side…
                                    PIN Specialist Grey




         Evening surveillance shift. Dinner in the car, my cell rang. Wiping grease off my fin-
gers, I swallowed and shoved the earpiece in place.
         “Specialist Grey.”
         “It wouldn‟t kill you to learn „hello.‟” Bob Doshii, my comboy.
         Glanced at my watch. “Shift ended at nine.” Eleven thirty now. “Protocol—”
          “I know the protocol fine, thanks; it can go to hell, but that‟s beside the point, because
this isn‟t a personal call. I‟m at my desk at Communications, like protocol says I should be if I
call you.”
         “Overtime?”
         “Skepticism? From you, that‟s flattering. Unlike you, Grey, I need a concrete reason to
work, and I have one: there‟s a big assignment on the horizon.”
         “Still on surveillance.” Call not vital. I reached for the bag to search for green beans.
“Can‟t get to it for another hour.”
         “No problem, it‟s not an emergency, only a heads-up. There‟s plenty of time before you
need to worry about it. You‟ll never guess who‟s popped up in Old Faithful.”
         I frowned. “Sector‟s Vaygo. Call Dean.”
         “Specialist Dean‟s been a pompous asshole to you since Serious Putty…” He didn‟t
finish. “Anyway, she‟s not staying in Old Faithful long, because she‟s heading your way, and
she‟s probably the biggest thing to pop up in at least two years.” A long pause. “I can hear you
squirming over the line. Go on, Grey. Ask who she is.”
         “Who is she?”
         “Our favorite punkass property-wrecker from Section 42, one of MacGilligan‟s girls.”
         “Washed Ramirez in „07.”
         “Not her. The other one.” I could hear the grin in his voice. “You remember.”
         I paused, shoved the bag of dinner to the backseat. “Rawlins.”
         “Knew that would get you excited. That‟s right, the one and only Rawlins.” He agreed
with a chuckle. “That poster child of our incompetence is back.”
         I raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
         “Good question, and one I can‟t answer yet. Some sort of family thing, but they‟re being
vague about it. Considering her past track record, bagging her will actually be easy.”
         “Not Rawlins.”
         “I was dubious myself, but she seems to have gotten lax. One of our new recruits got a
short-range tracker on her, and though she‟s not in anyone‟s range yet, we know what route she‟s
taking and where she‟s heading: here. If you check your e-mail, the map will be there.”
         Bob always sent assignments within five minutes, but Old Faithful was hours away, too
early for notification. “How do you know this?”
         “Technical details, nothing interesting…”
         I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Hacked the specialists‟ e-mail.” Last time, Bob had been
suspended for nine days.
         “Get off my back, Grey. The only reason you learned about this ahead of time is I got
bored at the end of shift and start hacking the specialists‟ mail. None of you have lives anyway.”
         I said nothing.
         “Dammit, stop that disapproving silence and listen to me. Herman Peaknuckle sent the e-
mail. Remember him?”
         Searched my memory to three weeks ago, rant by telephone. “You don‟t like him.”
         “Damn right. He‟s Dean‟s comboy—match made in hell, let me tell you; they deserve
each other. Really, who would you rather get this assignment, them or us? You know you need
it, and she‟s heading this way already.”
         “Peaknuckle sent the message; Dean already knows.”
        “Well, wouldn‟t you know it, poor Dean‟s e-mail account got a visit from the Trojan
Fairy. Well, not yet, but it will.” I heard him smack a computer key. “Tragic, the lack of security
these days. For someone who claims he‟s a genius, he sure is sloppy if an old out of practice
hacker like me can…”
        “You‟ll be suspended.”
        “Only if they find out, and I‟ve gotten better since they bagged me back then. It helps
that most of you are computer illiterate. Will you take advantage of the opportunity?”
        “You‟ve eliminated other options.”
        “Come on, Grey.” Bob said, quiet and serious now. “You need this. Dean‟s… what,
twenty-nine? He can miss a case like this; you can‟t, not now. She‟s been the pain in the ass for
every specialist since she decided to disappear and leave us holding the bag.”
        True. Rawlins gained notice after her participation in Section 42‟s demolition, but infa-
my came after vanishing without a trace. Every incompetence hearing, they brought up Rawlins.
I sighed. “When will she stop in my sector and where?”
        “You‟re softening up, big guy, and I like it. It‟s proof I‟ve been good for you. Hold on a
second and I‟ll have it up for you.”


                                    Charlene Unnigrutt
        A parking garage? That shouldn’t be there. Bobcat protested. His telepathy went over
speakerphone sounding a little fuzzed out emotionally but otherwise fine.
        “We know it shouldn‟t be here, and you know it shouldn‟t be here, but, well… it‟s still
here.” I replied. “Give the phone to Mr. Rawls. He‟ll know what went wrong, right?” I said.
        Yes, probably, but…
        Thomas and I exchanged pained glances and sighed. We knew what that „but‟ meant.
        “But what?” Thomas finally asked.
        The little snot bailed on us! Bogart snapped. He sounded exhausted, but no less out-
raged. As soon as he blipped you, he disappeared. While you were busy losing a debate
on metaphysics with a parking garage, I did summons spells until I dropped, and it
hasn’t done a thing.
        Yeah. Houdini said. He needs to get his laws of the universe straight.
        “So what do we do?” I asked. “Is M.D. here or what?”
        For now, let’s assume she is. Bobcat replied. Simply meet Herman Peaknuckle as
planned; if he hasn’t seen her, we’ll reconvene and develop a new plan of action.
        This situation already had chaos written all over it in big black sharpie, but I said, “Okay.
We‟ll call when we know something new.”
        “I knew I shouldn‟t have told you to shut up when you were saying things were working
out too easy.” Thomas said as I turned off the phone.
        “Well, I was going to be kind of surprised if something like this didn’t happen.” I said
with a shrug. “After that whole plane-crashing thing, everything I‟ve done tends to happen like
this.”
        “What surprises me is that she actually didn‟t screw up on her own. Why did Mr. Rawls
run off on us?”
        “I don‟t know,” I answered, “but I have a feeling that‟s it bad.”
         “Stop that, you‟re talking like M.D. when she‟s trying to rationalize.” Thomas paused.
“Well, he is the master of the universe. Maybe it needs a tune-up sometimes. It can‟t be that
bad.”
         I looked at him. “Now who‟s talking like M.D. when she‟s trying to rationalize?”
         “Okay, okay, so we‟re screwed. Look, from what I‟ve heard from y‟all, Mr. Rawls isn‟t
that reliable of a guy, and anyway, there‟s nothing we can do about it right now. So let‟s just get
to that Herman guy, get tabs on M.D., and chase her down before she blows something up. Once
we get that out of the way, then we can go off wondering why Mr. Rawls did this to us.”
         I didn‟t feel too satisfied with this idea, but he was right about nothing we could do, so I
yanked out the map and got us head to Herman Peaknuckle‟s place. It took us on a meandering
course through the suburbs for about half an hour. The weather didn‟t raise our hopes much.
The freezing drizzle hadn‟t stopped since we‟d gotten here, and the fog made the streets, which
were hard to see already so early in the morning, look washed out. My jacket kept me warm, but
Thomas hadn‟t brought one, and he wasn‟t doing a very good job of pretending the cold didn‟t
bother him. Still, he managed to get almost to the house before he said anything, and even then
it wasn‟t a complaint.
         “I thought it was supposed to be October.”
         I shrugged. “I think this is October.”
         “How do people live here? It‟s depressing.”
         I frowned at the sky. Now that we‟d been here long enough to realize that the dark sky
was lightening, we‟d used our Treehouse skills to figure out exactly what time it was: Too Early.
“Are you sure it‟s a good idea to go after this guy now?”
         “Raige, we don‟t know what day it is. If we wait too long he might be off to school; I
mean, he must be about our age, right? Do you want to wait until this afternoon to find out if
M.D.‟s gotten herself killed or not?”
         “But what if his house is another parking garage?” I asked.
         He didn‟t answer me.
         We turned the corner. A perfectly normal white house sat to our left, lights out and
shades drawn. The paper hadn‟t been picked up either.
         “Hey, things are picking up.” I remarked. “Something‟s going right.”
         Thomas just tapped his knuckles on the wooden doorframe.
         “It doesn‟t look like he‟s awake.” I asked. “What do we do? Wait till he wakes up?”
         “If he‟s anything like you or me, that could take forever. He‟s waking up now.”
         “That won‟t exactly make him like us.” I warned.
         “Too bad; I want to get inside so I can feel my balls again.”
         He hit the doorbell, and a couple measures of a techno song played. When no lights
came on, Thomas repeated it, pyramid-style, so the measures were repeated more and more each
time. For a while, Herman ignored us, but eventually, lights flicked on in one of the rooms.
Thomas stopped his doorbell treatment.
         “Wow, that thing‟s annoying. He‟s probably more sick of it than we are.” He said cheer-
fully.
         The door creaked open, and a pudgy guy with blonde hair and glasses blinked at us ow-
lishly. He was older than we were by a good few years, and unsurprisingly, he didn‟t look happy
to see us on his doorstep so early in the morning.
         “Uh, hi. I‟m really sorry we woke you up, but are you Herman Peaknuckle?” I asked.
         “Yes, and thank you very much for that nice wake up call; you just completely screwed
my day.” He snapped at us groggily in a nasal, high-pitched voice.
         “Sorry.”
         He eyed us grouchily. “Whatever you‟re hawking, I don‟t want it. I have no interest in
talking about the Lord or donating to your cause.”
         “At seven in the morning? Don‟t worry, we‟re not that cruel.” Thomas said.
         “It‟s six fifteen.” Herman corrected with an edge.
         “Wow, that really does suck. You haven‟t happened to see M.D. around, have you?”
         He paused, then rubbed his eyes and frowned. “Never heard of her.” He sounded like he
was forcing himself to wake up.
         “You might know her as the Barracuda.” I added. “You know, blond hair, short—”
         “Doesn‟t know when to shut up.” Thomas added.
         He paused again. “What‟s your interest?”
         “We‟re looking for her.” I said.
         “Well, obviously.” He sneered. “So go talk to the Missing Persons Bureau.”
         Then he slammed the door in our faces.
         “Bogart and him would love each other.” Thomas remarked.
         “We woke him up at six fifteen in the morning.” I said. “Would you be cheerful?”
         “No, but I wouldn‟t be that big a pain.” Thomas said, and he began hammering on the
doorbell again. After another few minutes, Herman yanked open the door again.
         “What is wrong with you people?” He snarled. “Did you miss the part when I said it was
six fifteen in the godforsaken morning?”
         “No, and we‟re really, really sorry.” I told him. “But it‟s important.”
         “If this wasn‟t a big deal, we could wait.” Thomas said. “All we want is to talk.”
         “I know. You two don‟t exactly look like thugs.” Herman said, and now he sounded
completely awake and rational, if irritated. “Now tell me why I should talk to you.”
         A little confused, Thomas looked at me. I shrugged, showing I didn‟t know either.
         “Well, you‟re her friend, right?” I asked. “I mean, don‟t you…?”
         “Uh, no. Not friend. Business associate.” He corrected. Despite the fact that he‟d tried
to slam the door in our faces, he seemed pretty confident that we weren‟t going to hurt him. “Our
relationship is purely give and take.”
         Thomas‟s expression was disturbing. “Give and take what?”
         “If you know her well enough to call her M.D., then you know that she has absolutely no
sexual interest in anything, and I‟m not a pervert.”
         Thomas looked at me. “Wow. And I thought you were the weirdest friend she could get.
I really thought Bogart was exaggerating when he talked about her past life.”
         Behind his glasses, Herman‟s eyes shone, and his mouth opened in delight. “You’re the
boys who got her off the knife games, aren‟t you?”
         I jerked around from Thomas to stare at him. “How‟d you know about that?” I asked.
         He snorted. “Please. It wasn‟t exactly a secret to anyone. Creepy little child, isn‟t she?
Never could relate to her. She was just so depressing.”
         “Huh?” Thomas had no idea what I was talking about, but I guess my expression told him
that this was something serious.
         Herman‟s eyes lit up again. “So he doesn‟t know.” He mused, looking towards me and
smiling a little. “That‟s interesting. That means it was just you.” He gave me the once-over, then
curled his upper lip. “Huh. Wonder what it is I‟m missing.”
        I could feel myself blushing, even though the remark barely touched me, and I just stared
at him. Giving me a look that gave me the creeps, like he was staring into my thoughts, he
backed off.
        “So where are you boys from?” He asked. “Juvie hall? Mental institution?”
        “M.D.?” Thomas said, sounding even more confused. He looked at me. “Was she any-
where near that bad when you first met her?”
        “I don‟t know what he means.” I wasn‟t sure if I was lying or not.
        Herman frowned. “No, huh? Well, what do you know. So where are you from then?”
        “Over the rainbow.” Thomas replied sarcastically.
        “You‟re just as secretive about it as she is.” He said. “Interesting.”
        “So she‟s been here.” I said.
        He spread his hands innocently. “The memory‟s foggy, I‟m afraid.”
        “Uh huh.” Thomas said, and though his smile was still in place, I could tell he was start-
ing to get annoyed. “We‟ve already told you sorry for waking you up.”
        He sighed. “My dear boys, I don‟t believe you understand how to do business with me.
It‟s really quite simple. You answer my questions. I answer yours. Shall we try this again,
starting at you telling me why I should talk to you?”
        So this was what he meant by him and M.D.‟s relationship being give and take. Obvious-
ly, she‟d gone to him and said as little as humanly possible. I wasn‟t much of a liar, but I‟d had
plenty of practice acting vague and a little stupid. You try satisfying people wondering what
happened when you vanished for a month or so when you spent the time playing dimensional
hopscotch. Besides, Herman seemed to think I was pretty stupid already.
        “We‟re worried about her.” I replied.
        “Aw, how sweet, pathos.” Herman cooed. “I was right; you‟re the one who got her off it.
Knew she‟d find someone eventually.”
        Thomas began to chortle under his breath. “I‟m sorry, man, no offense to you, but that‟s
just funny.” He said to me.
        “No, huh?” Herman remarked. “Too much to hope that someone would make her normal,
I suppose. Just how did you meet, anyway? She was a little vague about that.”
        “Plane ride.” I said.
        “M.D.? On a plane?” Herman looked skeptical. “To where?”
        “Summer camp.” I said. “Canandria.”
        “Yeah right.” Herman said with a snort. “Her parents wouldn‟t pay for the bullets it‟d
take to kill her. But really, that‟s small fish. Where did you come from?”
        “Next question, please.” Thomas said.
        He shook his head. “No, no, that‟s not how this works. We trade. Now, if you don‟t
want to answer it, I can raise the price of what I give you. But you can‟t skip the question if you
want to get yours answered. That is the question I want the answer to.”
        “And it‟s the one you‟re not going to get.” Thomas said.
        He sighed and rolled his eyes like we were so stupid it was painful. “Look, right now, I
have the advantage. You need your answer a lot more than I need yours. I‟m offering what you
want cheap. Look, I already know she‟s not human. I‟ve known that for a while now. I know
she‟s about as stable as plutonium. I‟ve known that for a lot longer. Now, I want to know who
you are and where you took her that made her all better until she decided to run.”
        Thomas looked to me. “You‟ve been with her longest.”
       I took a deep breath. “First of all, she didn‟t run. She‟s looking for her brother, and she
isn‟t much on telling us where she goes.”
       “Thanks for the verification. Go on. And you are…?”
       “He‟s Thomas. I‟m Raige.”
       “Full names.” He said, rolling his eyes again.
       “Thomas Andreas Rodriguez,” Thomas recited impatiently, “and he‟s Raige Unnigrutt.
You know, M.D.‟s thing about talking to us about absolutely nothing is all coming clear to me
now.”
       “Oh, she was like that long before she ever met me.” Herman said, then turned back to
me, his green eyes suddenly intent and predatory. “Unnigrutt, you say? As in the baron of booze
George Unnigrutt‟s long-lost son with the girl‟s name?”
       “I didn‟t know I had a reputation.” I said bleakly. I‟d gotten used to just being Raige, the
guy who chopped wood if Mngleh wasn‟t around and got hit on by aliens.
       “Only because you ran off. I didn‟t even know he had a kid until then.” He said, waving
his hand in dismissal. I waited, both hoping and fearful he might explain more about what my
dad had done, but instead, he did a double take and peered at me more closely. “Wait a minute…
you‟re young.” Adjusting his glasses, he looked me over. “You‟re not twenty.” He accused.
       “Uh… no.” I answered. “I‟m not.”
       This was probably the most obvious thing we‟d told him so far, but it seemed to confuse
him the most. He glowered at me and began rubbing his chin. “So many? Not possible. WTF?
What happened to those five years?”
       Alarm bells went off. At the same time, Thomas and I demanded, “What five years?”
       Herman paused. “You… don‟t know?” His thoughtful frown deepened. “That‟s funny.
She didn‟t either.”
       Thomas and I stared at each other. It hit me first, and when it did, I slumped against the
wall. I‟d been half-expecting things to go wrong, but the magnitude… well, that boggled the
mind.
       “Oh.” I breathed.
       “Oh what?” Thomas asked.
       It was so ridiculous that I was smiling. “Mr. Rawls screwed us!”
       “What?”
       “How long have I been gone?” I asked Herman.
       “It‟s October fifteenth, so five years, give or take a week. Now why don‟t you know
that?” He finished.
       Thomas‟s expression went blank. He joined me against the wall. “My little brother
Christopher‟s older than I am.” He stated.
       “So that‟s why there‟s that parking garage.” I remarked. I sounded calm and reasonable
because I was still in shock. Any moment now, it was going to hit me, and I was going to freak
out.
       “But… why? Mr. Rawls isn‟t that nuts!”
       I spread my arms helplessly.
       “Hoo boy. M.D. must‟ve been pissed…”
       Trying to imagine that made my eyes glaze over. “Yeah. Yeah, she probably was.”
       “Wonder who she took it out on?”
       “What are you talking about?” Herman shouted.
       “Nothing you‟d understand.” Thomas said. “Shut up.”
        Screwing up his forehead, Herman closed his eyes and for a few seconds was utterly si-
lent. Then his face smoothed out, and he opened his eyes again, looking annoyed with himself.
“You‟re with the Jaunter‟s League.” He laughed and shook his head. “I can‟t believe I didn‟t
think of it. She got picked up by the goddamn Jaunter‟s League.” The Jaunter‟s League was the
company Bobcat, Bogart, and Houdini worked for, but Herman was talking too fast to give me
time to wonder how he knew about it. “Should‟ve figured. Can‟t believe I was actually thinking
about believing that BS about Bulgaria.”
        “Bulgaria? Why would she be there?” I asked.
        “Exactly. Now how exactly did she and you two get from here to there?”
        “To where?” I asked. “It‟s a company, not a place.”
        Herman gave me a new look. “So much for that idea. So who‟re you with, if not them?”
        “I don‟t even know what you‟re talking about!” Thomas cried. He‟d never heard of the
Jaunter‟s League, so this all made about as much sense to him as anything else today.
        “We‟re off-planet.” I said, deciding to try and give some explanation before things got
even messier. “We had an accident, got stuck, and now we‟re coming back to keep M.D. from
killing herself.”
        Herman paused. “What took you so long?”
        Where had I gotten these words that were coming out of my mouth, and why did they
sound so much more believable than when I was telling the whole truth? “We can‟t blip. The
guy who did… well, I don‟t know why, but he shafted us.”
        Herman frowned. “How‟d you get kicked off-planet in the first place?”
        “Long story.” I replied. Good, at least I hadn‟t suddenly turned into a brilliant liar.
        Thomas shrugged. “Hiking trip about… well, I guess it‟d be seven years ago, the way
time goes here.”
        “To be completely honest, I really don‟t care much about you.” Herman said.
        “Ouch.” Thomas said.
        “Don‟t take it personal. I can‟t verify what you say. There‟re over fifty Rodriguez fami-
lies in Old Faithful alone, and it isn‟t even a hot spot for the Mexico immigration waves. You
could be just about anybody who didn‟t assimilate English properly. Now him,” he pointed to
me, ignoring Thomas‟s look of incredulous irritation, “him I know and can double-check. Not to
mention he‟s making sense so far, and he looks like a crappier liar than you.”
        “It‟s the Latin look.” Thomas said. It was the first time I‟d ever seen him start to lose his
cheer for more than a split second.
        Herman ignored him and turned back to me. “So… what, she‟s a ward of the Jaunter‟s
League now, or did someone else call jurisdiction first, like the Galactic Patrol or the IAIA?
Don‟t tell me she managed to completely slip under the radar. These are what I‟m really inter-
ested in now; answer these and I‟ll give you what you want.”
        Thomas and I exchanged glances. He decided Herman had heard enough and started
speaking Tree-speech, which I sucked at but could use with a lot of body language.
        “You getting a bad feeling about this too?” He asked me.
        I nodded, stunned. “How does he know all this? He shouldn‟t even know about the Jaun-
ter‟s League, never mind be asking us about jurisdiction. I haven‟t even heard of the Galactic
Patrol or the IAIA, and I listen to Bobcat, Bogart, and Houdini when they swap stories.”
        Herman was staring at us intently, and though there was no way he could know what we
were saying, I had the nervous feeling that he was smart enough to figure it all out if we gave
him enough time.
        “He‟s creeping me out.” Thomas decided, and I completely agreed. “You want me to
speed this up?”
        The way he said it made me frown. “What do you mean, speed this up?”
        He gave me an innocent look and flexed his fingers over his head, making his knuckles
crack. “I‟m just thinking that if he spends a couple minutes as a pig, he might not be such a
pain.”
        “Thomas!”
        “Look at the guy!” He said, gesturing emphatically.
        I looked at the guy. He was still watching us intently, though blankly, and the determina-
tion in his face proved he wasn‟t about to let it go.
        “Well, yeah, but there‟s got to be a better way than change his species for a few minutes.”
        “Get to thinking, then.” Thomas said, rolling his eyes.
        Outside, tires squealed against the road. Rubber burns asphalt all the time in Vaygo, so I
wouldn‟t have noticed if not for Thomas‟s reaction. Remember, he‟d been living in quiet, low-
tech Treehouse for a year and a half, and the screech made him nearly jump through the roof.
        “Jeezus Christ,” he snapped, whirling to the window, “doesn‟t anyone drive safe…” He
died off without finishing.
        “Thomas?” I asked.
        “Raige,” he said seriously, “black Corvettes are bad, right?”
        “The PIN? How?” I cried as I started to feel panicky. They couldn‟t possibly be that
good! The only person we‟d even seen so far today was…
        I turned to Herman, who was smiling pleasantly.
        “You‟re part of the PIN?” I asked. Suddenly I felt just like M.D. when she was about to
go on a rant about how improbably bad her luck was.
        “You‟re surprised?” Herman said. “Information is just as handy as those human moun-
tains they send out with guns.”
        “You called them and stalled us.” Thomas said.
        He gave me a condescending look. “You boys really aren‟t that smart, are you?”
        “I wanted to speed this up!” Thomas accused me, reaching behind him and twisting the
door lock shut.
        Herman snorted. “That‟s not going to hold him.”
        “He‟s right.” I told Thomas. “Those guys break down doors.”
        “No, actually he has my house key.” Herman corrected. “He‟s my partner.”
        Thomas had patience as long as the Nile, but even he had limits. Before he did more than
take a step forward, however, he found a taser straight in front of his face. Herman wasn‟t hold-
ing it aggressively, but his expression was calm and collected, like he wouldn‟t debate for a
second whether to zap us or not. Fingers twitching in frustration, Thomas backed off, his face
dark.
        “Face it, darlings, you‟ve been outwitted. The least you can do is take it with good
grace.” Herman said, his voice casual and cold. He nudged his glasses up his nose. “Our dear
friend M.D. might be capable of absorbing electricity and all sorts of nasty things without col-
lapsing, but I doubt you share that fortunate trait of hers. You‟re human, plain and dry. Hope-
fully you‟re also smart enough not to try any drama.”
        “I don‟t get it; why‟re you even calling the PIN on us?” I cried. “Like you said, we‟re
human. We haven‟t done anything to piss you guys off, and if we knew where M.D. was, we
wouldn‟t be here!”
        Herman shrugged. “Even if you don‟t have information about her, I know how idiotic she
gets about those she loves. You‟d make decent collateral, if nothing else. And don‟t think your
organization will bail you out, whatever the hell it is. You‟re citizens of our planet, and therefore
subject to our notions of civil justice.”
        “But we don‟t need civil justice!” I felt ready to bang my head against a wall and cry.
        “Wow.” Thomas said, and his grin was hardly cheerful. Behind us, the door was open-
ing. “I‟m starting to hate my own planet.”
        Herman smiled and shrugged. “I‟m just self-serving. She knew that when we first met.”
        The door swung open, whacking Thomas in the back, and Herman‟s face twisted in bored
annoyance.
        “And what took you so long?” He snapped at whoever was behind us. “I thought special-
ists were supposed to be efficient. First you don‟t show up for her, and now you‟re late!”
        “Gas.” A low voice rumbled flatly from behind me. I began to automatically turn to-
wards it, but a cold jab of metal between my shoulder blades changed my mind. “The amount of
driving I do, it happens.”
        Herman rolled his eyes, then held up the taser. “You‟re lucky I still had this thing after
scrapping with her. These two aren‟t the sharpest crayons in the box, but they would‟ve given
me a lot of trouble otherwise.”
        “Who‟s her?” The specialist asked. I could hear him rummaging around in a bag for
something, but he wasn‟t doing so well with a gun in his other hand and his focus on Thomas
and me.
        “Rawlins, dumbass!” Herman said impatiently. “Who do you think?”
        “Rawlins?” That cut through the specialist‟s professional veneer. “The one who tore
through Section 42 in a Chevy? She‟s here?”
        “Yes she‟s here!” Herman shouted in aggravation. “Dean, I e-mailed you this. Don‟t you
ever check the stuff?”
        “Ten minutes before you called me, yes, and my computer crashed. In fact, I was going
to call you to ask about that after I got the gas.” Specialist Dean replied with a slight edge. Her-
man, it seemed, got on everybody‟s nerves even worse than M.D. did; first Thomas had been
forced out of his cheer, and now a specialist was actually starting to show emotion. Ten minutes
ago, I would‟ve said both were impossible.
        Herman groaned and rubbed his forehead. “What have you been downloading this time?”
        The specialist snapped back into character. “Later. What about these guys?”
        “Far as I can tell, they‟re nothing special.” M.D.‟s ex-friend said. “Standard human tee-
nagers who she ran into on the way and through some misguided pathos started looking for her.
Some backwater might be looking after them, but they‟re on our planet and they‟re our citizens.
Careful with the tall one, though; he‟s Unnigrutt‟s kid.”
        “George Unnigrutt?”
        I flinched.
        “There‟s your answer. It‟s not that common a last name, is it? You boys probably don‟t
want any more lawsuits, so I‟d be gentle with him. He seems to have at least half a clue about
some organization or other, so he might have someone besides Daddy looking out for him. The
Mexican you can just tranq; he‟s clueless. Might not even be legal.”
        Dean‟s voice was flat and professional again. “Our branch gets enough flack.”
        Herman rolled his eyes. “Careful. You keep going, you‟ll get as big a pain in the ass as
Specialist Grey.”
         Since Thomas was closest to the door, Dean began handcuffing him first, using his gun to
keep me from doing anything. Herman also kept a strong eye on me, and that was a lucky break.
Both Herman and Dean thought I was the worst of their worries, and I wasn‟t. Thomas was the
one they needed to watch. Maybe he was human, but he was nowhere near normal. He was
watching me, like he was waiting for something.
         I was hopeless in a fight, but I was pretty sure I could be a distraction. The first thing I
thought of to say was completely stupid, so it had to work. “Is that uniform machine washable?”
I blurted.
         “What?”
         Thomas slammed into him backwards. A shot missed me and burrowed into the wall,
and then I heard the thump of him falling against the door without a huge specialist to absorb his
momentum. While that was going on, Herman decided not to let me ruin anything else. He
tagged me with the taser and bolted.
         All I‟d known about tasers before then was that they were supposed to stun you. I‟d nev-
er really thought about what „stun‟ actually meant. The metal prongs grazed my stomach, hurl-
ing an earthquake through my nervous system. My muscles went dead, and I buckled over.
         “Watch Dean!” Thomas barked, and tossed a little peach puffball near me as he chased
after Herman. Thankfully, the stun lasted long enough only to give me a good scare. The pain
stopped almost before it‟d come, and I sat up, feeling pins and needles but otherwise okay. Then
I picked up Dean and got a good look at him.
         At first I thought Thomas had stretched his power‟s limit and somehow changed the spe-
cialist into a bad wig made for a cat, but then the former agent snapped at my nose. Unfortunate-
ly for him, he didn‟t have teeth.
         “Tribble.” I remarked. “Cute.”
         Dean made a squeaking/growling noise at me angrily.
         Across the room, I heard a thud.
         “Raige, you all right?” Thomas asked. He had Herman whimpering in a hammerlock on
the floor halfway down the hall and the taser was on the floor three feet away. “Sorry I had to
leave you like that.”
         “Don‟t worry about it.” I said, rubbing my stomach where I‟d been hit. “I‟ll be okay.
God, those things are awful.”
         “I‟ll let you use it on him, if you want.” Thomas suggested, nodding at Herman. He had
regained his good cheer with interest, now that the guy had stopped talking.
         “Why should we? You seem to be fine on your own.” I held up Tribble Dean. “You
watch Star Trek?”
         “No! Of course not!” He quickly protested, avoiding my eyes. “My big brother Marcus
does! I couldn‟t get the box from him and I was too bored to leave the room so I picked some
stuff up.” When he saw my expression, a look of pain crossed his face and he sighed. “Don‟t tell
M.D., okay? She‟d never look at me the same way again.” He caught himself and hastily added,
“Uh, no offense.”
         “None taken.” Thomas took his reputation as the normal one among us very seriously.
         The Tribble kept squeaking/growling and was now shaking in my hand, though without
legs, it couldn‟t really wiggle away, and without teeth, it had no way to make me let go of it. For
a breed that was supposed to only hate Klingons, this one was being very nasty. I tried to pet
him, but that just made him shake even harder. The noise he was making went into a steep cres-
cendo, making me wince.
        “Stop groping him, Raige.” Thomas advised. “That won‟t help.”
        I hastily jerked my hand away, and the Tribble quieted down.
        “See?” Thomas said. “Proves my point.”
        “Enh?” I asked.
        “He wasn‟t used to being petted.” Thomas said with a grin. “Obviously pinheads have no
sex lives.”
        Dean resumed squealing, even louder than before. He sounded like a cross between a
Chihuahua and an ambulance siren. Thomas cackled gleefully.
        “Great.” I yelled over it. “Thanks a lot, Thomas. Insult him, that‟s really going to calm
him down and make him quiet. God, I can‟t believe how much coming down here went wrong.”
        “You know how M.D.‟s luck runs. Besides, Teeny-Deany there wouldn‟t have shut up
anyway.” Thomas retorted in a borderline shout, which brought renewed squeaky-toy fury from
the Tribble. We both winced. “Should I change him into a roach? They‟re quiet.”
        I shook my head immediately. Dean might‟ve been a specialist, and maybe he was look-
ing for M.D., but it was what he was paid to do. It was Thomas‟s fault he was going on and on
the way he was. Getting stuck as a roach (or a Tribble) for life was too big a punishment. Be-
sides, roaches are disgusting. “What do we do with him?” I shouted. I got lucky; my voice put
up with it.
        Thomas frowned, trying to think of something. Then he smiled. “You just stay where
you are for the moment.” He told me at a quiet bellow. “Try not to let Dean hurt you. I made
him the most harmless thing in the world, but seeing how good you are in a fight…” he sighed
and shook his head. “No wonder Bobby wanted me to go with you.”
        After looking around the junk of the room for a while, he started yanking extension cords
out to tie Herman up with, dragging the computer master around with him. He found a long
orange one and started to pull.
        “No!” Herman squeaked. “Not that one!” When we looked at him curiously, he added, “It
hooks to my PC! You know what I could lose if you pull that?”
        “You don‟t back up regularly?” Thomas asked incredulously.
        Herman said nothing. Neither did I; I was busy wondering just how much geekiness
Thomas had closeted.
        “Brainiac.” Thomas replied, and got ready to pull.
        “Hold it!” I said, having to yell to be heard over Dean‟s squeaking/growling, which had
grown to painful volume. My voice died on me, but I managed to get the words out. “We need
him to find M.D. first.”
        “And here I was thinking you had an attack of morals.”
        “I am. I just thought you‟d listen to that reason more.”
        Thomas sighed. “Ruin my fun, why don‟t you? Hand me that taser.”
        I picked it up and tossed it underhand to him. My aim wasn‟t that great, but he whipped
it out of the air using his free hand without a problem then turned to Herman and released the
white-knuckle grip he had on the blond boy‟s shoulder socket. “Okay, Herman. Get me the ad-
dress without calling more pinheads down our necks, and I won‟t have some fun and find out
what happens when you use a stun-gun on a hard drive.”
        Rubbing his shoulder, Herman glowered at Thomas furiously. “You‟re not human ei-
ther.” His distinctive reedy voice somehow made him audible over Dean‟s explosions without
him shouting.
         “No, actually I‟m Mexican, but you already knew that.” Thomas replied at half-deaf un-
cle volume with his normal cheerful grin. “My English ain‟t the best, but sometimes I do have
my mental breakthroughs.”
         If anything, Herman seemed angry more at himself than at Thomas. “She never asso-
ciates with normal people.” He said to himself. “I can‟t believe I didn‟t expect this.”
         “Get used to it.” Thomas advised, holding the taser threateningly close to the outlet the
computer was plugged into. “Address, please.”
         “You‟re not going to succeed, you know.” Herman said. “I always have a backup plan.”
         “Yeah, like you back up your files.” Thomas responded. “Hurry up.”
         Rearranging his glasses, Herman grudgingly got into the chair and started pulling up doc-
uments. Holding on to the furious Dean (who just wouldn‟t be quiet), I came over to keep a
close eye on what he was doing, but Herman was obviously protective of his computer and
didn‟t do anything but what we asked him.
         “Tequila Street.” I bellowed over Dean, reading it off the screen. Then I blinked.
“Todd‟s family decided to move there? That‟s one of the cheapest parts of Vaygo!”
         “Obviously you‟ve never known the spending habits of the family Rawlins.” Herman re-
marked dryly. By now, he was the only person who wasn‟t shouting. “That‟s where she‟s going.
Believe me or not, darlings; it‟s your call.”
         “I know where that is.” I shouted. “I used to live close to there.”
         “Great.” Thomas yelled back. I still had to partially read his lips. “It‟ll be easier finding
it then. Herman, give us directions.”
         Looking very sour about it, he pressed the hot keys for print. The printer started whirring
and finished in a couple seconds.
         “Excellent.” Thomas said, and put his hand to the cord.
         “Thomas!” I snapped.
         He sighed. “You‟re no fun.” But he did take another a different cord to tie Herman up
with.
         “You‟re going to change Dean back, right?” I asked.
         “Well, I know I wouldn‟t want to be a pathetic furry sexless blob for life.” Thomas said.
“Sure, I‟ll change Dean back.”
         Dean‟s squeaks vanished. I guess he didn‟t want to miss this part of our conversation.
         “No way.” I said. “Do you know what he‟ll do to us?”
         We both looked at the Tribble. It wasn‟t wriggling or carrying on anymore, but the lack
of a face didn‟t change its shifty look. Neither of us thought for a second that it would bargain
letting us go in exchange for returning to human form. One of the drawbacks of Thomas‟s trick
was that it required touch. That made it easy for him to change someone trying to attack him,
but it also went the other way. He was in great shape, but he‟d been right about specialists being
trained to kill people like him.
         “We can stun-gun him, I guess.” Thomas said, frowning.
         “I don‟t think so. It only lasted on me for a split second, and we can‟t tie him up that
fast.”
         We both looked down the hall towards the front door. Dean‟s blue uniform lay in a wad
on the floor, right next to a shiny silver gun roughly the size of a sawed-off shotgun.
         “Is that a tranq-gun?” Thomas asked.
         “Can‟t be.” I said. “I‟ve seen them before; they‟re the size of bazookas.”
         “It‟s been five years. Maybe they upgraded.” He looked to Herman. “Did they?”
        Herman made a face, but I guess he remembered that I was the only thing keeping Tho-
mas from dropkicking his hardware out the window. “Yes.”
        “Do you know how to shoot the thing?” Thomas asked me.
        I spread my hands. “I saw the old models, never touched them.”
        “Well, congratulations. You‟ll get to now. I can‟t fire that thing with one hand while I
change this guy back, and shooting this guy as a Tribble would probably kill him.”
        “But I don‟t know how!”
        “Look, if M.D. can figure it out, you should have no problem.” I decided not to mention
that M.D. wasn‟t exactly known for sharp shooting either. “Just point and pull the trigger.
Someone Dean‟s size isn‟t a hard target.”
        I looked at the Tribble dubiously. It looked back, and I had a feeling that something was
wrong. “I don‟t know…”
        “You want us to leave him like this or what?”
        I sighed and went over to pick up the gun. “Fine. I‟ll be back here, where it‟s safe.”
        Thomas set Dean on the floor and bent over to touch his back. “You ready?”
        The gun wasn‟t as heavy as I expected. There didn‟t seem to be a safety, but the trigger
was where it was supposed to be. “As much as I‟m going to be.”
        There was a blur, and then Dean burst back into normal human form, huge, naked, and
with that unnerving expression.
        Thomas was right, though; he was a good target. I pulled the tranq-gun‟s trigger, and it
squealed like a car tire, then made a krunk sound. That was it. Somewhere in my chest, some-
thing made the noise. I tried again. Screee—krunk.
        While I was wasting my time panicking with that, Dean slammed one fist into Thomas‟s
stomach and the other into his jaw. Thomas tried to fight back, but he was just a teenager who‟d
picked some stuff up, and Dean probably had a black belt in everything known to man. The third
hit finally sent Thomas down. That done, Dean turned to me. His eyes were smoldering like a
demon‟s, his lower jaw thrust out, his barrel of a chest heaving. When had I missed that this guy
was so much bigger than I was?
        “You.” His voice growled up from somewhere deep, his soul or maybe Hell, and in the
moment of brilliant mental clarity that comes when you‟re sure you‟re about to die, I realized
that I had done the one thing that even M.D. had never been crazy enough to do. I had pissed off
a specialist.
        Shame never entered into it. I was gone before the gun hit the ground, and Dean came
bellowing after me like a murderous runaway train. My old track times, with all the carb-
loading, practice, and psyching up that came with them, had nothing on me them. Nothing
makes you sprint like the Incredible Hulk dashing after you foaming at the mouth.
        Unfortunately, I‟d taken the hall instead of the front door. Herman‟s house was full of
boxes and computer parts and other crap, but I dodged and jumped over it and prayed to find an
open door, or maybe just a window I could jump out of. Dean smashed through anything in his
way. Though you‟d think the running was taking all my concentration, I still had plenty of room
left over to constantly remind myself that I was going to die. Any second now, I was going to
corner myself in some room, and then I‟d be dead.
        That‟s exactly what happened. I ended up in Herman‟s computer room, which was full
of stuff, and I got his desk between the specialist and me. I was hoping I could run around the
other side, but Dean just came in and shoved the desk away like cardboard, even though it had to
weigh at least three hundred pounds. The next thing I knew, he slammed into me. I squirmed
and shrieked like no tomorrow, but he had me pinned against the floor and was snarling into my
face. If Wrath had an expression, that was it, and if Scared Shitless had an expression, I‟m pretty
sure it would‟ve been mine.
        “You.” He hissed again, one hand crushing into my throat so that I could feel my pulse
against his wrist. The one word was all he needed to say.
        From the doorway came a loud shree. It took me only an instant to recognize it and Dean
even less, and he jerked his head just in time to see Thomas shoot a tranq into his back. His face
went slack, and he slumped. I gasped and scuttled out from under him, rubbing my throat.
        Bruised but alert, Thomas looked at me accusingly. “You ran.”
        “You bet I ran!” I squeaked, gripping my throat. “You would‟ve run too if you had a…
a…” I pointed at the unconscious specialist, “whatever the hell that is coming after you!”
        He shrugged. “I probably shouldn‟t call you a wuss, since playing dead was easier than
letting him beat me to death; even M.D. runs from them, and that‟s a short list.” He brought his
hand to the side of his face. “Lord, that guy can hit. I‟d better not get a black eye the first day
I‟m back here; I haven‟t had anyone to look good for in years.”
        “So you‟re okay?”
        “Sore, but nothing special.” He replied, slinging the gun up over his shoulder.
        “I thought that thing was empty.” I said.
        “It‟s weird. Have to let go of the trigger before the noise to get the thing to shoot. Took
me a few seconds to figure it out, and then I had to tranq Herman to shut him up. Sorry about the
wait; you okay?”
        “Panicking. Freaked out. Nothing unusual.”
        He smacked me on the back. “That‟s adventure for you. Fun, huh? Come on, let‟s tie
and gag Dean.”
        I couldn‟t believe that he‟d recovered his good mood so fast. “Uh… I think I‟m happy
leaving him where he is, thanks. He‟s already out.”
        “For how long?” Thomas asked, giving me a significant look.
        “I don‟t know, but forget him, we have bigger problems on our hands. The PIN know
we‟re here, they know M.D.‟s here, and they know where we‟re going. After this, they won‟t
care what species we are; we‟re screwed.”
        “Hmm. Good point. Let‟s just go.” Thomas said, slinging the tranq-gun down off his
shoulder.
        “You‟re leaving it?” I asked.
        “No way to hide it, and you‟d be impossible to live with if I kept it.” He dumped it next
to the huge bag of gear that Dean had brought in with him, which was now on the floor in a heap
with his uniform. The sight of his clothing reminded me.
        “Uh… Thomas?”
        “That‟s me.” He opened the front door for me.
        “What about Dean?” I asked, exiting the house.
        “What about him?” Thomas replied cheerfully.
        “Well, uh… shouldn‟t we, you know… give him his clothes back?”
        Thomas grinned. “I was wrong about that comment on his sex life, wasn‟t I? Lucky bas-
tard.”
        “Please don‟t go there; I‟ve been on the Treehouse hot market for the past three months,
and Dean just nearly strangled me. So what do we do?”
        “Remember that discussion about the tranqs wearing off?”
        My hand crept back to my throat. “Yes.”
        “Exactly.” Thomas said, shutting the door behind him.
        “I can‟t believe it. The weather‟s gotten worse.” I said. I stuck my hand out from under
the roof‟s protection, and the freezing rain turned my hand numb in seconds. Miserable.
        But Thomas was smiling. “Yes!” He cried. “Some good luck!”
        “What do you mean?” I asked, reeling my hand back in and shaking the water off.
“There‟s probably a flood watch going around.”
        He nodded. “Exactly. It‟ll keep M.D. in one place for a while. She can‟t go out here in
the clothes she‟s got or she‟ll collapse and snap everyone in the city. Or she might melt. You
never know. Come on, let‟s borrow an umbrella from our good buddy Herman Peaknuckle and
move before we get more musclemen on our backs and you lose all your market value.”




                             5: Worlds Set in Motion
                                   PIN Specialist Grey



        My cell phone got through the first measure of Symphony Number Nine; I snatched it.
        “Specialist Grey.”
        A grunt I supervised in Vaygo, on routine transport duty in the desert. “Hey, Grey. One
of the Science geeks just pointed out something weird going on I think you might want to know.”
        On paper, my sector was the city, but nobody had filled in since Specialist MacIntire had
died, and I was the closest regular specialist in range. “What?”
        “One of the dump-off stations picked up some pretty wild ripples on the mag fields and
some brief heat spots on their scans. Nothing living, though, no matter, just fried sand.”
        “Failed blipping. Ignore it; not unusual here.”
        “I know, middle of nowhere and all that, and that‟s what I told them. Here‟s the thing,
though. Those blips? They‟re moving. Straight line too, like skipping stones on a pond. You
might want to get Bob to check out the other radar, but looking how it‟s going, I‟d say it‟s com-
ing from Old Faithful.”
        I frowned. “But no matter?”
        “Nothing.”
        “That changes, call. Finish transport, find some off-duty grunts, send them to keep tabs.
Probably a jaunter.”
        “Never met one that moved in a straight line and was too stupid to pull off a blip.” The
grunt grumbled, but hung up. The phone rang in my hand before I could start to put it away. I
picked it up again.
        “Nguyen?”
         “Bob.” Comboy corrected. “Sorry, big guy. Despite my efforts, Dean‟s on to her.” I
sighed. “But something crazy‟s going on. Two other kids are after Rawlins, so they‟re also
heading this way. Jeez, Grey, your sector‟s suddenly popular again.”
         “Yes. Yes, it is.” I shook my head. “Blip down in the desert?”
         A brief pause as Bob clacked some keys. “Nuh-uh. They were in Old Faithful, and
they‟re not jaunters. What‟d I miss? You‟re using actual question marks.”
         “Check with Nguyen; there‟s something in the desert for you. Go on.”
         “Two teenage boys—nobody in our direct databases, but one of them is off in the Miss-
ing Persons archive and we tagged him earlier for being with Rawlins before. They visited
Peaknuckle; he heard the name Rawlins, panicked, and called Dean. They exchanged notes, and
he found out someone did damage to the e-mail.” He chuckled. “Now what cheeky bastard
could‟ve done that?”
         “The boys. Full-blood human?”
         “At least one of them is. The other one—maybe. He claims he is, but he‟s got extra tal-
ents, like MacGilligan. If you want the details, I can e-mail you the records.”
         “Later. In custody?”
         “No, luckily.” The comboy said. “They got Dean out of the way. Used his tranq-gun on
him, apparently, and that‟s all he‟s saying. I‟m still looking for photos.”
         “Warrant?”
         “Still in the making. The Mexican one will definitely have a search, contain, and wash
warrant before the day‟s out. The other one, not so easy. He‟s the son of the illustrious George
Unnigrutt.”
         “Who?”
         “George Unnigrutt? The lord of liquor?” I said nothing. “Christ, I need to get you out
more. He owns Beer Wise, the biggest beer company this side of the ocean. Anyway, the guy
won‟t be happy to know we tried to tranq his kid, so that‟s trickier. We‟re settling for pushing a
date with the fizzies there. Hopefully they can wash his brain and send him home without law-
yers coming into the picture.”
         “They have her route.”
         Bob lost his cheer. “Yup. They all do. And now Dean has her tracker on radar.” I
sighed, and he reassured. “Don‟t be a pessimist. Knowing her history, she‟s probably one of the
most likely to get out of Old Faithful alive.”
         “Not a pessimist. She‟s Science meat.”




                 6: Scholastic Achievement—F for Effort
                                    Annabelle Rawlins
        The intercom snapped on with a squeal. “Students and teachers, please pardon this inter-
ruption. In just a minute, we will be having a threat drill, code yellow. Please be aware that as
long as you follow procedure, you will be in no danger—”
        I groaned and burrowed my head deeper into my arms. Of course. Inevitably, the one
building in downtown Old Faithful that I could sneak into during a rainstorm would be a high
school that‟d have a terrorist threat just as I‟d started to fall asleep. Like it hadn‟t been hard
enough with the orchestras practicing in the room over. Even someone as tone-deaf as me can‟t
mistake that chorus of dying cats for music. The orchestra director didn‟t help things either,
since he kept stomping in rhythm to his rants of, “It‟s pianissimo, not fortissimo! And Tom, if
you don‟t start playing that decrescendo right now, I‟ll snap your bow over your head! I mean it!
There must be a decrescendo!” You try and get some rest through that, even if you do have some
serious blip lag and walked all day.
        Thankfully, I guess this high school took terrorists more seriously than my own did. The
orchestra stopped playing, and everything became delightfully silent. With a sigh of relief, I
turned over in my little spot on the top shelf of the instrument storeroom and decided to just ig-
nore the whole occurrence. Sleep. Sleep was the important thing.
        I had drifted into a waking dreaming state, not quite unconscious but still hallucinating
colored dots, when someone bellowed, “You! Wake up!”
        The unexpected noise sent me jerking up into awareness immediately. I didn‟t have
enough time to look for the source of the voice before they started bellowing again. “Get your
hands out where I can see them!”
        “I—huh?” Had sleeping in a storeroom suddenly become a punishable offense?
        “Now!”
        Whoever‟s voice it was, it sounded plenty official. My hands shot up like they were on
strings, and only now did I see who had disturbed my repose. It was a high school rent-a-cop,
and it looked like I‟d activated her. She had her hand on the holster that I could‟ve sworn they
never used.
        “Good.” She snapped at me. “Now, I want you to come down here slowly,” well, it
wasn‟t like I was going to jump, “and come with me. Don‟t give me a reason.”
        Now I remembered the „threat drill.‟ I had no earthly idea what the heck that was, but it
sounded vague in the way that school officials liked to use to get a kid to follow orders without
asking questions of why. Maybe this woman had somehow gotten the idea that I was the teenage
idiot who‟d called in the threat, or maybe someone had noticed me snoozing, realized I wasn‟t a
band member, and I‟d just managed to get caught up in some kind of bomb threat hysteria.
Though I really didn‟t want to deal with this sort of bureaucratic nonsense, especially when I was
trying to avoid attention, the last thing I wanted was to get another armed person angry with me.
        At the moment, it didn‟t occur to me to argue my idea that I was still legally dead and
therefore also dead to the police. After all, I had no evidence to the contrary, and fatigue was
obscuring my usual sensible paranoia. As it was, I figured that the situation was unfortunate, but
not a disaster. All I had to do was be nice to the rent-a-cop, let her usher me to the appropriate
official, and explain that no, I was not trying to blow up the school, kill anyone, or steal the copy
machine, just that I was skipping class and taking a nap. Of course, I wouldn‟t be that
straightforward; I would act appropriately recalcitrant, terrified, and then immediately contrite,
as though I really thought that they were going to arrest me or, worse, call my parents for sleep-
ing in a frogging orchestra locker room. If that didn‟t completely ease the officials‟ minds, the
normalcy of my reaction should still lighten their scrutiny enough for me to be able to somehow
slip out and make a break for it. They‟d be angry, but they‟d have nothing to give to anyone but
a vague physical description. Not my ideal, but it would just have to do.
         The rent-a-cop accepted my passivity and didn‟t shoot me, thank goodness, and she led
me to the principal just as I‟d figured. That particular official didn‟t look so bad; if anything, she
seemed to find me a curiosity in her world of PR and paperwork. Only problem was, she wasn‟t
the only person in that office.
         My mind promptly went on strike. Not possible! A specialist couldn‟t be in the same
high school where I was taking a nap. The chances just weren‟t there. My luck just couldn‟t—
couldn’t—be that bad!
         Unfortunately, the specialist didn‟t care if I believed in him or not; he was still going to
haul me off to Pinhead Prison.
         “Is this the one you‟re looking for?” The rent-a-cop asked, staying between the door and
me.
         The specialist didn‟t smile, but he was probably thinking about it. “That‟s her.”
         He pulled out a gun, and I couldn‟t even run because I was still steadfastly trying to dis-
believe him away. Much to my surprise, however, the principal intervened, literally stepping
between the specialist and me.
         “You aren‟t using that thing in here, Dean.” She said, her voice shrill with bureaucratic
outrage.
         “I can take care of her.” The rent-a-cop interjected, sounding a little insulted that Dean
was muscling in on her territory.
         The principal rattled on. “Our school policy is very strict, and there‟s no need for brutali-
ty. So far she seems to have been perfectly cooperative.”
         Well, that would change, but as long as the legal complications were buying me time, I
might as well use it. I began scanning the room, shoving my brain into function.
         “No chances taken.” Dean said, his voice taking on a certain rote quality that said he dealt
with this more often than he liked. It‟d never occurred to me that Earthlings didn‟t always wel-
come these guys with open arms. “She‟s on the upper list; I‟m not risking another incompetence
hearing.”
         “And I‟m not risking another lawsuit!” The principal shot back, while I continued data
crunching. “I remember the last time your people broke into this school and screwed up, and my
budget‟s already shoestring. You aren‟t causing a panic with my kids!”
         At this unexpected resistance, Dean looked ready to just tranq the principal and get down
to business, but evidently he wasn‟t allowed to do that either. “Your school won‟t be mentioned
in any way, shape, or form, and she,” that was me, “has no legal power. We‟ll send a few of our
workers to you to fill out some paperwork afterward, purely for archival purposes, and that‟s
all.”
         “I demand that in writing.” The principal ordered.
         “You‟ll get it. Now move.”
         Ah. Thanks to the war of the red tape, I now had a plan. Taking a deep breath and hold-
ing it, I sent up the stench of a recently angered stinkhorn. The rent-a-cop promptly doubled
over and threw up and I bolted out the door. At this point, I figured it didn‟t matter if I made a
scene or not.
         I got maybe three steps before Specialist Dean tackled me. He‟d been inside the stench
range, but it didn‟t seem to bother him. Before I could consider why, I felt a poisonous tinge
around him and realized that he‟d gotten his hands on some cold iron, more than enough protec-
tion for what I could do. Then I felt the latex-clad hand clamp onto my forearm, and I began to
seriously panic. Dean had been ready for me. Neither my weak magic nor my weaker electric
skills would be much help.
        Experience with schoolyard bullies had left certain reflexes ingrained into me, and they
took over. Without thinking, I wriggled and kicked like a baby kangaroo. Despite my powers at
squirming, I wouldn‟t have escaped if Dean hadn‟t had a hand full with the gun, and so after a
lucky kick across his face, he lost part of his grip. Not even bothering to stand, I began to sprint-
crawl away, only for him to toss the gun away so he could grab my leg and yank me off my feet
again.
        By now, a crowd of kids had gathered to watch the fight. At first they just stood around
staring confusedly like they couldn‟t decide who was the bad guy or whether this was just a real-
ly cool new reality TV show. As my writhing grew more desperate, however, they gained enthu-
siasm; this was the coolest thing that‟d happened since seniors blew up the toilets. An excited
chant of, “fight, fight, fight,” began to form. I didn‟t even bother shouting for help; they‟d be
absolutely worthless.
        A second later, I took that back. One of the upperclassmen took an interest in the aban-
doned gun. Since Dean was busy methodically working my body into a pretzel, the boy slipped
through the wall of flesh around him and picked it up.
        Dean‟s head snapped to the side to glare at the offender. “Return that!”
        The upperclassman just gave him a „whatever, man,‟ look and kept the gun.
        Now Dean had to weigh his options. He could either let me go and get his gun back, or
keep twisting my body into knots and leave his weaponry to the high school civilians.
        The choice was a no-brainer—I mean, all I was interested in was escape. Giving my arm
one last painful twist, Dean leapt up towards the scavenging student shouting something about
punitive government action. I didn‟t bother seeing how the discussion worked out. Unleashing a
wild burst of electricity to get me a clear path, I took off running, and after a brief, high-spirited
exchange, Dean got his gun back and resumed chasing after me. To my delight, I found that
though I was slow, he was too, due to all that gadgetry he was toting and his size making it more
difficult to weave through the crowd of curious students. Maybe he wasn‟t falling any further
behind, but he wasn‟t catching up either.
        I really had to stop underestimating the specialists. Dean didn‟t earn his gold rings by
ignoring the obvious, so he must‟ve known as well as I did that he wasn‟t about to run me down
on his own. At some point during my sprinting, he stopped tailing me. Since I wasn‟t a horror
movie victim, it didn‟t occur to me to keep looking over my shoulder, and the next thing I knew,
he was blocking the front door with his gun out. By this time, he too had given up on a low pro-
file, and the students of the school were starting to act according to the chaos—i.e., running,
screaming, or watching in blank astonishment.
        A couple tranqs barely missed me, hitting a nearby cheerleader instead. As she went
down with a moan, I swerved and took to the stairs, even though sprinting to an upper floor
would only prolong the chase. A few tranqs shot by and I doubled over behind the protection of
the cement guardrails without slowing my pace, but Dean simply vaulted over them, plowing
through students like a demented bulldozer. The kids figured out that he didn‟t make way for
them, so they started making way for him. In a few minutes, he would have a clean shot.
        Worse, after hours of walking and a few minutes of headlong sprinting, I was wheezing
and losing my lead fast; unlike Dean, I wasn‟t used to having to run for long distances. I tried to
conjure up some invisibility, but my concentration couldn‟t hold up under my lack of rest and the
stressful circumstances. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear Bogart shrieking about
concentration and focus—danged if I‟d tell him he was right.
         All right, new plan. Forget the ground floor, I‟d hammer my way up to a balcony or the
roof, take a flying leap of faith, levitate down safely, and leave him up there. Easy and requiring
no more exercise. The only trick was to find the door to the outside.
         To my delight, God provided. A door at the end of a narrow corridor in the math wing
came to my view, a tiny square of gray sky visible through its pane of glass. Dredging up my
last stores of energy, I dashed toward it, once again loosening my electrical grip to encourage
people in my near vicinity to get out of my way. My control was failing, causing a chorus of
crackling sounds and static electricity, but I didn‟t care. There was no time. I wasn‟t even sure
if I‟d get the door open and escape before Dean shot me. Best not to think.
         I smashed into the door at full-speed, but my face absorbed most of the impact and I was
beyond caring about injury. A tranq whizzed over my head, and as my hand closed around the
handle, I heard a loud, hollow ka-chack behind me. I experienced heavenly rapture; even with
my infinitesimal knowledge of firearms, I knew what ka-chack meant. With a wild grin, I
yanked on the door.
         It didn‟t open. There was only a soft, unmistakable click.
         My grin vanished. I tried again. Click.
         That‟s right: the door was locked.
         I tried to think of something sarcastic and wrathful to say, but all that came out was a
quiet, “Ngih?” Things had gone so wrong so fast that I couldn‟t even manage anger. All I could
think was that there must have been some awful mistake. Somewhere along the way, I‟d taken a
wrong turn or someone had gotten me confused with somebody else. I mean, it‟d looked so
easy, getting Todd. Where had I gone wrong? As though I had somehow been mistaken those
first few times, I pulled on the door handle again. Nope, still locked.
         Then something stung my shoulder. Reality did a slow melt, and the linoleum kissed me
goodnight before I could work up a decent head of despair.




                       7: Working Through the System
                                    PIN Specialist Grey



        The newspaper booth on Kvass Avenue smelled of vomit and motor oil. A scantily
dressed teenager materialized from the alley shadows to smile and bat her eyes at me, but when I
stared back, she stopped, popped her gum, and melted back into the gloom. I wasn‟t business.
        The owner leaned at a noticeable angle against the booth front. He was the oil smell.
        “ID, please.” I said.
         It gave me a driver‟s license. I ignored it.
         “ID, please.”
         Raising an eyebrow, it pointed at the business license taped to the booth window.
         “ID, please.”
         “Oh. You‟re one of them.” It said with a Boston accent, lip curling. “Should‟ve known.”
         “May I see your ID, please?”
         “You can‟t go around harassing full-bloods like me; I‟m clean. Ask the last guy.”
         “So you have no ID.” I said.
         “No.” It hissed, baring its teeth. Facial mobility was high-class. “Me got no ID.”
         Preliminaries were fulfilled; now I could work. I grabbed its arm and pulled the sweat-
shirt sleeve up. It yanked away, but not before I saw the poorly welded over ID code on the in-
side of the wrist. That and the quality exposed the mechanical human suit as one of the Kinji
12.701 run, back in ‟99. Realistic for a mech-suit, top in emotion simulation, but outmoded in
motor skill and judging how it leaned, this one had a shot balance servo or faulty wiring too.
Still high grade for black market so the alien inside had probably bankrupted itself purchasing it.
Less chance of lawsuit, then.
         “Come.” I ordered.
         It staggered away quickly, but I grabbed it by the arm again and slammed my heel into
the back of the knee joint, which gave way with a zat. Dragging the heavy object across the si-
dewalk by the collar, I rammed it into my passenger seat despite its flailing. Only veteran users
can handle a Kinji in even basic combat, and the malfunctioning balance servo helped me.
         The scantily dressed girl with bubble gum had emerged from the alley again, but she
watched in chewy silence. She wouldn‟t call anyone; it was Kvass Avenue.
         After I stepped into the car and locked the doors, I finished the mech-suit. Popping the
suit‟s left shoulder out of the socket disconnected all power to the area, and while it flailed with
its good arm, I wedged my fingers into the soft foam where the dislocated shoulder no longer
protected. The greasy sweatshirt was an encumbrance, but I thrust my hand up it, found the
crack between flesh panels, and pried open the chest section as far as I could with the shirt in the
way. No point in counting wires, so I pulled them all, sending a jolt up my arm. The mech-suit
froze in mid-flail and slumped over.
         “You‟re under arrest for possession of controlled technology banned to illegal citizenry
and presence on Earth without proper identification, as covered in the Carter-Balazny Act of
1959 and the Concealed Tech Laws of 1973.” I recited, wiping oil off my hands. “Penalties in-
clude deportation, paid by the immigrant, and possible imprisonment by your governing body.
Not being an Astallionican citizen, your rights are null and void until brought to justice.”
         A large toothy silverfish crawled out from under the shirt. “I… swim… house?” Its ac-
cent made it barely understandable.
         “Speak English.”
         “I… swim… Jell-O?”
         Kinji were expensive units, digital translators and my StanG worse. “Speak English.”
         It dropped the charade. “You just ruined a good fifty K‟s worth of machinery.” It whined,
stroking the sizzling mech-suit. “Just look at it, poor thing. You bastard, I‟ll be lucky if I can
find a mechanic at a half-decent price on this lousy planet.”
         I took a pen and form out of the glove department. “What is your planet of citizenship?”
         “Krikaggatra, Overlap 22B, under the GP. You can‟t deport me!” It protested.
         I made a mark. “Have you lived on any other planet‟s territory, organic or synthetic, be-
sides Earth and that in the past five human years?”
         “No.” A check mark. “Look, I know how you pinheads get paid, and you‟ve got to be the
most ancient specialist I‟ve ever seen. You‟ve got, what, three months left in you? Six, tops.”
         “Have you a spouse, child, or dependant here?”
         “No.” Check. “Look, I‟ve got a cousin up in Kauai with an interstellar bar, perfectly legit,
who could use a bouncer. Some touch-ups, get rid of that awful haircut—”
         “Have you had sexual relations with a human in the past two weeks?”
         “What qualifies?”
         “Body fluid exchange of any kind. No synthetics.”
         The alien drooled something yellow. “Then no.” Check. “You‟re not paying attention to a
thing I‟m saying, are you?”
         “Do you have any bank accounts, leases, or loans currently in your name?”
         “Of course not; I still haven‟t gotten around to changing out cred for dollars, and I know
Nexus Bank is the first check spot for people like me.” Check; Deportation would handle the de-
tails. “Great, of all the pinheads I get stuck with, I get the government puppet. At least you‟ll get
laid off soon, you old geezer.”
         No, I wouldn‟t. My function fulfilled, I opened my gear bag for restraints, but my phone
rang. As I grabbed for my earpiece, the Krikagga spread its four wings and bolted for my side of
the car, where the locks were controlled. Pinning the phone to my ear with my shoulder instead,
I snatched the Krikagga out of the air with one hand and fished for hypoallergenic twine in my
bag with the other.
         “Specialist Grey; can it wait?” I asked as a razor upper mandible sank into my thumb.
         “It‟s important.” Bob told me. “Bad timing?”
         “Yes.” I grit my teeth as the Krikagga started writhing, slicing my palm with its wings.
         “Need ten?” He inquired.
         “Twelve.”
         “Right on.”
         The phone fell to the floor, and the twine stayed in the bag so I could immobilize the
alien with both hands. It shrieked and clawed, gashing my hand, bloody but unimportant.
Wedging it into a corner of the seat with my hip, I dragged my bag forward with my foot until I
could reach the twine and tie the Krikagga down. It started cursing my relatives back unto the
fifth generation, and I snatched up the phone again.
         “Two more.” I ordered.
         “Go for it, big guy.”
         I dropped the phone, went for the mech-suit, and pulled some of its loose padding.
Thrust into the Krikagga‟s mouth, it worked as a gag, and I picked up the phone again.
         “All right.” I said, pinning it between my shoulder and my ear so I could put pressure on
my wrist with my less injured hand. “Go.”
         “I heard „camel-faggot‟ back there. Another Krikagga?” Bob asked.
         “Yes.”
         “Figured. We need better PR. Ever since‟85, they‟ve hated our asses. How was it?”
         “Stitches. Aim won‟t be good for weeks.”
         “It‟s just as well you‟re already in a bad mood, „cause I‟ve got bad news: Rawlins got
caught a couple hours ago.”
         I sighed and began to sterilize my hands. “How?”
         “Not hard. Once Dean got her route, all he needed to do was wander around until he got
a signal on that short-ranger Peaknuckle slapped on her. School bureaucracy tied him up a
second, and we‟ll have to send fizzies after the whole school unless we want another lawsuit, but
she‟s caught.”
         “I see.” The short-range tracker was small, but it could be located within an eighth of a
mile. It‟d been one of the few things that had been able to keep track of MacGilligan, despite his
invisibility, before we‟d sunk a long-range tracker in his chest. “Science meat.”
         “Yup. Not many other options, is there? According to those records we traded with that
Linguist ship a year or so back, Della is still a chunk of uninhabitable space trash, so we can‟t
deport her. All the little organizations say she‟s not theirs, and so did the Galactic Patrol; all
that‟s left is the Jaunter‟s League.”
         Despite its power, the Jaunter‟s League was spread too far around to be as instantaneous
as other organizations, so it could take days before it finished running her through their databas-
es. “She‟s in limbo.”
         Bob snorted. “Well, as close to limbo as you can get in Science. You know them. They
never learned „no.‟” His voice softened. “I‟m sorry, Grey. I‟ll try and think of something, keep a
close eye out. Maybe some other pain-in-the-ass comboy wasn‟t careful about encoding his e-
mail and I‟ll find another big fish for you.”
         Bob wasn‟t motivated; this was only for me. “Thank you.” I said.
         “Don‟t beat yourself up.” He said, and hung up.
         I put my cell phone on the passenger seat and began to bandage my hand to do some-
thing. Had been looking forward to trying to trap Rawlins myself, once she got to my sector.
Too bad that she‟d lost her luck over the years. I‟d needed her.
         Average specialist begins work at the age of twenty-five, retires at the age of thirty-six.
Fortieth birthday is called „the kiss of death.‟ Mine had passed three years ago; there was a regu-
lar betting pool on my career that Bob had once used to buy me a DVD player. Only reason I
still worked at the PIN was my track record, and traffic in Vaygo had slowed. After over fifteen
years of specialist work, all I was good for were cops or military, neither of which interested me.
To stay in the PIN, I needed difficult or high profile cases. I needed Rawlins, and she was gone
in Science, fifty miles from my sector.
         My cell rang again. Taping gauze to my palm, I pushed in my earpiece, fished the phone
off the floor, and answered.
         “Specialist Grey.”
         “Hi Grey. It‟s Dean.” A voice much deeper than Bob‟s answered. “Have you heard about
Rawlins?” He asked.
         “Yes.”
         “Good, that saves me some time. Look, I need a favor.”
         I frowned. Dean and I avoided each other. “From me?”
         “Who else?” He snapped. “You think I‟d be talking to you if it wasn‟t important?”
         So he still disliked me. “Why?” I asked.
         “She tried to brain me and said she‟d tack my guts to the wall. Not exactly cooperative.”
         “You didn‟t restrain her?”
         “Of course we restrained her.” He snapped. “Look, Science‟s been giving me the pressure
cooker treatment since I got here; Rawlins is xenobiological gold for them, and studies require
waivers from both me and her guardian, or controlling agency. Bit of a problem, seeing as Del-
la‟s space trash and she‟s technically not our citizen. So until the Jaunter‟s League gets back to
us, the only way they can get those waivers signed is by asking.”
        “I know.” I‟d been a specialist for seven years longer; I knew basic legal procedure.
“Jaunter‟s League will contact us eventually.”
        “That could take weeks, and they might say they‟ve never heard of her. Besides, I want
her off my hands and under Science‟s responsibility as soon as possible; she‟s a disaster.”
        “I know.” Expository, but not explanatory. “Why do you need me?”
        “I don‟t need you, just one of the house arrests in your sector. Pick him up and bring him
to Science in Old Faithful for me?”
        “Transport is grunt work. I‟ll send one.” I said.
        “No, you‟re doing it in person. I‟m having problems already just with Rawlins; I won‟t
tempt fate and trust some grunt to transport the one person in our hands who‟s been a bigger pain
in the ass than she is. I‟m talking MacGilligan.”
        I blinked. “Biff Randy MacGilligan? From Section 42?”
        “Of course that one.” Dean said irately. “You know of any others in your sector?”
        That didn‟t make sense. “He‟s been broken for years.”
        By the muffled sound, I assumed Dean was talking to someone close to him and was
covering the receiver. “I‟m not talking to this butcher any longer; he‟s our rulebook with brain
damage. You explain it to him.”
        There was a click. “Hey Grey. Heard a lot about you.”
        I resisted sighing. “Hello, Peaknuckle.”
        “Please, darling. Call me Herman.”
        “Right.” Preferred Dean.
        “You see, Grey, I know Rawlins. I‟ve known her since middle school.”
        “I know.” If my coworkers didn‟t get to the point, I would resign and join the Jaunter‟s
League.
        “Now Grey—”
        “Specialist Grey.”
        He paused for a second, continued on in slow, careful enunciation. “Specialist Grey, after
talking to those two boys, I really don‟t think the Jaunter‟s League has any knowledge of her at
all. If something has taken her under their wing, they‟re probably not even a planetary power.
Therefore, all we need is something to convince her into signing those waivers.”
        The Jaunter‟s League looked prettier. “Anti-authority; until your theory that she‟s unpro-
tected is verified, we can‟t harm her.”
        “Oh yes,” he chuckled, “not her…”
        Must‟ve misunderstood. “You want to torture an innocent.” I said.
        “Oh, come on, dear. Calling MacGilligan of all people an innocent is a pretty big stretch.
And come on, you know the rules on torture. If it isn‟t lethal—”
        “Or crippling, or pain related to such, or on our territory, it isn‟t torture, according to As-
tallionican law used in the war against Afghani extremists six years ago after the October 10 th
disaster.” I recited, unable to keep my patience. “I know.”
        “Huh. Swallowed the history book along with the rulebook, I see. Of course, you were
probably still a specialist back then, weren‟t you? Trust me, we probably won‟t even have to lay
a finger on him. She‟ll probably give under the first push at that.”
        “Why MacGilligan?” Had to slow this down. I don‟t think quickly; couldn‟t keep up
with this development. “Two contacts are in Dean‟s sector, probably been in touch more recently
than five years ago.” Could buy me time while Dean dealt with them.
        Peaknuckle said off the phone, “You‟ve still got those two guys running around free?
Dean, you dumbass…”
        Dean snatched the phone back, a relief. “I‟m working on it—Grey, we‟ve already got
MacGilligan in the barrel. Of the group that broke out of Section 42, Ramirez got washed and
Wolfe took asylum in Scotland. MacGilligan‟s all we have left. Maybe Rawlins and him don‟t
love each other, but they got along well enough to break out of Section 42 together.”
        “Liability. Can‟t risk it.”
        Dean lost patience. “You said so yourself, MacGilligan‟s broken! He hasn‟t been able to
get away with anything worse than bloodying a grunt‟s nose in years, and with that tracker in his
chest, he‟s not going anywhere, and he knows it. Besides, once Rawlins signs the waivers, she‟s
in Science‟s hands and not mine, thank God. Anyway, the two boys are still running through the
red tape; we don‟t have licenses to touch them.”
        True. MacGilligan allegedly had spearheaded the near leveling of Section 42, and so he
had been put on the short list of full-blood humans that we were allowed to use force on. Crimi-
nal history and no known relatives made it simple.
        Couldn‟t think of a way to get around the orders to pick MacGilligan up and take him to
Science at Old Faithful. Any chances I had were falling.
        I hung up and sighed, looking at the mech-suit slumped in my back seat. It and the Kri-
kagga inside hardly seemed a problem. I turned the keys in the ignition, gripped the wheel with
bloody hands, and drove out. Then I lifted my cell again, hit speed-dial.
        “Comboy Bob Doshii, what‟s a three-letter word for float?” Came the reply.
        “Bob, Grey. Bad news.”
        “Hit me.” I heard rustling as he put the crossword down.
        Did. Part of being a comboy was thinking fast, and Bob was faster than most. Maybe he
could come up with something, spare me.
        “Ideas?” I asked.
        He sighed. “This is getting bad, isn‟t it?”
        “Odds?” Bob would know the bidding on my career on the gambling circuit; he split the
money with me.
        “There aren‟t any,” he admitted, “the longest bet is May, and if you make it that far,
you‟re in the top ten oldest in this place‟s history. You desperate enough to bend rules?”
        I bit my tongue. Bob waited until I asked, “How far?”
        “If MacGilligan‟s as broken as you guys say he is, I‟ll sell my balls on the black market.
He‟s pulled off some nice tricks on his own, and before that, he and Rawlins broke out. Just
don‟t act so damned efficient, give him half a chance to be a pain in the ass.” He sensed that I
had opened my mouth and snapped, “Don‟t parrot a bunch of protocol at me, all right? I know to
you, rules are the be-all and end-all of everything, but you‟re already fucked.”
        I frowned.
        “Uh huh. You know I‟m right.” Bob said. “Are you going to do it?”
        Long pause. “Maybe.”
        “Human rulebook, my fat Indian ass.” He chortled, and hung up.
        The next hour I used to do standard tasks simple enough to do and think at the same time.
Got my hand stitched and sterilized by the docs, ignored their insistence that I not fire a tranq-
gun for a week, let the information settle into my head. Then dumped the mech-suit at the Vay-
go recycling plant while I went through Dean‟s plan for holes. Decided it was unorthodox but
legal. As I handed the Krikagga over to the Transport grunts for deportation, I considered
whether Bob‟s idea was permissible. I also filled out the paperwork on every deportation I‟d su-
pervised all week. Finally, after cleaning the break room and doing my quota of miscellaneous
drudgery, I decided that I was unlikely to be punished, if I was careful. Still, high liability, and I
was still turning it over as I drove to MacGilligan.
         Finding him wasn‟t problematic. After the effort he‟d put into escaping from Section 42,
his luck had run out, and I‟d found him twenty-six hours later on the fringe of Vaygo, broke,
alone, out of gas, and trying to sell that pink Volkswagen. I‟d tranqed him, and after a year‟s
worth of goose chases, Science had implanted a tracker in his stomach that could reliably give
his location, regardless of what tricks he was playing. For a year after that, Science pumped him
until he couldn‟t give up any new breakthroughs. The past three years, he‟d only been pulled in
to test new equipment and give the occasional grunt a humility course. So I called Bob, who
forwarded me to the appropriate lab rat and got his location.
         He was home. Not surprising. After we‟d gotten his location plugged, he‟d mostly
abandoned a social life.
         To the red brick apartment building covered with graffiti and urine stains, then up the
stairs to hammer on the door of room 359. When he didn‟t answer, I pounded louder.
         “Wha?” Four in the afternoon, but he sounded groggy. His hours were irregular.
         “Science wants you.”
         The door opened. Leaning against the doorknob, MacGilligan gazed at me in resignation
and yawned.
         “Science, huh? Thazz new. They ain‟t been after my ass fa months now.” He drawled,
tying his hair back. “Whazz it gonna be now? More drugs ya want me ta test? Some new shit
better‟n this goddamn tracker? Y‟know I‟m all yours.”
         I tried to think of an explanation. The words wouldn‟t sort out.
         “Hmmm.” He mused. “Must be bad.”
         “Yes.”
         He grimaced. “Aw, shit, must be real bad. Whazz happened?”
         “She‟s come back.”
         Blank stare. “She? She who?”
         “She.”
         “Thought she got the fizzies on her ass.”
         “Other she.”
         “Other she…?” Then his eyes shut. He rested his forehead against the doorsill. “Fuck.”
         “That‟s the one.”
         “Fuck. Ain‟t she s‟posed ta be dead?” He was starting to shout.
         I shrugged.
         “It wouldn‟t a been hard or nuthin!” He shrieked, pacing the couple feet in the doorway
and gesticulating furiously. “She fell outta the fuckin‟ Gaymobile at ninety-five miles an hour in
the middle of the godforsaken desert wi‟out food or water! Why didn‟t she die?”
         I shrugged again.
         “Haha. Ya got a shitty sense a‟ humor, y‟know that? Tellin‟ me bullshit like that.” He
started to turn and storm back into his apartment.
        I pulled out my tranq-gun, aimed it at his back, and hauled back on it so it whined loudly.
“No sense of humor.”
        He sighed, and his shoulders slumped. “I know.”
        “I know what the new tranqs do to you. Don‟t give me a reason. Calm down.”
        He didn‟t, but his shoulders slumped, and the fight went out of him. After muttering and
finishing dressing, he followed me out to the Corvette. Hauling his jacket on, he plopped into
the passenger seat.
        “She ain‟t been ta me, if thazz wha this‟s „bout.” He said.
        I turned the car on. “Yes. Dean caught Rawlins.”
        “Who?”
        “Her.”
        “M.D.” He rubbed his chin pensively. “So she got a last name. Who‟da thunk it?”
        “Science meat now.”
        “I figgered that. Lemme guess; she a pain in Science‟s ass.”
        Nodded.
        “Never woulda guessed.” He said, chewing on a thumbnail. “What‟d she do when the
tranqs wore off?”
        “Tried to attack Dean, threatened to disembowel him.”
        He nodded and smirked. “She ain‟t changed a bit.” He said in a tone almost nostalgic.
        “She won‟t sign the papers. They want bargaining material.”
        “Me.” He said. His face was cold now. “Great. Just when I thought my life couldn‟t get
more fucked up, she comes back from the dead. Dammit, I‟m glad she ain‟t dead; now I can do
it myself.”
        Sounded a lot like Rawlins‟s spiel about gutting Specialist Dean. I shook it off. After a
year, all of the homicidal ones blurred together.
        “I want Rawlins out.”
        He paused. Now I had his full attention. “Out? From Science?”
        I nodded. “Knife you have might help.”
        Disappointed but not surprised that I‟d noticed, he shrugged, then gave me an appraising
look. “Ya goin‟ rogue?”
        “No.”
        “Then—”
        “I want her out.”
        With a shrewd look, he pulled out a cigar and lit up. I didn‟t confiscate it and lecture him
about smoking in my car. “The pinheads don‟t like rogues. I could just turn ya in, get myself a
green specialist who can‟t deal wi‟ me.”
        I held up my tranq-gun. “New ones.” I replied. “Remember your stomach.”
        He sighed. “‟Kay. Figgers it ain‟t a choice.”
        “No. Can you do it?”
        He shrugged. “Can‟t say. Depends how much help she is, how bad she‟s pissed off Dean,
how tranqed she is. She still doped?”
        Shrugged. “New tranqs might‟ve taken a lot out of her. She was sedated again.”
        “The disembowelin‟ thing?”
        “Yes.”
        To brace himself, he leaned back, closed his eyes, and exhaled cigar smoke. I suppressed
a cough. “So how bad‟ll it be?” He finally asked.
        “Drugs. The new ones.”
        “Fuck.”
        “You won‟t remember afterward.” He grunted his lack of surprise. “They want to prove
to Rawlins they‟re serious about hurting you if she doesn‟t do what they want.”
        He snorted. “And I‟m the best bargainin‟ chip ya got? Shit, man, I‟m gonna be dead
„fore she gives a crap.”




                                            8: B&D
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



         Shapes wove in and out of view.
         “Come on.” A deep voice said. “Wake up.”
         I was busy examining the cosmic sparkles between my sclera and my eyelids. Something
cold and hard prodded my cheek. Flinching back, I tried to tell whoever it was to stop, but all
that came out was, “Wubunuhhhhhh…”
         Evidently sedation gave me the gift to speak the language of the furballs who ate rocks.
Delightful.
         “I thought this one didn‟t stay down?” Another voice said. “How much you give her?”
         “Enough.” The deep voice, Dean‟s, snapped. “Give her something to wake her up, will
you? I don‟t want MacGilligan to stay sober here long.”
         My brain began the long process of unpickling itself, and the world began to retreat into
its requisite three dimensions. Evidently these drugs packed a harder punch than the splitting
headaches I‟d experienced the last time I‟d dealt with these guys. I realized that I was drooling
down my chin, which implied that I was upright. My sense of gravity also verified this, but for
the life of me, I couldn‟t figure out how that could be so.
         “Wehhh…” I mumbled. “Jobaaa.” I wiggled a little only to find that I was in a straitjacket
and straps. Now how had those gotten there? Only a few seconds ago, hadn‟t I been in school?
Trying to think hurt, so I stopped.
         “We shouldn‟t give her anything.” The other voice said. My eyes showed him in the ex-
pected navy blue, but in a cut that made me think of doctors and needles. Those guys had been
in and out earlier, trying to talk me into signing my own demise. They hadn‟t seemed too sur-
prised that I‟d said no. “Dellan systems aren‟t in her database; it‟d be pretty sad if we killed her
on drug OD by accident.” A hand gripped my head and tilted it to the side, causing the planet to
keel over on its axis and do a maypole dance. I took care to slobber on him, but his latex gloves
made it a moot point. “But a Level IV shouldn‟t be taking this long, database or not. How much
did you give her?”
        Dean ignored the other guy. Though I had a feeling that I should feel averse to drooling,
I kept it up. I wish I could say that it was part of my master plan to let them think I was still
trash, and it would‟ve been, except that I still thought the earth was flat.
        “Look, MacGilligan‟s here.”
        “Took Grey long enough.”
        “Uh?” I inquired blearily. Good, something vaguely close to the English word I wanted.
Ignoring me, the one in the medical outfit continued on.
        “Look, he‟s nothing to worry about. He‟s been a good boy since we popped the tracker
in him. If you‟re really feeling paranoid, we can strap him down in advance.”
        “Good. Do it outside and leave him there until she‟s coherent.”
        “His gurney‟s already in here, and I‟m not moving that thing.”
        “I see.” Dean was getting annoyed. I had no idea what they were talking about or wheth-
er it was good or bad, but as long as it didn‟t involve them pulling out the tranq-guns, it was
smitch with me. “How long will she be like this?”
        “Depends. How much did you give her?”
        “Just give me a ballpark figure.”
        The doc rolled his eyes and looked at me appraisingly.
        Even with the IQ of an amoeba, I knew an invitation when I saw it. I drooled and tried to
look brainless. It really wasn‟t hard.
        “Well, she‟s vocalizing and seems to at least half understand what we‟re saying. Half
hour, tops.” Oh yeah, sure, and maybe I would solve world hunger while I was at it.
        “Half an hour?” Dean sounded displeased. “I‟d rather the two of them not be together that
long while she‟s getting smart again.”
        “Look, you want her to come out faster, you shouldn‟t have lost your temper and used her
for target practice. And just so you know, you can put up with MacGilligan bitching about it.
I‟m not going near that bastard.”
        Bastard? That sounded familiar… I must have known this guy…
        “Fine. Strap him in, and hook her up to something to clean her out. And for god‟s sake,
put a bib on her or something. At this rate, she‟ll drool herself a conductor even through the
suit.”
        I got the impression I was being insulted. “Enh,” I protested.
        “I don‟t know… I‟d rather not jack her up without knowing exactly what—”
        “I‟ll take responsibility. Better this than another demolition. Do it.”
        At this point, a new voice entered the fray. “Aw fuck; it really is her.”
        The voice cut through the sedative haze like an irritating commercial jingle, and my head
jerked up. Though it‟d deepened a few pitches since I‟d last heard it, I recognized that Vin-
Diesel-with-a-hangover growl with its ungodly miscegenation of Southern and deep-city accents.
It‟d shouted at me a lot. But that wasn‟t right. For some reason, my brain seemed to think that
that particular person shouldn‟t be with the PIN. Wasn‟t sure why, though, and I trusted my
senses more than that chunk of gray meat that was supposed to be my control center. What I did
know was that whatever reason he was here, it couldn‟t be good for me. I reacted accordingly.
        “Awwww.” I whined, letting my head drop down again.
        “You see?” The doc said happily. “She‟s coming out of it already.” He smacked me on
the shoulder, making me flop bonelessly against the gurney. “Strap him in.”
        In my condition, I‟d forgotten about the time difference, and it took me some effort to
remember. Biff hadn‟t grown an inch, but he was, if possible, even bulkier. His hair, shaggy
before, had now grown out long enough to be pulled back, and he‟d grown sideburns, along with
a few days‟ worth of stubble, as though shaving every day cost him too much in razor blades.
The perpetual glower made him look older than twenty-four. If it was any consolation, he didn‟t
look too happy to see me either. That or he had one wicked toothache. I didn‟t need to be off
the drugs to know that. My vague surprise spurred me to attempt speech.
        “Uld.” No, that wasn‟t quite right. I tried again. “Awld.” Yes! Something akin to Eng-
lish. Second cousin thrice removed to slurred, drawling, drunken English. Someone break out
the champagne!
        Nobody else seemed to understand what I said, but maybe Biff‟s own lax enunciation and
residence in ghetto Vaygo gave him the upper hand in making sense of the most mangled Eng-
lish. Not realizing I was serious, he gave me a cheerful grin and the finger.
        “Uh.” I replied, having exhausted my vocabulary skills. Guess he still didn‟t like me
very much. Maybe he hadn‟t forgiven me for making him drive that Volkswagen yet.
        Despite the rather obvious evidence, Biff didn‟t seem to realize I wasn‟t exactly in prime
condition. He just gave me his best glare, before Dean herded him toward the gurney.
        “Get rid of the jacket.” Dean ordered. “I want your arms bare.”
        The way Biff responded, was an icy stare, as though the specialist had suggested he part
with his soul. As though to emphasize his attachment to the garment, he tugged the lapels of his
decrepit brown bomber jacket close around him so that it strained across his shoulders. Some-
thing about him was weird. For about twenty seconds, my drugged mind tried to come up with
exactly what struck me as wrong, but it was unable. He just looked funny. I twisted my head
around, hoping that would solve the problem. It just made the world spin a little sweeter.
        “I better get the stimulants.” The guy in medical garb said, edging around Biff towards
the door. “If she hasn‟t started shivering yet, she isn‟t pumping it out fast enough.”
        Oh. Now that I thought about it, it was cold. Couldn‟t think why.
        As Dean buckled and yanked straps, Biff finally realized my state.
        “Whazz she on?” He asked Dean.
        Dean didn‟t answer. This time, Biff thought to ask me.
        “Whazz wi‟ you?” He asked, thrusting his chin at me. “Tranq?”
        Question. He was asking me a question. Questions demanded answers. After a few
seconds, my brain decided that his words sounded about right. After all, he was the smarter one
of us at the moment. Finally, I nodded and drooled a bit more.
        He grimaced as though I was a prehistoric casserole he‟d found in the back of his fridge,
but he came closer until he was almost on eye level with me. Giving me a repulsed analysis, he
frowned and tilted his head. “Ya ain‟t changed a bit.” For a second, mild curiosity broke through
the animosity.
        I twisted my head the other way. Something was still missing. “Uh?” I inquired.
        Somehow, he realized that I was trying to formulate a question, and not simply confused.
“Enh?”
        Darn. I‟d have to speak in actual words. It better be worth the amount of neurons I was
killing for this. “Gawn-uh.” I warbled too loudly, over-enunciating the syllables as though he
was three years old.
        My speech was obviously still incomprehensible to the upper crust in the room, but Biff
looked over my shoulder to see who I was talking about. Of course, there wasn‟t anyone; he
might‟ve understood me, but he hadn‟t understood me. He turned back to me. “Enh?”
         Had I not been strapped to a gurney, I would‟ve described my frustrated movements as
bouncing. This guy had spent more time in my psyche than anyone had a right; the least he
could do was read my mind properly. “Yuuuuu.” I whined.
         That was it. That was what was wrong. He was standing there, but he wasn‟t there; he
was a mannequin. I was enormously pleased with myself for figuring it out, even if I wasn‟t en-
tirely sure what it meant.
         He shrugged. “Yeah, prob‟ly soon. Health „surance‟s shit here.” He told me, and now
that I was thinking about it, his voice sounded a bit vacant. “Thanks fa the help sendin‟ me here.”
         Before I could figure out what the lack of true anger in his voice meant, Dean‟s lab part-
ner showed up again. “Got the stimulants.” He said. “If she dies, the blame‟s on you.”
         Dies? What was this guy talking about, making him think I could die? I wasn‟t even ca-
pable of composing sentences, never mind the end of my life. While I was busy thinking that
over, Dean‟s gloved hand clamped down around the back of my head and tilt it upward so my
throat was bared.
         “Wanababa!” I protested, unable to work out proper phonetics on such short notice.
         “Shut up.” He told me.
         Oh good, familiar, understandable words. It was about time. I quieted down.
         “Hurry up.” He ordered. “She won‟t hold still for long.”
         “I‟m getting there, I‟m getting there.” The other guy said. “You want her thinking or
dead?”
         I finally recognized what he was calibrating. Big, shiny, metal and plastic…
         My brain hit the panic button.

                                    PIN Specialist Grey
        “Sign here, here, and here, please.” The office worker droned.
        I held up my stitched hand.
        “Standard procedure, sir; you can‟t escape it. Now please sign and fill these out, and
don‟t you dare forget to turn them in by Sunday.” She passed multicolored forms to me.
        I nodded, took the pen.
        “IIIIIEEEEEEAAAAAH!”
        I glanced down the hallway where the sound had come from. “Hmm?”
        “Oh goody,” the office worker droned, “another screamer. They really need to sound-
proof those rooms.”
        From the same area, shouting developed.
        “Shut her up!” MacGilligan‟s voice. “Shut her the fuck up!”
        The office worker sighed and went back to taking calls. “Hello, Old Faithful Science—”
        Turning, I put the pen down and followed the sounds of argument to Dean‟s room. The
doc was bellowing, MacGilligan trying to roar over him, Dean over both of them, so individual
words were lost. The argument paused when I came through the door, and MacGilligan went
silent.
        “Oh thank god!” The doc cried, then saw I was specialist. “What‟re you doing here?”
        Until legal threat came in, there was no reason to leave. Ignoring him, I examined Raw-
lins. Section 42 had been incompetent, and without evidence, no one had taken their diagnosis
of mental instability at its word. That had been a mistake. Rawlins was writhing against her re-
straints as though in a seizure from the new tranqs, but her head snapped around, and her eyes
tracked me as I crossed the room. Her face was blank, her stare glassy, but she was conscious.
        Dean ignored me; I would have. “Give them to her!”
        “Which ones, stimulants or tranqs?” The doc asked, but he approached Rawlins. She
went still, chest heaving, muscles tense, and glassy stare now trained on him instead of me.
When the doc came to a yard in front of her, her lips peeled back like a smile. A thread of saliva
crept down the corner of her mouth.
        The doc swallowed. “Dean…”
        “What?”
        Before the doc could reply, she lunged at him, making the gurney rock. Though she was
a couple yards from him, the doc jumped back and slapped the hypodermic into Dean‟s hand.
        “You do it.” He said.
        “She‟s nuts.” MacGilligan murmured from his gurney.
        “Finally, someone makes sense! And him, of all people!” The doc cried, pointing at
MacGilligan, who only stared at Rawlins. “Dean, you never said she was unstable. If you just
brought in a new kinda 107 and set her off in this facility, the Jaunter‟s League will have all our
asses!”
        “She‟s not with the goddamn Jaunter‟s League!” Dean snapped. “And she‟s not a 107.
Peaknuckle said she was a crazy, but not like this.”
        “Oh yeah? Where‟d he get that, Google?” The doc snarled.
        “Not 107.” I said. “You‟d be dead.”
        “Fine, fine, but the tranqs seem to exacerbate it. I‟m not giving her anything!”
        “It was the needle, not the tranqs. She‟s been tranqed before without effect.” Dean said.
        “With the old stuff, yes. Who knows what the new stuff does to her? Get a fizzy to quiet
her down; I work for you guys, but I have a Hippocratic oath to follow, thanks.”
        “The fizzies can‟t take that! How am I supposed to put her down if—”
        I strode past them to Rawlins; they kept arguing. Again, she froze to watch me, still
grinning. Before she could lunge, I slammed my fist into her forehead. Her head snapped back,
bounced off the back of the gurney, and she slumped unconscious.
        “Honestly.” The doc said. “You people are cavemen.”
        “I‟m not arguing with you.” Dean said.
        “So what do we do with her now?” The doc asked.
        Dean sighed. “What do I look like, a fizzy? We don‟t do brains.”
        “Grey, your hand‟s bleeding. I think you tore some stitches.” The doc added.
        I shrugged again. Not the first time.
        The office worker burst in, panting. “Don‟t do anything to her!” She shrieked.
        “What now?” Dean groaned.
        “The Jaunter‟s League just called in. She‟s theirs—has three jaunters on her too.”
        “What?” The doc shrieked, swooping to glare at Dean. “You said—”
        “That can‟t be right.” Dean said. I agreed. “They never said anything last time we picked
her up, and even they would‟ve hit us up by now after five years. She came here. She‟s our ju-
risdiction; they‟ll have to fight us over it.”
        “Who cares about whether they got bogged down or not? The fact is, she‟s theirs, and
she‟s a loony—maybe not a 107, but pretty damn close!” The doc said, grabbing the front of
Dean‟s uniform and shaking him. “You think this is the only planet she‟s wanted on after the
way she blew out of here? If she‟s gotten warrants somewhere else, the Jaunter‟s League trumps
us, you moron! And Grey just decked her!”
        They looked at me. I shrugged.
        Going pale, Dean closed his eyes. “Oh no.” He whispered. “Not a jurisdiction violation…
we still haven‟t recovered from that one in ‟89…”
        In December 1989, a Deteken transport ship had control crashed in the Vaygo Desert due
to an engine explosion. Routine search, repair, and deport job; we‟d assumed the transporters
were legit. However, the cargo hold had actually been filled with doctored pulse rifles, and the
crew assumed we had come to confiscate. Violence ensued, and we returned fire. At the end, I
had had two smoking craters in my left shoulder, not disabling, so I had become witness to the
Jaunter‟s League patrol ship dropping in, furious that we had killed off their only source of in-
formation on a military coup on Grujhk. As a result, we had lost trade stations in the jaunters‟
area of the Nexus and almost all power when it came to the Jaunter‟s League; more mistakes
could cause a complete diplomatic block, blackball our organization, and ruin our careers.
        “We‟re fired.” The doc moaned. “I‟m going to get fired because of you two apes.”
        “Where are the jaunters?” I asked.
        They paused. “What?”
        “Hers. If they blipped here on jaunter business, they would‟ve been entered into the
records.”
        We looked to the office worker, but she shook her head. “We‟ve only had two jaunters on
business in the area all week. The first left two days ago, and the second is handling a dimen-
sional rip in Acatoula. The rest have checked in for vacation leave, postage, basic stuff like that,
and haven‟t done anything. I don‟t know where hers are, but they never came here.”
        Nguyen, the Vaygo Desert. I pressed the thought back into my mind for the moment.
For now, there was law to think about.
        Dean and I exchanged glances. He disliked me, but I was less important than his job.
        “So they‟re incompetent? We could win jurisdiction of this nutcase if they are.” Dean
suggested.
        I shook my head. “Not three of them. She ran.”
        “Big surprise there. So either they blipped here illegally and therefore have no power, or
she escaped from them. We might be able to win her then, especially if they have no idea she‟s
on this planet yet and they never called her last time.”
        I paused to think it through, then nodded. “Possible. Jaunter‟s League is slow.”
        “Let‟s go.” Dean said, pointing at the office worker. “You, call management.”
        “Only if you come and help me bully them.” She said.
        Dean nodded. “The faster we start hammering on them, the better chances we‟ll have,
and then we won‟t have to worry about getting her to sign anything, crazy or not. Doc, stitch
Grey up before he bleeds on something important.”
        Dean and the office worker left. The doc looked at me and sighed.
        “All right, come on. Jeezus, couldn‟t you have at least hit her with your left hand?”
        “She bites.”
        “So?”
        “She bites.”
        He rolled his eyes. “Be that way. You won‟t be handling a tranq-gun for a week.”
        “Three days.”
        “Oh no, don‟t you give me that. Pritchard told me about you maniacs, and I‟ve heard
about you. No guns for a week.”
        “Have to tranq him.”
        The doc sent a nervous look at MacGilligan, who still stared at Rawlins. “Hmm. On
second thought, I‟m stitching you already anyway, and my aim would be worse than yours any
day. Tranq him; I‟ll meet you in room seven.”
        He left the room. I waited to make sure he was gone, then strode to MacGilligan.
        “Hey! Whaddaya doin‟?” He snapped, recoiling as I began patting him down.
        Now that the Jaunter‟s League was involved, having Rawlins gone would cast doubt on
the PIN‟s competence, make it more likely for Jaunter‟s League to win upcoming case. Rawlins
wasn‟t worth company; there would be other cases. Violating protocol was no longer necessary,
and I was relieved. “Where‟s your weapon?” I asked. His waistband was the first place he con-
cealed firearms, and I moved towards it.
        “Fuck makes ya think I‟ll tell—hey, hey!” He tried to squirm away from me, unable due
to the straps. “Fuckin‟ faggot, stop it!”
        This reaction was extreme, and I‟d searched him for years. So he was hiding something.
“Where is it?” I repeated.
        “I ain‟t—gynah!” As I continued searching, he turned mauve with fury and bellowed,
“Hey! Ya fuckin‟ get the fuck off me „fore I call the fuckin‟ docs an‟—”
        “They‟re busy.” I said. “Hold still. You‟re prolonging it.”
        “Left pocket.” He snapped. As I moved, he shrieked, “Other left!”
        “Hold still.” I repeated.
        He obeyed long enough for me to pull the jackknife from his pocket. Then he snorted.
“Ya gonna tranq me, ain‟t ya?”
        In response, I picked up the tranq-gun. My aim with my left hand was poor, but my right
was presently worse. The gun wailed, and the tranq shot into his shoulder. In a moment, he was
unconscious and silent.
        The stitches could wait. As soon as I exited the room, I had my phone out to call Bob.
        “Already?” He greeted.
        “Not doing it.” I said.
        “What?”
        “Unnecessary.”
        “The hell it‟s—”
        “Talked to Nguyen?” I asked as I shouldered past a group of docs.
        “We‟re not talking about Nguyen, we‟re—”
        “Talked to Nguyen?” I repeated.
        He sighed in exasperation. “About the botched blipping? Yeah I‟ve been downloading it
all day, and it might as well be the same page over and over. Stop changing the subject.”
        “Nothing‟s changed?”
        He paused. “This is only from morbid curiosity; I‟m humoring me, not you.” A brief
pause filled with clacking of computer keys. “Nothing. The blips have died down in frequency
but not much, and they‟re still going in a straight line.”
        “Hit Vaygo?”
        “If they keep going the way they are, yeah, in a couple days.”
        “How big?”
         “Um… let me check…” After a second, Bob gave a low whistle. “About eleven feet in
radius, so our boy is either too powerful and arrogant to think of the disturbance he‟s causing—
unlikely—or roughly the size of a truck.”
         “Or a group.” I said. “Rawlins has three on her.”
         A pause. “Three jaunters? I assume they‟re unaccounted for, since you‟re taking such an
interest.”
         “Yes.”
         “So you guys are about to duke it out with the Jaunter‟s League‟s boys? Claim they‟re
incompetent, do that legal dance?”
         “Yes. Not doing it.”
         “Now that I know why, I don‟t blame you. Next time, tell me about these things before I
start bitching at you.”
         “Faster this way.” I said. “Now I don‟t have to talk.”
         “Yes, and congratulations on pulling off that explanation without it. So now there‟s these
blips and three missing jaunters.” Bob‟s voice was quiet. “That would be extremely lucky for
you, wouldn‟t it?”
         “Yes.”
         “Of course it would.” He breathed, and the clacking grew to frenzy. “I‟ll tell Nguyen to
put it on priority. Anything happens, even something that looks like a tech malfunction, you get
called. You want Science getting info?”
         “No.”
         “Really? You‟re starting to get cagey, big guy; I‟m starting to think you‟re losing your
faith in the boys upstairs. You aren‟t taking my advice and going rogue, are you?”
         First MacGilligan, now him. “My jurisdiction; I‟ll handle it. They‟re not asking the Jaun-
ter‟s League permission, so they‟re not legit.”
         The clacking paused. “Hmm. If they were trying to sneak in without attention, you‟d
think they wouldn‟t keep screwing up their blipping. That‟s strange—really strange. I don‟t like
it.”
         I shrugged. “Solve it. Might be false alarm anyway.”
         “Well, if you‟re right,” Bob said, chuckling, “and if you don‟t have a sudden breakdown
in work skills, you won‟t have to worry about anything ever again. Three incompetent, idiot
jaunters trying to muscle in on our territory—Christ, wouldn‟t it be perfect?”
         “Yes.” I said. “That‟s why it‟s probably a false alarm.”




                                    9: Escape Artists
                                    Annabelle Rawlins
        “Kid. Kid, get up.”
        Oh, yeah, uh huh, because I was totally going to oust myself from my happy black obli-
vion out of respect for him. The future was uncertain, and being unconscious was nice, so I
wasn‟t about to change my current physical state, not for that decibel level.
        The volume didn‟t change, but the intensity did. “C‟mon, M.D.! Get ya ass up!”
        Well, darn. If Biff was invoking me by name, it had to be important, because as far as he
was concerned, my formal title was kid—bitch, if I got on a particularly sore nerve. Better not
ignore him then, it‟d only be worse if I did. With a sigh of resignation, I dragged myself back
into the world and opened my eyes to a freezing lab room. There was a headache stampeding at
a diagonal through my forehead, but at least the pinheads were gone.
        “Ya still tranqed off ya ass or what?” Biff demanded. Then, realizing how silly that ques-
tion was, he added, “Whazz the Freudian defense mechanisms of the subconscious?”
        Time for my most irritating singsong tones. “Repression, regression, denial, projection,
displacement—displacement… um… intellectualization, rationalization… dang it. What‟re the
rest?”
        “Hell should I know? I dunno wha the hell I just said.”
        “Right. Of course. Thank you for proving I‟m brilliant, or used to be, once upon a time.
Now go away; I have to figure out how to persuade the ox out of my skull.”
        Maybe I wasn‟t fully recovered, but I was close enough to warrant an almost-raised eye-
brow from him. “Huh. Ya fast.”
        The fire wasn‟t quite back in his voice, but the embers sounded like they were smolder-
ing. Now that his torture appeared to be postponed, however temporarily, his natural testoste-
rone was asserting dominance, and he was acting a lot more his normal self. Lucky, lucky me.
        I rolled my head, hoping to alleviate the throb. It didn‟t. Then I frowned. “There‟s a
tranq in your gurney.”
        “Naw kiddin‟?” He said with a look of overdone surprise. “Well, I‟ll be damned!”
        “Why is there a tranq in your gurney?” I clarified.
        He shrugged. “They wanted ta tranq me. Fuck that—I been the PIN guinea pig fa years,
and the new tranqs leave me pukin‟ my lungs up and burn me out fa hours. Ain‟t never blazed
through „em like ya did, but then „gain, they ain‟t never given me naw nervous breakdown ei-
ther.” The way he said it, I‟d taken out the laundry, or fetched the mail, but he was looking me
over in a way that wasn‟t nearly so nonchalant or so easy to categorize.
        “You don‟t know what you‟re frogging talking about.” I snapped, hunching my shoul-
ders.
        “Bullshit. Ya did so have a nervous breakdown.”
        “Nervous breakdown is a pop term.” I said in my prissiest voice, knowing it would irri-
tate him. “The proper term is „brief psychotic episode.‟”
        “My mistake.” He sneered, ignoring my snobbery in favor of pursuing his new topic,
knowing it would irritate me. “Look, the „portant thing is, ya plannin‟ ta have another any time
soon?”
        “Oh yeah, because I really plan these things. I‟ve heard they‟re like proms or something;
schedule it wrong and you ruin everything—”
        “Look, I ain‟t givin‟ ya shit if ya gonna start tryin‟ ta rip my throat out more‟n usual. So
why‟d ya go have a nervous breakdown on me?”
        I just glared at him.
         “Fine, fine. Psychotic episode.” He said in a fake pompous tone, rolling his eyes. “Jeezus
Christ.”
         “That‟s not why I‟m glaring at you.” I said, then grudgingly added, “Though thank you
for correcting yourself. It doesn‟t matter.”
         “The hell it don‟t!” He retorted. “Ya losin‟ it, ya know it, now—”
         “I‟m not losing anything!” I snapped. “I‟ve just been having some hard times, all right?
Give it a couple weeks, and—” As his expression turned sardonic, I changed tactics. “Oh yes,
and you‟re just so much more well-adjusted than me, aren‟t you? Tell me, Biffy, when‟s the last
time you got any?”
         With a growl, he jerked against the straps, which groaned in protest. Of all the big red
buttons he had labeled „do no press,‟ that was his biggest, reddest one, and I was feeling a lot
better now that I‟d pounded it. Being angry with each other was nice in its familiarity, even if
we couldn‟t beat each other senseless and properly get it out of our systems.
         “There, you get it now, so leave me alone. Can‟t break out of here if we‟re upset.”
         “We ain‟t breakin‟ outta here.”
         A cube of panic settled in my stomach. “Don‟t be cynical.” I wheedled.
         “We ain‟t breakin‟ outta here.” He said again, this time slowly and with heavy enuncia-
tion but without that homicidal blare he‟d had just a few seconds ago. His voice had reverted
back to automatic levels of hostility. That was both depressing and gravely worrying. Back in
the Vaygo Desert‟s Pinhead Prison, where I‟d first met him, Biff had rivaled even me in despera-
tion and determination. This time, he had the knowledge of the location and routine that came
from five years of forcible employment. If he wasn‟t giving the option of escape even a mo-
ment‟s consideration, I might as well keep hammering on his buttons and hope I drove him into a
primal rage that would snap his restraints. It‟d be cleaner and a little less painful.
         “Why can‟t we break out?” I asked, even though I didn‟t want to know.
         He shrugged. “If ya could, ya woulda done it already, and don‟t matter what I do. I got a
tracker in me, and they‟ll know soon as I leave the room. I ain‟t pissin‟ Science off just ta get ya
crazy ass outta here; ain‟t nuthin in it fa me.”
         I ignored the insult; he‟d gotten my attention. “Tracker? Where? How big is it?”
         He shrugged. “Hell if I know. They stuck it deep.” Seeing me open my mouth, he added
stiffly, “If I knew that, I‟da chopped it out already.”
         Smart of them. Biff wasn‟t averse to self-mutilation if he thought it necessary, and it‟d
already nearly killed him once. Since it was another one of those big red buttons, I let it slide.
         “You‟re in luck. I‟m a surgeon.”
         His only reaction to this information was an unimpressed, cynical gaze.
         “All right, all right, surgeon in training.” I amended. With an aura of sudden understand-
ing, he nodded and grunted as though somehow this was much more likely. “Look, my level of
skill is beside the point. The fact is, that thing has to run off some kind of energy, and I‟m will-
ing to bet that if you get me out of this jumpsuit, I can find it. I‟ll have you on your feet and run-
ning in half an hour.” Heck, the Guijja clan had given me lots of practice with digging things out
of body cavities…
         “Don‟t got the time, the shit, or the drugs.” He paused. “Doctor shit? Thazz what ya been
doin‟ fa five years?” For a second, he seemed to be fighting the impulse to act as though any-
thing could possibly be unusual to him, but then he caved in to curiosity. “How? Ya still the
same little bitch ya always was.”
         “That‟s because I am.” I said. “For me, it‟s only been a few months since I last left your
oh-so-lovable company.” I winced at his raised eyebrow. “It‟s complicated. Just pretend I spent
the years on a long vacation in Bulgaria with distant cousins twice removed; that‟s what I‟ve
been telling everyone else.”
         “A long vacation in Bulgaria wi‟ distant cousins twice removed.” He enunciated after me.
         “Yup.”
         “Ya the great planner who broke us outta the last prison. Ya pride yaself on bein‟ one of
the best damn liars in the country.” I nodded humbly. “And thazz the best ya got. Bulgaria.”
         “It‟s been that kind of day.”
         “Bulgaria.” He repeated, shaking his head, and actually began to chortle. “Damn, sure
glad I wasn‟t gonna help ya; we‟d really be fucked.”
         “Shut up!” I snapped, annoyed at this continued scorn of my lying abilities.
         His voice overpowered mine like a Hummer over a Honda. “Wha the hell‟s even in Bul-
garia, anyway? Lederhosen?”
         “I think that‟s Bavaria, and I‟m sorry I brought it up.” I said flatly.
         Now he looked bitter. “„Vacationin‟ in Bulgaria.‟” He mimicked in whiny falsetto. “I‟m
here in Pinhead Heaven as a guinea pig right now cuz of you, and ya was „vacationin‟ in Bulga-
ria,‟ playin‟ doctor. Ain‟t you the one we left in that goddamn desert?”
         “Why yes, as a matter of fact, you did, and thanks a lot, by the way.”
         “Any time.” He said earnestly.
         “I‟m sure. You and I did a risky thing: we tried to break out of a government jail cell
manned by big men with big guns and tiny senses of humor. You didn‟t think we‟d just walk
away whistling, did you? Don‟t blame me; you could‟ve just told them you were human as
Adam when you got snatched.”
         “I didn‟t want my mind fucked with.” He said. Then, after a meaningful pause, he added,
“‟Course, thanks ta you, thazz naw longer a problem.” Just as well he kept talking, because I
couldn‟t find an answer. “Dammit, why didn‟t ya just die? Woulda been so easy if ya just died.”
         “I was too frogging busy to die! I had to go pick up—” I started to snap in indignation,
but never finished the sentence due to the realization knocking the wind out of me.
         Because really, it didn‟t even matter anymore. With me in here, my little brother had no
one else coming to help him, and that didn‟t look like it was about to change. Todd was out of
my reach, Biff was out of luck, and I was, apparently, out of my mind. And look at us. Tied to
gurneys in the middle of Vivisection Inc. with torture in our near futures, and here we were, busy
bickering about who ruined whose life. This—this was our idea of high conversation. There
wasn‟t any point to fighting with him. Heck, I deserved his scorn; I couldn‟t even pick up one
little brother from home without being thrown into a government facility. My standards are
hardly Ivy League, but that was still pretty sad.
         “Because. I don‟t die.” I said flatly. “It‟s too easy, since you can die at any moment you
want. It‟s living that‟s the tough part. I shouldn‟t have done that to you.”
         “Yeah, livin‟s a—bitch say huh?”
         “I shouldn‟t have done it.”
         “Fuck me blind; ya said it twice.” He muttered.
         I was too weary to chide him for interrupting me. “You paid for something you never
wanted, and we both got shafted. Apparently I‟ve got issues of my own, and I can‟t even handle
them, so no telling how I got the idea I could fix yours.” I laughed without glee. “Go ahead.
Knock yourself out if it makes you feel better. Lord knows you might as well get some pleasure
out of this, seeing as we‟re both doomed, but mostly you.”
         A pause. Biff looked slightly mollified. That was a surprise; five years ago, he would‟ve
verbally slashed at me with gusto until I was nothing but red noise. Maybe he hadn‟t expected
me to cave so abruptly and so found himself unprepared to respond. He was still giving me a
wary look, like he was trying to figure out the catch to my sudden surrender. “Ya didn‟t really
know „bout it then, did ya?”
          I figured that telling him what he wanted to hear would wrap everything up faster, and I
no longer had enough energy to protect my ego, so I rattled off, “That I ruined your brain? Not
really. I was a cruel, stupid, stupid person and didn‟t think about it, it‟s my fault, you can pass
the therapy bills on to me if we live long enough, but I‟ll have to pay you back in beads and
bread dough.” Wonder if he‟d accept payment in Raige units…
         “Naw, not that,” a wry smile passed his coarse features, “though ya right. I meant that ya
was… y‟know. Fucked up in the head.”
         “It won‟t spread to you, if that‟s what you‟re wondering. We‟ve been over this, remem-
ber? Crazy isn‟t contagious.”
         His upper lip curled in indignation. “Tha ain‟t why I‟m askin‟.”
         I gave him a sidelong look. “Why are you then? Out of the humanity oozing from your
big, gold heart?”
         He snorted. “Aw, yeah, cuz I‟m a real nice guy an‟ all that an‟ give a shit „bout ya. Nah,
just wanna know.” As though my skeptical stare was making him uncomfortable, he snapped,
“Look, ya got anythin‟ better ta talk „bout? We can go back ta Bulgaria if ya want.”
         “No need to be snide. Just recall that you asked for it. The answer is no, I didn‟t. I had
some stuff on the edge of my brain, but it never bothered me.”
         “‟Cept fa the whole puke-in-the-crapper thing.”
         “Hey, that was only once, and it came to life in your subconscious, not mine, Mr. Para-
digm of Mental Health. Things only got bad after I fought with an old combat buddy from the
home planet.”
         “Thought they was all dead?” He said, frowning as though scouring a part of his memory
not often needed.
         “You remember details like that?” I had to admit I was a bit surprised.
         “‟Course.” Biff retorted. “Night in the crapper like that sticks in ya head, y‟know?”
         I conceded his point. “Well, Number One‟s alive and kicking like a mule, and we had a
little fight. I won, I think. Unfortunately, it seems that slamming yourself into a psychopath‟s
brain over and over again isn‟t conducive to mental tranquility. While I was in the ICU, I was
drugged more often than not, but now… well… I‟ve become a bit of a rough sleeper.”
         He was giving me that look he‟d had when I‟d mentioned Bulgaria. “Tha mean the some-
time nervous breakdown?”
         “Episodes!” I cried, shaking against my restraints. “They‟re brief psychotic episodes!”
         “I don‟t care what they are, they ain‟t „rough sleepin‟.‟” Had his hands been free, I‟m
sure he would‟ve spun one finger around his temple in the classic gesture of degenerate mental
condition. As it was, his shoulders somehow conveyed the gesture for him. “Face it, kid. Ya
slidin‟.”
         “I’M NOT SLIDING!” I screamed, slamming my body against the gurney for emphasis.
         My volume made him amazingly quiet. “Shaddap; ya‟ll bring „em down on us „gain!” He
hissed.
         Though I was close, I wasn‟t upset enough to be completely deaf to reason, so I quieted
down. My mood, however, didn‟t change.
         “I‟m not.” I protested quietly.
         He believed me about as much as I did.
         “I‟m not.” I whined, but he had me in a corner, we both knew it, and for some reason, he
was frowning.
         “Don‟t look like that.” I said with a sigh. “You‟ve got me where you want. Your justice
couldn‟t be more poetic. This is exactly what I did to you back in the bathroom a few months—
five years—” I made a sound of exasperation, “then.”
         “I know, but I ain‟t enjoyin‟ it. Thought I would.” He sounded confused and slightly
dismayed at the realization. As though testing himself for pleasure, he said to me, “Ya goin‟
crazy and ya know it. Prob‟ly gonna get chucked in the funny farm „ventually.”
         The lack of venom in his voice was more annoying than painful; I did not appreciate be-
ing used as an emotional litmus test. “You‟re gay, and you know it. Probably going to get
chucked in the suicide ward eventually. Again.”
         That this didn‟t enrage him showed that he wasn‟t paying a lick of attention to anything I
said. “Should be likin‟ this, but I ain‟t.” He mumbled. “Fuck is wrong wi‟ me?”
         “I could tell you, but to give you therapy is bad for my health all around. Go figure your-
self out, and leave me alone.”
         He just frowned into the air. I could see the wheels turning in his head, and they weren‟t
getting anywhere.
         I paused for a couple seconds, then offered timidly, “You‟re straight?”
         That statement was so ridiculous coming from me that it got his full attention. He stared
at me like I‟d started speaking in tongues. Seeing that he wasn‟t getting it and preparing to get
angry, just in case, I hastily added, “No, I‟m being perfectly serious here. You‟re straight.”
         More blank frowning, and I realized that what I‟d said hadn‟t made any sense. Then it
clicked behind his eyes; nonsensical as it was, he somehow understood what I meant. After a
couple more seconds of mulling over the bargain, he grudgingly admitted, “Ya sane.”
         “Thanks.”
         “Yeah.” He mumbled gruffly, with a disturbed expression that I would‟ve laughed at ex-
cept it looked so much like mine. Peace treaties weren‟t our way; we pounded on each other un-
til either one of us gave out or something more important took precedence. This creepy devel-
opment needed to be shoved behind a different subject, and I knew just the thing.
         “So… want to break out and cause mass mayhem with me?” I said with a hopeful grin.
“Come on, it‟ll be fun.”
         He groaned, relieved to have something annoying to argue. “Look, just cuz I said ya was
sane don‟t mean I‟m sayin‟ what ya tryin‟ is. Face it: ya fucked.”
         But I wasn‟t going for it. For a second or two at least, I‟d caught his attention, and he
wasn‟t about to shrug me off. Something in reality had to stay constant, and dang it, it was going
to be him, whether he liked it or not! “Wait, didn‟t we have this conversation back in the desert,
when you were wallowing in the boys‟ restroom and being all doom and gloom?” He looked as
though he was sucking on a lemon. “I thought so. Remember who won this argument last time?”
         “Naw ya didn‟t. My ass is in here, ain‟t it?”
         This wasn‟t happening. Biff had a frogging tenth grade education; he wasn‟t supposed to
drill me in debate! “I‟ll get that tracker out of you, and when you break out, you can just disap-
pear back into Vaygo.” I said, trying not to sound like I was desperate. “I know you can do that,
and you won‟t have to play guinea pig ever again.”
        “Great idea,” he sneered, “now how do ya do it wi‟out leavin‟ the room?”
        “Depends.” I said, having a brief epiphany. “How clean is that pointy object you snuck
in?”
        “They took it from me.”
        I snorted. “The other one, genius. The one you avoided the tranqs for, the one you kept
so you could cover the bases and make sure I couldn‟t get you out of here. You don‟t honestly
think I underestimate you that much, do you?”
        That certainly got some interesting expressions flashing across his face, not limited to
surprise, irritation, embarrassment, and that lemon-sucking one, but he settled on his usual one of
bored cynicism.
        “Kid, I wasn‟t made with ya fucked up pain system, „kay?”
        “Yeah, about that…” I agreed, biting my lower lip. “That‟s where the tricky part comes
in.”
        He already knew that this „tricky part‟ probably wasn‟t going to involve fluffy bunnies
and sunshine, but after glaring for a second, he grunted at me to continue, so there was hope.
        “I couldn‟t sedate you anyway. You weigh a frogging ton; there‟s no way I could drag
you out of here. However, if your brain isn‟t in your body as I‟m working on it…”
        Biff knew what I was talking about right off the bat. Of all the wonderful memories we‟d
made together, probably the most traumatic was the brief time we‟d accidentally ended up with
the entire contents of his brain and soul inside my body. Most horrifying five minutes of our
lives, bar none.
        “Fuck naw!” He declared. “Even if it worked, ain‟t naw way ya could hold us both in
there that long wi‟out…” he looked briefly ill and died off.
        “Integration?” I supplied helpfully.
        He shuddered. “I like my dick, „kay? I wanna keep it.”
        “And I‟d really rather not have more dreams about your childhood—hoo boy, what a ho-
ney—but don‟t worry, I‟ve gotten better at this, I‟m not planning to get us both stuck in one body
again—”
        “Ya didn’t plan it last time!”
        “Fine, you can keep your stupid body; there has to be local anaesthetic somewhere in this
place; it‟s a frogging science center.” I was beginning to get scared. “You know the area, so just
slap some illusion on me, send me out, I‟ll get supplies, and Fanny‟s your aunt, Bob‟s your un-
cle, and I‟m your surgeon.”
        With a plan like that and my salesman grin, you‟d think I‟d have him begging to join me,
but by his expression, he wasn‟t even close to interested.
        “I don‟t know medical crap. Screw it, I‟m waitin‟ it out. And why ya so desperate?
Ain‟t like ya got a time limit or…” At my passing-a-kidney-stone expression, he finally regis-
tered that my sanity was bleeding out my ears while he watched. A light came on behind his
eyes. It seemed I‟d gained his actual curiosity, rather than just giving him something to yell at.
“Ya do got a time limit, ain‟t ya? Wha, meds or somethin‟?” Another look of comprehension as
he remembered something else. “Why ezzackly did ya come back „gain now?”
        I sighed. “I‟ve got a brother.”
        It was the only time I‟d ever succeeded in horrifying him. “There‟s two o‟ ya?”
         “God, no!” I cried. “He‟s human, like you, only—you know, younger and with a soul.
He‟s still back with—uh, my „parents.‟” Saying the word made me want to bite off my tongue,
but giving them their true title would be too long and confusing.
         “Ya goin‟ back home?” He sounded like he hoped this meant he would never have to see
my ugly face again.
         I snorted. “Of course I‟m going back! All right, so maybe they did shoot me up with
horse tranquilizers and sell me to the pinheads, but hey, bygones are bygones, and I am of a for-
giving nature. The thing is, you‟re right: I only have a few days on this planet. When I first
touched down, I thought it‟d be no problem, but I got gypped. I had no clue that five years had
passed, and people tend to move around in that time. So that‟s why I‟m urgent.” Now it was my
term to be bitter. “Like you‟d care. How many siblings did you abandon, back in your day?”
         “Hey, watch ya mouth, ya been gone how long now?” He snarled. I flinched, and that
seemed to satisfy him. He chewed on his lower lip for a few minutes, glowering like he was de-
ciding between Scylla and Charybdis. With a deep sigh that strained the straps across his chest,
he asked, seemingly to the ceiling, “Think ya can pull it off?”
         It was rhetorical, because he knew I would say „of course‟ regardless, so what he meant
was that he was actually going to assist. For a second, I thought he must‟ve been kidding me,
just so he could cause maximum suffering on my part. “You mean…?” I started.
         “Yup,” he grunted, whipping a knife out of his armband with a painful twist of his wrist,
“but fa my own benefit, „kay? Better not dis‟point me neither.” He found a strap and started
sawing. “Don‟t give a shit „bout ya kid bro, who‟s probably as big a pain in the ass as ya are; ya
can rot here, all I care, and so can he. I break out, I‟m gone.”
         “Gee, thanks. You‟re my knight in pure platinum, Biffy.”
         “Fuck off.” He said, glad I didn‟t need convincing, and wrenched his lower arm free from
one of the straps.
         Even though I must‟ve spent fifteen minutes dragging him into it, waiting for him to es-
cape the gurney seemed to take years longer. Since he wasn‟t a human electrical storm, the pin-
heads had skipped the whole straitjacket/jumpsuit treatment, which sped things up a bit, but I
still felt myself going fidgety with impatience. After a time much shorter than it felt, he un-
buckled the last strap and landed smoothly on his feet. Pausing only to flex his arm and rub the
stiffness out, he advanced towards me and began undoing the straps on my gurney. The buckles
finished in short order, but hours stuck to a gurney had left my coordination in worse shape than
Biff‟s. As he finished the last one, which was across my chest, he kindly stepped out of the way
so I could crash face-first to the floor, then dragged me upright by the back of my strait-jumper.
         “Dang it, I know that you‟re a stonehearted thug; you don‟t need to prove yourself to
me!” I snapped, though I sounded strangled since the collar was cutting into my trachea.
         “Gotta be careful. Rep‟s hard ta maintain.”
         “Not with me, it isn‟t.” I sighed. On to business. “Cut off my sleeves. The higher up, the
better.”
         Now that I had a closer look at what he‟d been using to cut through the straps, I could see
it was an old-fashioned folding razor with a curved rectangular blade, perfect for committing
suicide but not exactly something I felt comfortable with in Biff‟s hand near my skin.
         “Please be careful with that.” I pleaded as he spun me around so roughly that I nearly
toppled backwards onto him.
         “Ya don‟t die, „member?” He tried to pull my sleeve away from my shoulder, but it
wasn‟t too easy, due to its tightness. Flashing the blade down it sliced it like paper, and I hissed
as I felt a stab of pain at my upper arm.
         “Watch it! I need to have my arm still attached to do surgery, you know!” I snapped.
         “Quit ya bitchin‟. It ain‟t that bad.” As I turned my head, I could see that the cut was a
bit long, but shallow and bleeding only a little. However, I guess he didn‟t want his surgeon
needing treatment, so he easily ripped the rest of the sleeve free by hand. The next sleeve he
managed to slice off without cutting me at all, though he was far too slash-happy to soothe me.
As soon as he finished, I twirled and looked him over.
         “How long‟ll finding it take?” He asked, tossing the razor at me without even bothering
to fold the blade in. Resisting the reflex to try and catch it, I slowed it with levitation to place it
gently in my hand.
         “Depends what it is, depends where it is.” I began to circle around his body, frowning. I
was trying to sense some kind of electrical disturbance, but with the body heat and electric pulses
his body normally put out, I wasn‟t having much success. “Seeing how it‟s you, they must‟ve
stuck it somewhere you wouldn‟t just chop at haphazardly. I‟m thinking somewhere you can‟t
reach, or somewhere you‟d never want to cut open, close to something vital.” I coughed. “To
you, anyway.”
         It took a second to work its way into his head, but then Biff jerked back like I‟d just
pulled out an axe dripping with blood and shrieked, “Emasculate the oppressor!”
         “Naw.” His hands twitched, probably in a suppressed protective impulse.
         “Good.” I wasn‟t going to bother interrogating him. If the pinheads had been sadistic
enough to do such a thing, he might‟ve just had to keep the darn tracker. “Any new scars you‟ve
picked up?”
         He shrugged. “Don‟t keep track.”
         “You‟re the best patient I could ask for. Strip from the waist up.”
         “Now?” Like I was an inconvenience. I had no patience for his whining.
         “You think I want to drool over your greasy body? Unfortunately, the less insulation be-
tween me and the tracker, the faster I can find it.”
         “What if…?”
         Long pause, in which both of us developed the same queasy expression.
         “Forget I said nuthin.”
         “I don‟t know what you‟re talking about. Now do it.”
         Maybe it was the urgency in my voice; maybe it was the stained razor in my hand. Either
way, Biff had an uncharacteristic attack of obedience, though he did grumble incoherently under
his breath about it. Meanwhile, I desperately tried to decide whether there was any way to steril-
ize the razor without destroying it. I failed. Even if I could raise and focus the heat required to
sterilize it, I‟d melt the plastic handle. With a feeling that wasn‟t despair but considered it, I
turned to him as though hoping the sight of his rugged constitution would assure me it wouldn‟t
matter. He‟d shrugged off his worn bomber jacket and was reaching for his T-shirt. The wrin-
kles and sweat stains gave me the impression that he was just as lax about laundry as he was
about shaving. More than likely he couldn‟t afford detergent.
         I gazed back at the razor doubtfully. Bet he couldn‟t afford health insurance either…
         “Now what?”
         Though it could‟ve easily come from me, the question actually came from Biff, and the
annoyance in his voice snapped me back into focus. Fine, I‟d figure it out later; the tracker had
to be found, some way or other. I glanced up from my perusal of the knife, only to do a double
take and stare at his chest in astonishment.
         “You… you lied to me.” I whimpered.
         “Huh?”
         “You‟re not human.” I pointed at him accusingly. “You have rug blood! No wonder the
women can‟t resist—”
         His shirt got me full in the face, and I nearly gashed my arm open with the razor, but it
was worth it. Needling him with irony was just too much fun, since he knew every implication
of what I said and couldn‟t do much to me at the moment without endangering himself or,
through my mind, feeling the pain himself. He muttered vile words, but I ignored it, because I
knew I‟d won that round.
         “Arms out to your sides, please. Like you‟re Christ on the cross.” I requested, closing my
eyes to focus more.
          With a low growl that promised I‟d get a nice smack in the face when he had something
to cover his hands, he impatiently assumed the position I asked of him.
         Until this moment, I‟d never really noticed the energy going into the running of a living
body. In fact, I‟d usually tried to suppress it, so body heat wouldn‟t get to me the way it did.
The only times I‟d ever used it was very early in my learning, back when I was still absorbing
energy from fishes‟ life functions. So looking, really looking, was a fascinating experience.
Straining like I was, I could just barely sense the little sparks going through the brain and major
nerves, though the stronger electrical pulse keeping his heart going was obvious. Unfortunately,
now was not the time to get mushy and artistic over the Dellan equivalent of watching a fine ma-
chine work, so I got down to business without a pause, though not without a tinge of regret.
         Unfortunately, searching was a tedious process. Though it doesn‟t require actual physical
contact, which Biff and I weren‟t fans of, sensing energy is like playing that old game, Hot or
Cold, and in all honesty, I didn‟t know what I was looking for. I had no clue whether a pinhead
tracker ran on a battery or leeched off Biff‟s body heat or whether they‟d invented bacterial cold
fusion, so I was just looking for anything weird, which could be almost anything, with my lack
of experience. I circled around him at snail speed, leaning far past both our comfort zones for
better reception. Even with my eyes closed, it was uncomfortable. Not to mention it didn‟t
please my lower back and he reeked of sweat and cigar smoke.
         “Ya done yet?” He asked after a few minutes.
         “What? Are your arms getting tired?” I asked pointedly, circling around under one of his
arms like some confused planet around a sun. “Look, I don‟t like this pace either, but it‟s better
than having to scan you twice. You probably know how much time we have, but please don‟t
tell me. I‟d really rather not—hold on.” I froze in my half-bent, hunchback position.
         “Wha?” Biff asked, but I waved him off impatiently.
         Somewhere around his sternum, I was sure I‟d caught a flash of… something… a little
lower. I backtracked a bit and focused, without reward. With a sigh, I began to move on, but
then it flashed again, a barely perceptible electronic flux. This time I pinpointed it, and I groaned
in dismay. Well, that explained why Biff hadn‟t discovered it. The amount of body hair he had,
he wouldn‟t have noticed if he‟d broken out in a rash.
         Delighted that the torturous wait was over, Biff let his arms fall to his sides and hiked his
jeans higher up his hips. “Found it?”
         “Yup, I found it.” I sighed and rubbed my forehead. Abdominal cavity. Of course it‟d be
in the abdominal cavity. If it was, against all common sense, in his stomach, I would believe in
God purely because the only way I could explain my life was through deific humor. “Not sure
how deep it is, but it‟s pretty dang close to your aorta, and that really worries me. This throat-
cutter of yours is fine for long slices, but I‟m really dubious about whether I can use it for some-
thing this small. And you just had to nick me with it, didn‟t you?” I ineffectually started scrub-
bing at the blade with one of my hacked-off sleeves. Both words and action were redundant; the
instrument was probably crawling with infectious bacteria long before it touched me. “God only
knows what you‟ve put it through…”
        “Ya got AIDS?” Biff demanded, snatching his undershirt off the floor.
        “Hmm, let‟s see, no.”
        “Then I don‟t give a fuck.” He hissed. “Find it, chop it, dump it.”
        For a split second, I entertained the fantasy of doing just that. Biff didn‟t know the spe-
cifics of what might happen to him if I did what he said. Let him deal with the infections and
blood poisoning and possible tissue necrosis. I‟d be long gone. But then the moment passed,
and I felt Flame fluttering behind me, burning holes in the back of my skull with her glare. Nev-
er mind that she was overlap away. I could even hear her and Scorch‟s stupid little warbling
song in my head. We try not to cause a bruise or weal, rather instead to save and heal.
        Resisting a growl of frustration, I screwed my eyes shut and ground my teeth until my
jaw hurt. “Oh, how I wish I could commit malpractice right now; you‟re making it so easy…
Biff, you‟re not a Thanksgiving turkey. I‟m a completely different species than you, and my
immune system is nasty. Cutting you open is going to be bad enough; I don‟t want to give you
blood poisoning on top of it. Give me a few seconds, I‟ll think of something.”
        Biff threw his arms up as though I was a living representation of every bureaucracy in the
world. Words were not required.
        “Oh, and you’re so much better—”
        The rest of my sneering response would‟ve been scathing to the extreme, I‟m sure, except
that I was interrupted by the sound of our door unlocking. Reflexively, Biff and I looked to each
other for ideas, then both stared at the mutilated gurneys. When I looked back at him, he was
gone, vanished from the visual spectrum. I, however, had not. Unfortunately, I didn‟t have the
time to demand an explanation. The door had swung open.
        Evidently even my luck had limits to how awful it could get. There were no specialists
waiting to teach me contortionism, just that doctor for a check in, but he was calibrating a sy-
ringe that probably had something nasty in it. However, as soon as he saw me, he developed a
look reminiscent of soon-to-be-road-kill and froze, probably trying to simultaneously figure out
how‟d I‟d broken out, who to complain to afterward, and whether I had gone berserk and would
eat his kidneys.
        Thankfully, I had no such hesitation. He might‟ve been caught unawares, but I‟d had a
good two and a half seconds to get over my shock, and now that Biff had cut my sleeves off, I
could do magic and play with electricity again. Forgoing strategy in favor of just doing some-
thing, I whipped up some energy and pitched it at him.
        It was a split second, slapdash job, so I didn‟t have the concentration or the power on
hand to cause him a grand mal seizure without actual physical contact. However, his muscles
did momentarily seize, and the hypodermic needle shattered in his hand, sending glass shards
clinking to the floor and gashing into his palm.
        Maybe not helpful, but it did work in that I kept the pinhead focused on me as the major
concern. By all rights, he should‟ve been worrying about Biff. While I frantically tried to soak
up more energy to finish the job, the thug took advantage of the distraction. The door slammed
shut behind us, seemingly of its own accord, and the doctor suddenly flung himself to the floor
as though tackled.
         “Nice.” I remarked as Biff regained visibility, and in my anxiety and my adrenaline, I ac-
tually meant it. For all his boorishness and abysmal grammar, he had a gift for tricking the eyes.
I could see why he hadn‟t simply punched our hostage out; seeing how much help I was being in
the medical department, he rightly thought that having a pinhead operate on him would be a bet-
ter idea. However, there was one very big problem with the doctor‟s continued state of con-
sciousness. “You going to silence him, or you want me to?” I asked.
         “He ain‟t gonna scream.” He said without a hint of doubt, fishing through the doctor‟s
pockets. He came up with a couple pens, which he casually tossed to the floor. The wallet he
relieved of cash and an ID card before also chucking it.
         “Why not?” I asked, barely getting my hands up in time to catch the case of syringes he
hurled at me.
         With a particularly nasty grin, Biff tossed me a series of bottles underhand that came
dangerously close to hitting me in the face, then yanked the doctor to his feet and gave the white
collar a shake. “Cuz he heard of me, and he knows what I did ta Greensward back last year.” The
doctor went pale and remained silent. “Now ya gonna help get this tracker the fuck outta me.”
Biff ordered.
         “I can‟t do that.” The pinhead still looked at us as though we were smelly Neanderthals,
but he remained fairly polite. Whatever Biff had done to this Greensward guy, it‟d done won-
ders for his PR. “I don‟t stick trackers in people, and I don‟t know where yours is.”
         “It‟s by his sternum.” I supplied. “I can direct you, or do it myself. But you see, that‟d
mean we‟d have to be sure you weren‟t going to stop me.”
         Biff sent me a look that told me to back off and let him handle the negotiating, then went
back to the doctor. “Got anythin‟ sharp?” He asked, beginning to pat him down again.
         “Do I look like a surgeon?” The pinhead snapped. “I‟m a pharmacologist.”
         Biff obviously neither knew nor cared what that meant. The pharmacologist elaborated,
“I do the tranqs, the stimulants, the drugs, make sure you don‟t die from them.” By his expres-
sion, he wished the latter part of his job didn‟t apply to us. “I don‟t cut people open, and as you
can see, I don‟t carry that kind of crap. Now get your hands off.”
         “Fine. Deactivate the goddamn thing.” Biff ordered. “I know ya can, „less ya dig up and
cut open every goddamn tester ya kill.”
         “You think it‟s just that easy? Deactivation requires special tech, and that means special
clearance. I can‟t get it; I‟m a pharmacologist, not a tech-rat. Besides, the thing‟s tamperproof.
Mess with it, and it‟ll send out an alarm.”
         I groaned. Oh, splendid. “What constitutes tampering?”
         “Pharmacologist.” He reminded, warbling like Hamlet on one of his crazier days. “I don‟t
knooooow.”
         “Hey, shaddap.” My partner in crime advised, giving him a shake.
         “Look,” I cut in before Biff lost his temper, “either you get helpful, or we decide you‟re a
waste of time and play Russian roulette with whatever drugs you have so I can figure out which
is the local anaesthesia. Now make us happy.”
         “I tell you, I don‟t know anything about that, but you can get sterile crap like what you‟re
asking in the chopping block two halls over.”
         “I coulda told ya that.” Biff retorted. “Ya done?”
         “Not yet.” I turned back to the pharmacologist. “Got any drugs that knock out emotions?”
         The pharmacologist snorted. “If I had crap like that, I would‟ve jacked you up on them
the moment you got liver-and-fava-beans on me.”
         “Thanks.” I said and turned to Biff. “Now I‟m done.”
         He nodded and sucker-punched the pharmacologist, who obligingly went down like a
pole-axed steer.
         “You could have just asked me for some tranq.” I mentioned mildly.
         In response, Biff rolled his eyes, gave the pharmacologist a sharp kick in the ribs to make
sure I understood his point, and pulled from his pocket the ID card that he‟d confiscated earlier.
He thrust it at me and said, “I can‟t leave the room till ya get this shit outta me. Choppin‟ block
is three halls over, not two, and ya gonna need this ta open it.” I took the ID card. “Gonna be on
ya right, labeled „trauma surgery,‟” his tongue hesitated over the unfamiliar syllables, despite the
dousing he‟d gotten in my brain, “can‟t miss it. Fuck it up, and—”
         “—Death, torture, mutilation, et cetera ad nauseam. I know the drill.” I said, nodding and
heading towards the door. “You want to do it or me?”
         “Got any better since last time?”
         I twiddled my fingers. “Well…”
         “Me. Be fast.” He turned me invisible before shoving me by the shoulders out the door,
which I never saw him open.
         His threats were purely out of habit; we both knew I didn‟t need more motivation. The
pharmacologist was just the first. Any minute now, we‟d be getting more visitors, and there
were only so many people Biff could deck without a fuss. I hustled down the hall and followed
Biff‟s directions, which proved good. I developed hypertension every time I saw a pinhead in
the hall, of which there were a few, but Biff‟s illusion remained impenetrable and they strode by,
chattering happily about rugby. The room was, as he said, pretty hard to miss, because it easily
had the largest doors in the hall, presumably to accommodate gurneys for inhuman proportions.
Determined not to think why everyone called it „the chopping block,‟ and why Biff spoke so con-
fidently in regards to his knowledge of it, I thrust the ID card into the slot above the door handle.
         After a couple seconds, the light above blinked red, and the door refused to open.
         For a second, I panicked. Then I realized that I was probably holding the card the wrong
way. Since I couldn‟t see it, I could only guess which way to turn it. Well, it couldn‟t be that
hard; it was only a small delay.
         After five frustrating repetitions of ramming the card into the slot and getting the red
light, I wasn‟t sure whether I was spatially developmentally delayed or whether Biff had been
mistaken in the card being able to work. The pharmacologist had claimed effusively that he
didn‟t have access to everything. Maybe it was something like that.
         Somehow, I didn‟t think Biff would buy it. Biting my lip, I turned the card around, and
thrust it in again. This time, the light flashed green, and I heard a click of an unlocking door.
Unfortunately, at just that moment, a specialist walked around the corner, so I was forced to wait.
Grinding my teeth, I watched the door light flash at me warningly, then heard the door lock click
shut again.
         I would‟ve sworn the sound was too quiet to be noticed, but of course, if it gave them a
chance to deport me, specialists would spontaneously evolve ESP. His head jerked around like it
was on a hinge and I froze, trying very hard to make my heartbeat quieter. The illusion was still
good, so why was he staring right at me?
         Then I realized with horror that he wasn‟t staring at but behind me, at the door light that
was still blinking green. As quietly as I could, I began to edge away from the door. They had to
stick a tracker in Biff to keep him here because his illusions are so good, I chanted to myself. So
pinheads can‟t see through it even if they‟re watching for it. He can‟t see through it. He can‟t
see through it.
         The specialist came forward and peered at the door curiously. I stayed where I was, plas-
tered to the wall and wondering whether now was the time to find religion. Can‟t see through it,
can‟t see through it, can‟t see—
         Without warning, the specialist slammed his fist into the door handle. I jumped but
caught my scream somewhere in my windpipe.
         The door‟s light stopped blinking. Nodding in a satisfied way to himself, the specialist
muttered, “Goddamn doors,” and strode off. Eyes wide, I stood there pressed against the wall
even after he‟d vanished from view, and it was only until my vision started getting hazy that I
realized I had to breathe. I tried to inhale, only to realize my respiratory tract was still full of ab-
orted scream. With a whoosh of air, I dashed to the door and frantically pulled out the card to
stick it back in again. This time, I was able to open it and slip inside.
         Despite its odious name, at first glance, the chopping block looked like any other big
budget surgical ward in Astallionica—not that I‟d ever been in one. However, I didn‟t have the
time for admiring the scenery; I had to search for a scalpel first. Thankfully, it didn‟t take much;
the pinheads organized their equipment like they had nothing else to do. I pulled open a drawer
and found myself staring at a mind-blowing range of objects meant to cut through chunks of the
body. Scalpels and hooks and hacksaws and chisels and other things I couldn‟t even try to iden-
tify lay on sterile plastic, all glimmering maliciously under the fluorescent lighting. These guys
obviously knew their business, and it gave me the creeps. Suppressing a shudder, I snatched a
scalpel and blade-thin forceps, yanked a pair of latex gloves, and scurried out the door. Sudden-
ly I didn‟t like being junior healer.
         I got back to our room without accident to find Biff leaning against the wall with arms
crossed and a glower that he‟d probably been perfecting the past five minutes. Another pinhead
lay on the floor with a badly battered tray next to her, and it was obvious that Biff wasn‟t pleased
about having had to sneak up on a woman to beat her senseless. It was probably his usual proce-
dure to do it face-to-face.
         His grunt was an irate demand for information. Moving into fast-forward, I grunted back
in classic caveman „leave me alone‟ fashion and guzzled light before snapping on one glove.
Leaving the other bare, I loaded my syringe and turned towards Biff, who‟d already bullied one
of the gurneys to a horizontal position while I was gone.
         “How long‟ll this take?” He asked as he took a spot on it.
         “Depends if you hold still, and stop looking so paranoid; this won‟t hurt.” I lied to him.
The condescension in my voice did the job; the tension left his shoulders and I plunged the
needle into his solar plexus. His back arched and he bit back a cry only because he didn‟t want
the pinheads swarming to see who was taking over their job. Instead, he lurched upright and
yanked me forward by my jumper so roughly I bruised my hip against the edge of the gurney.
Growling communicated his annoyance more than any words.
         “Whine later, hold still now.” I snapped. Shoving him back to the gurney with my
gloved hand, (which was successful only because he knew I was right) I kept soaking up energy
from the fluorescent lighting with the other. Sutures would cause less tissue damage but I was
faster with heat, and I couldn‟t do it with latex insulation blocking the flow. This would be ex-
hausting enough already. “Can you cover for the camera while you‟re drugged and being operat-
ed on?”
         He gave me the insulted sneer, but I didn‟t fall for it. Past experience had taught me that
Biff habitually pretended he knew what he was doing, just as I did. Hey, it was a reasonable ac-
tion; it kept things under control when you were dealing with low morale and faltering courage.
However, I had just as much drive and suicidal guts as he did, so I just gazed back, and he sighed
and bit his lower lip for a second, then changed his answer. “If it don‟t hurt and I still feel awake,
I should work all right.” He sounded less than sure, but I didn‟t have many other options. Biff on
his worst day still trumped any meager fakery I had to offer.
         I dug my nails into his skin. “Hurt?”
         The lack of volume in his voice showed his surprise more than his expression. “No.”
         “Good.” I pulled out the scalpel. “Now watch the ceiling. It‟s fascinating, this time of
day.”
         Maybe the „I have no sense of humor‟ face convinced him not to talk back. He rolled his
eyes, but they never completed their trajectory down.
         Until this point, you‟re probably wondering what I figured on doing to keep from passing
out on the floor. Believe me, so was I. Never had I tried to do something as major as this with-
out drugs, but the time had come for me to sink or swim: without my whackers, there was noth-
ing to keep my reactions at bay, and all I could do was try not to think. This was important; I
just had to focus on the job beyond all things.
         Theories work just fine outside of practice, and in this case, it lasted until I actually made
an incision. Blood welled up past the scalpel and began to ooze immediately, and the reality hit
like a two-by-four in the head. This wasn‟t circulatory fluid; this was blood, sweet and simple
and oh, so red. My mind went to pieces, lurching from medical focus to emotional response be-
fore finally hitting gridlock. My hands began to shake and I just stood there rigid while Biff
stared placidly at the ceiling.
         “Kid?” He complained. “Ya goin‟ ta get ta work or what?”
         In a calm, wan voice, I heard myself say something that sounded vaguely like Ancient
Greek. My brain took that and my whitening vision into account. Ah, I was about to faint.
         Glad to have that settled, my knees buckled, but I only made it halfway to the floor, due
to Biff lunging forward to grab the front of my jumper and haul me forward before he lost his
surgeon. Probably all he intended was to smack the sense back into me, but he had to hold me in
place first, and that required both hands. One fist buried itself in the front of my strait-jumper,
but the other closed around my bare arm, and the inevitable happened.
         Snap!
         The abrupt contact with his mind was the equivalent of a slap in the face. My vision
cleared, and both my blood pressure and heart rate went back up to normal as I got a good strong
dose of his annoyance. Of course, he began to jerk back, but my brain clung to his and I seized
his wrist to keep him from pulling away.
         “Learnin‟ surgery and ya still blood-sick?” He shrieked, pressing his free hand against his
bleeding abdomen. His mind registered more irritation and screamed anxiety, while also as-
tounded that I‟d somehow thought I was just going to chop him up and pass out to leave him to
deal with the whole mess. The natural reflex was to beat the love out of me for it, except that he
couldn‟t afford to. The tangle of mental activity blurred into his speech, making it sound like
being hit with three radio stations at the same time, and it took me a few seconds to unravel and
understand all the various threads—an eternity, telepathically.
         Even as I shoved him back down horizontal without letting go of him, I didn‟t bother
with vocals. “Leave me alone or I let you bleed out (shame, pulling together) (of course it’d be
with him it’d go wrong)/going to need your help with this (yahoo)/borrow your guts for a
while?/just say one snide remark, just one, and remember, I’ve got a pointy thing.”
        There was no choice, so no hesitation. “Yes/stay up, dammit/naw time.”
        I felt a little weak and dizzy, but that was normal after nearly passing out, and Biff, who
didn‟t care what squishy things he saw, was quickly filtering that out. Somehow, I‟d kept from
dropping the scalpel.
        “Try again, yes?(deep breath now)”
        “Go/hurry/this don’t mean nuthin, get it?”
        “Don’t know what you’re talking about (totally ignorant, honest).”
        I began soaking up the bleeding with one of my chopped-up sleeves while thrusting levi-
tation blocks into the veins and arteries to keep the process from continuing. It was only tempo-
rary, but it only had to be, same with maneuvering the copious body hair out of the way. As
soon as the area was clear enough for me to see what I was doing, I began incising through fat
and muscle. Biff‟s personality pressed up against the back of my mind like a brick wall, keeping
me from toppling backwards into phobia, and since I knew he wouldn‟t let me faint on him, I
found his presence… reassuring. Now there’s a word I never thought I‟d ever tag the thug with.
        At least I was fast. Nauseatingly sloppy, but fast, and fast was what mattered. I couldn‟t
help hitting some squishy things, but through some sweet mercy of Fate, somehow I didn‟t hit
the aorta or its major branches, even though I was a nothing more than a glamorized butcher at
the speed I was going. The entire time, Biff was doing the psychic equivalent of peering over
my shoulder with an expression of morbid fascination and disgust. Even with his stomach, it
was enough to disturb him, especially since he was siphoning so much negative energy off of me
already.
        “Ya done yet?/urgh.” He inquired.
        “Why, does this disturb you?/you better not give out on me, because then it’ll disturb
me.” Then I hit metal. “Haha, success! (victory dance)/and thank the lord it’s not in your sto-
mach! (jubilation!)”
        “’Bout fuckin’ time!/(sinister delight)” Even queasy, Biff knew full well that with his illu-
sion powers in full swing, he was as good as free, and for a split moment, we both relished the
moment of feeling that something was going right.
        Then the third pinhead came in. Our momentary luck had passed, because this one
wasn‟t medical personnel. It wasn‟t a specialist, thank goodness, but a grunt was more than a
physical match for me. Acting by reflex, rather than sensible thought, Biff tried to lurch upright,
only for me to nearly run him through with the scalpel slamming him back down again. It didn‟t
occur to me that he was probably not well enough to take out another grunt; I stopped him be-
cause if he moved now, he would ruin all my mental plugs that currently held his blood in place
and the risk of a beating would be redundant.
        The grunt rushed forward, and the first semi-heavy thing my eyes fell on was the hard
case of syringes that lay open on the table next to me. Frantically splitting my concentration, I
flung my hand back as though backhanding someone behind me, and the case went cart-
wheeling through the air to smash into the grunt‟s temple. He staggered but didn‟t fall, and he
slammed one hand to the emergency alarm against the wall.
        Alarm sirens went off with a shriek.
        Both our minds went into frantic swearing. Still maintaining control of the syringe case,
I whacked the grunt on the head again. My aim and force was better this time and brought him
down, but it was too late. Our cover was blown.
         Biff‟s concentration, failing before, had now completely crashed in regards to the camera;
he figured it no longer mattered. My focus wasn‟t doing so hot either, and his blood was starting
to ooze over the gurney.
         I tried to whip the forceps out of the air where my mind had held them, only to find my
glove too slick to have any grip, so I hastily scrubbed it against my front; really, I should‟ve kept
cutting, but everything relied on getting things done now. Ramming the instrument into the
wound, I managed to haul the tracker out with a sharp yank, leaving some pretty hefty tissue
damage in its wake and more bleeding that I quickly got under control. Even then, I wasn‟t fast
enough; Biff was bellowing, “Hurry!” at the top of his lungs, as though I couldn‟t feel the exact
same sentiment blasting at me through his mind.
         He wanted hurry; I gave him hurry. The lights went dead as I force-fed myself all the
energy they had to offer, converted it into a tight beam of heat, and blasted it into the mess of
flesh I‟d created. My fingertips burned, the smell of roasting meat wafted up, and Biff would
have some wicked scars to show off, but I cauterized the whole thing in a couple seconds. For
the first time since the procedure had started, I let go of his wrist; I needed to catch hold of the
gurney and wheeze.
         To my complete lack of surprise, he didn‟t even wipe the blood off his torso before leap-
ing up off the gurney, still giving off wisps of smoke and smelling like a barbecue. The vertigo
immediately hit and he began to sway, but he tossed off the supporting gloved hand I tried to put
to his elbow and caught himself against the gurney as well.
         “C‟mon, let‟s go!” He snapped, hooking his jacket with the toe of his boot and tossing it
to his hand to haul it on. Before I had time to wonder why he was bothering to dress again, he
yanked me towards him, wrapped one arm around me to keep me from toppling, and began try-
ing to stagger forward, only to sway and have to let go of me to catch the gurney again.
         Talking helped stifle the vomit reflex, though my voice was thick when I said, “Biff, you
can‟t handle—”
         “Shut the fuck up!” He barked, grabbing me again, and this time, we went invisible.
However, it was slower, more ragged than usual, and as I looked down, I could see a small dis-
turbance in the air.
         If Biff was so battered that he couldn‟t even pull off his illusion properly, there was no
way under the sky he should‟ve been pulling something like hauling eighty-odd pounds of
wiped-out me down the hallway. He should‟ve been sleeping the surgery off. Then again, I
should‟ve been sleeping it off too, but here I was, trying to keep pace with him without flesh-to-
flesh contact. The hallways were clustered with pinheads, but Biff knew his way around, and he
dragged me into a smaller, momentarily empty one. For a moment, he paused to lean hard
against the wall.
         “Uh… gotta tell ya somethin‟.” He muttered in a tone of mild embarrassment.
         “You‟re bleeding again.” I guessed.
         “Well, yeah, that too, but they gonna lock this place down.”
         “Lock this place down?” I repeated, my normal reaction to disaster.
         Someone was coming. Opening a door, he shoved us inside what was evidently a jani-
tor‟s closet. In the process, he purposely shifted his grip to a bare part of my arm so I‟d snap him
and receive the information in lump form.
         In Science, when alarms went off, it was of vital necessity that the place became a safe,
with no one going in or out. Therefore, every door would lock. That alone wasn‟t incredibly
worrying, since Biff had snatched one pinhead‟s ID. Even if they got desperate and shut down
the central power, which served all door-opening mechanisms, I had enough magic to set a fire
spell on the walls to smash them down. However, there was one other big problem. The alarms
had called just about every backup in the area, and they were packing sonar.
         “Oh smitch.” I remarked.
         For someone self-taught, Biff was extraordinarily talented at what he did. However, that
talent had very strict limits: it only worked for vision. According to his brain, specialist sonar
relayed location in verbal commands. Not the easiest way to bypass Biff‟s invisibility, but with
both of us barely ambulatory and with shot concentrations, it would probably work out very well.
         Also, contact with his mind made me reel. Despite his efforts and refusal to admit it even
to himself, he was dangerously close to fainting from a mix of overexertion and blood loss, even
with the painkillers knocking out the agony he should‟ve been feeling. However, nauseous and
dizzy and weak as he was, he still had one up on me: he could stand on his own. My concentra-
tion was so badly shattered by the exhausting cauterizations and prolonged psychic contact that I
couldn‟t even pull together the levitation required to keep me upright, and it was the fourth spell
I had ever learned.
         The realization came to me with numbing despair. We couldn‟t do it. In both body and
mind, we were exhausted, and there was no way we could smash our way through pinheads and
tranqs who now knew we were out and had sonar. We just couldn‟t cover for—
         No, we couldn‟t. I, however…
         “Make us visible.” I ordered.
         For perhaps the first time in our association, he obeyed without a single gripe. As his
mind had implied, he looked utterly ghastly, but I probably looked worse, and it only reminded
me that we weren‟t going to get out together. Fervently shoving a finger into his leather-clad
shoulder, since his chest was still bare and bloody as well, I growled, “You owe me, boy.” Too
late, I realized I was pronouncing „boy‟ the way he did, with two and a half syllables. Before he
could ask questions, I began sucking down energy again, forcing it into my body. That, despera-
tion, and the sudden pain in my chest gave me an unexpected spike of giddy hysteria. “You owe
me big. My brother‟s somewhere on Tequila Street, in Vaygo. His name‟s Todd Rawlins; he‟s
f—n—ten years old.”
         “Wha? I don‟t do—”
         “You? Babysit?” I giggled shrilly. “Hold the door for me; don‟t show it‟s open.”
         To my eyes, the scene didn‟t change, but Biff said, “Go.”
         “Thanks.” There was only one helpful spell I knew that didn‟t require focus and rigid
control—in fact, it seemed to work best when I used neither. Clinging to the doorframe, I leaned
forward to thrust my head out to the hall, had a quick look around, pumped up my magic, and
tossed down a fire spell at the farther end of the hallway.
         FWOOOSH! As always, the spell was completely beyond my control, and even twenty
feet away, we were still shoved against the back of the closet as the wall exploded in chunks of
flying cement and insulation. Fortunately, due to past experience with the spell, I managed to
keep from banging my head against something hard, though my legs were too weak to hold me
and I slid to the floor.
         There. Now Biff had an escape route. Making a quick scan to decide how much rubble I
could lift with levitation, I continued babbling as though nothing had happened, though my voice
was getting unwieldy and I still sat. My vision was blurring, but it wasn‟t because I was about to
pass out.
        “Just tell him sissy‟s coming, M.D., Barracuda, whatever. If you find my knife, he might
recognize it. I‟ll cover for you; we won‟t get out of here together, and you have a better shot.
Now help me up.” He caught me by the back of my jumper and pulled me upright. Grabbing the
lapels of his jacket, I leaned close, as much for balance as dramatic effect, and hissed into his
face, “Ignore this one little request, Biffy. Just ignore it, and I will find out, and I‟ll… I‟ll…”
My voice was quivering, and I was unable to come up with a threat nasty enough for him to take
seriously, so I just let my arms fall to my sides and let him take most of my weight, trying not to
look like I was bleeding internally.
        “Ya ain‟t gonna get outta here on ya own.” Biff reminded.
        “Yeah.” I said quietly, staring at the floor. “I know. Go.”
        He didn‟t move, only tilted his head and started looking me up and down as though trying
to find out what booby trap I‟d left for him. My temper flared, and I reverted to my normal,
more understandable mode of communication with him: shouting and waving my arms.
        “You think I‟m stupid?” I bellowed. “Duh I‟m not getting out of here! I‟m martyring
myself for you, you ungrateful houseplant! Now go! Go, dammit, before I change my mind!”
        Immediately reassured, Biff propped me up against the wall like a mannequin and turned
to leave, then paused to look back at me. “Whaddaya gonna do?”
        I smiled the best I could. Oh, I knew what I was going to do—what fun it would be.
“Something wildly flamboyant and senseless and expensive, I‟m sure.”
        That didn‟t sway him. “Fuck. Ya got naw idea.”
        My smile became more brittle. “Something briefly psychotic.” I clarified.
        That did the job. Off he went. “See ya in Hell, kid.”
        I almost laughed. “I don‟t die, remember? Now run.” Recalling his condition, I hastily
added, “Carefully.”
        Giving me a last obscene gesture over his shoulder, he disappeared, even more roughly
than the last time, and I was alone, left to my own devices. Tranqing was eminent, but that was
such a small worry that it didn‟t bother me, and so was the question over whether I‟d shot myself
in the foot or in the head. No, I wasn‟t thinking about either of those things, because my chest
hurt too much.
        Funny, the crazy things I‟ll do for the right person. Now all I had to do was get myself
into a panic or rage. I could already tell that panic was beyond me; all I could feel was this hol-
low ache of mourning somewhere between my heart and my shoulder blades.
        Well, anger shouldn‟t be hard. Really, when had I ever had to work at getting angry?
        And I couldn‟t. Pathetically, uncharacteristically, and above all, frogging inconveniently,
I couldn‟t work up a head of steam. Everything hurt, but I couldn‟t dredge up any rage about it,
only think that I‟d lost my brother. How could I be thinking about causing mayhem if I‟d lost
him? And how could I have let him get away from me? Then, in a stroke of genius, my mind
seized upon the idea, twisted it out of proportion, made it senseless and hysterical and beautifully
black and white: I hadn‟t let him get away. They took him from me.
        I was rewarded with a slight flicker. Sure, it was totally untrue, and I knew it even then.
But it‟d do for now.
        Still pumping energy, I grabbed a mop or a squeegee or something vaguely supportive
and staggered my way to the door. Again: they took Todd from me. Keeping me here, involving
me in all this immigration bushwah when all I wanted was my little brother—didn‟t even frog-
ging bother anyone this time—
       Yes. It was all lies, but I was hurting less already. Again. They took my brother from
me.
         Thanks to my new friend the squeegee, I made it through the door and came face to face
with a few pinheads. Again. They took my brother from me. I tossed a fire spell at them.
         Fwo-BANG!
         Either they were carrying cold iron, or I was concentrating poorly. The explosion burst
into life in the muzzle of one of the tranq-guns and the gun exploded, but the flames immediately
collapsed in on themselves. The force of the explosion was the same, however, and close
enough to send me flying across the hall into a wall with enough force to send colors through my
vision and the air out of my lungs. I lost my wooden squeegee friend, but I was starting to feel
the good stuff now. Again. They took my brother from me. They took my brother from me!
The sparks from my eyes didn‟t leave. Beginning to smile, though it hurt, I wrapped my mind
around the chunks of rubble that had once been a wall and began a manic game of dodge ball.
By this point, I didn‟t care what I hit, just as long as I pulverized something.
         Again, again! Who cared if it was true or not? They took my brother from me!
         Losing all focus of what I was hurling where and tossing another fire spell in some direc-
tion or other, I got to my feet, and began a staggering butterfly waltz through the hallways, pain
making everything fuzzy though it‟d stopped hurting by now. My balance was terrible, main-
tained only through the help of a wall, but hey, nothing was breaking. It wasn‟t bad, really, and
any second now, it‟d start being fun. Where were those pinheads? Didn‟t they know I was try-
ing to get shot? They took my brother from me, they took my brother from me. I‟d torch the
whole place and dance on its grave because it took my brother from me.
         Fwo-bang, fwo-bang, fwo-BANG! It felt almost like a game. Didn‟t feel like going
through a door? Blow up the wall. (Took my brother from me.) Pinhead in the way? Stagger on
and play dodge ball with cement. (Took my brother from me.) Dang it, why hadn‟t they shot me
yet? This hurt, and my face was getting stiff from keeping the smile. (Took my brother from
me.) Why was I even bothering? Might as well just start tearing intestines out the old-fashioned
way, make myself a target and just get it all over with. (Took my brother from me, took my
brother from me, took my brother from me.) Look at them all, getting in my way, the house-
plants. Didn‟t they realize that I was going to take them all down with me? It‟d be fun, surely
it‟d be fun—well, it was starting to sound fun a bit maybe. (Took my brother me from brother
took took took la-dee-dah…)
         I recognized a face that ducked one of my little dodge balls. Oh good, finally, some
worthwhile opponent, and he had a gun too, bless him! Why was I happy about that; didn‟t I
want to claw blood out of him? Oh well, philosophical analysis was boring; really, it all boiled
down to took took took brother me took from me from brother took they I brother from.
         English was darn tricky. Couldn‟t remember his name. But there were only three: I,
they, Todd/brother, so maybe I could guess.
         “Todd?”
         Thunk. Bee sting in my neck. “Joseph.” Dean corrected.
         Oh, thank god it was over. I‟d been starting to enjoy myself.
                                9: Occupational Stress
                                    PIN Specialist Grey



         Kept staring at the screen when the security recording clicked off, unable to swallow.
That had not gone as planned.
         Dean‟s voice was soft. “You heard that pharmacologist. One of them got a knife in here,
and that is how all this—that—” he pointed at the screen I stared at, “happened. Now, I perso-
nally supervised a search on Rawlins, head to foot.” He stepped forward, trying to gain eye con-
tact. Kept staring at the wall, feeling a chill between my shoulder blades. “So unless she swal-
lowed the thing, it was MacGilligan who got it in. MacGilligan. Your jurisdiction. Which
means you fucked up, Grey. This—that—is your responsibility.”
         Speech was always hard, now harder. “Yes.” My sector, my jurisdiction, my failure.
         Dean strode forward, too close. “Grey, you‟re the most protocol-obsessed specialist I
have ever met. And you just… screwed up a routine search? Forgot to make sure that MacGilli-
gan was out cold?”
         “Yes.”
         Behind me, the pharmacologist snorted.
         “That‟s negligence.” Dean hissed.
          No. Malpractice.
         “And you just happened to forget with Rawlins in the building—that little career-booster
you really need. What a coincidence.”
         Said nothing—there was nothing to say, nothing to fix the situation, nothing. My job…
         “You think I‟m stupid or something? Like you can pull that condescension on me. You
might claim to be a protocol nut, but the moment things go bad, you shed it all. Just because
you‟ve been a specialist for twenty years doesn‟t mean you‟re indispensable, and you should no
better than to pull this with me, of all people.” He took a deep breath for control and clenched his
fists at his sides. “Get back to your sector. You‟re not wanted here.” Then he paused and spat,
“Goddammit, haven‟t you gotten your hand stitched? Doc, find him a—”
         “No.” I said, glanced at my hand. Forgot about it, bleeding and stiff, but not bad. “Can
drive.”
         Neither protested, and I went to the restroom to wash and bandage it myself. The faucet
water tinged orange, precise measurement of length of gauze, wrapping one-handed, left over
right, fingers free for steering wheel. When I left, gray smoke still hung in the air.
         Outside gray and raining. Before I could run to my Corvette, my cell phone rang, and I
picked up wordlessly.
         “Shit.” Bob spat. Must have monitored the camera records real-time. “Shit.”
         Said nothing.
         “Don‟t be quiet, dammit; I know what you‟re doing, and that‟s exactly what you
shouldn‟t be. This is my fault, not yours; I should‟ve known better than to pull MacGilligan into
it. You‟ve been his specialist for five years; of course he‟d shaft you. That bastard ever ends up
under our hands again—”
        “I failed.”
        He swore again. “Don‟t start that, I told you not to do that! This was a group effort, and
you were fucked over!”
        “They‟ll fire me, Bob.”
        That cut him short. After a pause, he spoke quietly. “They can‟t fire you; you‟ve been
here since you graduated high school. Where do they expect you to go?”
        “Sabotage.”
        “The hell with that; you didn‟t even go through with it! Damned if I worked so hard on
you to be less rigid and you get blasted for something you didn’t do.”
        “They‟ll fire me.”
        “MacGilligan‟s been a problem since we first grabbed him; they can‟t dig up enough to
get a good case. I don‟t care if I have to hack into the security system and kill the camera
records myself—”
        “They‟ll fire me.”
        A pause. “My god, you‟re actually scared. I don‟t think I‟ve ever heard you scared be-
fore—about this of all things.”
        “So are you.”
        He sighed. “Yes, but only because you‟re making me that way, and for once, I‟m han-
dling the stress better than you are. Where are you, still at Science?”
        “They‟ll—”
        “I heard you the first three times, Eric. Can you drive?”
        “Yes.”
        Another pause. “You don‟t sound like it. Stay there; I‟ll come and pick you up.”
        “No, not staying. Can drive.”
        “Right. Dean. I wouldn‟t want to stay either, and borrowing Jenny‟s truck will take me a
while. Okay, fine, go—you be all right until then?”
        “Back soon.”
        He knew it wasn‟t an answer, but he said, “You come back to me, okay? We‟ll figure
something out.”
        Hung up, walked to the car through the rain and forgot it was wet, sideswiped a mailbox
while leaving the parking lot.
        Sabotage. I had sabotaged my job, my work. Work was what I did, and without work,
there was nothing for me but military or cops. Too old for both, so no military, no cops, no
memory. Standard forced resignation procedure: a fizzy, a wash, and someone else‟s life in Mi-
ami. Probably remember liking the gym and Men in Black and little else. No work, no Bob,
forced resignation…
        Didn‟t see the deer until its eyes gleamed in the rain. Slammed on the brakes, car hy-
droplaned, crunch, seatbelt cut into my chest. I‟d hit a tree. A mess of sodden leaves fell onto
the windshield and I watched the deer leap off into the dark colors past my windshield. Had for-
gotten the wipers.
        Grabbed my phone.
        “Bob Doshi, if you‟re not Grey, get the fuck off my line.” He greeted.
        “Pick me up.”
        “You okay?”
        “Don‟t need a doc.”
        “That wasn‟t what I asked.”
        “Can‟t drive.”
        You aren‟t pulling a Douglas MacArthur, Eric.
        “Just heard about your little talk with Dean.” “Sorry.”
        “No more.” I said.
        Silence for a second. “Are you sure?”
        “No more.”
        “Eric, you‟re close to getting fired anyway!”
        Ignored his use of my first name. “Happens.”
        “Whether you‟re with me or not, I‟m not going to let you pull a Douglas MacArthur on
me. You aren‟t as big a gambling man as I am, but do you have any idea what the odds are of
someone as big as Rawlins coming into Vaygo?”
        “No more.”
        He sighed. “When you don‟t arguing with me and just repeat yourself, I know I can‟t
change your mind. You stubborn son of a bitch.”
        “Had MacGilligan. Heard it.”
        “Well, too bad. Even though you don‟t want me to, I‟m going to stick my neck out and
help you.”
        “You‟re sabotaging our workplace.” I told him.
        He snorted. “You expect that to phaze me? Grey, our workplace is what‟s going to, in a
few months, sic a fizzy on you and stick you in some boring paper pushing job with nothing but
a weird fascination with the gym and Men in Black to remind you of what you used to do for a
living. Unlike you, I have no respect for the idea of „the organization.‟ So why the hell
shouldn‟t I sabotage it? I‟m not a good guy: I read specialists‟ e-mail because I‟m bored, and I
make viruses to crash those stupid blog sites, and back in the day, I was one hell of a hacker. It‟s
how I ended up in this dump anyway. So if I can‟t use my bad side to help you, what good am I,
anyway?”
        I frowned. “Where are you?”
        He laughed. “What do you think I am, crazy? I‟m holed up in the employee restroom
with a receiver and a laptop. Anyone who comes in will probably think I‟m on something.
Why?”
        Shook my head and sighed. Didn‟t agree with him but had to respect his dedication.
“What are you planning?”
        “Those two teenagers are still out there. The best I can promise is getting Dean‟s ass
burnt for not finding out who they were so he could put a fizzy on them.”
        Bob wasn‟t the most motivated person in the world. He was doing this only for me; even
misguided, I appreciated it. “Unnecessary.”
        “Thanks. It‟s what I do. Want to hear what I wish I could promise?”
        “Not involving myself.”
        “Okay. I‟ll tell you what I‟m going to do anyway. Otherwise you‟ll be very confused.
Besides, I need to tell someone my master plan.”
        I sighed. “Fine.”
        “I‟ve been compiling crap on those two teenagers. At first, I figured they‟d be smart
enough to only pay cash, so I was pulling up the hotel transaction records in the areas we‟ve seen
them.” He said, starting to get excited. “Nobody‟s really bothering to track the guys right now,
what with Rawlins crashing hell and Dean staying all hush-hush on it, but sooner or later some-
one‟s going to notice the hotels around where we‟ve seen them has had someone paying via
Nexus Bank debit card.”
        “Nexus Bank? Jaunter‟s League involved?” No one but a jaunter would be using the
Nexus Bank; far as I knew, only they and a few others could access the dimension it was in.
        “Shut up, I haven‟t found out yet, so don‟t start worrying about politics until they come
into play. As I was saying, it‟s the Nexus Bank, so it‟ll be tricky, but we do deal with them
every once in a while so they‟ll cooperate, I‟m sure and will give me the name of who uses it and
find out if they are jaunters. I‟m being perfectly legit; someone‟ll send a grunt after them as
soon as Dean remembers to put out a formal search on them, so we might as well get to them
first.”
        “Need to go back to Vaygo.” I replied, wondering how the hell Bob had managed to per-
suade me to allow this and encourage it. “Don‟t want to anger Dean more than I already have.”
        “I appreciate you suddenly seeing my way, but who said I ever needed you, big guy?”
Bob said sweetly. “I just happen to know a comboy in Old Faithful who doesn‟t give a shit who
she pisses off and owes me a huge favor for… cleaning her computer, shall we say? She‟s al-
ready heading over.”
        Didn‟t matter that I couldn‟t speak. He knew what I meant.
        “Thanks. I love you too, big guy.” He said. “Now get your ass a beer and celebrate being
impossible to fire.” He hung up.
        This day was looking better.
        Wasn‟t until I got back to my apartment with dinner that I noticed the smear of blood on
the Corvette‟s back seat. I frowned and stared at it. I was sure I‟d checked the seats for blood
after the fight with the Krikagga and found none. After a second, I shrugged. I was too pleased
to care about stains. I‟d take it to the car wash later.




                            10: The Alpha Male Polka
                                   Charlene Unnigrutt



        “This is where M.D.‟s family moved?” Thomas asked with a grimace.
        I shrugged. “Herman said Tequila Street, and well,” I spread my hands, as though that
would explain everything, “this is it.”
        To be honest, I was just as surprised as Thomas. Tequila Street wasn‟t the worst part of
Vaygo, but it was still one of those places you didn‟t want to be alone in after dark. It wasn‟t
even much of a residential district, mostly bars and dance clubs, that sort of thing. I could feel
the bass line from one of the clubs through the cement of the sidewalk, and a couple down the
street were having a heated argument at the top of their lungs over who was responsible for run-
ning into a mailbox. Because of the noise and the broken glass, I guess the real estate would be
cheap, but I couldn‟t think why anyone would want to live here. I‟d met the Rawlins family
once, (still getting over it, by the way) but I was sure they wouldn‟t raise a little boy in this place.
         “Check me. How old would Todd be now?” Thomas asked. “He‟s what, thirteen?”
         “Um, nine or ten.”
         “What? She doesn‟t talk to me about him; how would I know?” He paused. “So, should
we grab Todd now?”
         I imagined the last time I‟d seen M.D.‟s parents. She‟d talked them into believing I was
both French and mute, but she hadn‟t had to say anything at all to make them think I was a poor
stupid slob. Mngleh and Venna had definitely overshadowed me in the weirdness department,
just by existing, but I was probably still burned into the Rawlins‟ memories, and not in a good
way. I couldn‟t imagine what might happen to me if I just walked in, inexplicably non-mute and
non-French, and tried to kidnap their other kid.
         “No, we should wait until M.D. shows up. She‟ll have a better plan, and anyway, Todd‟s
never met us; we‟d probably just scare him.”
         “She better hurry up.”
         “I‟m not worried, are you?” For once, I was actually confident. “It‟s Todd. She‟ll get
here one way or another.”
         Thomas and I had decided that trying to cross paths with M.D. on the way to Tequila
Street would‟ve been impossible. She might‟ve been a little trigger-happy, but right now, she
had a mission that required stealth, not blowing things up. Seeing her record with the PIN, she
was probably trying as hard as she could not to be noticed by anybody, and it‟d be stupid to think
we‟d just run into her on the street. So even though Bogart had protested about the cost, we‟d
gotten ourselves bus tickets and rode to Vaygo. I would‟ve preferred a plane, but that just wasn‟t
possible without paperwork we didn‟t have, and Bobcat pointed out that the IBS cared a whole
lot less about national security than the airport. Two days sweating on a cruddy bus with no AC,
and here we were. Tequila Street.
         “This place is a dump, and it gives me the creeps.” Thomas said, cocking a thumb at
some broken windows. “If I didn‟t know she‟d come for this kid even if she was crawling and
bleeding, I‟d be worried she wouldn‟t show.”
         “Mm.” So far, I was busy trying not to worry. Talking about crawling and bleeding
wasn‟t helping. “Well, he‟s supposed to be at 2657 and right now, we‟re at 125; we‟re still in for
some walking.”
         “Sounds good.”
         Despite his claims about getting the creeps, Thomas didn‟t seem it. In fact, his grin was
almost to his ears, and he looked more energetic than he‟d been since we got here. At first, I
couldn‟t figure out why—I mean, maybe he wasn‟t getting the creeps, but I sure was. Then I
noticed the passerby. Tequila Street was rough, but it wasn‟t abandoned, and it was a party dis-
trict, and it was evening, so quite a few girls were wandering around, dressed for that sort of
thing.
         “Thomas,” I muttered, “you‟re staring.”
         “Yup.” His head turned to follow a girl in stiletto heels and a miniskirt that was a health
hazard—more to us than to her. His expression was probably what Jesus would‟ve had after he
came out of the desert after forty days of fasting and walked into a McDonalds.
         I nudged him with my elbow. “Come on.”
        “No way! Do you have any idea how long it‟s been since I saw some decent girls? The
past year and a half, all I‟ve had is M.D. and Venna, who‟re freaking boards, and Crystal, who‟s
half horse. I‟m making up for lost time.”
        “Well, knock it off. She won‟t like it.”
        The girl noticed he was looking at her, or rather, that she couldn‟t really pretend she
didn‟t notice he was looking at her. Unfortunately, this didn‟t seem to bother her at all. She
gave Thomas a wink and licked her lips, then walked off.
        He made a noise that sounded like, “Guh,” and I had to grab his arm before he galloped
off after her. “Not now!” I hissed.
        “Yes now.” He replied, tugging absently against my grip like he didn‟t even realize I was
hanging on; the only reason I kept him from going anywhere was that he was so distracted.
        “Later! You can catch up on that later!”
        “Aw, c‟mon, man!” He pleaded, his voice moving at about twenty beats faster than nor-
mal. “Just because you can handle no girls doesn‟t mean I can. Did you just see the way she—”
        Yes, I had, and it‟d almost blown out my blood pressure, thanks. “We have to get Todd!”
        “He‟s a freaking ten-year-old, for god‟s sake; you can handle yourself for fifteen mi-
nutes—”
        “Fifteen minutes?”
        “Fine, fine, I‟ll make it ten, that‟s the best I can promise right now with a girl who hasn‟t
even met me yet, dang it, she‟s walking away!” I thought he might actually start to cry.
        Some guy in a baseball cap and a dilapidated brown bomber jacket was approaching us
like he was on a mission, and I feared that he might know this girl and beat the crap out of both
of us for it.
        “I don‟t care how fast you are; you‟re not leaving me alone in the middle of Tequila
Street!” I said. The guy coming up on us was reminding me of my „I‟m rich; rob me now‟ vibe.
If Thomas went off to chase girls, I might never see him (or anyone else) ever again.
        Then I got distracted, only it wasn‟t because of something I saw, but something I smelled.
Cinnamon, mint, dead beetles, and healing goop—the smell that clung to junior healers. Forget-
ting the girls and the robbing, I let go of Thomas and spun around.
        “M.D.?”
        But there was no M.D., just that short, husky guy in the bomber jacket and baseball cap.
Though I was still staring at him like he was my best friend, he was too busy staring at me in
bemusement to notice.
        “Raige?” He demanded to know.
        Okay, now I had a new confusion to deal with. Unless M.D.‟s voice had suddenly
dropped an octave and a half and grown a Vaygan accent thicker than kudzu, this couldn‟t have
been her playing with illusion. So why did he smell like her, and why the heck did he know my
name?
        The only explanation was that I was having some weird smell hallucinations and that I
knew this guy. Even with that, it took me a few seconds to recognize him, and at first, the only
reason I did at all was how bulky and short he was. However, once I started paying attention, I
realized the features were familiar. Maybe if you made the last five years really rough on him…
        Seeing my expression change, Biff nodded. “Aw, good, it is you.” Then he drove a fist
into my stomach and greeted, “Shoulda stayed dead.”
        The moment I‟d let go of his arm, Thomas had started to walk off after the girl, but I
guess he still had some awareness of what was going on around him, and he wrenched his eyes
away to look at me doubled over.
        “Do you know this guy?” He inquired, then made a face like he‟d just been hit in the face
with the smell of onions. Good, so I wasn’t just imagining the herb odor.
        “Thomas, this is Biff.” I wheezed through my teeth. “Biff, Thomas.”
        “What‟s up?” Thomas greeted, cheerfully shaking Biff‟s hand before he could be
stopped. “Didn‟t you and M.D. drive a Chevy through a wall once?”
        “Door.” Biff shrugged, tugging the bill of his cap down over his eyes. “Old shit.”
        “Okay. Now how come y‟all know each other?” Thomas asked me.
        Luckily, I had a pretty good excuse not to answer, since I‟d just had the wind knocked
out of me. When he looked to Biff for answers, he got another shrug. “Old shit.”
        “What‟re you doing here?” I asked, half out of honest wonder and half just to change my
subject. Besides my dad, he was probably one of the people I least wanted to see.
        He shrugged a third time and turned to survey the buildings up and down the street.
“Bitch got a brother, right?”
        “She has a name.” I said, gingerly straightening, but he only shrugged a fourth time.
“And yes, she has a brother. Why, do you know him?”
        After a long pause, he said, “Nah.”
        I took a deep breath, even though I had my air back now. “What do you want?”
        “Ya mean „sides beatin‟ the shit outta ya? Not much.”
        Since he was impossible to upset, Thomas listened to this with a raised eyebrow but oth-
erwise no huge display. However, what he said next proved he wasn‟t going to just stand back
and watch. “How about you tell us what‟s going on, and I won‟t turn you into a pig?” He said.
        “Try, and I‟ll turn ya into a dead man.” Biff responded easily.
        Still smiling, Thomas crossed his arms over his chest and set his weight further back.
The position was relaxed, but it was also unlike him. “Look, you just sucker-punched Raige for
no reason, and you keep mentioning M.D. when she‟s supposed to be gone. I think you owe us
something.”
        For a few seconds, Thomas and Biff just stared each other down while I tried to turn in-
visible without fancy powers. Thomas had about five inches gain, but I was willing to bet that
Biff topped him by twenty pounds, all of it in muscle, and if a fight started, I had no doubt we‟d
get the crap beaten out of both of us. However, maybe Thomas‟s casual aggression was a com-
mon language, because after a bit, Biff said, “I don‟t owe nuthin, but it ain‟t naw big shit, it gets
me the chance to beat up candyass there.” Without looking at me, he indicated me with his chin.
        “Well, what do you know, we‟ve been stuck on a bus for two days, and haven‟t eaten de-
cent food since then. Where‟s a place to eat?” Thomas replied.
        Using just his chin again, Biff gestured at a dim building, and only then did Thomas
break eye contact. With a saunter as though we weren‟t worth watching his back about, Biff
turned and headed off, not glancing back to see if we followed. Something about the way he
moved bothered me, but I grabbed Thomas to mutter, “Please, I really don‟t want to be beat up.”
        “He won‟t beat you up; what, you think I‟ll let him?”
        “Not on purpose. But if you start a fight with him, he‟ll win.”
        I think I insulted him. “C‟mon, the guy‟s what, five three? I can take him.”
        “No, you can‟t.” This time, I wasn‟t saying it just because I was a pacifist; I was saying it
because I was right. “I know you can fight, but trust me, he‟s better.”
         “Well, I have superpowers. Does he have superpowers?”
         At this point, Biff halted to turn, put his hands on his hips, and give us a long, unim-
pressed but aggressive stare.
         “Don‟t matter.” He remarked. “Cuz I‟m gonna bet the bitch‟s is better, and she ain‟t nu-
thin ta me in a fight.”
         Whether he intended the effect or not, I have no idea, but his position showed not only
enough muscle to sell a steroid company, but that under his jacket, he was wearing a Confederate
flag shirt spattered with dried blood. With his taste, I would‟ve passed it off as part of the de-
sign, except the waistline of his jeans was stained too.
         “Uh, what happened to you?” I asked.
         He frowned in incomprehension for a second. Then he looked down and with an expres-
sion of mild surprise, rubbed at one of the worse spots. When they didn‟t come out, he replied,
“cut myself shavin‟,” and gave me a look that dared me to argue with him.
         It was easier to agree with him than risk another fight. “Okay.”
         Rolling his eyes, Biff started walking again, and I watched him more carefully this time.
Yes, he was definitely moving strangely— he hid it well too, but he had nothing on M.D. when it
came to broadcasting the message, „I am a model of physical health!‟ Cut himself shaving, sure.
Before I could consider what‟d really happened, Thomas muttered under his breath to me, quie-
ter this time, “So does he have superpowers or not?”
         “M.D. says he does.” I replied. “So don‟t push it.”
         “I‟m not scared of him.”
         I almost rolled my eyes, but Biff had just done it and I didn‟t want to steal his thunder.
Him and Thomas made me feel like I was on one of those nature shows where a British host
drones on about alpha males and territorial behavior while two wolves glower at each other in
the foreground and act like they‟re about to bite each other‟s heads off. Thank god I was over in
the omega range.
         Within twenty minutes, we were sitting at a booth lit about as brightly as your average
Bat Cave with a bowl of greasy tortilla chips, a strawberry milkshake for me, and a beer for Biff.
The booth seemed to be about as far from everyone else as possible, a large plastic palm tree
half-blocking us from view. That and the way Biff kept tugging up at his jacket collar and down
at his cap made me wonder if being seen with the two of us would lose him points in the street
hierarchy. I wondered what would happen if I made a blatant X-men reference when the wai-
tress passed by. It‟d probably be really funny—for about the five seconds I‟d have until he beat
the daylights out of me.
         “Look, we‟re trying to find Todd too.” I said. “If you‟ve seen him—”
         “Hey, I ain‟t lookin‟ fa nobody.” Biff corrected, forcing the bottle cap off his beer using
his belt buckle. “The thing just ain‟t here, thazz all.”
         Wonderful. Bad enough that M.D. had no name, but now her brother wasn‟t even a per-
son, just „the thing.‟ I tried my milkshake, only to inhale a powdery lump. While I was busy
coughing, Thomas asked, “How do you know all that?”
         Biff gave him a look of utter condescension. “I looked.”
         Thomas seemed to be struggling with his annoyance—odd, since he‟d never had to do
that with M.D. “How did you know where to look?” He asked. As an afterthought, he gave me a
thwack on the back that got rid of the lump but also probably dislocated something.
         Shifting his weight awkwardly (probably forcing back a wince), Biff reached for his
waist, and though I could‟ve sworn I hadn‟t seen him wearing it while opening his beer, he un-
tied a thick, heavy belt and hurled it across the table, nearly overturning the tortilla chips.
         Catching it neatly, Thomas ran his hands over the stained leather. The thing was full of
thick pockets, stuffed with bottles and vials and packets, and the smell of herbs nearly knocked
me over. So that was why Biff had been skulking around reeking of greenery; he‟d been toting
M.D.‟s version of the first-aid kit. Thrust through one of the belt loops was that hand-axe she
never left without. Outside of Treehouse, the stuff was worth practically nothing, and she would
never have given it up without a fight.
         “She don‟t shut up, thazz why.” Biff responded.
         “Tell me you didn‟t kill her.” Thomas said. “It‟d really suck for everyone.”
         “Wish I did, but didn‟t get the time.” He replied, taking out a third of his beer. “Naw, she
just don‟t shut up „bout „im is all, sayin‟ how he‟ll recognize the knife and shit, „cept the thing
ain‟t here.”
         “But the knife‟s here.” Thomas asked.
         “The kid.” Biff clarified.
         “M.D.?”
         “The other one.”
         “The brother.” I elaborated, still a little hoarse from my coughing fit. Then I winced. “I
mean, Todd. His name is Todd. God.”
         “Thazz the one.” Biff replied. “Yeah, it ain‟t here.”
         “He.” Thomas and I corrected at the same time.
         “Haw.” He replied.
         “But he lives at 2657 Tequila Street…” I started, beginning to reach for the tortilla chips.
         “The fuck he does.” Biff retorted, yanking them away from me before I could grab one.
He snatched a fistful, but talking with his mouth full didn‟t affect his enunciation. “I been up and
down this goddamn street from 38th to Darlana, and there ain‟t naw fuckin‟ kid livin‟ here. Ya
hear that? None. Naw kid.”
         “But Herman—” Thomas froze as he remembered how reliable Herman had been.
         “Think she knows that?” I asked, darting out a finger to slide the chips back towards me.
         “If she did, would she have sent him?” Thomas replied, pointing at Biff with his thumb.
         “Hey, I ain‟t her fuckin‟ errand boy. I live here!” Biff protested.
         “But if Todd isn‟t here, then where is he?” I asked.
         Thomas spread his hands. “The only thing I‟m sure about right now is that I‟m not the
one who‟s breaking it to her when she gets here.”
         “Aw, she ain‟t comin‟.” Biff added. He chose that time to start chugging his beer, while
Thomas and I waited impatiently to hear the rest of it. After he drained most of it, he finished,
“Pinheads got her. She‟s in Science, over in Old Faithful. I busted out, but she‟s still there.”
         He said it utterly casually, like it was a minor detail he‟d forgotten during the excitement.
For a second, neither Thomas nor I could think of anything to say, and Biff calmly took advan-
tage of our shock to pull the basket of chips out of my hands.
         “Science?” I asked finally. I sounded calm, but my voice had gotten squeaky. “What‟s
Science?”
         “Whaddaya think?” He retorted, washing some chips down with the rest of his beer. “It
ain‟t a VD clinic.”
         “You just now thought to tell us that?” Thomas said.
         “Yup.” Biff replied, toasting us with his empty bottle of Beer Wise. “Cheers.”
         On the whole, I had to give him credit. He was taking this far better than we were.
         “Cheers?” Thomas repeated, too astounded to be annoyed. “She‟s in Pinhead VD!”
         “Yeah, tough shit fa her, ain‟t it? Be still my bleedin‟ heart, cuz it ain‟t my problem.” He
dunked his bottle onto the table with an air of finality, scooped up the last handful of chips, and
got up to leave with a wince.
         For the second time in my memory, Thomas couldn‟t think of anything to say, but for the
first time in my life, I could. Shoving past him, I forced my way out of the booth before Biff
could just leave us there and go back to whatever he did in his spare time.
         “Hey!” I barked, grabbing his shoulder. At the touch, Biff wheeled around like I‟d just
thrown my milkshake at the back of his head. It was settled, my omega maleness was conta-
gious, but at least I‟d gotten his attention. “You won‟t leave us like this! Look, I don‟t know
what happened, what you did or she did, but I know M.D., and I know what you two did last
time, and I think it‟d be too much of a coincidence that you busted out yourself while she hap-
pened to be there. She helped you.” I could tell by his gut-piercing glare that I was right and
about to die for it. “And you‟re saying that you just… ditched her?”
         “Damn right I did.” Biff replied, squaring his shoulders and thrusting his jaw out. He
seemed almost comfortable in this situation. “She was naw use ta me, could barely stand up.”
         “She helped bust you out, got herself so beat up she couldn‟t stand, and you just left her
behind?” By now, my voice was getting in the way of communication, but seeing as Biff ex-
pressed himself through grunts and shrugs, I figured he‟d understand. “You expect me to believe
that? It‟s bull!”
         That actually seemed to insult him more than his own sentiment, not to mention shock
him. “Wha?”
         “It‟s bull!” I repeated. “It doesn‟t make any sense!”
         “She didn‟t get her ass beat up; she did it herself.” Biff explained, as though I was ob-
viously badly confused and needed a little help.
         “And you… what? Watched? Helped?” Thomas asked, sliding out behind me from the
booth. We both ignored him.
         “What was she doing to wipe herself out like that?” I asked.
         “Ask her.” Biff snapped. “Look, fagboy, I ain‟t her fuckin‟ daddy. It ain‟t my business
wha she‟s doin‟; I‟m lookin‟ out fa me.”
         “No.” I shook my head.
         “Naw?” He repeated incredulously.
         “No. I don‟t buy it.”
         He leisurely crossed his arms over his chest and shifted his weight as though he expected
to stand here explaining life to me for a while. “Izzat hard ta believe?”
         “No, no, it‟s easy, but I can‟t—you—”
         Unable to delicately voice what I was thinking, I stuttered off into frustrated silence, star-
ing at the floor and feeling pathetic as usual while Biff looked down on me—it didn‟t matter that
I was a foot taller than him. But still… he just couldn‟t… couldn‟t…
         One word: “Youcan’tbethatbigadick!” In some corner of my mind, I was mortified. God,
couldn‟t I have said it better than that? “If you really thought that, you would‟ve just sold her
belt before the smell rubbed off on you permanently, sat back, and waited for it all to blow over.
If you really thought that, why‟d you even come here at all?”
         That little corner of my mind was bleating like the robot in Lost in Space, frantically beg-
ging me to shut up, but anger was in control now. M.D. or Bobby or somebody had once told me
that adrenaline made heroin look like decaf coffee, but I‟d never believed it until now. Or maybe
I was just relishing all the sensations of being alive, because I probably wasn‟t going to be much
longer.
         A dangerous flush began to mottle Biff‟s jaw. “Ya think I got any interest in what hap-
pens ta that crazy bitch?” He roared. “I came here ta fuckin‟ pawn that piece of stinkin‟ shit
leather she tossed at me!”
         “You could pawn it anywhere in Vaygo‟s financial district! What‟d you come here for?”
         “I fuckin‟ live here, fagboy!” He blared. “Ya forget that?”
         “You said you‟d wandered all the way up and down Tequila Street to see if Todd was
around, and that‟s a long, long walk. Why‟d you bother, morbid curiosity? And why‟d you
bother talking to us? I didn‟t recognize you; you could‟ve just walked on and left. Why didn‟t
you just kick my ass and leave? Why are you even still arguing with me? Who‟re you trying to
convince, me or you?”
         Biff finally lost patience with talk and shoved his jacket sleeve up, baring a bulging arm-
band-clad forearm, but he sounded mostly impatient to get it all over with. “Fine, ya want it so
bad—”
         Finally, I thought with giddy relief, something was making sense!
         At this point, Thomas slid between the two of us, put a hand to both of our chests, and
pushed until we backed up, though I think Biff did it more out of Thomas touching him than any
force. “Ooookay,” Thomas murmured in a quiet singsong voice, “that‟s enough. Hate to break
this to y‟all, it‟s fun to watch y‟all go at it, but this is a bar, a public bar, and any minute now,
they‟re gonna remember that there‟s a manager they can call down on us. So how about we stop
telling the world about this, huh?”
         Until that moment, Biff and I had been too busy shouting at each other to notice we were
starting to stand out. Now we both turned to see most of the patrons leaning out of their chairs,
staring at us with blatant curiosity. Not that I could blame them: Biff‟s naturally blaring voice
and my chipmunk squawks would‟ve stood out in a rock concert. Besides, we were obviously on
different levels of society. Biff should‟ve been mugging me, not debating pragmatic ethics.
         My middle school nightmare had come to life. I was the center of attention.
         The anger vanished in a flash, replaced by embarrassment. I automatically grinned pa-
thetically, then slouched and avoided looking at everyone, as though that would suddenly make
everyone forget I existed. Not that it helped; even if I had stopped looking like a spaz, Biff
wasn‟t about to slink away. On the contrary, he drew himself up to his full height and fixed eve-
ryone with a glare.
         “Fuck‟re ya lookin‟ at?” He demanded.
         With a gorgeously choreographed display of nonchalance, the patrons returned to their
conversations and food. I wasn‟t sure if I was annoyed or relieved.
         “Now how about we sit down, huh?” Thomas suggested.
         I eagerly slumped back into the booth to hide behind my milkshake and try to stop blush-
ing. Biff took a couple seconds to make sure the patrons were well and truly focused on pretend-
ing to ignore us, but he still didn‟t sit down, only leaned against the table.
         “Ya two dumbasses gonna go after her.” He remarked with an expression of disgust.
         “Bingo.” Thomas said, back to grinning and cheer like nothing had happened.
         “Why?” Biff asked, looking nauseated.
         I shrugged. My emotional explosion had numbed me, for the moment, anyway. “I don‟t
know, decent human thing to do, I guess.” He snorted, but I saluted him with my milkshake.
“Cheers.” Ignoring all the lumps, I knocked out the rest of my milkshake. Only sugar could buf-
fer me against this whole thing.
         Thomas chuckled, good mood still standing. “Yeah. Would you mind helping us out?”
         “Me? Fuck why, „less ya wanna end up dead „fore ya even get in?”
         “We don‟t have a clue what we‟re doing. You…” for a moment I gestured, trying to find
the right words, but I settled for, “you do this kind of thing.”
         “Not fa her!” He retorted.
         “Yeah, just with her. Twice.” Thomas said. “But look, we‟ll cut you a deal. You tell us
everything you know about this Science place, and we‟ll tell you what‟s going on. Like why
M.D. vanished, why he vanished,” that was included with a gesture towards me, “and who I am.”
         “I like my pay in green.” Biff said, rubbing his thumb against his fingers to emphasize.
         “Sorry.” Thomas said. “We‟re on loaned credit. All we‟ve got is info.”
         “Naw deal. Figure it out yaself.” He turned as though to leave.
         I sighed. There wasn‟t any hesitation, because there was only one way I could think of to
get the kind of money Biff wanted without robbing a supermarket, and without his help, there
was no chance for us to get M.D. out. That didn‟t make what I said any easier to think about,
though.
         “I don‟t have cash.” I said, pressing my cool glass against my forehead. My voice wasn‟t
squeaking, just quiet. “But I can get it.”
         That got him to pause. Of course, Biff knew who my father was, and he knew who I was;
it was the whole reason he had first taken an interest in me. I was heir to a fortune in liquor, and
if I tried, I could get more money on hand than he could steal in a month. Neither of us liked the
fact, but it was true.
         “How much?” He asked.
         I shrugged. “How much do you want?”
         It was the right answer. “And how do I know ya won‟t stiff me? Hell, how do I even
know ya can get it? Dead fa five years, ya dad might want nuthin ta do wi‟ ya.”
         It was probably the least offensive thing he‟d said to me, but it upset me the most, hands
down. I took a deep breath and let it out. “I don‟t know, we‟ll hold up a convenience store, I
guess.”
         “Five years wi‟ the bitch made ya mouthy, candyass.”
         “No, you‟re just not the scariest thing in my life right now.” I replied hollowly. When it
came right down to it, I‟d rather deal with Biff than my dad. Any second now, the panic would
set in, but for the moment, I was just numb from shock. As an afterthought, I realized I‟d been
insulting and added, “Sorry.”
         “You‟ll get paid. C‟mon, it‟s Raige.” Thomas said, as though I was Superman. I wished
I were as confident in me as he was. “It just depends whether we live. And so the information
you give us had better be good, unless you want to break in to find us.”
         Biff gave me one of those head-to-foot scans, trying to decide whether the risk of being
stiffed was worth the amount of money I had access to. For once, it didn‟t make me squirm; I
was busy staring into my glass for answers. Finally he swaggered back to the booth, sat down,
and snatched a napkin and the pen we‟d been given for the bill, beginning to draw lines so dark
the pen almost ripped the paper.
        “‟Kay.” He said. “Don‟t know the address, but it‟s direct off the ass-end of Highway 12
in the middle o‟ nowhere, little past the mountains Old Faithful side, so „less ya blind, ya can‟t
miss it. Graveyard shift comes on „round midnight; one‟s prob‟ly best.”
        “How many people will be there?” Thomas asked.
        “Wha, specialists and grunts? Depends who‟s on surveillance shift and who‟s „round.
Sometimes there‟s two, sometimes none. Grunts, prob‟ly four, five, but nuthin ta worry „bout;
just get outta the way when the guns come.” This didn‟t reassure me, and by Thomas‟s look, him
either. Biff made a living in Vaygo because he could regularly take on guys bigger than he was;
bad fighters by his terms might still be a major danger for us. “Buncha scientists‟ll be „round, but
they fight like shit. Threaten „em an‟ they won‟t bother ya, long as ya keep „em from hammerin‟
the emergency buttons, nuthin big there.”
        “Emergency buttons?” Thomas asked. “What‟re those?”
        “Big red button.” Biff replied. “They hit it, everyone in the building runs fa ya, mostly
grunts. I‟d just tranq anyone ya find.”
        Thomas looked at the lines being drawn. “You know the floor plan?”
        He snorted. “Naw, but best as I „member, this‟s basic.” He finished his scrawling and
pushed the napkin forward, putting his finger on each part he described. “Mostly offices, storage
crap „round the outside. Right here,” he marked an X, “is where they keep the dangerous shit;
try ta get a tranq-gun or somethin‟ there. „Round the inside‟re the nasty places, choppers and
holdin‟ cells.”
        “Where‟ll M.D. be in those?” I asked, but Biff shook his head.
        “Naw clue. They‟da moved her by now.”
        “She‟ll be in the middle.” Thomas said confidently, tapping a finger on the center of the
napkin.
        I blinked. “How do you know that?”
        “Come on, man, think.” He turned to Biff. “How many walls she blow up?”
        “‟Least one.” Biff replied. “After that, I was gone.”
        “Exactly.” Thomas turned back to me. “Would you put her in a corner where just one or
two of her crazy fire spells would let her loose on the poor world?”
        “Give me a minute, and the picture will scare me.” I replied.
        Biff nodded. “Prob‟ly be in one of the big-time holders, thick walls, big doors, pain in the
ass ta get into. There‟s three big ones I know „bout, here, here, and here.” He marked the areas
with X‟s. “Thazz it.”
        “No it isn‟t.” Thomas said.
        Biff raised an eyebrow. “Enh?”
        “How do we get in? If M.D. blew out the outside wall, she‟d be here. So what‟d you do,
pick the lock? We‟re paying you for everything you know.”
        Twisting his lips as though slightly embarrassed at being caught, Biff reached into one of
the pockets of his leather jacket and whipped out an ID card, which he tossed to us. “Only got
Level II clearance, so dunno if it‟ll get ya into her holder, but it‟ll get ya through the hallways
and front door, so ya might get farther „fore someone notices ya there.”
        “Well, what if it doesn‟t let us into the big holder?” I asked. “What do we do then?”
        Biff shrugged and crossed his arms behind his head, making it obvious that what he said
next was the end of it. “Dunno. Find somethin‟ ta blow shit up wi‟, I guess. Anythin‟ else?”
        “Which door?” Thomas asked.
        “Only the one up front, and the ID‟ll get ya through.”
        “Can you think of anything else?” Thomas asked me.
        I shook my head. “Thanks, Biff.”
        He snorted. “Ya act like I‟m doin‟ this fa free. „Member, ya owe me, and I want it now.
I ain‟t waitin‟ fa ya ta get caught. Find ya daddy, get my money.”
        “If we get caught, then your information wasn‟t all that good.” Thomas pointed out.
        “Ya gonna get caught anyway; I coulda printed the whole fuckin‟ security blueprint outta
my ass fa ya, and ya still get caught. Two dumbasses like you ain‟t gonna beat Science, and I
ain‟t givin‟ up my pay just cuz ya got shit fa brains. Gimme.”
        “We keep telling you, we don‟t have any—” Thomas started, but I pulled out the card
Bobby had given us and held it out.
        “Here. This is all the money we‟ve got.”
        Thomas cut a glance at me and raised an eyebrow as though to warn me to be careful, but
he didn‟t contradict me.
        Giving us a paranoid look, Biff snatched the card from my fingers and squinted at it, lips
moving as he laboriously made out the letters on the front. “Nexus Bank? Fuck is that?”
        “Somewhere between 3000 BC and the end of time.” Thomas replied. Biff raised an
eyebrow. “No, we don‟t get it either. We don‟t have much on it.”
        “How much?”
        Thomas looked at me, and I shrugged. “We had a thousand when we got here. Don‟t
know how much we spent, but we‟ve only been here three days.”
        “Good „nuff fa me. Ya don‟t come back, I take it.” Biff replied, and pocketed the debit
card, leaving the ID on the table. Taking another napkin from the dispenser, he wrote down an
address. It took him a while, and he stopped at least twice to run his finger over the letters as
though he‟d lost track of where he was. “Ya got my money, ya might find me here.”
        Biff‟s block print was surprisingly clear, but I think I would‟ve preferred it the other way.
Though it shouldn‟t have surprised me, I blanched when I read the address. 425 Everclear
Street. Tequila might‟ve been a little rough and grimy, but at least you could walk down it in
broad daylight and not get mugged. Everclear was different. If you had a stampede of Huns
chasing after you waving swords, you could ditch them on Everclear, because they wouldn‟t fol-
low you, just turn right back around and head somewhere safer, like Afghanistan.
        “Uh, could we just have a phone number and meet you somewhere instead?” I asked.
        “Ain‟t got a phone.” Biff replied. “Goddamn techy crap.” Then he got up and hitching up
his bloodstained jeans, he began to saunter out. “Ain‟t got naw more business with ya, then, till
ya dead or back. „Member, only reason I gave ya shit is so ya can get ya asses stuck there and I
never hafta deal wi‟ „em „gain.”
        “Yeah. Thanks.” I said, not paying much attention.
        If he noticed the other patrons‟ stares as he left, he didn‟t let on. Giving his cap one last
tug and a leer at the waitress, he kicked the front door open and swaggered off into the concrete
and neon of downtown Vaygo.
        “Wow.” Thomas murmured. “You know, M.D. really isn‟t half bad.”
        “Mm.” I remarked, pressing the cool milk shake glass back to my forehead.
        Thomas turned to me. “You‟re taking this awful calmly. Shock still?”
        “No, no, it just wore off.” I replied, smacking the glass down and burying my head in my
hands. “Oh god!”
        Thomas flagged down a waitress. “Another milkshake down here, please?”
        “No, don‟t.” I groaned. “The sugar won‟t help this one.”
        He put an arm around my shoulders. “Hey, man, it‟ll be okay.”
        I couldn‟t believe he was still in a good mood and acting so reassuring. “Thomas, do you
know what we‟ve just done?” I shrieked into my palms.
        “Sure do. First, we—you, really—promised Biff a huge chunk of money that we haven‟t
got. Second, to get that huge chunk of money, we need to visit your dad, who you‟ve managed
to not mention this entire trip. And third, to even worry about the first two, we have to break in-
to Pinhead VD with nothing but a scribbled-on napkin and an ID card. Did I miss anything?”
        “We‟re dead.” I moaned, still covering my face. “We‟re so dead.”
        “Take it easy. I have a plan.”
        I raised my head to peer hopefully at him. “You do?”
        “Sure. We call Bobcat and beg for help.”
        Now there was a plan. I had the phone out and calling the moment he said the word
„Bobcat.‟ Bobcat was our savior, our genius; he would figure something out to get us out of this
mess. At the very least, he‟d be able to give us more information about the PIN and maybe wire
us some money. We‟d have a plan and a way to blip M.D. out of there without any problem.
        The phone was picked up immediately, but to my surprise, what came over the speaker-
phone wasn‟t an intellectual telepathic voice, but a cheerful, vocal, “This is the house of Bobcat
et cetera, what can I do for you and does it have monkeys?”
        “Aqua?” I asked.
        “Raige! Oh, I missed you; no one plays with me at night anymore.” Aqua cried. “I can
call Jupiter; did you know the phone plays music?”
        “I—music? How—” Boop, beep, boooooop. “Hold on, I don‟t want to talk to Jupiter.”
        “Oh. Maybe later, then.” The beeping stopped. “How‟s Earth?”
        “Earth is… Earth is earthy. Is Bobcat around?” I asked, tugging at my hair.
        “Sorry. He went out with Bogart and Houdini.” Then he whispered into the phone, like it
was a secret, “They have a problem.”
        Oh no. They couldn‟t have a problem; we were the ones who were supposed to have the
problem. I tried to speak, made a horrible squawking sound, and while I was trying to get my
voice under control again, Thomas asked casually, “What kind of problem?”
        “I dunno, something complicated and boring like that, paper stuff. What‟s a restraining
order?”
        “A restraining order? It‟s, uh, something you use to keep people from going somewhere
or close to somebody.” I replied. Thomas was raising an eyebrow, but he didn‟t have to say any-
thing. This was already sounding bad. I took a deep breath through my teeth to steel myself for
the answer to my next question: “Why do you ask?”
        “Does M.D. have one?”
        “Um…” I looked at Thomas questioningly, but he spread his arms.
        “What do I look like, her parole officer?” He replied. “Why?”
        “Because it got violated!” Aqua chirped. “Isn‟t that word funny? It sounds like some-
thing M.D. would do.”
        Actually, it sounded more like something Thomas would do. “Oh. Okay. So why are
Bobcat, Bogart, and Houdini gone?”
        “They got in trouble. I think they weren‟t supposed to let her violate Mr. Order.”
        Thomas snorted. “It‟s not a who, it‟s a what.”
        “Don‟t be mean.” Aqua chastised, then continued, “Venna and Mngleh probably would
get it better, but they‟ve been out in the green, green forest doing their „napalm in the morning‟
thing. Only then it became „napalm in the afternoon…‟ then „napalm in the night…‟ then „na-
palm for two days.‟” For all his phrases involving napalm, he pulled a flawless imitation of Mar-
tin Duvall. No telling how he knew that. “So they missed it, and they still haven‟t gotten back
yet. What‟s napalm?”
         “I—ask Venna, okay?” I said. “Just tell us what you know as best you can.”
        Despite being a poster child for Ritalin, Aqua had a brain like a sponge—though I guess
the napalm lines already make that obvious. Once he heard something, it stuck. I was willing to
bet he remembered everything that‟d happened, even if he wasn‟t entirely sure what it meant.
        “Okay. These two guys with cool hair and funny accents,” he briefly paused to form the
throat required to emulate the workers, who sounded pompous and Jamaican, “„company pride
and dedication, blah-blah-blah, I am very important,‟ and well, they worked with Bobcat—”
        “At the Jaunter‟s League?”
        “Yup-yup. They blipped here yesterday—KRANG, fried some grass too, it was cool—
and they said to Bobcat, Bogart, and Houdini that,” out came the pompous Jamaican voice again,
“„recent developments has caused the Boss to consider reassessing your ability to perform your
assigned company duties.‟”
        Thomas‟s head jerked back as though the words were so dense they‟d forcefully hit him
in the face. “Okay. Now what the heck does that mean?”
        “I don‟t know; that‟s why I quoted it. It sounds really important, though, doesn‟t it?”
        “Oh no.” I said, realizing that against all my expectations, the situation had gotten worse.
“They‟re lawyers.”
        “Lawyers?” Thomas asked.
        “My dad‟s got a ton of them.” I replied. “And they talked like that all the time. It sounds
to me like the Jaunter‟s League just found out that M.D. ran off.” I gave Thomas a significant
look. He raised his eyebrows and covered the receiver so he could ask.
        “You mean the pinheads griped about it to them. So… what? We‟re in trouble with
them?” Thomas asked me.
        “We‟ve been in trouble with the PIN.” I pointed out. “Now we‟re in trouble with the
Jaunter‟s League. And it‟s legal trouble. Much, much worse. They might actually follow us off
the planet.” I pulled his hand off the receiver to ask Aqua, “Did those guys say anything about
being charged with malpractice?”
        “What‟s malpractice?”
        “Not doing their job right.”
        “Well, I didn‟t hear those words, but it sounds kinda unhappy-ish, and they were definite-
ly looking Scroogey. They said something about „considering negligence,‟ which means sorta
the same thing, right? But it doesn‟t matter, because they haven‟t even gotten to that yet.”
        “There‟s more?” My voice came out sounding much less calm than I‟d planned.
        “I know! It‟s amazing!” Aqua cried. “Anyway, right now, I think they‟re arguing with
the PIN about who gets to give M.D. the spanking once they find her.” Thomas and I exchanged
guilty looks, but kept our mouths shut. “They‟re all like, „Rarr! Rarr! Take that!‟” I couldn‟t see
what he was doing, but it was a safe bet that he was making flipper puppets and then having
them fight. “Do you get it?”
        “Yup, we get it.” Thomas said, then covered the receiver again to mutter to me, “You
know, I think I liked it better when it was this nice simple thing about M.D. in prison, rather than
this giant intergalactic pissing contest.”
        He barely finished the statement before Aqua giggled and said, “They‟re all being silly,
you know?”
        It wasn‟t so much his words as his tone that caught us. Though Thomas had reassured
him we would get M.D. out of trouble, Aqua still should‟ve been alarmed, just because he knew
the kind of trouble she got into. But he didn‟t sound worried at all. In fact, he sounded amused.
        “What‟s so funny?” Thomas asked.
        “You are! You sound all worried and doomy-gloomy. Turn that fwown upside down,
Mr. and Mrs. Gwumpypants! You‟re going to fix it.”
        We blinked and looked at each other. “We are?”
        “Sure!” Aqua said. “I mean, you said it was a lawsuit thing, right?”
        “Uh huh…” I said
        “And M.D.‟s the big reason about it, right?”
        “Right…” I agreed, still not following.
        “Well, you can‟t have a lawsuit without a reason!” Aqua finished triumphantly.
        It was probably the simplest thing Aqua had ever said. Thomas and I blinked again.
        “Explain that one more time.” Thomas asked.
        Aqua laughed hysterically. “Oh, you‟re funny! You‟re funny, funny people! Okay, so
M.D.‟s in trouble. You said, „we‟re getting her out of trouble.‟ So she won‟t be there.”
        “And she‟s the reason for the lawsuit in the first place, so without her, they can‟t have the
lawsuit.” I breathed, finally understanding. “Aqua, you‟re a genius.”
        “No I‟m not. Everyone knows you can‟t put someone in jail if they‟re not there!” Aqua
pointed out reasonably, then burst into peals of laughter again. “That would be silly and weird.”
        “Yup, silly and weird. Thanks a lot, little man.” Thomas said. “See you later.”
        “Bye! Have fun getting M.D. out of trouble! Ten-four, bye-bye, and doooooom!” Aqua
warbled, and hung up.
        Until that point, I‟d actually been feeling pretty perky because of the realization that eve-
rything would be solved once M.D. got out of Science and went back home. But Aqua‟s good-
bye reminded me that sure, everything would be solved, but we still had to go about getting M.D.
out of Science. Which meant that if we lived through it, I‟d still have to go to my dad and pretty
much say, “Hi, Daddy, I‟m not dead, can I have ten thousand dollars?” I buried my face in my
hands again.
        “Well, we‟re stuck for it.” Thomas said. “If you don‟t want anything to do with it…”
        But I shook my head. I was terrified about the thought of breaking into Science, or see-
ing Daddy again, or going to Everclear to pay Biff off, or really, just about all of it. I‟m a wuss
at nature, and I just don‟t like getting into a drag-out fight. But the fact remained that M.D.
wasn‟t about to walk out of there by herself, and I couldn‟t just leave my father hanging, no mat-
ter how much I wanted to. It just wasn‟t right, and now I had the motivation of avoiding Biff
breaking my ribs in some alleyway.
        Of course, at just that moment, Thomas said, “Hey, Raige. How moral are you feeling?”
        I groaned. “Why?”
        “Um… well, we‟ve still got some cash left, but that‟ll be close for a ride to the mountains
and a few hours at a hotel. And I just figured out that Biff didn‟t pay. So what do you and your
morals say about skipping out on the milkshake bill?”
                        11: Squeaky-Toy Ninjas of Death
                                    Charlene Unnigrutt



         Science actually wasn‟t in the middle of nowhere. It was on the very fringe of Old Faith-
ful‟s border, which, I suppose, was stark enough to be nowhere in Biff‟s eyes. Mostly, the area
was for all the industrial stuff you don‟t want to see: sewage plants, logging industries, and I
guess the PIN decided that the edge of that was the perfect place to stick an unlabeled building
that no one would look at or pay attention to. I‟m not sure if the taxi driver bought our idiotic
story involving a family barbecue that was our attempt to explain why we were going there.
Still, he accepted the money and drove off, leaving us looking at our newest challenge.
         “That is the most jail-like VD clinic I‟ve ever seen.” Thomas remarked.
         Even though I wished he would give up that name, I couldn‟t help but agree. Science
was nothing but a concrete rectangle embedded, for no known reason, in the middle of nowhere.
Not a window was in sight. It gave off an uneasy, harsh vibe that made you want to walk past it
quickly and never look at it directly.
         The next twenty minutes we spent circling around like wannabe commandos, looking at
the building from all angles while at the same time trying not to be seen. So far, nobody had
been pointing at us and screaming, “Oh my god! It‟s them!” but we had no idea how many
people knew about us landing. Thomas was pretty sure that we‟d been so embarrassing that
Dean would want to keep new about us quiet, but there was still that „pretty‟ in there. It‟d been
hard enough explaining to a cab driver what we were doing out here, never mind a wary PIN
agent. So we slunk around in the brush, which Old Faithful seemed to have truckloads of, and
did a lot of nervous pauses and jumps back. If I hadn‟t been on the verge of a panic attack the
entire time, I would‟ve felt stupid.
         The biggest reason for my nerves was just how defenseless Science seemed. There was
no barbed wire, no guards, no fence, even, but the building still gave off an aura of sterile me-
nace. And Biff was right about there only being one door, which only highlighted the message
„you‟ll come in, but you won‟t come out.‟ But if you fought the gut response, otherwise it looked
like your usual ugly building.
         “Of course.” Thomas said, once we got a hotel room and started talking everything over.
“Think about it. If they decked it out in an electric fence and locked it up, people would wonder
about it. I think they have to worry more about people breaking out than breaking in.”
         I shuddered. “Great. The one thing we have going for us is that they‟d never think we‟d
be stupid enough to try this.” For the first time, I let the full scenario come to life in my head. It
boggled the mind. “You and me, breaking into a big PIN building swarming with armed men.
It‟s…”
         “Impossible? Suicidal?”
         “I‟m trying not to think that.” I said. “I‟m the optimist, remember?”
         “Well, think about this: M.D. managed to pull it off.”
         “She had Biff.” Then I thought about it. “That would make it easier, right?”
         He shrugged. “They‟d make the sweetest couple, wouldn‟t they? They must‟ve freaked
when they realized they weren‟t the only person on this planet with a crappy personality. If they
could do it—”
         “They didn‟t. M.D.‟s still there.” I pointed out.
         “Yeah, but I‟m not planning to stab her in the back, are you? Besides, we‟ve got a lot
more than just you and me.”
         “Like what?” I asked, admittedly a little skeptical. “We‟re broke.”
         “Yeah, I noticed. Tell me why, again?” I winced. “Just thought I‟d remind you. Any-
way, what‟s the hard part of this going to be? And don‟t be sarcastic.” He hastily added, seeing
my face.
         I sighed but worked it through my head as I answered. “Getting in won‟t be the worst
part. They‟ll be surprised; they won‟t react right away. It‟s getting out that‟ll kill us; they expect
that, and they‟ll already know we‟ll be there.”
         “Exactly. And when we‟re smack dab in the middle of Pinhead VD, who will we have?”
         The lights went on; I began to smile. “We‟ll have M.D.”
         “Yup, and I‟ll bet she‟ll be in a bad mood. Still thinking it‟s impossible?”
         “Not as much, no.” As much a relief having M.D. around would be, even if she were hav-
ing one of her trigger-happy moments, I still wasn‟t stupid enough to think this would be any-
thing near easy. “But that building‟s pretty big, and we only have a rough guess from Biff on
where she might be. We don‟t have the time to knock on all the doors. This is going to be dan-
gerous enough already; the only way we‟re going to pull it off is if we do it so fast they don‟t
have time to figure stuff out. So how‟re we going to find her?”
         “That depends. How many changes do you think you can handle when you‟re on meds?”
         It was a brilliant idea. Thomas‟s little quirk—not to mention a huge mental repertoire of
creatures, thanks to Treehouse—could make me everything we needed. A concrete wall would
be nothing to a Breen like Mngleh. Your average bloodhound could find M.D. within a few
seconds. And even a specialist would probably pause before going head to head with a full-
grown armor-plated dragon like Scorch. Yup, Thomas‟s superpower would probably save every-
thing—that is, if my body could take it.
         The thing was, I had no idea whether Thomas‟s changes would kill me. Without any buf-
fer, I had experienced minor, delicate magic at Bogart, Bobcat, and M.D.‟s hands and not gotten
sick, but Mr. Rawls could send me to the ICU just by standing next to me. There was no telling
where Thomas measured up on that scale.
         “I don‟t know.” I admitted. And then, because I just hadn‟t risked my health enough to-
day, I added, “I guess the only way to find out is to try.”
         That wasn‟t as easy as it sounded. With Bobcat gone, I had no idea how much of my
medicine to take, which was important for both the magic and me to work properly. However,
we called up Aqua, who found Scorch and Flame, and after some calculations and translation
through Aqua (an adventure on its own), they came up with a dose. I injected it into my arm,
waited to make sure it‟d take effect at the right time, and then it was time for a test run.
         “Anything you‟ve been dying to be? Unicorn? Dragon? Wookie?” Thomas asked. He
was enjoying this opportunity far too much. “How about a Breen? Admit you want to be buff.”
         “I don‟t care.” I said. “Just something that‟ll be easy to change back.”
         “It‟s all the same to me, man, don‟t worry about it. If it goes wrong, we just pump you
full of meds and wait it out, just like Scorch and Flame said. M.D. can wait; she‟s not going an-
ywhere.”
         “You‟re not helping.” I said. “Just get it over with.”
         He reached for my shoulder, and the world expanded beyond comprehension before be-
ing obscured by a mass of gray.
         “Hey, don‟t get lost there.” Thomas warned, fishing me out of the clothing avalanche.
His hand held my injector pen and he‟d pulled his collar up over his nose and mouth, for no rea-
son I could tell. Oddly, everything I saw seemed to have only warm colors; blue, green, and
purple all just registered as various shades of grayish-red. “Everything all right? Need to change
back?”
         He didn‟t need to panic; I was already doing that myself, scanning for something wrong.
Were my eyes watering, my lungs collapsing, my skin breaking out in a rash? No, I might‟ve
been breathing in ways I definitely hadn‟t before, and my eyeballs were on stalks, and my skin
seemed to have dandruff, but I felt okay, and I tried to say so. What came out was like what
happened when you squeezed a rubber ducky.
         “All right, then?”
         I squeaked again and tried not to feel humiliated about it.
         “Okay.” He set me down on the floor, holding his collar in place over the lower half of
his face. I couldn‟t think why, but then again, I didn‟t seem to have a nose; maybe I smelled like
earwax. “Move around a little. Try to get into this shape.”
         For a bit, I was stumped on just how to move. My body was just a little dumpling shaped
blob. There were a bunch of stalks sticking out of my body like pins in a pincushion, some with
eyeballs, some with hard little knobs, and I could wiggle them, if I wanted to make a sound like
jingle bells, but they weren‟t flexible enough to use as legs. Thomas, I noticed, leaned back
whenever I jingled, but again, I wasn‟t sure why, since no flames or acid came shooting out, just
a little puff of blue glitter. How was I supposed to get anywhere without legs?
         I squirmed, and my blobby little body jack-knifed, lurching me halfway off the ground.
Aha! Progress. I tried again, and I hopped off the ground, landing with a jingle and another puff
of glitter.
         After a little trial and error, I was hopping around the room at a pretty decent clip.
Changing direction was harder, because I had to twist and squirm in the air to try, and more than
once, I banged into a bedpost, but my doughy little body just reshaped with a minor twinge.
Thomas stayed well out of my way while I bounced around, but I still wasn‟t sure why.
         “Had enough?” Thomas asked, still with his shirt over his mouth.
         I squeaked, trying to nod with my jingle bells. Fun as hopping around was, I wasn‟t sure
I wanted to be this glittery little blob for much longer.
         “All right, then.” He reached down for me. “Back to good old human for you, man.”
         The world shrank back to normal size and color spectrum with a lurch, and I reeled for a
moment as I got used to having legs and only two eyes again. Thomas caught my arm before I
toppled over.
         “So. That went well.” He said, and thrust my pants at me because I was turning red.
         “Get out!” I shrieked.
         “I‟ve been in gym class before, thanks.”
         “I don‟t care! Get out!”
          He rolled his eyes, but he left the room, calling over his shoulder, “Kinda late, don‟t you
think?”
         Yes, I knew it was redundant, and I knew I was bad as Venna, but that still didn‟t keep
me from wanting him gone. Thomas might‟ve been perfectly as ease naked, but he was good
looking; he could get away with it.
         Within a few seconds, Thomas was back in the room, and I didn‟t protest about it.
         “What was that thing you changed me into?” I asked as I pulled on my shirt. “I mean,
why? It was…”
         “Gay?”
         “Well—no! That‟s not what I meant! It was a little, I don‟t know, Pokémon thing.”
         “Jangluff, actually—or at least, that‟s what Flame and Scorch call them. But before I get
to that, you said you don‟t want to kill anyone, right?”
         “Actually, I was hoping he wouldn‟t have to hurt anyone.” I admitted, knowing just how
ridiculous that sounded. “I know how stupid it is, breaking into this place full of armed guys and
saying, „we don‟t want to hurt you,‟ but they‟re just doing their jobs. After what M.D. did last
time, can you blame them for wanting to keep her under control?”
         “You‟re too nice for even me to believe sometimes. So no fire-breathing dragons?”
         “No way.”
         “Yellow lights?”
         “I was across the street from Scorch and Flame‟s place, and I still heard M.D. scream
when her eyesight started coming back. Forget it.”
         “Tranq-guns?”
         That made me pause. “I‟d really rather not.” Thomas was starting to rub his forehead.
“Okay, okay, so I‟m an unrealistic lunatic. It‟s just…”
         “No, no.” Thomas said, and he was honestly fine. “What, you think I‟d gripe about you
wanting to be a too-decent human being? I know I don‟t think too much, but to be honest, I
don‟t really want to kill anyone either. As for being a Jangluff, those little guys do the one thing
even you can‟t complain about. They put you to sleep. No headache, no hangover, barely any
grogginess, even.” He sighed nostalgically, already warning me not to wonder too hard about
what he meant when he said, “And they give you sweet dreams.”
         “For how long?” I asked.
         Thomas winced. “Yeah, that‟s the rough part. It really varies from person to person. Oh,
no kidding, as long as they inhale that glitter when you‟re bouncing around, it‟ll put everyone
flat—but I was out for over two hours, and with most people, it‟s barely thirty minutes. That‟s
why Scorch and Flame don‟t use Jangluffs to knock people out anymore; they told me that one
guy came out of it in the middle of surgery after only a couple minutes. They won‟t bounce back
up right away, but it‟ll still run a risk.”
         “Well, if they‟re face down in a big pile of the stuff…” I started.
         But Thomas shook his head. “Only works while it‟s up in the air. Otherwise you‟d never
wake up. Also, you have to inhale it, so if one of the pinheads gets smart about it…”
         “I‟ll be quick.” I said. Thomas had converted me; being a Jangluff was worth the lack of
violence it‟d cause. “Speed I can do.”
         “It‟s a big building, and Jangluffs aren‟t fast.” Thomas warned.
         “I‟ll be a Chihuahua-sized, peppermint-striped blob with jingle bells in the middle of a
building full of people who want to shoot me.” I said. “You think I‟ll want to stick around?”
        “Good point. I saw you with Dean, and he was just one guy. With, like, fifty, you could
probably break your leg, and you wouldn‟t feel it till afterward.” He wasn‟t helping me feel any
better, but he was moving on and rummaging in M.D.‟s belt, which he had around his waist.
“Okay, here‟s the—hey!” He yanked his hand out like it‟d been burnt and was now bending at a
strange angle so he could peer down into the belt.
        “You should know better than to stick your hand in that thing without looking.” I said.
        “No, no, look.” He reached in again and dug out a crumpled wad of paper. “It‟s cash.”
        I gaped at the wad, which Thomas was smoothing out into a thick bundle. “What?
How‟d M.D. get that?”
        “Never mind how she got it—why‟s it still here?”
        “Maybe Biff didn‟t look hard?” It sounded weak even to me.
        “After all the sweat he put into getting our money?”
        I spread my arms and shook my head. “To be honest, I don‟t see much point in wonder-
ing about it, since I don‟t think anything he‟s done so far has made much sense.”
        Thomas shrugged more with his face than his shoulders. “You‟re right; who cares?
Maybe he was fishing around and something bit him, that‟d be cool. Just as well: I had no clue
what we were going to do after we got there. Okay, so we come in at one-thirty in the morning,
like Biff said. No problem for me; I‟m still jetlagged. How about you?”
        “I don‟t think I‟ll need jetlag.” I replied queasily.
        “Oh, cool then. Anyway, the card will get us in. You turn Jangluff, do your poofy, glit-
tery, gay thing, come back to me.”
        I gulped. So the first chunk of this, I‟d be on my own. Even though all I‟d be doing was
hop around puffing out pixie dust, I still wanted Thomas to be around, if only so I wouldn‟t feel
so pathetic while doing it. Then again, if I looked pathetic, maybe the PIN would be out cold
before they finished laughing at me.
        “Okay. So I go through the building.” Good thing it was only one story; I wasn‟t sure of
my stair-climbing skills. “What if a door‟s shut?”
        “Then leave it. Remember, it‟ll be graveyard shift; there won‟t be an army. By the time
you finish, I should be able to handle whatever‟s left.”
        I nodded, not really reassured but unable to think of anything better myself. “So I come
back. Then what?”
        “We sniff her out. You know what she smells like?”
        I almost snorted; that was easy. “Herbs and cinnamon.” Thomas raised an eyebrow.
“What? That belt made Biff smell like a spa, and you know it.”
        Thomas grinned. “So did he. Why do you think he kept twitching?”
        I was surprised enough to laugh, and that worked to defuse a little of my nerves. “Okay, I
track her down, we join up, and then?”
        “Then we give it over and let the PMS-y princess do her thing, because God knows she‟ll
have a better idea than we will.”
        “So, in other words, we run for our lives?”
        “Damn right.” Thomas agreed, nodding. “Short, sweet, and even we can‟t forget or screw
it up. All we have to do is wait a few hours.”
        “Perfect.” I declared, then realized just what I had said and what I was planning to do.
For the hundredth time today, I buried my face in my hands. “I‟ve lost my mind.”
         Thomas grinned. “You just now figured it out? Come on, I‟ve known that since you
started shouting at Biff. Remind me never to piss you off. You‟re freaking scary when you‟re
like that. I‟m hungry; think they deliver pizza out here?”
         “I can‟t eat.” I replied flatly.
         “Aw, come on. Remember, it might be the last meal you don‟t suck out of a straw.”
                                                           
         Of course, we should‟ve known what would happen. It was a law as solidly proven as
Einstein‟s relativity: M.D. + PIN = disaster. In our case, the first issue was getting in the door.
Oh, sure, the ID Biff gave us worked, but once we were up close to that door, we could see that
there was a number code pad, along with a sign saying in stern capitals, VISITORS PRESS
BUZZER. A speaker was next to it.
         I had spent the evening in a state of borderline terror; this only served to really set it off.
“Code? Biff didn‟t mention—”
         “Of course he didn‟t.” Thomas replied. “Now push the buzzer.”
         “But—”
         “We‟re visitors. Read the sign, visitors press—”
         “I know that! Why can‟t you do it?”
         “Because they‟re probably bagging every guy with a Mexican accent in the city right
now. Besides—and this is the only time you‟re going to hear me say this, so listen up—your
voice is deeper than mine. When you‟re not stammering, you sound older than I do, and special-
ists are big guys.”
         “But—but what‟ll I say?”
         “I don‟t know, you forgot the code.”
         “Oh come on, I wouldn‟t buy that!” I hissed. “And my voice might be deeper than yours,
but it cracks, and no specialist has a voice that cracks! They‟ll think I‟m a pizza boy or—”
         Thomas‟s eyes lit up. Giving me a scanning look, he leaned back and began to rub his
chin thoughtfully.
         “No!” I hastily protested. “No!”
         “Why?”
         “Because… because…” it seemed so obvious that it took me a moment to give an expla-
nation, “it‟s stupid, it‟s old, and it‟s the worst idea I can think of.”
         “Oh, good. Tell me your other ones, then.”
         “I don‟t have one.” I admitted with a groan and rubbed my face. “Let‟s just say we‟re the
Land Shark and be done with it.”
         “Hey, if you want to be negative, go do it in the speaker.”
         Much as I hated the fact, I was far more convincing as a member of the service industry
than as a PIN agent. Finally realizing that everything was screwed, I walked to the buzzer and
pressed the button. A tinny voice came out of the speaker.
         “What‟s your business?”
         “Pizza!” I blurted too loudly.
         The pause on the other end lasted long enough to make me squirm. “Pizza?”
         “Uh, yeah, I‟ve got a… um, large with pepperoni and mushrooms.” I squeaked.
         “Out here?”
         “It‟s… a special.”
         “It‟s one-thirty in the morning.” The speaker pointed out.
         “Um… we deliver late?” I suggested, aware of Thomas‟s look of utter disgust. “Yes.”
         “You don‟t say.” The speaker said dryly. “Who‟s it for?”
         Amazingly, I had a flash of inspiration. “Dean. It‟s for a…” Oh god, what was his first
name? “Mister Dean.”
         There was another long pause. Thomas and I exchanged nervous glances and began to
casually look for the fastest route out. If we got a head start, maybe we could get out of sight
before the snipers came out.
         Then the speaker crackled back to life. “I don‟t know what joker called you, man, but
Dean‟s gone. He left hours ago. Go home.”
         I looked at Thomas, but he just spread his hands. “Forget it.” He whispered. “Just say
bye, I‟ll change you into a dragon or something to smash in.”
         I sighed. “Bobby‟s going to kill us when he finds out about this.”
         The speaker was stronger than we‟d guessed; though it didn‟t hear Thomas, it did hear
me. “Your manager won‟t kill you. Look, what pizza did you say you have again?”
         I frantically tried to remember what I‟d said. “Uh, large pepperoni with… um…”
         Thomas began a mime show that looked like the reenactment of Hiroshima.
         “Mushrooms!” I finished triumphantly. “Pepperoni with mushrooms.”
         “How much?”
         I gabbled the first number that popped into my head. “Twenty-two fifty.”
         Thomas hauled me down by the shoulder. “Twenty-two fifty?” He hissed in my ear.
“You could buy two pizzas for that!”
         “Hey, look,” the speaker said, and Thomas shut up, “since you‟re here already, I‟ll take
it, okay? But I‟m not tipping you; that‟s a damn pricey pizza.”
         “That‟s fine!” I cried, overwhelmed with relief. “Gee, thanks, that‟s great, really sorry
about—”
         Thomas drew his finger back and forth across his throat, silently ordering me not to over-
do it.
         “Just hold on a second, okay?” The speaker requested.
         “Sure.” I chirped. “Take your time.”
         “Don‟t be so dang happy; they‟ll get suspicious.” Thomas said, taking a hold on my arm.
“Ready?”
         I shook my head. “No.”
         About thirty seconds later, the front door creaked open, and a runty balding guy blinked
at us, still thumbing through his wallet. Admittedly, Thomas looked strange with a scarf tied
over his mouth, and the peppermint-striped blob in his hand only cemented it. “Wh—”
         “Candygram.” Thomas greeted, and hurled me at the guy‟s chest. I hit with a piercing
squeak, partly because of the force of impact, and everything was momentarily obscured in a
cloud of blue glitter. When the sparkles cleared and I wriggled myself upright again to unbend a
couple of my eyestalks, the agent was out cold on the floor, and Thomas was dragging him out of
view.
         “Sorry about that. You okay?” I squeaked yes. My body was about the only part of me
not about to fall into gibbering pieces. “Okay. Let‟s hurry.”
         I was already on my way. A low ache pulsed through my entire body, but it wasn‟t too
bad, and hopping didn‟t change the sensation one way or another, so I decided to deal with it lat-
er, after M.D. and her healing goops were back.
         The halls were mostly barren, and mostly open, so the first chunk of my travels passed
uneventfully, but it didn‟t do anything to relax me. The lack of events made me realize just how
unstealthy I was. Not only did I jingle like a one-horse open sleigh every move I made, but also
the lights were the automatic kind, popping on with a clack whenever I entered a new hall.
Against the beige décor, my red and white stripes stood out like the ones on a target.
         I‟d spent most of the day somewhere between low anxiety and out-and-out panic, and
now I was starting to edge to the latter end of the spectrum. Doomsday phrases began circling
through my brain on endless loop. Any moment a well-trained, well-armed specialist would see
and shoot me. Any moment. My luck wasn‟t that good; someone had to be here. Any mo-
ment—
         When an agent did finally come out the door—no golden rings, so a grunt—I was already
as terrified as I could possibly get. I was relieved. If I‟d had a mouth, I would‟ve cried, “Oh,
thank god, finally!”
         Then she pulled a tranq-gun on me, and I went right back to freaking out. With a squeal,
I took off running—hopping—and she gave chase. All around me, I heard the SH-crunk, SH-
crunk, SH-crunk, not to mention my own squeaky screams, and I was bouncing in completely
random directions as much out of panic as to throw off her aim. For forty seconds, I proved that
Jangluffs could move fast if they got scared enough.
         Suddenly the barrage of SH-crunks stopped with a WHUMP. I swiveled one of my eyes-
talks around and saw the grunt flopped on the floor, a contented smile on her face. The tranq-
gun was still clutched in her hand.
         For a moment, I just sat there quivering in fright, thinking of all the convincing reasons
why I shouldn’t have been there. Like staying alive reasons. But I‟d already started; there was
no turning back now. If I tried, I‟d only have to do it again, this time with them prepared.
         That mental picture started me moving down the hall again. Which is just as well, be-
cause all that screaming I‟d done and all those shooting noises had made the other agents wonder
what was going on.
         “Maureen? You shooting roaches again?” A voice inquired from behind the wall.
         I hastily started to make an escape, only to sound like a Christmas commercial.
         “Hell is that noise? What you doing out there?” The door started to open.
         I made a split decision so suicidal that Venna would‟ve recruited me for the Dellan army
right off the bat. Running away took the dust away, right? It slowed down the process because
it took longer for them to inhale the stuff. So if I did the opposite…
         With a squeaky toy ninja cry of terror, I threw myself at the opening door.
         This grunt, understandably surprised, shouted, “Jeezus Christ!” and jumped back, only to
get good gasp full of the glitter and collapse.
         You‟d think I‟d feel triumphant, but nope, the terror was still there. I wasn‟t a hero, just a
squeaky-toy ninja of death, and squeaky-toy ninjas of death aren‟t heroic. In fact, the only thing
I could think of that was more undignified than being a squeaky-toy ninja of death was being at-
tacked by a squeaky-toy ninja of death.
         I wanted nothing else than to get out of this place, but the room might still have someone
in it. Hopping further in, I swiveled my eyestalks around to examine the room, but it was dark in
there, and my new eyes were worthless for it. All I could see was inky blackness and the TV
glowing in the corner. The impenetrable darkness didn‟t reassure me at all, but no one came
rushing out at me, and listening as hard as I could, all I could hear was the rugby game, which I
guess is what they turned the lights off for to watch. What was happening on-screen didn‟t reas-
sure me either.
        “And oh! O‟Donnell is down for the count with a broken rib. Shouldn‟t have charged
Danny there, O‟Donnell.”
        “What a game, Chaz, what a game.”
        The dark was making my skin crawl, so I hopped out of the room to continue down the
hall—and sirens burst into life with flashing lights and a deafening wail.
        I froze. The emergency sirens? How? What‟d I done wrong? Biff hadn‟t once said I
might set them off myself by accident; the way he‟d said it, they‟d sounded clearly labeled. All
the buttons I‟d seen were above my reach anyway, and the two grunts I‟d hit were still out cold,
so how had I—?
        Then I heard shouting in the distance, and my blood went cold. I’d been fine, but Tho-
mas—
        I began sprinting towards the noise, proving again that you didn‟t need legs for speed.
However, I only got to the corner before being nearly trampled by Thomas, and I barely had time
to get out of his way before a grunt followed, trying to run at breakneck speed while loading his
tranq-gun and doing a pretty good job at it.
        There wasn‟t even time for me to freak out—or rather, to turn my general freak out into a
more specific, I‟m-about-to-die freak out. Due to their dash, both Thomas and the grunt were
breathing hard. However, Thomas still had his scarf around his nose and mouth, while the grunt
didn‟t, and he hit the floor like a bag of flour the moment he passed me.
        I stared at his body on the floor and wondered why I was fighting millions of years of
evolution‟s worth of survival instincts.
        “Thanks.” Thomas wheezed, his voice muffled and hard to hear over the sirens. “But—”
        He didn‟t have to finish; I could hear more running footsteps. Thomas reached for the
door—only for it to slam shut before he touched it, and I could hear the lock clicking shut. From
the other side, the footsteps stopped. There was a pause, then a cussword and a slam against the
door, as though the person had put in his ID card, only for it to fail.
        “I guess the sirens make it lock down.” Thomas said, and gave me what I knew was a
grin under that scarf. “Lucky us. That one was doing science crap—still had a mask on. Got it
under control yet?”
        I had no idea what he was talking about. He couldn‟t have meant whether I‟d cleared out
the building; I hadn‟t had near enough time. And if the whole building was locked down…
        Maybe my confusion showed, despite my lack of a face, because Thomas frowned. “It
was one of your guys that hit the siren, wasn‟t it?”
        I shook my eyestalks and tried to communicate, “Me? I thought it was your guy,”
through Morse code. No telling how successful I was, because midway through, the sirens shut
off.
        Thomas and I glanced at the walls. The lights had stopped flashing; the sounds had
stopped. If not for the lockdown, it would‟ve seemed like nothing had happened.
        “Is that… supposed to happen?” He asked, frowning.
        “No, but that doesn‟t really matter.” A voice came from behind us. “Put your hands up
and turn around.”
        Thomas and I exchanged glances, but he cautiously lifted his arms, laced his fingers be-
hind his head and turned around. Since my body didn‟t really have a front anymore, I turned my
eyestalks around.
        A grunt stood outside the room I had left earlier. The three unconscious coworkers had
made an impression on him, and while I‟d been hopping around and freaking out, he‟d kept a
level head, waited for me to leave the room, found his guns in the dark, and then hit the emer-
gency alarm. He‟d lucked out too; Thomas‟s difficulties and my confusion had bought him a
distraction and some time to get into a good position. So now he stood too far for me to pixie-
dust him, and in one hand, he had his tranq-gun. In the other, he had some kind of handgun, but
I didn‟t know enough to recognize it. What really mattered was that even if he didn‟t know to
cover his mouth, he obviously knew what he was doing.
         “You,” he pointed—well, pointed harder—at Thomas with the tranq-gun, “on the floor.
And take off that scarf—you look like a terrorist.” Then, as Thomas began to reach for it, he
changed his mind. “Never mind, just get down. And as for you…” for a moment, he seemed un-
sure what to order me to do, “just… hop over to that wall and stay there.”
         Before I could make it more than a hop or two, the door burst open and the doc stormed
in, nearly squishing me with the door. Since I was half-hidden behind it and too far to do any-
thing to her, she didn‟t notice me. Just as well, really, since I was too stressed to care too much
about her either.
         “Smith! Where were you people?” She demanded of the grunt.
         Thomas started to move, but the grunt wasn‟t about to let the situation be derailed. “You
stay there.” He ordered, then turned back to the doc. “File a complaint, will you? I might do one
on you, considering the lockdown. What‟d you do to the security?”
         “I didn‟t do anything to the security!” The doc snapped, putting her hands on her hips. “I
don‟t know what going on; I just hear the emergency sirens and Robinson screaming bloody
murder, chase after the kid, and here I am. Aren‟t you the one who set it off?”
         The grunt had business, but I guess he wasn‟t in the mood for being snapped at. “I hit the
button, but I didn‟t shut it off.” He corrected testily. “And I don‟t know what‟s with the lock-
down. I haven‟t heard anything about a change, have you?”
         “No. If one of those goddamn techies are cutting our budget—”
         “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whine at them later. First, tell me what that is.”
         He indicated me with his chin and the doc turned to finally notice me sitting there. For a
couple seconds, she seemed to waffle between curiosity, confusion, or staying annoyed. She
compromised.
         “I don‟t know what the hell that is, and I honest to God don‟t care. Shoot it.”
         For a minute, I wondered why the grunt wasn‟t doing just that. Then I realized that he
probably wasn‟t sure if shooting me would cause a massive explosion of pixie dust. Now that I
thought about it, I wasn‟t sure either, but it sounded like a pretty reasonable outcome, seeing how
every jar and jiggle caused small clouds.
         “Uh, could y‟all shoot me first?” Thomas asked. “‟Cause if y‟all‟re just going to bitch all
night…”
         “Why do we always get the smartasses in this department?” The doc griped. “First Raw-
lins, then MacGilligan, now…”
         By this point, I think the grunt wanted to tranq all of us and be done with it so he could
go back to watching rugby, but Thomas was the only candidate right then. Leaving the doc to
rant, he took aim.
         The grunt was cautious, but the doc had no clue what I was and was too busy complain-
ing to care. And I was so terrified now that all common sense had gone wherever M.D.‟s went
on a regular basis and any action sounded like a good idea. Again with the squeaky-toy ninja of
death cry, I threw myself at the doc.
         Later, neither Thomas nor I could decide whether that was the stupidest thing I had ever
done in my life, or the most genius thing I had ever done in my life. The doc still had a surgical
mask over her face, so I couldn‟t have done anything to her, even if I‟d gotten close enough to
her to have an effect, and even if I‟d had a clue what I was doing. However, the grunt didn‟t
know that, and neither did the doc, and both of them reacted under the assumption that I knew
what I was doing. The grunt aimed to shoot me down, and he probably would‟ve, except that in
the process of throwing myself at the doc, I came closer to Thomas. Since the grunt was just as
likely to hit me as to miss once or twice and hit him, he took advantage of the fact that the grunt
wasn‟t concentrating on him, and he made a grab at me.
         The next thing I knew, I was a huge scaly… something. It had far too many legs for me
to figure out movement, and I crashed to the floor on my belly, nearly taking the doc out with a
wing. Due to my size, at least two of my legs were wedged in the corner in such a way that I
couldn‟t get any purchase, and so even if I understood how my new body worked, I couldn‟t
have gotten to my feet. However, Thomas hadn‟t wanted me to run around. He‟d wanted some-
thing big, armor-plated, and between him and the guns, and God knows he got it.
         Tranqs stung against my scales, but the stinging was of them breaking off against my
hide, and the grunt didn‟t have the time or composure to try shooting at my eyes. I‟d hit my
breaking point, and all the millennia of civilized evolution stripped down to the most basic op-
tions. And since I was sprawled flat on my stomach and couldn‟t run, I did the next worst thing.
         My legs might‟ve been stuck, but my neck was long and whippy, and it was easy to twist
it in the direction of the grunt—or rather, the navy blue smudge in the corner of my eye. Unable
to think of anything else, I opened my jaws and roared at him.
         I don‟t know who was more surprised at the ungodly howl that came out of my mouth:
the grunt or Thomas. Had I not been beyond all other emotion, I probably would‟ve beaten both
of them, but I‟d dropped off the edge of thought roughly nine seconds ago. Desperate to get to
my feet—however many of them there were—I began to twist and writhe, trying to get some le-
verage and figure out the joints of my legs.
         As though things weren‟t out of control enough already, the power cut off for a moment.
It came on in another couple seconds, but something was still wrong, because the lights were dim
and unearthly. In the meantime, the doc fumbled backwards and slammed her ID card into the
door behind us, but it didn‟t open and she could only press herself against the wall while I
thrashed my way upright—the only reason I noticed her at all was her screaming. In the chaos,
Thomas had to yank on one of my whiskers to get my attention.
         “If you don‟t keep me from getting tranqed, you‟ll be stuck like this! The grunt! Take
care of the grunt!” His actual words were interspersed with a spatter of Spanish, something he
only did when he was really stressed, but his meaning was communicated just fine.
         Glad for an order to follow, I swung my head around to face the grunt again, even though
I had no plan whatsoever. I mean, I wasn‟t going to bite him or risk a tranq in the palate to yank
the gun out of my hand—maybe I would‟ve tried roaring at him again. It didn‟t matter anyway,
because he thought I was having the reptilian, lone-animal equivalent of a stampede, and he
wasn‟t about to face me on his own. The sirens had already gone off once, so backup was on the
way, and he decided that the doc had had the better idea of discretion over valor. (When had I
forgotten that?) He jumped back to the office room he‟d left and tried to open it, only to find it
dead, so he bolted around the corner.
         The moment he had, Thomas jumped up, shoved the doc out of the way, and pushed our
ID card into the door; it refused to open. He tried again, swore, and grabbed my whisker again,
forced me to look at him. “Can you break through walls like this?” He demanded.
         I roared at him.
         “Okay, okay, okay, Jeez, it was a decent question!” He transformed me again. “You can‟t
freak out; we don‟t have time for it!”
         This time I had the right number of arms, legs, and eyes. However, I was still roughly
twice the size of Thomas so I was forced to stand bent, my distance vision was a mass of blurry
colors, and I was covered in fur. Looks like he‟d decided a Breen was the best compromise of
muscle power and shape familiarity. I took advantage of it: I spoke, both to Thomas and the doc.
         “I didn‟t mean—oh my god—I‟m so sorry—” Breen vocal cords didn‟t squeak.
         “Run!”
         He didn‟t have to encourage me; I could hear shouting in the distance. The panic, which
had subsided enough for me to babble out something like an apology, came surging back, and I
was thrilled to be able to use it to get away. Reorienting with a glance just long enough to figure
out which way was deeper into the complex, and sprang at the wall.
         Having about four times my normal body weight made my stride shorter and my balance
off, but adrenaline and inertia made up for it. I plowed into the wall at full speed, shoulder first.
It felt just as painful as I would have expected any other moment, but the wall caved, and I stag-
gered into the next hallway, panting and shaking dust from my eyes.
         I didn‟t stop long. Frantically trying to get the door open was a PIN agent. With my eye-
sight, I couldn‟t make out his features clearly, but the blue clothes and the big silvery lump he
was carrying were all I needed to see. Recovering the panic I needed to forget about how much
it hurt breaking down walls, I slammed forward again before the agent got over the shock of see-
ing a giant furball smash through a wall.
         The second time hurt more than the first, but the wall went down and panic kept the pain
from hitting me immediately, and I didn‟t even pause, only kept plowing forward. Wall after
wall went down, sharp shards of wires, metal, and concrete gouging and tearing at my skin.
Somewhere around the fourth, I hit something harder than wire, metal, or concrete, and I
bounced off, hitting the floor on my butt. My head rung from where it‟d banged against the
door, but I lurched to my feet and tried again. It was exactly the same as the first, only it hurt
more, and this time, I stayed on the floor.
         By this point, the agony throbbing in my shoulder and the fire in my lungs had burst
through my adrenaline long enough to drag me back down to being almost human again. So
when Thomas dashed through the hole in the wall I‟d just left, a tranq-gun in his arms, I could
answer him when he asked, “What‟s wrong?”
         “Can‟t—break it—” I panted. “Don‟t know—”
         Thomas shuddered. “Ugh, there‟s enough cold iron in this part to give me the creeps, so
we must be in the right place. Good—I don‟t know what‟s going on, but sooner or later, those
guys are going to get their own doors open.” I wondered about the agent that I‟d seen earlier, on-
ly to realize where Thomas had gotten that tranq-gun. Before I could ask how, he inquired,
“How‟s your sense of smell?”
         Until that point, I‟d been too busy panting and coughing up the dust in my lungs to pay
attention to anything else, but now that I inhaled, the faint scent of M.D. hung in the air, faint but
unmistakably herbal. By this point, I was beyond being surprised by anything, but at least now I
knew how Mngleh could find someone despite his terrible distance vision. I swung my head
back and forth, took a step forward, and got a line.
         “Not this one. This way.”
         It hurt getting up, but everything hurt already, and I went down the hall at a jog, which
was as fast as I could go without leaving Thomas behind, hurting myself more, or losing track of
the smell. Science was actually a relatively small complex, and it only took a right turn before I
said, “This is it.”
         “You sure?”
         I nodded, then charged. Unfortunately, this cell wasn‟t any weaker than the first one I‟d
tried to hit, and I landed hard, clutching my shoulder, gritting my teeth against the pain. “Ah! No
good. I can‟t keep doing that; I‟m going to break something.”
         Thomas was already coming up with his ID card.
         “That won‟t work.” I said.
         “Yeah, and I‟ll bet the pinheads are about to go crazy about it. I think we‟re running on
whatever power they use in a thunderstorm or something.”
         “But it did that before I even started smashing stuff; how‟d that happen?”
         “Don‟t ask me, but I‟m not going to argue and neither are you, okay? You argue this
kind of thing, it stops. But the pinheads must be working on getting everything running again,
right? And once they do, we can get in, right?”
         He pushed the card into the door. Up until now, the doors hadn‟t reacted at all; whatever
auxiliary power was running, it didn‟t do much for the ID card door locks, and the lockdown
from earlier must‟ve still been in place. Of course, nothing happened.
         Suddenly the lights blinked on back to their normal strength. Thomas thrust his card in
again, but it blinked red. He swore.
         “The clearance.” I babbled. The panic was starting to come back. “It‟s not high enough.
Biff warned us it might not be high enough.”
         “Just hold on, let me think of something bigger and stronger that you can figure out fast.”
Thomas said, but his accent had come in hard and thick, and I knew that these circumstances we-
ren‟t good for sorting through categories of crazy mythological animals, never mind transform-
ing me into one.
         Then the door chimed green and the lock clicked open without either of us touching it. I
cocked my head, and Thomas raised an eyebrow, but we didn‟t have time to wonder, so we
opened the door and hurried through the door, though I had to bend almost double and turn side-
ways to make it. As Thomas closed it behind me, the lighting went out, and the room was
plunged into darkness, leaving only the reek of herbs. Oh, M.D. was in here, all right.
         The room was chillier than the rest of the building, but seeing as I was warmed up, the
size of a barn, and furry as a Wookiee, it didn‟t matter much. However, as Thomas began fum-
bling around for a light switch, I finally found myself calm enough to realize that I was furry, not
clothed. Not that M.D. would care, but—I hastily turned to the wall and buried my fingers in my
hair, shaking my head as the light went on.
         Thomas had other things on his mind. Arms spread, he sauntered into the room like a
triumphant brigadier-general, warbling, “Babe! We‟re here to rescue you, time to get up and get
that stupid straitjacket off for some fun…”
         I was too busy fighting embarrassment to notice that M.D. was uncharacteristically quiet.
         “Come on, Sleeping Beauty, time to get up and—oh come on!”
         His tone alarmed me enough to turn. “What?” I asked. “What is it?”
         In response, Thomas reached out and grasped M.D.‟s chin in his hand. “Our genius plan-
ner—” and here he wiggled her head like a doll‟s, “is out cold.” He shook her shoulders and
pinched her cheek, to no effect. “Here, I‟ll lick her, if that doesn‟t make her wake up—”
         Hauling him back by the arm, I rushed over so fast I nearly smashed my head against the
weak fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling so I could bend over and examine her more ef-
fectively. M.D. was tied to a wheeled cart or something, the kind they use in horror movie asy-
lums to wheel axe-murderers around, but my vision was too poor to see if there was anything
really wrong with her, other than that she wasn‟t waking up.
         “Is she hurt? B-Biff never said—” I started to stammer, starting to reach for her, but
Thomas pushed past me and pulled my hands away.
         “Take it easy, you almost broke my arm, think what you‟d do to her.” He said, rubbing at
the shoulder I‟d pulled, but when I started to apologize, he waved it off and continued on, stret-
ching his arm back and forth. “If she was hurt, she‟d be walking around and talking us into con-
quering the world. She‟s tranqed.” He groaned. “I‟d rather her hurt.”
         Though I didn‟t like it, Thomas did have a point. M.D. was great at pretending pain
didn‟t slow her down, but tranqs couldn‟t care less what she wanted to believe.
         Thomas rubbed at his chin. “Raige, you‟ve seen her tranqed before; how long does it take
for her to wake up?”
         “I—I—” I spread my hands. “I don‟t know. I mean, back—you know, five years ago or
whatever, she was up and going within fifteen minutes, but this is different stuff, they said. I
don‟t know. M.D. might, but—” I gestured at the prone figure on the cart. “Yeah.”
         For a moment, we just stood there in a claustrophobic situation, and then Thomas broke
the silence with a response I envied him for.
         “Oh well. Nothing we can do, so might as well keep going.” And with a smile and a
shrug, he started loosening the straps and buckles on her cart and straitjacket. My hands were far
too large and clumsy to try, so I could only stand there and tug at my hair until he finished,
where he had to dive for M.D. before she smacked into the floor. He bent and started to heave
her over his shoulder, only to rethink the idea midway through and shove her at me instead. Ref-
lex was faster than thought, and I caught the leather straps hanging off her sleeves with one hand,
where she hung like a marionette.
         “She‟s yours. Take her.” Thomas said.
         “Me? But I‟m—I don‟t want her!” Thought had caught up, and now I was unsure wheth-
er to drop her or pick her up before holding her by the straps dislocated her shoulders.
         “Sure, whatever, I‟ll argue later. She‟s a stick, but she‟s dead weight, man, too heavy for
me to run with, and if she‟s out cold, she can‟t care. God knows it‟s the closest to sex you‟ll be
getting for a while. If you‟d really rather be tranqed than humiliated—”
         “Humiliated. Humiliated is fine.” Remembering how I‟d wrenched Thomas‟s arm by
accident, I scooped M.D. up in exaggerated delicacy. Her weight was noticeable, but not enough
to slow me down, especially since I was still feeling panicky—though not enough to be unaware
of what she would try to do to me once she came to.
         While he forged off to search through the cabinets for something useful, I tried to figure
out the proper way to carry her. Thomas would‟ve argued that since she was out cold, I could
just sling her over my shoulder, but she was a girl, not a bag of potatoes. At first, I tried to hold
her like I would Bobcat, but then I realized her back wouldn‟t bend that way. Finally I settled on
tucking her against my shoulder, like a new mother trying to burp their baby—though if I tried
that, her ribs would probably break. After a few moments of squirming, she subsided and started
drooling on my shoulder. Unsure what to do, I patted her on the back and was rewarded with a
happy noise.
         “That her?” Thomas asked hopefully from across the room. “Maybe she‟s waking up.”
         “I hope not.” When he looked at me, I hastily added, “She‟d kill me for this.”
         “Yeah, and she might actually rather death to humiliation.”
         “Might?” The handle of the door rattled. Whoever was on the other side figured out that
it was locked, and banging replaced rattling.
         “Aw, man.” Thomas was ducked down behind an open cabinet door, still searching even
as he declared, “This place has nada, and you can‟t smash down walls with her, even if you we-
ren‟t bleeding everywhere.”
         Funny, I‟d been too busy with everything else to notice.
         The banging eased into a steady, heavy rhythm. Bang, bang, bang! Unable to think of
anything else to do, I sat in front of the door as a barricade and remarked, “M.D.‟s…quiet.”
         Bang! The reverberation from the door was nothing I couldn‟t handle but the door itself
was another matter. Thomas didn‟t seem to worry about it. “I know, isn‟t it great? I could total-
ly get used to it.”
         Bang! “Yeah, well, now that you mention it—how can you be taking this so well?” I
shrieked, pressing closer to the door and hiking M.D. up my side. “You‟re calmly looking for
tranq-guns,” Bang, “and she‟s happy taking a nap. Why can‟t I do something like th—gnyah!”
         I couldn‟t believe it! She‟d hit me! She was too drugged and I was too big for it to hurt
or anything, but for a moment, I thought she‟d woken up and nearly dropped her on her head be-
fore I realized that yes, M.D. hit people in her sleep.
         Trying to get me to shut up, most likely. Some things don‟t change.
         At my outburst, Thomas straightened up from the cabinets. “What was that?”
         The door pressed against my back with another bang, and considering the situation, it
sounded too ridiculous to explain. Really, it shouldn‟t have surprised me. “I think she might be
sort of coming out of it—she‟s… she‟s acting a lot more normal now.”
         Despite the tranqs, my voice seemed to be getting through to her on some level or other,
and I guess now that I wasn‟t shouting or freaking out, she didn‟t mind so much. As I finished
speaking, she snuggled in closer and draped her arms around my neck. Thomas‟s eyebrows shot
up to around his hairline, and neither of us reacted at the next bang. The face he started to make
I can only describe as, „oh no she didn’t!‟
         I swallowed. “Apparently she tries to strangle people all the time too.” Bang!
         “Man, don‟t BS me, that is not strangling.” Bang! “Where‟s the hate in it?”
         I‟d spent the whole day either in a panic, on the verge of panic, or suppressing panic, and
with the PIN and I playing backwards tug-o-war with the door, I‟d thought there wasn‟t room in
my head for anything else. But something as crazy as this proved I could feel other stuff—
mostly gratitude that my fur covered the blush I could feel climbing my cheeks. I mean, it was
carved in granite: M.D. never touched anyone. Oh sure, she‟d punch you, and in a couple crises,
she‟d grabbed me to keep from plummeting to her death or getting tranqed, but she didn‟t… she
didn‟t…
         I thanked God that at the angle he was at, Thomas couldn‟t tell she was starting to nuzzle
up against my throat. The look on my face probably could‟ve been blamed on the fact I was get-
ting smacked around through a door.
         “Gnuh.” I remarked.
         “That‟s…” the expression on Thomas‟s face didn‟t match his tone at all, “that‟s wrong.”
         Bang! I thanked the agent for giving me the perfect excuse to snap, “Don‟t we have other
things to worry about?” As much to me as to him, really. Simultaneously wanting to shake her
loose and for everyone to just go away for a few minutes, I wondered if M.D. tried to sabotage
herself.
         Thomas made a face like he was tearing himself away from a loved one. “Don‟t think I‟m
forgetting this—I‟m never forgetting this—”
         “Pinheads! Pinheads!” I reminded.
         Well, if you have any ideas, great, because this place doesn‟t have any—” With a look of
sudden insight, he began digging through M.D.‟s herb belt around his waist. “What is this stuff?”
Bang!
         “Why‟re you asking me?” Bang! I wasn‟t caving in, but the door wasn‟t meant to take
this kind of beating. I gritted my teeth and dug my heels into the floor, trying to push myself
harder against the doorway. “I‟m not junior healer! I don‟t know their names.”
         “Neither do I, I don‟t care. Which is the dangerous stuff?”
         “Uh…” Bang! I frantically pored through my memory, trying to think of what I‟d seen
M.D. use. Unfortunately, I had never paid much attention to what stuff she carried, and her posi-
tion now wasn‟t helping my concentration. “Christ, Thomas, I don‟t know! Just… God, try
one!”
         Annoyed at my volume, M.D. punched me without pulling her face from my neck. Irri-
tated, I poked her with a finger, and she quit with a whining sound.
         Too busy searching to notice, Thomas came up with a bottle at random and chucked it at
the wall across from me. The glass bottle shattered, leaving a steaming glob of neon green goo,
but nothing else. He tried another, this one full of what looked like blue powder. It caused a
light show and scorched the wall, but otherwise didn‟t do much good. The third just dyed what
the unburned part of the wall pinkish orange.
         By now the door and its hinges had about given up, and I knew that I‟d get a tranq in the
back soon. “Hurry up!” I pleaded. Bang!
         “What kind of crap is this?” Thomas demanded in disgust. “Where‟s the explody stuff?
This is M.D.! She can‟t open a freaking soda without using dynamite!”
         In desperation, I prodded M.D. in the side. She made an unhappy sound and punched me
again, but I needed her attention.
         “M.D.? Hey, kid, I know you can hear me, right?”
         “Mmm.” She whined.
         “Oh, c‟mon, man, she couldn‟t—” Thomas started.
         “Bwu!” M.D. snapped, lifting her head for a moment before flopping back.
         I gave him a smug look; with a look of resignation, he spread his hands and backed off,
tossing the belt at me. My new body caught it without me thinking about it, and I nudged M.D.
to stick it under her nose.
         “Bwah!” She complained. Bang! Bang!
         I tried to talk slowly while the door was being obliterated behind me. “Yes, I know, I‟m
sorry, but we need something dangerous. Something explody. Do you have anything explody?”
         She pouted and rolled her eyes at my babysitter voice. “Bah…”
         I thrust the belt at her, and with a look of drugged concentration, she fumbled at one of
the pockets. Her fingers weren‟t working for her though, and I hastily undid it for her, making
the stitches strain. Splinters from the door began to dig into my back, but I guess M.D. was una-
ble to focus on more than even half a thing at a time, because she didn‟t pay any attention. After
some squinting and flopping and frustrated faces, she came up with two bottles in her fist. With
my eyesight, all I could tell about them was that one was filled with something red and the other
with something blue.
        “Hee!” She declared, and passed out on my shoulder from the effort. The bottles fell
from her hand, and as I juggled them in the air, trying to catch but not pulverize them, the door
broke down. Forgetting the bottles, I turned to find myself point-blank face-to-muzzle with a
tranq-gun.
        In hindsight, my Breen reflexes, though totally misguided, served me in ways I never
would‟ve planned. With a scream of, “Augh!” I jerked back and swiped at the gun with one
hand. However, that hand also was juggling the bottles, and I heard shattering glass.
        The room erupted in flames, which made both me and the tranq-gun jump back—not bad,
considering I was sitting and had a passenger. Within a second, I‟d bounded to the other end of
the room, swatting at cinders in my fur. As the flames raged, Thomas and I plastered ourselves
to the far wall, while the PIN proceeded to finish breaking down the door.
        “That’s not explody stuff!” Thomas shouted. “I can‟t believe she didn‟t get the explody
stuff; man, if we live and she wakes up, I‟m gonna—”
        I saw a glitter of glass from the floor, flames reaching towards the blue puddle around it,
and in my head, there was a little collision of tangent thoughts all together in the space of a
second. First, M.D. had gotten the explody stuff; second, the room was too small; third, I was a
Breen from Della; fourth, Della was hot; and fifth, we were screwed.
        Interrupting him in mid-bellow, I grabbed Thomas, clutched both him and M.D. to me
without caring what I was bruising, decided I‟d had a good run, and started to brace myself. I
finished the thought but not the bracing before the explosion.
        And then the strangest part: M.D… she took it. Through me.
        The explosion got her attention—the noise, maybe the energy, it doesn‟t matter. The roar
and the shrapnel blasted against my back, sending us against the wall, but it was a cool explo-
sion, no heat or light at all. M.D. went rigid and began to convulse, all of which I‟d seen when
she‟d overdosed on energy, but then she was in my head, which I hadn‟t. She‟d never snapped
me in a seizure, and this felt thicker, all down my back and neck instead of in my temples, and
our „conversation‟ was more a rapid-fire game of psychic charades with one player drugged off
her can and only half-aware of what she was doing.
        “!”
        “?”
        “.” Sloppy, tired, and still in her first convulsion, she pushed something like heartburn
and a sugar high into my muscles. With another,“!” she passed out again—if she‟d ever been
really awake to begin with.
        I came back to myself, and the explosion was nothing but a quick blast of force pressing
us against the wall. No heat, no fire, and I‟d gotten a second wind on par with the runner‟s high.
Now that the excess of the energy had been passed down to me, M.D.‟s seizure had stopped, and
when I was able to pull away from the wall, her arms were pulsing in fluorescent lavender.
        Thomas looked at me. “What was that?”
        “She gave the explosion to me. It overloaded her, and so she—passed it to me.”
        He looked as understanding as I felt. “How?”
        I pointed to M.D. “Ask her, okay? She did it.”
        “Yeah. Remind me to hug her when she comes to. She‟s a lifesaver.” He pointed over
my shoulder.
         Letting Thomas down, I turned to see the results, and I had to agree with him. The wall
was gone. So was a good chunk of the hall and the ceiling. The lights had been blown out and
in the smoke, everything was in shades of black, gray, and buff, except for the tiny dark patch of
night sky visible from the hole in the roof. Something was trickling down my back, and I felt
like I‟d been sandblasted, but I seemed to have taken all the damage, and I didn‟t feel too bad. A
little voice in the back of my mind told me it was the adrenaline, but the rest of me just said that I
didn‟t want to think about that right now. The PIN agents were nowhere to be seen.
         I came to my senses, and the horror hit.
         “Oh my god.” I said, my free hand clamped over my mouth. “I just blew something up.”
         “Yeah.” Thomas said. “Yeah, you blew something up. Have I mentioned you‟re really
going up in my rankings right now?”
         I was busy calling into the hall, “Are you guys okay?”
         For a moment, there was silence. “Yeah, we‟re all right. You?”
         “Yeah, we‟re good.”
         Thomas grabbed me by the arm and yanked on M.D.‟s leg with the other. “Don‟t play
humanitarian, let her go!” I obeyed, and he caught her under her arms. “Now up! Up!”
          I sprinted out before the dust could clear further. Hey, I‟m a humanist, but I‟d grown to
like living. I smashed into someone, shouted, “Sorry!” and kept running. There were no shots;
the PIN, I guess, figured that with no visibility and us outnumbered, they‟d be far more likely to
hit each other than they would us.
         Since I was relying on smell anyway, I thought all was going to be fine—and then I
crashed into a wall. The smoke and dust had clogged up my nose, and I realized that until Tho-
mas and I could see again, I was lost. The collision made M.D. wake up—well, if you could call
that state awake.
         “Thomas?” I bellowed.
         “Lost?” He replied.
         “Yes.” Oh god, M.D. was starting to nuzzle me again—that was it, she was trying to sa-
botage herself…
         Within thirty seconds, I was out of the dust, miraculously not tranqed. A quick glance
showed M.D. had missed a tranqing too, though it hardly mattered. The herb belt had gotten
punctured, but she‟d just have to live with it.
         Where was Thomas?
         A couple seconds later, he barreled out, coughing, hacking, and clutching his tranq-gun
from earlier. Slapping a hand to my thigh, he changed me. The world stretched, becoming
smaller while also higher, and I nearly trampled M.D. falling to all fours. Thomas leapt onto my
back, hauling her up on with him.
         “You‟re a Scorch-dragon now! Go! Go! Run!” He shouted.
         I threw myself forward, only to find it a lot trickier than I‟d thought. My thick tail was
swaying at random, throwing me off-balance, and Scorch‟s breed were meant to be big bruisers,
not fast. Still, I could handle both Thomas and M.D. on my back without much trouble, and I
was now armor-plated as well. Keeping my mouth shut—the last thing I wanted was to set
something else on fire—I began lurching down the hallways, regularly sideswiping walls and
hitting corners, but my scales took the brunt of it. It was a decent pace, and my adrenaline hadn‟t
given out yet.
         I can only imagine what sort of news the PIN agents were getting. First a poofy glittery
thing putting people to sleep, then power and security problems, then a giant furry guy smashing
through, explosions, and now a dragon on a rampage.
         And that‟s exactly what we did. Judging by the booming sounds echoing behind us,
M.D.‟s explody stuff had worked its way over to something else, the drug labs or something, and
the PIN was probably as much busy dealing with that as it was everything else. What with the
chaos, confusion, the power still going completely crazy, and the remaining dust, it was actually
more or less a matter of sprinting back the way we‟d come and Thomas tranqing whoever
popped up. By this point, things had gotten so out of control that nobody seemed to have any
idea what was going on anymore. In one of those time periods that could seem like an instant
and forever at the same time, we were out by a logging plant, in the middle of the patented Old
Faithful brush forest. Unable to run any further, we collapsed by the chain link fence, panting
and wheezing.
         M.D. had slept through the whole thing.
         “My god.” I gasped. “My god. That was crazy.”
         “Welcome to adventure, man.” Thomas said, resting his head back against the fence.
And he was still smiling. “Fun, huh? Think what it would‟ve been like if she‟d been awake.”
         “Please, no.”
         Somehow it hurt to think the only time she could was on horse tranquilizers.
         After a moment, I relaxed and patted her on the back with a smile. “Wow, you really
must be high, kid.” I murmured. “Normally you‟re nowhere near this nice to be around. Don‟t
worry, I won‟t ruin your reputation.”
         With a content sigh, she shifted against me a little and buried her face against my throat.
Her skin was cool, and it sent a chill down the back of my neck. I closed my eyes and sighed
with her but even though I kind of wanted to, I didn‟t squeeze her back; I probably would‟ve
ended up breaking something. Even if I didn‟t, she might‟ve woken up and freaked out. This
kind of thing always did. Pity. She was actually kinda soft and cuddly when she wasn‟t hitting
people and ranting on about psychology in her own irritating, inimitable way.
         Something cool suddenly tickled the fur on the back of my neck, making me jump. Was
that her hair doing that? Bobby had told me Senyan hair was alive, but I hadn‟t known it was
that alive. He had never said that it tingled either. Kind of a weird feeling, but not bad, not at
all. It was starting to coil around my throat, slow and loose. I sighed again and tilted my head
back. Mmm…
         Something slammed into the door with a whump. I jumped again. “Raige, come on!
What‟s taking you so long?” Thomas shouted. “You busy groping her or what?”
         Lord, his timing…
         “Nothing!” I cried quickly, glad that Breen vocal cords didn‟t seem to be capable of
squeaking, and unwrapped her hair from my neck as gently as I could, trying to put that out of
my mind. M.D. didn‟t cooperate; her hair twined around my fingers beseechingly and I felt my
cheeks burn harder. “I‟m trying to find her belt!” I stalled as she reluctantly released me. “She‟ll
kill us if we leave her knife behind, you know that! Do you know where it is?”
         A pause. “You are kidding, right?”
         “What?”
         “It‟s out here, blind boy. Stuck in the decompression room or whatever it is in a cabinet.”
         I paused. Then I reverted to M.D. and Bogart‟s catchall phrase. “Shut up!”
        I just heard what was probably a chuckle. “Hurry up, will you? It‟s getting a little iffy
out here.”
        Chuckling or not, when Thomas said things were getting iffy, he meant that we were in
trouble. Deciding that the faster I got out of this dark room with the new, silent M.D. the better,
I practically charged out into the little hall. The smell of herbs that I‟d passed off at first as just
M.D.‟s leftover aura helped me track it to the airtight cabinet. Of course, it was locked, but a
good hard yank fixed that. After groping a second, I found the belt and somehow got it onto her
despite my rush. Then I was back out in the room we‟d crashed down in.
        It was just as well that I had. Thomas was still holding the tranq-gun with a cheerful grin
and had blocked the door with a couple file cabinets, but something was making sparks come out
of them.
        “Well, we‟ve crashed this party. Time to move on.” He said, tossing the cannon away.
        Seeing as I could stick my head out of the hole I‟d made in the roof, it was easy enough
for me to get him up onto the roof, even with M.D. occupying my other arm. Since I had to
pause to set M.D. down up there before I could join them, he was already on the phone when I
climbed up. Just as I got up there, I heard a bizarre crackling sound from below and shouting.
        “Come on, get us out of here!” Then I realized that Thomas‟s face was blank and paused
midway through picking M.D. up. “Thomas?”
        He said softly but unmistakably, “Oh crap.”
        “Oh crap?” I asked, starting to panic. As though annoyed by the noise, M.D. hit me
again. I ignored it and bent over, trying to get into Bobby‟s telepathic range. “What do you
mean, oh crap?”
        “Blip us out!” He barked into the phone. “I don‟t care, we‟re screwed if we stay here!
Just go, go!”
        The world swirled by and we appeared at an empty truck stop. It wasn‟t our hotel room,
but Houdini was babbling so frenetically into the phone that I could understand why he‟d just
blipped us haphazard. He was talking even faster than usual and since telepathy‟s lightning
quick, he was really short on time if he was rushing.
        We’ve got a problem, boys. The PIN just called the Jaunter’s League. Something
about M.D., who, might we add, is under our jurisdiction, being picked up for breaking her
restraining order?
        Panicking was a perfectly good thing to do. “What do we do?”
        Calm down, you three are fine. You just keep doing what you planned on doing.
Planned? I looked at Thomas desperately and his face was just as blank as mine felt. You’re in
Old Faithful now, on the fringe of the suburbs. Do what that PIN guy told you and chuck
the card before you get a few suits down your back. M.D.’ll help you when she wakes up.
He sighed. Well, at least we’ll get that meeting with The Boss, even if it’s for our resigna-
tion.
        “Are you going to get fired?” I asked.
        I don’t know, but don’t worry; you won’t get stranded here. With a KRAANG, my
clothes appeared out of thin air. Here you go. You’d better find a place to stay. Suddenly I
caught a vague telepathic overtone from someone I‟d never heard, kind of like on the phone
when someone‟s talking but is too far away to hear. Crud. Gotta go!
        Click.
        Thomas looked at me. “You worried?”
        I nodded. “I trust them, but they better call us back.”
        He nodded, but then his eyes shifted to M.D. “Whoa.” He said. “The pinheads must‟ve
really brainwashed her.”
        “Um… why do you say that?”
        “Well, the most obvious one is that she‟s touching you without playing the seizure
game.” His voice melted into a gooey milk chocolate purr that made my bad eyesight redundant.
“Y‟all look so cute.” At least he decided no to bring it up for torture at the moment. “And she‟s
in scrubs, which you‟re bleeding on. Aw, how adorable. They even took her hair down. Didn‟t
you notice that?”
        “Yes.” I said flatly.
        “No wonder she blew up the wall.” Then he blinked. “You put her belt on her, right?”
        “Yeah.”
        He shook his head. “Your eyes must really be bad.”
        “I got it on.” I protested.
        “It‟s twisted and inside-out.” He informed me. “I would‟ve said it was because of the
dark except you didn‟t notice. At least she won‟t notice the new bloodstains on the thing.”
        “Huh?” Though it twisted my neck at an uncomfortable angle, I squinted at her for a
second then sighed. “Still can‟t tell.”
        “We‟re lucky you didn‟t come out of there with Yoda or something. Well, I don‟t have
any clue where we are. Do you?” Thomas asked, looking around.
        I shook my head. “Even if I could see decently, I‟m not from Old Faithful.” I said, adjust-
ing M.D. to a more comfortable position; one of her shoulders was digging into my chest. “All I
know is that we‟re in the middle of nowhere. M.D. could probably tell us… if she were awake.”
I squinted. “Is that a pay phone over there?”
        “No, it‟s a Great Dane painted blue.”
        I squinted harder. “Really?”
        “Of course not!” He cried. “Yes, it‟s a pay phone.”
        “Wow,” I said, “I really am blind. Is there a yellow pages?”
        “Yeah. Why?”
        “Call us a taxi. There‟s got to be one that‟ll pick us up even at this time of night. Just be
patient and I promise that in less than an hour one will come.” Old Faithful wasn‟t as taxi-happy
as Vaygo was, but through Daddy, I knew it had a fairly lively nightlife.
        Thomas looked at me and smiled wryly. “I guess I‟ll have to change you back; a Breen in
a bed sheet might be a little weird for Old Faithful.”
        I snatched my clothes off the ground where Houdini had left them, and then shoved M.D.
at Thomas. “F—for god‟s sake, t-take her and turn around, will you?” I stammered. I talked fast
to try and force past it, but it didn‟t work.
        “Raige, she‟s high as a cloud right now.” He snapped his fingers in front of her face to
show it. “She wouldn‟t notice if you put on a few leis and gave her a lap dance. And even if she
would, I don‟t think she‟d care.”
        “Just humor me.” I snapped, and stuffed her into his arms.
        The anxiety didn‟t last long, despite the scrapes to remind me of what we just came out
of. Even at a truck stop and freezing cold outside, Old Faithful really was a pretty nice-looking
place when it wasn‟t raining. The moon and the streetlights kept things from being completely
dark, tingeing everything deep blue. Really peaceful. As I was buttoning my jeans, the serene
crickets‟ chirping was suddenly shattered by a whumph! Then a grunt and a cry of surprise.
        “She hit me! She freaking hit me!”
        I grinned wickedly. My back was to Thomas; he couldn‟t see it. “Oh, yeah, I forgot, she
does that every once in a while. Just keep her where she won‟t hit anything important.”
        And M.D. complains I don‟t think violence is funny.
                                                       
        Sure enough, we only had to wait a little while before a taxi zoomed up.
        “How long was that?” I asked with a smile.
        Thomas made a sour face. “Twenty-seven and a half minutes.”
        “Told you.” I leaned into the cab and spoke to the driver. “Any hotels nearby?”
        “Sure.” He said. “One about seven miles from here. Get in.”
        “Your turn to babysit, Raige. She keeps hitting me every thirty seconds or so.” Thomas
grumbled, and he dumped M.D. into my arms so abruptly I nearly dropped her in the dirt.
Somehow I managed to get us both into the cab without smashing her into anything. I sat down.
The cab didn‟t move. That was weird; Vaygan taxis usually were up to fifty before you even got
your seat belt on.
        The cabbie was staring at M.D. There was nothing we could‟ve done about the white
jumper that now had my blood smeared on it. “Um… kids?”
        “Yes, sir?” Thomas asked politely, giving the driver his best grin.
        “Where exactly did you come from?”
        “Home.” Thomas said. He wasn‟t quite as good at lying as M.D. was but he was much
better at looking earnest. “We walked.”
        “And just now you decided to call me when your little friend passed out and bled through
her clothes? I‟ll call the police.” The driver threatened.
        We stared at him. This wasn‟t something I‟d planned on. I mean, Vaygan cabbies never
asked questions. You could get into the car with a blue gorilla on a leash and they‟d just say you
owed extra if he made a mess. I guess Old Faithful was a little more conservative.
        I couldn‟t tell how much of the panic on Thomas‟s face was faked. “Look, man, we
snuck out, all right? Jane here,” he indicated M.D. and what the heck made him think she looked
like a Jane, “got into a fight and… well, lost.” If you‟d known M.D., that was a pretty good sto-
ry, but when she was out cold, she just looked like a short skinny twelve-year-old who‟d never
cause a fight. Why couldn‟t she wake up and do the lying for us?
        The cabbie still looked pretty skeptical. “Uh huh. Why‟s she in scrubs?”
        I panicked at that, because my mind was a complete blank, but Thomas had it all taken
care of. I guess. “Dude. Your fashion taste sucks.”
        The cabbie stared at Thomas and me. We tried to look believable. He sighed. “Mean
when she‟s drunk, isn‟t she?”
        We both nodded enthusiastically. At this point, whatever he believed was cool with us as
long as he believed something that didn‟t involve the police.
        The cabbie nodded with knowing disgust, but he began to drive.
        Thomas and I looked at each other and sighed when we saw each other‟s look of relief.
        “Uh… do you have any cash?” I muttered to Thomas in Tree-speech.
        “Nope.” He answered, keeping his smile.
        “Oh, good. Good. How fast can you run with her over your shoulder?”
        “Take it easy, and check M.D.‟s belt; if she‟s got anything, that‟s where she‟ll stuff it.”
        My panic cut off. I was willing to bet M.D. had at least a couple bucks, even if I didn‟t
know how she‟d get it. She just tended to always have that kind of stuff. “Okay, hold on.”
        I shifted her on my lap and started digging into her belt, now wishing I‟d gotten the belt
on the right side out. Though I shouldn‟t have been surprised, seeing how Thomas had been
cussing in Spanish under his breath every once in a while for over twenty minutes, she suddenly
jerked and smacked me in the gut.
        “Jeezus!” That should tell you she was still too drugged to hit hard. Otherwise I wouldn‟t
have been able to speak at all.
        “Hands outta my pants!” She barked in a slurred, too-loud voice, raising a weak fist to
wave under my chin. “Already hafta keep Thomas out. Dang it, ain‟t safe round you two!”
        The cab screeched to a stop so suddenly that M.D. would‟ve toppled off my lap if I
hadn‟t caught her. The driver turned and stared at us. We stared right back.
        “We‟re in a cab?” M.D. asked in blank astonishment, still gripping two fistfuls of my T-
shirt but too weak to stay upright without my arm across her back. At least she was coherent.
        “Yup.” Thomas said.
        “Oh, okay.” She said groggily, jerkily releasing my shirtfront. “Jus‟ wanted to make sure.
Thought I was hallucinatin‟ again.”
        Oh thank god. Sarcasm meant she was okay.
        “Miss,” the cabbie said hesitantly, “did these guys get you drunk?”
        She frowned at him like he was talking too fast and she was trying to work out what he‟d
said.
        “Yes. Say yes.” I muttered to her under my breath.
        Now that she knew what to run with, she immediately grinned lazily and dropped into her
lying persona. She was disoriented and half-stoned to boot, but she was still a better actor than I
was. In fact, her slurred voice and lack of coordination probably helped, something I‟ll bet she
knew. “Oh! Uh huh. I was wasted, man.” She hit me in the shoulder playfully, for once unable
to make it hurt, and nearly swayed off my lap again. “Ain‟t they sweet? Rilly know how ta take
a girl out.”
        Now the cabbie was staring at her like she was speaking too quickly. “You mean… they
didn‟t…?” He let it hang.
        It took her a few seconds to figure it out, but then her face contorted, and I knew her hor-
ror wasn‟t faked, not more than twenty percent anyway. “Ugh! You‟re disgusting! No, „course
not! They‟re my friends!” Her eyes narrowed. “They cause you trouble?”
        “Uh… no…”
        “Eggzellent! All good then!” She said cheerfully. “Keep driving.”
        Looking confused, he obeyed. This was too weird for him to deal with.
        “You okay?” I asked her.
        She jerked her head like she was trying to shake the sedative off. Her voice grew a little
less slurred, but she still sounded dazed. “‟Ere‟s a rutabaga… in my head.”
        “We noticed.” Thomas said.
        She nodded. “My body‟s not listening to me much, but other‟n that, I‟m swell. Prob‟ly
be near dandy in an hour‟r so.” She made a sleepy noise and tried to tuck a vision-obscuring ten-
dril of hair behind her ear, but her fingers wouldn‟t move quite right. She tossed her head once,
and when that didn‟t work, sighed with disgust and gave it up. I almost automatically did it for
her, but I didn‟t want it to curl around my fingers again in front of Thomas and the cabbie, who
would definitely think it weird.
        “Ugh.” M.D. continued. “Stuff takes long time to wear off; think I was half-awake a
while „fore I could think.”
         Thomas cackled gleefully. “Your timing‟s terrible.” He told her. “You missed Raige
stripping.”
         How the cabbie was ignoring this, God only knew. Maybe he figured it was another
drunken teenager thing.
         “Enh, not missin‟ anythin‟.” She replied with a shrug. She paused to settle back against
me, something that cut off what I‟d been planning to shout at Thomas, and finished with a
wicked grin, “Already seen „im in green.”
         I stiffened. Thomas hadn‟t been around that day to see it, thank God. If he had, he
would‟ve never let me live, M.D. either. He looked questioningly to me, but I avoided his eyes
and shoved my hair back like it was the most important thing in the world. He saw me blush and
raised an eyebrow but I still didn‟t say anything.
         M.D. suddenly looked pained and jerked her head again. Either she‟d remembered, or
she‟d felt my reaction. She tugged my sleeve with numb fingers. “Dang it, wasn‟t s‟posed t‟ tell,
was I? Sorry. „S the garbage in my system, man. Aaaaaaaall garbage.”
         I sighed. Thomas had a powerful imagination, but even he probably couldn‟t figure out
what she meant (though how he interpreted it, I really can‟t guess). It wasn‟t her fault she had
enough crap in her veins right now to probably sink a horse. “It‟s okay.” I said, brushing my
knuckles against the shoulder Thomas couldn‟t see.
         Thomas looked from me to her. “Don‟t think I‟m going to ignore that, because I‟m not.
I‟m definitely missing something here. Something interesting.” He said, giving me a grin.
“Y‟all‟re going to have to tell me about it.”
         “Said rutabaga, not peanut.” M.D. replied firmly, looking a bit insulted and trying to
cross her arms. I smiled.
         He gracefully took defeat. “Look, babe, we need to pay the driver. Got anything?”
         Her expression turned gloomy. “All in my belt.” She replied.
         Thomas grinned and pointed towards the floor. She blinked confusedly for a second,
then looked down. On seeing her belt, her face lit up like a kindergartner‟s on Christmas. “Ha!”
She declared.
         After a second of grubbing around clumsily with a stubborn frown, she finally pulled out
some cash, wadded haphazardly in her hand, and thrust it at me.
         “Here. Take it.”
         I looked at it. “Kid, that‟s five bucks.”
         “Twenty.”
         “It‟s five.” Thomas said. “And by the time we get out of here, I‟m guessing we‟ll need
more than that.”
         She turned her head and squinted at the bills. “Seriously?”
         “Yes. Seriously.” Thomas and I said in unison.
         I guess it was too much for her to add up in her head at the moment, because she
shrugged, shifted so she could untie her belt and thrust it at him, then flopped back against me
again.
         I‟d been hoping that once she‟d started remembering who she was and what she was
doing on this planet that she would regain her normal thing about touching people and get off my
lap. Unfortunately, her brain was still in rutabaga mode, and she looked like she just wanted to
fall asleep again. It wasn‟t like I minded, exactly, but… gah. Although most people don‟t be-
lieve it, I really am your average straight teenage guy, so all the shifting she was doing was really
getting bad for my metabolism, and I needed her to move, like now. I just couldn‟t think of a
way to ask her without her whining about it and making it painfully obvious what I was doing.
         “Where‟d you get all this cash, anyway?” Thomas asked, fishing through her belt.
         “Enh.” She replied. Yup, in a minute she was about to fall asleep again, and that would
just make things worse.
         Thomas glanced up at her, gave me a smirk that made me nervous, and then leaned for-
ward as close to her as possible. “Hey, babe.” He crooned.
         “Whaaaat?” She whined without opening her eyes.
         “Aren‟t you going to move?” He asked.
         She flopped a hand at him, the best she could do at the moment to beat him off. “Sleeep.”
         “I really don‟t think you can sleep through what I have in mind.” He said.
         No matter where you are on the food pyramid, you have some part of your brain that‟s
always working so you can save your butt no matter how exhausted, sick, or hurt you are. So,
even after horse tranquilizers, M.D.‟s brain still knew what to do when Thomas said something
in that tone of voice. Without a second of lag time, her eyes shot open, and she tried to lurch off
my lap so fast that she nearly put her head through the window. “Move!” She ordered.
         “Sure!” I scooted aside almost as hastily as she slid into the window seat. Almost as fast
as it‟d come, her brain went back to rutabaga mode and she curled against the car door to fall as-
leep. She probably hadn‟t consciously thought any of that through. I sighed and noticed Thomas
was still giving me that look.
         “What?” I asked.
         “You‟re welcome.”

                                    PIN Specialist Grey
         Hours after I‟d tried to sleep, my phone rang. I rose from the bed I hadn‟t been sleeping
in and picked up. “Specialist Grey.”
         The whoop of laughter made me hold the phone away from my ear. “Eric! Eric, you mo-
therfucking cocksucker, you will never believe where I am right now!”
         Glanced at the clock across the room. “5:03.”
         “So?”
         “5:03.”
         “So? You haven‟t slept, and neither have I, because you‟re traumatized and I‟m at fuck-
ing work right now! Ask me what I‟m doing.” Pause. “Come on, dammit, shuck off the iron
mantle of depression and humor me, this‟ll be good, ask me what I‟m doing!”
         This wasn‟t trauma. Seen Bob with trauma, and he became feverish, but not manic, not
like this. Not euphoric. “What are you doing?”
         “Waiting for you to pick me up in your car, you bastard, and take me home so we can get
drunk—believe it or not, I‟m sober right now—and celebrate your long, glorious continued spe-
cialist career until you wear out your joints.”
         “Bob?”
         “The little Rawlins bitch is gone, Eric. She‟s gone!” He cackled again. “Remember those
two teenagers who kicked Dean‟s ass? A few hours ago, as I hacked the security system—”
         “You—”
        “Yes, dammit, I hacked the security system again, that‟s why I‟m here, and don‟t throw
the rulebook at me, not tonight, because—who‟s karmic wheel have you been greasing? I hack
the system, just as those two dumbasses broke into Science—”
        The room grayed out around the edges. Heard nothing until the end.
        “—and now she‟s flown. And where do you think she‟s heading, hmm?”
        Silence.
        Calming down, Bob lowered his voice to a cat-with-cream purr. “Vaygo.”
        Silence.
        “Oh, and coincidentally, they popped up right as the Science computers were moving the
day‟s security data to the server. Due to an unfortunate power outage, the server hung, and both
sides lost the data. What a pity. Amazing, how a freak power surge can wreck things, isn‟t it?
Best part of it, those boys kept everyone so busy and smashed so much stuff, it might as well be
true.”
        Silence.
        “I won‟t apologize for screwing around with your concrete, tax-dollar god. It was worth
it. Even if they caught me, it would‟ve been worth it, if only to imagine the face you must have
right now, which is probably worthy of an award.” He chuckled. “You‟re probably still trying to
decide whether to parrot protocol at me about sabotage or not. Do it if you want, but it was
worth it.”
        Vision was clear, couldn‟t speak, only sit and stare. Bob waited for me, always did.
        “I…” Tried, couldn‟t get farther.
        Didn‟t have to. “Yeah, I know. Love you too, big guy.” Hung up.
        The phone fell to the floor. For four minutes, I stared at the wall.
        The Vaygo Science doctor paused in the process of stitching up my knuckles. “Christ,
Grey, what happened to you?”
        “Another Flikzax through Mexico.”
        She frowned. “Those psycho squirrels are nasty, but these bites are huge. Had it just fi-
nished eating?”
        I nodded. “Half the inventory of the Best Buy on Seventh.”
        “What a nightmare. How you explain that away to the owners?” She asked, a frown
knotting her dark face.
        “Arson.”
        She winced sympathetically, finished stitching, and patted me on the shoulder. “Well,
Grey, that‟s you all over. You‟re lucky you didn‟t break anything. Be careful what you lift. Af-
ter that Flikzaz, your back isn‟t going to be the same for a while. And don‟t stretch your right
shoulder; it‟s going to be very stiff for a few days. Here, I‟ll get you some painkillers. Remem-
ber, no heavy exertion.”
        My cell rang and I nearly dislocated my shoulder again diving for my gear to get at it.
        “I said no heavy exertion!” She snapped, handing me a bottle.
        “Important.” I said, taking it.
        “Your mother had better be dying.” She growled, pointing a threatening finger.
        I ignored her and pressed the phone to my ear, then winced and switched hands. “Special-
ist Grey.”
        “Guess what?” Bob said cheerfully. “She‟s out.”
        The pain in my shoulder vanished. “One minute.” I told the comboy.
        Giving the Science doctor a polite nod, I walked from the building, climbed into my Cor-
vette, shut the door, and drove down the street. Only then did I indulge.
        “Yes.”
        “Wow, I almost heard an exclamation point in there.” Bob said. “That‟s quite a reaction.”
        Smiling hurt, but not enough for me to stop. “It worked?”
        “Like you on a Monday. They broke her out.”
        “How‟d they do it?” I breathed.
        “It wasn‟t that hard, Grey.” He said patronizingly, but I could hear him smiling. “They
had jaunter help. Coincidence? Maybe. They blipped in and out in ten minutes flat. We con-
tacted the League just as they were leaving and they seemed shocked as all get out. Some jaun-
ter‟s in deep shit right now, and she‟s free as a bird.” I was laughing now. “Don‟t celebrate too
hard; you don‟t want to throw out your back or something, old man.”
        “Think she‟ll make it here?”
        “Does the Pope use the john?”
        I no longer cared about what the Flikzaz had done to me; this was a very good day. So I
hung up and drove home to polish my guns.




                          11: Touchy-Feely Facts of Life
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



         Someone shook my shoulder so hard I nearly put my head through the window. “Wake
up!” Thomas ordered. “We‟re there.”
         I lurched upward with a, “Nguh?” and pulled my cheek away from the puddle of drool
I‟d left on the door. The drugs, not to mention my poor sleep the night before, had made me
drowsy, and this time, my metabolism had had to flush it out the old fashioned way, with time.
Though my neck and shoulder were now cramped nastily, overall the rest had done me good.
My body was still tingling pins and needles and my muscles were still responding sluggishly, but
my tongue was mostly in order and my mind felt a lot sharper, although still not quite up to par.
I tried not to think about how I‟d acted; it was too mortifying. I preferred to suppress it and pre-
tend it never happened. Yes, that would fix everything. “Already?”
         “Babe, we got stuck in construction for half an hour.” Thomas said, sounding tired him-
self. I realized that it was very late, Earth time. Our sleeping schedules were thrown out of
whack by the time difference, but we all felt exhausted.
         “Ugh. Why couldn‟t it have been more?” I muttered. Then, when Thomas leaned over
Raige‟s lap and started shoving, “All right, all right, I‟m moving.” I opened the taxi door to step
out into the frigid air, and I promptly stumbled on the curb. For a moment, I wobbled, but with a
lurch, I managed to regain my balance. Well, maybe I wasn‟t quite back up to normal, but the
cold was making me shiver, so I was getting there.
         The hotel we stood in front of was cheap and made no effort to disguise the fact. After
spending a chunk of time in Vaygan traffic in the middle of the night, however, we really didn‟t
feel all that picky so long as a bed was involved, and our money was more tightly strung than
Bogart‟s temper. If we wanted to save for future meals, my poker money was enough for only
two people‟s stay. And that was going as cheap as we could with just a one-bed room.
         “Look,” I said, hugging myself and forcing a groggy brain into activity, “Dean‟s going to
look for us. Hotels are probably high on his checklist and we don‟t have much money anyway.
Let‟s just sleep under an overpass or something.”
         “No way!” Raige said.
         “What he said.” Thomas agreed. “I‟m sleeping in a warm bed tonight if it kills me, and I
want plumbing.”
         “Plumbing?” I asked incredulously.
         “Yes. You know? Plumbing? You put crap in it?”
         “I know what it is.” I said, annoyed in spite of myself.
         “No, you don‟t. When I came to your house, you told me to use the sink, remember?”
Raige pointed out.
         I rolled my eyes. “You‟re never going to forget that, are you?”
         “It‟s one of the fonder memories I have of meeting your family.” He replied nostalgical-
ly. “After that, it all went downhill.”
         I grinned. “Just because you nearly threw out your back…”
         “Wait, wait, wait.” Thomas interrupted, his look one of perverted curiosity. “She brought
you home? When did this happen, and why haven‟t y‟all told me?”
         With one exchanged glance, Raige and I made an immediate, wordless, and unbreakable
pact to never tell Thomas about the pullout bed episode. Having achieved unity on the subject,
we made elaborate shrugs of nonchalance. “Enh.”
         “If you think I‟m going to believe that, y‟all‟re a lot stupider than I thought. But I‟m too
tired to bother y‟all right now. Babe, make Raige and you invisible and I‟ll get the room.”
         I resisted a groan of annoyance. “Thomas, I can barely handle invisibility for two at my
best, and I don‟t trust something requiring that much concentration after being drugged. The ru-
tabaga‟s been upgraded, but I‟m still nowhere near operating at that level.” I shook my hands,
glanced around a bit for bystanders, and then experimentally tried some light manipulation. I
managed clouds of color and the rainbow easily enough, both some of the first stuff I could do,
but the apple I made looked like it‟d been taken directly off a badly computer animated TV show
with poor reception and it was hard to keep my focus. With a look of disgust, I dissolved the
thing.
         “See? I can‟t even make an apple. A frogging apple.”
         “Look, this is improvement.” Thomas said. “Just a half an hour ago you could barely talk,
never mind do an illusion job. Now think.”
         “I can‟t think! That‟s part of the prob—!” I started to bellow, but Thomas put a finger to
my lips to shush me. It worked a lot more effectively than it should have, mainly because I
snapped him.
         The thoughts I got from his head were in Spanish, thankfully, so I didn‟t understand
them, though I got a feeling of monolith patience and fatigue overlaying it. Then I returned to
my own head and nearly crashed to the cement but Thomas caught me under the arms.
         “Great.” I groaned, shoving him away. “Now I‟m collapsing when I snap someone. I ha-
ven‟t done that in at least a month.”
         “Forget it. I meant to do that. Figured it‟d be the quickest way to shut you up.”
         “When I‟m awake and sane again, remind me to thank you for thinking in Spanish.”
         “No problema. Once you manage to pull this off, you‟ll be able to sleep.” Thomas rep-
lied, yawning just at the mention. Exhaustion was thickening his accent. “You‟re not so hot right
now. What can you handle?”
         I paused. “Give me a second.”
         It took me about thirty seconds to do a run through on my powers, the illusionist‟s equiv-
alent of warm-up stretches. Hue, brightness, and creation were shot down to the regions of
where Jack the Ripper‟s soul was housed, and my overall control was shaky unless I sweated, but
I could handle saturation and contrast more or less decently.
         “And what does that mean?” Thomas asked.
         “It means,” I said with a sigh of disgust, “that I can alter existing colors a little bit, mak-
ing them lighter or darker or less colorful, but I can‟t really make anything on my own. No invi-
sibility, no dancing elephants, and I can‟t make you look purple, just that you‟ve got a tan.”
         “All right, you stay outside and slap some illusion on Thomas and me.” Raige said.
“Don‟t kill yourself, just simple stuff, enough to make us look different, and we‟ll get a room.
Can you handle that?”
         I considered. “All right. But be fast; I‟m leery of how long I can keep it going.”
         Thankfully, I managed it, for the most part. Although the changes were as minor as I
could get while making the two boys unrecognizable, it still made me collapse on the hotel porch
in a minor seizure, something else that I hadn‟t done in weeks. Luckily no one in Old Faithful
bothered me for fear of catching whatever I had. The effort so exhausted me that I couldn‟t even
levitate up to the window. I just had to walk to the door, pretending like I was supposed to be
there, and my jerky, sluggish movements convinced everyone to leave me alone. But then we
paused. You see, we could only afford a room with a queen-size bed. However, there were three
of us…
         “Okay.” Thomas said. “How‟re sleeping arrangements going to work?”
         “I refuse to sleep with either one of you.” I said firmly. “You boys take the bed. I‟ll take
the floor.”
         “You sure?” Raige asked. “You‟ve been tied up all day.”
         Thomas kicked him. I couldn‟t hold back a snicker.
         “Don‟t worry, Thomas, I won‟t steal your bed.” I said, tossing my belt and knife onto the
bureau and yanking the ponytail holder from my hair. “It‟d be dumb for only one person to sleep
in that huge thing.” Then I began to haul the covers off it.
         “Hey, hey, hey!” Thomas protested. “I thought it was „we get bed, you get floor,‟ not „we
get bed, you get everything off it!‟”
         “You were the ones who remarked I was shivering, not me.” I pointed out. “And don‟t
worry, I‟m leaving you the sheet. I‟m just taking the blanket and the comforter.” When Thomas
looked dubious, I added indignantly, “Come on, I‟m not even taking your pillows.”
         At that, he was mollified. “Well, we‟ve got an extra. Here, take it.” And he nearly
brained me with it.
         Without a pause, I flopped onto the floor and burrowed deep into the thick fluffy blanket
until I was hidden from the outside world in a cocoon of cotton and wool. After a few minutes,
the warmth finally seeped into my bones. I relaxed and made a happy sound as the aching mus-
cle at the side of my neck loosened slightly. Delightful little blankets. Why did I have to come
from a species that was most comfortable in ninety-degree weather?
         “Let‟s get some sleep.” Thomas said, stripping off his shirt and tossing a combat boot at
the switch to turn out the lights. “Long day today, long day tomorrow.”
         At first, I was more than happy to go to sleep. The drugs were still muddling my brain a
bit and I wanted to sleep the rest of it off. But then I recalled something very important. It made
me feel a little awkward (this sort of thing wasn‟t my strongest point) but it had to be said, oth-
erwise I would suffer some horrible remnants of guilt and have trouble going back to my normal
soulless ways. Besides, I had those drugs as an excuse if they (Thomas) bothered me about it
later. “Uh… guys?”
         “Mmm?” Thomas asked sleepily.
         Nervousness made me talk like Raige. “Erm… thanks for coming after me. Even though,
y‟know, I sorta threatened you with disembowelment and all that. Really. I mean, if it weren‟t
for you, I‟d be stuck in PIN Headquarters all over again. You two risked a lot for me.”
         “Forget about it.” Thomas said. “If we wanted to let you rot, we could‟ve just chucked
you into the lake at Treehouse. Now go to sleep already.” He said it without sounding gruff.
         I really wanted to but I have never learned to shut up when I should. “Is Raige asleep? I
haven‟t heard him talk.”
         “No, no. I‟m awake.” Raige replied quietly.
         “Oh. Well, thanks. You two‟re probably the first human friends I ever had who I didn‟t
worry would stab me in the back.”
         Thomas laughed. “Wow. I‟ll have to get some of those drugs the pinheads got. One
whack of it and you‟re nice to us.”
         I immediately considered throwing my pillow at him to salvage my reputation. “Whad-
daya mean, nice to you?” I demanded.
         “You know, talking nice, not as much sarcasm, touchy-feely, even… you might not re-
member it, but you were hugging Raige earlier, back when you were drugged dumb.”
         My fatigue had seemed too thick for me to feel anything, but evidently I was wrong, be-
cause my mortification hit just as strong as it did normally. “Oh.” I said queasily, withdrawing
even further into the blankets. I vaguely recalled snuggling into something strong, furry, and de-
liciously warm, but had passed it off as one of the billion dream fragments of coming out of se-
dation. Too bad it hadn‟t been a dream; it‟d been nice. I gave myself a mental backhand and
eraser. Then I tried vainly to suppress the question encroaching on my mind: how could I re-
member (sort of) fur, when Raige was notably un-hairy?
         “Yup.” Thomas said, rather enthusiastically, almost as though he could see me squirming
in the dark. I think he was relieved to have found something to tease me about. “Lucky guy,
huh? All you wanted to do was hit me when I held you. Guess you‟ll do that no matter what
happy-drug they get you high on.”
         “You did what?” I shrieked. “Raige, you little houseplant, you let him?”
         I heard an odd noise that sounded somewhere between a gag and a sob from Raige and a
chortle from Thomas. “Well, I suppose he could‟ve held you, but it might‟ve gotten a bit compli-
cated since he was busy stripping. You remember me mentioning that, right?”
         “Why was he stripping?” I cried in bewilderment, immediately regretting the reflexive
question.
         “Why? Curious what you missed?”
        Like I hadn‟t seen that response coming. However, the residual drugs in my system and
my fatigue had finally worn down my inhibitions. Besides, I doubted I could outdo anything I‟d
already done today. I gave my voice some extra bite and threw myself into Thomas‟s game with
wild sleepy abandon.
        “Sure, I always picture Raige naked, it‟s something I‟ve been curious about since I met
him, it‟s how I get to sleep at night, tell me what the heck is going on!”
        There was that gagging/sobbing sound again. For a split second, I worried I‟d somehow
made Raige cry, but then he lost control and began giggling psychotically. Evidently today‟s
weirdness and fatigue had worn him down as well, and he was just too tired to get embarrassed
about it right now.
        “Jeez,” Thomas said appreciatively, “I‟m really going to have to get some of those drugs.
You might actually turn normal. Raige was a Breen, babe. And he didn‟t fit in his clothes.”
        “Breen?” I asked in astonishment, losing my anger in a flash. At least it explained the
furry bit, even if nothing else was making sense around here.
        “Yeah, it was the only way we could carry you around without going slow. He makes a
really hot Breen, even in bedsheet boxers.”
        Now I was positive the drug had done something to my hearing. “Bedsheet… I… huh?”
        “A real fashion statement. We‟ll tell you all about it in the morning.”
        “No we will not.” Raige said firmly.
        Thomas ignored him. “But back to the point. Maybe you couldn‟t resist a guy who
looked like that, even in a bedsheet. Face it, babe, you like big hairy men.” I squeaked in incohe-
rently homicidal outrage. “Don‟t argue, I saw you! You were cuddling him in those scrubs like
he was a huge sexy teddy bear and you couldn‟t have been happier. It was so sweet. Wish I‟d
had a camera.” It surprised me that I didn‟t see a disembodied white grin shine from the shadows
like the Cheshire Cat‟s. “Raige hasn‟t told me what he thought of it yet.”
        Silence. I was positive that Raige had buried his head under the pillow so he could quiet-
ly commit suicide before either of us realized it. I wondered if I could achieve it as well, or if
Thomas would suspect so much silence on my part.
        “Um.” I said awkwardly. “Yeah. Didn‟t… know I did that. Sorry, Raige.”
        He murmured something I didn‟t catch. For a moment I thought he really had decided to
smother himself with a pillow.
        “What was that?” I asked.
        “…Nothing.” He said, after a pause so long I couldn‟t be sure if he heard me.
        “Mm. Now, enough of me being nice. Let‟s go to sleep so I can be nasty again; this
conversation‟s really giving me the creeps.”
        “Righto, babe.” Thomas said innocently. “Sweet dreams.”
        I burrowed back into my blankets, glad that I could escape into the realm of sleep. And
for about ten minutes, there was silence and I began to drift away.
        But then Thomas‟s voice broke through my half-dreams, forcing me to come back, for
the moment, to the world.
        “Hey, babe?”
        “Ng.” Drop dead already.
        “Do you really picture Raige naked at night?”
        Whatever shut him up. “All the time, Thomas.” I mumbled sleepily. “All the time. With
a body like that? I mean. Meow. Now shut up. I‟m tired.”
        And Raige started giggling again. It was a nice sound to fall asleep to.
                                                       
        My sleep went well for a few hours. Of course, it couldn‟t last. I was wrenched brutally
from repose by the horrible shriek that haunts me till this day:
        “IIIIEEEEEEEEE!”
        Yeesh. I‟m an authority on the subject of having sleep interrupted, and let me tell you,
that one effortlessly beats out Venna setting the house on fire.
        The sedatives had completely worn off by now, and that wordless banshee cry hit my
panic button, waking me up immediately. Still only semi-sentient, I bolted upright and struggled
to disentangle myself from the mass of blankets, groping under my pillow for my nonexistent
knife. Dang it, where‟d I—right. Bureau. I finally managed to burst out of the mess of cotton
and wool but with my hair unbound I still couldn‟t see. With levitation I fumbled for and finally
hit the lights. This only renewed the volume of the shrieking, which forced me to shout even
louder to be heard. Thankfully, my voice was always up to the task.
        “What? What‟s going on? Is it pinheads? Dang it, will you shut up?”
        It was only then I shoved my hair out of my eyes and realized it was a false alarm. It was
Thomas shrieking like that. He was currently performing the same dance I had been just a
second ago, trying to wrench free of the sheet twined about his limbs like a love-struck octopus.
He finally tore it off and clattered and clumped out of bed, only through inhuman balance not
falling over, shivering and rubbing his hands over his arms in terror. All the while going,
“IIIEEE! IIE! IIIIIEEEEEEE!”
        “Stop screaming!” I screamed.
        Amazingly, he didn‟t seem to hear me. “Don‟t do that!” He shrieked to Raige. His
screams had been loud enough and high-pitched enough to rouse even the Blob. “Oh god, never
ever do that again!”
        “Uh?” Raige inquired groggily. I translated that as, “What‟d I do?”
        “I‟d like to know too.” I remarked crankily, crossing my arms. “It better be good or I‟ll
have to kill him.”
        “Oh Jeezus.” Thomas said, scrubbing at his sides frantically with his hands. “Do you
know how many girls I‟m going to have to sleep with to wipe that off me? Do you have any
idea?”
        No, Thomas, how many?
        “This is one of those things I shouldn‟t know, isn‟t it?” I asked.
        Ignoring me, the Texan shuddered and turned on Raige. “Never ever cuddle me again!”
He cried.
        Like I had to ask. “Prepare to die, Thomas.” I mumbled dramatically. “Prepare to die.”
Then I realized that doing so would require me to wake up. “Tomorrow. Die tomorrow. I‟ll be
awake and enjoy it properly.”
        “Sorry.” Raige mumbled, shoving his hair out of his eyes drowsily. “I cuddle stuff when I
sleep.”
        Somehow, this little bit of news didn‟t surprise me in the least. Raige seemed exactly the
sort of person who‟d sleep with a teddy bear until he was seventy-five. He probably even named
the thing.
        “Don‟t overreact.” I lectured Thomas, shaking my hair out of my face. “He could‟ve
dreamed about wrestling with a snake and nearly strangled you before you woke up. That‟s what
would‟ve happened with me. Oh, wait, I forgot, no it wouldn‟t, because there‟s no way I‟d be
that close to you. Eew.”
         “Eew? Eew? You don‟t know the meaning of the word!” He expostulated. “Do you have
any idea how creepy it is when you‟re dreaming about Halle Berry and suddenly… wake up with
that?”
         “No, because I‟m not going to let my brain process that image.” I said.
         He was too hysterical to hear me. “I mean, no offense, Raige, but you‟re no Halle Berry.
You‟re just too freaking white. Now move over babe, I‟m joining you on the floor.”
         Suddenly I was very much awake. “Oh no you‟re not!” I declared, snatching my blankets
to my chest protectively. “If you come down here, I‟m sleeping in the bathroom for the rest of
the night!”
         “Oh, for god‟s sake, what do you think I‟m going to do, rape you? I‟m not that bad!” He
reached for my sheets, but I clutched them closer with a proprietary growl. My bared teeth con-
vinced him to back off; in my groggy, feral state I was a force to be reckoned with, much like a
bear on having its hibernation interrupted. “Fine, fine, Jeezus, I‟ll trade you places.”
         “No.” I said immediately.
         “Come on, babe! God knows you need some good cuddling!”
         “No.” I set my mind on „repeat‟ so I could respond without having to think. It was a
handy ability with Thomas lurking about.
         “I‟ll make dinner.”
         “No.”
         “I‟ll make dinner for a week.”
         “No.”
         “Three weeks.”
         “No.”
         “Three weeks and five days?”
         “No.” This would‟ve been very tempting bait if I hadn‟t known just how bad a cook
Thomas was. All he could make was barbecue, and his „well-done‟ was most certainly not.
         “Why not?” Thomas was so rattled that he was actually ditching the charm and starting to
whine instead. I must‟ve rubbed off on him.
         I was tired and cranky and stupid. So I told the truth.
         “In case you somehow missed the memo to the world,” I said, “I don‟t like being
touched.”
         He threw up his hands. “Why?” He shrieked in the same slightly whiny tone.
         “Boys have cooties.” Raige replied sleepily in a nasal singsong voice. I sent a surprised
glance at him. I could‟ve sworn he was brain dead. Then again, maybe his corny humor didn‟t
require much thought.
         “Nuh uh! I‟m sick of hearing that kind of answer!” Thomas roared. “Communication
time, babe!”
         “What? Here? Now? Forget it. Get back in bed.”
         “Man, you know how to motivate a guy, don‟t you? I‟d get a Ph.D. and give you therapy
if it kept me out of bed.”
         “Fine, then.” Raige said in forlorn fatigue, obviously forcing himself awake to hear this.
“Make me the bad guy.”
         Thomas ignored him; he was pursuing a hotter trail with me. “Come on, that‟s something
that‟s bugged me ever since I met you. What bothers you so much about it? Why can‟t you be
cuddled like a normal person unless you‟re high off pinhead crap?”
         Now I started to whine. “Thomaaaas, drop it and go back to sleeeeeep!”
         “Really, I could understand why you don‟t trust me, but you know Raige wouldn‟t really
do anything to you. I don‟t think he could.”
         Raige couldn‟t seem to decide whether to be affronted by this statement or not.
         I began rubbing my temples. “Thomas, I want my rest, and I don‟t feel like talking about
this. Just forget it.”
         “Why should I? You never want to talk about it anyway; I‟m a guy, and I want to talk
about this more than you—„cause it‟s just that freaking annoying. Now is the perfect time, we‟re
all awake—”
         “Kind of, dear.” Raige corrected. “Kind of.”
         “Christ, don‟t call me that—And talking and you still might have some of the nice-drugs
the PIN stuck you with loosening you up.”
         I pressed my palms into my skull, trying to mash out my headache. “Thomas…”
         As though to head off my incoming whine, he added, “Look, I‟ll shut up once you tell me
why and then you can go back to sleep.” With a sigh, he put one hand on his hip and indicated
the bed behind him with his thumb. “Heck, if it‟s good I might even survive the night with Mr.
Cuddles there.”
         “I can‟t help it!” Raige protested in a drowsy whine.
         “No worries, you‟ll be a hit if you ever get around to actually sleeping with a girl, but I‟m
not a girl and being cuddled just isn‟t my thing. I‟m all for being dominant, you know. And I
really do prefer soft curves against me, not… well, you. I‟m just lucky I woke up when I did.”
         “Why?”
         That line was what drove me to it. I got desperate.
         “Don‟t you dare!” I shouted.
         “Well, he‟s asking. I see this as improvement.” Thomas replied.
         “He doesn‟t even know what we‟re talking about!” I protested. “He‟s brain dead!”
         “Whoozawha now?” Raige asked.
         “See? It‟s corruption of a minor!” I protested.
         “Okay then! Start communicating!” Thomas shouted at me.
         “Fine. To quote a certain genius, „boys have cooties.‟” I sneered.
         “You want to play that way, be my guest.” Thomas drawled, then turned back towards
Raige and continued in the tone of an infomercial host, “You see, my friend, when you think a
girl is really, really hot…”
         “All right, all right!” I shouted over whatever Thomas might‟ve said. “The reason I don‟t
like being touched is your body heat, all right? It drives me crazy! You know what your average
body temperature is at rest? Ninety-eight-point-frogging-six degrees! Do you have any idea
what it‟s like being on this freezing planet in this freezing city with all these warm people walk-
ing around but even if it wasn‟t a bad thing to do, you can‟t absorb it without hurting them? It‟s
frustrating.”
         There was a pause.
         “What‟s it like?” Raige asked.
         “I just told you!” I snapped. “Aren‟t you awake yet?”
         He remained patient with me. “No, not that. The heat.”
         Even after a few seconds of thought, I still couldn‟t think of words. Unusual for a liar
such as I. “It‟s like… dang it, I don‟t know. Sort of…” I picked at my fingers and sighed in ex-
asperation and embarrassment. I couldn‟t look either of them in the eye. “It‟s just… y‟know.
Warm.” I began twisting a lock of my hair. “If I weren‟t neutered, your body heat would proba-
bly turn me on.”
        Silence. The realization of what I‟d said finally worked its way to my fatigued brain and
I winced. Maybe Thomas was right about those drugs. I was just thankful that though it‟d been
on my tongue nearly the entire cab ride, some remnant of sense had kept me from telling Raige
just how warm he was.
        I sighed in resignation. “There. I communicated. What a landmark occasion; mention it
to anyone, and I‟ll deny it all. Can I go back to sleep now?”
        Awkward silence for another couple seconds.
        “Is it really that bad?” Raige asked.
        I rolled my eyes. “Not really. I can ignore it fine even if you touch me. I mean, hey, I‟ve
had lots of practice, and normally I dress in a lot of insulation. With Bobcat and the littler guys,
it‟s no problem. Heck, Bogart‟s body temp is even lower than mine. Venna and Mngleh never
touch me either; it‟s a Dellan thing. It‟s just when you two stay in contact for a while and…”
After a pause, I sighed and went on with a squirm, “…it‟s hard. If—and this is purely hypotheti-
cal, dang it, so I do mean „if‟—I got in bed with one of you, you‟d probably end up with hypo-
thermia in the morning.”
        “If you weren‟t cold, you wouldn‟t.” Raige pointed out, shoving his hair out of his eyes.
His intellect had finally kicked back in, perhaps due to the emergency; he had to have realized
this would be his only chance to get this kind of information out of me. “Does that make you
energy starved or something?”
        “I don‟t know.” I said. “And I‟d really rather not find out.”
        “Why not?” He asked.
        “It‟s… it‟s creepy. I don‟t like it, all right?”
        “So it‟s not entirely biological.” Raige said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
        “Look, milquetoast, don‟t you even start analyzing my child—”
        “Wait, hold on a second.” Thomas interrupted. “Body heat turns you on?”
        Raige and I stared at him. For the second time that day, I couldn‟t think of a single thing
to say.
        “I knew it!” Thomas cried triumphantly when he saw my face. “I knew you thought some
people were hot!”
        And I buried my face in my hands with a cry of pain.
        “I can‟t believe I didn‟t think of that first.” Raige said in disgust.
        “I can‟t believe y‟all didn‟t see it coming.” Thomas said.
        “I can‟t believe I‟m having this conversation with the two of you.” I moaned into my fin-
gers. “This is so humiliating…”
        “But do they turn you on?” Thomas pressed. In a second, I expected him to start poking
me. That or taking notes.
        “No!” I bellowed. “Of course they don’t—”
        Someone pounded on our floor from the hotel room below, and I forced myself to shout
quieter.
        “No, they don‟t turn me on.” I hissed, throwing my hands down in disgust. “I‟m neu-
tered! I have no power button! I am unplugged!”
        He snorted. “Kid, I know you haven‟t really grown out yet but that doesn‟t make you
neutered.”
        Oops.
        Raige was staring at me. Though he wasn‟t frowning, his lips had thinned disapproving-
ly. Time to say something suave and change the subject.
        “Uh… haha… yes, about that…” I said, picking at a thumbnail.
        Evidently I hadn‟t quite kicked those drugs.
        “You never told him?” Raige asked in disbelief.
        “Well…”
        He groaned and shook his head. “Kid…”
        “Look, I figured he wouldn‟t believe me, and even if he did, he‟s Thomas. He‟d die. Or
something.” I responded.
        “Well, you‟re going to have to tell him.” He said. “He deserves to know that kind of
thing, don‟t you think?”
        That might‟ve been Raige‟s reason, but I knew that now that this had been brought up,
Thomas wouldn‟t let it go, and his need to know sexual matters trumped any other need he had.
None of us would get any sleep until he got the whole story. I sighed and turned back to him.
He looked confused, and I couldn‟t blame him.
        I took a deep breath. Well, at least this was better than discussing body temperature. “All
right, Thomas, there‟s this little thing you didn‟t know about me. I‟m not exactly down-home, a
hundred percent natural.”
        “Oh, I know that.” Thomas replied cheerfully, surprising me. “Raige told me you were a
test tube baby born to kill.”
        Now it Raige‟s turn to look uncomfortable. Good, since the look I was giving him de-
served some reaction. “I, uh, didn‟t use those words.” He told me hastily.
        “Come on,” Thomas said, “everybody who‟s seen a movie knows if they make someone
in a tube, they‟re going to kill people. You scream at night, you‟re kinda stabby in the morn-
ing—”
        I began rubbing my temples again. Just when I thought I couldn‟t be more embar-
rassed… “Well, guess what, Thomas? When my creators made me to kill people, they didn‟t
want me hopping into bed with the enemy or having hormonal mood swings. I‟m never going to
„grow out,‟ as you put it. I can‟t get turned on and I can‟t breed. You get that?”
        He stared at me blankly. “Come here.” He said.
        I admit I didn‟t expect that response.
        “What?”
        “I said come here.” Seeing my suspicious look, he said in a tone of mild exasperation,
“I‟m not going to do anything to you, just come here, will you?”
        He was speaking quietly and calmly—he sounded more or less rational, not at all his
usual lewd self. Giving him wary looks, I edged closer. When I came within his reach, he
grabbed me by the elbows, dragged me forward until I only a foot away from him, and began
patting me down my front and sides like a security guard at an airport, all the while staring in-
tently at my chest. The only reason I put up with it was because he didn‟t act as though this was
a joke. It was as though he was trying to use some unfamiliar new machine; I couldn‟t figure out
what the heck he was doing.
        “Where are they?” He demanded.
        “What?” I looked at Raige, but he simply spread his arms, as confused as me.
        “Your boobs. Where are they?” Like I was hiding them from him or something. He be-
gan patting lower, and I jumped back, slapping at his wrists.
        “They aren’t, Thomas. And they‟re certainly not down there—Senyan aren‟t cows, we
don‟t have udders.”
        “But you‟re a girl. Girls have boobs. Where are yours?”
        “They aren’t, Thomas, haven‟t you been listening?”
        Thomas looked at Raige.
        “She‟s right, they aren‟t.” Raige verified. “And don‟t ask me why I know that.”
        I couldn‟t decide whether the situation had gotten offensive, comical, or just plain pathet-
ic. Apparently Thomas didn‟t trust my own word on the matter.
        Something wasn‟t translating here. I tried again.
        “I am neutered.” I said. “As in, completely. Nothing. Nada.” To emphasize, I made a
slicing gesture across my abdomen and made a nice little squishy sound effect.
        Another long pause.
        “So you won‟t…?” He started.
        “No.”
        “Not even a…?”
        “No.”
        “Not ever?”
        “No.”
        A pause, and he finally summed it all up in his head. “So you can‟t have sex.”
        I resisted the impulse to declare, „Brilliant, Holmes!‟ “No.”
        He nodded, developing a mild frown as though he knew something wasn‟t quite right
about this, but he was unsure what. “Okay.”
        “See?” Raige said cheerfully. “He‟s… taking it fine.” But he knew as well as I did that it
wasn‟t going to last.
        Sure enough, after a few seconds to sink in, Thomas‟s expression changed. Christmas
had just been banned, football had just been cancelled, and every girl on the planet was now a
lesbian. He stared at me in horror. “Oh my god. You poor thing.”
        “Good thing you didn‟t bet money.” I said to Raige.
        “Okay, you were right. He‟s going to die.” Raige replied.
        “For the record, it was your idea.”
        “You can‟t have sex!” Thomas repeated, and now the full impact hit him. “Jeezus, what
is wrong with your people?”
        I shrugged. “Come on, it‟s well-documented that spaying your pet lengthens lifespan and
decreases aggression, so think of what I would‟ve been like if they hadn‟t—”
        “You aren’t a freaking pet!”
        “Yes, that‟s right, I‟m an inhuman being, aren‟t I, totally different category—”
        “You aren‟t inhuman.” Raige interjected.
        I groaned. “Please, let‟s not have a philosophical debate on the nature of humanity; they
always leave me with identity crises, and I have enough problems in my life right now, like you.”
        “But they—gah.” In lieu of saying the dreaded word, Thomas cupped his hands over his
groin and shuddered.
        “Don‟t give me that!” I snapped. “I had this talk with Raige when I told him.”
        “But he might as well be neutered too! He has no concept of—”
        “Hey!” Raige protested. “I was a lot more—”
        “Look, it‟s no big deal.” I interrupted. “I‟m not missing anything. Orgasm is highly over-
rated.”
         He shook his head sadly. Then he walked over and patted me on the head as though I
was a starving puppy. “You poor, poor, poor thing.” He corrected himself.
         My head was starting to hurt again, and not just because I‟d snapped him and gotten feel-
ings of remorse and mourning. I turned to Raige. “See? This is exactly what I meant! In a
second he‟s going to break down in tears for my lost sexuality and throw a frogging funeral for
it!”
         “Look what they did to you!” Thomas cried to me, bending over and shaking me by the
shoulders. “They don‟t even let you miss it!” He let go of me and turned away, shaking his head
again.
         I sighed. I had to cut this off before it became a full-fledged theatre production. A Sha-
kespearean tragedy, by the looks of how it was shaping up.
         “Thomas.” He was still shaking his head. With a sigh, I stood up, pulled the sheet over
my hands to prevent snapping incidents, and pulled his head down to my level so he had to look
at me. I spoke slowly and deliberately. “Thomas, listen to me now. Are you listening?” Giving
me a wide-eyed stare, he nodded. “Good. Bobby could artificially induce puberty in me. I just
don‟t want to. So before you get all dramatic and self-righteous about it, remember that I agreed
to it. I don‟t mind.”
         He was staring at me now like not only was Christmas banned, football cancelled, and
girls all lesbians, but that porn had vanished as well. I had taken his rule of the universe, the
thing that remained constant when all was going to pieces, the thing he could always rely on
when nothing else was sure, and shredded it: I didn‟t want to have sex.
         “They didn‟t make you to kill people,” he finally diagnosed, “they made you to kill me.”
         “Then why are you still here?” I demanded.
         Thomas turned to Raige and shook his spread hands in an attempt to convey his emotion.
“Come on, man, even you have to agree with me on this one!”
         Raige nodded, though reluctantly. “It‟s her choice, though. If she wants it that way,
there‟s not much we can do about it.”
         Thomas‟s shoulders slumped. “I know, free will and all that, but it‟s so sad. The poor
thing.”
         Raige nodded again. “I know, I know.” He said sympathetically.
         I couldn‟t believe it. They were discussing my choice to forego puberty in the solemn,
sorrowful, pitying way you would use to talk about someone who has decided to give up all ma-
terial possessions and retreat into the forest to become a monk.
         “I‟m still here, you know.” I remarked, a little insulted.
         “Not to me, you aren‟t.” Thomas said lugubriously. “You‟re dead. Dead and rotting.
And worst of all, you like being that way!”
         I rolled my eyes. “Isaac Newton was a virgin all his life and look what happened to him.”
         “I know! He died!” Thomas replied.
         My headache hit new heights. “Would little Tommy like some whackers?”
         “Those won‟t help!” He said. “Those things have limits! And never call me little Tommy
again!” He got up and started circling around me in examination like I was a piece of machinery
that wasn‟t working properly. I began warily rotating to keep him in my visual field.
         “There‟s got to be a limit to how neutered you are.” He said to himself almost desperate-
ly, rubbing his chin. “There has to be at least some for something in there. Hell, by this point I‟ll
even take a fetish for pointy objects.”
         “Don‟t even start.” I threatened, pointing at him as I twirled. It was far too easy for me to
see him trying to get a rise out of me. I really didn‟t want to think about how he‟d try and get it.
         Still circling around me like a predator, Thomas leered at me. “That‟s a great idea.” Then,
when he saw me draw my fists to my chest in offensive position, he added dryly, “Teasing, babe.
I saw what you did to that yellow light when it freaked you out. Seeing how you react just when
I poke you, I don‟t think I‟m dumb enough to try and hug you when you don‟t want it.”
         “Well, at least you have some will to survive then.” I said. I put my covered hands to
Thomas‟s back and started shoving rhythmically the way Raige did when he was trying to
shepherd me somewhere. I used my best authoritative junior healer voice. Never mind that it
rarely worked. “Now come on, get back in bed.”
         He didn‟t move and since he heavily outweighed me, I couldn‟t make him. “You‟re really
happy this way?” He asked.
         “Happy. Jubilant. Ecstatic. Overjoyed. Bed. Sleep.”
         “Fine. But you haven‟t convinced me, just so you know.” He said. I found his sudden
lack of resistance less than trustworthy, but hey, whatever shut him up.
         “That‟s a good boy. Now get in bed with Mr. Cuddles.”
         “Hey!” Raige protested.
         “No!” Thomas cried at the same time.
         I flung my pillow at the bed, catching Raige in the chest. “Here. Cuddle this. You won‟t
tear it open or anything, will you?”
         Raige looked a little insulted. “I cuddle, not mutilate.” He said primly, and I had to ad-
mire his dignity in the situation.
         I looked to Thomas for verification. Without turning to face me, he grudgingly admitted
in a very stiff voice, “That‟s true. He‟s very gentle.”
         This whole evening had been Humiliate M.D. Night; I wanted someone to join me. “Is
that why you thought he was Halle Berry?” I asked with a grin.
         I crossed the line on that one. With a graceful speed I didn‟t know he had, he wheeled
suddenly and locked my upper arms in place with his grip, leaning me backward and moving
forward too close. The position didn‟t allow me to bend backward, and I tried to tug away twice,
but he might as well have put me in a vice. When I‟d figured that out, Thomas whispered, “Shut
up babe, or I‟ll have my tongue in your mouth faster than you can scream.”
         Cowed, I went silent. I could never tell whether Thomas would go on his threats or not.
Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn‟t, and this looked like a sometime he did.
         Raige didn‟t speak. He just watched in interest with a touch of a smile. Had I not been
so worried for my life, I would‟ve accused him of enjoying the scene.
         “There we go.” Thomas said. Then he grinned and let go of me. “Don‟t worry, I‟d never
ruin you.”
         And he ruffled my hair, blew me a kiss, and went to bed, leaving me standing there in the
dark feeling baffled and, for some reason, patronized.
                                                        
         For the first part of the night, I hit lucky. The drugs were still having quite an effect on
my body, even if my mind was mostly recovered, and I dreamed absolutely nothing at all. Then
my system finally cleared it all out and the monsters came out to play. At the last minute, I ma-
naged to force myself awake before I caused any major disturbance, but it did leave me shivering
under my blankets for a few minutes before I fell asleep again.
        This time, Biff‟s false memories came into play for me, much to my relief. Generally,
they‟d been fading into just incongruous shreds populating my normal dreams, like the whole
„Amazing Grace‟ thing. However, being around him again had evidently triggered them, and
this one came in full force. It was wonderful. Biff had had a honey of a childhood.
        Suddenly I was a chubby Southern Catholic boy sitting on a motorcycle with someone
behind me.
        “All right, kiddo.” An older woman told me. I knew she was a relative, but I couldn‟t
remember names or faces. My false memories were strong, as far as they went, but full of gap-
ing holes. “Where‟s the gas?”
        “Here.” I said, tapping the front of one handlebar. Sheesh, was Biff‟s voice high before
he hit puberty!
        “And the brake?”
        “Here.” I tapped the back of the handlebar. Biff hadn‟t affected the Vaygan accent then
either. He still had quite a bit of South in his mouth, but his voice sounded odd without the flar-
ing enunciation I was used to hearing from him.
        “And what‟re the only decent motorcycles on the planet?”
        “Harleys and Vincents!” I cried.
        “Good boy. That‟s all you need to know. The rest is just details. When you get out of
college, you can have a Harley too.”
        I‟d have to pass Language Arts first, I thought.
        “You‟ll ride with your old aunt, right?”
        “It‟s that or Mom‟s old Phoenix. I‟ll take the Harley.”
        She laughed. “Come on, we‟ll take it for a spin.”
        I grinned. “Mom won‟t like that.”
        “If anyone asks, it was me driving.” She winked and dropped me the keys.
        Eleven-year-old Biff was nearly too short to reach everything, but he managed and he‟d
obviously driven it before. The wind in my face and the roar of the engine blocking everything
else out was heaven compared to my own memories. I woke up feeling much better emotionally.
        Ugh. Still felt terrible physically. My mouth tasted nasty, my skin felt grimy and sticky,
and my neck had cramped from falling asleep sitting up back at the cab. I couldn‟t remember the
last time I‟d had a good shower. Might as well clean myself up.
        But…
        Even though I knew it was just my leftover nightmare paranoia talking, I felt the obses-
sive-compulsive need to check. I walked out of the bathroom, covering my eyes as I passed the
mirror, and went towards the bed. The boys‟ chests gently rose and fell in sleep. They were still
breathing. Reassured, I went back into the bathroom.
        Then I saw the mirror and the blood streaked across my reflection‟s chest. With a yelp, I
jumped back and nearly had a heart attack until I realized that it wasn‟t me hallucinating this
time. Blood really was smeared on my shirt, and it was a truly peculiar shade. For a second, I
pondered whether this was an improvement or not, then gave up and shrugged and shuffled into
the shower.
        That was the final straw, I decided. I was going to start taking those pills Mr. Rawls gave
me.
        And I was going to get me a Harley Davidson calendar too.
                                                       
        Half a delicious hour under steaming water hot enough to scald a normal human scrubbed
nearly all fear and paranoia from my mind. I was on Earth, I reminded myself as the water eva-
porated almost instantly off my skin. Number One didn‟t even know I was on this frogging pla-
net. I didn‟t need to worry right now about him coming and abducting me in my sleep. There-
fore I‟d start taking those pills this evening. And since we‟d pitched Dean off our backs, there
would be nothing but money and traffic problems between Todd and me. I would get to him
now. I‟d get to see my brother. Yes, I thought as I finished getting dressed, everything was
going to be all right.
        That thought lasted until I saw the clock on the oven. Then I went right back to panick-
ing.
        Seven thirty? Aaaah! The time! Todd was waiting! We had to go now! Now, now,
now!
        Determined not to waste any more precious seconds, I raced toward the bed, tripped on
my pile of blankets, picked myself up, and after hauling on my bike gloves and pulling a sheet
over my hands, started shaking Thomas. I didn‟t try Raige because I didn‟t have Aqua to sing
this time.
        “Wake up!” I cried. “Wake up, Thomas, wake up!”
        “What do you waaaant?” He moaned painfully, making it sound like I was killing him
slowly. His eyes weren‟t open, but at least he‟d responded.
        “We have to go! Move your butt!” I ordered passionately.
        “Normally I‟d never be able to resist a come-on like that from a beauty like you, but I am
now.” On that note, he turned over so he wouldn‟t have to look at my face. I tried to tug him
over, but he moaned and clung to his pillow and I didn‟t have the leverage to force him over
without making it into a wrestling match. True, that would wake him up, but it would hardly be
an improvement.
        With a sigh, I scurried around the side of the bed to Raige, who had my pillow hugged to
his chest. I jabbed him in the side with my finger a couple times, hoping this would be more ef-
fective than shaking and kicking. “Come on, buddy boy! Up!”
        “Guhhhh?”
        Yes! Noise! A sign of life! I poked him a couple more times before he could drop off
again and was rewarded with a muscular spasm and an odd squeaking noise.
        “Stop!” Amazing. He sounded like he was on Novocain, but he was actually using
words. He further surprised me by formulating a sentence. “That tickles!”
        “Have to move, milquetoast! Come on, you‟ve slept for almost eight hours!”
        “Let‟s make it ten!” He declared, and went back to sleep, yanking the sheets up over his
head and curling up in a ball to protect his vulnerable flesh from my relentless onslaught. Fur-
ther poking made him squeak but had no other effect.
        I growled deep in my throat. All right. If that‟s how they wanted it, so be it. Time for
stronger measures. I strode over to the blinds covering the huge glass door. Light beamed into
the dark room through the cracks. I grasped the cord.
        “Hey!” I shouted. “Hey!”
        Unfortunately, volume didn‟t solve the problem as it often did. I was answered with a
grunt from Thomas. Raige, of course, had no reaction whatsoever.
        “I‟m in a hot pink bikini!”
        Sure enough, the phrase „hot pink bikini‟ spoken in a vaguely female voice hit a button in
their sleep-drugged minds and they were still too groggy to question it. They both sleepily
lurched upright, Thomas with a broad grin and an, “Ooh, really?” and Raige with a vaguely con-
fused face and a, “Huh?”
        With a sharp yank on the cord, the blinds snapped up. And their reactions proved that
now they were at least semi-awake.
        “GNYAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”
        “You are such drama queens.” I rolled my eyes, still facing the window. “Notice that I‟m
not getting hysterical.”
        “Says the girl from the planet with two suns!” Thomas shouted, shielding his eyes with a
forearm and flopping back onto the mattress. “Oh god! Just when I thought you couldn‟t get any
worse!”
        “I‟m blind!” Raige screamed. His voice gave out halfway and he buried his face in his
pillow to save his eyes. “Dammit!”
        Honestly. They were so histrionic when they woke up. Raige could even get violent be-
fore he remembered his pacifism. At one time, he‟d nearly taken my head off with a Mountain
Dew because I started singing Aqua‟s „Happy Bouncy Shiny Morning Song.‟
        “If I had a soul, I would cry for you, but I don‟t.” I said with utter sympathy. “Now come
on, get your hypersomniac teenage butts up and move.”
        “Up? Move? What time is it?” Thomas squinted through the glare at the clock and
somehow puzzled out the time. “Seven thirty? Jeezus Christ, babe, what do we look like, Ma-
rines? What‟re you doing to us? Getting up at a humane hour was one of the reasons I was glad
I left military school! Close the blinds!”
        “Oh?” I asked timidly. “I suppose you‟re going to make me?”
        “Yes!” He hissed.
        And he yanked the pillow out from under Raige‟s face (“Hey!”) and threw it at me. He
was still half-blinded so it missed by a good two feet.
        “Well, you sure showed me. I‟m completely intimidated.” I picked up the pillow and
tossed it back. It smacked him in the chest. “Come on, Thomas, get dressed so we can leave.”
        “I don‟t want to leave!” Thomas bellowed. “I want to sleep! Jeezus Christ, Raige, how
do you live with this?”
        “It‟s not that bad, really.” Raige replied into the mattress. “Ignore her; maybe she‟ll go
away.”
        “Wow, humor from the Human Blob.” I retorted. “Someone get me a camera, this is a
singular event in history. Now get up.”
        “Come on, take it easy.” Thomas said. “We have time. It‟s not like getting a decent
amount of sleep is going to bring on the collapse of the universe.” He suddenly cocked his head
and frowned. “Have you noticed you‟ve got blood on you yet, or are you truly colorblind?”
        I pulled the front of my shirt out to examine the stains on it. “You mean it was here be-
fore?”
        “Yes. Since you woke up. Before, actually. Raige bled on you.”
        “What?” I squawked, dropping the shirt as though I could get AIDS.
        “Sorry.” Raige contributed.
        It took me a second before I realized his brain wasn‟t quite up and he was actually being
serious. “But… hemorrhage…?” I found myself squeaking confusedly, flopping my hands in the
general direction of the large stains.
        “In Breen form. He‟s fine.” Thomas informed, clearing up why they seemed so uncon-
cerned and the bizarre maroon tint to the stains.
        “How did you manage to beat yourself up so bad?” I demanded of Raige. From what I‟d
seen of him, he‟d looked whole.
        “Getting through the… whatchmacallit…”
        “Roof.” Thomas supplied.
        “That‟s the one.” Raige agreed.
        “It happens when you smash through it.” Thomas added.
        I was appalled. “You smashed through a roof? Do you have any idea how unhygienic
that is?”
        Now Raige began to realize I was about to go compulsive healer on him and his brain
began to revive to more effectively deal with the crisis. He sat up again. “Kid, I‟m fine.”
        “That‟s what I always say when I‟ve managed to break something else and don‟t want to
be dragged off!” I protested, beginning to advance. “I know better than to listen to that!”
        “Wow, your logic makes perfect sense.” Thomas said.
        “Quiet, peon. You sore? Feverish? You don‟t need stitches, do you?”
        “Go away!” Raige shrieked, yanking the sheets up to his chin as though I was going to
tackle and forcibly medicate him.
        “See?” Thomas said. “You‟re scaring him. Keep your fetishes at home.”
        “I’m scaring him? He bled all over me!”
        “Look, seriously, I‟m fine!” Raige reiterated. “I‟m scraped, that‟s it, and it looks worse
than it is.” He rolled his sleeves up his arms and bared his calves to show me. With a look of
annoyance, he stuck his arms out to the side for full viewing as though he was Christ crucified.
        I had to admit I‟d overreacted. Standing out red against his pale skin were scrapes up his
arms and a bunch of nasty cuts around his armpits, probably when he‟d tried to catch himself
from the fall, and I assumed the same decorated his chest. His calves still had dried blood on
them, forgotten in his exhaustion, but like he‟d said, it looked worse than it was. When he got
dressed, his jeans and shirtsleeves would cover it all but the graze on his chin, and that could be
passed off as a little sports accident.
        “See?” Raige said, his annoyance gone. “I‟m sore, not dead.”
        “Take a shower before we go.” I ordered him. “I don‟t want to paint you down with rub-
bing alcohol to keep you from getting infected, but I will if I have to.”
        “Ooh, I‟d take advantage of that if I were you.” Thomas drawled.
        I ignored him. “After that, we leave.”
        Thomas gave me a look. “You mean you just plan for us to walk out without breakfast,
you wearing some kind of bloodstained Courtney Love jammies, without even knowing where
the heck we are or what we‟re going to do?”
        “Um…” I grinned hopefully. “Yes?”
        “No.” Thomas said. “Shower and breakfast first. We‟ll plan over that.”
        “I‟ll order the pizza.” Raige volunteered, and picked up the phone without even having to
move from the bed. I snatched it from him before he could dial.
        “Pizza?” I asked the boys. “For breakfast?”
        Nods and smiles that you use on dumb people.
        I frowned. “Have you been eating pizza day in day out?”
        Nods and smiles that you use on traveling salesmen.
        I was horrified. “Have you digested any vegetable matter since you landed on this frog-
ging planet?”
        “Tomato is vegetable matter, babe.” Thomas reminded gently.
        “And so is garlic.” Raige added.
        “Garlic is a herb and tomato is a fruit!” I protested.
        They stared at me.
        “What‟s your point?”
        I bit back a sigh of exasperation and with a dangerous stretch that nearly had me fall off
the bed, slammed the phone back onto the wall where it belonged. “My point is no pizza.
Sheesh, how do you two expect to keep your health with that sort of diet?”
        Thomas leaned back and crossed his arms behind his head. “We‟re teenagers, babe.” He
said in the resigned tone teachers have when they explain something to you for the fifth time.
“We can eat any kind of crap we want without worrying.”
        “And when you turn thirty?” I asked dryly.
        He shrugged. “Enh, we‟ve enjoyed our lives.”
        “You‟re both twisted, horrible souls.” I stated, and gave up trying to reason with them.
“We‟re having a healthy meal.”
        Thomas grinned. “Have fun. Cuz I‟m sure not helping.”
        “Yeah. You‟re cooking.” Raige agreed.
        I shuddered. He‟d said it. He‟d said the dreaded verb. I gave the kitchen a long hard
look. Then I sighed. Snatched the phone again.
        “All right, what‟s the number for Pizza Hut?”
        Thomas leaned over, slung an arm around my shoulders, and smiled charmingly. “We
knew you‟d see it our way.” He purred with a pouty smile.
        “Thomas, get your arm off me and for peat‟s sake put a shirt on before I snap you again.
I don‟t like being in your head.”
                                                        
        “What‟s that you said about a healthy meal, babe?”
        “Shut up, at least I mopped the grease up with a napkin.” I snapped, and attacked a
cheese stick.
        Raige snorted around his own slice, not even bothering to keep his face straight. I for-
gave him it. That he could laugh at something with the amount of sterile bandages he was danc-
ing around in was on its own a good sign. The bandages probably weren‟t necessary, but despite
my proclamation, I was no doctor, and we couldn‟t afford medical care at the moment if we were
careless. After what I‟d dressed him with, if he came down with an infection, he had the im-
mune system of inbred royalty.
        I would‟ve been perfectly satisfied to just eat my meal on my own, but Thomas came
from a conversational family and he had something on his mind. Three guesses what.
        “I don‟t get you.” He told me. “I just don‟t get why being touched freaks you out so
much.”
        I rolled my eyes. “We‟re not on this again, are we?” I groaned around my food. Raige
winced at my manners, but had long since learned not to bother to correct me.
        “Not quite, so don‟t you go storming off and not paying attention to anything I say
again.” He said.
        “Dang.” I said. “You‟ve figured my whole coping mechanism out.”
        He ignored me. “Seriously, I think that no words or anything can be as comforting as
another human being just giving you a hug or something. But that freaks you out, and I find that
really bizarre.”
        “That‟s you.” I told him. “You touch people all the time, Thomas; it‟s just what you do.”
This was a heavy admittance on my part. I knew a lot of Thomas‟s touchy-feely-ness was just
part of his nature. He didn‟t even intend for it to be sensual or twisted most of the time; it just
came off that way because of his reputation as a pervert.
        “Actually,” Raige said, “I‟m the same way. I mean, I don‟t do it as much as you do,” that
part was said to Thomas, “but I do agree on the first part. Contact is one of the most comforting
things out there.”
        “Don‟t see why.” I growled.
        “Kid, we‟re pack creatures; we like other people.” Thomas said. “We don‟t like sleeping
in some cold stone cave all alone. It‟s human nature.”
        “I‟m not human.”
        “That‟s your answer for everything.” He grumbled. That made me laugh.
        “Bull.” Raige said. “You count as human, in my book.”
        I found that a bit flattering. People had mistaken me for subhuman long before I‟d ever
found out my genetics.
        “Anyway,” Thomas said, “it just occurs to me that it‟d be a pretty miserable existence if
you couldn‟t stand one of the most primitive perks of life.”
        I shrugged. “Doesn‟t bother me. Then again, most of the time when people came close to
me, it was to punch my lights out, so I guess you could say I‟ve had adverse conditioning.”
        “Didn‟t you hug anybody in grade school?” Thomas inquired. “Teachers? Friends?”
        I snorted. “I broke a window with a chair in kindergarten. That pretty much gave me all
the personal space I ever wanted. Teachers don‟t like me; kids don‟t like me. End of story.”
        “What about Todd?” Raige asked.
        I paused and chewed thoughtfully for a couple seconds as I mulled that over. “All right,
you‟ve got a point, Todd does hug me. Well, cling to my leg and try to make me fall over. But I
know he‟s not going to try and beat me up, and his body heat hasn‟t become a problem yet. He‟s
harmless.”
        “Oh, and we aren‟t?” Thomas asked. Under the sarcasm, I detected a hidden touch of
hurt. Real hurt, not the cornball stuff he used to annoy me.
        I couldn‟t think of how to answer that adequately without coming down as horribly con-
descending or sexist. And perhaps I was. So I just shrugged and said, wishing for once that I
didn‟t sound so curt, “You two are the first people I‟ve trusted enough to talk to and I still can‟t
figure out when it started becoming normal to wake up in the same house as you. Be satisfied
with that.”
        “I refuse!” Thomas said. “Raige got a free hug; where‟s mine?”
        I hurled my half-eaten pizza at him and the air went clear.
                                                       
        “Well, that‟s everything. We are now down to… ten bucks.”
        “Hmm.” Raige remarked morosely around his pepperoni. “Not about to get us very far.”
        “Enh, don‟t worry about it.”
        “How‟d you get that stuff in the first place?” Thomas asked.
        “The way I‟m going to get more, unless Bogart donates to the Feed the Hungry Teenager
Fund.”
        They gave me looks of polite curiosity.
        Pausing to swallow, I beamed. “Poker.”
        “Really? You won that much even though your luck sucks?” Thomas asked, tearing out a
hunk of cheese.
        “Being psychic and knowing levitation makes it hard to lose.”
        Raige abruptly choked on his food.
        “Look, I could‟ve swindled them a lot more.” I pointed out before he could clear his
windpipe and start protesting. “Sixty dollars isn‟t very much for those guys. They each make
over sixty thousand a year. I think them losing about… enh, twenty dollars each is less painful
than us sleeping under an overpass in the rain and maybe getting mugged.”
        He had to grant me a point on that. Raige has powerful morality, but since he met me,
he‟s found out the value of situational ethics.
        “I‟ve already got a bit of a plan going.” I said around my mouthful. “First, we figure out
where the heck we are, preferably via map. Then we use the rest of this cash to get a taxi and
move us into the city. Then, while I‟m getting some traveling funds, you guys figure out a route.
We aren‟t following the old one anymore; Herman knows it and we‟ll be followed every step of
the way.” For a moment I paused, but then I managed to force back the rage I felt at Herman and
myself and went on. “We‟re going to play it by ear.”
        “Come on, surely you know where we are.” Thomas said.
        “Nuh uh.” I disagreed, trying to nudge a piece of crust out from between my molars. “Be-
fore my little vacation trip to Canandria, I hadn‟t gone more than fifty miles from home. I
couldn‟t drive, remember, and Tom and Angelica weren‟t fond of taking me anywhere. I don‟t
know a thing about our location.”
        “Well, those are all little problems.” Raige said, “What we really need to do is something
about how you look. Every time someone sees you, Dean pops up. We‟ve gotten away pretty
clean, but you just attract PIN agents like a magnet.”
        “Yeah, well, I‟m pretty infamous among our beloved apes in the blue suits after I blew
my way out of the last place and took a couple of personnel with me. So everyone‟s watching
for me, while only Dean‟s watching for you. And he has bigger things on his mind than two
adolescents gallivanting around his sector.”
        “Um… actually…” Raige said, avoiding my eyes. “After we broke you out…”
        I paused in mid-bite. “They know who you are?”
        “Thank your good buddy Herman for that.” Thomas said.
        I sighed. “And Raige is a virtual celebrity in Vaygo. I hate both of you.”
        “If it‟s any consolation,” Raige said, swallowing, “he didn‟t look like he believed any-
thing Thomas said. And remember, the only reason people in Vaygo know me is Daddy, who…
probably thinks I‟m d-dead. In Old Faithful, we‟ll be okay, as long as nobody recognizes you.”
        “No illusion.” Thomas said. When I began to protest, he added, “I‟ve seen them, babe;
you can‟t hold them up for long. And they just don‟t look right.” Raige nodded in agreement.
        “Well, what can we do?” I asked. “My grasp of surgery is still at the „cut open the gut
and remove the tire‟ stage.”
        Thomas grinned. “No worries. I‟m just going to change you human.”
        My pizza plopped to the rug forgotten and I immediately jumped onto the ceiling like
Spiderman. If he couldn‟t touch me, he couldn‟t change me.
        “You wouldn‟t!” I breathed.
        “It‟s for the good of the group.” Thomas said soothingly.
        “Bushwah!” I cried. “You just want to know what I‟d look like with boobs!”
        He shrugged amiably. His smile didn‟t refute it.
        “Kid, think about it.” Raige said, trying to reason with me even as he picked my pizza off
the rug. He started brushing at it, only to have it float from his hand and up to me. “You want to
get to Todd, right? The quicker you get through here without the PIN messing around, the
quicker you‟ll get to him. If you‟re human, they‟ll have a harder time getting you deported, not
to mention a tougher time recognizing you.”
        He was making me feel guilty. Only Todd, Bobby, and Raige could ever make me feel
guilty on a regular basis. I knew I was putting them in danger with my pride. I knew he was
right. Thankfully, my inner rat recognized an opportunity, no matter how masked it might ap-
pear, and pounced on it.
        “Well, why don‟t you make me an animal?” I asked eagerly, cramming some pizza into
my mouth and trying not to drool grease while I spoke. “They‟d never recognize me then. I‟d eat
less and my magic would still work fine and we wouldn‟t have to worry about me walking
around in a white jumpsuit you bled on.”
        Raige thought for a second, then shook his head. “Kid, believe it or not, we need to be
able to talk.”
        “Jeez, is that sad.” Thomas muttered.
        Raige continued, “You‟re the only one of us with any clue what we‟re doing. And nei-
ther of us are good at poker. If one of us starts being a problem for being recognizable, I should
be the animal, not you.”
        I whimpered.




                                  12: Baby Got Black
                                   Charlene Unnigrutt



        “I tell you, you‟re overreacting.” Thomas said for the third time from outside the bath-
room.
        “No I‟m not.” M.D. said firmly. “Nothing is overreacting around you.” She took a deep
breath. “All right. Change me.”
        Thomas reached in through the door and stared up at the ceiling for a second.
        And M.D. screamed.
        Thomas blinked. Then he curiously stretched his arm further in.
        “Don‟t you dare!” She shrieked, and slammed the door shut on him. He pulled his arm
out immediately with a wince.
        “Did it work?” I asked.
        “Yes it worked!” She barked.
        After a pause, Thomas and I looked at each other. He raised an eyebrow. I shrugged.
        “Me too.” He raised his voice. “Babe, you all right in there?”
        Silence for a second. “My clothes don‟t fit.” She finally whimpered.
        “Really? How tall are you?” I asked.
        “I don‟t think you understand, buddy boy.” She said testily. “My. Clothes. Don’t. Fit.”
        We were quiet for a few seconds.
        “Oh.” I finally said.
        Thomas raised his eyebrows. “Babe,” he asked, “do you bounce?”
        “Enh?”
        He looked pained. “Jump up and down.”
        A pause. Then she screamed again.
        Thomas grinned. “Ooh, my curiosity‟s growing.” He said, then raised his voice so she
could hear him again. “So what size bra do you want to get?”
        Her voice would‟ve been the same if I‟d tried to explain to her the differences between a
cornet and a flügelhorn. “They have sizes?”
        Thomas looked as though he had a toothache. “Are you sure you‟re female?”
        “Once upon a time, maybe.” She responded. “Now which size am I?”
        “Now how do you expect us to know that?” He expostulated, putting his hands on his
hips. “We haven‟t even seen you yet! I‟m flattered, but I‟m just not that good!”
        “No, I mean, uh… never mind! We don‟t have the money to play dress-up anyway!”
        Thomas seemed to be in mourning. “You don‟t know how to size yourself up, do you?”
        Awkward silence for a couple seconds.
        “Shut up!” M.D. bellowed.
        With a look of utmost solemnity, Thomas began reciting some Spanish rhetoric that
sounded like it should come from a priest. I would‟ve bet everything I had it was funeral rites.
        “Your mom never… uh… gave you that talk?” I finally asked tentatively.
        “Well, even if we were close, there wasn‟t exactly a reason for her to until thirty seconds
ago!” If possible, she sounded even less capable of dealing with this than we were. “Forget it, we
have only ten bucks and this whole discussion is going to kill at least one of us. We‟re skipping
the whole business!”
        That started Thomas out of his Spanish rhetoric. “With you covered in bloodstains?”
        “I‟m sure they‟ll wash out.”
        “And in clothes that don‟t fit?”
        “Raige‟s don‟t either!”
        “Hey!” I was determined to contribute at least something to this.
        “Sorry.”
        Thomas hammered on the door. “Come on, babe, you can‟t just stay in the bathroom for
the rest of your life. Weren‟t you the one saying we need to get a move on?”
        “For peat‟s sake, I‟ll leave the frogging bathroom! But one snide word and I‟ll kill you
all.”
        “Fine, whatever, you can put our heads on pikes, eat our livers, and cut off our balls, just
come out. Jeezus, you‟re a pain.”
        “It‟s okay if you come out to us, M.D.” I added passionately. “We‟ll understand you an-
yway.”
        Thomas shrugged. “I‟ve been far too understanding. This is just wrong.”
        “Drop dead.” She snapped, and slumped out the door, shoulders virtually covering her
ears and arms crossed tight across her chest. And we stared. We were so used to her looking
multiracial that her new look was weird. And maybe it was the blond hair, but I‟d always as-
sumed that if she got changed, she‟d be white…
         “You‟re black.” I stated.
         “Really? Spiffy.” She tossed her hair out of her face. It sprung right back.
         “My god, you‟re like a giant Chia pet or something.” Thomas remarked.
         “I said drop dead!” She snapped, drawing herself up as high as she could without un-
hunching.
         He glanced down at her and his eyebrows rose three inches. “You‟re tall.”
         “Well, yeah, it‟s a little thing called growth spurts. Your transformations don‟t take
spaying into account.” She said.
         “As long as you don‟t pass out on the floor from finding blood in your pants—hey, hey,
take it easy, I‟m kidding, it‟ll take a couple weeks first!” Thomas tugged at a curl of hair. “Come
on, straighten up and stop crossing your arms; you look like the hunchback of Notre Dame.”
         She tightened her grip around herself. “No, no.” She said absently but firmly, jerking her
head. “And stop touching my hair.”
         He released it. “Babe, walking all hunched over will look weirder than you having
boobs.”
         She gave him a cynical look.
         He sighed. “For a psychology geek, you really don‟t know squat about the human mind,
do you? Trust me on this one.”
         Still giving him a paranoid look, she reluctantly straightened up, gnawing her nails. “I
can‟t believe this; I‟m actually believing something you say. Well, that‟s it, then. Hell hath fro-
zen over.”
         Like her attitude, her looks were generally the same as when she was a Senyan, but her
impish features weren‟t as sharp, her eyes had lost their slant, her lips were fuller, and though she
was still on the athletic side… yeah. Her lips weren‟t the only thing. Even though I knew I‟d
have to get used to it soon, I shoved my hair out of my eyes and stared at the ceiling.
         With a frown, Thomas crossed his arms and shifted his weight back. “To be honest, I‟m
kinda disappointed.” He said. “I was hoping you‟d be a bombshell in human form, but Earthling
puberty didn‟t really improve anything.” Then he shrugged and smiled. “But hey, it‟s better than
anything I saw in Treehouse, so no way should I complain.”
         “Thomas!”
         “Don‟t worry.” M.D. said to me, rubbing her hands together cheerfully. She actually
looked relieved to hear it. “I‟m far from hurt. Now get over it, Thomas, and let‟s move.”
         “Look down.” Thomas ordered.
         She did. “Yeah. Floor.”
         “Clothes. Ill-fitting. Bloodstains.”
         “Ah yes. Those pesky things. Oh well. We don‟t have the money to refurbish my war-
drobe and we have bigger issues. If anyone asks, I‟ll just say something suitably angsty and de-
pressed and shuffle quickly away. How many Earthlings have maroon blood anyway?”
         “I‟m tolerant, but I just can‟t unleash you on the unsuspecting world dressed like that.”
Thomas said. “Raige, you‟re the seamstress for everyone, right?”
         “Wait a second!” I protested. The tailor in me was horrified at the idea. “I‟m decent but
she‟s like five inches taller! I can‟t make cloth out of thin air.”
         “Then cannibalize your bed-sheet boxers.” Thomas told me.
        “It‟ll look pretty weird.” I said doubtfully, mentally picturing the revisions. There was
absolutely no way I could do it and make it look decent. And mix of sheet and scrubs… my
sense of coordination quailed. After a job like that, no one would even notice the mauve stains.
        “Then if anyone asks, I‟ll say something suitably angsty and unique and shuffle quickly
away.” M.D. said, getting impatient. “Give me something to tie my chest up, make me over, and
let‟s get on with it!”
        “My god, you‟re crappy at being a girl.” Thomas remarked. Then he shrugged and gave
up the fight. “Good luck with your hair.”
                                                       
        After an amount of time that had M.D. close to bouncing off the walls, she could fit into
normal society under casual inspection. Her hair was a nightmare of pigtails and her clothes
looked funny, but by this point Thomas and I were willing to just quit while we were ahead, es-
pecially since the cabbie was threatening to leave.
        When we got in, the driver gave us a weirder look than the first one had.
        “Are you… friends?” He asked.
        “No,” M.D. said deadpan, “we hate each other and had to pool our money for transporta-
tion because we‟re so poor. Why do you ask?”
        He said nothing and drove.
        “What‟s with the cab drivers here?” Thomas asked in Tree-speech. “Are they all like
this?”
        “It‟s not them, and you‟d better get used to this reception.” M.D. replied, switching lan-
guages easily. “Old Faithful isn‟t much on mixing anything. I‟m black, Raige‟s white, and
you‟re Mexican; he probably thinks we‟re drug dealers or something.”
        Thomas rolled his eyes. “That‟s what Herman pretty much said.”
        The cell phone Bobcat gave us started ringing. I dug it out of my pocket.
        “Hello?”
        Hello, Raige. Bobcat said. We have a problem.
        I immediately thrust the phone at M.D.
        She took it with aplomb and growled, “Yes, Bobby, we haff the stash. You vant opium
or smack?”
        Be serious. He ordered. The Boss is extremely displeased that Houdini was blipping you
without her permission.
        She blinked. “Enh? I thought it was Raige and Thomas who broke me out.”
        “Fill her in, Bobcat.” I said. “We haven‟t gotten around to briefing her.”
        It didn‟t take long. By the time he‟d finished, M.D.‟s face had lapsed into one of deep
thought.
        “Hmm.” She said. “That‟s bad.”
        “Yup.” Thomas and I agreed.
        You realize our problem. Bobcat said. The PIN evidently notified the Jaunter’s League as
soon as you left their custody and they saw fit to mention a dubious lack of mental stability on
your part. She flinched almost invisibly. Yes, I know. The Boss now believes you could require
help beyond our capabilities. I have managed to delay our fate, but soon The Boss will call us
for a large meeting. She will not be refused or delayed. After that meeting, I doubt we will ever
be able to set foot on Earth again, even if the best should happen.
        M.D. shut her eyes and inhaled slowly. “How much time do we have?” She asked tone-
lessly.
        Almost four days. In your current Earth time, today is Monday. You will leave on
Thursday morning, at 9:07 to be precise, by Thomas’s watch anyway.
        Her eyes popped open. “That‟s not so bad. We can get to Vaygo in two days without re-
ally rushing.”
        I looked at Thomas. Though he wasn‟t showing much and was gazing through the win-
dow, he wasn‟t smiling. Then I realized it. M.D. didn‟t know he‟d planned to go home to Aus-
tin.
        “Kid.” I tugged on her sleeve and whispered into her ear, “We were going to visit Tho-
mas‟s family.”
        For a second, she frowned in incomprehension. Then her eyes widened. They were
brown now. “You mean in Texas.” She murmured, glancing at him.
        I nodded.
        “That‟s a thousand miles away; we‟d never make it there in time by car.” She murmured.
Her face softened. She looked at Thomas worriedly. He turned towards her and smiled but it
looked a little forced.
        “Don‟t worry, babe.” He said. “I‟ll bet I can charm The Boss into letting me send „em a
letter or something. Or who knows? I‟m probably supposed to be there instead of Treehouse
anyway.”
        “Yeah right, after being off-planet for a couple years, of course you‟d seamlessly inte-
grate back into society.” M.D. retorted. She went back to the phone and her voice was stressed.
“Bobby, that‟s not enough time to go to Texas! We‟d have to get a plane or something, and
we‟d need all sorts of paperwork to ride alone! We haven‟t even gotten into downtown Old
Faithful yet; how are we supposed to get to Austin? Can‟t you work something out with the
Boss?”
        I’m sorry, Bobcat said, sounding truly sad for us, but I have done my best. She won’t
slacken. Thomas looked down. We will do what we can to hasten your travel. Is there any re-
source you need, excluding off-planet tech and weapons?
        “Money.” She said immediately. “Preferably a lot of it.”
        How much?
        “You tell me. How much does it take to bribe plane attendants?”
        It wouldn’t succeed, M.D.
        She sighed and mouthed a cussword. “Get Bogart to cough up a few hundred thousand
anyway. We‟re down to ten bucks and your card is now worthless for us.”
        With a KRANG, a briefcase fell to the cab‟s seat. We didn‟t need to ask what was in it.
By now, our conversation, which had automatically been aloud and in English, had gotten the
driver‟s attention and at the noise, he craned his neck to see us and therefore didn‟t see the Hon-
da in front of him.
        “Car!” Thomas cried, bracing himself.
        But it was too late. With a CRASH, we rear-ended it.
        “You all right?” M.D. and Bobcat asked us at the same time.
        We nodded. We‟d gotten nasty jolts but that was all.
        “Good. Time to move.” M.D. yanked off her seatbelt, opened the cab door, and tossed
the last of her poker money to the driver. “For the damages.” She said, and took to the sidewalk.
We followed.
        “See you, Bobcat.” M.D. said.
        Good luck.
         She hung up then turned to Thomas. “I didn‟t know about your family.” She said stiffly.
“I‟m… I‟m sorry. Is there…”
         “Don‟t worry about it.” He said. “Your brother needs you a lot more than my family
needs me.”
         “But…”
         “Don‟t worry about it.” He repeated, smiling. “We don‟t have enough time to discuss all
that anyway.”
         Her lips thinned. “Communication indeed.” She told him. “All right, boys. We need to
figure out where to hire a driver. Let‟s find some yellow pages and get to work. The faster we
get Todd, the faster we can try to grab a plane to Austin.”
                                                        
         “There goes three hours.” Thomas said glumly. “At least we got a map.”
         “Not helping.” M.D. groaned. “I can‟t believe it. Nobody in Old Faithful will drive three
unregistered minors all the way to downtown Vaygo alone.”
         “They were doing what they‟re supposed to do.” I said.
         “But they won‟t take bribes!” She cried.
         “How corrupt of them.” I said, rolling my eyes. “I mean, what kind of authority are they
if they can‟t be bribed?”
         She ignored me. “We have three-hundred thousand dollars and nothing to use it for!
What now? The only one of us old enough to have a license is Thomas, and he hasn‟t been on
Earth for a year and a half!” Then she looked at me with a hint of desperation. “Milquetoast,
please tell me your grandfather or something taught you early. You normal people do that sort of
thing, right?”
         I shrugged. “I took Driver‟s Ed., but my dad never got around to actually letting me phys-
ically drive. I don‟t think he really trusted me behind the wheel of the Porsche.”
         M.D. blinked and her frustrated rant suddenly cut off. “You haven‟t mentioned your dad
this whole trip.”
         “Yeah, we‟re going to be passing right by where you used to live, you said so yourself.”
Thomas chimed in. “Don‟t you want to—”
         “No.” I said. “I don‟t.”
         M.D. caught the tone of my voice, and raised an eyebrow with a frown, a weird, kind of
touching crossbreed of surprise and concern. Oddly enough, it was Thomas who pushed it, not
her.
         “Why?” He asked. “The babe and I are both here for family. So what‟s driving you?
Why‟re you here?”
         I shrugged. “Because you‟re my friends.” When I saw him frown, I added in a voice a
little higher in panic, “I just don‟t want to see him, okay?”
         M.D. squeezed my arm gently. “I had lousy parents too.” She said, and her voice was still
that indifferent drawl she always had, but it was softer than usual. “I can at least empathize a
bit.”
         “Yours were worse.” I said glumly.
         She shrugged and examined her nails. “Yeah, well, they‟re pretty hard to beat, complain-
ing I bury bodies in the front yard, but I wasn‟t too attached to them. It might‟ve made me mad,
but it didn‟t surprise me.” She sighed. “Unlike you.”
         This conversation was going somewhere I didn‟t want it. “Any ideas of what to do?” I
asked, changing the subject.
        “I‟m empty, Mr. Communication.” M.D. said. Her tone wasn‟t sharper than normal, but I
could tell she was a little annoyed at both of us brushing her off. “I don‟t really know how to get
a ride. We need faster transportation than a bus, but the stupid people here will never let three
minors onto a plane, no questions asked, and accept being paid in cash in denominations of twen-
ty and above.” She checked the briefcase. “With sequential serial numbers, nonetheless.”
        “And that briefcase really doesn‟t help things.” Thomas said.
        “No.” M.D. agreed unhappily, shutting it and kicking it behind her knees. “It doesn‟t.”
She suddenly let out a growl of frustration. “Dang it, we need transportation!”
        Then she clapped her hands to her head, shut her eyes, and curled up into a ball with an
expression like she was trying to force wings to grow out of her back.
        For a few seconds, we waited, and then Thomas asked, “What‟re you doing?”
        “Thinking.” She said, and lapsed back into concentration.
        We were quiet. She was the smart one, so it was best to just leave her to it. Thomas and
I watched the sky for about four minutes until she straightened up. She was grinning. Which
was good and bad. Good because it meant she had a plan. Bad because it meant I probably
wouldn‟t like it.
        “You‟ve got an idea?” I asked.
        “Yeah.” She replied cheerfully, eyeing the car and motorcycle dealership across the way.
“That‟s what‟s going to get us out of here.”
        “Kid, none of us can drive and no one in this stupid city will drive us.” Thomas said.
“What could we use a car for?”
        “I don‟t want a frogging car.” She said. “I‟m looking for a motorcycle. Do you boys
have any problems with that?”




             13: Vehicular Safety and Other Such Nonsense
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



        “A motorcycle? What do you want one of those for?”
        I remembered Biff‟s aunt. Brakes, gas, Harley. All you need to know. “I think I can
drive one.”
        “You think?” Thomas emphasized.
        “You? Your family doesn‟t even own a car.” Raige said.
        I looked at him coldly. “I might be black, but I‟m not that poor. Tom and Angelica used
them.”
        “Then how do you know how to drive a motorcycle? I know you can‟t afford one of
those.”
         “Um…” I fidgeted sheepishly. “I had an itsy bitsy, tiny little insignificant accident with a
guy a few months ago.”
         “Okay.” Thomas said with a sigh of resignation. “What got blown up?”
         “What? Oh, honestly, nothing got blown up. We just kinda… swapped some memo-
ries.”
         Raige raised an eyebrow. “With who?”
         I sighed. “Biff MacGilligan. Remember him?”
         He grimaced in sympathy. “Yes. Eeew.”
         “My perception exactly.”
         “So that‟s why you‟ve been grunting so much.”
         I shrugged. “If it weren‟t for him, I would still be stuck in the Vaygo Desert, so I guess I
came out well. He drove a motorcycle a long time ago; I think I can too.”
         “Are you sure?”
         “Sure I‟m sure, milquetoast. How could you doubt me?”
         “Hmmm, I recall something about six million dollars in property damages…”
         “Oh, come on, that didn‟t involve a vehicle!”
         “Exactly! Think what would happen if it did!” Thomas said.
                                                         
         Hello, M.D. Do you three need something?
         I sighed. “Hey, Bogart? You got any motorcycles lying around to blip us?”
         Just so you know, this wasn‟t how I‟d wanted to do things. Had I been on my own, I just
would‟ve stolen a motorcycle from the dealership and gone on my merry way. However, Tho-
mas hadn‟t been comfortable with my idea and Saint Raige, of course, had intervened. I was
willing to sway the former and veto the latter until they made the valid point that stealing a mo-
torcycle would‟ve gotten the authorities on our back immediately, which was the opposite of
what we wanted. Simply bribing the motorcycle man to ignore our ages and speed the buying
process up had the same problem. So, much to my disgust, I had to go and beg off Bogart like I
lacked the ability to help myself.
         Bogart made a sound of thought. A motorcycle, huh? That’s a bit more mass than
I’ve blipped recently—all that metal is tricky. Not to mention people notice them miss-
ing much more than they do small amounts of cash. I’d have to pretty much steal one,
and from another country at that, to keep any attention from being drawn to you. Are
you picky?
         “Will it run?” I shot back.
         Run, I can promise. Run well… that’s a different story.
         I paused. “And could you maybe make it a Harley?”
         Behind me, Thomas‟s expression became one of acute disgust.
         Bogart sighed in annoyance. Yes, apprentice. I can. Would you like a specific color
too?
         “Hahaha. You‟re funny, Mr. Bogart.” I said. “Real funny.”
         “Can you pay for it at least?” Raige asked desperately.
         Even though Bogart was on the phone and couldn‟t see me, I shook the briefcase sugges-
tively. “We can pay for that.”
         “With stolen money.” Raige said flatly.
         “Look, if it soothes your morality, we‟ll even return the thing.” I said.
         “I‟m going to Hell for this.” He replied, but he couldn‟t quite argue with me. Time was
our biggest issue.
         If you’re all quite through, go somewhere that nobody will notice a motorcycle
falling from the sky. Give us the address of it and it’ll be there.
         I glanced around until I found a vacant lot half-hidden behind a junkyard. I recited the
street name and number, then hung up the phone.
         Just as I set foot on the lot, the familiar KRRANG split the air, and our mode of transpor-
tation was there in front of us.
         The Harley we got was a little old. From ‟85, to be precise. It was a threadbare and
tired-looking and needed paint, but everything was more or less working and it had a full tank.
There were even a couple helmets with it. That had probably been Bobcat‟s doing.
         “There we go.” I said, rubbing my hands together happily. “Transportation.”
         “Uh… babe?” Thomas asked. “Why‟d it have to be a Harley?”
         I paused. What kind of a question is that? “BMW is a car company. Yamaha makes pi-
anos. The only thing that compares with a Harley is a Vincent, and those cost way too much.
Nope, Harley all the way.” I stroked the front fender affectionately.
         Thomas and Raige exchanged looks with meanings that only Earthling males can decode.
Then Raige did a bizarre mime act involving shrugging and rolling his eyes and that seemed to
satisfy them.
         Simple math came through for me. “Issue.”
         “What now?”
         “Three people. Two-seater. I need to drive, and Thomas can‟t change himself, so
Raige—”
         “No problem.” He pulled out an injector pen.
         I hastily turned away. “You know I hate those things.”
         “Sorry.” He said. “I forgot. It‟ll kick in faster, though.”
         “I still can‟t believe the great junior healer has an issue with needles.” Thomas retorted.
         “Shut up, Thomas, and put your mind to something more productive, like what you‟re
going to change Raige into.” I said. “I‟m going to need him to direct us through Vaygo traffic; I
am not following Herman‟s stupid route any more.”
         “I‟ve already got it figured out.” Thomas touched Raige, who shrunk in a furry red mon-
key-like thing with silky fur, a long tail, and big brown eyes that rivaled even Aqua‟s.
         “I expected at least an „Aw, how cute.‟” Thomas said, scooping up the discarded clothes
and allowing Raige to clamber onto his shoulder.
         “I think when they were messing with my DNA, they took out my „Aw‟ gene.” I replied,
stuffing the cloth into the saddlebags. “Though he is quite adorable.”
         “Thanks.” Raige said quietly, toying with his forelock.
         I blinked. “You can talk.”
         “Yup, loud too.” Thomas said. “Saw these critters in Treehouse once. Cute little things,
but they‟re like freaking howler monkeys.”
         “Oh goody.” Raige remarked dryly. “I always wanted to be a howler monkey.”
         “Argue it over with Thomas when we‟re driving.” I said. “Come on, I just want to get
going.”
         We plopped onto the motorcycle and I immediately regretted this whole idea. The last
thing you want is to have Thomas behind you on a motorcycle.
         Obviously pleased, he grinned, wrapped his arms around me, and held on tight. “I‟m lik-
ing this idea better and better.” He remarked, not seeming to notice how I went stiff.
         Resisting the impulse to throw an elbow back, I frantically grabbed the key and twisted it
brutally to start the engine. The deafening roar of a Harley engine filled the air. It made me grin
and almost relax.
         “Hear that, guys?” I bellowed over the noise. “That is the sound of gasoline-powered tes-
tosterone!”
         Thomas yelled something.
         “What?”
         Raige leapt to my shoulder. His voice came loud and clear into my ear. “He says, „It
doesn‟t have a muffler!‟”
         “I know!” I shrieked gleefully, bouncing up and down in delight. “Great, isn‟t it?”
         Giving me another male look that said he would never understand me, Raige shook his
head and jumped back to Thomas.
         “Off we go!” I howled, and gave the gas a twist. We jerked forward a lot faster than I
anticipated and I hit the brakes. With a grunt, Thomas was flung against me, and this time, it
was entirely by accident.
         I giggled nervously and only just managed to put a foot down before we got crushed un-
der the thing. “Okay, give me a second to get used to this, I‟ve never actually driven anything
before…”
         Thomas sighed. I couldn‟t hear it but I could feel it. “That‟s it, I‟m going to die.”
         After a few jerky start-stops, I managed to get us onto the road. And then I realized that
there‟s a big difference between knowing how to drive a Harley and knowing how to drive a
Harley on the road…
         “Raige, get up here! I don‟t know a thing about road rules!” He‟d said he‟d taken Driv-
er‟s Ed.
         “Calm down and just stay on the right side of the road.” He said in my ear. “You know
what lanes are, right?”
         “Of course. Honestly. Now what do brake lights look like?”
         “Flashy.” He was sounding panicky. “Kid, do you have any clue what you‟re doing?”
         “Of course I do. But stay up here, will you?”
         “We,” Raige prophesized grimly, “are all going to die.”
         “Good to see you agree with me for once.” Thomas said.
         “Will you two take it easy?” I protested.
         Raige‟s voice suddenly rose to a shriek. “Watch it, watch it, watch it!”
         I braked just in time to keep from rear-ending a minivan. All three of us quivered fearful-
ly on the motorcycle until traffic started moving again. Then, humbled silent, I started slinking
along again. This time, I kept all my attention on the road and what Raige was saying to me.
         “Okay.” I amended quietly once my heart had restarted. “You were right. We are going
to die.”
         “It‟ll be easier once we get out of downtown traffic.” Raige said, but he didn‟t sound
reassured.
         I hated driving, I decided. I wanted to go for a whacker (chances were it‟d do me good)
but I dared not take my eyes off the road for a second.
         I got through the next few streets in fairly good shape, unless you count my skyrocketing
blood pressure. I didn‟t hit anything and nothing hit me. I nearly got run off the road by a mas-
sive pickup (not my fault, that time) and almost turned left during a red light, but Raige managed
to stop me. My heart definitely took some strain, but on the whole… yes, quite good.
        Once I got off the cluttered downtown streets and onto the highway, things spread out a
bit and the lights vanished. Thomas read off the map that we‟d be staying on it for a couple
hours. Rush hour had petered off and I could exhale a sigh of relief. I was doing all right.
        That, of course, was when the cop started tailing me.
        “Raige, is my driving bad?” I asked him anxiously.
        “No, no, I haven‟t had a heart attack for the past five minutes.” He said absently.
        “Then why‟s he asking us to pull over?” Thomas asked.
        “Rough guess? He thinks we‟re too young.” I called over my shoulder.
        “Great.” Thomas said, and I heartily agreed with him. I did not want to get pulled over.
If the police noticed us, word might seep up the grapevine to the PIN about the two boys. And
then we‟d be shot down like a fat pigeon. “Quick, hide somewhere.” I hissed to Raige. “I can‟t
explain you.”
        At the moment, having my Senyan blood back (along with bad psychic and illusion abili-
ties) sounded good. But I didn‟t have a helmet on and the cop would notice if my dark hair sud-
denly went blond now. I gritted my teeth and pulled over onto the shoulder. I managed it with-
out a problem. By now, Biff‟s subconscious was handling most of the driving; as long as I shut
up and left it alone, my bike control was fine. It was just once I started trying to consciously
think about what I was doing that things started going wrong.
        “Got any ideas?” Thomas asked as Raige bounded off to hide.
        “Of course.” I said smoothly.
        “Crap.” He said. “You‟re clueless.”
        I winced. “Don‟t worry, I‟ll think of something.”
        He buried his face in my back and moaned. I flinched reflexively and made a mental
note to come up with some new reassurances. Seems I‟d used that one on him too many times.
        The lady got out of her police car and looked at us. She didn‟t look very easy to dupe.
Dang it. I tried to look calm and told my panicking brain to shut up.
        Okay, kid, I said to myself, here‟s the plan. If all else fails, take off driving. Using levi-
tation, break something in her car. It can‟t be that difficult to wrench something out of place.
        I forced a grin. “What‟s the matter, officer?” I asked. I casually leaned forward onto the
handlebars and turned my head to watch her advance towards us. She didn‟t look too tough or
prepared, and I could see that her gun wasn‟t properly secured. Surprise her with levitation,
knock her out with the butt of her gun, she wouldn‟t suspect a thing.
        She gave me a hard look. “Is he eighteen?” She asked, indicating Thomas.
        Enh? “No.” I answered before I could properly think about it. “Why?”
        She shook her head. “That‟s what I thought. Can‟t ride without a helmet. You‟re all
right, but he isn‟t. The law‟s for your own safety, you know.”
        I nearly fainted from relief. Behind me, Thomas relaxed. I was a girl. After puberty,
their age became pretty vague to tell. She thought I was old enough and maybe I was. I couldn‟t
believe my luck.
        “Oh god, I forgot.” I babbled. “I‟m sorry, officer, I‟m really sorry. It just slipped my
mind. I‟ve got a helmet in the saddle bags, I‟ll get it out right away, thanks for setting me
straight.” In a second I was going to start giggling.
        She gave me a wary look. “Most teenagers aren‟t this enthusiastic.”
        Thomas covered for me. “It‟s just relief, you know. If she killed me by accident, my ma
would be pissed.”
        As usual, his charm saved us. The cop smiled. “I‟m sure she would.” She turned to leave.
Thomas and I both sighed deeply. Hoo, for a second there—
        She suddenly stopped. “Wait a second.”
        An already-scarce population of nerves abruptly underwent mass genocide. I clamped
my eyes shut and prepared myself for doom. “Yes, officer?” I said in a slightly strangled voice.
        “How old are you?” She asked.
        Time to lie. I opened my eyes and gave her a look of mild aggression. “I‟m nineteen.” I
said coldly, trying to sound as though she‟d insulted me. Please don‟t call my bluff, please don‟t
call my bluff, please don‟t ask for my license…
        “That‟s exactly what I thought.” She said coldly, crossing her arms.
        “Huh? I mean…” I thought for a second but came to the same conclusion. “Huh?”
        “Just what is he doing with you? He definitely isn‟t your kid brother.” She was looking
suspicious. “Are you going somewhere?”
        Somehow, despite my renowned paranoia and my recent drug-dealers discussion, a racist
policewoman was the absolute last thing I‟d anticipated. Unable to think of a response, I just
stared at her, trying not to look blank. In my head, I spread my hands and turned to my inner rat
for answers. It shrugged.
        Thomas saved us. “Oh, she‟s my girlfriend.” He said, as smoothly and easily as though
he‟d had it on his mind the whole time.
        What? No! I turned desperately to my inner rat again and threw my hands out in a word-
less shriek, but it just shrugged at me again. Arguing would lose me credibility. Pulling my lips
back away from my teeth and trying to make it look like a smile, I nodded stiffly and ground my
palms into the handlebars. I was going to kill him for this.
        “Really?” The woman asked me, not looking entirely convinced. Dang it, my expression
had been a little too wooden.
        Sensing Thomas‟s smile behind me and also sensing that it was not entirely of loving af-
fection, I leaned on my liar skills like a crutch. All right kid, sappy tone, think soft and fluffy,
soft and fluffy. Don‟t be afraid to lean back against him; no, never mind, being afraid to lean
back against him is totally logical right now—
        “Oh yeah,” I forced out, trying not to sound ill, “I love my little Tommy.”
        Oh, the low things that came from my throat when I got desperate. I only just managed
to keep my expression appropriately soft and moony. Lie, kid, just lie. Don‟t think about what
you‟re saying. Definitely don‟t think about Thomas and how he‟s starting to squeeze you from
behind. Just don‟t think about anything at all, okay? Don‟t want you screaming.
        “We‟ve been going out forever.” Thomas lied sweetly. “Almost three months.” He nuz-
zled my neck softly, cutting off all „three months is forever?‟ thoughts. Sucking in a breath, I
clawed back a shudder and forced myself to at least look relaxed. A good thing I was still smil-
ing. They say that suppresses the gag reflex.
        The cop seemed to find my agony adorable. “Aw, how sweet. Good luck, you two. Go
to college.”
        Talking was now out of the ball field, and so was staying relaxed. I kept smiling only by
forcible positive thinking: Death! Death! Torturous death!
         She finally got into the cruise car and drove off. The millisecond she left sight, I tore out
of Thomas‟s grasp, bolted off the bike, and began to shake, holding my arms out stiffly from my
body.
         “What‟re you doing?” Thomas asked.
         “Isolating the contagion.” I said. “Lysol. I need Lysol. Ugh, I can‟t believe I did that.
You‟re sick, Thomas. Doing that to me. You‟re an evil, nasty person. You enjoyed it!” He
cackled, but I ignored him. On to more important things. “My morality has been compromised.
I‟ve been stained, tainted…”
         “Dirtied?” Thomas suggested eagerly. “Are you a dirty little girl now?”
         The words of the Antichrist are meaningless. “I must cleanse my insides and purge my-
self of evil. Where‟re my—”
         “Stop being so dramatic.” The Antichrist interrupted.
         “All right, I‟ll compromise.” I said.
         “What?”
         “I promise I will stop being dramatic if you swear to never touch me like that again.”
         “Shriek on, oh drama queen.”
         “Will do.” I said calmly. “Where was I?”
         “Lysol.”
         “Ah yes. Lysol. Now where is it?”
         Raige bounded over to me. “I guess you didn‟t like that much.” He understated.
         “If he ever does that again, I‟ll neuter him.” I responded. “Slowly.”
         Thomas gleefully chanted, “Dirty, dirty, dirty!”
         “Look kid, we‟ve got to go.” Raige said, delicately intervening before I finished getting
to a proper springing position. “You know we don‟t have time. Emasculate him later. I‟ll even
help you do it.”
         Somehow the incongruity of being calmed down by a red furry lemur thing while on the
side of a road didn‟t occur to me. “Really? You will? You‟re the best friend a guy could ever
have.”
         “Girl.”
         I grunted. “Suit yourself.”
         To be fair, Thomas wasn‟t really the problem; he was just the icing on the stress cake of
driving and the cop. My lurking nightmares and my looming deadline hadn‟t left my nerves in
any good shape to begin with and that topping was enough to take some edge off my common
sense.
         “All right.” I said finally, getting up and shaking my limbs a little in an effort to relax.
“I‟m good. Thomas, never do that again.”
         “Never?” He asked, sounding crushed. I knew it was an act.
         I smirked wryly. “If I tense up when you do it, you‟ll know. If I don‟t, squeeze away.”
         “Never, then.” He said to himself. “Take all the fun out of it, why don‟t you?” As I got
back onto the bike however, I noticed that he wasn‟t being nearly as sensual as he had before and
there was no tease in how he touched me this time. The cop had rattled him too. However, he
refused to let on. In fact, as Raige scrambled onto his shoulder, he said to him, “You should be
glad you were here, Raige.”
         “Huh? Why?”
         “Well, if you hadn‟t been around, I probably would‟ve done a lot more than just rub
against her neck.”
       With a whimper, I desperately rammed the key into the ignition and grabbed for whack-
ers. This day was going to see my nerves ground to sand.




                  14: Large Cheese with Communication
                                    Annabelle Rawlins



        I got through the rest of the hours fairly well. That is, I didn‟t have a mental breakdown,
I didn‟t smash into anything, and we made good time at the safe, reasonable pace of five miles
above the speed limit. We managed to get ourselves to the very fringe of Old Faithful, where we
decided a hotel room and sleep were in order, especially since our butts (and more, according to
Thomas) were numb and I kept giggling for no real reason. One of our four days was gone, but
considering the horrible start, we‟d done well. After about two hours into our next leg, we‟d
make it to the mountains, where we‟d go into the Vaygo Desert. How I hated that frogging Vay-
go Desert.
        “Good. This time, we have two beds and a couch.” Thomas said.
        “That‟ll definitely help.” I said. “Who wants the shower first?”
        “If you don‟t mind, I‟ll take it.” Raige said.
        Neither of us protested. We both knew that Raige would be done in ten minutes tops,
which was more than I could say for Thomas. He was fond of fixing his hair in the mirror, a la-
borious task that took as much time and precision as building small pyramids. Despite this,
Raige and I never took the effort to drag him out. That was because Raige didn‟t have a problem
with waiting a couple hours to shower, and I simply didn‟t want to walk into the bathroom and
see something that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
        While Raige snatched a towel, Thomas plopped onto the sofa and turned on the TV.
Hoping he wouldn‟t run across a porn channel, I ignored the box and searched through my herb
belt for the jar Mr. Rawls had given me. “Take these when you need sleep,” he‟d said, and last
night had broken my resistance. I quickly found the fat steel jar and opened it to pull out what-
ever pill he‟d given me. Then I frowned.
        “Uh… Thomas?” I asked.
        “Yeah?” He replied in a way that showed he wasn‟t at all paying attention. Football was
on.
        I pulled one of the brown cubes out of the jar and held it up. “What does this look like to
you?”
        For a second, he didn‟t react to what I said, but then my words worked their way past the
TV and he looked over at me. He raised an eyebrow. “It looks like fudge.”
         “Yeah, that‟s what I thought.” I said to myself, putting it to my nose and sniffing it cau-
tiously. Smelled like fudge.
         “Why do you have fudge?” He asked.
         “Your guess is as good as mine.” I said warily. Thomas would buy it; half the time I
found something in my belt that I swore couldn‟t have gotten there.
         “What kind of fudge?” He asked dubiously. He didn‟t mean pecan or walnut.
         I rolled my eyes at him, though he‟d pretty much said exactly what I was thinking. Mr.
Rawls didn‟t strike me as having much of a sense of humor, but fudge on its own was hardly a
sleeping aid. For a second, I considered giving it to Thomas and seeing what happened, but that
was probably a bad idea. If Mr. Rawls had spiked it with something, my system would be able
to pitch it off faster than Thomas‟s would, and anyway, the last thing I needed was to explain to
Raige why Thomas was on the floor giggling about purple hippos.
         I took another sniff, and when it didn‟t reek of anything but fudge, took a cautious lick.
Tasted exactly like unadulterated fudge.
         “You‟re overdoing it.” Thomas told me, and went back to the TV.
         Giving him a bored look, I took a small bite. Still tasted just like normal fudge. Quite
good, actually. I took a quick glance at Thomas; the flashes of color on the screen had mesme-
rized him. I quickly popped half of the small cube into my mouth and stuffed the rest back in the
jar. If nothing else, at least Mr. Rawls had given me a yummy snack. Hopefully it wouldn‟t
have me seeing pink rhinos by the end of the hour.
         Thomas abruptly paused in his channel surfing. “Hey, Indiana Jones‟s on; you‟re big on
that, right?”
         “Are you kidding? He‟s my hero!” I eagerly flopped onto the other end of the couch.
         “You like Harrison Ford?”
         “I like Indy.” I corrected. “He‟s the best.”
         Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
         “Why? You ask me why? I‟d think that‟d be obvious! He‟s a machine in a fight! Not to
mention I want that bomber jacket of his.”
         Thomas rolled his eyes. “That would be why you liked him. Babe, do you think he‟s
hot?”
         I gave him Mngleh‟s patented Stare of Blankness.
         “Hot!” He cried, sounding frustrated at my inability to understand simple English. “Cute!
Good-looking!” I was still blank and he got so desperate he spoke it in my language. “Sexually
appealing!”
         I sighed. “Have you forgotten last night‟s discussion already? Contrary to popular opi-
nion, there‟s only so many times I can repeat myself without getting bored.”
         “I refuse to believe that you have absolutely no attraction to anything. It‟s just too sad.”
         “Who am I to argue with you?” I said listlessly, setting my chin in my hand. “It‟s proved
to be a pointless exercise.”
         We watched Indy flee from the giant boulder in silence. Then I squirmed. What was
coming next wouldn‟t be easy for me. This wasn‟t just drugged fudge talking to me either; I still
felt perfectly fine, and I‟d been thinking this over during the long hours on the highway.
Whackers might‟ve made me rotten company, but it cleared my mind. And I knew that its logic
was good.
         “Could you turn that off?” I asked.
         “Why? I thought you liked Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
         “I love it to death and wish it would bear more little film-children. But I need to talk to
you and I don‟t want snakes and irate natives in the way.”
         Probably curious, he turned it off. I chewed at my nails.
         “Look, I owe you an apology for earlier. I was a little stressed out and I acted like… uh,
like me. You didn‟t deserve that hard a hit, especially since it‟s my fault you‟re going to miss
home. I‟m sorry I erupted on you and I‟m sorry I‟m ruining everything.” I fidgeted nervously.
“And I‟m sorry for being the iceberg queen. It‟s just how I am.”
         Thomas put a hand to his heart and gasped dramatically. “Can it be? The great M.D.
Rawlins is saying „I‟m sorry?‟ That must be one strong lick of fudge.”
         “Shut up about the fudge! It‟s not the fudge! It‟s me attempting maturity.” I snapped,
crossing my arms. “Do you want me to go back to being my whiny little self? I‟d prefer it.”
         “No way, I‟m enjoying watching you squirm.” He said. A grin flashed across his face,
but for only a brief second. “I didn‟t really expect you to freak out that bad. Was it really that
horrible?”
         “It was very unexpected.” I said stiffly, shifting position.
         “But did it feel bad?” He pressed, starting to smile again.
         “Yes, I was suddenly so overcome by long-lost hormones it was all I could do to control
myself.” I retorted. “I was too stressed to think about what it felt like, I was too busy overreact-
ing. I just went psycho bitch on you. That‟s the reason I‟m apologizing in the first place, re-
member?”
         He looked at me wryly. “You‟re really new to the „I‟m Sorry‟ game, aren‟t you?”
         I crossed my arms and stared into our reflections on the television screen. “Maybe.” At
the last second, I managed to keep the whine out of my voice.
         We were silent for a second or so, and I began to think that the conversation was over. I
viewed it with mixed relief and reluctance. But then he spoke.
         “You‟re not screwing everything up.”
         I snorted. “If it weren‟t for me, you‟d have the time to go home.”
         “If it weren‟t for you, I wouldn‟t have gotten the chance in the first place. Also, it was
Houdini and Bogart not swapping the blipping responsibility that got us nailed in the first place.
You forget about that bit?”
         I didn‟t say anything. I was too busy thinking on it. Thomas seemed to read my mind.
         “Believe it or not, M.D., you don‟t bring everything crashing down whenever you move.
Your mouth gets us some problems, yeah, and you‟ve got the worst luck I‟ve ever seen, but
you‟re not a walking disaster.”
         I thought on that a second. “Huh. That‟s a pity.” When Thomas stared at me, I said, “I‟ve
almost gotten used to thinking I could tear someone‟s life apart with one twitch of my finger.
That‟s a nice power-trip; too bad it‟s over.”
         He chuckled.
         I frowned as something came to me, then turned towards him. “You called me M.D.”
         He winced. “Did I get the name wrong? Every once in a while, you know, I slip.”
         “No, no, you pronounced it fine, your accent‟s not that bad. Nobody calls me M.D. ex-
cept Bobby and Venna. Everyone else calls me kid, except for you, who call me babe for some
indefinable reason.”
         He grinned. “To drive you crazy, of course. I know this will give you a heart attack, but
even I get serious some of the time.”
         “Now I‟m remembering why I never apologize.” I said.
        “No worries. You won‟t have to until you do something stupid again.”
        I grimaced. “Crud. Better get used to it, then.” Then I yawned. Now I was getting slee-
py. It felt utterly natural, but I knew it was Mr. Rawls‟s fudge; even I didn‟t feel this tired this
early. “Turn the TV back on now, if I keep talking like this I‟m going to get soppy and sappy.”
        “You mean human?”
        “Shut up and turn on the frogging TV.” I mumbled, leaning into the armrest.


                                    Charlene Unnigrutt
         “They‟ve got peppermint bubble bath!” I cried gleefully as I came out of the bathroom. “I
thought I was the only person in the world who kept that stuff!”
         Thomas sighed and gestured loosely at me resignedly. “Nothing you do or say surprises
me anymore.”
         I blinked. M.D. was curled up in a tiny ball on the sofa cushions like she was cold. She
always slept in that tense position, but it was kind of early, even for her. “It‟s only eight!”
         “I know. She was out only a few minutes after you went in. Guess we know who‟s get-
ting the sofa tonight.”
         “Aw, come on, she probably hasn‟t slept in a bed since she got here.” I protested. “She
probably hadn‟t even slept in a room until yesterday.”
         “Well, she‟s already asleep. No point in moving her.” He said with a shrug. “If you want
to wake her up and give up your bed or risk getting your throat cut, go right ahead. I am going to
enjoy sheets for once in my later life.”
         I sighed. “Some friend you are.” Making sure I was out of her arm range, I bent over to
touch her shoulder gingerly. Normally that would‟ve gotten me punched in the stomach, but she
didn‟t move. It was probably the first time I‟d ever touched her and she didn‟t react. I tried
again, this time shaking her a little. “Kid?” Nothing. “Wow, she didn‟t even grunt at me.”
         “See? Leave her alone.” Thomas said. “She wouldn‟t like the bed even if you gave it to
her. Probably stabs in her sleep too.”
         No kidding. I remembered how I‟d let her sleep in a waterbed at my house once. She
ended up in the closet, claiming the wallpaper gave her the creeps. Thomas was probably right,
but still. What kind of person makes their best friend sleep on the sofa after government agents
try to kill her?
         Questions like that that made me realize just how weird my life was.
         “Pizza sound good for dinner?” I said, crossing the room to leaf through the yellow pages
on the counter.
         “Now, over a year without Double Dave‟s and you ask me that?” Thomas said with a
grin. “Should we…?” He indicated M.D. with his head.
         I picked up the phone. “Nah. You‟re right; we shouldn‟t bother her.” Especially since
she was violent when you woke her up.
         “Yeah, she‟d probably throw a fit over our nutrition again. So she‟s keeping the sofa?”
         “Unless she wakes up, I guess so.” I said grudgingly, starting to punch in numbers. “It‟s
that or carry her.” Way too dangerous to try if she wasn‟t stuffed with horse tranquilizer.
         Thomas looked at her and smiled. “Kinda cute when she‟s human and asleep, isn‟t she?”
         I suddenly lost track of what number I was on. “Huh?” I said, jerking around to look at
him.
        “Well, now that she doesn‟t look like she‟s ten years old and isn‟t so scrawny, she isn‟t
so bad looking.”
        I just stared at him. Thomas never talked about M.D. like this; he claimed he had abso-
lutely no interest in her, and I believed him. Since I wasn‟t saying anything, just staring, he kept
going.
        “I mean, I‟d never go after her—well, y‟know, more than I do to torture her, but nope.
Not half bad. Don‟t you think so?”
        I paused. I hadn‟t really thought about it hard. After a second, I told the truth, which
probably wasn‟t the smartest thing to do. “Actually, I think I like her as a Senyan better.”
        His eyebrows rose. “Really now?”
        I shrugged, already realizing that saying that to him was probably a bad idea. I started
redialing the number, hoping that Thomas would shrug back and the conversation would be over.
        “How come?”
        “I don‟t know.” I answered queasily, getting a feeling that I was digging myself a hole. “I
just kind of thought she was prettier that way.”
        “You‟ve got a Michael Jackson idea of pretty.” Thomas decided.
        I nearly swore. I‟d lost track of the number again.
        “Thomas!”
        “I mean, she doesn‟t kill me in normal form or anything but she looks a lot better as an
Earthling. You must have some kind of thing for flat little girls.”
        “You know, if she wakes up, I don‟t think I‟m going to stop her when she tries to kill
you.” I pointed out.
        “She‟d take „flat little girl‟ as a compliment, except for maybe the girl part, which she
probably wouldn‟t even remember.” He pointed out, and he was probably right. “Besides, she‟s
not just asleep, she‟s dead. If Nazis burning down a bar didn‟t wake her up, me talking won‟t
either.” He snapped his fingers right next to her ear to demonstrate. I sighed, but shouting at him
wouldn‟t help my cause.
        “She‟s looks better to you as an Earthling because you are an Earthling.” I said with a
sigh, hanging up the phone. “Of course you‟d think she‟s prettier that way; it‟s more natural to
you.”
        “But not to you?”
        I shrugged. “I don‟t know. I guess I‟ve just kind of gotten used to her looking the way
she does. Maybe it‟s „cause I see her more than you do. Maybe I do have a Michael Jackson
complex, god, I don‟t know.”
        “Yeah but why do you think she‟s prettier? Be specific.”
        I sighed. “Do we really have to talk about this with her in the same room?”
        “Jeezus, you‟re as bad as she is. I swear, I‟m the only person in this house who‟s honest
about what they think!” I bit back another sigh and hoped he wouldn‟t go ranting on this again;
no offense to him, but he could go on forever. “Come on, I haven‟t done anything too bad. I‟m
not even analyzing your sex life yet!”
        Well, yeah, that was true.
        “…Or your Star Trek fantasies or whatever it is your energies go to, since they obviously
have to go somewhere without you staining the sheets.”
        He was actually being pretty delicate, for him.
        I gave her another glance. Still sleeping like she‟d died, curled into that tiny little ball.
        “Is it cuz she‟s black?” He asked curiously.
         I stared at him. “Huh?”
         “Didn‟t think so. Just checking. You wouldn‟t believe how many people get picky over
race; girls have actually turned me down because I‟m Mexican, can you believe it?”
         I shrugged. “Of course I can; I‟m white.”
         Looking a little annoyed, he sighed. “You‟re not going to admit it on your own, are you?”
         “What?” I asked blankly.
         “You have no idea what I‟m talking about.”
         “No clue.”
         “Well, at least that‟s normal. About M.D.”
         “Okay. What about her?”
         “You know.”
         “No I don‟t.”
         “Her girliness.”
         “What girliness?” I demanded, getting fed up.
         “Exactly!” He cried triumphantly. Then he rolled his eyes and groaned. With a look of
abject pain, he started to rub his temples and then began talking to the TV, or at least that‟s what
I guessed he was doing. “Why do I even bother trying to get to his level? We‟re in different
buildings! God, it hurts!”
         I sighed. He was on one of his rhetorical jags again. I picked up the phone again and be-
gan punching the phone number in for the third time, trying to tune him out. Not possible.
         “I mean, it‟s obvious! What does he think I am, stupid? All right, that‟s enough, I‟m
going to be blunt and to hell with his insecurities.” He finally started talking to me again, which
was a relief because I was about to lose it if he kept expostulating at the screen. “Raige, how did
you think I wouldn‟t get it?”
         “What?” I asked, gesturing at him with the receiver in frustration. It was tempting to im-
itate Venna and shout, „speak sense, Earthling!‟ “Get what?”
         “Pain! Pain!” He cried, clutching his chest. “Jeezus Christ, man, M.D. alone has enough
sexual denial in her to fuel the Catholic Church, so for god‟s sake, give it up! You like her, and
if you ever let yourself, she‟d probably make you pretty damn horny.”
         The phone crashed to the floor. I gaped at him.
         Looking very smug, Thomas grinned and turned back to the TV. “Ha! I win!”
         I tried to speak but nothing happened.
         “Am I a genius?” Thomas asked the TV screen. “I‟m a genius. Like I even need to be;
it‟s so freaking obvious…”
         “What the fuck are you talking about?” I shrieked, shoving my hair out of my eyes.
         “Careful, man. You‟ll wake M.D. up.”
         Okay. I admit that I brought that on myself.
         “How… how did you come up with that?” I asked normally, laughing.
         Thomas rolled his eyes. “Well, first of all, you hit soprano. Second, you swore. You on-
ly do that when you get pushed pretty far and forget the whole „no cussing around the impres-
sionable little aliens‟ thing.”
         I ran my fingers back through my hair in exasperation.
         “And third, you‟re doing that, which you only do when you get nervous and fidgety.”
         I paused for a second and then pulled my hand down. “Well, sorry, but no. Not true.”
         “Really? Then how come, number four, you‟re blushing?”
        Damn. Now he was going to be sure that he was right, no matter what I said or did. I
was already getting the feeling that this was a lost case, but I tried anyway. “Because you‟re talk-
ing about this.”
        He thought on that a second. “Hmm. Well, that‟s true, you do get all red and rashy when
this sort of thing comes up. But come on. You think Senyan M.D.‟s cute and the only thing that
could cloud your mind that much…”
        “No, no, I said pretty. Not cute. That would be disturbing and wrong. She‟s just… her.”
Nothing against her, but M.D. just isn‟t gorgeous, and she never should be.
        Thomas left the sofa, turned off the TV, and leaned on the counter across from me.
“Come on. I know you used to have a crush on her.”
        I rested my elbow on the counter and buried my fingers in my hair with a sigh. He‟d
found this out on a really late night when we were both on the verge of falling asleep and I‟d got-
ten stupid and a little talkative. It‟d been idol worship mostly and now I knew that M.D. wasn‟t
nearly as invincible as I‟d thought she was, even though she tried and pretended. At least he
didn‟t bother me about this much; he knew it was a sore point with me.
        “That was a long time ago, Thomas, and it wasn‟t exactly healthy.” I groaned.
        “So you don‟t feel even close to that way anymore.”
        “No!” I virtually shouted, slamming my fist into the counter. Then I thought harder about
it. “Well…” I sighed again in frustration. My voice sounded on the verge of whining. “God, I
don‟t know…”
        Thomas gave me a knowing look. “Ever since the Science Department.”
        I winced. “You knew that?”
        Looking insulted, he put his hands to his chest. “I‟m Thomas Andreas Rodriguez.” I
looked blank. “The sex pervert, remember? I‟m not blind, and I‟m not stupid either, and even if
I was both, I still would‟ve known it. Honest to God, did you really think I wouldn’t have no-
ticed that soft look in your eyes when she was holding on to you?” He smiled nostalgically. “Not
even mentioning that expression on your face when she was getting twitchy in your lap. God, it
was beautiful; I almost thought you had poison ivy down your pants.”
        I groaned with exasperation. “Will you leave me alone?”
        “Are you kidding?” He replied. “This is my area of expertise! No way am I letting you
blunder around on your own. It‟d be like letting a chicken run around with its head chopped off.
I like happy endings.”
        “Yeah, because God knows I need some excitement in my life.”
        “Hey, you getting sarcastic is just telling me I‟m right. Besides, no matter how hard you
try, you‟ll never be in Bogart‟s league for cranky. You plan to ask her?”
        “Huh?” He‟d lost me again.
        He looked pained. “You know, ask? As in out?” When he saw my face, his eyes went
wide and he breathed, “My god, you really are pathetic. Well, are you at least going to tell her?”
        I took a deep breath. In a second, I was going to scream again, and I knew M.D. was as-
leep this time. “Look,” I said slowly, “I get this sort of stuff all the time. You know, the whole
puberty thing? It always goes away in a day or so.”
        Thomas looked at me mournfully. “It‟s so sad, watching you lie to yourself.”
        “Dammit, I am not lying to myself!” Okay, so I was screaming again. Big deal.
        “You just keep fussing with your hair like that; it‟ll make everything better.” Thomas ad-
vised with a smile, pointing up at me.
         I paused. I hadn‟t even realized I was doing it. With a sigh of disgust, I threw my arm
down. “It will go away in a day or so!” I insisted.
         “It‟s been a day and guess what? It ain‟t gone away.” Thomas reminded me.
         “Okay, so it‟s taking longer than usual.” I said. “Of course it would since… uh… crap.” I
buried my face in my hands.
         He sighed. “Because she… acted nice.” He grinned. “I could probably be more in-depth,
but seeing how this is going already… Jeezus, man, you‟re turning bright red.” He sounded be-
mused. “This really is killing you, isn‟t it? No telling what you would‟ve done if you had gotten
that hard-on in the cab.”
         I groaned, sorry I‟d said anything at all.
         “It‟s not my fault. You‟re the one who‟s joined M.D. in Happy Catholic Denial Land,
not me.”
         “I‟m not in—” That time I managed to cut myself off before I fell into it. “What‟s with
the Dear Abby treatment all of a sudden? You don‟t act like this normally.”
         Thomas shrugged. “Because without me, nobody else would do it. Like I said, I like
happy endings. And seeing a guy like you stuck without a girlfriend is doubly sad, since you‟re
one of the few guys who actually deserve one. Besides, before she conked out, M.D. actually bit
her tongue and apologized while you were in the shower, so I figured I might as well pass the
face-the-music mood on. You better take advantage of this, man; it won‟t last long.”
         I raised an eyebrow. “And how are you managing to keep from mentioning…” I paused.
         Thomas looked in pain. “For god‟s sake, just say the freaking word. Lightning won‟t
strike you.”
         “No.”
         “C‟mon, it‟ll be therapeutic.”
         “Fine, sex! Jeezus, Thomas!”
         He gestured to the heavens. “We have a breakthrough! Maybe you have some potential
after all! My next task: to teach you masturbating is fun. Maybe I will get you to lose your vir-
ginity to something before you‟re twenty-five.”
         There was nothing I could do but ignore him. “Until now, you haven‟t said it the whole
conversation. How?”
         “Simple: I‟m trying not to think about it. Lord, it‟s hard; don‟t know how you pull it off
every day. So far, I‟ve just been telling myself over and over that I‟m giving you therapy, and
that‟s been working pretty well for me. For me, not for you; you‟re still going to be forty years
old before you tell M.D. anything, never mind ask her. And she‟s going to be forty years old be-
fore the thought even enters her mind.” He frowned. “Nah, probably eighty. She‟s proven her
obliviousness.”
         “She‟d probably have a heart attack! And anyway, there‟s no fucking point! She‟s fuck-
ing neutered!” I cried, resisting the urge to pound on the counter.
         The fact that I was finally getting upset didn‟t seem to bother Thomas. Then again, he‟d
faced Bogart in full temper so I probably couldn‟t do much to intimidate him.
         “So you wouldn‟t kiss her?”
         “No! There‟s no—”
         “I heard you the first time; I‟m not deaf either. What if she was human?”
         I‟d calmed down enough to remember that shouting was definitely not a good idea, but I
was still in a bad mood. Talking about stuff like this was not how I‟d planned to spend my even-
ing. “No. Just because she‟s human doesn‟t mean she‟d… you know. She‟s M.D.!”
         “What if there were no strings attached?”
         This was getting stupid. “It‟s M.D. „No strings attached‟ to her means sock puppets.”
         “God, this is like trying to break concrete.” Thomas said to himself, rolling his eyes.
“How do you live like this? Fine, I‟m pulling you out of your square.”
         “Oh, I‟m in a square now. And here I thought I was in Happy Catholic Denial Land.”
         “Either way, you‟re not staying there.”
         “Go for it.” I said, drawing confidence since for once I felt like I was controlling the ar-
gument. The faster he ran out of steam and left me alone, the better.
         “What if it was in your dreams?”
         I already had my mouth open to destroy whatever he said, but that shut me up. With a
sigh, I slumped backwards in defeat. He‟d got me.
         Thomas looked surprised. “That was actually a bigger reaction than I thought I‟d get
from you.”
         “Look,” I snapped, “just because I‟m repressed doesn‟t mean I can control my subcons-
cious.”
         He paused, and his expression changed. “Ooh, ouch. So when you—”
         “Don‟t ask me that!” I shrieked.
         “There we go!” Thomas cried exuberantly. “You‟ve admitted it! It‟s not a daylong thing!
Not to mention that actually getting you pissed off is improvement.”
         I was starting to feel like I was beating my head against the wall. Nothing I said would
dissuade him, and the more I tried, the more slips I made. I could probably have Venna read my
mind and tell him and he still wouldn‟t believe it. About the only good thing about this, I de-
cided, was that M.D. hadn‟t woken up during the whole thing.
         Giving up, I picked up the phone. “You want pepperoni or cheese?”
         He wasn‟t listening; he was off talking to himself again. “Jeezus Christ, everyone tells me
I‟m the most immature person here but I‟m the only person in this house who can handle sex.
Heck, I‟m the only person who can even say it! I swear, I‟m the most mature, well-adjusted one
of you! Y‟all‟re so repressed, it‟s depressing. Everyone here but me is going to die single and a
virgin and I am going to cry so hard at all of y‟all‟s funerals.”
         “Cheese it is, then.” I declared, and started punching in the numbers. “God knows we
need more cheese.”




                                     15: Vaygo. Yay.
                                    PIN Specialist Grey
         “I told you no more strenuous exercise!” The Science doctor growled as I walked stiffly
into her office. “What‟s your excuse? It‟d better be good.”
         I looked at the chair but decided not to sit down because it would hurt in six places.
“Job.”
         She muttered uncomplimentary things about my profession as she put her hands on my
shoulders and back, poking and prodding. She had to get on a stool to reach my neck. “Damn
specialists, always think they know better than the doctor and then they go and dislocate three
vertebrae or lose a kidney or get permanent short-term memory loss. You‟d think they‟d learn,
but nope, they never do. You‟re the worst, Grey! You‟ve been a specialist for… what, fifteen
years now?”
         “Longer.” I winced. “Please don‟t do that.”
         “Fine, twenty years but nope, you never learn, you‟re as bad as some green-ass grunt.”
But she stopped pressing at my abdomen, which I was very thankful for. “God only knows why
you haven‟t left this building in a casket yet. Bend over.”
         I sighed but complied, or attempted to. Normally I could put my knuckles on the floor,
but this time around I didn‟t even get to my ankles.
         “What were you doing? Yoga?” She snapped.
         “Grykling.”
         “A Flikzaz and a Grykling in the same week? Jeezus Christ, Grey, what‟re they trying to
do, kill you? Send a grunt to handle it!”
         Over my rotting carcass. “They couldn‟t handle wood hamsters.”
         She ignored me. “Wonderful. Just wonderful. You‟re going to be as flexible as plywood
for at least a week now. I hope you‟re happy.”
         “I‟m not.” I said, cutting off a groan as I straightened back up, carefully putting my hands
to my spine. My lower back was feeling the worst of it.
         “You‟re going to feel like crap for weeks, Grey, and I am going to enjoy every minute of
it.” She said, snatching the empty bottle from my hand and going to the cabinet to find the pain-
killers. “No telling how many muscles you‟ve ruined while that Grykling tried to tenderize you.
Guessing by the way you,” she paused to make air quotes, “„walked‟ in here, I‟d say enough to
easily get medical leave. I don‟t even want to know what the hell you did to your back.”
         “Neither do I.” I muttered, gingerly rubbing.
         “For god‟s sake, take a week off and go to a spa!”
         “I don‟t do spas.” I told her, trying to discern how to pick up my gear without hurting my
back more.
         “What is it with you specialists and spas? I‟ve never met a specialist who‟d willingly go
to one; beating up aliens and toting guns in Corvettes, aren‟t you guys secure yet?” She frowned
at the prescription. “How‟d you go through these so fast?”
         “I spilled the bottle.” I said.
         “Right, of course you did. You spilled the bottle last week too.”
         “I‟m accident-prone.”
         “No kidding. Grey, take a week off before you get habituated!”
         “No.”
         Bottle filled, the doctor stormed towards me and glared. She was a very short woman;
her head didn‟t quite reach my armpit. “Take a week off.” She hissed, shaking the pill bottle un-
der my jaw.
         “I‟m not taking a week off.” I said.
        “Five days. Three. Jeezus, even one. One day off and a massage.”
        “No. Give me my pills.”
        Suddenly her eyes narrowed slyly. She smiled. “Try and get them.” She bent over and
set the bottle on the floor. I looked at them. Held back a sigh.
        “Stop acting so childish.” I said.
        “I thought so.” She said.
        I was silent but refused to show anything in my expression.
        “Don‟t pull that Agent Smith face on me, Grey, I‟ve dealt with you too often.” Damn.
“I‟ll make you a deal. Take a day off, and I promise you that I will stop nagging you and I‟ll
give you your pills.”
        “No.” I said.
        “Why? Even you aren‟t this devoted to your career usually! Why are you so set on stay-
ing at work, even if it puts you in traction?” She screamed. Then her eyes lit up. “Oh. Oh. It‟s
about that Rawlins girl who‟s popped up again, isn‟t it? She‟s heading towards your sector, isn‟t
she?” When I stayed silent, she threw her arms up. “Is that what you‟re worried about, missing
your big career-booster? If you take a day off, I‟ll stop nagging, let you have your pills without,
god forbid, bending over, and get in touch with your little comtoy, Bob, make sure you‟ll find
out if Rawlins gets caught. If she does, I‟ll bet I can get you to sign the paperwork. Unlike you
and your boyfriend, I‟m not in trouble yet. Now how about that? Do we have a deal?”
        “Taneesha…”
        She nudged the pill bottle with her toe, making it rattle. “Do we have a deal?” She re-
peated.
                                                       
        “You’re taking a day off?” Bob shrieked. His volume made my earpiece squeal. “Now?”
        “She gave me no other choice.” I said with a wince.
        “You mean little Taneesha Pritchard gave you no other choice? For Christ‟s sake, Grey,
you could turn her into hamburger with both arms tied behind your back!”
        “Trust me.” I said, popping two of my pills. “She gave me no other choice.”
        He sighed. “How can you can say things like that and still keep from sounding pathetic?”
        “We learn it in specialist school, right after how to fracture ribs. Right now, a mech-suit
could fight better than I could.” I said. “I‟ve made the arrangements; the grunt will take anything
to me that‟s important.”
        He grumbled a little but gave in. “Well, it‟s just as well you‟re not busy. Remember
Charlene Unnigrutt? You know the significance of the name, right?”
        “Son of the leader of Beer Wise, isn‟t he?”
        “Yup he‟s the heir to that booze fortune. Now, consider this. The father‟s still alive and
he lives in your sector. The kids are going to your sector. Does this seem like coincidence to
you?”
        “They‟re going to Vaygo to see him.” I paused. “Why?”
        “Because he‟s one of their dads. Because he‟s got cash. Neither of the other two has
family in the area; I can‟t think why else they‟d be going. I know you‟re off, but that means
you‟re on your time.” I could hear his smile. “Will you be too busy sitting on your butt watching
football to do some good old fashioned stalking?”
        I smiled. This week kept getting better. “God, I love you!” I cried.
        “I know, I know. You should. If it weren‟t for me, you‟d get beat up by doctors who
didn‟t even go through basic training.” He answered. “Enjoy your day off, big guy.”
       “I will.” I assured him. My cheeks were growing sore. “I will.”

                                    Annabelle Rawlins
        After a few hours of driving, I began to see dark shapes looming in the distance. It was
drizzling and disgustingly foggy, making for some rather icky driving conditions. The moisture
and the wind from the motorcycle made us shiver. This time I could understand, forgive, and
almost be glad that Thomas was clinging to me; a ripped up undershirt doesn‟t do much to keep
you warm. (And trust me, as a cold-shy Senyan, I know about being freezing.) Our breaths left
streams of vapor behind us.
        “Finally.” I bellowed over the engine. “Some geography I actually know.”
        “Same.” Raige agreed from Thomas‟s shoulder. He was back in his furry monkey-thing
form, curled up against the icy wind.
        “Well, good.” Thomas shouted. “Explain it to the Texan kid who doesn‟t.”
        Since I was focusing on driving, Raige took care of it. “Vaygo and Old Faithful aren‟t
really all that far apart from each other. The reason they‟re so different—Vaygo‟s hot and dry,
Old Faithful‟s cold and wet—is the mountains.”
        “Didn‟t they ever teach you about the orographic effect in Geography?” I added.
        “I had better things to do in class than listen to what the teacher said.” He retorted. “So
how‟re we supposed to get onto the other side?”
        “There‟re a few tunnels going through.” I yelled. “Saved people time and money. The
one we‟re taking is about the only one that isn‟t regularly broken down from rock-falls and stuff
like that, if I remember Tom and Angelica complaining right. Get out some money; I think
there‟s a toll.”
        The road stretched on and on and the mountains grew into hulking behemoths shrouded
with fog. Somehow, the clouds didn‟t muffle their appearance; it only made them more intimi-
dating. They were very unfriendly-looking mountains. Aqua would‟ve probably remarked that
the bad weather had made them cranky.
        “Wow.” Thomas said. “I‟m sure glad we don‟t have to go over those.”
        And then the tunnel swallowed us up. Sadly, the fog followed us in.
        If anything, the close quarters of the dark tunnel made the motorcycle sound louder. It
smelled musty, like so much moisture in the exhaust-leaden air had caused mildew to grow on
the walls. At least it was slightly warmer, heated by car engines. It was dimly lit and I had to
pull over so I could find the headlight without smashing into anything. We zoomed through for
about a half-hour— about half the time it would take, if I remembered correctly, but then we ran
into difficulties.
        “Whoa, hold it!” I braked sharply.
        Traffic was completely backed up. Parking lot.
        We groaned.
        “Well, this is just smitch.” I said.
        “I thought you said this one didn‟t get blocked much!” Thomas protested.
        “I know what I said and I thought I was right!” I retorted. “Maybe Tom and Angelica
were talking about something else.” I frowned. “I wonder why they didn‟t put up a sign warning
us or something.”
         Suddenly traffic began to move. After about twenty feet, just as my hope was going up,
we stopped again. Then, after a few minutes, we moved another twenty feet. The oncoming
traffic from Vaygo to Old Faithful was moving fine and seemed to be having no problems.
         “Well, the road isn‟t blocked. So what‟s going on?” Thomas asked.
         “I don‟t know.” Raige said. “Maybe there was an accident on our side.”
         “That or the toll road‟s taking longer than usual.” I said, annoyed but slightly relieved. If
the road had been blocked, we would‟ve had to sit there for who-knew-how-long. At least we
were moving, however slowly.
         We waited impatiently. After about twenty minutes, I could officially declare I was
bored crazy, and I began to slowly and methodically beat my forehead against a handlebar.
         “This is taaaaking soooo loooooong.” I groaned.
         “We know!” Both Thomas and Raige shouted, and Thomas added, “And we‟re feeling
the pain, thanks to you. Quick, let‟s talk about something.”
         “This traffic is taaaaking—” I started.
         “Something else.” Thomas said. “Before you do some permanent damage to your brain.”
         “What use is a brain?” I droned, flopping forward and letting the handlebars support all
of my upper body. “We‟ll all be senile by the time we get out of here!”
         “Raige, you talk about something.” He said.
         “Like what?”
         “I don‟t care; anything‟s better than listening to M.D. gripe about traffic.”
         “But it‟s taaaaking soooo—yeeeeek!”
         “Thomas!”
         “Don‟t „Thomas‟ me!” The jock shouted, having finally lost his temper. “If I‟m going to
be stuck in traffic listening to the girl in front of me whine without end, I at least have the right to
touch her until she stops!”
         Never underestimate the power of negative reinforcement. “I‟ll stop I‟ll stop I‟ll stop!” I
blurted, and Thomas pulled his hands away.
         “See? Worked like a charm.” Thomas said.
         Raige sounded pained. “Great. Now her soul‟s shattered.”
         “I‟ve been violated.” I said quietly.
         “Oh, you haven‟t been violated.” Thomas retorted. “You want to be violated, lean back a
little—”
         I bolted off the Harley and he had to jump off it too to keep from getting pinned. A me-
tallic thud rippled through the air as it keeled over onto the asphalt.
         “At least the car behind us isn‟t getting bored.” Raige remarked dryly.
                                                         
         It took three solid minutes of persuasion to get me back on the bike with Thomas still
there. However, when I did, I stopped griping about traffic and Thomas stopped doing untoward
things. Our conversation went on to more normal things.
         “What‟d y‟all miss most about Earth?” Thomas asked. “Not people, it has to be things.”
         “Nothing.” I said. “Only want Todd. I‟m not missing anything.”
         “That‟s because you didn‟t have anything to miss.” Raige pointed out. “Me, I missed piz-
za, cable TV, hamburgers, computers, Internet, fanfiction…”
         “You‟re right.” I said. “I didn‟t have any of that.”
         Thomas shrugged from behind me. “Definitely miss the pizza. You can make it yourself,
of course… but it‟s not the same.”
          “Yeah. Not greasy at all.” Raige agreed.
          I shuddered and drove another six feet forward. “I cannot believe you guys live off the
stuff.”
        “You only live once, and we won‟t be coming back here, I think.” Thomas said. “We
need to get what we can. I‟ll miss Pokemon.”
        I snorted. “Treehouse is heaven because it doesn’t have Pokemon. The merchandise…
bleargh.”
        Thomas grinned. “You just don‟t like them because the plushies give you the creeps.”
        Raige laughed.
        “They watch me!” I protested. “I swear, they watch me!”
        “Do all Senyan hate cute things, or is it just you?”
        I imagined Thomas giving Venna a Pikachu plushie. In my mental picture, Venna
blinked confusedly… then tore off its head. “I think it‟s a Senyan thing.”
        Then we got into a debate on plushies. My opinion of them was that they were creepy.
Thomas thought they were a little saccharine, but not bad, especially since normal girls (he gave
me a significant look there) appreciated them. Raige loved them to death. That didn‟t surprise
me a bit.
        Thomas was just discussing how I would never own puppies in my later life when I saw
bad news. My face went slack
        “No.” I said.
        “Yes, you are a puppy-phobe!”
        “Forget that, that‟s not what I meant!” I cried. “Pinheads ho!”
        “Huh?” Thomas stood up a little on the bike by leaning on my shoulders. I nearly
brained myself on the handlebars.
        “Hey!”
        He ignored me. “Don‟t worry, babe, they don‟t know who you are. And we‟re full-blood
human, they can‟t do anything to us.”
        “But… but…” I stammered. “You…”
        “Relax. I‟m the ubiquitous Mexican immigrant. They won‟t care. The specialists are the
guys with rings of gold on their shoulders, right?”
        “Yeah.”
        “There aren‟t any, I looked. So take it easy, we‟ll just let them scan us and go on
through.”
        “Thomas!” I snapped. “In case you forgot, one of us isn’t full-blood human.”
        “I changed you, babe. You‟re as human as—”
        “Not me! Raige!” I cried. “What‟ll we say about him, huh? That he‟s a pet? They‟ll bag
us on that!”
        “Will you take it easy?” Thomas said soothingly. “I‟ll just change him back.”
        “On a motorcycle made for two? And what would the guys behind us think if he got
dressed in the middle of the street? We‟ve already gave them enough of a show already, don‟t
you think?” I asked. If he gave me a believable explanation for this, I deserved to be buried in
plushies.
        He was silent for a second. “Hmm.”
        “Just change me into something so small they won‟t notice.” Raige suggested. “It‟s no
problem, kid. We‟ll be fine.”
        I knew he was right, but I still felt that nagging feeling of apprehension. “I don‟t
know…”
        “Well, what else can we do?” Thomas asked. “We can‟t do a U-turn; there‟s a concrete
barrier, and we‟re boxed in by traffic anyway. Christ, you‟re paranoid. We‟ll get through easy.
Not everyone‟s out to get us.”
        “That‟s just what they want you to think.” I muttered to myself.
        Thomas touched Raige, and he shrank into a mouse that promptly crawled into one of the
giant pockets in his camo pants.
        “All good?” Thomas asked.
        I swallowed. “We‟re up next.”
        “It‟ll be all right.” He said. “Trust me. We‟ll get through just fine.”
        In no way did I share Thomas‟s confidence, but there was no way to go but forward. An-
xious and tense, I slowly edged the Harley up, but I stayed as far back as possible and didn‟t turn
off the engine. The sight of the hulking people in navy blue was giving me a bad case of adrena-
line.
        Thomas smiled cheerily. “Howdy guys. What do you need?”
        “It‟s him!” One of the grunts replied, and reached for him. My levitation automatically
kicked in. Despite its weight, the wheels made it astoundingly easy to sharply drag the motor-
cycle back twenty feet before having to stop or hit something. From the surface, it could look
like I hit it into reverse. Let‟s just hope none of the pinheads were motorcycle experts and knew
that no Harley had that gear.
        “Hey!” I cried. “What—”
        They cut me off, assuming I was asking, “What‟s going on?” “This boy is a criminal.
He‟s ours.” One of the grunts told me. They were pulling out tranq-guns slowly as though doing
it quickly might panic me. “Now just stop the bike and stay calm.”
        Stay calm, indeed! We‟ll get through easy, babe. Relax, babe. Take it easy, babe. Not
everyone‟s out to get us, babe. Don‟t be so paranoid, babe. You know, I have a frogging reason
to be paranoid!
        Suddenly one grunt said, “Take her too. She‟s involved.”
        “Go! Go!” Thomas shouted in my ear. “Gogogo!”
        He didn‟t need to tell me that. I‟d ground hard on the accelerator before he finished talk-
ing and fed the loyal machine a big spoonful of bang-juice.
        The engine roared to life and yanked us forward much quicker than I anticipated. Caught
almost as off-guard as the grunts, I hauled the handlebars brutally just in time to prevent one of
them from becoming road-kill, though I came close enough for her to grab my collar. I was
nearly yanked off the bike, but Thomas tightened his grip around my waist and Raige‟s hand-
stitching thankfully gave way fairly easily. My clothing ripped, leaving me off-balance and des-
perately trying to keep the motorcycle from crashing over without toppling off myself. The re-
sulting panic-stricken, butterfly steering was wild enough to keep the grunts from hitting us.
With Thomas‟s help, I finally regained my balance as we swerved drunkenly into the other half
of the tunnel.
        Now that I was back in the saddle and could move over thirty without throwing myself to
the asphalt, the motorcycle accelerated and we streaked down to the remainder of the passage,
nearly running over another two grunts in my way. Only Biff‟s false reflexes kept me upright
without killing anybody. The old Harley‟s stressed engine was taking a while to get up to speed.
We could only pray to stay ahead of the pinheads.
        “Just like old times!” I shouted as I finally hit seventy-five. Adrenaline was making me
manic and perhaps it was because I was using some of Biff‟s knowledge, but my voice devel-
oped just a tinge of a Vaygan accent. “Just like old times! We‟re gonna die in a blaze of flaming
glory!”
        “We won‟t die!” Thomas cried.
        “Oh yeah, I‟m really going to believe you after your last brilliant premonition!” I bel-
lowed.
        “Incoming.” Thomas shouted, but he didn‟t need to. A black Corvette had just growled
up into my mirror. Naturally their engines weren‟t slow on the uptake. And they could drive a
lot better than I could.
        “Slow them down!” Thomas yelled. “You‟re the apprentice; think of something!”
        Hitting an idea, I twisted around on the motorcycle and pointed to the empty road behind
me, forcing myself to kick down the rising hysteria and concentrate. I could almost hear Bogart
berating me. Concentration! It’s all about concentration! Don’t look at me shouting at
you! Just concentrate! I gathered as much magical energy as I could and wrenched brutally.
        Flames burst into life, feeding off the tarmac. The resounding explosion made my ears
ring and heat must‟ve blasted against Thomas‟s back, but we were moving too fast for the explo-
sion‟s force to be noticeable. I didn‟t know whether that that would surprise the pinhead enough
to make him brake, but it was all I could do.
        Suddenly Thomas‟s eyes went wide. He screamed. Inferring danger, I immediately
twisted to face the road again and then screamed myself. We were on a suicide race towards a
Chevy, at the very edge of our lane. Unlike us, it was going the speed limit of thirty miles an
hour.
        Stopping never entered my mind. I hauled the Harley sideways and we squeezed onto the
painfully narrow shoulder without slowing down.
        It was close. The mirror smashed into the Chevy‟s side and broke off, crashing to the
road, and our handlebar became dangerously close to joining it, shrieking sparks against the
driver‟s door, but we didn‟t lose any limbs and neither did the truck driver. Thomas and I (and,
in his pocket, probably Raige) screamed in terror the whole time. But then we were past it and
we didn‟t have time to quake in the aftermath.
        I let out a manic giggle. “Have I ever told you how much I love driving this thing? Hee-
hee, yes I do, yes I do!”
        Dodging cars and tranqs by taking advantage of my maneuverability, I careened in and
out of lanes like a dizzy cheetah, praying that Biff‟s subconscious could handle it. So far, I
hadn‟t killed anyone, but my luck had never lasted for more than a few minutes.
        “What do we do?” Thomas shouted in my ear desperately.
        “Give me time, Muhammad!” I replied. “I‟m not Allah!”
        My inner rat raced for a way to get out of this. I was staying ahead for now, but only be-
cause the motorcycle was more agile than the Corvette and kept slipping through traffic. As
soon as I got out of the tunnel and into the Vaygo Desert, I‟d be toast. The empty highway and
barren wasteland would make it easy for the pinheads‟ cars to catch me without causing acci-
dents.
        The light at the end of the tunnel grew and that, along with our earlier conjectures of why
traffic had been moving so slowly, gave me my idea. I only had to hold out until then. After
that, we would have it at least a little easier.
        “I think I‟ve got an idea!” I cried.
         And suddenly we were out, out into the bright, brazen sunshine. Vaygo wasn‟t foggy.
I‟d made it.
         Time to keep that Corvette from following us.
         “Scream if we‟re about to hit something.” I ordered Thomas.
         Then I turned again to look behind me, keeping one hand on the handlebars again and
trying to hold it straight. I was in luck. There weren‟t any civilian cars straight under the tun-
nel‟s exit for the moment.
         I pointed to the mountain, above the tunnel. Once again, I concentrated and twisted.
         The uncontrollable fiery explosion did exactly what I‟d wanted, which was definitely a
first. It blew a good ton of rock loose, which naturally crashed down, almost completely block-
ing the tunnel. It might let a small child out, but not a bulky pinhead.
         I let out a howl of adrenaline-charged victory. Thomas joined me. Then I turned back
around and resumed driving in the more conventional manner, cackling gleefully.
         “Just like old times.” I said. “Just like old times.”
         Raige suddenly popped up in his furry monkey-thing shape again. Thomas had changed
him back.
         “Oh lord.” Raige squeaked breathlessly. “I thought we were dead.”
         “So did I!” I cried. “I can‟t believe we pulled that off!”
         “Neither can I.” Thomas replied.
         “Let‟s stop. I‟m still not sure my heart hasn‟t stopped.” Raige said.
         “No go, buddy boy. Once they get out of the tunnel dead zone, either by digging through
or just going out the other way, they‟ll call more pinheads. No way am I stopping.”
         “And when they come?” Raige asked fearfully. “They‟ll catch us halfway.”
         I shrugged. “Hopefully we‟ll think of something by then.”
         My goal was in sight. We were in Todd‟s city. It made me all the more impatient.
                                   PIN Specialist Grey
        I stopped in front of the mansion on the perfectly manicured lawn. With a quiet groan, I
pulled myself out of the seat. Still hurt. Rolling my stiff shoulders carefully, I locked the Cor-
vette and walked up to the porch. It alone was about as big as my apartment bedroom.
        I rang the doorbell. After a minute or so, just when I was thinking he wasn‟t home, the
door slowly creaked open.
        A man stood in the doorway. Few people were as tall as I was, but he was one of them,
and almost as solid.
        “Are you Mr. Unnigrutt?” I asked.
        “Yeah.” He didn‟t look very interested or very happy. “Whatever you‟re selling, I don‟t
want it.”
        He began to shut the door, as though slamming it was too much effort.
        “I‟m here to talk to you about Charlene.” This was my duty; someone had to inform the
man about his son abruptly returning to the planet, and I might as well try and make up for my
bad karma.
        George Unnigrutt froze, went very pale, and slumped against the doorway. After a
second in which his lips shook, he swallowed very carefully, looked me in the eye, and said
slowly but clearly, “What do you know about my son?”
                                   Charlene Unnigrutt

         Oddly enough, no PIN agents came roaring out of Vaygo to kill us. We couldn‟t figure it
out. We‟d been giant targets in the middle of the Vaygo Desert. But nothing. Not even a police
officer asking why we were zooming around at about twenty miles above the speed limit.
         “Weird.” I remarked. “Bob talked about the guy who handled Vaygo like he was, you
know, competent.”
         “Maybe he‟s on vacation.” Thomas said.
         M.D. snorted. “Come on. Pinheads don‟t take vacations.”
         In fact, we didn‟t have any problems until we got to Vaygo. And it wasn‟t the navy blue
suit kind. It was the M.D. kind. Driving like this for so long had completely ruined her nerves,
but of course, she wouldn‟t admit it. Oh no, she claimed the few minutes of getting gas would
rest her just fine. God, I bet she wouldn‟t ask for directions either.
         “Come on, babe.” Thomas said after we‟d gotten gas, then parked and grabbed a map,
just to make sure we were going the right way. (I was familiar with the big city, not the tiny sub-
urbs like this one.) “Let‟s take an hour break for dinner. There‟s a hotel right next door to this
place.”
         “We aren‟t downtown yet. We‟ll stop there.” She said tenaciously, frowning at the
pamphlet as though it were in code. “Is this thing upside down or something, or do you Vaygans
write the way you talk?”
         “You‟re going to get us all killed.” He pointed out.
         “No I won‟t.” She said stubbornly, tugging her shirt back over her shoulder from where
it‟d slipped.
         “Kid, you‟ve been weaving in your lane for the past hour.” I said. “We need to rest.”
         “But—” She‟d started to whine now, which both Thomas and I knew meant she was
worn down enough that she was resorting to being annoying to get her way. We could deal with
that, thanks to a lot of practice.
         “Even if you don‟t need the rest, I do. My butt feels like hamburger.” Thomas said.
“Come on, we‟re parked. Let‟s just go eat some dinner.”
         “We‟ll stop when we get downtown.” She insisted, flicking at the edges of her collar.
“Besides, with my shirt ripped like this, they might take you guys in for sexual assault.”
         Thomas and I snorted at the same time. “In Vaygo?”
         For once, I decided to take charge. M.D. getting ticked with me wasn‟t as frightening as
becoming another red spot on the collective Vaygan bumper. I yanked the keys out of the igni-
tion.
         M.D. protested angrily and reached for me. Jumping to the handlebars to avoid her, I
flipped the keys to my tail and tossed them to Thomas. He caught them with a flourish and she
turned to him.
         “Give them back, Thomas.” She growled, and for a second I worried we‟d have a fight on
our hands with her in such a belligerent mood. “Give them back.”
         “Sure. Take „em yourself.” And he rammed them down the front of his pants.
         She recoiled with a hiss like a vampire faced with garlic. I grinned and shook my head in
awe. Who cared if he didn‟t know the orographic effect from a hole in the ground? He was still
a genius.
        “All right.” She growled, still eyeing where he‟d thrust the keys in horror. “Fine. We‟ll
eat. But I am sterilizing those frogging things when you give them back.”
        “That‟s the spirit!” Thomas said with a grin, and slung an arm around her shoulders so
she couldn‟t get away. Then we headed down the street for some food. How he managed to
walk all the way there without a hitch, I still don‟t know.
                                                         
        “We really should start eating something healthier.” M.D. growled, pulling at a strand of
cheese with her teeth.
        “Not to argue the appeal of a ripped shirt, but you‟d look sexier in an apron, babe.” Tho-
mas purred sweetly, twirling the keys around one finger.
        She muttered something impossible to catch and tightened the grip she had on the rip
down her clothes. I grinned and passed her a cheese stick.
        “I just can‟t believe our luck.” I said. “Not a single PIN agent all day.”
        “Yeah, if the babe‟s driving wasn‟t so scary, I would‟ve gotten freaked out by the peace.”
Thomas said. “I‟m not used to things being so normal. Same with you, babe?”
        M.D. didn‟t appear to hear him. She was leaning to the side, staring somewhere over my
shoulder and behind me. She was looking rather pale.
        “Babe?” She didn‟t respond. He smacked the table. “Wake up!”
        She jumped. “Who what?”
        “Are your nightmares coming when you‟re awake now?” He asked.
        “No, no…” She mumbled absently, and began leaning to the side again. “That woman…
do either of you know her?”
        We both twisted around to look in the direction she was. “Which one?” Thomas asked.
        “The tall one. Long, brown hair. Late twenties.” She mumbled.
        Even with that vague of a description, I knew who she was talking about. The woman
looked like she lifted weights, a lot of them, for fun. And I had never seen her in my life.
        “I‟d remember someone who looked like that,” Thomas said, “but not surprisingly, I ha-
ven‟t seen her.”
        “Me neither.” I said. “Why? Do you know her?”
        M.D. was frowning confusedly. “I don‟t know… she gives me the willies, for some rea-
son. But I could swear I‟ve never seen her before either.” She abruptly shook her head and said,
“Never mind. You guys are right; I must be more tired than I thought.” Then she smiled.
“Someone very important in the pinhead hierarchy must also be someone very angry right now.”
She chomped into her food. “Wish I could see it.”




                          16: Sound Mind, Sound Body
                                   PIN Specialist Grey
        “My son… is alive?” Mr. Unnigrutt said hoarsely. “Where is he? Where?”
        “He‟s coming to Vaygo, probably to see you.”
        He shook his head and laughed flatly. “I have respect for your organization, but you‟re
wrong. He might be coming here, but not to see me. Not for all the money in the world.”
        I hoped this was only cynicism on this part. “You understand that I am relying on him.
He is necessary in… an important piece of our business.”
        Despite his wealth, Mr. Unnigrutt was still a civilian. Therefore he didn‟t know what the
PIN really did, only that it was a form of police. He stiffened.
        “Is my son in trouble with the police? Why? What did he do?”
        “Property damage.”
        “Property damage? What kind of property damage?”
        “He smashed through a roof in one of our facilities.”
        He sat there staring at me for a few seconds. “You‟re shitting me.”
        “No, sir, I have no sense of humor.”
        “Look, I know I‟m not a good parent, but I‟m not completely ignorant of my boy. He
gets pissed when I have a baseball bat under my car seat. He doesn‟t even watch football. And
now he just… smashed through a roof, you say?”
        “Yes. A roof.”
        He paused, trying to decide whether I was pulling a hoax over him. “A roof.”
        “Yes.”
        “My son. A roof.” He decided I was. “Thanks, but I don‟t believe it. Now get out of my
house and come back when you have something true to tell me.” He stood up and started guiding
me towards the door.
        “I understand. It‟s difficult to swallow.” I said, and followed. He nearly slammed the
door shut on my heels. I stood on the porch for a second, surveying the perfectly trimmed grass
around it. That could have gone better.
        My cell suddenly went off. I grabbed it, wincing at the pain in my shoulder.
        “Specialist Grey.”
        “Um… Grey?” Bob asked. He sounded very timid, which wasn‟t normal for him.
        “What is it?”
        “Rawlins is in your sector. We found her at the mountains.”
        “Excellent.” I said. “Have we caught her yet?”
        Stiff silence from him for a couple seconds. “Well, uh… you know that grunt you hired
for the day?”
        The urge to smile vanished. “Did he send some agents out from Vaygo?”
        “Um… no. He didn‟t.”
        I kept my voice calm. “Where is he?”
        I heard a sigh over the line. “He‟s… missing.”
        “Missing?” I asked quietly. “How?”
        “He took a half hour break to go to a bar on Metropolitan and he hasn‟t answered a call
since then. Better cut off your vacation, Grey.”
        I hung up. Took a deep breath. I walked to the Corvette, still calm. I opened the door so
carefully it didn‟t make my shoulder hurt. Got into the driver‟s seat slowly without realizing the
pain in my legs had vanished. Took another deep breath. Closed (not slammed) the door.
Turned on the engine without wrenching the keys. Took a third deep breath.
        Then I grabbed the phone and slowly, calmly dialed in a number.
        “Comboy Bob.” He sounded braced.
        “Fire his ass!” I bellowed.
        Then I hung up and floored it.
                                                       
        I stalked towards the Bloated Olive, silent but far from calm. I didn‟t even care that get-
ting out of the Corvette so abruptly made my calves burn. Metropolitan wasn‟t one of Vaygo‟s
safe streets, especially for people dressed in suits, but I looked so pissed no one bothered me
about the double parking.
        A quick interrogation of the mousy bartender informed me that someone had called the
grunt earlier by his cell phone. That was unexpected; I‟d thought that he‟d just gotten drunk and
passed out on the floor. Now I was confused rather than angry. I pulled out my own phone.
        “Are you going to shout at me again?” Bob greeted stiffly after two rings.
        “I thought you said he went to the bar and didn‟t come back.” I answered.
        “That‟s just what I thought; he went on leave and didn‟t answer his phone after that.”
Bob said, sounding just as confused as I was. “Give me a second, let me scan the phone records
again.” A few keyboard clacks in the background. “Damn, this is my fault. I guess I deserved
that shout from you after all.” Then, before I could ask, “Looks like someone did call him. I
missed it cuz it says „no data sent.‟ That‟s weird. If no data was sent, he shouldn‟t have left be-
cause of it. That probably means magic or something, but magic isn‟t supposed to register on
computers.” He sounded baffled, which was unusual. “Give me a second to get the details; stay
there and I‟ll call you back.”
        I hung up and with a sigh slumped on a stool, which hurt my back more than I expected.
I really wanted a beer, but I was already stiff and sore and didn‟t need to get drunk to add on to
it. The proprietor didn‟t say a word about me loitering.
        After a few minutes, the phone rang again. I snatched it.
        “Specialist Grey; what the hell is going on?”
        “Get your gear and head over to the Best Buy across the street.” Bob answered. “Accord-
ing to the fizzies, there was a big disturbance and I can tell you right now that the power in there
is going haywire, probably some unauthorized blipping that our grunt noticed after his phone
acted odd. Really messy one too.”
        I frowned. If the disturbance was so great that Bob noticed it on the city‟s power grid,
something powerful and big had come in. I hoped it wasn‟t another Flikzaz. “I‟m on my way.”
        “Grey?” Bob asked. “Be careful, okay? This looks bad. None of the civilians in the re-
gion has called about this; you know what that means.”
        “I‟ll be fine.” I told him.
        Giving the bartender a nod, I hung up and left. If nobody was complaining about some-
thing this odd, then either everyone was dead, or whoever had come to visit Earth was good at
making people forget things. Either way, something difficult for me. When I got to my car, I
made sure to check that my tranq-gun was full and then picked up my gear and walked towards
the store. With a feeling of foreboding, I realized that just carrying my gear, which I‟d carried
for years, made my back hurt.
        As soon as I crossed the street, I knew something was wrong. At this time of evening,
there were plenty of hookers and tourists walking around, but for some reason, none of them
seemed to find anything odd that the Best Buy had a „Closed‟ sign hanging over the door so ear-
ly. At first I thought the windows were dark. Then they flashed a few times, as though an elec-
trical storm was playing with the power.
         I grabbed one of the hookers who looked like she‟d been hanging on the street corner a
while.
         “Why is the Best Buy closed?” I asked.
         She gave me a cursory look, decided I was too old to be interested in her, and replied,
“Ya should know that. Guy in uniform like the one ya got on went in, came out an‟ told us they
was paintin‟. Sure, it‟s weird, but…” She shrugged and lost interest in me.
         The windows flashed again.
         I came to the door and pulled. Surprisingly, it wasn‟t locked. Somehow, that seemed
worse than if I‟d had to kick it down, and I pulled out all the gear I could have in easy reach. As
I‟d suspected for no real reason, no one seemed to notice me pulling on night-vision goggles,
stuffing gas bombs down my sleeves, and pulling a tranq-gun and a shotgun out of a duffel bag,
so I simply opened the door and went in. The bell above the door rang cheerfully, a sign to any-
one inside that I was coming in.
         The entire store had been abandoned, and every electronic gadget was dead, leaving the
place completely silent. Other than that, nothing seemed wrong. Usually if an alien comes down
and disintegrates a shopful of people, there‟s at least an odd smell. Something had made every-
one clear out as fast as possible so they wouldn‟t have to bother with them, and yet done it in
such a way that none of them had seen a reason to call the police.
         Suddenly the lights flickered on again briefly, showing a bulky figure.
         “Specialist Grey! Hey!”
         I recognized the voice the grunt that‟d filled in for me. What was his name? I couldn‟t
remember. Through the green, half-functioning filter of my goggles, he looked disheveled and
bruised, and he‟d somehow lost his shades, but otherwise he looked all right.
         “What‟s going on?” I asked calmly but not putting down either gun.
         “I don‟t know.” The grunt replied. “Everything‟s just deserted.”
         “Why didn‟t you call?” I asked.
         The grunt took a step closer. “My cell got smashed. I got into a fight with our guy who
crashed down here. He‟s knocked out for now.”
         I felt wary. Something here was wrong. Bob would‟ve said if the calls hadn‟t passed
through. No, the grunt just hadn‟t picked up. And he seemed remarkably unexcited, considering
how unusual this whole thing was. I might‟ve expected that from a veteran specialist, but not
from someone who hadn‟t been here long enough to get used to everything. Those were my log-
ical reasons, but there was something more visceral that also warned me something was wrong.
         The grunt took another step forward. “Come on, we need to get out of here and figure out
what to tell the boss about this.”
         I pointed the shotgun at his chest. “Don‟t come any closer.” I told him.
         The grunt looked alarmed, but it still seemed flat to me. “What?”
         “You recognized me on the other end of a pitch black room without goggles.” I said.
“Now tell me what‟s happening or I‟ll put a hole in your chest.” I had Rawlins trotting around
my sector to deal with; I wanted to get this over with quickly.
         For a second, the grunt seemed to be thinking hard. Then he relaxed into a sway-hipped
posture and said, in a drawling, patronizing voice totally unlike the one he‟d had before, “Damn,
you‟re an efficient one, aren‟t you?”
        With his sudden change in behavior and the .45 he was lifting, I almost missed the huge
dark shape in the fringe of my peripheral vision. Before the grunt, or whatever he was now,
could stop my career once and for all, I tranqed him and without even checking to see him fall,
immediately spun to turn the gun to the shape. The move sent a searing pain into my shoulder
and hip, slowing me down, and then a huge furry hand tore the guns from my hands and hauled
me off the ground. Then the other hand joined it to pin my arms to my sides.
        The large creature smiled at me. Among the exhausting lists of alien species I‟d memo-
rized as a grunt, he was not any of them. On his knees, his humanoid form was still much taller
than I was, covered in black fur and built like a heavyweight boxer. “Hello, Grey.” He purred in
perfect English, and in the same tone the grunt had had earlier. That settled it, then. He was a
damned psychic.
        “Hi.” I replied, straining my wrist slipping my fingers up my sleeve before finally getting
my fingers on the gas bomb. It‟d put out anything within thirty feet. It was a risk, but like all
specialists, I‟d built up immunity to it. With lungs the size of his, I was willing to bet I‟d wake
up before he did. I got my fingers on it, but the being responded by twisting my arm brutally.
My sore muscles seared with pain and I made the greenest mistake possible. I let my fingers go
lax. The gas bomb dropped to the ground with a clank, inactivated.
        “Nice preparation.” He said lazily, glancing at it and then gazing at me again. “I‟m look-
ing for a little friend that I think you‟ve met. You wouldn‟t happen to remember M.D. Rawlins,
now would you?”
        I didn‟t say anything. I just gave him the emotionless stare I gave every other specialist.
        “Don‟t bother pretending not to answer it.” He told me. “I didn‟t think you would any-
way. You just had to come along and screw things up, didn‟t you?” He sighed in dramatic resig-
nation. “You‟re going to be a lot more annoying, but since you just sedated my last host, I‟m
afraid neither of us has much of a choice in the matter.”
        Something dark slithered into my brain.
        It was fast, maybe a tenth of a second. And when I stood up and saw the alien flat on his
back, I thought that maybe it‟d backfired, that I was fine. Then I realized that my hand was tug-
ging at my collar and it wasn‟t me doing it. I knew what a psychic attack was. There were four
lines on it in the basic training textbook. They were, however, not in the specialist‟s general ca-
seload.
        Liquid syllables that I didn‟t understand rang in my head, sounding vaguely like Arabic
or Swahili. He sounded pleased with himself. Then his thoughts came in coherent English. “All
right, Grey, I‟m a reasonable man. If you do what I want, everything will go just fine and I‟ll
leave you alone. Don‟t bother fighting me because I‟ll win. Do you understand?”
        I still hadn‟t absorbed what situation I was in and he noticed it.
        He sighed dramatically. I decided that I would get very tired of that habit quickly. “Try
to move.”
        I reached for my shotgun. My arm twitched, but simultaneously went rigid like at the
same time, as though at the same time I was trying to pull away. I tried to force it. He pushed
back. After about twenty seconds, I got the idea and stopped trying. With a start, I realized that
my left hand was wiping the sweat off my brow without me telling it to.
        “That was just a test. Fight me again and I‟ll do more than just stop you.” Suddenly my
legs started moving, taking me with them. I automatically tried to stop. For a split second, we
paused, but then I felt a sudden surge of horror and despair. Unable to concentrate, I stopped
fighting and we resumed walking.
         “I warned you. If I can make everyone in the store want to leave for no real reason with-
out them noticing, I can easily make you want to commit suicide.”
         “Who are you and what do you want?” I asked.
         “You don‟t need to talk vocally, you know. It may make you look odd.” He felt amused.
“I‟m looking for… Rawlins.” The word „Midaz‟ also rang in my head. He didn‟t stop me from
raising an eyebrow. “She‟s… an old friend.”
         Right. “And you are?” I asked, forgetting I didn‟t need to speak.
         “I don‟t really think that‟s something you need to know.” He replied through my mind.
“You came with a car; I know you did. Drive it back to your headquarters.”
         “I can‟t.”
         I was overcome with a heavy depression and I burst into tears.
         “You will drive and you will not contradict me.” His mental tone was becoming angry.
         “You don‟t understand.” I sobbed. “I can‟t. I‟m not authorized to visit the main building
unless I have a reason to or someone orders me.”
         A mental pause. “What happens if you show up for no reason?”
         “I‟ll probably get fired.” I said.
         “I see.” My torment ended. Evidently my losing my station wouldn‟t be in his best inter-
est. “How big is your car?”
         I didn‟t say, but the image of it came to mind.
         A vicious word slashed through my mind. It wasn‟t any human language, but the tone
was universal. “Not big enough. Take my body and use it as an excuse to go to your main build-
ing. I don‟t care how you do it. Just find a way.” He didn‟t need to tell me what would happen
if I didn‟t obey.
         Suddenly my cell phone rang.
         “Answer it. The whole reason I got stuck in this mess earlier is from ignoring the damn
thing.”
         My arm relaxed and let me grab the phone. “Specialist Grey.” I said.
         “Grey?” Bob asked. “Are you okay? I didn‟t get any word from you.”
         “Who is he? A friend? Act towards him normally or I‟ll make you beg for death. Here‟s
the story you give him…”
         “Sorry Bob.” I said, picking up on the flow of the excuse. “The battery ran down. The
grunt‟s sedated; he managed to knock out the alien and I‟m trying to bring him home.”
         “You‟re a terrible actor!” The controller cried in disgust through my brain.
         “Eric,” Bob asked, “are you sure you‟re okay?” If he was slipping into first name terms
with me, he was really worried.
         I sighed silently. “Yeah. I‟m fine.”

                                    Annabelle Rawlins
        After eating dinner, we limped the last fifty miles downtown.
        Before I discuss the city itself, I must spare a nice paragraph for its traffic alone. Why,
you ask? Because if you read about it, perhaps you will understand why Raige and Thomas
didn‟t want me to drive.
        You see, even in the good streets of downtown Vaygo, reality is generally what you make
of it. Therefore, red lights only exist if you want them to. The number of lanes are subject to
change, depending on your whim, and speed limits are more of guidelines than actual rules—
and everyone knows that Vaygans don‟t follow guidelines all that close. Like its city in general,
you need very quick reflexes and a bit of luck to survive. Hulking monsters of trucks with gun
racks are common, and they have no inhibitions about running a puny Harley off the road if it‟s
occupying the piece of asphalt they want. Also, since traffic signals are nothing more than large
Christmas lights, you generally have to guess when it is safe to go. The three of us nearly got
run over more times than I cared to count. After fifteen minutes of slogging through the evening
Vaygo rush hour, I realized I was no longer scared of driving. I simply didn‟t have time; I was
busy trying to keep us from crashing.
        Despite the fact that its traffic can bring the bravest to their knees, Vaygo is actually a
rather pretty place. Well, pretty isn‟t exactly the right word. I can‟t think of a proper term for it
in English. Suffice to say that it‟s almost appealing, in its soiled, electric way; I could almost see
why someone might want to live here. Flashing lights are everywhere, loudly proclaiming what-
ever they see necessary, lighting up the dark streets. The people on these streets are usually
working girls, junkies, and so on. You don‟t see the thugs normally, because they‟re hiding in
the shadows for innocents, and you don‟t see normal people because they know better than to
traverse Vaygo on foot. The city has a sort of vitality and soul that Old Faithful lacked, its own
battered, shining dignity of neon. Every once in a blue moon you will see a prostitute with the
same pride. It was a stark contrast from my hometown, where everything was stiff and starchy
and empty smiles like those fake-perfect families you hear about on TV that under the surface
are really dysfunctional. Vaygo was like that punk in your high school who knew full well he
was dancing down the road to nowhere and was perfectly happy that way.
        As rough as that city was, it did not surprise me at all that Biff had turned out the way he
had. It truly amazed me Raige retained any naïveté at all. He must‟ve avoided reality like the
plague during his childhood. Somehow, that didn‟t sound all that unlikely either.
        It was at this time that old milquetoast started giving me directions. He also gave me a
bit of street knowledge he‟d picked up, mainly which streets that I should avoid at all cost.
When I asked why, he just called them „the bad streets.‟ I tried to hammer the names into my
brain so if by any chance I had to run from the PIN, I wouldn‟t end up the victim of something
worse.
        “It hasn‟t changed a bit.” Raige said.
        I couldn‟t believe it. He actually sounded nostalgic. “You didn‟t actually feel homesick
for Vaygo, did you, buddy boy?” I asked incredulously.
        “You‟d be amazed what you can miss.” He murmured softly. “Take a left at this next
light. Wow, my school bus went this route.”
        I shrugged. I‟d been his friend for a while now, but I still didn‟t know the workings of
Raige‟s mind at all. But then again, he really wasn‟t the sort of person who was meant to live in
Treehouse. He was a city boy.
        I suddenly remembered Bobby asking me whether I wanted to live in Treehouse forever.
Then a Suburban nearly killed us all, and the thought went away as I focused again on trying to
survive.

                                    Charlene Unnigrutt
       I hadn‟t even realized how much I‟d missed neon lights. Don‟t get me wrong, Treehouse
is gorgeous and green, but it‟s just not Vaygo. The familiar towering skyscrapers and streets
made me feel pretty good. I could smell tomatoes and cheese from the Tarzan‟s down the street,
which had the best deep-dish pizza in the city.
         Just as I was starting to enjoy it, I realized that my dad might be out then. That pretty
much killed the mood. I could only pray I didn‟t run into him. Yeah, I know, it‟s a coward‟s
way out, but I didn‟t know what would happen if he found me.
         At nine at night, we finally got a room at a hotel that had neither roaches nor rats. Tho-
mas took pity on M.D. and I and changed us back to our normal selves for the night, mostly be-
cause M.D. wanted to do some illusion work after that problem in the mountains. The happiness
I got out of being my normal self again helped me put Daddy out of my mind. Anyway, even if
there weren‟t rats, he wouldn‟t set foot in a place like this. Until I‟d been tossed into Canandria,
I wouldn‟t have either.
         “Wow, what a place, what a place.” M.D. remarked perkily, and tossed her belt over a
lamp to grab the TV box. “Reminds me of the night I spent in a high school drum room.”
         “Reminds me of how low-maintenance you are.” Thomas said, grimacing. “Does the hot
water even work?”
         She shrugged. “Who cares? It‟s got cable.” The screen was blurring through channels in
a kaleidoscope of color and noise. It took me a second to realize she wasn‟t even touching the
box. Another perk of being a Senyan. “Wow! Seventy-five! My old TV had three. Well, back
when it worked.”
         “That‟s because it sucked.” I said.
         Normally she would‟ve debated that, but the shiny pictures on the screen distracted her
inner raccoon and she was hypnotized. “Ooh! The Highland Games are on!”
         Thomas groaned. “Yeah, you watch the big Celtic guys run around in skirts; I‟ll enjoy the
hot water either until it‟s over or the heat‟s gone.”
         “Kilts!” M.D. shouted as he fled. “They‟re manly kilts!”
         “You wouldn‟t wear one.” I pointed out.
         “Neither would you, and let‟s just drop it before we get into a discussion on proper gend-
er roles; those always make my head hurt. Haggis MacKilt‟s up.”
         I looked at the burly hairy guy on the screen. He made knee-high socks look tough, so I
decided to envy him. “Kid, that guy‟s from France.”
         “I‟m an equal-opportunity audience; they all have a chance to be Haggis MacKilt to me.”
She said.
         I paused, then shrugged. “Whatever. What‟s on?”
         “The caber toss!” She attempted an Irish accent on it, but for all her talent with languages
from other planets, her English was always going to be painfully Astallionican.
         “Caber toss.” I corrected, giving it a heavy roll.
         She blinked. “I think that‟s the first time you‟ve outdone me when it involves the voice.
Normally it‟s Rice Crispies: snap, crackle, pop.”
         I shrugged. There was no point in fighting over it, seeing as she was right. “Well, I‟m
like, eighty percent Irish. It‟s bound to show up somewhere.” When I saw her look of surprise, I
laughed and said, “I‟m just kidding. A few years back, Dad took me back to „the homeland‟ for
a week and a half, trying to work out a deal with some other beer company, and he set me loose.
Everyone mistook me for a native until I opened my mouth, and then they‟d wince when they
found out I was Astallionican, so I kind of worked at the accent.”
         “Really?” She actually sounded truly curious. “What was it like there?”
         “Cold, wet. Kind of like Old Faithful, but with sheep. I loved it. Didn‟t really want to
buy the tourist crap, so I picked up the accent and a couple photos and went home.”
         She frowned. “Lucky you.”
         I grimaced. “Sorry, forgot you didn‟t travel.”
         “What? No. I meant having a homeland.” A grin flashed across her face. “I‟ve traveled
light-years more than you have.” Right. Duh. “At least you have a more specific idea of where
your relatives came from than „that planet somewhere that doesn‟t exist anymore but used to.‟”
She shrugged. “I probably don‟t even have any relatives, unless you count Number One. Does
us both being made in the same incubator make us siblings?”
         “I don‟t know, I think he‟s more of an evil stepbrother.” I said.
         “Well, if we came from the same thing but didn‟t have the same genetic material… wow.
Suddenly I‟m depressed.” She said, and turned up the volume of the Highland Games just in time
for the announcer to say, “And Jean-Claude de Bordeaux of Nice has just tossed the caber a
whopping eighty degrees! That‟s the highest we‟ve had all day!”
         M.D. cheered for Jean-Claude MacKilt just as enthusiastically as she would‟ve if she
hadn‟t just been talking about homelands. To be honest, the Highland Games had never been
that exciting to me, so though I stared at the screen, I really wasn‟t paying much attention. Now
that I thought of it, it really must suck not to have really any clue about the place you came from
except that it was a desert and they liked to beat each other up there. Even with that tan and ba-
nana-blond hair and the gold eyes, I kept slipping and thinking she had come from Astallionica,
just like me. I mean, she didn‟t look much different from the slew of girls who got fake tans and
bad dye jobs, and she had no accent at all. I mean, Thomas had been born in Texas and he still
had one.
         “Don‟t you miss it?” I asked.
         “Well, not all Highland Games guys are from the Celtic parts, I can live with that…”
         I gave her a look and she dropped the innocent act immediately when she saw I wasn‟t
buying it. “Look, they made me to be a weapon with a brain attached. I really don‟t care if they
turned into a mass of burnt dirt. For my purposes, I‟m an adopted child of the good old country
of Astallionica on the planet Earth. And I just got disowned. So now I‟m an adopted child of the
good region of Treehouse.”
         “You refer to the Senyan race as „they‟ and „we‟ interchangeably.” I remarked dryly.
         She shrugged and grunted. “I‟ll bet you do it too when you refer to the Irish, so don‟t
start. Nationality is overrated.”
         “So is having a decent gender, last time I asked.” I replied, trying to ignore the grunting.
         “I‟m easy to please; if I wasn‟t so annoying, I‟d make the easiest girlfriend in the world.”
She tugged at her torn collar. “Although I admit, this violates even my lax wardrobe standards.
Any chance you can fix this, milquetoast?”
         “You‟re changing the subject.” I accused her, feeling my fingers twitch.
         She grinned impishly. “Why yes, I am. Thank you for noticing. Four months ago, you
wouldn‟t have caught even that.”
         “Four months ago, I bought everything you told me.” I replied. If she‟d told me that she
was a sphinx in disguise, I probably would‟ve believed it because I‟d been so overwhelmed. I
sighed. “You‟re dropping the conversation then?”
         “Like a baby off a bridge.”
         “Never to be mentioned again?”
         “Not a chance, buddy boy.”
         “And you still expect me to fix it?”
         “You twitch whenever you look at me and I‟m a gambling boy, so I‟ll say yes.”
         I sighed. “Fine.”
         “You can fix it, then?”
         “I‟ll make it so you don‟t look like a refugee from a grunge fashion show. Can‟t say it‟ll
look good or whether it‟d survive a machine wash, though.”
         “How long will it take you?”
         “Not very.”
         “Then I don‟t care. Be fast, milquetoast.” And before I could completely absorb what she
said, she stripped off her shirt and threw it at me.
         That isn‟t as risqué as it sounds, since M.D. was still wearing that stupid wrap she‟d in-
sisted on, which covered more than some tank tops I‟d seen, but it still caught me by surprise.
         “Don‟t stare at me like that; I have absolutely no modesty.” She still crossed her arms,
dumping her feet on the coffee table in front of her to try and look more stubborn. “Stare at the
shirt. I‟d prefer not to take any more wisecracks from Thomas about our oh-so-active sex lives,
and I‟m just as endowed as you are. Besides, you‟ve seen more than this. So start sewing,
flunky. It‟s cold in here.”
         I rolled my eyes and grabbed my sewing kit. “I should just make you do it.”
         “You know how I sew.”
         I shuddered in memory.
         “Exactly. And you wouldn‟t want me to waste copious amounts of your precious string
again, would you?”
         “Yeah, yeah. Shut up and cheer for Haggis people.” I said.
         “As the saint desires. Go, Haggis MacKilt!”
         “Kid, that‟s a car commercial. A Volvo.”
         “What have I told you about being an equal opportunity audience?”
         “Could we at least change the channel, please?” I asked. “I really don‟t care too much
about the Highland Games.”
         “You‟re a disgrace to your homeland.” She said, but it wasn‟t a declaration and she didn‟t
resist the suggestion. “Got any channels in mind, Vaygo-boy?”
         I paused in my stitching as I thought. “Try twenty seven.”
         “What‟s that?” She asked, not touching the remote.
         “When I was last here, movies.” I said. And when I saw her distrusting look, I said,
“Trust me.”
         She switched channels and stared at the credits scrolling the screen. “Too bad. We
missed it.”
         “There‟ll be another.” I said, going back to sewing. “Patience is a virtue.”
         “Not my virtue.” She said, idly tapping the box against the palm of her empty hand.
         Maybe because M.D. had stopped shouting stuff like, “Go, Haggis!” or maybe because
he just had a sense when it came to our geek waves, Thomas poked his head out of the bathroom,
hair combed perfectly.
         “What‟re y‟all watching now?”
         “Credits.” M.D. replied. As the director‟s name came up, she cried, “All hail the great
Nicholas… Graeffer? Who the heck is Nicholas Graeffer? And how do you pronounce his
name?”
        We both shrugged. Thomas joined us on the sofa, M.D. hurriedly squishing into the ar-
mrest to avoid having to sit next to him.
        “Jeez, you really are flat.” Thomas remarked to her.
        “So‟s your mother.” She answered robotically, still staring at the credits and trying to fig-
ure out how to pronounce the director‟s name. “Graeffer. Graeffer. Is it Welsh or something?”
        Thomas looked at me, but I just held up my sewing stuff. “She asked me to fix it.”
        He rolled his eyes, but like M.D., the screen distracted him, even though nothing was re-
ally on it. “What movie was this?”
        At that the credits ended and the title flashed for a brief second.
        “Ohhhh.” We all said in unanimous epiphany. Thomas and I exchanged glances, then
stared at M.D.
        “Teenagers from Outer Space? I can‟t believe that‟s an actual movie.” She said. “No
wonder I‟d never heard of the director.” Then she noticed us. “What‟re you staring at me for?”
        “Nothing.” I said.
        “Speak for yourself. It‟s your beauty, babe. Can‟t resist.” Thomas said.
        She grunted. “You want to bother me, try something other than my appearance. That‟s
older than the gay jokes.”
        “You got them too?” I asked.
        “With a body like mine? Heck yes.” She said. “I assume you got them because you ac-
tually talk about your feelings and don‟t know the Saints from the Packers.”
        “Neither do you.” I pointed out.
        “Hey, I know Duke McAllister, don‟t I?” She replied with a grin. I rolled my eyes.
        Thomas winced. “Sorry.”
        She waved it off. “Like I said, it doesn‟t hurt anymore. Everyone gets tortured in middle
school; it preps you for real life. What‟d they do to you?”
        He shrugged. “Not much, just called me a pervert. And I kinda deserved that one.”
        “Why?” M.D. asked curiously. “What‟d you do?”
        He just gave us his Cheshire Cat grin.
        “Good.” I said. “I don‟t think I want to hear it.”
        “You definitely wouldn‟t.” He reassured me. “Just say it won me a reputation.”
        Sewing finished, I tossed the shirt back to M.D. With a whipping flourish, she pulled it
out of the air, yanked it back on, and went back to watching commercials.
        “You lucky popular person, you.” She said to him.
        “Not my fault I‟ve got people skills. You‟re the one who grunts all the t—”
        “Shut up! New movie!” She cried.
        And it was. Without preamble, a blurry scene came up. The camera focused after a
couple seconds, and a guitar began a slow boring song.
        “Eegah?” M.D. said. “With a name like that, it‟s got to be good!”
        Thomas and I exchanged doubtful glances.
                                     17: Daddy Issues
                                    PIN Specialist Grey



         By the next morning, I‟d found the limits and rules of my mind-control. Generally, I was
left alone; after the first half-hour or so, the alien didn‟t control my every move. Actually, he
needed me to drive and handle Earth things; for all his fluency at English, he didn‟t know the
first thing about how the society worked. However, if I started doing anything he didn‟t like,
he‟d play hell with my emotions. If I put everything I had into it, I could keep him from acting
for about forty seconds before I broke down. This frustrated him, but unless he had the luck to
get his hands on another PIN agent, he needed me to find what he wanted.
         So far, I‟d called the Vaygo Science Department to retrieve the alien‟s body. Science
wasn‟t sure what they were going to do with him yet, only that they were giddy to have him
around, so he‟d be safe for a while.
         “Where‟s Midaz?” He asked.
         “I told you, I don‟t know.” I said again, bringing the Corvette down the street. Despite
my controller‟s repeated mentions on speaking through thought, I didn‟t bother. “She came into
my sector, but we missed her because you were busy with my replacement.”
         “Damn. There I was, pumping his brain for information on her while he should‟ve been
going after her.” He sounded annoyed. “This shouldn‟t be nearly as complicated as it is.”
         “Here on Earth, we call that irony.” I said.
         The alien peered into my emotions, but I didn‟t let myself feel amused; even with self-
control, it‟s the only way I could get through half my job. After a second or so, I felt him growl
some alien word through my throat and he dropped the subject.
         “What do you know about her?”
         “She‟s a manipulator of thermal energy and walking property damage.”
         “I knew that already.” He said in exasperation. I caught a flash of a picture of Rawlins as
a very little girl. “I meant what she‟s doing. What has she done since she came here in this time
period?”
         Although I didn‟t understand the last part, I gave him the memories in bulk, since that
was easier and faster than trying to put it in line myself.
         “I know you just want to make it harder on me, but trust me, after that ass controlling the
Vortex, you‟re easy. At least you know the meaning of the word „organization.‟” A pause as he
searched through the information.
         I‟d never heard of the Vortex. I guessed he was talking about someone else he‟d con-
trolled. “Is he who taught you English? Who was easier to control?”
         His thoughts immediately shut down, leaving only what he chose to send me. “Yes, he
made English a familiar language. As for the second question, I‟m not telling you that.”
         I assumed that I was the more difficult one.
         In response, he sent a shriek of terror into my mind that nearly made me run onto the si-
dewalk.
         “Watch your driving! I plan to borrow someone else soon, but I‟d rather kill you when I
want to.”
        I stifled my feelings of frustration. “Here on Earth, terrifying people doesn‟t make them
act well.”
        “Back on my planet, we had more self-control.” He grumbled. I ignored it; he‟d proven
to have very high opinions of his people, and he said so quite often. Suddenly his mood
changed. “Guivnazem—” He remembered I couldn‟t speak his native language and started again
in English. He felt startled. “Those two boys with her… I recognize one of them.” An image of
the red-haired kid came into my head.
        “Charlene Unnigrutt? How do you know him?” I asked. “He‟s full-blood human; he
can‟t be one of your species.”
        “He‟s the one who got me ousted from my last host.” He replied. My gut started getting
hot and adrenaline started coursing. “I would really like to hurt him.” The scenarios he began
playing in his head made me ill. Not many things make me ill. I swallowed and concentrated
hard on the conversation I‟d had with Mr. Unnigrutt. If I focused heavily on details, hopefully I
could block out whatever he was sending me.
        Suddenly the vision of the teenage boy being disemboweled disappeared from my mind,
replaced with feelings of predatory interest. “Who‟s that? The father? You spoke with him?”
        “Yes. Before I got called about you.” The pleased feelings I was receiving made me
nervous.
        “Your anxiety is unwarranted. You should be happy; I‟ll be leaving your body soon.”
        I raised an eyebrow.
        “Go to that man‟s house. He‟s the boy‟s only family; they‟re sure to meet.”
        “They haven‟t yet and they‟ve been in Vaygo all day.” I pointed out.
        “Nonsense. Family ties are very important to your species, yes? And that boy is loyal; I
found that much from Midaz.”
        “The father claims they parted on bad terms.”
        “Well, then, I will simply have to make those terms better.” He replied. “The boy‟s a co-
ward. He‟ll be easy to control.” Then he lapsed back into his other language. He felt very hap-
py.
        Something was about to happen and I knew that I wouldn‟t like it, even if I weren‟t pos-
sessed afterward. I chose not to think about it.
                                                       
        “The door‟s locked. He must be out.” I said and began to leave.
        I didn‟t expect that to stop him, and so his response was hardly surprising. My leg froze
over the first step on the porch.
        “An inconvenience. He‟ll return eventually. And I want to be there when he does.”
        I tried to move. My shoulders began to ache with the tension and my fists shook, but I
failed and finally gave in with a sigh. The alien spun around, making my calves burn, and put
his hand on the doorknob and tugged.
        “Why isn‟t it opening?”
        “This is Vaygo. We lock our doors. You can only open it if you have a key.”
        “Keys?” He searched through my mind for elaboration. “Oh, come now, surely you have
something more substantial than that.” The vision of a door barricaded like a medieval gate came
to mind.
        And then he raised my leg and slammed it into the door. Pain flared up my calf into my
spine, but he didn‟t stop until the door broke in.
        “You really should have gotten a more healthful occupation.” He remarked as I tried to
rub my lower back. “What did you do to yourself?”
        “Use the grenades next time.” I answered, trying again to move.
        “Why bother?” He finally relinquished some of his mental grip, and the pain in my mus-
cles ebbed a little.
        My stomach grumbled. I‟d been up all night at the alien‟s insistence, and I hadn‟t eaten
since then. Going hungry had been only a detail in my current situation.
        “You‟re hungry.” He felt vaguely annoyed. “Go and eat. After I‟m through, the owner of
this house won‟t care.”
        I obediently entered the house and found the fridge, but all that was in it was a case of
Heineken that had passed its expiration date a few months ago.
        “Oh well. I suppose if I‟m going to leave your body, I don‟t want you strong. Even if
you‟re already a wreck.”
        After stretching my arms over my head painfully to make his point, he sat down in a large
armchair to wait.
        “However, despite your species‟ flaws, I must say, I do like your furniture.”
        I ignored him. Throughout the hours of no longer being alone in my body, I‟d found it
was the only way I could show any power in the situation.

                                   Charlene Unnigrutt
        I walked into the Mini Mart and sighed, glancing down the shelves.
        The morning hadn‟t been pleasant. Bobcat had somehow found out what we‟d been eat-
ing and promptly ordered something green and leafy. If he wasn‟t so polite, he would‟ve
shouted it at us and then fainted, but he had been fairly calm (by comparison to Venna and Bo-
gart, anyway) throughout the whole thing—it was Bogart who had woken me up.
        M.D. would‟ve probably said, “I told you so,” if she hadn‟t been sleeping like a log
again. Seeing as I‟d once woken her up by dropping a spoon on the floor from a room away,
these deep sleeps of hers were really out of character; if she didn‟t seem so healthy, I would‟ve
started to worry she was coming down with something. Thomas had tried to wake her up so she
could help with the groceries, but eventually I‟d had to restrain him from shrieking „Oops, I Did
It Again‟ into her ear and convince him she was, for all practical purposes, temporarily dead.
He‟d stayed there so she wouldn‟t be left alone. I‟d agreed to it only after he‟d pointed out that
if M.D. woke up and neither of us were here, she‟d get paranoid and think the PIN had stolen us
or something like that and probably go on one of her lone-soldier things.
        So that‟s how I ended up here at the Mini Mart, staring at shelves, looking for carrots,
cucumbers, potatoes, and other things that never ended up in a pizza.
        Oh well. At least Bobcat hadn‟t said anything really disgusting like Lima beans.
        I grabbed a basket and began the blitz. I nearly sprinted down the aisles, grabbing what-
ever was on the list, dunking it into the cart, and going on. I didn‟t want to stay here any longer
than I had to. Thank god the list was short.
        I hurried into the refrigerated section. Yogurt, I needed yogurt. Where was it? I quickly
scanned down the rows of milk and dairy. After going down it twice, I still hadn‟t found it and I
was ready to scream.
        “They‟re out.” A deep bass said.
         The list slipped from my fingers and I froze. Oh god, that voice. Trying to keep from
panicking, I took a deep breath and told myself that I couldn‟t run from him forever, not in Vay-
go. With a swallow, I turned around.
         “Hi Daddy.” I said quietly, glancing around at the other shelves as though the packaged
cheese could somehow save me.
         “Hello, son.” He said.
         We were silent for a few anxious seconds. We‟d never been all that good at talking; most
of the time it was just „comb your hair,‟ „I have a band rehearsal tomorrow,‟ „Okay, I‟ll take you;
now comb your hair.‟
         When I finally calmed down enough to look at him, I realized that Daddy looked terrible.
He looked old. When I‟d left, his hair had still been red like mine. Now it was mostly gray. He
was still big, he‟d always be big, but the vitality he‟d had was gone, like he hadn‟t slept in
months and had to focus to keep going. He looked like he should‟ve been my grandfather, not
my dad. For a second, I was completely disbelieving. It‟d only been five years!
         Then again, five years was a long time.
         “You… um… haven‟t grown much.” My dad finally said stiffly.
         “Uh, yeah.” I replied just as awkwardly. I wasn‟t used to him trying to talk. “It‟s… kind
of a long story.”
         “I have time.” He offered.
         I panicked. “Daddy, I can‟t. I-I, uh, have to get the groceries home, um, figure out how
m-make the damn potatoes or Bobcat will have a fit.” I stammered. Please don‟t make me do
this, please don‟t make me do this, all I want to do is leave…
         “Bobcat? Who the hell is Bobcat?” He asked.
         I mumbled some sounds that didn‟t make any sense at all and twisted the plastic handle
of the basket between my fingers, watching how the light shone off it. “I‟ve got to go home.” I
finally squeaked.
         “Wait, wait.” He said hastily. “I know you and I aren‟t the Cleavers. Since Mom went…
well, I haven‟t been the best of fathers. But, come on, son you‟ve been gone for five fucking
years!” I flinched and he quickly turned the volume back down. “I think the least you can do is
tell me what the hell is going on. It‟s only decent of you.”
         I swallowed and stared at the handle of my basket. I can‟t even remember what color it
was. “You, uh, you want me to come home.”
         He shrugged. “That‟d be nice. If I can‟t,” he chuckled, a painful scrap of how he‟d
laughed a long time ago, “well, I‟m used to it now.”
         I didn‟t say anything.
         “I missed you.”
         Oh god, why‟d he have to say that? Why couldn‟t he have been having one of his worst
days, when the company didn‟t run well and he‟d had a few drinks and he was still angry?
Dammit, this hurt.
         He bit his lower lip and leaned against a cookie display. “I guess you didn‟t miss me
much. Guess I can‟t blame you much either.”
         If this were a comic, my speech bubble would‟ve said, “…” I stared at the handle of the
basket and twisted it as though doing that would keep anything else from falling apart because I
didn‟t know what else to do. Nothing was coming out of my mouth and my ears were tearing up
and I couldn‟t have thought of anything to say, but I hated that he was here. Dammit, I didn‟t
want to think that I hadn‟t missed him.
        The only thing I could think of was to get away. Dropping the basket to the floor, I
turned around and headed towards the door. I didn‟t even run; I fucking tried to walk out that
door. Daddy didn‟t chase after me but he kept calling.
        “Raige. Raige!”
        He‟d never called me Raige. He‟d always called me Charlene, saying it was the name I
was born with. He wanted to make me stay. Panic took over and I started to run.
        He kept yelling after me. He‟d always been good at making his voice carry, and I heard
him clearly. “I‟ve tried to pull things together, you know. I thought you‟d died! You‟d been
gone so long, what else could‟ve happened? Didn‟t you ever think that maybe I worried about
you?”
        I stopped and tried to twist the basket handle and then remembered I‟d dropped it in the
dairy aisle.
        “Yeah, that‟s right, I worried. Even if I never hit you, I know I‟ve been a drunken jack-
ass. But damn it, I‟m still your father! I‟m trying to fix things up!” He sighed, and then his
voice was quiet, pleading. “Can we at least go home and talk? I want to find out what‟s going
on. Please.”
        I took another deep breath. The last thing I wanted to do was go to him, but he was right;
I owed him an explanation. He‟d paid five years for it. “Okay.” I said, swallowing. “L-let me get
Thomas and M—oh.” I had a sudden memory of finding M.D. outside my bedroom door half-
dressed in my bathrobe, shouting at me to let her in while Daddy came sprinting up behind with
a baseball bat. Bringing my friends into the picture would make this thing even more compli-
cated than it already was. The idea of talking with him one-on-one absolutely terrified me, but
having to explain this to the others and try and keep violence from breaking out would be even
worse. I just wanted to get this over with. “Never mind. Let‟s… g-go home and talk. I guess.”


                                    Annabelle Rawlins
        Thomas and I were both worried, and we aren‟t easy to rattle. I‟d been pacing and gnaw-
ing at my fingers, while he‟d channel-surfed continuously. For the last ten minutes, I‟d been ar-
guing for going out to find him. Thomas had only kept me from going with the assurance that
going out would do nothing but get me killed. I didn‟t care; I‟d nearly killed myself getting to
Todd, and I wouldn‟t find the irony at all humorous if I gained my little brother at the expense of
my altruistic, far too moral best friend.
        “He‟s not back yet.” I growled testily.
        “Maybe he got held up at the grocery.” The inadvertent double entendre made us both
wince.
        “How can he be delayed for almost an hour?” I cried, triumphantly tearing a bit of fin-
gernail off. “That‟s it, change me human; I‟m going after him.”
        “Oh no you aren‟t.” Thomas said. “You‟re far more likely to get killed than he is.
Wouldn‟t it be nice if after all this, some thug shoots you in the head.”
        “I can‟t just walk around and worry myself to death.” I growled. “I want to go to the gro-
cery store and frogging find him so I can kill him for making us worry.”
        Thomas sighed. “Kid,” the fact he wasn‟t calling me babe anymore showed his stress,
“I‟m worried too. Give it ten more minutes and then we‟ll go after him.”
        “Not we. I.” I said.
        “Nuh uh!” Thomas cried. “You‟re worse than the Lone Ranger!”
        “Well, one of us has to stay here, or Raige will come home and then go out looking for
us. It could go on all day!”
        “Well, how about you stay here while I go and look? I think I can take care of myself
better than you can.”
        “Yeah, yeah, pick on the poor black kid.” I muttered.
        Thomas gave me a look. “Come on, who‟d win a boxing match, you or me?”
        “That doesn‟t matter.” I said. “I‟ve got a better handle on energy projection than you do.”
He looked blank. “You can‟t do anything unless they‟re close to you. This is a land where guys
get guns as a sweet-sixteen present. I‟ve got my fire spell, my levitation, all that stuff. I can
handle a guy with a gun; you can‟t. And if you‟re close enough to touch someone with a gun,
they‟re lousy muggers.”
        Thomas made a face and spat something vicious in Spanish. I knew I‟d won.
        “Don‟t worry.” I said. “I‟ll bring him home and we can both kill him.”
        Thomas declaimed some more in Spanish, this time for much longer. I didn‟t understand
any of it, but the rhetoric passion in his voice and the way he gesticulated in entreaty at the ceil-
ing made me think it was some kind of conversation with God, who evidently wasn‟t paying
much attention.
        “Stop ranting and change me human.” I snapped.
        He idly flicked my ear and I suddenly grew five inches and gained thirty-five pounds.
        I headed out of the apartment building and Thomas didn‟t stop me. Then I began to run
down the street. I mean, Raige lived here. He knew better than to scope out a store too far away.
He had to be nearby, right?
                                                         
        I bolted down the street. Nobody seemed to find it at all unusual, probably assuming I
was someone‟s quarry. Grocery stores were in distinct nonexistence, so I finally stopped running
and took a good look around, panting.
        It‟d taken me that long to realize that I‟d either missed a street, or he had also gotten lost.
But I‟d been busy shouting Raige‟s name and running around downtown Vaygo in a manic panic
so hadn‟t listened to my brain. Now the obvious knowledge came to me: this was definitely not
where a grocery store was.
        I was on some street named Everclear. Had been for at least fifteen minutes. And it ob-
viously wasn‟t one of those „safe streets‟ Raige had mentioned. The grimy sidewalk was clut-
tered with scantily dressed ladies, twitchy druggies, and clean-cut men in expensive suits who
made me far more nervous than the rest. But I didn‟t know my way around; all I could do was
turn around and go back to the other street and hope nothing bad happened between now and
then. Past experience didn‟t reassure me that this would happen.
        I started to head back, but by then I was tired from running and had to move at a fast
walk. My nerves were fraying rapidly in worry for Raige. Soon I would add myself to that list.
Now that I‟d stopped running and obviously wasn‟t claimed, everyone on the street seemed to
weigh me, figuring out whether I was worth approaching or not, knowing I was new to their gri-
my neon world. I kept getting the very jumpy feeling between my shoulder blades that someone
was following me, but every time I glanced back, no one was out of place. That made me all the
more desperate to get the heck off this street. It was giving me very bad vibes.
        Unfortunately, I couldn‟t remember what street my hotel was on either. I was soon tho-
roughly lost and alone in Vaygo, in the part that had earned it the name of the Land of Broken
Dreams. And I had no choice but to stay on this street, because if I left it, there was next to no
chance at all of me getting back onto the right one.
         Suddenly I got an even more jarring feeling of someone following me. And this time, I
wasn‟t just being paranoid. Someone in a dark turtleneck was shuffling along behind me. When
I crossed the street, so did he. When I stopped and turned, he disappeared among the crowd.
         Now I was starting to get really nervous. I wasn‟t worried about him trying to mug me.
Well, all right, I was worried about him trying to mug me, but I was really worried that I‟d be
forced to set my fire spell on him. Despite my assurance to Thomas, it would be my only effec-
tive weapon for this sort of thing, but at such a range, it could very well blow him up. Vaygo
was known for being… acclimated… to this sort of thing, but even that couldn‟t be normal here.
I didn‟t want attention and I didn‟t want to kill him. I just wanted Raige so I could kill him.
         Ironically, I was so busy trying to decide on a course of action to get rid of him that I
didn‟t concentrate properly on him coming at me. The guy in the turtleneck managed to get
close behind me as I fought my way through a crowd of transvestites and with one swift, prac-
ticed movement, he whipped me into an alley, pushing my back to the brick wall to prevent es-
caping.
         My mouth intervened before I thought properly. “Let go, pervert!” I bellowed.
         Nobody in the street appeared to notice or care. No, wait, one person noticed and cared.
A black guy, one of the Suit Brigade, looked at me as though I was his favorite child who was
just a touch out of line and put a finger to his lips.
         “Ssh. Quiet, honey.” He said. His voice was friendly and faintly amused.
         I grinned hopelessly at him, realizing I had well and truly done myself in. “Could I go
home with you?” I asked, keeping my voice loud just in case someone who cared would notice.
         The guy in the suit just chuckled as though I was a perfect darling and turned away.
         I focused back on the guy in the turtleneck who had dragged me into the alley. He didn‟t
even look amused.
         “I would like ya money and I would like it now.” He said calmly and clearly but in a very
congested voice. As I watched, he coughed thickly. He looked like he should be in bed and not
on the street, but unfortunately, whatever sickness he‟d contracted didn‟t seem to be hampering
his muscle power. I realized I‟d made another mistake; his gun gave off a draining, chilling aura.
There was cold iron somewhere in it, and that made my fire spell abruptly even more unreliable
than usual.
         My inner rat started frantically searching its chalkboards for some way to get him away
from me. I had a feeling telling him I was broke wouldn‟t be good enough. Could his hold on
the gun be lax enough to let me pull it away by hand? No, not a good idea: even if I could sur-
prise him, he‟d just tighten his grip and that could very well end in my brain with some ill-
needed ventilation. My smell illusions, being the first thing I‟d learned, might function fairly
well, and they‟d proven many times that they were strong enough to make someone sick, but he
was already pretty ill and probably couldn‟t have smelled a gas leak. The only thing likely to
stop him was setting off my fire spell, which, even if it worked right, would probably kill him.
Unacceptable.
         Getting annoyed at my silence, the guy kicked at my shin to get my attention. “Hey, ya
payin‟ „tention ta me or wha?” Using such volume made him cough again.
         “Sure. Just give me some time?” I said, realizing my voice was becoming quieter and
less brassy incredibly quickly.
         He just reoriented the gun on me. “Smartass.” He said threateningly.
         Before I could think of a proper response, another voice joined us in the alley. “Fuck off.
The bitch is mine.”
         The mugger turned his head. “Beg your pardon, sir, but this ain‟t none of ya concern.” He
barked to the newcomer.
         By now, I‟d learned enough to note that although nobody on the street showed the sligh-
test reaction to this whole thing, they were now starting to move leisurely along as though they
had decided not to get into anyone‟s way. The man in the suit picked his briefcase up, glanced at
his watch, and strode off. Therefore the situation had obviously gotten a lot worse. The newco-
mer was a guy who looked so unremarkable I immediately felt the urge to look at something
more interesting, but he had a deep growling voice that sounded familiar. I passed it off as the
slurring twang all the lower class used here and went back to my attempted planning. The first
guy kept the gun at my head.
         “I said,” the newcomer repeated slowly, drawling the word into two syllables in an-
noyance, “the. Bitch. Is. Mine.”
         Seeing how this was shaping up, I decided it‟d be wise to shut up and play the innocent
little victim. True, I was just asking for an exchange of troubles, and this guy wasn‟t slowed
down by illness, but speaking up could have the very bad side effect of getting me shot. My in-
ner rat started replacing faulty plan components, trying to figure out a way to get rid of this new
guy.
         The first mugger, aggravated that his business was getting cut into, wheeled towards the
newcomer angrily, leaving only Mr. Enforcer to look after me. “I said—” he started.
         He might not let his guard down like this again. Instead of waiting to be bashed up by
whoever won this argument, I spun and jumped, intending to scurry up the wall like a bug and
disappear into the shadows before his perception of reality realized exactly what I was doing.
         Unfortunately for me, the guy‟s illness hadn‟t affected his reflexes or his strength. His
grimy hand grabbed the back of my collar, hauled me so hard my half-started levitation snapped,
and when I somehow landed basically on my feet, he spun me around and slammed me back to
the wall. To dissuade me from later attempts, he cuffed me across the face hard enough to make
me dizzy, thankfully with his free hand and not the gun, then retrained the latter on me. “All
right, thazz enough, Spidergirl, now—”
         “You will fuck off and mind your own business.” The newcomer said in a slow, purpose-
ful tone. His enunciation was clear, which showed his seriousness, along with his grim expres-
sion. Now he had a gun out too. I had neither seen nor heard him draw it, and by the look of the
first guy‟s face, neither had he. We both exchanged glances, considering how much we were
worth to each other and performing some crucial restructuring of plans to take this suspiciously
normal guy‟s abnormal speed into account.
         For a few seconds, I worried that the mugger would just blow my brains out for conveni-
ence and take his chances with the other guy. But then he sighed, pulled the gun off me and
sauntered out of the alley. Evidently he‟d decided that though he might overpower some skinny
kid, he wasn‟t in good enough condition to take on another thug like himself. The crowds on the
street passively began to resume positions again.
         Now that I had a second, I pulled my knife out. Somewhere in my reeling brain, I re-
member thinking to the knife that dang it, if it was so special, it had better show it soon. “Back
off.” I growled, leaning against the brick wall to keep my balance. Earthling pain thresholds
were lower than Senyan; that cuff still had me reeling. I didn‟t expect to intimidate him, but I
needed time to recover brain space.
        “Put that thing away.” The newcomer told me, holding out his hands. I banged the back
of my head on the wall trying to jump back, then realized they were empty. The gun had some-
how disappeared. How had he done it? Then I told myself to focus on the more crucial things
like I was still in danger and couldn‟t concentrate hard enough through the sting for magic.
        “No.” I said coldly. “Back away and go. That guy caught me by surprise, but you won‟t.
Don‟t make me blow you up. I can, you know.”
        “Will ya take it easy?” He shouted, and it was in the familiar context of frustrated bellow-
ing that I finally recognized the voice. “Jeezus Christ, it‟s me!” And he let the illusion drop.
        Asking about my missing friend took precedence over asking what the heck Biff was
doing following me around. “Have you seen Raige?” I asked, stuffing my knife away. “Have you
seen him?”
        “I ain‟t seen him fa over five years.” Biff retorted. “He got better timin‟ than ya do.”
        I tore off a bit of excess cuticle that was bothering me and worried.
        Biff didn‟t seem to notice my anxiety, or if he did, he passed it off as the stress of nearly
getting mugged. “Christ, don‟t ya know better ta go „round screamin‟ like that on Everclear? Ya
coulda got the „tention of someone a lot nastier than me. Some brain ya got, dumbass. If I
wasn‟t „round, ya‟d be dead already.”
        I wasn‟t quite paying attention. “Thanks, you‟re a sweetheart. Raige‟s got to be around
here somewhere, there must be a reason he hasn‟t come home, how long could it possibly take to
grab some frogging lettuce and frogging carrots?” I mumbled to myself, picking at my palms and
then realizing with surprise that the familiar crosshatching of scars were missing in human form.
“Huh.”
        Biff stared at me and shook his head in disgust. “You are outta ya ever-lovin‟ mind,
y‟know that?”
        I threw my arms up. “What else is new?” I sang in borderline hysteria, and then let my
shoulders slump and rubbed my forehead. “If it‟s this bad with Raige and groceries, no wonder
Bobby and Bogart get so stressed when I disappear.”
        It was then that I noticed Biff was giving me a very odd look as though I‟d grown horns
and he couldn‟t think of a diplomatic way to ask about them without looking stupid. It couldn‟t
have been about my behavior; I‟d acted much weirder in the Science Department.
        “What?” I barked in frustration when he didn‟t say anything. “You‟ve seen me in differ-
ent faces before. Is there something about me being black that bothers you?”
        He just silently gestured at my chest.
        For a second, I just blinked. Then I looked down and was given a concrete reminder that
oh yeah, I was soft and black and oh, so jiggly.
        “Is there a problem?” I growled, thrusting my jaw out. If he said one thing about my cup
size, just one, I would blow him up, attention be danged. But no, he didn‟t.
        “They real?” He asked instead.
        I sighed. “Yes, Mr. Subtle‟n‟Tact,” I finally retorted, carefully touching my swelling
cheek, “unfortunately, they‟re real.”
        He grunted. “Thought so. Didn‟t look like ya „lusion.”
        I spat one of his choice phrases back at him and slumped against the brick wall, clasping
my arms around my chest. He had no reaction.
        “Ya break laws of nature all the time, or just „round me?”
        Despite his normal unpleasant personality and foul mouth, he was surprisingly calming,
almost comforting. Maybe it was because he was familiar, even if he did have the smooth dip-
lomacy of a nuclear bomb. I now felt good enough to not give a straight answer. “They just
come out around you, Biffy.” I said. “Just you. As soon as you came into the alley, y‟know, they
just appeared here. No clue where they came from, your presence just triggered them. Must be
your virility or something.”
        He just rolled his eyes and I straightened up. Then I realized something amusing and
grinned. “Heehee.”
        Biff frowned at me. “What? Ya finally lost it now?”
        I shook my head but kept my grin and strode forward until we were as close as possible
without touching, knowing that Biff‟s pride would keep him from automatically taking a step
back.
        “I‟m taller than you.” I said.
        With speed I never caught, he suddenly had my arm at an angle it was not meant to have.
“Ain‟t I owe ya a little somethin‟ fa bein‟ a bitch back when ya was short too?” He gave a slight
twist and I realized again that Earthling nervous systems weren‟t nearly as tolerant towards pain
as Dellan. “Lemme see, what whazzat ya said? „Does that hurt?‟”
        “All right!” I wheezed. “I‟ll shut up!”
        “Thazz my girl.” With one last quick twist that made me do some contortions of my own,
he released me to nurse my wounds. “What hotel ya at?”
        “The Neon Nightmare, why?”
        His appearance suddenly shifted back to the one he‟d had before, nobody special. Then
he headed out of the alleyway.
        “C‟mon, ya wanna stay lost or not?” He snapped over his shoulder when I didn‟t follow.
        I hurried to catch up with him.




            18: Due to Circumstances Beyond our Control
                                  Charlene Unnigrutt



       Daddy and I didn‟t really talk on the drive home. I guess neither of us wanted to screw
anything up before I managed to tell him what was happening. Almost funny that everything got
screwed up without me saying anything.
       When we got to the house, which hadn‟t changed a bit, Daddy stopped the car, rolled
down the window to stick his head out, and then swore. The front door was hanging open and
looked like someone had opened it with a battering ram.
       “Hell, what timing. I try and reconcile with my son and someone finally decides to break
in. Whoever did it must be asking for an ass-kicking.” He growled. He sighed. “Come on, let‟s
go see what they took.”
        “They might still be in there.” I pointed out nervously. I had a bad feeling about this: I‟d
lived at that house all my life and no one had ever smashed open the door before.
        “Lift up your legs a second…” He reached under my seat and pulled out a baseball bat.
        “Um… what happened to the gun?” I asked.
        He shrugged. “Got rid of it after you left.” Then he looked at me and frowned. “You
don‟t look pissed.”
        “Enh?”
        “Five years ago, you would‟ve thrown a fit if I had a boxing glove in the car, never mind
a bat.”
        I shrugged and shook my head, unsure what I could say that‟d make any sense. After
Treehouse in general and M.D., Venna, and Mngleh in specific, a bat didn‟t bother me a bit an-
ymore.
        My dad blinked thoughtfully. “Hmm.” Then he got out of the car. I followed him.
        He paused at the porch, prodding at the wall. “That‟s weird. The burglar alarm‟s dead. I
must‟ve forgot to change the battery yesterday; could‟ve sworn I did…”
        Looking wary, he stepped in the door and took a quick look around. Then he cautiously
walked in further with me behind him.
        “Anyone in here?” He yelled into the house.
        A friendly voice I didn‟t recognize called from deeper inside, the living room I guessed.
“Ah, Mr. Unnigrutt, you‟ve come home. I was starting to worry about you.” When my dad tigh-
tened his grip on the bat, “Don‟t worry. It‟s me, Specialist Grey. I talked to you yesterday.”
        Specialist? Alarm bells went off in my head. I tried to decide whether I should run or try
and tell my dad first.
        “You broke down my damn door.” Daddy pointed out.
        “Truly sorry about that.” Specialist Grey replied. “I got angry at it.”
        Daddy blinked, looking a little confused but still nowhere near putting the bat down.
When he saw me look at him questioningly, he muttered, “The Grey I met had a steel rod up his
ass and said he had no sense of humor. This isn‟t him.” Tightening his grip on the bat, he raised
his voice so he could be heard through the house again. “Get out of my house.”
        “Sorry. I think I‟ll be staying quite close to you for a while.” A large man in the now-
familiar navy blue suit sauntered out of the side room. Then he saw me and abruptly paused.
For a few seconds he didn‟t say anything, and I had a feeling that behind the opaque walls of his
sunglasses, his eyes were wide with surprise. “Your son‟s with you!” He said in astonishment.
Then he smiled happily. “Well… that’s nice. I didn‟t expect to see him for at least another day
or so. What luck.”
        I swallowed and began to slowly back away. I was starting to think it was a bad idea
coming here alone. If there was something creepier than a specialist shouting at me, it was one
smiling at me.
        My dad stepped in front of me, blocking me from the specialist‟s view. “Look, I don‟t
know what you‟ve been smoking but get out of my house and leave me alone.”
        “Don‟t worry.” Grey said, looking like he was about to burst out laughing. “I can promise
you, quite sincerely, that I‟m not interested in you at all.”
        “You can‟t brainwash him or whatever it was you were talking about earlier.”
        He looked briefly surprised again. “I can also sincerely promise that although I‟m inter-
ested in his mind, I‟m not interested in brainwashing or lobotomizing him either.”
         I wasn‟t sure whether this was good or not. I was naïve, but I knew better than to think
Specialist Grey was just planning to talk to me and ask how life was.
         Daddy was getting annoyed now. “Well, what do you want?”
         “Say please. Maybe I‟ll answer.” The specialist vanished back into the room he came
from. “You really do need to restock your refrigerator.”
         Now Daddy was getting really annoyed. He‟d never liked it when people ignored him,
and this specialist was giving us both the creeps. With a growl, he swung the bat back into his
slugging grip and angrily strode toward the living room so he could yell at the specialist from not
so far away. I stayed behind. “Get the hell out of—”
         I heard a quick whine, then a thunk. Daddy stopped in mid-word and collapsed on the
floor, while I froze and started to panic. The specialist came out of the room with a tranq-gun.
As I watched, he slung it over his shoulder stiffly, like his arm was robotic. “Finally. I was won-
dering if I‟d have to insult his wife to make him come in there.” His voice sounded oddly
strained. Then he raised his eyes to me and his voice was casual and drawling; it reminded me of
someone. He shifted his weight to one leg and put his free hand on his hip. “Ah, Raige. Such
a… pleasure to meet you again.”
         Running sounded good.
         Grey sighed and rolled his eyes dramatically. “Don‟t even try it.”
         I spun and broke into a sprint.
         He didn‟t even try to catch up to me. I‟d gone maybe twenty feet when I heard a bizarre
sound that my brain described as „chains being shot out of a cannon,‟ and something slammed
forward and wrapped around my calves. I swayed, just managed to keep from falling headlong,
and landed hard on my butt, wondering why he hadn‟t tranqed me.
         “I you not to. Amazing what these people are loaded with; I‟m starting to enjoy it.” He
came over to me, pulled the gray coil from my ankles, and yanked me to my feet by my collar.
He was even taller than me. “But there are two things I‟ll enjoy even more.”
         “W-what things?” I squeaked.
         He grinned in a way that reminded me strikingly of M.D.‟s ex-friend Herman Peak-
nuckle. Then he elbowed me in the stomach so hard I nearly fainted. I went down to my knees
without enough breath to even whimper.
         The specialist sounded jubilant and his expression was one of ecstasy. “God, I‟ve wanted
to do that for a long time! It felt even better than I thought it would!”
         “What?” I managed to gasp out. “I don‟t… don‟t even know…”
         “Oh, you‟ve met me before. You drove me out of my best host with cold iron.” He said
flatly. “I‟m sure you remember that, my dear boy. Haven‟t you figured out yet just how vengeful
we Dellans are? You live with three of them, after all.”
         If I could‟ve stopped breathing, I would‟ve. Number One had come back, just like M.D.
had sworn. I just looked up at him helplessly.
          Number One sighed. “I really would like to hurt you some more, but sadly, that must
wait.” He slowly, awkwardly forced his arm to lift the tranq-gun to his temple. “Don‟t forget to
scream for me.”
         Then he fired and crumpled to the floor.
         For a moment, I didn‟t understand. Then I knew what he meant. I tried to get up and
run, but I was still winded and didn‟t make it.
         M.D.‟s telepathy had always been jarring. But he wanted it to be rough and painful and
so this time it felt like someone was prying the hemispheres of my brain apart with a crowbar.
For a second, I shrieked, but then my throat locked down and kept me from making any noise. I
felt myself stand up and brush myself off.
         “Your screams are invigorating. I must say, you‟ll be much easier to handle than Spe-
cialist Grey. He wouldn‟t stop fighting me. Come on, boy. Your family reunion‟s over; it‟s
time to return home.”
         Forcing into my memory to remember where my hotel was, my legs kicked open the
front door and strode out and down the street, taking me with it. I was too shocked to stop him.
I tried to talk, but he wouldn‟t let me, so I went to thought instead. I was still a little numb.
         “What do you want?” I asked.
         He felt slightly disgusted. “I‟d think that‟d be perfectly obvious. I‟m not here because I
like the natural scenery.”
         “I know you want M.D.” I said. “I mean what is it about her you want?”
         “Now what makes you think I‟ll want to discuss that with you?”
         I automatically tried to shrug, but my shoulders didn‟t even tense up. “I just want you to
leave her alone.”
         A flash of bitterness roiled in my mind before he got control of himself again. “You‟ve
had a long day. Why don‟t you go and cry somewhere in your mind and leave me to my busi-
ness?”
         Suddenly I got hit with a blast of depression so black and ugly I couldn‟t think of any-
thing else.
                                                        
         Number One hated my guts, but even he needed something to do. Since neither of us
could drive, we were still walking after half an hour, enough to make anyone a little bored. So
after I‟d calmed down a little, he started talking to me again. I guess playing with my head and
giving me mood-swings was fun, but he was curious about M.D.
         “How has she been faring with the two dragons?”
         “She‟s been learning about surgery.” I said numbly.
         “Is she doing well?”
         “Pretty well, I think. She doesn‟t talk about it much.”
         “How long did it take her to heal from the beating I gave her?”
         “Over a month.” I replied, remembering how she‟d been in a coma for a few days after
fighting him.
         He chuckled. “What a fighting spirit.” When he felt my shock, he said, “If I wanted to
kill or disable her, I would‟ve. What doesn‟t kill her will make her stronger. That‟s an Earthling
proverb, isn‟t it?”
         To be honest, I‟d always thought that saying was bull. He caught that thought and
chuckled again.
         “Of course you would. Does she talk about Della ever?”
         I tried to shake my head, then mentally swore when my head didn‟t move. I was still pa-
nicking and feeling like crying, and now I was getting a little frustrated to add on. “No. Hardly
ever.”
         “A pity. And what do you know about it?”
         “It was a desert. You and the Breen fought with each other all the time. And then it
blew—”
         “That‟s enough.” He interrupted, giving me a warning tingle of emotional pain. So he
didn‟t like thinking about how Della exploded either.
         For a while, he just walked.
         “So what was it like?” I asked.
         He just gave me a quick flash of pain and I couldn‟t figure out whether it was meant to
shut me up or just a reaction to what I‟d asked. Of course he wouldn‟t want to think about it, not
after me bringing up how it collapsed in flame. I tried again. The more I knew the better; Num-
ber One probably knew that, but he was pretty bored and I knew he was positive he was smarter
than I was.
         “You‟re the same age as M.D., right?”
         He paused, deciding what to tell me. “About.” He finally verified slowly. “I‟m two years
older, give or take.”
         “But she can‟t do any of the stuff you can. You‟ve taken over two people‟s minds—”
         “Three.” He corrected tensely. “Remember you?”
         I swallowed, but did my best to ignore him. “—In less than a week. Why can you do all
that and she can‟t?”
         I felt him sigh reluctantly. “Midaz is…” he knew the English word wasn‟t the right con-
text, but it was all he could think of with close to the right meaning, “retarded.”
         “What? She seems fine to me.”
         Another pause as he tried to decide what was safe to tell me. “Firstly, I can store much
more energy in my body than she can because of our size difference. That gives me more power
to start with. More importantly, they made me to be an excellent mind-weaver. Midaz was not;
she actually wasn‟t ever meant to be powerful in that manner for fear she‟d become… well, be-
come like me, I suppose. The only mind-weaving training that she was meant to master was the
type required for her to live through hell. Repression, pain control, berserker rage, that sort of
thing. It‟s hard to train a mind-weaver with that; it‟s not what we are accustomed to. Even when
you download it into our mind—make us think it‟s happening when it‟s just our imagination, like
psychic virtual reality—we get a little unstable. The scenarios we‟re downloaded with aren‟t
pleasant.”
         I‟ll bet, I thought. I‟d heard M.D. scream in her sleep before.
         I felt Number One‟s surprise. “You feel the same way I do about her!”
         At first I thought he had to be kidding. Then I tried to see it his way. I knew fighting
was like football games for Dellans. I‟d heard Venna chatter on about what wounds she and
Mngleh had inflicted on enemies in the past. It was all about strength and power and that sort of
thing. When you thought of it that way, it kind of made sense. That didn‟t mean I liked it. It
just meant I understood it.
         Number One became angry. “You have no right to her! You‟re not even her species!”
Then, like it was the worst thing he could imagine, “You can‟t even fight!”
         I wasn‟t about to argue with him on that, because he was right and I hoped he‟d calm
down if I didn‟t fight him over it. Not so. Now he was raking through my memory, almost des-
perately looking for something while my legs kept walking mechanically. Pain streaked through
my temples, while my memories zipped in and out of my conscious mind like a bad daydream
you couldn‟t wake up from.
         I felt a flash of sympathy for Mr. Rawls. He‟d gone on like this for months. No wonder
the guy was a nervous wreck.
         As he sorted through my head, Number One got angrier and angrier. I knew why. The
memories flashing through my head were generally ones from when I‟d first gotten to know
M.D., back in Canandria and she‟d wanted to kill me every ten minutes and I‟d still wanted her
to talk to me. He kept forging through.
         Oh god, I knew what memory he was going to hit soon: when a bad snap alone in the for-
est had her finding out that even she wasn‟t entirely impossible to like. I tried hard to block it
from him, to force him on to something else. I mean, your memory is even worse than a diary;
you never want anyone walking through it. Number One broke me down easily without a second
thought and went on.
         Number One‟s mood grew colder and colder as he went on, but he didn‟t send me any
direct thoughts until he hit the Science Department. That memory was definitely the one I
wanted most to keep to myself. I tried to stop him again, with just as much success as before.
         The emotional explosion he had at it was agonizing, but I no longer responded. I hadn‟t
gone numb; I was just waiting it out now because there wasn‟t anything I could do. Nothing was
worth thinking about except surviving whatever was happening at the moment.
         As for Number One, he was so furious he couldn‟t even think straight. He would‟ve torn
me apart if I weren‟t already as low as I could get and he was so enraged he couldn‟t focus
enough to pull it off. The emotion really was only anger on the surface. Underneath were even
stronger emotions, and I could see them this time. He was jealous of me.
         Just when I though he‟d lose all reason and kill me to get me out of the way, he shut his
emotions down. He went from on the verge of killing me to dead calm in less than a second.
Something he probably couldn‟t have done if he wasn‟t a good mind-weaver and with amazing
desire to go through with his goal. He knew anger wasn‟t doing him any good.
         “She‟ll never feel for you, and you know it.” He said. “Your little heartache is for noth-
ing.”
         “…” I was busy just existing.
         He shrugged. “It doesn‟t matter anyway. She‟s going with me. So you might want to get
used to the idea. Now come on, I need to bludgeon that idiot you say is up there so he can‟t
transform her to her natural form. How fortunate your memory told me that.”
         I‟d thought I‟d pretty much felt as crappy as mentally possible, but that somehow sunk
me lower because now Thomas was getting caught in the crossfire. Again, I was just waiting it
out. He was in complete control; there was nothing I could do.
         He walked into the hotel and got into the elevator. I knew I couldn‟t stop him so didn‟t
even bother. He began whistling some Dellan song cheerfully.
         Even though I wished that the elevator would freeze or something impossible would hap-
pen, it didn‟t. It rose and ended up at our floor, and Number One strode into our hotel room.
         Thomas was on us so fast I think even Number One was surprised.
         “Finally! I was beginning to worry y‟all wouldn‟t come back!” He cried. “I was about to
say to hell with M.D. and go after you myself!”
         Number One suddenly let me take control of my own body. “Act natural.” He purred. He
knew he couldn‟t pretend to be me.
         Suddenly I felt calm. He was playing with my emotions again. “Hey Thomas.” I said
numbly, feeling like a rat. “Sorry I had you worried.”
         Number One suddenly felt alarmed. “Midaz isn‟t here.”
         “Where‟s M.D.?” I asked, sharing his worry.
         Thomas frowned. “You mean she didn‟t bring you back?” When he saw Number One
frown, he said, “She freaked out when you didn‟t return, so decided to do her Lone Ranger thing
and go after you. Oh god, now I‟m going to have to worry about her.” He sighed and turned.
“Lord, she never listens. Never. No wonder Bogart always wants to kill her. I want to too.”
         He sighed and walked into the bathroom. Number One followed, and while he was pon-
dering whatever he was pondering, I spoke.
         “Do you think she‟s okay?” I asked. I was actually not as worried as I should‟ve been; if
M.D. had gone off, maybe Number One would leave Thomas alone and go off to find her the old
fashioned way.
         “You would like that, wouldn‟t you?” Number One said in my mind, and his tone ruined
all hopes I had.
         “I don‟t know; she‟s been gone a while now.” Thomas said, leaning over the sink as he
began to sort through the drawers. “I‟m calling Bobby. Where the heck did I put that phone…?”
         My hand closed over the metal towel bar. It was loose and nobody had bothered to fix it.
It came out of its setting easily with only a slight rattle. My arm pulled the bar back. My face
smiled a little.
         I tried to shout, give a warning, something. Nothing happened.
         My arm swung.
         Suddenly Thomas turned to me. “Hey, what‟d you do with the groc—”
         Number One couldn‟t stop in mid-swing, and the bar slashed across his cheek, rather than
clubbing him in the back of the head. The sharp corner cut in, and Thomas grunted as his head
snapped back. He put his hand to his face, gaping in shock at the blood on his hand.
         I tried to shout at him not to stare. My throat clamped down and wouldn‟t let me. Don‟t
stare, Thomas, run! Run, dammit! Please run…
         With a look of numb disbelief, he stared up at us. “What?”
         Number One‟s second swing didn‟t miss. It hit him solidly in the back of the head, and
after a second, Thomas fell heavily to the floor, hitting the sink on the way down.
         Shaking, I just stood there and stared at him, my heart hammering.
         Ignoring my reaction, Number One looked over his work with satisfaction and calmly let
the towel bar drop from my fingers. It bounced on the tile floor with a loud clang.
         “Come now.” He said. “You act as though you‟ve never seen blood before.”
         Suddenly I heard the door start to open. Grumbling came from the other side.
         “That stubborn, pompous, jackass—”
         My face grinned. “Ah.” Number One said. “Our damsel arrives.”
         I was silent. Thomas I‟d had hope for, but I knew M.D., and she would never run.

                                    Annabelle Rawlins
       Biff and I maintained a stiff, uncomfortable silence all the way to the hotel. We
would‟ve said absolutely nothing except that he caught eye of the Harley. When he did, he kept
walking but his head turned so his eyes could keep running down the machine‟s sleek metal
lines. When it finally risked dislocating some upper vertebrae, he forced himself to look forward
again.
       “Wha?” He snapped when he saw my raised eyebrow. “It‟s a nice bike.”
       Couldn‟t resist. “Why, thank you.” I said with a polite smile. “It‟s mine.”
       He stopped in his tracks, forcing me to stop too since otherwise I‟d just awkwardly leave
him behind. The look on his face was one I wish I could‟ve photographed. After a couple
seconds to absorb the information, he said, quite quietly, “How the fuck did ya get that?”
        I could‟ve said something about my cat giving me a nice allowance, but I took pity on
him and his abused sense of reality. “I had money. Just… don‟t ask how I got it.”
        “Was it legal?”
        I winced. “I told you not to ask.”
        We stood there for a few awkward moments. Biff seemed interested in nothing more
than looking at my bike. I fidgeted.
        “So… how‟re you healing up?” I finally asked, knowing perfectly well that if I had to
resort to medicine for conversation with him, I was definitely floundering.
        He shrugged. “Awright. Ain‟t woozy anymore.”
        “Bruising?”
        “A bit.”
        “That‟s normal.”
        “Nasty burns.” There was no bite in his voice.
        “Sorry. Best I could do. At least you‟ll have plenty of scars to show your… um.” The
sentence had no ending. He‟d never have kids or grandkids. He hadn‟t seen his family for about
a decade. Saying „girlfriend‟ would bring catastrophic results. Letting it die off was the only
choice I had.
        He shrugged again.
        “It‟s my fault you got stuck there in the first place, you know.” I reminded him.
        “I don‟t owe ya shit.” He growled, pacing around the motorcycle and tugging the collar
of his ratty jacket to pull it tighter across his back.
        “Good.” I said. “So what‟re you doing now?”
        He shrugged a third time.
        “Stop doing that!” I snapped. “You‟re making me nervous! I‟m starting to worry I gave
you some sort of infection while slicing you open!”
        “I‟m fine.” He snapped.
        The silence was so stiff with starch Atkins would‟ve screamed. Biff circled around the
Harley Davidson. I fidgeted some more.
        “So…” I started gingerly, scratching one shoulder. “You want to come inside, maybe—”
        “Naw.”
        “You su—”
        “Yeah.”
        “Oh come on, why not? Eventually we‟ll get us some groceries, if our people stop disap-
pearing, and I just got you chucked out of your house—”
        “No.”
        I gave up. When Biff‟s enunciation got clear, you knew his mind was set and precious
little would change it. I spat a cussword I‟d got from him in annoyance and kicked the Harley‟s
front wheel. That gave me an idea.
        “You like this bike, Biff?” I remarked.
        He shrugged. Then, when he saw the look of frustration on my face, he leisurely added,
“Yeah. I like it. So?”
        “I‟m not going to be on Earth for much longer. In fact, I‟m leaving tomorrow morning.
And I‟m either going to a prison cell for breaking intergalactic immigration laws, or a place
where I work for dragons. Either way, I have myself a bike and nothing to use it for. And
you‟ve got no car.”
        He gave me a warning danger look ordering me to shut up now.
         I ignored it. “Take it, Biff.”
         “No.” Clear enunciation again. Crap.
         “Come on!” I said. I lost my patience and reverted to whining. “What‟s preventing you?
You need transportation and/or money, and I just want to get my little brother and go home. For
peat‟s sake, even you can‟t be that contrary!”
         “I don‟t fuckin‟ want ya charity.”
         I felt like tearing my hair out. “Dang it, this isn‟t charity!”
         “Neither is me bringin‟ ya home.” He sneered. “And ya won‟t take that, so why should I
take yours?”
         “That‟s different!” I yelled, then winced. Urgh. That phrase had been one of the ones I‟d
hated most, up there with „you‟ll understand someday‟ and „you have no right to complain.‟ I
had a feeling that Biff knew it too, maybe even had had the same sayings slugged at him. “Fine.
You got me. Can you at least tell me where you‟re living now?”
         He gave me a suspicious look. “Why?”
         I wanted to hit him. “So I can kill you in your sleep!” I cried, throwing my arms up in
frustration. “What do you think? Just about everybody I know, I‟ve left suddenly and without
warning. The last words my brother and I exchanged were about me bringing him home a camp
mug, and that was five years ago! I mean, what pathos, right? The last thing my buddies got
from me before sending out the rescue squad was, „come after me and I‟ll gut you.‟ Now, I know
a lot of people on this planet couldn‟t be happier that I just disappear, since most problems aren‟t
nearly as easy to get rid of, but believe it or not, I‟d actually like to have the time to… to say
goodbye sometimes, all right?”
         I tried to keep talking, but my tongue and subconscious vetoed it on grounds of criminal
stupidity. Wish to speak fought against years of self-preservative silence. It came out a stale-
mate, and all I did was open my mouth as though I was about to speak and then strangle my own
air before anything came out. Even though I made a complete houseplant of myself, somehow I
didn‟t relinquish eye contact. I finally finished, in a weak voice, “Y‟know?”
         Biff gave me a look that I couldn‟t fathom. The muscles in his jaw tensed yet I didn‟t
think he was angry. But then he turned and resumed stalking away.
         I stood in silence. He‟d brushed me off, I realized numbly. I couldn‟t believe I was so
stupid that I was actually surprised. I couldn‟t believe I was so stupid that I was actually hurt.
         “Fine!” I shouted, a couple seconds too late. “Be like that! I—it‟s not like I‟m missing
anything!” Dang it, my voice had even slipped. Clamping my jaw shut tight before I said any-
thing else, I wrapped my arms around myself, turned, and stormed towards the building.
         I heard a sigh behind me. “386 Everclear.” He said quietly. “The crappy room. I heard ya
screamin‟ ya head off from my balcony.”
         My jaw loosened. I stopped and turned to look back at him, but he‟d disappeared. The
street was empty. I tried to think of a proper response to this. I wasn‟t sure whether I‟d expected
it or wanted it or what. Finally words came to me.
         “Are you that desperate to avoid the Harley?” I bellowed. “You‟ll have to take it some-
day! If you don‟t, I‟ll hit you with a Vincent next!”
         No reply. He might as well have pulled a Batman and swung into the sky.
         With a growl of frustration, I stalked into the hotel and stormed up the flights of stairs to
my room, muttering angrily. I kicked open the door, slamming it into the opposite wall.
         “That stubborn, pompous jackass, I might as well try and talk to a frogging brick wall,
he—” I stopped short. Raige was just walking out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind
him, a big grin on his face. I immediately ran to him and took a hold on his shirtfront so I could
shake him more effectively. “Raige! I could kill you right now! Are you all right? Where have
you been? You could‟ve gotten yourself killed, you houseplant! Dang it, you had me—” Then I
frowned. “You‟re smiling.”
        “It‟s just… really good to see you.” He replied.
        I glanced down at my hands, then let go of his shirt, feeling uncomfortable. “…Ah.”
        Suddenly he frowned. “What happened to you?”
        “Enh?” Then he cupped my cheek. Growing even more uncomfortable, I jerked away.
What was he doing? He knew how much I disliked physical contact. “Stop that. Just a little in-
cident with a mugger. Don‟t worry, he didn‟t get anything.”
        I suddenly felt pity for that mugger. Raige looked like he was ready to go out and put the
guy‟s head on a pike. “Really?” He asked, rubbing his knuckles idly.
        I blinked at him. “You haven‟t been hitting anything in my herb belt, have you?” I asked
slowly and suspiciously.
        “Look what he did to you!” He said as though to justify this sudden warp in his personali-
ty.
        I snorted. “You act as though seeing me beat up is a novelty. Number One broke my
wrist and landed me in the ICU, remember?”
        He muttered something. I didn‟t catch it, so chose to ignore it.
        “This is nothing and you know it. Now get that look off your face, I‟m fine.” I looked
around. It was too quiet in here. Suddenly I realized why. “Where‟s Thomas?”
        “I don‟t know.” He replied, coming towards me. “He probably went looking for you.”
        I paused. Something was definitely wrong with him, and it wasn‟t anything as trivial as
intoxication by some herb. His voice, though the same unreliable thing it‟d always been, was
somehow different, not quite right in inflection. And the way he moved was also unlike him, not
quite loose enough. He was just… wrong. Deeply, intrinsically wrong, on a level not quite ex-
plainable. Something nervous began to squirm in my chest.
        “Are you all right?” I asked him warily, backing up a little.
        He laughed a little and kept coming forward. “A lot better than I‟ve been for a while.”
        Too close. I took another discreet step backward.
        It was the only thing I could think of offhand that might validate my concerns. I sudden-
ly smiled, crossed my arms behind my back in an innocent-little-girl way, and asked sweetly,
“Raige, do you remember what happened when I saw you in green?”
        He paused. An expression I didn‟t catch flashed across his face. “Sure. You pounded on
my door naked; how‟m I supposed to forget?” His cheerfulness seemed forced.
        That settled it. He hadn‟t shown any wariness at my creepy little girl act. He had been
utterly direct in speech. And he hadn‟t blushed. My inner rat searched through Available Res-
ponses and had to pull out my old Tried „n‟ True.
        I yanked out my knife. “You‟re not Raige. Leave.” I growled, baring my teeth.
        He chuckled deep in his chest, something Raige never did. Then he switched to smooth,
military Dellan, which Raige could speak only a little of and with an appalling accent to boot.
“You wouldn‟t use that on your big brother, now would you?”
        I felt the blood drain out of my face. I hoped my dark skin covered it. Then I sat down,
slightly abruptly.
        “I don‟t suppose I could make you get out of Raige‟s mind.” I said icily, twisting the
knife handle between my fingers.
         “You‟re only human now. Good luck to you.” He said in Dellan with a sardonic salute.
         I just stared at him. Every time I thought something was going right…
         Ignoring my expression, he pulled a chair over in front of the door and lowered himself
into it, effectively blocking my exit. “Won‟t you speak your native language?”
         “Won‟t you do both me and Raige a favor and speak English for once?” I responded.
         “No, then.” He said, still in Dellan. “Calm down. I‟m not being hostile.”
         “You. Took. Over. Raige‟s. Mind.” I reminded him.
         “Your point?”
         There‟s only so much subtlety can do. “That constitutes hostility, in my book.”
         “You wouldn‟t accept my presence any other way.”
         “Ask me why.” I responded, realizing too late that he‟d probably take it literally. “I‟ve
seen Mr. Rawls. You‟re not gentle.” I lowered my voice to a purr. I was talking slowly again,
trying to keep my temper under control. “I can promise you, Number One. If you hurt him—”
         “Very touching.” Number One spat, twisting Raige‟s lips into a teeth-baring sneer. Then
he took a deep breath and seemed to get himself under control. “Well, right now, you can‟t do
anything about it. Can we talk?”
         “There‟s nothing to talk about.” I said coldly. Then I rethought. “Wait, yes there is. I
want a restraining order. Which would you prefer, not coming within two planets of me or just
dying outright?”
         He sighed and set his chin in his hand. “You‟re being obstinate. Part of your training, I
suppose, to keep from being distracted, but it‟s frustrating.”
         That gave me a flash of déjà vu. I jerked my head once. “It‟s not nearly as complex as all
that. I just really don‟t like you. And even you should know that.”
         He smiled and leaned forward, clasping his hands. A very businesslike position, totally at
odds with the body he was using. “Of course I do. You hate me because I keep following you.
Don‟t you ever wonder why?”
         I opened my mouth to retort that the answer was obvious, then sighed. One of the rules
you can apply to virtually everything is that the more information you know, the more chance
you have of success. Besides, it‟d buy me time. Fighting this opportunity was illogical and not
in my best interest.
         I still wanted to tell him to shut up.
         “All right.” I said. “You evil sorts always have to divulge your plots.”
         “Evil now?” He said. “I‟ve gone farther down in your opinions.”
         “Just tell me why.” I growled, clenching my fists.
         He smiled coyly. “That temper of yours will kill someday.”
         I made a gesture of impatience.
         He sighed. “And you call me dense. I‟ll be blunt then. You‟re dangerous.”
         I froze for a few seconds. Then: “Excuse me?”
         He rolled his neck dramatically, also insultingly contrary to the body he possessed. “Oh,
be realistic. I‟ve been in both your minds now. He‟s totally oblivious, but I‟m not. At the rate
you‟re going, you‟ll be…” he chuckled to himself, “well, like me, I suppose. Without interven-
tion, I‟m seeing murder in your future. And I doubt you‟d be as clean at it as I am.” He made a
gesture with Raige‟s hands as though he was ripping apart an invisible towel.
         My spine was utterly rigid. “Mind-weavers aren‟t prophets.” I hissed.
         Now he was insulted. “I hardly need to be! I‟m not stupid! You seem to have a knack at
getting into fights that you can‟t win—except three times you did, all against foes that had the
physical power to beat you into the ground. Even so, I myself saw your own lack of control over
it. You tried to dash through a wall when the coward you call Mr. Rawls and I got into that little
argument.”
        “What are you talking about?” I cried. “I‟ve never seen you!”
        “That‟s my point exactly! You don‟t remember it and it only happened a few months
ago! And then there‟s what this boy‟s mind has been telling me. Nightmares? Attacking him
when you wake up? Very bad form, little sister. You told me you suppressed all Dellan memo-
ries, but they never made you to be a strong mind-weaver. You might‟ve been all right if you‟d
been able to restart and live your life in peace, but no, your little kitty found out, and now you‟re
having a bit of a rough spot.” He paused. “Face it, darling. You‟re losing control of your train-
ing, and when it finally gets too much for you and you get too stressed… let‟s not think about
that, you‟re looking a little ill.”
        “Then you coming here is a risk.” I said. My voice sounded a lot quieter than seemed
warranted.
        He smiled. His smile was astonishingly like Raige‟s, except his eyes were far from inno-
cent. “Exactly. Think about it.”
        My gears automatically began running the information through. Yes, him coming was a
huge danger, but he was willing to risk it. Why? The only reason he‟d ever risk something so
important to him—which I was, by his own twisted vision—was if the he thought the risks of
leaving me alone was riskier than coming and speeding up the process. And what could possibly
be so bad that he‟d risk facilitating my deterioration? Only if he thought I was already going
down so fast, it didn‟t matter.
        My back went cold. So Biff wasn‟t the only person on this planet thinking it.
        “Aren‟t you glad I‟m speaking Dellan and not English?” Number One remarked. “The
boy has no idea.”
        No. Raige wouldn‟t. My brain kicked back into gear with a start and I began thinking
logically about this.
        “You‟re lying. I‟ve never met you before in my life, never mind seen you and Mr. Rawls
together in separate bodies.”
        “Come now.” He cajoled. “You must remember some of it. You were with me, got into
another little verbal fight, and then Mr. Rawls crashed in through the roof. At a very bad time,
might I add.”
        This was ringing bells. But I rolled my eyes. “You got that from my mind. That wasn‟t
you. That was Rawlin, the Breen who makes Thomas look like a nun.”
        Tilting his head, he stared at me with slumped shoulders and dismay. It was the first time
I‟d seen what might‟ve been a genuine emotion from him. “You really don‟t remember me at all,
do you?”
        Rawlin‟s face was permanently ingrained on my brain; it‟d given me a horrid hit of déjà
vu when I‟d seen it. When you get that disturbed by a first glance, the sight stays with you. I‟d
passed it off as seeing some of my own planet‟s inhabitants, but it hadn‟t been nearly as strong
when I‟d first set eyes on Venna and Mngleh. Feeling that ragged-hole-in-my-memory sensation
again, I frowned in vague confusion, chasing after fleeting mental images that had ceased to exist
as far as I knew. Number One I had vague memories of, but no face and hardly any voice.
        “I… I don‟t…”
          “I‟m mostly Breen, my dear. They hoped to make the best of both breeds; crossbreeding
has been achieved before.” His lips twisted. “That they kept you only Senyan proves I wasn‟t as
successful as they hoped.”
          It was like someone had kicked a bottle containing a few old pages of a journal into my
head. A few mental chemical bonds formed: faceless memories gaining features, mute ones
gaining voices, a few details changing. And a brief flash of me lying in front of a door some-
where cold and dark, a familiar baritone voice saying, “So you‟re my replacement. A little
scrawny, aren‟t you?” I shook my head sharply.
          “You were down there?”
          “I lost favor after I disemboweled my fourth guard.” He replied, catching my meaning
immediately and sounding pleased that I at least remembered something. “They were so sur-
prised to see I didn‟t do the same to you when you stumbled down there. But you got abused
just as much as I did; I don‟t hate you. Quite the contrary, in fact.”
          “Really?” This conversation was so unreal I was almost giggling. “You broke my wrist
last time.”
          “You brought it on yourself. You tend to do that.”
          True enough. I had challenged him to a fight. He was just like Venna and Mngleh, who
thought that occasionally beating a friend senseless was good recreation. Like me. Then I shook
my head violently. He was not an old friend come to chat over tea and cookies! He had come to
drag me off as usual. Rawlin/Number One noticed the renewed hardness in my face and looked
a little insulted.
          “You don‟t think I have no loyalty after years of friendship? I‟ve killed for you, you
know.” He suddenly cocked his head. “You‟re looking a little sick again. You don‟t remember
that either.”
          Again, I was mute. I felt like I‟d been walking through the familiar landscape of memory
and crashed down into a cave I hadn‟t known was there. The only grace was that it was dark. I
realized I was twisting the knife again and couldn‟t decide who I wanted to use it on more.
          “Hmm. It seems you don‟t, but only through force of will.” His voice became intellectual
and dispassionate. He sounded like he was reading off a memorized passage of some old history
book. “It was a training session. Your tutor had grown more intense. He was a sound-weaver,
not a notably powerful one, but ruthless. Do you remember him?” I shook my head numbly. He
rolled his eyes and continued on, not surprised. “He and his superiors were displeased with your
progress; you still were being unresponsive, withdrawing instead of going berserk like they in-
tended.” He saw my eyes widen. “They taught that to you. It‟s something to do when all hope is
lost.”
          “Take down as much as the enemy as you can before they get you, and go crazy enough
they have to kill you.” I said. “Dellan all the way.”
          “To go berserk, you need a great amount of stress put on you, enough to unhinge all rea-
son.” He continued. “They didn‟t want to hurt you in the process. So they took in a mind-
weaver, to put a situation into your mind. To you it was real.”
          “I know about psychic VR.” I interrupted. “No need to explain that.”
          “Considering how much of it they drilled into you, I‟m actually surprised that you ha-
ven‟t dug those scenarios up yet.” A jolt of déjà vu punctured my mind and I jerked my head.
“Then again, perhaps that‟s why. It was extremely hard on you. I got upset.” Number One
shrugged and sprayed his fingers out as though to flick paint off them. “Splat.”
          “Thud!” My memory enthusiastically contributed. I jerked to my feet.
        “Get out.” I snapped, pointing to the door. When he opened his mouth, I simply bel-
lowed over him, not hard with Raige‟s unstable voice. “I don‟t care, get out!”
        With a dramatic sigh and eye-rolling, the hybrid experiment ignored me. “Here we go
again.” He drawled, sounding irritated and amused.
        “Just shut up and leave!” I barked.
        “For what? I just said splat!”
        “Don’t say that!” I bellowed.
        He did that spraying gesture with his hands again. “Splat! Splat!”
        “Shut up!”
        “Splat goes the mentor!”
        “Shut up!” I shrieked, dropping my knife to the floor to clap my hands over my ears and
closing my eyes.
        Hands suddenly wrapped around my wrists in a grip I vainly tried to pull away from. My
lack of success made my eyes open in shock. Raige‟s face was far too close to mine.
        “Splat went the mentor.” He said quietly, his voice flat and dark. “No amount of denial
will change it. Just accept it.” Then he let go of me and fell back into his chair, looking fru-
strated. “Why do you hate me? I‟m attempting—”
        “Why do I hate you?” I asked incredulously. Giggling would‟ve ruined my image, but it
was hard. “Number One, you‟re ruining my life!” And when he rolled his eyes, “Don‟t be patro-
nizing! I‟m not exaggerating! You crashed my plane to Canandria—”
        “Better than working your heart out or cutting your wrists, whatever came first.”
        “You dumped us through the Vortex—”
        “Mr. Rawls was fighting me; I couldn‟t help it.”
        I completely gave up with a cry of frustration. “And you don‟t shut up!”
        “Neither do you.”
        “Leave me out of this!”
        “Oh, really? What do you propose?”
        “I don‟t know!” I flopped back into my chair.
        “Normally I‟m not nearly so conversational. I just don‟t think you realize how desperate
I am.”
        “For what?” I nearly shrieked.
        “Look,” he said, and he sounded as though he was staying calm purely through force of
will, “Della was hell for us. I admit that freely. But at least I wasn‟t alone. Being alone, utterly
alone, is more hellish than any beatings and desensitization training. You are all I have left, and
your mental condition is only questionably less dangerous than mine; at least I‟m under my own
control. I need you. I don‟t love you any more than you love me, I figured that out, but I refuse
to live out the rest of my miserable life utterly alone, hacking things apart to fill the void. Don‟t
you remember that state?”
        I held his eyes. They were Raige‟s deep blue eyes, but the hardness and desperation in
them was something totally adult, totally Number One‟s. I backed down. I‟d spent most of my
years on Earth in a breakneck route of life that would‟ve eventually ended in suicide. I fingered
my palms, but on my Earthling body, the deep scars had vanished.
        “Yup.” I said.
        “You are the only other survivor from my planet I know of, never mind anyone I know.”
He said. “While I was in Mr. Rawls‟s body, I tried to go to different overlaps to find Della, ones
that had survived. It‟s madness! The last one I tried, the sky was green and everyone was
named Rana! Times were different, everything was different! With him fighting me, I couldn‟t
use the Vortex well enough to find Della—and even if it was, I don‟t know whether I would
want to go back. Do you understand? I have nothing.”
         “Nothing? What‟ve you been doing for that decade plus?” I asked.
         “Looking for you.” He replied dryly. “I‟m an obsessive man; you should know that.”
         I sighed and rubbed my eyes tiredly.
         “I‟m not alone.”
         “Your history—”
         “Oh, don‟t get me wrong.” I said wearily. “Until quite recently, my life sucked rocks.
Ask anyone; I whine enough about it. But I‟ve actually got an inner circle now.” I let my voice
get cold, reminding him again why I wasn‟t cooperating. “You‟re leeching off one of them.”
         “But he‟s weak!” Number One cried in frustration.
         “So?” I snapped, wanting to end this piece of conversation as quickly as possible. “I‟m
even worse physically, and see how important I am to you? It‟s my business who I talk to, isn‟t
it?”
         Raige had used that line on me once. I wondered if he remembered it. But it had the ef-
fect I wanted: it yanked Number One short. Just like it had with me. Dellan philosophy was
good as long as you didn‟t break rules, but it all came crashing down when you hopped out of its
realm of reason and logic.
         “I have a family now and at least this one is benignly dysfunctional.” I said. “Leave me in
peace and find your own.”
         “Sorry.” He said with a loose, slightly over-dramatic shrug. “But, like I said, I‟m despe-
rate and obsessive and you‟re all I‟ve got.”
         “So I guess you still won‟t leave me alone?”
         He smiled with one side of his mouth, a mannerism Biff and I indulged all the time but
never Raige. “Better luck next time, my dear.”
         I was miles away from Surpriseville. “Well, I guess we‟re back at Square One, then.”
         I needed a plan. Plans are what I‟m known for; plans are what I‟m good at. Unfortunate-
ly, my reputation just wasn‟t proving itself today. In this Earthling body, my Senyan powers
were null. Using magic could seriously hurt Raige, without bothering Number One in the sligh-
test; he could just drift to another body. Maybe even mine, if he got desperate enough. The only
ideas I had right now were to pacify him and to stall for time so I could think of something. But
I had the nagging feeling that that something wouldn‟t be coming.
         So I stalled some more. “How‟s you and Mr. Rawls‟s relationship?”
         Raige‟s eyes hardened. “He‟s a spineless coward.”
         “Really? He sure fought the good fight. Enough to blow up that house you set up at
Treehouse. Now why did he do that? Not out of parental instincts for me, I‟m sure. He just
happened to drop in at the worst moment to try and rebel against you. That or he had amazingly
good timing.”
         “It failed.” He said, sounding satisfied.
         “But he managed to deport you from Treehouse, didn‟t he? You see, you‟re a good
mind-weaver, you leave me in the dust, but you‟re not omniscient. With enough strength, some-
one can beat you, at least for a while, right?”
         He grinned. “Not a bad idea. But it won‟t work. Even if I hadn’t grown more powerful
over the past few months, Raige has the weakest mind that I‟ve ever been in; nothing he could do
would freeze me a moment.”
        I lowered my voice to a silky purr. “Oh, I wouldn‟t underestimate him, Number One. He
clapped you in cold iron last time, remember? I couldn‟t have kicked your ass if it wasn‟t for
him.”
        His expression grew cold and haughty. He was falling into Dellan habits again, and I
wondered how he‟d managed to cultivate them.
        “Something that won‟t happen ever again.” He said in a voice as uptight as Venna. Ob-
viously I‟d hit a sore spot.
        I just grinned at him.
        “I‟m in control of his mind. I know.” He said.
        “Oh yeah, I‟m really going to trust your word over his actions.” I sneered. “I don‟t know
much about Dellan tactics, but I know better than to listen to anything my enemy tells me.”
        He sighed and sat in the chair again, looking a little sulky. “You really are a bitch.” He
growled, crossing his arms.
        “Thank you.” I said. “It‟s good to see my work isn‟t going unnoticed.”
        “I‟m still not leaving you.” Well, it‟d been a long shot. “You‟re the only other Dellan
I‟ve seen in a long time, besides those two statues you ended up reanimating.”
        “How do you know about that?”
        He rolled his eyes. “Who do you think tried them first? Practically a different species.
Though to be honest, bringing them in was an accident, along with that drowning water. It was
the Vortex I really wanted for you to discover. They just got pulled along with the rest of the
cave.”
        “Makes sense.” I said. “If you‟d just pulled the Vortex up in front of us, we would‟ve
been too fearful to enter it. So make us bored, give us some information on it, and we walk right
in without giving you much trouble.”
        He sighed. “Right, but I was hoping you‟d figure it all out beforehand.”
        I gave him a nettled look. “Don‟t insult my stupidity. It‟s not my fault you kept dipping
in and out of the scenes. The way you and Mr. Rawls fought, I could never tell whose hand was
in which cookie jar.”
        We sat there in silence.
        “Now what?” I asked.
        “What do you mean?”
        “Well, we‟ve pretty much covered everything and we‟re still at an impasse.” I said. “I
can‟t leave the room and you can‟t blip me away because you don‟t know how and anyway, you
need to bring your body back. So now what?”
        “To be honest, I haven‟t figured that out yet.” Number One admitted.
        Well, at least I wasn‟t alone, then.
        We sat in silence for a while longer. I wondered if he felt stupid. I knew I did.
        “You‟re very pretty, you know.” He remarked.
        “Let‟s go back to that awkward silence, all right?” I retorted, drawing my knees up to my
chest. He was giving me the creeps again.
        He looked miffed. “Pardon me for being honest.”
        “Why don‟t you send Raige out here?” I said quickly. “I‟d rather talk to him.”
        “No.” Suddenly he smiled, as though he‟d thought of something incredibly funny. I
looked at him, but he didn‟t elaborate. I debated keeping the silence or asking. I finally bit.
        “What? What‟s so funny?”
         Asking had been a bad idea. He shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” His grin told
me he was lying. “I think I like you in this shape better than your Senyan one. You‟re a little
chubbier than I‟d like—” Senyan females naturally had more muscle and less fat than the aver-
age Earthling woman, so this was a normal Dellan sentiment, “—but you look a lot more…
grown up. Once I found out you were spayed, your Senyan form made me feel like a molester.”
         “Shut up! I like awkward silence, dang it! Give me my awkward silence!”
         “What? Am I bothering you?” His face was entirely too innocent. The fact that the ex-
pression would‟ve been utterly convincing on Raige made me angrier.
         “Yes!” I hissed. “Yes, you‟re bothering me!”
         “A lot of words bother you, don‟t they?” Now he was really grinning, though it didn‟t
seem entirely from my discomfort. He sprayed his fingers. “Splat.”
         Thud. I forced myself to ignore him. Plan. I needed a plan. Plans are what I‟m good at;
plans are what I‟m known for. As of yet, though, my reputation wasn‟t coming through for me.
I had only two things in mind at the moment, neither of which greatly appealed to me.
         One was jumping out the hotel window. This would be a good escape, since I could fall
fifty feet without hurting myself and Raige couldn‟t, but there were many problems with it. The
biggest one was that Raige‟s main strength, physically, was in running. He was fast; I was slow,
and the window was closed. He could probably get to the window before I could. Also, Thomas
would be left on his own. Not to mention it‟d still leave Raige possessed and I could draw un-
wanted attention by the stunt. People throwing themselves out of high-story windows would
hardly be unusual in as depression-ridden a place as Vaygo, but surviving the experience would.
The PIN would pop in almost immediately.
         My other idea was getting my hands on our phone. If I could call Bobby, his telepathy
would fill him in on the crisis immediately. This also had its problems. I wasn‟t sure just how
dire our predicament was, but I doubted my kitty would stand by quietly with the others. Blip-
ping Venna and Mngleh to us would make things even worse with the Boss, saving our present
while mangling our future. More importantly though was the fact that I had no clue where the
phone was, or how I‟d call Bobby without Number One noticing. He wasn‟t well versed in
Earth‟s technology, but he couldn‟t be completely oblivious.
         My brain just wasn‟t coming through for me. Dang it, I wanted my mind-weaver powers
back! At least then maybe I could try and beat Number One off with a stick like I did last time.
But now I was trapped in my own skull.
         Number One was still looking at me in that way that made me nervous. “Won‟t you give
me a chance? I‟m really not so bad.”
         “Yes you are.” I said.
         My mind kicked into overhaul. The way he was talking was telling me that my time was
running low. I had to do something before he decided on his course of action. The phone was
nowhere in sight.
         The window then.
         Curling up in a ball was a lousy way to get a running start. I casually shifted to a better
position, putting my legs to the floor and leaning forward, mimicking his former businessman‟s
position. My hands were braced on my knees, ready to push off. I hoped for luck and began the
first step.


                                   Charlene Unnigrutt
        All through this, I was panicking. M.D. had to have a plan. She just had to. She‟d bea-
ten Number One once; she could do it again. And I mean, she was the tactician! When the
crunch came, she always had some tiny detail stored into her head that would get us all out of it.
Underneath that, I was wondering just what the hell he was telling her that had bothered her so
much and snapped her control. It couldn‟t have been me he was talking about—he had much
bigger things on his mind than me being a rival—but whatever it was, it was something that had
panicked her for a second. But now she was cool again.
        She shifted position.
        “So, Number One,” she said, “how‟d you find us?”
        His response was oddly short and I definitely heard the word for „no‟ in there, and M.D.
rolled her eyes.
        “Fine, whatever. Be cagey and evil.” She said. She sounded casual, but I‟d learned her
voice rarely said what she felt, and her face was that sulky sarcastic disdain she wore automati-
cally around people around whom she didn‟t feel comfortable. The mask was so thick that I
couldn‟t tell what she was thinking, and it bothered me, even though I knew that if I did under-
stand what she was going to do, Number One would be prepared for it.
        Number One said something; all I caught was something about healers or doctors and
surgery. The Paradox, maybe?
        M.D. shrugged. “Everyone thinks I‟m crazy for accepting it too. Just doesn‟t bother me.”
        He responded incredulously. Okay, so it wasn‟t the Paradox, but then what was it they
were talking about?
        “Well, I guess they managed it back in the olden days then. I don‟t remember it.” She
snapped. “Look, Thomas and Raige get on my back about it already—” And suddenly she sent
the chair crashing over and sprinted for the window.
        He was caught off-guard, but only for a fraction of a second, and then he was up and run-
ning too, leaving the chair clattering to the floor behind us. But it was too late. Even though I
could run faster, she was going to make it to the window before he did and her magic was al-
ready at work, hauling it open.
        I don‟t know how much concentration it takes to keep up levitation, but it didn‟t work in
her state of mind. The rusty thing hitched upward, and then suddenly smashed down onto the
sill. She smashed into it, bounced off, and then her time was out.
        Before she could try again, Rawlin grabbed her shoulders and threw her to the wall, pin-
ning her forearms and leaning forward to keep her there before she could get her breath back.
He chuckled and said something in Dellan, and for once I completely understood the phrase, be-
cause everyone in the house had heard it from Venna so many times: “Not good enough.”
        M.D. was too dark to go pale, but the wide-eyed, glassy stare was the same thing. She
was scared and out of ideas.
        I knew we were dead then. If she was so scared she couldn‟t even hide it, and I‟ve seen
her act calm under all sorts of stuff, there was a very good reason for it. She was the planner. I
couldn‟t do anything but cry for help, but she could plan. And now she couldn‟t think of any-
thing. Yeah. We were dead.
        Number One was talking now. Since I couldn‟t understand much of anything he said,
(I‟m bad at even slow Dellan, and he was talking normal pace) I ignored it and watched M.D. to
try and get a translation. Whatever it was, it was upsetting her more and more. She was so
frightened that all she wanted was to stay as far away from him as she could. Instead of kicking
or hitting, she just pressed herself against the wall, like she wished she was Kitty Pryde and
could melt right through it. She tried to pull out of my hands, but to my surprise, it was easy to
hold on. Even in Earthling form, I was a lot bigger and stronger than she was. Neither of us had
really realized it before. I don‟t know why. Maybe M.D.‟s mouth makes up for her size. I
hadn‟t even noticed until that moment how childishly thin her wrists were.
         Rawlin wasn‟t surprised; he was probably used to being stronger than pretty much every-
body. So he kept on talking. I didn‟t know his words, but I knew his tone and I could feel how
he did, and it made M.D. try even harder to melt through the wall. She kept staring at us with a
deer-in-headlights look. Her head shook but she couldn‟t speak. Her eyes begged me harder
than her voice could.
         Number One turned his attention to me. “Don’t even try. You’ve figured out by now that
you can’t beat me. And besides,” a mental grin, “you want this almost as much as I do and you
know it. The way you are, you’ll never get it after this. Come now. You have a liable excuse.”
         That idea was sick and wrong and just… obscene, it would‟ve been easy to just recoil and
reject it without even thinking. But at the same time it was close to home. I froze long enough
for him to move without having to worry about me.
         He bent and kissed her hard. I felt her squeak and try to pull away but she didn‟t fight.
         The softness of her lips was a kick in the stomach, making me gasp in shock, then sigh. I
didn‟t even want to fight it at first. I wish I could just say it was all what Rawlin felt. But he
was right. He‟d wanted to do it a long time, but so had I. For a few seconds, it was everything I
could‟ve hoped for. He deepened it, pressed harder, and I didn‟t resist a bit. My pulse grew
heavy.
         Then I realized that she was stiff and rigid. She was still trying to force herself through
the wall, but she wasn‟t even trying to kick. Why wasn‟t she? The immediate thought that she
liked it brought on a surge of loathing. That was bullshit; she couldn‟t stand being touched.
         The realization hit me harder than the kiss had. She couldn‟t stand being touched. But
she wasn‟t struggling. She was too scared. M.D. Rawlins, the kid who I‟d seen get stabbed in
the gut and keep on fighting, was scared so bad she was paralyzed. This was high up on her Hell
List. And I was enjoying it.
         With a muted cry of horror, I let go of her wrists and shoved away from the wall, ending
it. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at me blankly.
         Number One hadn‟t been paying any attention to me at all; he‟d been just as distracted as
I was. Now he took control again. “Now why are you fighting?” He sounded vaguely amused,
but also really annoyed I‟d interrupted him.
         “This isn‟t how it‟s supposed to be!” I shouted, then starting when I realized I‟d said it
aloud.
         “Really? You didn’t seem to mind ten seconds ago.” He immediately pulled up the emo-
tion I‟d felt when I was kissing her. Same kick in the stomach. “See? You seem to forget that I
am the one in control. There’s nothing you can do about it so you might as well sit back and en-
joy it while it lasts. She won’t blame you for it.”
         This time, I didn‟t even think about anything he said. I just took my anger and ran with
it.
         “Bullshit!” I screamed, backing away from her. She was staring at me, her eyes emotion-
less. I felt something stinging and wet running down my cheek. “No!”
         My body froze dead as he took control. “You are the weakest mind I’ve ever been in.”
His voice was cold; he was trying to keep his anger in check. “You won’t stop me.”
        He tried to move forward. I strained to move back. Nothing happened. We stood where
we were, as tense and rigid as M.D. had been. I grit my teeth but realized I could still talk.
“Don‟t.” I pleaded. “Please don‟t do this to her.”
        He laughed. “Me? You didn’t fight me any more than she did. You’re just as much to
blame.” I realized I‟d been crying without noticing it. He was right and I knew it. But damned
if I was going to let him do more. “You act as though she can’t take this. Trust me. She’s been
through much, much worse.”
        Still didn‟t think. I shook my head and dug my fingers so hard into my upper arms they
bruised.
        He sighed. “You were funny before, but now you’re starting to piss me off.”
        Using so much force I groaned, he took control. He took a step forward even with me.
No matter how much I wanted, he could‟ve shot M.D. if he‟d wanted. I was too weak to stop
him.
        Abruptly I understood why Venna said, “You‟re weak,” with such loathing.
        I hadn‟t been focusing, but now I could see M.D.‟s eyes were burning with rage. She
bared her teeth and her voice growled into a shout.
        “Bastard!”
        Something hard suddenly smashed into the back of my head, sending me staggering for-
ward. Before I even though of feeling the pain, never mind going after her, M.D. leapt to her
feet, caught the flying towel bar with grace, and whipped it into position and swung in one
movement. It knocked us both out.
        I loved her for it.




                                7: Morning Sickness
                                   Annabelle Rawlins



        I stood over Number One‟s body, my pulse roaring and my knuckles white over the towel
bar. He was knocked out, but that didn‟t mean I didn‟t want to keep beating him. Quite the op-
posite, actually. Killing him sounded quite appealing.
        “Bastard.” I growled again, my breath virtually coming in gasps.
        I saw Raige‟s face, and this time I actually recognized it. It didn‟t help. Number One
had come back. The bastard had come back. Yeah, beating him sounded good. I raised the to-
wel bar again. Beat him for all those things he‟d said. Those nasty words in Raige‟s voice going
through my mind in sick litany. I’m not being hostile, and you’re a lot more grown up, and…
and…
        …That temper of yours will kill someday.
         I lashed the towel bar out the window. My frustration screamed with the glass; I‟d for-
gotten it was closed. Even getting revenge on him, I‟d lose! It wasn‟t fair! I couldn‟t even kill
my best friend.
         Oh yeah, kid, what a thing to be upset over. God forbid you be unable to kill your best
friend because a parasite felt like leeching on his gray matter. Raige had suffered just as much as
I had. More. He‟d been the one with control taken from him. By all rights, he should get the
right to beat Number One to death.
         Still wanted to see his brains staining the linoleum. Dammit.
         Suddenly drained and numb, I fell heavily to my knees and felt them bruise as I realized
something else. Rawlin was a liar. Thomas hadn‟t gone out looking for me. Number One
would never have risked an untimely return.
         I got to my feet with a grunt of effort. Zombie-like, I shuffled into the now-open bath-
room, where I‟d flown the bar to me. I knew Thomas was in there, but I was too numb to feel
dread about his condition. The thought that Number One had decided to kill him off was forci-
bly suppressed. If I let that idea come to me, I might not have been able to resist smashing the
skull holding him, no matter that it was my best friend‟s.
         I searched through my belt. Whackers. Did I need them? I felt all right, I guess. No,
any second now, the shock would set in and I‟d be a mental wreck. I‟d take them early, keep
that from happening. I took one, moderately strong. If I needed to drive Number One out of
Raige‟s head, I‟d need some heavy negative memories to hit him with. And whack just wouldn‟t
give the emotional punch needed to force him out. I‟d have to wait for this one to wear off first.
         Feeling a little less scatterbrained, I carefully looked Thomas over. He didn‟t look too
bad. Probably just a concussion. Now knowing it wouldn‟t kill him if I did so, I heaved him up
and turned him over. His cheek was bleeding more than it should, even for a head wound; Raw-
lin must‟ve hit a facial vein. It‟d need stitches. With my skills, it‟d definitely leave a scar. Pity.
Thomas had always been proud of his looks. Without a word, I grabbed the washcloth from the
sink, wet it, and began to lave the blood from his face. Now that I could actually see what I
should be sewing up, I pulled out the needle and thread from my herb belt. I rarely used them,
but if I was careful, my sewing was a bit better than drunken Frankenstein.
         After I finished that, he still hadn‟t awakened, though I‟d used no anesthesia. That
wasn‟t a surprise; Rawlin had wanted to keep him out for as long as he wanted. So I took anoth-
er whacker, went to Raige to give him a mild sedative so he wouldn‟t wake up either, then re-
turned to the bathroom to sit on the toilet and wait. I thought about absolutely nothing.
         An interminable amount of time later, Thomas started coming to. His eyes fluttered
open. He moaned and sat up, tenderly putting his fingers to his cheek and then the back of his
head when I told him not to scratch.
         “Tell me Raige didn‟t do this to me.” He said, sounding a little dazed. At least his mem-
ory was unharmed.
         “He didn‟t.” I responded. “Number One did.”
         “So I finally get to meet the famous guy, huh?” He grimaced. “Lucky me. Where‟s he
now?”
         “I hit him with the towel bar and sedated him.” I said. My whacker was wearing off but I
clung to the last shreds of its effects. “I need you to change me back. Can‟t beat him without
some mind-weaving.” The emotional anesthesia died. Thankfully, I kept feeling numb. Numb
was good. Nothing wrong with numb. See, doing just fine without the whackers.
         Thomas looked at me strangely. He frowned. “You okay?”
         I shrugged. I didn‟t want to talk and I really didn‟t want to have him badgering me, but I
knew that he‟d interpret a shrug alone as a no. “Yeah.”
         He knelt on the tile floor in front of me. “I don‟t believe you.”
         I shrugged again. I didn‟t have the drive in me to lie better. “Whatever makes you hap-
py.”
         His looked at my cheek but didn‟t touch. “Did he hit you?”
         I frowned in confusion for a second before I got it. “What? Oh. No. Mugger.” I put my
hand to my cheek absently. Forgot the swollen bruise was there. I was surprised it hadn‟t healed
yet.
         Thomas looked doubtful. He was making my attempts to keep him calm for nothing.
But he let it go. Without even a lecherous smile, he put a hand to my shoulder and I changed
back into my normal self. My clothes loosened, I grew shorter, the forgotten pain in my cheek
lessened. I pulled myself off the toilet. Had to think of the job at hand.
         “Power source. Need a power source.” I said, explaining for Thomas‟s benefit. “Last
time, got put in a coma. Can‟t do that this time. Must be an electric socket around here. That
might work. Stop standing there, Thomas. Help me look.” He didn‟t move. Lazy bum. “Need
to connect to it. A wire or something. That or stick my finger in it the whole time.” I giggled at
the lame joke, gnawing on my fingertips.
         “M.D.?”
         I turned. “Mm?”
         “Maybe we should just leave him drugged for now.”
         I tilted my head a little. “Why?”
         He swallowed. “He won‟t be going anywhere and… well, it was really hard for you the
last time. Just leave him alone. Let‟s call Bobby or something. Venna‟s stronger than you are;
maybe she‟ll have better luck.”
         I thought that over, but for some reason was having a hard time. Finally I decided he
sounded like he what he was doing. Let him handle it. “Okay.” I said, pulling my thumbnail
momentarily from my mouth.
         After searching around for a few minutes, Thomas finally found the phone under the bed
and called the number. I didn‟t feel like talking, so just sat on the bed, chewing my nails, and
stared at the wall. The other wall.
         Through force of habit Thomas spoke aloud to Bobcat, but he talked as though I wasn‟t
even there. Normally we don‟t do that; if we‟re going to say something we shouldn‟t, we do it
subvocally. But it didn‟t matter. I didn‟t really care what he said and barely paid attention to it.
He was pacing the floor and his Mexican accent was getting a little thicker than normal, a sure
sign that something was really upsetting him.
         “I don‟t know. She won‟t tell me. Look, we‟ve got Number One drugged out on the
floor and I really don‟t think M.D.‟s in any shape to take him out. Put Venna and Mngleh on the
line.”
         He started talking with them about how they‟d get rid of Number One, though he seemed
a little distracted. Venna and Mngleh talked a lot more than Bobby did. At one time Thomas
expostulated, “No! We don‟t know where he is and I won‟t do it!” and then followed it with a
few choice Spanish phrases that brought back loud retorts. I assume they told him that it‟d be
better to find Rawlin‟s body and kill him or just cut our friend‟s throat. They had a big argument
over that, but eventually they worked something out.
         He turned to me. “M.D., when will Raige‟s drugs wear off?”
        I thought. It was difficult to concentrate. “Three and a half hours.” I finally said absently,
then returned to eliminating those bothersome bits of cuticle.
        He went back to the phone. “She says three and a half hours. I—what? No, I heard you,
I meant what do you mean?” A pause. “I don‟t get it.” Another pause. “All right, all right, you
know more about this than I do. I just hope it works; she‟s a wreck.”
        He hung up and I heard his footsteps approach. “You feel like sleeping?” He asked in a
voice I‟d never heard from him.
        I shook my head. I never wanted to sleep again.
        “Do you have those sleeping pills Bobcat gave you?”
        I nodded at the wall.
        “He and Venna and Mngleh say to take one of the weak ones.”
        I waited for an explanation. There was none. Well, dang. That meant I had to talk.
“Why?” I finally asked.
        “You‟ll feel okay when you wake up.”
        “I feel okay now.”
        “Just take it. Please?”
        I shrugged. “Okay.”
        I did as I was told and stared at the scratches in the wall until I lost consciousness, curled
tight in a ball. Once I was out cold and he knew he could relax a little, Thomas sighed and sat
down, rubbing his face.
                                                        
        Maybe what Bobcat and the statue duo said was accurate, because when the pills wore
off, I felt a lot more like my normal self. Even though I hadn‟t thought anything in my deep
sleep, my mind seemed to have subconsciously stitched up some of its tears and I could think
about the recent events without any heavy emotional interference. It still made me feel a little
nauseous to think about when Rawlin took advantage of both Raige and me, and I still couldn‟t
bear envisioning it in more than general terms, but I didn‟t need to pretend it didn‟t exist either.
        I sat up and looked at Thomas. He was still sitting on the other side of the bed, leaning
forward with elbows on knees, watching Raige. It occurred to me that I‟d very rarely seen the
jock unsmiling, never mind with lines of strain, and I‟d seen him in a lot worse condition than
stitches across his cheek. He seemed out of character, looking so solemn.
        “You were right.” I said. “I do feel better.”
        “Told you. You should listen to me sometimes.” He said, attempting joviality but not
quite calm enough to bounce back into his normal role. He smiled a little, but something seemed
to be weighing on him.
        “Has Raige woken up yet?”
        “He still has a while to go.” Thomas replied. “Venna and Mngleh took Number One out.”
        My hunched shoulders slumped to a more normal height.
        “I wouldn‟t get excited yet.” He stated flatly, and I realized why he wasn‟t smiling. “He‟s
not gone permanently. He‟s still around, but not in Raige‟s body.”
        I stared at him, then began to scoot away.
        That actually cracked a real Thomas smile from him for a second. “Take it easy, he‟s not
in me.”
        I relaxed a little. “Sorry.”
        “It‟s okay. Venna and Mngleh said you wouldn‟t want to be in a telepathic link with an-
yone for a while, though they got cagey on me and wouldn‟t say why.” I blessed them for their
Dellan sense of propriety. “That right?”
        In response, I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my skinny arms around them.
        “Yeah, that‟s what I figured. I‟m spokesman then, I guess. Venna said he was even
stronger than she was.”
        “But—”
        “She said to tell you that she‟s just an average mind-weaver. She just has more training
than you do, and you‟re…” He died off.
        “Not very good.” I finished. “You don‟t need to sugar words with me. I know.” Dang,
did I know.
        He nodded and thankfully offered no apologies, just went on. “Well, she talked to him,
but wasn‟t strong enough to force him out, even though he was drugged. So she made a deal
with him.”
        I hugged my knees tighter. “What kind of deal?” I asked quietly.
        He sighed. He didn‟t want to break this news to me. In fact, he‟d argued for twenty mi-
nutes trying to get Bobby to do the job, but my cat insisted that telepathy would be unnerving to
me, and he was right. So now Thomas was forced from his preferred position of comic relief and
trapped in the role of the morbid messenger. “He leaves you alone. No more possessing people‟s
minds, no more coming after you, not until we go to the Jaunter‟s League to face charges. Then
he comes in and dukes it out with them to see if he has the right to keep you.”
        To keep me. We both stared straight ahead.
        “Well.” I said finally. “Sucks for me.”
        He made as if to put a hand on my shoulder, but then thought the better of it. “You‟ll be
fine. He won‟t win it.”
        I said nothing.
        “He won‟t.” Thomas insisted, sensing my doubt. “The guy‟s a head case.”
        “I scream in my sleep and have a thing about the word „thud.‟” I said flatly. “Oh yeah.
He‟s a head case.”
        “Don‟t give me that. You don‟t track people down and try to kill them and since he left
last time, you haven‟t gone berserk at all. Once he‟s gone, you‟ll never worry about that. The
Jaunter‟s League sounds just as annoying as the PIN, but it can‟t be that stupid. You‟ll finally
get that restraining order you wanted. And you‟ll get your brother back. Today‟s the day, you
know. Don‟t worry, it‟ll turn out okay.” He smiled, almost back to his normal cheerful self.
“And you know I wouldn‟t lie to you.”
        I suddenly wanted to hug him, and he wasn‟t even turning on the charm right now.
“Thanks.” I said.
        “It‟s what I‟m here for.” He answered gently, and thankfully he didn‟t say anything when
I leaned over and rested my cheek on his shoulder.

                                   PIN Specialist Grey
       I woke up slowly and reluctantly. My head was pounding and my position was doing
nothing good for my back. For a second I was confused. I was still in my work clothes, and I
was lying on someone‟s hardwood floor…
        Then I found the sore bruise on my temple and remembered. The alien hadn‟t done a
good job at tranqing me. He‟d cranked the power setting way too high.
        Though it made a renewed ache come into my lower back and shoulder, I levered myself
up with a wince and looked. George Unnigrutt, though he‟d been tranqed first, was still out. He
hadn‟t built up a tolerance for it the way I had in grunt camp.
        “Oh damn.” I said. Then the whole situation sank in. “Oh damn.”
        And even though it wasn‟t recommended or constructive, I got up and slumped into an
armchair that was a little easier on my back. Then I put my head in my hands to mull over my
predicament. After I‟d gotten most of the depression out of my system, I began to think.
        This was bad. This was very bad. I could already smell the smoke of my burning
résumé. I had broken into an innocent‟s house and then tranqed him, never mind the grunt I‟d
shot and explained away. Excuses were few and far between. Mind-control is the PIN equiva-
lent of „my dog ate my homework.‟ It‟s been used so many times that the real deal is mentioned
only if you have witnesses and some good evidence to back it up. I had neither. The only wit-
nesses were the dead grunt, the controller himself, and that kid who‟d run off.
        I sighed. If I wanted my job, I‟d call the fizzies; they might, with supreme effort, save
my job. However, I‟d still have to tell them everything and so far, my story wasn‟t very solid,
although it was said they‟d believe anything. So I would sit until I thought of my explanation.
Hopefully it would be a good one.
        I knew I owed Bob a call. He had to be worried sick that I hadn‟t answered my phone for
the past couple hours and I knew he‟d probably believe me, but I still needed my story down.
Otherwise he might panic and accidentally let slip everything. He would be all right for a little
while longer before he got really worried. I sat there, thinking. As always, it didn‟t go quickly.
I wished I had a faster mind.
        I don‟t know how long I sat there, but evidently it was long enough. Mr. Unnigrutt woke
up. I heard him groan. Unlike me, he didn‟t have to think before figuring out what had hap-
pened. A rough metal-on-wood sound as he snatched up the baseball bat from the floor and got
to his feet, then footsteps as he strode toward me. I sighed as my shoulders painfully stretched so
I could slowly reach to my side for my tranq-gun. My job was already shot to Hell; I had no
more patience for rules.
        I was more than ready by the time he grabbed the back of my suit collar and spun the
chair so I faced him.
        “Where is he?” Mr. Unnigrutt screamed. It almost drowned out the rising whine of my
gun before the dart hit him under the ear. A look of anguish flashed across his face, and then he
slumped to the floor again. I looked at him, sighed, and slouched back into the chair. As usual,
the tranqs had solved the problem of what to say. Hopefully he‟d wake up this time in a better
situation.
        Suddenly my cell rang. I considered letting it ring, but then picked up. If I didn‟t reply,
eventually they‟d just trace it and find me that way. Better to just answer it and hope it was a
telemarketer.
        “Specialist Grey.” I said stiffly.
        “Ah, Eric, we sensed your internal conflict, so we decided to reach out to you and alle-
viate your strain.” An amiable, slightly stoned voice droned over the line.
        I cringed. Science and the brawn side don‟t agree on much, but one of the few shared
opinions is that the people in the Metaphysics Department (AKA: the fizzies) are utterly insane.
They‟re even more underground and much more underfunded than any other department. After
hearing them talk for a few minutes, you see why. Most of them are stoners who still think it‟s
the sixties.
         Even though I needed their help, only Bob could call me by my first name. “It‟s Special-
ist Grey.”
         “You have no need to hide behind your title, fellow child of the universe! Shed your in-
hibitions and be free!”
         “Yes, yes, I‟ll start tomorrow.” I said absently. “I have a situation you might be interested
in.”
         The voice became more businesslike; eccentric as fizzies were, they took their job just as
seriously as we did. “Your mind was taken over by a hostile life form. We already know. In
fact, one of our receivers will be coming through the door in… mmm, I give it twenty seconds.
Do you feel all right, dear?”
         “What?”
         “Well, you don‟t seem to like me calling you Eric—”
         “Specialist Grey.” I said flatly, grinding my teeth. “It‟s Specialist Grey.”
         He ignored me. “So do you feel all right? Your mind doesn‟t seem too damaged, but you
can never tell, you know, not from this distance. Have you had any unusual thoughts, obses-
sions, or flashbacks, dear? Oh, silly me, you only regained consciousness a couple of minutes
ago!”
         This clairvoyant was very good at being a fizzy. I made a mental note to ask Bob to
block the entire Metaphysics Department from my line.
         “Is there any information you need?” I asked desperately, trying for the last time to
straighten this out.
         “Ask him yourself, dear.”
         Before I could ask for clarification, the door opened and the fizzy came in. I immediately
hung up and stood, glad for the timely interruption.
         Most fizzies were about my age or older, but this one was a skinny black kid in his mid-
twenties. He shook my hand before I could stop him.
         “I‟m Harmonius, nice to meet you. Don‟t worry, my credentials are fine.” Then, “Sorry.
I‟ll try not to do that again.”
         “Thanks.” I said tightly.
         “I‟m sorry you had to deal with Summer.” He continued. “I‟ve tried to get him to stop
mothering the specialists, but he doesn‟t listen to me.” He shook his head sadly, then glanced
down at Mr. Unnigrutt, which made him remark, “Oh my. He‟s going to be very upset when he
wakes up.”
         I didn‟t deny it. “Do I need to tell you anything or did you learn it on the psychic hotline
already?”
         “I‟ve got it all.” Harmonius replied. “Could you sit down again? Your parasite sounds
like he was rough. God knows what he did to your subconscious forcing his way in.”
         I paused. “What‟ll happen if you don‟t stop and fix me up?”
         Harmonius shrugged. “Nightmares, bizarre obsessive thoughts, memories that aren‟t real-
ly yours, possible sexual deviation, and the occasional bout of neurosis.”
         I could handle that. “Will it impact my functioning right now?” I asked.
         “Well, that depends. Do you feel horny?”
         I thought about it. “Not particularly.”
         “Okay, you should be all right for the moment.”
        “Then it can wait. I‟d rather go after him before he leaves my sector.”
        “You‟re the boss. Where‟d he go?”
        “I don‟t know. He took over a teenage boy‟s mind and left. Can you find him?”
        “Depends how far he went. You think the kid drove away?”
        “He looked about seventeen, but his dad drove him here, and the guy who controlled me
has no clue how to use a car.”
        “Probably not, then. Yeah, I can find him. Won‟t be easy—Vaygo‟s full of mental melt-
downs—but I‟m the best long-distance receiver there is.”
        He suddenly took my chair, set his head in his hands, and closed his eyes. For a second, I
waited, but I felt uncomfortable standing there doing nothing.
        “What do I do?” I asked finally.
        “Just try not to bother me.” Harmonius said without opening his eyes. “If you could leave
the room and find something to fill your time for a bit, that‟d be even better; it‟ll take a bit of
your static out of the equation.”
        I shrugged and left the room. I owed Bob a phone call anyway.




                            19: Splat Goes the Teenager
                                   Charlene Unnigrutt



        “…So you‟re mind-control free now.” Thomas finished. “We won‟t see any more of him
until the Jaunter‟s League takes us in tomorrow morning.” He seemed tired but I was glad to see
M.D.‟d done her best with the wounds I‟d left on him.
        I got to my knees. For a second, I was jubilant. Number One wouldn‟t be having puppet
shows with my emotions anymore. He wouldn‟t be using my body to hurt anyone. And, the best
thing of all, he‟d never be able to do it again. Everything seemed to be looking up.
        But then Thomas bent, lowered his voice, and muttered to me, “Be careful with M.D.,
okay? She‟s better than she was earlier, but I‟m still kinda worried about her.” He smiled weak-
ly. “She hasn‟t been bitchy since I woke up.”
        I turned my head. M.D. was sitting on the bed about fifteen feet away, sterilizing a hy-
podermic that looked completely spotless, but now she stuffed it away, got up, and walked over.
        “Welcome back, milquetoast.” She said, yanking her sleeve over her hand and reaching
down to give me a hand up.
        I stared at her in disbelief, not hard since she‟s still only a couple inches taller than me
when I‟m on my knees. Her eyes were completely clear. I‟d thought that after what I‟d done to
her, she wouldn‟t want to come near me for at least a year, but she didn‟t hold any grudge at all.
        I kept staring at her silently. She‟s clueless, I realized numbly. She has no idea.
          The jubilation went out the window with a sound like breaking glass.
          “What? What are you looking at me like that for?” She asked nervously.
          Nothing was better. Number One was gone, but that didn‟t mean anything; the damage
was still there and he wasn‟t gone forever. Now he was going legal on us and we weren‟t used
to fighting him that way. My fault. Thomas was in stitches because of me. And M.D.—
          “Raige? What‟s the matter?”
          What the hell was I supposed to tell her? I mean, how do you explain something like that
to someone like her? You can‟t.
          And then the last straw came down. I felt like I suddenly couldn‟t breathe.
          I‟d have to explain all of this to him.
          “Raige?” M.D. asked worriedly.
          “What am I going to tell Daddy?” I said absently.
          That was just too much. I broke.
          Now she sounded upset. “Raige, don‟t cry, you know I never know what to do when you
cry; dang it, it‟s over, you‟re not supposed to cry when it‟s over and everything‟s all right—”
          I was still coherent enough to stammer out, “E-everything‟s not— all right!”
          I didn‟t even notice Thomas slipping out the door. I don‟t know if M.D. sent him a look
or if he decided this wasn‟t something he should be a part of, but suddenly I was left alone with
her. Thank god he had some sense of tact.
          “Look, Raige, it wasn‟t your fault, I know that! Number One—”
          I was shaking my head, but even if I wasn‟t crying too hard to speak now, I couldn‟t tell
her. It killed me, but I just couldn‟t. I wasn‟t even brave enough to do that. She had no idea. I
wished it could stay that way, but at the same time knew it‟d be hell if it were.
          Suddenly she had her sleeves pulled up over her hands and she‟d put both palms to my
cheeks and leaned in close so I had to look at her. Her voice was soft but serious. “Raige, take a
deep breath and listen to me. Are you listening to me?” I nodded. “All right, now listen. It’s
over. We can go on and forget about it. We can go on with our lives and leave it behind. I
wasn‟t the only person who got used today, and I know you had nothing to do with it.” At this, I
tried to shake my head, but she took a firmer grip. “Look, I couldn‟t even break his mind control
on my own. No one could for more than a few seconds. You don‟t have anything to blame
yourself for, Raige.” Oh god, that damn sentence nearly killed me; she really did have no idea.
“It‟s over. We‟ll leave it behind and we‟ll be all right.” One the last couple words, her voice
shook slightly.
          That‟s when I stopped trying to shake my head. M.D. was biting down hard on her emo-
tions and controlling it a lot better than I was, but underneath I could tell she was close to break-
ing down herself. She was pretending she was fine so I wouldn‟t freak out any more than I was
already, but she wasn‟t. When I first realized that, I nearly broke down again, but I managed to
stifle it. She was human just like me. Tougher than me, hell yes, but still human. If she could
be strong for me, I could just calm down. Right now, neither of us were in any shape to deal
with what‟d really happened. We‟d both been hit far too hard.
          I took a few deep breaths and nodded. I still couldn‟t talk, but at least the tears were
slowing down.
          “All right. Don‟t worry; everything will be fine. Your dad‟s no big deal; all of us will go
with you this time, we‟ll explain everything. Like I said back when I first ended up in your
house, whether you stay or go back to Treehouse is up to you. After that, we‟ll go and get Todd,
we‟ll rest a while and then we‟ll get blipped to the Jaunter‟s League. Everything will be just
fine.”
         She didn‟t believe that either, and it didn‟t make me feel very much better, though I ap-
preciated her trying. This time, I needed more solid comfort than her lying to me.
         “Would you hug me?” I blurted before I thought. I sounded terrible, but unfortunately I
could still be heard.
         For once, I caught her without a response. Her face stayed straight, but I caught the in-
stant of panic that flashed across her face and immediately backed away from her so she
wouldn‟t have to. Seeing how the day had turned out, I didn‟t think it really would‟ve made me
feel better anyway. Maybe I could get Thomas to hug me later; he might just do it, as long as no
one saw him at it. I got up, rubbing at my face.
         “Don‟t worry about it.” I said and sighed jerkily. It meant I‟d calmed down or at least
stopped crying.
         “Better?” She asked nervously. I noticed she‟d taken a couple steps back.
         “Yeah.” I said. I sounded terrible, but at least I could speak. “Thanks.”
         She headed towards to door briskly. “Forget it, I suck at this. Thomas did a lot better
with me.” She hammered on the door. “You can come in now.”
         He came in. “Figured you wouldn‟t want me hanging around for it.”
         I nodded and gave him a thankful look. I owed him an explanation; he had to be con-
fused about what‟d happened. When Venna had been in my head, she had promised she
wouldn‟t tell anyone what had gone on except Bobcat, and I trusted both her and him. I‟d tell
him once I‟d talked it over with M.D.
         Speaking of which, she was already taking charge again. She seemed all right, and I was
too relieved about that to think much about the slight brittleness she still had. “All right, we head
to your dad‟s house.” She said to me. “I‟m sure he‟ll be thrilled to see me again.”
         “He‟s not really going to have much of a choice.” I said. “Maybe it‟ll go better this time.”
         Her expression showed she doubted it. “How far away is his… your… house?”
         “It took…” I paused, then decided there was no point in ignoring it, “it took Number One
and I about an hour to walk.”
         “We‟ll grab a cab, then.” She said. “Let‟s go.”
         Suddenly something occurred to me. “Um… M.D.?”
         She paused. “Yeah?”
         “Maybe we should go after Todd first.”
         She glanced at the clock. “School‟s out. We could do it. Why?”
         “A specialist was there, Specialist Grey, I think he said.”
         “What? The guy who hired that Indian guy to send us all those papers?” Thomas asked.
         I nodded. “Number One had taken over his body before he did mine. He probably meant
to take over Daddy and then get to me, but I came in before he planned I would so he skipped it.”
I took a deep breath and paused until the lump in my throat was gone. “They both got tranqed. I
have no clue how long those last; Specialist Grey might still be there.”
         “Is he on our side?” M.D. asked.
         “When his little buddy came to see us, he said no. He‟s still looking for you; he just
wanted to get you out of Science.” Thomas answered. When she frowned, he added, “We don‟t
get it either; that‟s just how it works.”
         “So going might be a really bad idea.” I finished. “I‟ll have to call my dad first to make
sure you won‟t get turned in.”
        “Then why don‟t you want to just call him and go there now instead of waiting?”
        I sighed. “Look, my dad‟s going to be really p—ticked when he wakes up. You and him
didn‟t really hit it off the first time you met, so I want him to be calm when we come. He can get
really explosive when he‟s mad, even if it‟s not at you.”
        She didn‟t debate anymore on the subject. At the moment, it was probably what was
keeping her mind off Number One. I hoped to God that it‟d be a happy meeting. She was acting
semi-normal, but still hadn‟t snapped any sarcastic retorts. “All right. You‟re the navigator. Is
Todd close by?”
        This was probably the best news we‟d heard today. “It‟ll be a ten-minute walk.” I said,
smiling.
        She smiled too, but it was definitely forced. “Well. Something good‟s happening today.”
And she headed out the door.
        The anticipation of Todd seemed to revive her. She was walking so fast she kept break-
ing ahead of me. Thomas was smiling, glad she was back to normal, but I was still a little suspi-
cious. She was chewing her nails again and kept nervously tugging at her sleeves, toying with
her hair, picking at her hands.
        “What exactly is Tequila Street?” She asked as we strode across a street before a car hit
us.
        “Well, it wasn‟t residential when I was here,” I said, jumping as a Mazda honked at me,
“mostly bars, a couple tenements, I think. Then again, your house wasn‟t a parking garage then
either. We should be fine on it during the daytime.”
        “Kid, what if your parents are home?” Thomas asked.
        “Ooh, they‟d better not.” Her voice was frosted liquid silver. That gave me the bad feel-
ing that what she said was more in relation to what might happen to them, not her.
        After that, the only talking we had were directions.
        Finally we were at the house. Right away, M.D. frowned. The house was small. Really
small.
        “Huh. Tom and Angelica‟s pay got cut.” She remarked to herself absently. Then, her
face expressionless, she strode up the stairs and hammered on the door.
        I think she already had a vague feeling what was coming. I didn‟t, but she was so para-
noid, she must‟ve.
        An ancient old man opened the door and glared at us through squinted eyes.
        “Who the hell are you?” He demanded.
        M.D. didn‟t panic. Without a word, she turned her back on him, pulled out the papers
from her belt, looked over the address. There was no way she could‟ve misread it. It‟d been
typed out with a map, the address circled in yellow, clear as day.
        Still not saying anything, she rushed to Thomas. He wordlessly pulled the papers Her-
man had given us from his fatigue pants and all three of us examined them.
        They were the same. This was the place we‟d been told to go.
        M.D. finally straightened up. Her face was expressionless. She looked back at the old
man.
        “Your name‟s Todd Rawlins.” She said.
        “Yeah? So?” The old man responded.
        “Your name‟s Todd Rawlins.” She repeated absently, not seeming to have heard him.
        “Yes. I‟m Todd Rawlins. And…?”
         M.D. just stood there, staring into space with her brows furrowed. “He lied to me.” She
said quietly, sounding mildly surprised. Then she chuckled under her breath and smiled a little,
rubbing her eyebrows tiredly. “Of course he lied to me.”
         “What are you talking about?” The old man demanded in exasperation.
         But M.D. was off down her own road.
         “Should‟ve known.” She murmured, starting to pace. “Should‟ve known. Herman typed
in Todd Rawlins, but Todd‟s a minor, he wouldn‟t own a place, of course he wouldn‟t, he
should‟ve typed in Tom or Angelica…”
         She abruptly cut herself off. Sitting down on the house‟s front porch, she tented her fin-
gers over her nose and closed her eyes to think. She sat there for maybe seven minutes without
moving, completely ignoring the world around her.
         Finally she said, without opening her eyes, “I should‟ve seen it.”
         That was it.
         “What do we do now?” I asked.
         She took a deep breath. “Nothing.”
         “That‟s it?” Thomas asked. “Nothing?”
         “Actually, that‟s a lie.” She said, but she didn‟t pause long enough to get our hopes up.
She continued on in a flat voice, “If we hit lucky and get a plane to Austin and the money for it
before midnight, we still might make it to your family in time for you to actually say more than
hello and goodbye, unless they want to sleep. And we need to talk to Raige‟s dad. But other
than that, nothing. Todd doesn‟t live here. Never did. Herman has too big a sense of humor to
send us in the right direction; my brother‟s probably in Alaska or something. Even if Herman is
still hanging around his house—unlikely—we‟d never get back to Old Faithful in time to see him
again. And I don‟t know another information guru. Any ideas are welcome. You have any?”
When we didn‟t answer, she stood up and shrugged. Her normally bold posture was now
slumped but her voice held only apology. “Sometimes it just doesn‟t work out.”
         “Are you done?” The old man yelled. “Good, now get off my property!”
         M.D. paused. For a second, I thought he‟d made her lose it, but then she just shrugged
again and shuffled down the steps.
         Before following her, Thomas and I exchanged uneasy glances.
         “Kid, I—” Thomas started, but she interrupted.
         “I know what you’re going to say, and I really don’t want to hear it!” She shouted. Then
she stopped and took a deep breath, rubbing her forehead. When she spoke again, her voice was
stiff and quiet again. “Sorry. Shouldn‟t blow up at you.”
         Actually, I thought that exploding might do her some good.
         “Just can‟t believe I didn‟t see it.” She said, and resumed walking.
         Just then the cell phone rang. M.D. answered it automatically.
         Hello M.D., I was just— his tone suddenly shifted to concern. M.D.? What’s wrong?
         She paused for a second but didn‟t seem to notice he‟d said anything. Then she tossed
the phone over her shoulder and resumed walking. Thomas somehow managed to dive forward
and catch it.
         “He‟s not here.” He said.
         Bobcat didn‟t even have to ask who „he‟ was. His mental voice immediately showed
worry. Thomas, you must—
         “Look, I‟m sorry, but this is a really bad time.” Thomas said, his voice starting to show
stress. “Don‟t worry, I‟ve got it all under control. Could you call us back later?”
       Thomas! Let me talk to Raige first!
       He glanced to me. I nodded and held out my hand. His telepathy was private, only for
me.
         Raige, I know that now is not the time, but you must understand that you need to tell her
eventually.
         I didn‟t need to ask about that either. It was only the thing that‟d been on my mind since
I‟d woken up. My shoulders slumped with a sigh. “Yeah.” I said. “I know.”
         Not just out of moral responsibility. If that was the case, I believe it would be best if you
just let it die. However, the longer you don’t tell her, the higher the chance that she will snap
you and find out. And believe me, however nasty telling her the truth might be, it is nothing
compared to the pain she would receive from learning of this directly from your mind.
         I hung up and sighed. Then I turned to M.D.
         “You don‟t have to go.” I told her.
         She paused and turned to blink at me, so confused that she momentarily forgot her fru-
stration. “Enh?”
         Of course she didn‟t know what I meant. “To Daddy‟s.”
         A ghost of her old stubborn look crossed her face. “Raige, I‟m not leaving you to his
mercy, not after last time.”
         “You guys don‟t get along anyway, Thomas will be with me and everything…”
         Thomas suddenly broke in. “Specialist Grey might still be there anyway.” He said. “Why
don‟t we just take a couple hours for everyone to calm down and then we can go?”
         M.D. and I both stared at him. Then at each other.
         “All right.” She said, just as I said, “Okay.”
         Thomas looked relieved. “Okay then. Let‟s just take a break. I‟ll look up plane flight
times.”
         “If it‟s all the same to you,” M.D. said, “could I go off on my own a while? I won‟t do
anything stupid.”
         “Sure.” Thomas said immediately. I kind of agreed with him. She needed to be alone a
while, but I wasn‟t sure if downtown Vaygo was the place to do it. Besides, I wanted to take a
break from her as well.
         She nodded and vanished into the crowds on the street.

                                     Annabelle Rawlins
        I didn‟t know where I was going, really. I didn‟t even know where I wanted to go. I just
figured I‟d know it when I got there. There would be better than here, because here sucked
rocks.
        Paying no attention to where you‟re going or what‟s around you is a very dangerous thing
to do in Vaygo. I shuffled my aimless way through pools of people and meandered my way
through streets, arms crossed tight over my chest, staring at whatever was at ground level a
couple feet in front of me, not caring about anything other than moving my legs. I felt an eerie
compulsion to keep the steady rhythm of left right left right and didn‟t put up a fight against it.
        Shadows followed me. I don‟t mean just figuratively either, though they did that too. I
had a nagging feeling of apprehension, a vague premonition of something bad in the near future,
so I started absorbing energy. Sunlight was about all that was around, so I sucked it in. And
around me, shadows grew darker and stretched towards me. As I passed by, a little boy curious-
ly stomped on the shadow of a nearby mailbox, wondering why it was suddenly growing so un-
naturally, and towards the sun to boot.
         Someone grabbed me and dragged me into an alleyway. This was the second time today;
perhaps I had „mug bait‟ written on my forehead. I didn‟t feel like resisting this time. He (or
she, I can‟t remember) talked at me. I didn‟t care what he wanted to do. Instead, I got annoyed
that he wasn‟t letting me move.
         So I gave him a seizure and shuffled out the alleyway while he shook and twisted from
the voltage coursing through his body, and the shadows stretched to accommodate me. People
didn‟t bother me after that. They just watched me shuffle like a zombie down the street, right
left right left, probably thinking I was having a bad trip. No kidding. This whole jaunt to Earth
had been a bad trip and a worse idea.
         I don‟t know how long I slumped my way around downtown Vaygo like a blind tourist,
but soon I realized that I wasn‟t going to be getting there, wherever „there‟ was. Not any time
soon. The shadows in my mind were slowly catching up to me. I needed to stay somewhere,
just a little while, just until I got back on my feet.
         I didn‟t want to return home. Not yet. Raige was already distraught, and I really didn‟t
want to dump all my negativity on Thomas. Why ruin what would be a happy day for him, see-
ing his family again?
         Well, no. That wasn‟t the real reason. Deep down, I still had that feeling that something
bad was going to happen. (Nearly getting mugged again was hardly my definition of „something
bad‟ at this time.) Today would be me at my deepest, blackest worst, and I didn‟t want them to
see that. I didn‟t want them to see me when I really lost it.
         And so when I saw the street sign proclaiming Everclear, I did a quick check of address
numbers and after a sedated shrug, turned onto it. Then, because I didn‟t want to be delayed and
have to give more men more seizures, I oozed up a wall onto the roofs and started shuffling
along again. In half a second I was going to start hissing about brains.
         I don‟t know why I wanted to go to Biff. He was the opposite of comfort. But I don‟t
think he‟d ever seen me when I wasn‟t stuck in prison and/or slightly off my nut. Even better, he
was so rough he just might be able to keep me under control. If I went to Raige and Thomas,
they‟d offer whatever they had, and… no. Right now, I needed someone to cuff me and tell me
to shut up. Biff I could count on being as sympathetic as a cement mixer whose path had been
interrupted. I could hold myself together with that.
         How that address stayed in my mind was a mystery. He‟d only said it once, and to be
honest, I have never been good with remembering numbers. But I got there.
         Not wanting to bother going to the front door (especially since I‟d probably get kicked
out), I hovered up to the balcony outside Biff‟s apartment and took a glance around. It didn‟t
look particularly friendly. The old railing was bent and twisted, badly needing replacing. There
were no deck chairs or barbecue pit or fake plants or any other halfhearted sign that this place
might be home sweet home, and the greasy glass sliding door leading to the rest of the dark
apartment was half duck-tape. It was a bare, ugly landing dock made of cement for the likes of
me. If Biff did have a steady job, he wasn‟t making much at it.
         I studied the darkness past the glass door. Well, unless his landlord was cutting down on
the power bill, Biff wasn‟t here. Might as well sit while I waited. Though it creaked and swayed
alarmingly, I lowered myself onto the rusty railing outside and waited. The shadows lurked in
the corners and grew. I waited and watched Vaygo rush around underneath me in hyperkinetic
neon.
         I don‟t know how long it‟d been when Biff came home, but eventually I heard a slow
squeal as the sliding door fought being ground back. Since I didn‟t feel too conversational, I re-
mained on the railing, back to him. There was silence. For a second, I wondered idly whether
I‟d interrupted yet another burglar and if so, whether I should take action.
         But then he reassured me.
         “Wha the fuck‟re ya doin‟ here?” He expostulated. I could hear the heavy heels of his
boots against the cement as he advanced towards me.
         “Front doors are for the weak.” I said flatly. Humor is the best way to tell someone that
nothing is wrong.
         At the sound of my voice, he paused. When he spoke again, he sounded a bit calmer—
that is, not enraged, just his normal grumpy, antisocial self. “Leavin‟ already?”
         “Not till nine in the morning. Your railing needs replacing. Thing‟s wobbly.”
         “Then why ya sittin‟ on it?”
         “It‟s a very nice railing.”
         “So this ain‟t goodbye, then?”
         “Sorry. Better luck next time.” I kicked my feet into open air.
         And he was satisfied with that information. Biff might‟ve had the tact of a tank, but if I
weren‟t talking, he wouldn‟t make me unless he thought the situation causing my silence would
affect him. I was grateful for his callousness.
         Seeing he was stuck with my presence for the moment, he sighed, then strode up to join
me at the railing. The scraggly thing was hardly about to put up with him sitting on it, so he just
set his elbows on it instead and found a cigar. Digging his Zippo out of his jacket pocket, he be-
gan coaxing it into flame.
         “You shouldn‟t do that.” I said without turning to look at him. “It‟s bad for your lungs.”
         “Kid, you done far worse ta ya skin and I ain‟t raggin‟ ya ass „bout it.” He replied amia-
bly, biting and spitting the end of his cigar off into the street.
         I could hear the implied, „now get off my back,‟ at the end of the sentence, so I let him
have his point and shut up. We watched the cars drive by, and nothing interrupted the silence
except for the old lighter. The lack of noise except for the irritating clicking made me fidget and
shift position, even though it made the railing creak warningly. I had nothing to distract myself
with. Dang it, that meant I had to make small talk. Small talk included day‟s events, but I didn‟t
want to think about… that or… that. Hmm, what else had happened to me today?
         “Someone tried to mug me again.” I said.
         Seeing this as perfectly good icebreaking material, he made a polite questioning sound.
With that, I finally gave in to the undeniable truth that grunting and eloquent gesturing would
always make up about a third of our communication.
         “I left him in the alley in a grand mal.” I replied.
         A smile flickered across his face. “Didn‟t do that last time?”
         “I was human then. Only human.” I said. Then, realizing that he would hardly have an
idea why I would change species so casually, I added, “One of my friends is a transformer.”
         Though he probably didn‟t, Biff made a sound of understanding, then glowered at his old
lighter, which still hadn‟t sparked. “C‟mon, ya stubborn piece of crap…”
         Yanking my sleeve over first, I put one hand over his to make him give it up. Then I
leaned over and rested a fingertip of my other hand on the cigar. I concentrated, and a wisp of
smoke floated up. So much for saving his lungs. If he wanted them torched to jerky, more pow-
er to him.
         He nodded his thanks, then inhaled. His heavy brows knotted slightly when he saw that I
was sucking on my burned finger and he motioned towards it with his chin.
         I shook my head. “I should be able to, but they didn‟t make me to be good.” It had started
as just an answer, but the words brought more to mind and I went on bitterly. “Number One got
all the power uplift.”
         He frowned. “When ya find that out? Thought ya didn‟t know.”
         I just grunted and shrugged. Didn‟t want to think about it.
         It was about that time Biff looked over his shoulder and noticed that not only was his
shadow slithering towards me, but that it was also doing so at a very bizarre angle to the sun. He
glanced up at the sky to verify this, then back down to the concrete. To this violation of the basic
laws of physics he gave the look of casual curiosity it warranted and exhaled cigar smoke that
wreathed around his head and made him look like some prehistoric ape-god of hell.
         Then he straightened up off the railing (which shuddered so alarmingly I had to grip it to
avoid toppling off) and began to withdraw into his cave of an apartment. “Ya gonna hang out
there all day or ya gonna be a decent little bitch an‟ come in?”
         I paused. I hadn‟t expected an invitation. For a second, I halfheartedly pondered the
catch, then gave up. I just didn‟t have the energy for paranoia.
         “Sure.” I said with a shrug and hopped off the railing. The unexpected action made part
the abused metal screech painfully, but he didn‟t seem to care, so I scuttled into his place after
him before he shut the door in my face, locked the door, and did a happy dance.
         Sweeping a box out of the way with his foot, he fumbled for the lights and shrugged off
his bomber jacket, which he‟d been wearing out in the slight chill of Vaygan October but didn‟t
need in the stuffy apartment. While he was busy with that, I glanced around the surroundings.
Oddly, I‟d never envisioned Biff as actually having a place of residence. He‟d just seemed to
spontaneously materialize within the mêlée the way lava forms inside volcanoes. Naturally I
was bit curious about his quarters; my barely existent hypothetical mental picture had looked like
a mix between a gym and a poorly maintained frat house. The real thing didn‟t fit with it.
         “So this is your place, huh?”
         He grunted assent.
         “Nice dump.” My acting was a bit flat.
         He rolled his eyes, but since he didn‟t cuff me, I knew he agreed, even if he didn‟t vocal-
ize it. “Was in a rush. Hadda ditch my old place „fore the pinheads got there so I left „bout all
my crap behind. Been restockin‟ but I ain‟t ezzackly got the best salary.”
         Curiosity drew me out of my gloom a little.
         “What is your profession?” I asked, picking thoughtfully at the one remaining scrap of
browning wallpaper clinging to the walls. I half-expected an answer of, “Nuthin legal.”
         “Well, till a couple days ago, I was a clerk.”
         “And now?”
         “Whaddaya think? Housebreaker, mugger, card-shark—whatever.”
         I grunted acknowledgement and lack of surprise.
         The apartment was mostly barren. A mattress was hastily dumped on the floor with an
old quilt, but a proper bed had not yet been installed, never mind a dresser or other such accesso-
ries. A battered folding table and chair huddled under the naked light bulb as though they feared
the murky shadows that were still slithering around me. (Showing unusual gallantry, Biff politely
ignored this.) A breed of refrigerator that by all laws of natural selection and consumer taste
should‟ve been extinct was banging and groaning in the background like a pair of ambitious ho-
neymooners. And there was the one lone empty box from the hasty packing job, which Biff had
kicked out of the way. From what I could see, it had in it a few weights, a gun, ammunition for
said gun, a pair of socks, and a cross on a cord. Overall, it was a pretty miserable place.
         Mildly interested, I reached in to pull out the cross. It was plain, worn wood. “I thought
you gave up Christianity after you ran off.”
         He swiped it out of my hand so fast I jumped. “I did. Stay outta my business.” He hurled
it back into the box and turned his back to me.
         Since putting him in a worse mood was hardly in my best interest, I cut off the subject.
“Sorry.” I said quietly.
         After a pause, he decided that the apology was too uncharacteristic to answer to. “So how
long ya stayin‟ here?” He asked me, tossing his jacket onto the folding chair. The rickety thing
promptly fell over from the force. He rolled his eyes in disgust and with a derisive gesture left it
there.
         I shrugged, trying to force some emotion into my voice. “It‟s okay, I‟m not planning to
spend the night. What would the neighbors say?”
         Slowly crawling back down into my inner pit, I started picking at my nails and staring at
the wall, though I wasn‟t really paying attention to it. There was that horrible, nasty feeling of
déjà vu again and I had no idea why. It was bothering me. And that stupid piece of skin on my
finger was too thick. It made my finger uneven. I started gnawing it smooth and kept staring at
the wall.
         “It wasn‟t that bad.” He finally said.
         Still chewing, I turned to look at him. “Biff, you know how normally we have this really
disturbing gift at practically reading what‟s on each other‟s mind?”
         “Yeah.”
         “Well,” I spat out some skin, “this isn‟t one of those times.”
         “Gettin‟ mugged. Ya hardly got bruised.”
         I chuckled dryly around my finger, which had started to sting. “Biffy, getting mugged
was the only thing I could think of that made decent conversation material.”
         His brow creased in anxiety. “Raige ain‟t still missin‟, is he?”
         I suddenly hit blood. “No!” I borderline-shouted, throwing my hand down. “We found
him.”
         That persuaded him that pursuing this would be a bad idea. He backed off, which was
just fine with me. Now I had Number One tunneling his way back into my head, and the memo-
ries of that that bled into everything else he‟d done while having fun. The déjà vu started getting
worse. I jerked my head with a hiss of frustration, trying to make it go away. It didn‟t, just
coiled in my skull to wait. Biff noticed me fidgeting and changed subjects.
         “Ya want somethin‟ ta eat?” He asked, striding back to the fridge to investigate its con-
tents. The door stuck and wouldn‟t budge at his yank. “I think I got some extra spaghetti wi‟
marinara from last night…”
         His subsequent hauling and cussing at the refrigerator door went unnoticed by me, be-
cause I didn‟t hear it.
         Number One‟s voice was running through my head, making my skin cold. My fear
started to build. The punk. Everything had been going fine, just frogging fine, and then he‟d
popped up and it‟d all gone wrong. And he might be coming back, and he would be discussing
with the Jaunter‟s League. Oh crap, the Jaunter‟s League. I‟d completely pushed that away,
what with… the other bad thing. What was I going to say? What was I going to do? They were
assured that I was off my rocker and…
        …And so was Number One, and so was Biff. Number One was so concerned he‟d hiked
across the known universe to try and shake me out of it.
        “Better than working your heart out or cutting your wrists, whatever came first.”
        What was wrong with these people? So I was hot-tempered. Everyone on the planet
knew that! And maybe every once in a while, stress got to me. Well, let them try getting kicked
through overlaps with a mind-control freak for a sibling and things falling apart. Let them just
try. I was fine, dang it, just fine!
        The linoleum floor and the walls began to melt like something from a bad hallucination.
        I glanced back at Biff, thinking that surely he would‟ve noticed he lived at a dimensional
crossroads, or at least offer an explanation, but he was still fighting with the fridge and didn‟t
seem to notice. Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I turned my head back to the sand and
opened my eyes at it again. Too bad, still there.
        I frowned. I was getting a little panicky; on Earth, at least, random things like this didn‟t
happen very often without anyone noticing. That meant that nothing was wrong with the apart-
ment; all the wrong stuff was with my head. The fact that I knew this but the scenery still wasn‟t
reverting gave me no reassurance. It was turning into patches of beige and green.
        My head was throbbing with the feeling of familiarity, but there was no pain. I should‟ve
known something like this would happen, especially since it always did whenever Number One
showed up and played Let‟s Talk About the Good Old Days with me. He‟d just had to mention
psychic VR. He‟d just had to push the envelope.
        I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, retreating into the darkness. “No.” I ordered
myself under my breath, trying to ignore the panic that started to grip my lungs. “This isn‟t real.
The floor is linoleum. You‟re on Earth, and that happened a long time ago, and you‟re stronger
than this and…” I opened my eyes and looked around. The sand was still there and now it was
spreading. The useless rational thought crashed out the window and I started to panic.
        As I stared at them, the patches started to convert more linoleum. Other small blots ap-
peared on the walls, melting them into pale green sky. The room had become freezing. Rubbing
my hands up and down my arms compulsively to warm up clammy cold flesh. My brain was
blank. I wasn‟t thinking anymore; I was just reacting, and badly. At least I could still see my
breath fogging in front of me.
        Biff‟s voice sounded like it was coming from another continent on a zephyr. “…In‟
freeze…”
        “Sorry.” I choked out. My lungs were getting in the way of my breathing.
        “…A „kay?”
        “No.” I squeaked at the wind.
        Couldn‟t throw up. Throwing up would slow me down. Why was the room so cold, and
if it was so cold, why were my palms so sweaty? I edged backwards some more as my mind
plastered more of Della onto my near surroundings and crashed into the table. It crashed over
and I landed hard on my butt, but that hardly bothered me. My legs weren‟t dressed in blue jeans
any more.
        The voice in the wind was gone, just sound waves hitting my eardrums like white noise.
Or maybe that was my pulse. It really was so difficult to tell.
         I closed my eyes tight. This time I wasn‟t trying to visualize how Earth really was—as
far as I was concerned, Earth no longer existed. I was going to be trapped in Della until I died. I
might as well try and block it out.
         After a few minutes of nothing interacting with me but my own panicked thoughts, I rea-
lized nothing had happened and worriedly opened my eyes. Then I closed them again with a
moan. The apartment was gone.
         My mind started kicking back some old programming and my shoulders went slack as I
completely lost track of myself. Apartment? Why was I thinking of apartments? What was an
apartment? I thought hard but felt only the vague bewilderment that came with trying to remem-
ber something without even knowing what it was. That and the suspicion that something vitally
important was rushing through my fingers like sand made my panic even stronger. Somehow,
one last coherent piece of reason turned up in my mind. Need help! Supposed to tell someone
something! I‟m supposed to tell someone something! I can‟t remember what it is, I should re-
member what it is, and—
         “I don’t know!” I finally shrieked.
         The curtain came down with a crash, and life as I knew it ceased to exist. I refuse to de-
scribe the experience with detail. Dellans don‟t kid around when they implant false memories in
your head to try and make you go berserk. Just because they aren‟t real doesn‟t mean they don‟t
feel real. Ask anyone right after they have a dream about running from a monster.
         It seems that there was pretty good subconscious conditioning behind my phobia of
blood, gore, and hypodermic needles. I also understood why Number One had cheerfully kept
marks on how many guards he disemboweled. And finally, I realized that no matter how high
your pain threshold is, there are still people who specialize in going over it. For lifetimes, I re-
mained in the bright green and gold of the desert, screaming my lungs out.
         Snap!
         “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
         Having that laser beam of mental noise directed at you was like having your alarm clock
go off during a nightmare. The program in my head crashed, and suddenly I was on the planet
Earth in a freezing cold apartment on my back on the floor. Biff was sitting on top of me with
his hands crushing my throat under them. When he saw the thing he called me click back on be-
hind my eyes, he flung himself off me backwards like he‟d just realized I was a corpse, and I
lurched upward into a sitting position, panting and coughing. During my episode, I hadn‟t felt
any strangulation, but now my throat was aching. The rest of my body wasn‟t feeling all that
great either. The strong taste of blood in my mouth was beyond my comprehension, and so was
the odd fact that my nose was running like I had a sinus infection. I rubbed at it with my sleeve
and coughed some more.
         As oxygen filled my blood in the proper levels again, I realized that the room had gone
dark. I looked around me, and found the shattered remains of the light bulb on the floor. The
glass shards were encrusted with frost, and so was the floor. The table had been overturned.
Even though Biff wasn‟t bleeding, somehow blood had gotten smeared on the sliding door,
which was cracked. That must‟ve been me.
         “Sorry.” I said, only to find that my voice was almost completely gone. I touched my
throat. “You strangled me.”
         Biff was staring at me like I was some hound he‟d taken home only to find out it had ra-
bies. “Ya wouldn‟t shut up.” He said. His voice was without intonation or emotion, as though
his mind had left the building for the moment.
        “Oh.” That must‟ve been why I couldn‟t talk.
        We sat there staring at each other in identical silence for a minute or so. I noticed that we
were panting in rhythm and our positions were mirrored. My nose was still running. I rubbed at
it with my sleeve, and felt emotion start to build up.
        “Yeah.” I said hoarsely, carefully sitting all the way up. I giggled. It made me feel sick.
“It‟s—it‟s been a bad day.”
        And I buried my face in my arms so he wouldn‟t see me force back tears. Biff stayed si-
lent, and for the next few minutes, he just stared at the frosty shards of glass on the floor. We
were both way too rattled to attempt any sort of veneer at calmness or confidence. Our egos
were that shaken.
        “Wha happened?” He asked, still sounding shell-shocked.
        “Don‟t ask me that!” I keened, locking my arms around my ears and beginning to rock.
Somehow my hair had come undone in the fray. “I came here because I knew you wouldn‟t ask
me that!”
        “Dammit, whaddaya „spect, comin‟—”
        “Leave me alone!” I screamed at him, my dry throat cracking intermittently. “I don‟t
want help! If I wanted help, I would‟ve come to someone else, anyone else, not you!” The jerki-
ness of my spiel and my ruined vocal cords made me end it with an anticlimactic cough.
        Rage hardened Biff‟s face and he swiftly jerked his arm back in the way I‟d quickly
learned to recognize in my youth as preparatory for a backhand. I recoiled, my arms instinctive-
ly jerking up to protect my face in expectation of the pain. After a second without feeling it, I
cautiously opened my eyes and peered through my fingers at him. As I watched, the fury gradu-
ally drained from him, and he let his arm fall with slumped shoulder. Evidently I looked so pa-
thetic even he couldn‟t bear to hit me. “It‟s me or nuthin.”
        I tried to inhale through my nose, only to realize something wet was blocking the airways
and dripping down my upper lip. What? Oh, right.
        “I can live with that.” I said shrilly, looking down so I wouldn‟t have to look at him. Un-
fortunately, that didn‟t help my nose. “I can live with nothing. You can too. You can definitely
live with nothing, uh huh.”
        It was at that point that I realized I was starting to drip red on the floor. What I‟d thought
had been a runny nose had actually been a massive nosebleed. With a sound of dismay, I began
wiping at the spots on the floor with my sleeve, only for my nose to quickly make up for my at-
tempts. Then the impact of it finally hit me, and I blinked at the streaks down my sleeves and
burned hands.
        “Biff, I‟m bleeding. Really bleeding.”
        “Yeah. Yeah, guess ya are.” His voice held the same mild surprise mine did, as though
he‟d just realized that the weather was unusual.
        Somehow, I managed to feel even more pathetic than I had been prior. “I‟m… uh… feel-
ing kinda woozy.”
        “Ah, fuck.” He didn‟t sound a bit surprised.
        Thirty seconds later, I was on my back again, only this time with my legs elevated and a
sodden wad of toilet paper pressed to my nose. Since there was no Kleenex, the roll was next to
my other hand and Biff was sitting cross-legged at my other side, staring at me as though he was
wondering just what the hell he was going to do with me.
        “Sorry.” I mumbled as I bled into the paper. My face hurt. My ego hurt. My sanity hurt.
Everything hurt.
         Biff grunted.
         “That wasn‟t supposed to happen.”
         “Naw shit. Ya feelin‟ any less dizzy?”
         “I think I‟m hemorrhaging. So no.” He ripped off another chunk of toilet paper and
pressed it into my hand. “Why isn‟t it stopping? What did you do to me?”
         “I didn‟t do shit. Ya did that yaself.” He cocked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate
the cracked sliding door. “And ya the doc. Ya should know.”
         “Yeah, well, I‟ve never tried to break glass with my face before.”
         “Really? Here I was thinkin‟ ya done everythin‟.”
         I began to giggle. “You‟d be amazed what I haven‟t figured out yet.”
         “This been happenin‟ „round other poor bastards, or‟m I just lucky „gain?”
         Instead of answering, I concentrated on the ceiling and not feeling woozy. The bleeding
was starting to slow down.
         For once actually wanting me to talk, Biff rammed me with the toe of his boot and
grunted at me in a way that wasn‟t so much encouraging as it was threatening.
         “I heard you.” I snapped. “Yes, I‟ve done this before, mainly around you; no, I don‟t
know why; and yes, I guess you‟re just lucky. We‟re both lucky, lucky, lucky!” I let my head
thunk back down to the linoleum. “Now leave me alone. Let me bleed in peace.”
         “One or more?”
         “Har. You‟re funny. Remind me to snort out a chunk of my nasal bone before I leave;
you need a souvenir from your brief foray into comedy.”
         He kicked me hard enough to make me grunt.
         “You mind?” I snapped. “I‟m injured here.”
         “So‟m I and I seen ya fight through a broken wrist, so don‟t pull that bullshit on me. Ac-
tually, it don‟t sound so bad. Ya mighta beaten someone.”
         I snorted. That I was able to do it meant my nose was drying up. “Yeah, if I could tell
that someone from the broad side of an apartment wall. Believe it or not, for once, I‟d be just
peachy if I lost every brawl I got into. So far, this has done me absolutely zero good, unless you
count short-term schadenfreude.”
         He smirked. “I‟d settle fa that.”
         “You got hit with my mind during it, and don‟t even try convincing me that your reaction
was nothing. Trust me, you wouldn‟t settle for it.” I carefully rose to a sitting position. The
room went swirly for a second, then returned to normal, and my nose didn‟t seem to mind.
“Woo. Hey. I‟m getting better. Well, enough about me. How about you?”
         “Enh?”
         “I went Pikachu on you. You shouldn‟t have come out of that unharmed.”
         He shrugged nonchalantly. “Enh.”
         Yeah right. “Uh huh.” I said, and leaned forward and took his arm. He yanked away.
         I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Have it your way.” I reached over and slammed my fist into his
forearm.
         “Motherfuck!” He bellowed, and somehow managed to move two feet away from me
without actually walking or crawling.
         “Nice job. You‟ve proved to me that you don‟t have third degree burns where I hit you.
Now roll up your sleeves.”
         Giving me looks of venom, he yanked them up and rammed his arms out. First and
second degree burns, just like me.
         I rolled my eyes and dug into my belt.
         “Put that shit away.”
         “You‟re an infantile houseplant.” I told him.
         “And ya a nosy bitch.” He glared at me.
         I frowned, but put the stuff away. If the man wanted to die of an infection, I might as
well let him. Besides, I had bigger things on my mind. “You took it a lot better than I thought.
The amount of energy I must‟ve lost, I should have killed you, by cooking if not by cardiac ar-
rest.”
         He shrugged. “I‟m a tough sonuva bitch.”
         “No kidding.” I said absently, mechanically rubbing a tendril of my hair between thumb
and forefinger. “Must be the food.” The word reminded me of my fatigue. I‟d been running on
the rocket fuel of adrenaline but had been dying after I‟d nearly passed out, and the electrical
storm I‟d conjured up along with my berserker fit had drained me to the dregs. My hands were
shaking, as much from my plummeting blood sugar as from the stress, and I was starting to have
difficulty concentrating. I needed energy.
         I sighed and with a weak smile, held up my arm to display the tremors in my wrist. “You
still up for that pasta and marinara you mentioned?” I asked.
                                                        
         A minute or so later, Biff finally forced the fridge open and emerged with a large Tup-
perware container and two cans of beer. He paused to look at me.
         “Thirsty?”
         “I‟m underage, Biff.” I said flatly, trying to force Senyan control but only getting a few
exhausted sparks off my fingertips and a sound like a bad radio.
         He sneered. “Right, „drinkin‟ age.‟” He didn‟t even need to gesture the quotation marks.
“Sorry, but I ain‟t gotten „round ta buyin‟ chocolate milk yet. It‟s beer or tap water. Damned if I
can tell the difference; they both the same color.”
         I glanced across the room at the dripping faucet. A drop of tea-colored liquid oozed mo-
rosely from the tap, and I looked away with a sigh. Somehow, it didn‟t surprise me that he was
right. Liquid of any kind sounded very appealing, since my voice was still hoarse and my throat
was dry except where blood had coagulated. But I said, “Alcohol is a depressant and I don‟t
think either of us want to find out how angsty I can get. Thanks anyway.”
         I assumed that he would put one of the beers back, but he kept both and kicked the fridge
shut, then headed towards the table. I tried to stand and follow, but my knees quivered dange-
rously and I quickly sat again before they collapsed. He saw this and sat cross-legged on the
floor with me instead.
         “Bust a fuse?” He asked, gesturing at me with the Tupperware.
         I nodded. “Give me food and a hot shower and I‟ll be fine.” I said.
         “Too bad. Couldn‟t afford hot water.”
         I laughed tiredly to myself and there might‟ve been just a tint of hysteria in it. All he had
to do now was tell me that since the toilet had an overflow problem, I needed to use the sink.
It‟d be like my old house all over again.
         That thought hurt and I stopped laughing. House was gone. Todd was gone. Everything
was gone.
         Ignoring my little fit, he held up the Tupperware inquiringly with a raised eyebrow. Roll-
ing my eyes as I interpreted his silent question, I said resignedly, “You don‟t have a microwave
either,” and took it.
          Normally, I could‟ve heated the stuff without a problem, but I was so tired and worn
down that to manage I had to borrow and convert electric energy powering the refrigerator,
which stopped clunking and grumbling for about thirty seconds. When the meal steamed and
Biff tossed me a fork (which in my hypoglycemia, I missed catching), I yanked it open with
trembling hands and dived on the food semi-literally, almost skewering his hand with the silver-
ware in my haste.
          My hunger was so powerful that I figured I‟d wolf the food too quickly to absorb the
taste, which I expected to be mediocre at best. However, when I took the first bite, I was so as-
tounded I nearly choked trying to keep from reflexively swallowing it. It was far more hearty
and delicious than I expected anything that came out of that fridge to be, loaded with salt and
butter and carbs and all sorts of other wonderful things you weren‟t supposed to eat.
          “Where‟d you steal this stuff?” I asked as soon as I could speak, beginning to swallow it
down at a dangerous speed. “It‟s good.”
          “Made it.”
          I paused in my chewing to stare at him with spaghetti trailing out of my mouth. “You can
cook?”
          “Izzat a problem?” He asked, baring his teeth in a threatening smile. I guess my face was
a little too slack-jawed for his taste.
          “No, no,” I said quickly, resuming my chewing, “it‟s just… I live with seven other
people. And none of us can. A bit surprising, that‟s all.” Biff just didn‟t strike me as the domes-
tic type.
          “Yeah right, pinheads and psycho shit ain‟t even in the same league.”
          I sighed. “After my cat started telepathically explaining I was an alien, everything just
suddenly started to strike me as incredibly normal. Only truly trivial things surprise me any-
more.”
          “Like I can cook.”
          “Yeah. That and how many of your mannerisms I‟ve shown in the past few months.”
          “Like wha?”
          I gave him a look. A pause hung in the air for a few seconds. Then both of us said at the
same time in a slow drawl of resignation, “The grunting.”
          Biff nodded with a grimace. “Yeah, thazz from me.”
          “I‟ve started swearing, which I never used to do, and occasionally a Vaygan accent slips
in. I dreamed „Amazing Grace‟ about a week ago in the middle of one of my nightmares, and
just a couple days ago, I dreamed about some biker chick aunt you had.” I looked at him despe-
rately. “Biff, I know what lube is. And I don‟t mean car engines.”
          He frowned and rubbed his chin. “Ya sure ya got that last one from me?”
          I sighed. “I don‟t even want to think about it. It‟s just another piece of worthless disturb-
ing knowledge I‟ve accumulated from other people‟s brains. It makes it even more pathetic that
I don‟t remember where they come from anymore.” I examined my nails idly. “So how many
bad habits have you picked up from me?”
          He grimaced again. “Last week I called someone a froggin‟ houseplant.” I winced. Ouch.
He examined his fingertips. “Chew my nails now; never used ta do tha. Every once in a while
when I‟m watchin‟ late-night TV, some shrink‟ll say somethin‟ like vaginismus and I actually
know what they‟re talkin‟ „bout.” His lips twisted. “Hell, I can even pronounce it. Get a couple
nightmares every few months or so.”
          I stiffened. “How bad?”
         He shrugged. “Nuthin near as bad as the night we both spent pukin‟ our lungs up in a
pinhead crapper.”
         My shoulders loosened up enough for me to shrug. “Well, it‟s an improvement. I‟m sor-
ry about that.”
         “Ya kiddin‟? That ain‟t even the worst.” He gestured towards his ponytail. “I‟m just ho-
pin‟ this is just cuz I don‟t care „nuff to cut it.”
         “Trust me.” I said. “If you had my taste in hair without the stupid living cells I‟m saddled
with, you would have chopped all of it off in a crewcut. That or worn it high in a Scrunchie.”
         He shuddered. “Shaddap.”
         “What? Does it make you feel gay?” I asked wryly.
         He glared at me, but I couldn‟t resist.
         “Be glad I‟m neutered, Biffy.” I said mischievously. “We could be discussing boys.”
         “Fuck off or ya lose more nasal bone.” He snapped at me. I grinned. “I got more „portant
stuff on my mind. Like wha just happened?”
         The mention of it killed my smile and made me suddenly lost appetite, though I kept eat-
ing. However, he did deserve to know this much; he‟d had to live through it himself, after all. “It
didn‟t really happen.” I said flatly around my food. “They downloaded it into my head. Think of
it as training without having to wait for me to get old.”
         “Tha ain‟t ezzackly wha I was askin‟ „bout, but thanks.” I winced. Since when had I
started slipping like this and giving up unasked-for information? It had to be the low blood sug-
ar. “It didn‟t come on fa naw reason. What happened?”
         “That,” I said blandly, slurping up a mouthful, “ain‟t none of your damn business, so
back off.”
         “Damn.” He said in a tone of astonishment. “Ya really have started talkin‟ like me.”
         “Trust me, it hasn‟t gone unnoticed. And if you think I‟m going to just give up personal
dirt without something in exchange, you‟re a houseplant.” I made an effort to clearly enunciate
the last word.
         The key phrase there was „something in exchange‟ and Biff didn‟t miss it. His eyes nar-
rowed. “Don‟tcha think ya know „nuff „bout me already?” He said in deceptively calm tones.
         “I don‟t know. You tell me.” I said smoothly, scooping more pasta into my mouth.
         We had a half-staring contest for a few seconds, him staring at me, me pretending I was
interested in nothing but enjoying my food, the silence only bent by the sounds of chewing.
There were two ways this conversation would go: either Biff backed off, in which case I was
safe, or we traded. Personally, I just hoped he would withdraw, but I‟d be a liar if I said I wasn‟t
curious.
         Finally he asked, “Why d‟ya care?”
         I replied, “Ask yourself.”
         “Cuz ya goin‟ psychotic in my livin‟ room.” He said, gesturing expansively at the ruina-
tion I‟d caused.
         Verbal war. Now there was something I could beat him at; it was my home territory, not
his. “And I‟m positive telling you will magically cure me,” I argued, “instead of just making eve-
rything worse.”
         “How ya know it won‟t?”
         “Thinking about it will just trigger it again.” I said, getting into the intellectual groove
now that the carbs were oiling my brain gears. “Unless there‟s something you haven‟t been tell-
ing me, you‟re not a shrink, so I doubt you could help me work my way through it, even if I
thought I could. I don‟t think you want me causing more property damage, and I don‟t think you
want to play straitjacket with me again. Face it, Biffy; you‟re morbidly curious. That‟s the only
reason you‟re asking.”
         “Ya really got low opinions of me.” Unusual choice of words on his part.
         I shrugged. “Actually, you should be proud. Were you virtually anyone else, I would‟ve
skipped the debate and tried to kill you for asking.”
         “Ya would anyway, but ya know I‟ll kick ya ass in a fight.”
         “Aw, now who has the low opinions?” I purred, smiling.
         He was getting annoyed, which was exactly what I was trying to do because I knew his
patience wasn‟t notorious. Once he lost his temper, I won, and he knew that and it just annoyed
him more, especially because I knew that too. For a while, he glowered at me in thoughtful si-
lence, seething with frustration and chewing on the same mouthful of food. At the time, I
thought he was just cussing at me in his head; it didn‟t occur to me that he was forcing himself to
cool down.
         “It got somethin‟ ta do with Raige, ain‟t it?”
         Dang it, he wasn‟t playing my game anymore. Now I was on defensive, something I‟d
expected but hoped to fend off a little longer. “Uh huh.” I said, easily forcing my voice to remain
drawling and bored and sarcastic. “You‟re so close, I‟m burning in anticipation.”
         It only encouraged him. “Well, ya said he wasn‟t dead, so I‟m guessin‟ it was somethin‟
he did.”
         I kept chewing, pretending that he wasn‟t bothering me a bit.
         “What‟d he do?”
         I just smiled at him. “I suggest you leave the verbal harassment to me, Biffy. „Cause you
suck at it.”
         I shouldn‟t have said that. The icy, vicious purr he adopted was a mirror image of the
one I used, and so was the way he leaned forward. “What‟s the matter?” He asked in a throaty
borderline whisper, his incisors beginning to show in a predatory smile. He had even lost most
of his accent; it was truly terrifying how well he could play me if he wanted to. “Worried you‟ll
lose it again?”
         I sprung at him, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor curled in a ball around the
pain in my stomach and my face was bleeding again. Still perfectly calm, Biff took a gulp of
beer. He hadn‟t even spilled his drink. Feeling my eyes burn with acid, I smashed my fuzzy fist
to the blurry linoleum in frustration, hating his power and loathing his deceptive agility. My
breath was coming in gasps and I couldn‟t fix it, but I forced control. I hadn‟t cried in ten years,
and damned if I was going to do it now in front of him.
         “That was cheap, even for you.” My voice was shaking, with fury I preferred to think.
         “I know.” His tone wasn‟t soft, exactly, but it wasn‟t as hard as it usually was. I knew it
was the closest to an apology he could voice. The anger bled out of me.
         “You can play me better than I can.” I said softly.
         “Enh,” he shrugged, “ya do me purty good, and ya handle the voice change better. Ya
gonna keep tryin‟ ta kill me?”
         Scrubbing at my eyes with the back of my broiled hand, I laboriously pulled myself up
off the floor and crawled back to the spaghetti where I belonged, my eyes clear. I felt like care-
fully rearranged broken glass inside, but not completely crashed. Little did I know that it would
not be the worst I felt that week.
         “No, I‟m better now.” I said.
        Maybe it was how childish my voice sounded, but he suddenly blurted, “How old‟re ya?”
        I paused. The question itself didn‟t surprise me; people asked me it all the time. Howev-
er, usually they asked it right when they met me, and Biff had never seemed to think about it, or
even find my androgyny unusual, until now. “That‟s between my creators and God, and none of
them are talking. I landed on Earth around ten years ago. That‟s all anyone‟s even close to sure
of.” I cocked my head. “Why do you ask?”
        He shrugged. “Ya talk better‟n ya look.”
        I paused. “You just now noticed that?”
        “Why, ya think I care „bout tha shit?”
        “I‟m neutered.”
        “Like dogs and cats?”
        “Yup.”
        He considered that. “Lucky ass bastard.”
        I smiled. “Finally, someone gets it.”
        He gestured at me. His intent came just as clearly to me as if he‟d said, “No reason. Get
on with it.”
        “It wasn‟t what Raige did. It was what Number One did when he decided to borrow
him.” I paused for a few seconds, then decided Biff wasn‟t going to accept that as a full answer.
So I added, “Number One specializes in beating people‟s minds into submission so he can con-
trol them. He‟s a better psychic than I am.”
        Somehow, even though he hadn‟t been moving at first, he froze. “So he came back.”
        “Yes.” My voice was virtually a whisper. “He did. Yahoo.”
        I stayed silent for a while, gazing at the pasta like it held the answers to life in its twisty
carbohydrate coils. Biff was left to fill the void.
        “Ya said he liked ya.”
        I said nothing, only stared at the noodles and tried to remember that I was hungry. My
spoon poked it once halfheartedly, as though to force it into a more appetizing shape.
        It took me a while to notice that Biff had gone silent as well. When I finally realized he
hadn‟t grunted for a full three minutes, I stopped prodding the spaghetti and glanced up. His
swarthiness mostly concealed his pallor, as his impassive stare masked his profound mental dis-
turbance, but the way he was absently gouging at his fingertips with the fork cued me. It was
something I‟d done before when I was under strong pressure and didn‟t have a knife around, and
I hadn‟t performed it since I left my old house.
        “Biff?” When he didn‟t respond, I smacked the fork out of his hands. Even though he‟d
been facing me, he jerked as though I‟d come out of nowhere, though that might just have been
because of the sharp sound of the fork clattering to the floor.
        “Stop it.” I snapped. “That‟s one of my worse habits.”
        He blinked at his fingertips for a second, but didn‟t remark on it. With a jerk of his head,
he drained a third of his beer in one swallow and held it protectively close to his chest. Still
without saying a word. I would‟ve even accepted one of his loose gestures or impassive grunts
by now.
        “What?” I asked.
        “How much he like ya?” He asked blankly.
        I wasn‟t sure whether to sigh, scream, or cry. Too emotional for the first, too drained and
hoarse for the second, and refusing to give in to the last, I settled for reaching for my knife. It
was missing, and I couldn‟t remember where I‟d left it, so I plucked the fork up from the floor
where I‟d knocked it out of Biff‟s hand and started nipping at my fingertips with it. “I didn‟t get
raped.” I said, focusing on the tattered edges of skin that now seemed a hulking cancerous milli-
meter too long. True, I had refused to tell him anything, but I just couldn‟t withstand that look
on his face. And technically, I wasn‟t telling him what happened. I was telling him what didn‟t.
        He yanked the fork out of my hands. “What‟d he do?”
        I gave him a blank, totally uninformative stare like I was on morphine. “You know I
won‟t tell you that. You‟d laugh.”
        He frowned, slightly insulted, then decided I was probably right and pushed as far as I
would get. If enraging me hadn‟t done the job, and that was usually the best way to get me to let
something slip, then it was obvious it was time to compromise if he wanted something from me.
Even so, he was as stubborn as I was, and just as cagey.
        “Ya sure?”
        Now, in my normal frame of mind, I would‟ve said, “No, I‟m not sure. You never can
tell with those gargantuan, ominously looming sociopaths.” But I was drained. So I just
shrugged and grunted.
        If I had just kept my mouth shut, chances are he would‟ve given up and we just would‟ve
finished our food in silence, but my tongue tripped and the whole evening changed.
        “It‟s the worst feeling.” I said quietly, pulling my knees to my chest. “You can‟t stop
someone if they want something from you, no matter how much you want to, because you‟re
weak.” I glanced at his muscle and realized I was preaching Islam to the Crusaders. “You
wouldn‟t know.”
        Dark silence hung like smog for about five seconds. Then Biff suddenly seemed to de-
cide that when in doubt, drink, and finished off his beer. He paused thoughtfully, frowning in
mild concentration, then shook his head with a derisive snort as though to say that wasn‟t
enough.
        While I frowned at him confusedly, he opened the other can. Raising his eyes to me
momentarily, he raised the can in slight toast, one side of his mouth quirked up in a sickly smile.
        “Cheers.”
        And then he drained it. All of it. I must admit, that surprised me. He finally put the can
down, paused for a second with his hand cupping his chin and his brows knitted as though taking
an internal measurement of some sort, and nodded to himself in satisfaction.
        Then he said calmly, lowering his eyes, “I do.”
        Beginning to rock in place again, I clapped both hands to my head. “Oh no. No, no,
no…”
        “It ain‟t from you.” He said quietly.
        Hands still frozen at my temples, I stared at him silently. Taking his time, or perhaps just
delaying, he lit up a cigar. When he‟d inhaled, he seemed calmer.
        “Ya got some memories from me. Y‟know I changed.”
        Not clear, but I still knew exactly what he meant. In all the childhood memories I‟d got-
ten from Biff, he‟d been chubby and happy. He was still built heavy, there was nothing he could
do about that, but he was now virtually Olympian, ominous, and brooding. We didn‟t mention it,
but we both knew when he‟d shifted: when he‟d fled to Vaygo. After he‟d tried to commit sui-
cide and botched it royally. He‟d never been able to say what had brought him that low, and it
seemed he wasn‟t going to now either. But the silence wasn‟t strained like it had been the last
time we‟d hit this ground, when he‟d wanted to speak, but been unable to. Now he just wasn‟t
saying anything, and the mixture of ethanol and carbon monoxide seemed to have mellowed him
out. He was relying on my knack at figuring things out.
        I gnawed my sore cuticles, first in confusion. Without actual concentration on my part,
things were slowly conglomerating, like drops of mercury becoming a puddle. None of it was
actually concrete, just fragments of little details that bothered me. The disturbed, disturbing look
he‟d gotten whenever I‟d mentioned Number One „liking‟ me when most would interpret it just
as a stalking complex, the homophobia he had that was thicker and more impervious than the
Berlin Wall, his sudden onset of obsessive concern over physical power. That and despite a
complete lack of care for what people thought of him, an unusual disliking of people coming
close to him or seeing him anything other than completely dressed and in control.
        He was like me, only worse.
        Seeing the look on my face, he raised his empty beer can. “I‟ll make it easy an‟ blame it
on the booze now.” His humor fell flat; his heart was as far from it as possible.
        I took a bite more of spaghetti. “You win.” I said flatly.
        “Enh?”
        “Your life sucks more.” My humor was even more two-dimensional than his. “You
should be proud, Biff. I‟m tough to beat. Who did that to y—”
        “Ain‟t got „nuff booze in me, and I don‟t think I ever will.” He replied, but he didn‟t look
like he was about to hit me this time.
        “Was he someone you knew?”
        A heavy pause, as though the security guards in his mind were checking that question
through. Finally he decided he was capable of answering it. “Yeah. I knew him. He was a she.”
He exhaled smoke, and it‟s just as well he kept talking; I was completely at a loss at what to say
to that. The phrase „I‟m sorry‟ just couldn‟t cover it, and I knew he‟d hate me if I said it. “Now
it‟s your turn. Ya said ya weren‟t talkin‟ „less I gave ya personal dirt, and I ain‟t got much
worse‟n that. So talk.”
        “Creative way to bypass your own inhibitions.” I remarked.
        He grunted, then gestured at me again. Not going to let go of this one, not after what
he‟d paid.
        “Just one more question till I talk.” I said. After a pause of thought, he shrugged and
grunted assent; he knew I knew his limits. So I asked, as delicately as I could, “Is… she still
around?”
        Another long pause. Then he nodded. “Yeah.”
        I nodded back. All right. Fair was fair. “You remember how you saved me from getting
mugged?” I said, scooping some spaghetti into my mouth.
        He grunted affirmative.
        “That,” I said, “was the high part of my day.” I paused to swallow. “I‟ll give you the
summarized version. I come home to find Raige‟s brain taken over by my good buddy Number
One and Thomas, whom you haven‟t met, brained in the bathroom. Number One‟s feeling pretty
cheerful, one of those „hello, I love you, let‟s talk about the good old days‟ things, and tells me
I‟m losing my mind and on the verge of killing someone.” I saw a flash of color out of the corner
of my eye but when I jerked my head, it vanished. I giggled nervously and started playing with
my fork. “Boy, do I love those little family reunions. Makes the Big Bang look like a firecrack-
er. Well, he starts coming on to me, and that set Raige off before he managed to do more than
kiss me.” When Biff raised an eyebrow, I snapped, “I told you you‟d laugh, all right? That
didn‟t bother me. I mean, not really. Right? The fact was I couldn‟t stop him. If Raige hadn‟t
been pushed so far, both of us would‟ve ended up raped. Anyway, while they‟re out trying to
take control of his body, I beat them with a towel bar and try to resist that happy little voice in
my head chanting, „kill them all, kill them all!‟ I stitch Thomas up, take some sleeping pills, and
go to bed. When I wake up, Number One‟s been kicked out. I get to see him tomorrow, when
he tries to talk the Jaunter‟s League into letting me stay with him. Oh, I didn‟t tell you that, did
I? The Jaunter‟s League want my neck because I came to Earth illegally, and so they get my fu-
ture sorted out for me. So why am I here? For my little brother, which, after I wake up, I go to
find, only there‟s the little problem of, you know, him not being there. So here I am. My luck
has run out, my time has run out, and to honest, I think my spirit has run out. One of my friends
is a mental wreck. The other is in stitches, and I don‟t mean the laughing kind. Both, might I
add, because of yours truly. I didn‟t screw up, Biff. I failed so royally, so gloriously, that I don‟t
think I could outdo myself even if I tried.” I sighed. “And you know what tops this whole day
off? I can‟t see you anymore. Just sand. You might want to put me down now…”




                                   7. Luck of the Devil
                                     PIN Specialist Grey



         Harmonius suddenly jerked upright and put a hand to his temple. “Hello!”
         “What? What is it?” I asked from the steering wheel.
         A pause. “Do you really have your heart set on this controller guy, or would you rather
have that Rawlins kid?”
         I nearly drove into a street lamp. “You can sense her?”
         “Uh… yes.” He sounded a little sheepish.
         “What caused the change?”
         He coughed. “I just realized that she‟s not some hobo on acid.” I raised an eyebrow.
“She‟s out there. Far out there. I don‟t know how long it‟ll be till she comes back to reality, but
right now, she‟s a sitting duck.”
         I had never believed in fate or luck until then. “Where?”
         “East. She‟s on Everclear, close to a liquor store.”
         “Everything‟s close to a liquor store on Everclear.” I said impatiently. “Can‟t you get me
something better?”
         He frowned in concentration. “Um… whole lot of people. An apartment building. High
up. Pretty close. East!”
         Giving my compass a quick glance, I twisted the wheel, skidded across three lanes of
traffic, and pulled a U-turn that left tread on the street. Cars honked. I ignored them.
         “She‟s high?”
        “More like completely out of her mind. For the moment.”
        “You‟re the fizzy. Can you keep her like that?”
        He grimaced. “I don‟t know if that‟s a good idea. She‟s—”
        “She‟ll live.” I said shortly, squealing into the rightmost lane and belatedly hitting my
turn signal. “Just do it.”
        Dark brows coming closer together, he settled back and closed his eyes again. Assuming
he was out, I made the turn onto Everclear. That‟s when his back suddenly arched and he
lurched—

                                    Annabelle Rawlins
        —Forward with a shriek. My eyes shot open and this time I saw peeling wallpaper, sick-
ening linoleum. Pain was doing a tap dance inside my skull but that was neither why I had
screamed nor why I had come to. Biff was midway through reaching for me but had paused now
that I was focusing on him. My irrational reason for panic being kicked out the window in favor
of a more concrete one, I stared at him with wide eyes.
        “It‟s them.” I whispered.
        He grabbed my shoulders and resumed whatever it was he planned to do.
        “Not them! Them!” I cried before I could get myself hurt. “Pinheads!”
        His expression abruptly mirrored mine. “Wha?” He shrieked, painfully tightening his grip
and shaking me. “How? Did they—”
        “Follow me? No, I‟m sure of it!” I cried. “It was some psychic. He tried to mess with
my brain, and—”
        “Got a good dose of hell.” Biff finished.
        “Interacted enough to wake me up.” I agreed, then rubbed my temples painfully. “Ouch.
He must be new to the game.”
        “Mind-readers? Since when?” Biff cried. Now he just looked annoyed. “Jeezus, they
just keep pullin‟ stuff outta their asses, don‟t they? How close?”
        Now there was something I really didn‟t want to tell him. I avoided his eyes. “Um…
well…”
        The sound of screaming tires against brakes ripped through the air very close by.
        Biff looked to me but I just grimaced guiltily. Then, almost in unison, we sprinted to the
cracked sliding door and nearly broke through the rest of it to peer through the glass and bloods-
tain and down past the balcony.
        A big black Corvette had just parked out front.
        Biff summed the situation up quite nicely.
        “Well, fuck.”
        “Is that the only front door?” I asked desperately.
        Biff had started pacing, brow furrowed in frantic thought. “Only public exit, yeah.”
        “What about service exits?”
        “Employees only. Locked.”
        “Basement?”
        “Dunno. Ain‟t been there.”
        “You haven‟t scoped this place out yet?”
         His temper snapped. “Kid, I only been livin‟ here fa two fuckin‟ days! I been busy quit-
tin‟ my job, findin‟ a job, changin‟ IDs „gain, and keepin‟ pinheads off my white ass!” He
shouted. “Get it?”
         “All right all right all right. So what you‟re saying is if we try and dance through the ex-
its, we stand a good chance of getting caught by either our friend in the suit or your landlord.”
         “Yup.”
         “How nice is your landlord?”
         “Ain‟t gotten round ta that yet, but she‟s three hundred pounds, six seven, an‟ carries a
.38.”
         “We‟ll just assume she‟s nasty.” Biff grunted agreement.
         Coming to a new plan, I hauled at the sliding door. After a second, it started to squeal
back, but Biff yanked me away and slammed it shut.
         “Are ya nuts?”
         “You know that. Yes, that‟s right, I‟m going out there, and yes, they‟re out there, and
guess what? They‟re not going to move from out there. You want to know why?” I took that
familiar, exasperated glare as a yes. “Because they know that I‟m here. Here, as in your apart-
ment here. And they know that unless my psychic abilities have suddenly increased, I don‟t
know the first thing about the exits any more than you do.”
         “Fuck!”
         “Stop that! I think they know I‟m here, but I don‟t think they know you’re here.”
         His pacing snapped off short. “Then we ain‟t screwed.”
         I surreptitiously knocked my knuckles against the doorframe.
         “Yet.” He amended.
         I slipped another glance through the glass door. “Only one of them.”
         He was rubbing the stubble on his chin, getting into scheming mode now. This was no
time to panic; we had to start thinking. “We beat odds worse‟n that.”
         “Much worse than that.” I agreed. “But not at the front door. I don‟t know how long it‟ll
take that psychic to recover, but if he‟s good enough to track me when I‟m off in my own world,
he can track me invisible, and anyway, the specialist is on the lookout for someone trying to
leave that way.”
         “Not ta mention they‟ve had years ta figger me and caught ya twice. Bad history.”
         “Exactly.” I pulled at the sliding door. “So we escape in a highly unpredictable, dramatic,
suicidal manner. You scared of heights?”
         “God wouldn‟t be happy ta see me, kid.” He said, glancing down the dizzying depth to
the street.
         “Not that kind of highly unpredictable, dramatic, suicidal escape. I‟m not high on God‟s
list either, I‟m sure.” The door screeched open but I didn‟t go out since I was in plain view.
“Hmm.”
         “Hmm?” Biff repeated impatiently.
         “Forgot.” I chewed my fingernails in thought.
         “Forgot?” Biff asked testily. “Forgot what?”
         “Can‟t be invisible. You‟re invisible, I can‟t really tell where you‟re going.”
         “So ya…?” Biff continued encouragingly.
         “Lose track of your location and the magic doesn‟t follow you.”
         “Meanin‟…?”
        “In a nutshell?” I performed an elaborate pantomime involving a swan dive with my hand
accompanied by sounds reminiscent of a frog doing a belly flop into heavy mud and then im-
ploding.
        His expression now mirrored mine. “Hmm.” He began to chew a thumbnail thoughtfully.
“Fuck.”
        “Stop that.”
        “I‟m right.”
        “Let‟s get on with the escape business.”
        “Ya sure they know ya in this room?”
        “Well, they knew before. Whether I‟ve moved is their guess.”
        Morphing his appearance into something nondescript, Biff pulled open the sliding door
and stared down at the pinhead stories below. His new visage‟s brows came together.
        “Fuck.”
        “Stop that. Why?” I called from the apartment.
        “Grey.”
        “Grey?”
        “Caught me last time, purty much kept me on a leash fa the past five years.”
        Darn. “He good?”
        “Good.”
        “How good?”
        “Real good.”
        “Fuck.” I said, ignoring the look Biff gave me. “We‟ll have to be really fast, then.” I
started to climb the railing, then stopped. Another important detail had come to mind, and now I
got down, turned to look at him, and sent him a sidelong look.
        “How much do you weigh?” I asked suspiciously.
        He silently crossed his arms across his chest. His thick lips thinned.
        I resisted a twitch. “If you decide that now is the time to get sensitive,” I growled slowly,
“I will kick you off this balcony and give you the highly unpredictable, dramatic, suicidal escape
you thought of. This is important; I need an exact figure. How much?”
        Fixedly staring out at the Vaygan skyline, he spoke tersely and reluctantly. “One eighty-
five. I think.”
        I gaped at him. I‟d known he was heavy, but… “Jeezus!”
        “Fuck off!” He snapped.
        Now I was pacing, rubbing at my temples in frustration. “No, that „jeezus‟ wasn‟t be-
cause of that. It was because I can only handle two hundred pounds, two-fifty in a real pinch.
Thanks to you, Mr. Beans, Bacon, and Beer, we‟re going to have to go one at a time and we can‟t
be invisible while we‟re doing it or…”
        Biff interrupted me with an abridged version of my imploding-frog-swan-dive perfor-
mance, then snapped, “I get it.”
        I chewed on my thumbnail in frustration. “Great. Just frogging lovely.” Then I suddenly
smiled. “Well, been nice knowing you. Meet you back in Hell.” I began to climb the railing
again, but a heavy fist grabbed the back of my shirt and yanked me back.
        “Hey, hey, where the hell d‟ya think ya goin‟?”
        As a subtle reminder, I coughed once, and when he released my collar to let me breathe, I
said, “I‟d think that was obvious. They don‟t know you‟re here, they only want me. I can‟t han-
dle both of us. Therefore, I‟m going. Alone. Bye.”
        “Bullshit.” He replied promptly. “I‟m comin‟ too.”
        I was really building up a head of annoyance now. I had a specialist on my rump with a
psychic in his backseat for no logical reason and now Biff had chosen to get stubborn. So I
rolled my eyes and said, “For once, I‟m not going to bother arguing with you.” And I started
climbing the railing for a third time. I got the same result as last time: a pull away by the scruff
of my neck.
        “You know, this is probably making the specialist wonder if he‟s interrupting a suicide.”
I growled.
        Biff was obviously forcing himself to sound reasonable. “If ya go „lone, ya gonna get
chased „gain, ya gonna hold out fa a bit „gain, ya gonna get powder-bombed „gain, and ya gonna
get caught „gain. Cuz face it, kid, you suck.” He said through his teeth. “Therefore, ya can‟t go
„lone. Ya need me.”
        I had a feeling that the Jack Daniels was speaking for him and more than likely my face
showed this belief. He must‟ve noticed it, but he didn‟t seem to care. Even with a couple of
beers down him, he could achieve a lot more than I could alone. His assistance, willing for once,
would be invaluable.
        “All right.” I said. “I don‟t have the luxury of getting into another fight. Shall we go?”
        “Not wi‟out my crap, I‟m not.”
        He vanished momentarily into the apartment and was back in a second, pulling his bomb-
er jacket on and gripping a .45 in his free hand.
        “Got anything… y‟know. Bigger?” I asked.
        He popped a clip into it. “Nope.”
        “Is it licensed?” I asked.
        He gave me an „oh please‟ look as he shoved it somewhere in his jeans where it disap-
peared from view.
        “So whazz this highly unpredictable, dramatic, suicidal escape plan?” He asked me.
        “Yes, yes, about that…”
        Of course, we‟d never had time to plan in the past, and with my luck this week, it was
hardly surprising that we didn‟t have time now. A BLAM cut me off and I had just enough time
to wonder who‟d shot off a cannon when a small metal sphere clunked down onto the balcony,
attempted to bounce, and then rolled until it bumped into my foot. Evidently the specialist had
seen enough to get a bit suspicious. I had no idea what its name or function was, but evidently
Biff did, because he was already in motion.
        “Go!” He ordered, vaulting over the railing, and I almost let him plummet until my train-
ing kicked in and caught him after a jarring four-foot drop or so. Which left me with a problem,
because the way he was acting told me I wanted to leave, but I had nowhere to go to with my
current spell full up.
        So I scrabbled up the railing like a rabid lemur and dived sloppily off it when it twisted
and gave way under me, weakened by Biff‟s considerable weight.
        Just as well. A roar reached my ears along with a blast of wind, though I couldn‟t guess
what it was, and scorched ozone assaulted my nose.
        Now I just had to deal with the ground rushing up at me. Yes, and that specialist inhabit-
ing it.
        If I couldn‟t deal with something as trivial as this, I had lost my touch. But unfortunately,
nothing was coming to mind. Levitation, my immediate thought, had its proverbial hands full.
My bounce spell would save me from the fall, but not the specialist, who was grabbing for his
tranq-gun and aiming.
         I did something that felt like a good idea at the time. Letting as much magic as existed in
the withered streets of Vaygo slip into my mind, I wrenched it apart. Thankfully, there was a
nice combustible black Corvette engine right where I needed it to be.
         The good news is, the fire spell did have the effect I wanted. That is, the force of the
broiling explosion sent me shooting back up like a human cannonball. The bad news is, I was
still too far away from anything to grab when my fall developed a downward trajectory again.
         Then both became old news, because Biff did exactly the right thing, though whether he
did this intentionally or just looked out for himself, I don‟t know. Making absolutely no effort to
try and help me, he fled in the opposite direction and vaulted onto a narrow windowsill on the
building across the street. Which left my spell free. My fall came to an abrupt halt as I slammed
into an invisible brick wall, knocking the wind out of me, but I didn‟t have time to whine about
that. Still gasping, I scrabbled on all fours to try and get into a mobile position and began a rapid
crawling dash until about halfway across, where I finally managed to somehow lurch to my feet
without losing steam.
         And down below, Grey had ignored the fact that his car had just exploded, ducked the
bumper flying at his head, and pulled out his tranq-gun. The first one wedged into my levitation,
the second tore a hole through my sleeve, nicking my arm, and I didn‟t notice the rest because I
disappeared.
         There is something slightly odd and extremely unnerving about running a hundred feet
above the street without being able to see your feet or what‟s beneath them. If I hadn‟t been so
distracted by the thought of getting tranqed and trying to change course, I might‟ve felt sick. My
levitation missed a few times, but I had little enough distance to traverse that I made it without
any major losses of balance. After a few seconds of terror, I got to the windowsill across the
street where Biff was.
         Only he wasn‟t. Four tranqs had gone through the window, and that and the fact I was
still invisible meant he hadn‟t been sedated, but when I groped around blindly, I didn‟t hit any-
thing.
         “Biff?” I hissed, wondering if whispering really was necessary so high off the ground.
“Where are you?”
         A tug at my sleeve nearly sent me into open air again, but I caught my balance at the last
second and turned towards the drainpipe, clutching my chest so I could administer heart-starting
shocks myself if need be.
         “Tha‟ was fun, huh?” Biff‟s disembodied voice asked. It sounded like he was grinning
and barely avoiding laughter. I couldn‟t blame him; I felt slightly hysterical myself. “The win-
dow‟s locked.”
         “I didn‟t plan to stay here anyway.” I said. “He‟ll check this building first, so let‟s get
down some other way.”
         “Why? He can‟t see through me.”
         Definitely the beer. I forced myself to get serious and not do a victory dance. “You‟re
drunk. No telling how that‟ll affect your powers.”
         He snorted and I heard a creak of metal and a soft thud as he joined me on the window-
sill. “Shit, it takes a lot more‟n this ta smash me.” He sounded slightly insulted that I was imply-
ing he was an easy drunk.
        “Yeah, and that‟s why you‟re suddenly acting, god forbid, happy. You can‟t be the man
with whom I‟ve escaped pinheads; what have you done with him and who are you?”
        “Someone who thinks ya funny as shit.”
        “You keep making me laugh so hard, I‟ll drown in my tears. Now come on, hurry up and
jump that twenty feet over to that insurance building over there so we can get down. Try not to
stray off the levitation path; it starts at the windowsill and goes in a straight line.”
        The insurance building‟s windows were locked too (only in Vaygo would they deadbolt
windows all the way up here) but levitation didn‟t care, and after checking three windows, we
finally slipped into an empty office with ease. Biff let his illusion drop when we both agreed we
were safe, and when he did, he was beaming.
        “That was good!” He breathed, stretching his arms and shoulders as though talking about
a muscle he‟d been unable to exercise in years. “Can‟t believe we pulled that off!”
        “We‟ve done it before.”
        “We been outta practice, though.” Biff said. “Thought I mighta—”
        “Lost your touch? Nah.”
        He paused, then frowned. “Ya noticed how we been—”
        “Finishing each other‟s sentences?” I said painfully.
        Pause. “We gotta stop doin‟ that.”
        “Yes. Yes we do. And we need to get out of here before this part of the city becomes a
living sea of navy blue.”
        “Home fa ya, then?” Biff asked. The reminder of our situation was enough to dissolve
his uncharacteristic fit of joy and send him back to his normal pragmatism.
        I rubbed my hand over my face, my voice coming out in a slight whine from physical and
emotional fatigue. “Aw, Biff I don‟t want to bring another disaster home; we haven‟t cleaned up
from the last one yet. They‟d probably suffer mental damage if they found out I managed some-
thing like this so soon. Besides, we don‟t have that much to worry about. What time is it?” I
glanced at a clock on the wall. “The Jaunter‟s League‟s going to come and deport my rump in
about an hour. All I need is to keep the pinheads off my back without having a brain wreck.
And that would probably be easier if we had some kind of transportation. You wouldn‟t happen
to have a car, would you?”
        His expression and apish snort answered more plainly than, “Of course I don‟t have a car;
you‟re stupid to even ask me that.”
        “Not surprised.” I said, still rubbing my face. “You can‟t even afford a frogging bed.”
        “Hey, ya ain‟t ezzackly middle class yaself. Where ya livin‟ now, hotel?”
        “No, actually I live in a tree. Now shut up.” I replied. “So are we going to end up having
to outrun these guys on foot? Even in the desert, we got our hands on a frogging—”
        “Never mention that thing again.” Biff interrupted. “I can ask a favor. Someone I know
has one.”
        “Who?” I asked.
        He just shrugged. Fine. If he wanted to be enigmatic, let him.

                                   PIN Specialist Grey
        Harmonius had proved very hard to wake up. Pouring cold water on him had finally
done it. With a groan, he finally opened his eyes.
        “She has a mind like a crown of thorns.” He moaned, sitting up and wiping the liquid off
his forehead. “I‟ll have nightmares for a week.”
        “Can you find her again?” I asked.
        “Oh, don‟t ask about me.” He replied. “I‟ll be just fine, thanks for your concern.”
        “You‟re welcome, and I‟m sorry about this. I‟ll prescribe you something. Can you find
her?”
        He nodded. “Like a wolf in a chicken coop.”
        I examined the heap of scrap metal in the middle of the street. It was too bad. It‟d been a
nice car.
        “She has an illusionist with her.” He said.
        Yes. I hadn‟t planned for her and MacGilligan to be together. This could be challenging.
“That‟s why I need you.”
        He sighed, but began rubbing his temples and frowning. While he was at it, I stepped
towards the first car that had stopped to gape at my smoldering Corvette. Ford Explorer, ‟04.
Good enough substitute.
        I grabbed the door, forced it open, and greeted the driver with my tranq-gun. He slumped
over immediately, and I dragged him out of the driver‟s seat.
        “You specialists really aren‟t much on PR, are you?” Harmonius asked without opening
his eyes.
        “I gave up on it in my second year. They never thank me.” I got into my seat and Har-
monius joined me, sitting down without seeming to need his vision.
        “You‟re smiling.” He said. “Might I ask why?”
        I forced my face straight. “Sometimes I love my job.” I said, and started the engine.

                                    Annabelle Rawlins
         We hoofed it to a street corner a block or so away as quickly as we could without draw-
ing attention. When we reached a street corner Biff glanced around, and when no black Cor-
vettes showed up, he let the illusion drop and approached his lender.
         Suddenly I could see that Biff hadn‟t been enigmatic when he‟d just shrugged. He‟d
simply been unable to think of a proper descriptive term for the acquaintance and so decided it
wasn‟t worth thinking about. His „someone I know‟ was a prostitute, and I really shouldn‟t have
been surprised to see that she wasn‟t much older than Raige. It was fairly obvious that though
Biff might‟ve seen her as someone to borrow a car from under dubious circumstances, she saw
him in a much different way. As soon as she noticed him, her dark face split into a large grin
that was slightly more than car-lender friendly and she tottered towards him as fast as her ankle-
breaking heels would let her, shoving her curls out of her face.
         “Hey! Long time naw see, sugar! Ya takin‟ me up on my offers yet?” She made as if to
run her hands up under his jacket, but he grabbed her wrists before she got there and didn‟t seem
to see it as anything more than an annoyance he‟d gotten used to.
         “Candy, I need ya car.” He told her.
         Her eyes immediately narrowed. “Wha d‟ya need it fa?” Then she noticed me standing
there. Her eyes widened. “Damn…” She drawled it into two syllables.
         “I‟m a girl.” I said flatly to cut off her idea. Some internal survival mechanism prompted
me to take on a Vaygan accent as pronounced as Biff‟s without conscious thought.
         “Oh. Sorry.”
        “Don‟t worry; happens all the time.”
        She looked at Biff. “Ya got weird taste.”
        He shrugged. “She my cousin.”
        “Real weird taste.”
        “We need ya car fa a much bigger reason‟n tha.” I said, but Biff shot me a look that told
me to shut up. Since I didn‟t appreciate my bargaining being fouled either, I backed off. He was
the one who knew her, after all.
        The prostitute raised an eyebrow. “Like…?”
        He shrugged. “Need it, thazz all.”
        “Ya bein‟ a bit vague.” She said dryly.
        “Ain‟t sure what I‟m gonna use it for yet.” Behind his back, I rolled my eyes. Very reas-
suring, Biff. She was really going to lend us that car now.
        “Wha? Ya teachin‟ ya „cousin‟ how ta drive?”
        I smiled at him hopefully, but he said flatly, “Naw.”
        I rolled my eyes. Not for the first time, I wondered if it was something on my face that
made me look like I‟d be an inherently terrible driver.
        “So whaddaya need it for, ezzackly?” She asked.
        Biff lost patience and went to his preferred method of persuasion. “Dammit, Candy, just
gimme the car and don‟t ask me why.”
        “‟Kay. Whazz in it fa me?” She asked coyly, running a fingertip up his chest. He
smacked her wrist like she was trying to steal cookies and she got serious. “Ya owe me a fuck,
boy.”
        His exasperation became more evident. “Look, I paid off ya loan last month.”
        “Yeah! Right after I kept ya hidden fa a night when ya couldn‟t find an apartment!”
        “I got Lucian off ya back when ya were two johns short six weeks ago.”
        “And I pulled ya sorry white ass outta the hospital after he sent a gorilla after ya five
weeks ago. As I recall, I‟m the one who faked ya insurance info that time.”
        Biff groaned in frustration, rolling his head back to stare at the sky as though to ask God
why he‟d been given such exacting acquaintances. “Gimme a rain check, will ya?”
        “I given ya a month.”
        “Next week, all right? Next week, I swear, I‟ll fuck ya brains out.”
        “Bullshit! Ya say that every week!” She shouted indignantly, drawing herself up.
        “I‟ll get ta it when I get ta it!” He bellowed back, also rising to his full height. “I got stuff
ta take care of!”
        “This‟s ridiculous.” I muttered under my breath, half-annoyed and half-amused.
        “Fuck off, kid.” Biff growled at me.
        “Would,” I replied innocently, “but I ain‟t got a car.”
        “Look, ya wanna walk outta Vaygo „gain? I can arrange it.”
        Rubbing my lips in an attempt to force my muscles to relax, I raised my hands pacifically
and turned around so he couldn‟t see my face. If he did, he would hit me.
        “Can I have the car now?” He asked the girl in desperation.
        “Aw, would if I could, sugar, but I ain‟t got it.” She replied.
        That made me turn around. “What?”
        “What?” Biff repeated.
        “Lucian needed it. He‟s had it all week.”
        Biff seemed to suffer an internal seizure. “Ya lent ya fuckin‟ car ta fuckin‟ Lucian and
didn‟t bother fuckin‟ tellin‟ me that in the first place?” He shouted.
        Now she was annoyed. “Why? Whaddaya need it fa so bad that ya can‟t wait?”
        At that moment, I felt a bizarre tingling in the base of my skull that made me jerk my
head. Recognizing the feeling as the PIN psychic mucking around, I sat down so abruptly I near-
ly bruised my rump on the cement and put my head down on my knees so I wouldn‟t have to
concentrate on balance. Letting the psychic‟s own energies give me a conduit, I blasted it with
some mental fury, gorged and swollen on my recent mental fraying. The presence retreated, for
the moment at least, leaving me reeling and nauseous and with a headache. That‟d been rough,
even with him footing part of the energy bill.
        “Biff?” I said, sounding a little haggard even to myself.
        He glanced at me and read my expression.
        “They‟re comin‟.” He said, his face as emotional as brick.
        I nodded. “Stop reading my mind.”
        “Fuck.”
        “Who‟re „they‟?” The prostitute asked.
        He turned back to her. “Candy, please. I got no time.”
        Maybe our eyes cued her that we were desperate. She plunged her hand down the front
of her tank top and though I could‟ve sworn there was nowhere to hide anything, she pulled out a
key and tossed it to Biff.
        “It‟s ta the bike right there.” She said, pointing to a cheap, ugly Suzuki motorcycle down
the street. “I borrowed it from Lucian. When‟ll I get it back?”
        Biff and I exchanged quick glances, trying to decide how to answer the question without
out-and-out lying so if went to court, we could say she knew what she was in for.
        She rephrased the question more realistically. “Will I get it back?”
        “Maybe.” Biff replied earnestly.
        She shrugged. “Lucian‟ll have ya ass.”
        “He can have it.” We were already dashing to the bike.
        “And what‟m I supposed ta tell him?” She cried in frustration.
        “The usual. I stole it from ya after ya wouldn‟t fuck me.” He said absently, his concen-
tration now on a more important subject. “C‟mon kid, let‟s get outta here „fore we wake up in
Science „gain.” He was just ramming the keys into the ignition when I snatched them.
        “No.” I said.
        “Wha?” He cried. His tone would‟ve been the same if I‟d told him I wanted to sleep with
him.
        “You‟re drunk.” I cried, wondering if he‟d somehow forgotten the fact. “You‟re not driv-
ing!”
        “Bullshit!” He expostulated. “Do I look drunk ta you?”
        “No you don‟t.” I admitted. “But I know you, Biff, and though I have complete faith in
your ability to walk a straight line and sing „Lady Marmalade‟ perfectly coherently after ten
shots, I still don‟t think you can drive.”
        “Aw, and you can?” He pointed out.
        I grinned with all my teeth and tapped my temple. “Guess where I learned it, Harley
Boy?”
        That put an entertaining expression on his face, but we both shut up when a giant green
SUV careened around the corner, haphazardly driven even for Vaygo. Somehow, we both knew
it was Grey without having to ponder it out or look through the windshield.
        Biff made a snap decision. “I don‟t hafta listen ta this shit.” He said to himself, and when
I blinked confusedly, he wrenched the keys from my hand, plopped into the seat, and turned the
bike on.
        “What?” I shrieked. “Biff, you‟re—”
        “Drunk?” He waved a fist in my face. “Hell yeah. Argue wi‟ me, juvie.”
        Before I could shout at him, he swiped me onto the back of the bike behind him, revved
the gas, and zoomed into traffic, though once I thought about it, he probably didn‟t have a li-
cense. Since he didn‟t crash into a mailbox, I decided it was a moot point.
        Through the side mirror, I could see that Ford behind us staggering wildly through traffic,
squeezing between spaces that didn‟t look big enough for it in the effort to get towards us. The
speed it used made my teeth grit and I wasn‟t even in its near vicinity. Then again, that was a
lesser worry. Biff‟s driving, I found out, was twice as maniac as the Ford‟s, and I couldn‟t tell
how much was innate Vaygan teaching and how much was ethanol impairment. I clung to the
back of his bomber jacket like a barnacle, mentally praying that he wouldn‟t kill us both.
        “Where are we going?” I shouted over the wind.
        “It matters?” He bellowed back.
        “Red light red light red light!” I replied.
        Stopping evidently was unacceptable to him. Without moving from the middle lane, Biff
screeched into an illegal right turn, was forced to skid onto the sidewalk for a second as he nearly
sideswiped a Volvo, and then finally crashed back onto the road, leaving me with my heart rate
doing double-time. If it hadn‟t been a one-way street, we would‟ve definitely ended up a stain
on someone‟s front grille. From the side mirror I could see the frown of concentration on his
face. It didn‟t reassure me, and neither did the tread we‟d left behind to show our arrival.
        “When‟s the last time you drove?” I shouted.
        “Shut up and lemme watch the road!” He replied.
        Although this situation was deteriorating disturbingly fast, I had to admit that I was doing
nothing to help his concentration, so I stopped bothering him and let him navigate the warren of
highways. I heard a screech of tires and the Ford was somehow behind us again, sending the car
beside it into a fire hydrant. It was definitely not going to lose us. The way Biff swore showed
he was thinking the same thing.
        So his driving became even more dangerous. We slammed up over the curb again, forc-
ing me to hold on even harder to keep from flying off, and he was just about to pass a Sunday
driver in front of us when a pedestrian got in our way. I shouted something along the lines of,
“Move, houseplant!” and then Biff braked and we swerved back in behind the slow guy without
hitting anything, him extremely annoyed and me terrified for my life. The Ford gained on us,
and Biff didn‟t have the space to change lanes, so he was forced to lose speed until the specialist
was just behind us.
        To make things worse, I felt someone playing brain-games with me again. The psychic
had a gift for timing. I gritted my teeth and blasted the intruder with all the adolescent angst and
panic my mind had to muster, but couldn‟t completely remove it this time. It wormed through
the cracks of my mind, slipping through walls into my subconscious, hit a switch, then suc-
cumbed to my bombardment and dissolved.
        When I opened my eyes, I felt that thrum in my pulse, saw that slight desert shimmer
shadow the corners of my vision that told me I wouldn‟t be in reality for very much longer. Fear
turned my skin cold.
        My sense of self-preservation was high, but not so my trust in Biff‟s ability to obey the
command „stop.‟ Besides, I‟d still drop off the plane of reality unless I snapped him, which
would probably send him into a street lamp. So I bit my tongue, closed my eyes, wrapped my
arms even tighter around his middle for an anchor to reality, and tried to make it go away.
        Unfortunately, Biff had no idea I was starting to hallucinate sand again. Taking my
stronger grip as a sign I was ready for the worst, he decided to make another illegal turn that was
completely against all laws of reason and survival. He brought the bike screaming across three
lanes of traffic in another right turn, throwing me off balance. The shock jolted my eyes open,
and I realized that this time, the street was two-way, and the illegal turn was going to cost us.
Time slowed down as my crippled mind desperately tried to absorb the reality in front of it.
Street. Asphalt, red lights—no, focus on the important bits. Full street. No room for us, and
from the stopped oncoming traffic, the side of a Jeep came roaring up at us in slow motion
through the haze of my mind.
        Somehow my brain managed to realize something, under the panic of retroactive memo-
ry. Biff was expecting me to keep us from turning to pulp, which I‟d done pretty well in the
past. Too bad my brain‟s condition had just hit „poor and fading.‟
        I pulled at mental threads, trying to force concentration. But my bounce spell just wasn‟t
activating right, my mind couldn‟t hit the right gear to handle the magic correctly through the
panic and instability breaking it down, and Biff, when he tried to swerve, lost control of the Su-
zuki and it only skidded with a scream of rubber. I heard it vaguely over the desert wind. We
smashed into the Jeep sidelong. I felt something smash into my side and then the roof skimming
under my back, saw bright blue and sand, heard Biff scream with the tires from miles away, and
then I was flying with the wind in my hair.
        Oddly, I felt completely at peace for those tenths of a second I spent in the air staring into
the sun. Epiphany dawned and I realized that the impact would knock me out, and I‟d wake up
sane. For a split second, I managed to come out of my psychotic haze halfway and almost con-
centrate.

                                     PIN Specialist Grey
        Harmonius suddenly passed out in the passenger seat from the labor he‟d performed on
Rawlins. Since I couldn‟t check him, I ignored it; after days of Dean and grunts and runaway
controllers, finally I was going to see a reward.
        I managed to pull over just in time to see Rawlins (and my career with her) fly over the
roof of a Jeep, hit the road and bounce at an oddly high angle, still at dangerous velocity. Biff‟s
shout of pain echoed through the air for a second just as I realized the flaw in the whole plan.
Rawlins wasn‟t immortal.
        With a soft groan, I closed my eyes for an instant to avoid the sound.
        THUD. She didn‟t move from the street. After that thud, I wasn‟t surprised.
        I don‟t feel panic often, but hearing my career hit the ground with a sound like Rocky
beating sides of beef did. Swearing under my breath, I clawed off my seatbelt, shoved open the
door, and dashed across the street towards her with my tranq-gun, ignoring the pains in my
calves and the stopping cars. Still no movement. My curses turned to prayers. Her survival was
directly related to my employment.
        Despite protocol, I was about to forget caution and advance closer to her to check her vi-
tals and make sure my job hadn‟t died of a car accident when she suddenly groaned softly. My
prayers cut off. As I watched in astonishment, the skinny girl laboriously attempted to peel her-
self off the street, screamed quietly when it didn‟t work, and then coughed up blood like a sick
dog. With a whimper, she tried again and managed to somehow get herself almost to her hands
and knees.
        I couldn‟t believe it. She‟d actually survived.
        “Oh thank god.” I breathed, and shot a tranq into her neck. She collapsed with a sigh like
a paper doll.
        Only then did I check her over for damage, knowing I still wasn‟t in the clear yet. De-
spite her coughing up blood, she hadn‟t punctured a lung, or even broken her ribs; everything
was in one piece. Bob had been right. Cockroach survival powers.
        Relieved into ecstasy, I slumped onto the asphalt and chuckled. The luck I‟d had was
insane. If Harmonius hadn‟t foiled her brainwaves, she and MacGilligan would‟ve pulled off
another violation of physics and survived the crash no worse for the wear. If Harmonius had
foiled them too early, she probably wouldn‟t have had the sense of mind even to save herself and
gotten herself killed, rather than bruises to kill your mother for.
        Then I frowned. Like other specialists, I know that if things are going well, something
will happen to even it out, and that had been easier than I‟d anticipated. Really, things had gone
surprisingly smoothly, and that made me suspicious.
        A huge ripping sound like digital thunder suddenly split the air. The sound was recog-
nizable: blipping with a Jaunter‟s League technique. Somehow satisfied that it wasn‟t going to
be perfectly smooth after all, I nodded to myself, then leaped to my feet painfully to wheel with
my gun.
        I expected some friend of hers with Jaunter‟s League training, maybe one of those tee-
nage boys. Instead, I realized that my pessimism had been underdone.
        “Hello, Specialist.” One of the two figures said. “You look like you‟ve been with the PIN
a long time. Do you know who we are?”
        Oh yes. I knew who they were. The fine, albino-African look belonged on only two
people with Jaunter‟s League training who‟d have the confidence to crash to Earth without
passes right in front of me.
        “You‟re the Gemini.” I said suspiciously, not lowering the gun even though I knew it
wouldn‟t hurt them. Force of habit. “With the Jaunter‟s League.”
        Still with that vaguely pleasant expression, one of them nodded.
        I knew about the Gemini purely by word of mouth. They were specialized, very sophisti-
cated, with the power of a Sherman tank and the diplomacy of Pope Leo I, and very polite but
immovable. No specialist could fight against them alone and hope to win, so it was just as well
that they were mainly diplomats.
        “What‟s your business?” I asked.
        One of them pointed towards the heap in the street. “We‟re here for her.”
        The situation had suddenly changed from very good to very bad.
        “You don‟t understand, she‟s my jurisdiction, and oh damn.” One of the robots had
pulled out a flimsy barcode on plastic. I knew what that meant and had given up the official crap
and interrupted myself so that they wouldn‟t have to.
         “She‟s required to be in Jaunter‟s Court in thirty-two minutes and forty seconds.” One of
them said, verifying what I‟d said. “By the Treaty of Grizzlup-Clinton, the Jaunter‟s League
gains jurisdiction over local authorities when a situation involves multiple planets. That includes
the PIN.”
         “Why wasn‟t I notified?” I asked.
         “We don‟t know. We assumed you had; your system of communications is near-
instantaneous, although the announcement was put out on short notice, admittedly.”
         I paused. “How short of notice?”
         “Eight hours and forty-five minutes ago.” They responded.
         I suddenly felt the impulse to let my self-control slip. My cell phone had been turned off
since that mind-controller, except for that brief call to the fizzies, so I hadn‟t gotten the notice.
Harmonius hadn‟t told me, assuming I already knew. That meant this whole fiasco (it couldn‟t
be called anything else, with my Corvette turned to scrap and thirty plus witnesses now standing
around curiously) was going to be my fault. The problem of the mind controller now seemed
trivial in comparison.
         “We apologize for the inconvenience,” the twins said, misinterpreting my expression as
realization that my work had been wasted, “but we can not be restrained; the matter is quite ur-
gent.”
         I stared at them in dread.
         “What kind of case is this?” I asked.
         “We are not at liberty to discuss it.”
         “Is she coming back?”
         “Not likely.”
         Yes, I was as good as fired. I realized I was starting to squeeze my tranq-gun and just
dropped it, since relaxing my grip wasn‟t going to happen until I shot something.
         “Is something wrong?” One of the twins asked.
         I nodded. “Yes.” Then, knowing I was going to lose control if I didn‟t stop staring at that
bar code, I turned around and took a deep breath.
         The Gemini exchanged glances, then one stepped towards me. “Can and may we offer
assistance?” One of them asked, sounding concerned. The Jaunter‟s League had programmed
emotion into them very well, although they still sounded a little stiff and mechanical.
         Bob can plan better than I can, I‟ve already said, but I do sometimes have my moments.
A hunch passed me, and I paused. “Could I come to the trial?” I questioned.
         Another exchanged glance. “Can you offer an opinion on her mental and emotional com-
petence?”
         “Yes.” I said immediately, internally reviewing the massive phone book of a file that
every PIN specialist had read on her behavior. Never mind that over a third of it was complete
bull.
         “Then you may come. We thank you for your cooperation.”
         Not nearly as much as I do, I thought to myself.
         One of the twins ventured towards Rawlins in the road. It lifted her, then frowned.
         “She‟s been drugged.” It called to the other one, who turned to me.
         “You sedated her?” It asked, sounding not patronizing but slightly anxious.
         “Standard procedure.” I said.
         “When will it wear off?” It asked.
         “Two hours minus however long we‟ve been talking.”
         The Gemini looked mildly distressed. Evidently they weren‟t made to be passionate. “Is
there an antidote?”
         “We‟re the PIN.” I replied.
         Looking surprisingly human, the one in front of me shrugged as though it wasn‟t sur-
prised. “Oh well. Are you ready to leave?”
         I hastened to take advantage of the Gemini‟s reputed power. “We still have a traffic
blockage. Could…?”
         “Oh, of course. We should have offered.” While the other returned to me with Rawlins
in its arms, the one that had been talking loped to the Jeep, put its hands to the side, and began to
push.
         Someone screamed from the other side and the Gemini nearly blew a fuse. They fled so
quietly that I only knew they‟d moved because of the sudden breeze at my back.
         “That‟s odd.” I remarked. “He‟s not dead.”
         “Who‟s he?” Asked the Jeep-pushing twin from on top of a street pole.
         “It won‟t matter soon.” I replied. I‟d heard many screams in my career, and that one gave
him half an hour.
         The Gemini advanced cautiously, with me behind them. When I‟d caught up to them, I
saw that I‟d been right. MacGilligan was a strong, healthy man, but he‟d taken the full brunt of
the crash and I was surprised he hadn‟t given up the ghost yet. At least four ribs had been bro-
ken, along with his arm, but it was the leg that would kill him. It‟d been caught between the bike
and the car and no doctor I knew could save it. A few tenacious ligaments were all keeping the
knee attached and more blood than I thought he could lose and live had saturated his jeans.
         Amazingly, he was conscious, though the sweat on his forehead and that glassy stare
showed that shock had set in.
         “Who‟s he?” The twin asked me again, surveying the wreck.
         “Rawlins‟ partner, Biff MacGilligan.”
         The Gemini exchanged glances again. Then the one not busy with Rawlins knelt.
         “You‟re dying. Can you speak?”
         The shaky response proved that he could, and I nearly smiled. Even massive internal in-
jury and shock couldn‟t make him civil.
         “We want to help you, but we can‟t yet.” It said. “Do you know her?” It pointed over its
shoulder to its partner, who still held Rawlins.
         A shallow nod.
         “That‟ll work as consent.” The robot behind my shoulder said. “He‟s not rational; put
him down.”
         The one at MacGilligan‟s side nodded and then pressed two pale fingertips to the young
man‟s forehead. When it spoke, its voice was virtually dripping in Glamour so powerful that it
even affected me.
         “Shhhh.” The robot intoned in a voice that made my eyes heavy. “Sleep.”
         I had to shake my head to stay awake. The twin behind me dug its fingers into my arm,
and that helped.
         The thuggish illusionist was staring at the robot in glassy-eyed, childlike awe, hypnotized
but still awake. The robot frowned, and pressed even more power into its voice.
         “Go to sleep now.”
         For a second, MacGilligan didn‟t seem to feel the magic being pushed on him. Then he
finally slumped and the twin straightened, peeling the motorcycle away with one arm and shov-
ing the Jeep out of traffic. The one beside me punched me in the shoulder, making me jerk from
my daze. It surveyed MacGilligan‟s injuries with a frown, then carefully scooped him into its
arms, making sure the nearly amputated leg didn‟t twist.
        “You‟ll have to do the healing.” It said to its partner.
        “Our time is low.” The other one said. “We must go now.”
        The one with Biff nodded, and then grabbed my arm. I heard a familiar ripping sound,
closed my eyes to avoid the dizziness, and when I opened them, I saw the well-known but rarely
visited walls of the Jaunter‟s League.
        I still wasn‟t sure if I‟d saved myself or damned myself.

                                    Annabelle Rawlins
         Waking up wasn‟t exactly what happened. Like the last time I‟d been tranqed, it was
more a slow rise. It took maybe three, five minutes for me to actually start registering my sur-
roundings. At least that was an improvement; the last time I‟d been trying to kick these tranqs,
it‟d taken at least half an hour before I completely regained consciousness. Blurring noise rose
around me, then toned in as the sedatives wore off, until I could make out the voices. A beeping
sound. A heart monitor, maybe?
         “—Tar. He‟ll have cancer in twenty years.”
         “They made it out better than his liver.”
         “Poor self-care.”
         It was about then that I finally regained my sense of touch. The first thing I noticed was
that I hurt. Not as bad as when I‟d spent over a month in the Paradox‟s ICU, but pretty dang bad.
Judging by what my nerves were telling me, little vines had grown around my ribs that dug
thorns into my side when I didn‟t breathe carefully enough. Which I couldn‟t. My heart was
pounding so hard I could feel my pulse in my cheeks like I‟d run a mile, and my lungs were
doing all they could to keep up. To top it all off, my insides were broiling in fever so hot I was
sweating—and it‟s hard to get me to sweat. I tried to curl into a fetal position, but that caused
the little poisonous vines in my ribs to rebel and the I.V. in my arm to twist dangerously, forcing
a whimper out of me before I bit it off.
         One of the voices I‟d heard materialized into form in front of me, a slender androgynous
figure with skin almost inhumanly pale, but the features and hair of someone black. In a white
Earthling suit, and hair in neat cornrows, he/she looked like the owner of some new age bar that
gave out drinks in Technicolor. For some inexplicable reason, he/she had a large metal robotic-
looking leg dangling from his/her hand.
         “Are you in pain?”
         I said nothing. Talking would require inhaling, and inhaling would hurt. I saw the I.V.
and my heart monitor sent up a plaintive wail. Needle in my frogging arm, pumping who knew
what into me, probably making me sicker and I wanted it out, I wanted it out right—a sharp pain
in my chest took my thought processes down.
         “Look at me please.”
         Maybe it was the pain and sedative and panic mucking up my brain, but I actually obeyed
and stared into gray eyes. With the hand not holding the robot leg, he/she pressed two cool fin-
gertips to my forehead.
         “The pain you feel will pass. We‟re here to help you, please understand. From now on,
please don‟t fear. You are in good hands.”
          I stared raptly. That voice! Such a beautiful voice, lacquered in rich tones and persua-
sion like a human orchestra, rich and full, could only belong to an angel! And angels didn‟t lie.
I accepted the words unquestioningly, and the pain in my ribs subsided to tolerable, while the
I.V. almost entirely fled my mind, instead going to coil in a corner. Putting away all half-born
ideas of trying to run, I relaxed and rested, waiting for the sedative to wear off. The pale figure
in the suit with the angel‟s voice stayed with me, and I realized there was a twin standing in the
background, watching silently. They seemed to be waiting for me.
          It didn‟t take me long to realize the sedatives were wearing off a lot faster than last time.
I could think lucidly within five minutes, and speak relatively clearly within six. Unfortunately,
I still felt ignited and sore.
          “What did you do to me?” I asked when I could. I realized that just talking made me
pant.
          “Your metabolism has been accelerated to clear you of the sedative.” His/her voice was
human again, so I could question it.
          “Why… aren‟t I dead yet?” I demanded asthmatically. With the drugs mostly siphoned
out of my mind, I could do the mental math. To speed my body up enough to detox this fast, my
heart would‟ve given out by now. And though I was feeling rather unpleasant with my heart
going at this rate while at rest, I wasn‟t dying.
          “Healing magic, enough to keep you from heart failure. Your durable systems make it
easier.”
          Durable systems. My brain went on a sudden string of connections. Durable systems
from Della, which also gave me blackouts, and the last one I had were on the motorcycle and that
was in downtown Vaygo. With that realization came a more intelligent worry than whether I‟d
live. Like where I was.
          “Where am I?” I asked in sudden dread.
          “Welcome to the Jaunter‟s League.” He/she replied.
          “The… Jaunter’s League?” I shrieked as it suddenly crashed down onto my head. The
trial!
          My cardiac monitor suddenly began a plaintive wail. My chest began to hurt and I began
to gasp. The pale person in front of me tensed in alarm and slapped a palm down onto my chest,
murmuring incomprehensibly. A jolt of blue light surged down, adding to the pain in my ribs for
a second, then melting into a cool minty feeling that stopped the aching. I slumped back in the
bed, still panicky but without any physiological reaction at all. It was quite an unusual feeling.
          “Try to stay calm.” He/she said. “Even with our magic, you can‟t stress yourself like that
for very long. This is only temporary until you‟re functional. You should be fine within—do
you prefer Earthling time units, or Dellan?”
          “Earthling, if it‟s all the same to you.”
          “You should be fine within nine minutes and forty seconds. We apologize for your pain;
we heard you were skilled at coping with it.”
          I grunted. Now that I could actually think in full sentences, I knew why I‟d obeyed so
blindly. Whatever this creature was, human or not, it had a big hold of Glamour tucked under its
belt.
          Quick aside: what is Glamour when used as a noun? It‟s a form of magic that pretty
much puts someone else‟s mind under the influence of yours, but relating it to Number One‟s
mind control is like comparing a sculptor to a construction worker. Minor Glamour makes you
persuasive; heavy Glamour makes you a virtual hypnotist. The caster can do no wrong in your
eyes, and, like you just saw with me, contradicting the suggestions (whether it be ignoring some
cracked ribs, or acting like a chicken) never comes into your head. A rather handy ability, but
something Bogart had never taught me, telling me that it was more of a human skill and way too
easy to abuse. Thankfully, it has its boundaries, just like hypnotism. First of all, no matter how
good you are at Glamour, there are limits to believability. So, for instance, you probably
couldn‟t make me strangle Raige by telling me he was a mass rapist; even under Glamour, I
wouldn‟t believe that. But you could more than likely get me to kill him by persuading me that
Number One was borrowing him again. Also, the more distrusting and self-reliant you are, the
harder it is for you to go under the spell. So Aqua would be very easy to Glamourize, while I
would be harder to sway. And if you were half-drugged, you might as well be putty.
         I asked the next question that popped into my head. “What are you guys?”
         “We‟re the Gemini Team.” The one at my side said. “We were created by the Jaunter‟s
League eleven years and two months ago.” For a second, I thought they were genetic constructs
just like me, until they added, “They‟ve been updating our programming ever since.”
         “You‟re robots?” A nod. “You‟re realistic.”
         “Thank you. We get that all the time. As for the question of what gender to refer to us,
just choose one.” The voice had no Glamour in it when it (for I‟d decided to stick with neutral
gender out of convenience) said next, “We won‟t hurt you. We‟ve been counter-programmed.”
         “Let me guess. You can‟t hurt anybody, you can‟t disobey orders, and you can preserve
yourself if it doesn‟t violate the first two.”
         “You read Asimov.”
         “Of course; I‟m educated.” The one at the doorway actually cracked a smile. Robots
with a sense of humor?
         It then said, “They‟re flexible. We can‟t hurt anybody unless we have permission and
other outcomes would be worse. We can‟t disobey orders unless we decide the reasoning behind
them is faulty. And we preserve ourselves if it doesn‟t violate the first rule.”
         Definitely more agile than Asimov‟s creations. “So you guys have free will.”
         “Don‟t worry.” The more conversational one said. “We don‟t plan to conquer the world.”
         “Only an idiot would want to.” I said, and carefully shifted, pulling my eyes away from
the tube in my arm with a shudder. “What should I do now?”
         “Rest.” It advised. Its voice was lacquered in Glamour again and I was fairly partial to
the suggestion anyway. I wanted to wait until my body stopped burning calories like spare rain
forest. So I leaned back and watched the ceiling, trying to ignore the pulse hammering in my
ears.
         After a few minutes, I felt like I could walk around without feeling like it‟d cause cardiac
arrest. Then I noticed, with mild surprise, that that wasn‟t the only thing that felt better. My ribs
still hurt, but I could breathe fairly well with tolerable pain. The burns on my arms from my ear-
lier electrical storm were all but healed, and the bruise on my cheek from getting whacked with a
gun barrel felt like I‟d gotten it a week ago, not a day ago. Evidently the healing magic keeping
my heart going hadn‟t been specific.
         Something nagged. Healing… pain… injury? My memory came into play again and I
remembered the scream I‟d heard before losing consciousness. That made me jerk upright in
sudden worry. Bad idea. My ribs weren‟t that healed, and the I.V. in my arm didn‟t like being
forgotten.
         “Biff!” I gasped. “Where‟s Biff?”
         “Your partner?”
         “Sure, whatever, partner in crime and grunting and complete lack of sanity, where is he?”
I was practically sucking my breath through my teeth. Sitting up had hurt more than I‟d thought.
         “Lie down. Your body shouldn‟t take that stress!” The robot had its voice dripping in
Glamour again, but I was upset and in my right mind so didn‟t feel much like listening to reason.
         “Too bad for it!” I hissed and tried to actually get up and look for him myself.
         That was an even stupider idea than sitting up. My ribs went into straight-out mutiny on
me, I tore my forearm open from that frogging I.V., and I began to collapse as soon as I stood up.
         “Oh for the love of God!” The robot at the door exclaimed, and gestured fluidly.
         I was suddenly tossed to the bed again, and this time, I couldn‟t move from the neck
down. They hadn‟t hurt me at all, but I was still heartily annoyed that they‟d paralyzed me mag-
ically. Even Bogart had never bestowed so much attention on me.
         “Let me up.” I ordered it as it now put pressure on my bleeding arm.
         “No.” It ran a pale cool finger down my forearm, which closed up the rip. I hissed pain-
fully, then got over it.
         “Why not?”
         “You‟ll run.” It tapped my skin thoughtfully, and then decided the job had been done
right.
         “No I won‟t.” I said earnestly.
         “You‟re lying.”
         Darn. “One of you can swear.”
         “I was downloaded with Earthling casual slang. It makes our emotions seem more real.”
The robot at the door replied.
         “Good for you. Please: where is he?”
         “He is in the next room.”
         Why wasn‟t he in the room with me? My mind answered it almost immediately: because
he looked so bad that I couldn‟t. He didn‟t have my magic to protect him, and he‟d been
slammed into the car without any buffer. For a moment I panicked, until I realized they
wouldn‟t have taken him here if he died.
         “How bad is he?” I asked.
         “We were halfway through healing him when you began regaining consciousness and
needed our observation.”
         “How bad is he?” Weren‟t robots supposed to directly answer questions?
         “Dying, unless you stop bugging us and let us heal him.” Said the one who evidently had
the slang programming.
         “I‟m feeling better!” I said quickly, trying vainly to twitch, regardless of what pain I
might get from it. “Please, let me in!”
         They exchanged glances, which to me didn‟t communicate anything. “Will you be do-
cile?”
         “As a doormat. Scout‟s honor.” I assured them hastily, hoping that Biff hadn‟t died of a
ruptured spleen while they were busy taking their time discerning my trustworthiness.
         Another one of those slightly unnerving blank exchanged glances. One of them nodded.
The other gestured, and I could move again, though movement obviously wasn‟t part of their
plans. Before I could even think of protesting, one of them scooped me up, so carefully that it
didn‟t hurt. With bare hands. I had already flinched in anticipation of snapping it when I rea-
lized that nothing had happened. Seeming to take my fear of touch in stride, the robot made no
comment and carried me into the next room with a solid and cold but otherwise human grip.
        “Please be quiet and don‟t interfere.” It said without a hint of annoyance, placing me on
the floor where I could sit as long as I didn‟t move suddenly.
        I couldn‟t respond; I was too busy trying not to faint. Injuries were a given and serious
injuries an expectation, but somehow I hadn‟t quite been prepared for what I saw. The blood…
too much blood…
        Since putting my head between my knees was out of the question, I closed my eyes to
block it out and forced myself to breathe deeply, which didn‟t do anything to enhance relations
between my ribs and me, but did help clear my head. After a few minutes of careful non-
thinking, I could open my eyes and look at what the Gemini were doing without feeling too nau-
seous.
        While I‟d been off in the dream world of the sedated, they‟d already done most of the
healing, fixing up the minor wounds such as the dislocated shoulder and the fractures and the
bruises. They‟d popped an I.V. into him to keep him sedated and were speaking in low, soothing
drones like monks, passing their pale hands over injuries, which knit together under their magic.
(Some peripheral part of my brain made a mental note to interrogate Bogart about how some-
thing rational and scientific like a robot could perform magic, which was neither.)
        “Liver?” One of them inquired at one point.
        “Disgusting.” The other said, passing his hand over Biff‟s gut. “Almost as bad as his
lungs.”
        What worried me was that though they were working on organs and bruises and such,
they were leaving his leg, or whatever you called that mutilated mass of meat, alone. It wasn‟t
bleeding currently (probably through some temporary spell) but it was still the most serious in-
jury he had, and if they weren‟t nurturing what flesh was left with blood, it was obvious they
didn‟t expect it to live.
        The thought was terrifying, not only that I was crippling Biff for life, but also what he
would do to me for crippling him for life. Even without a leg, I was willing to bet he would try
to kill me. Heck, if he came to, he might skip the whole healing business and strangle me while
he bled to death all over the floor. For someone who used his fists and ability to fight to make
his way, I had cut the legs out from under him.
        The pun made me feel ill.
        “You can‟t heal that?” I asked. I was taking a page out of the book Lessons Learned
from Working with Dragons Who Don’t Like Being Interrupted and speaking very softly and
meekly so I wouldn‟t aggravate them. Not hard; I was feeling pretty wan.
        “The lower end of his femur and more than half of his fibula and tibia have been crushed,
the muscles are torn, and the tendons mostly severed.” One of them replied, pausing in its chant-
ing but still passing its hands over its patient. “We can facilitate natural healing, if the injury is
within the body‟s capability to mend, but that‟s beyond recovery.” It frowned. “His lungs may
never completely heal either.”
        It was then that I saw that robotic leg that one of the Gemini had been holding earlier on a
lump that passed for a shelf.
        “Um… is that for Biff?” I asked in dread, shifting uncomfortably. My ribs gave me a
warning twinge.
        One of the Gemini paused in the chanting to say, “Yes.” It was starting to unbutton its
patient‟s jeans.
        My brain sent me a message: Dread verified. You may now panic. “But…”
         One of the robots pulled out an instrument that I didn‟t recognize, but the sharp pointy
blades gave me a pretty strong hint as to its function. Where the robot got it from, I don‟t care.
The sight of that thing distracted me from anything else going on, even as a pile of bloodstained
denim joined me on the floor.
         “Oh.” I said quietly. “No.”
         They completely ignored me. “Seeing your reaction, you might want to look away from
this. You‟re phobic, aren‟t you?”
         “But… but…” I protested feebly, somehow unable to reconfigure my brain for proper
speech. My rational mind agreed with the robots that there was no way on Earth that Biff‟s natu-
ral leg could be saved, not with what had been done to it, but my inner caveman recoiled at the
thought that they were chopping it off.
         Then I realized that they really were going to do what they were doing as the tool was
extended, and I hastily shut my eyes.
         The horrible squishy shluck and grinding crunch made me flinch violently, despite the
flare of pain in my ribs. Despite my strongest efforts not to think about what they were doing, I
began to feel woozy. This time, I wasn‟t able to suppress it and white noise filled my skull. I
fainted.
         A few minutes later, one of the Gemini gently woke me with a tap to the cheek. I ex-
pected to snap it, but once again didn‟t. I carefully opened my eyes, realizing that my ribs were
sorely irked with me.
         “It‟s all right.” The robot said. “You could take the sight now.”
         I very gingerly looked, first glancing, then finally settling on a steady gaze when I de-
cided I could. They‟d cleared the… tissue, I told myself, think of it as necrotic tissue. They‟d
cleared it away while I was unconscious, and the one who wasn‟t talking to me had just slid the
metal joint into place. Unless you counted the butcher room stains all over the place, the room
looked quite neat. How had they managed to keep the blood from getting on their suits? Did I
even really want to know?
         “You amputated it up to the hip.” I remarked absently.
         “We couldn‟t have bonded it directly to bone; the only model we could get so quickly is
with joints. With the knee compromised, we needed to move to the next joint upward.” He rep-
lied.
         I simply couldn‟t absorb what had happened. Shock was the only thing keeping me ra-
tional. “You did a good job.” I said quietly. “He might even keep his thigh.”
         “Will, not might.” One of the robots said.
         “The difficult part is next.” The other said.
         “Difficult?” I asked numbly, still staring at the contraption of metal. “What‟s harder than
that?”
         “Explaining it to him.”
         “Oh.” I said absently, still staring. “Y-yes, I can see how that might be difficult.”
         I noticed the Gemini were both looking at me.
         “You want me to do it.” I said.
         “He does know you.”
         “Hahahaha oh god.” I replied.
                                                          
        The Gemini‟s anesthesia wore off Biff fairly quickly, but he still fazed in and out of con-
sciousness for some time. The first time he was able to speak, he mumbled blearily in a voice
even more slurred than usual, “Bulgaria.”
        “I wish.” I told him glumly, but he‟d passed out again.
        When Biff opened his eyes again ten minutes later, I made sure I was the first thing he
saw, with a wide, comforting, extremely anxious grin.
        “Hey. Welcome back to the land of the living, Biffy.” I said, taking care to speak simply
since he was probably groggy beyond belief. “Thought I‟d lost you there for a moment.”
        He didn‟t even snap at me for calling him Biffy. His eyes slowly began to make their
way up the wall, frequently skipping as though he‟d been spun around a few times.
        “Where…”
        “…Are you?” I finished for him. True, completing his sentences was a bit creepy, but I
figured the less he talked, the better. “Hospital. I‟ll explain the specifics later when the dope‟s
worn off you a bit. How do you feel?”
        A long pause. “Shitty.”
        Well, that was hardly surprising. If I‟d lost a lot of blood and a leg and then gotten
hooked up to drugs, I‟d be feeling pretty rotten too.
        “Nausea?”
        He groaned.
        That also wasn‟t too big a surprise. Since someone like Biff didn‟t have much in the way
of medical records, the Gemini had pretty much had to guess on anesthesia, and he very well
could‟ve had a reaction. After all, he‟d had one with the stuff Earthling hospital staff had
pumped it into him to stitch up his arm back in his teenage years, and I‟d noticed the PIN had
taken pains not to use their new tranqs on him if they didn‟t have to. Not to mention he‟d had to
have his stomach pumped and his bloodstream cleared of the alcohol in it. Yes, nausea was to-
tally reasonable.
        “Tell me if it gets bad; we‟ll give you something.”
        He was so spaced he missed the „we.‟ “Ya look shitty too.” He remarked.
        “You got the full healing treatment. I still have three cracked ribs. I‟m sure you under-
stand.” I said wryly. At the moment, I was standing (very carefully, might I add) at the head of
his… well, it wasn‟t exactly a bed, but it had the same function. Leaning over would‟ve been
preferable, but that hurt, so my posture was abnormally straight and my neck was getting a
cramp.
        His brows furrowed. “We got away?” Even with the amount of drugs in his system, he
sounded doubtful.
        “We don‟t have to worry about the PIN anymore.” I said uneasily.
        His frown was deepening. “I hit a Jeep.” He said to himself absently.
        “Yes you did, and a Wrangler, no less. My ribs thank you.” I said. “You hurt yourself
pretty bad.”
        I was surprised he could even formulate questions in his state, but even drugged, he still
latched on to the important things. His eyes attempted focus on me. “Pretty bad? Or pretty
damn bad?”
        “Pretty fucking bad.”
        His unfocused eyes rolled, then shut. It was a few seconds before I realized he‟d passed
out on me again.
        “How long is it going to be until he stays awake?” I demanded of the Gemini, more nerv-
ous than annoyed.
        One of them shrugged. “It‟s different for everyone.”
        I sighed. Then I carefully, slowly sat down on the floor to wait.
        Within a few minutes, he regained consciousness again. I didn‟t even realize it until he
spoke again. Evidently the anesthesia was wearing off quickly, at least in his mind, because he
dived right into the questions.
        “What part of me did ya hafta chop off?” He asked wearily, as though this was just
another inconvenience of associating with me. Then he interrupted himself and corrected, “‟S it
„portant?”
        I bit my lip. “What‟s your definition of important?”
        Obviously that wasn‟t a good answer. “‟S it big?”
        “About fifteen percent of your body weight.” I said. “So yes.”
        After a soft frown as he worked it out, his eyes opened and he actually looked a little
reassured. “Oh. Wasn‟t that.”
        “No, don‟t worry. You‟ve still got all your organs and brain cells and senses.” I said.
“And it really isn‟t as bad as it would be otherwise. So before you sit up and look at yourself and
get to having a nervous breakdown—”
        “Nervous breakdown‟s a pop term.” Biff deadpanned blearily. “Proper term‟s „brief psy-
chotic episode.‟”
        The Gemini raised a fair eyebrow. Silence for a couple seconds. Then I responded.
        “Shut up. Don‟t correct my vocabulary.” Biff managed a ghost of his old smirk. I found
it reassuring, though I knew that within a day or two, I would loathe it again. “You ruined your
leg and would‟ve died of shock or blood loss, whichever got you first, if you were on Earth.
Welcome to the Jaunter‟s League. Remember me telling you about them? They healed up all
the other damage you got, but they couldn‟t save the worst. They did replace it, though.”
        Biff‟s eyes flickered downward. Before I could stop him and perhaps introduce him to
this gently, he slowly sat up.
        Even though for once he was fairly careful about it, this was something he definitely
shouldn‟t have attempted after what he‟d been through and while coming out of sedatives.
Thankfully, he didn‟t vomit on me, but he did shiver and sweat for a couple minutes until he reo-
riented himself. The massive arms that had effortlessly lifted and slammed me to the wall were
now quivering with the effort of keeping himself upright. I quickly shoved some levitation under
him before he managed to wreck some other body part.
        “Take it easy, you just had major surgery!