|Introducing Bantau! And Wraith's history, which I plan to totally contradict once I get around to writing it. It was pretty lame anyway.|
Alive Without Breath|
She breathed in slowly, so soft that that the butterfly settled on a leaf next to her nose didn't flick a wing. Her targets were on the move again, slinking through the jungle with practiced quiet. So noisy they shook her to her core. She breathed out again, breath mingling with the sluggish breeze that wended its way through the hot, jungle air. They were coming closer, slow and cautious. A few more steps, and they'd be --
The butterfly took wing at the same moment a familiar voice called "Hey! Wraith! You in here?"
The black-armored Reploid gave an undignified squawk, springing from her perch to preempt the loss of balance she'd felt coming. Her two targets bellowed and pointed at her, apparently having taken no notice of the brown-haired youth standing in the doorway of the simulator, mouth open where he had trailed off in the middle of a sentence. Muting a furious growl, Wraith charged her opponents, katana sweeping through one (upswing) and then the other (downswing) with the liquid ease of practice and programming. Idiot, idiot, IDIOT!
It was only when Douglas asked if that had been directed at him or the simulations that she realized she'd spoken the thought aloud.
She harrumphed. "End program," she snapped at the computer, which obliged her without comment.
Douglas grinned, waggling a bottle of some soda or other at her. "Thirsty?"
"I thought you were sleeping." She ignored the question, taking the soda from him and indulging herself in a long drink. It took all her control not to sputter and spit it out again. "Ice coffee, Douglas?"
"You don't like it?" He took a long slug of his own container and grinned. "It's even better when you mix in a little rum, maybe some --" She snorted sharply, and he desisted with a sigh. "You've really been in a mood, you know?"
"Bah." Though in truth, he was quite correct. The multiple stresses of attending to him and maintaining her pay with the mercenaries were proving to be more of a challenge than she'd anticipated.
"That was pretty slick, yaknow," he remarked, swigging the rest of his drink and dragging his arm across his mouth to wipe it clean. "You're getting even better since we came here."
"It was an easy simulation," she replied, fielding the compliment in her usual manner.
"If you say so. Hey, are you gonna --"
She rolled her eyes, handing him the drink before he could finish asking for it. "Water, next time."
Before she could respond, the door swished open again, admitting a pair of young mercenaries, both of whom stopped in their tracks when they saw the room was occupied.
"Uh, is this sim tak--"
"We were leaving," Wraith said, brushing past them into the hallway. Behind her, she heard Douglas apologizing profusely for her rudeness, and she crossed her arms irritably, starting up the hallway on her own. When he caught up to her, he restricted his lecture on civility to "Sometimes I really don't get you" and left it at that, to her relief.
"Don't you have a class today?" she asked, after a moment's silence.
He made a noise of disdain. "Introductory Robotics. I could pass it in my sleep! The only reason I'm taking it is it's a prerequisite for Internal Systems..."
She shrugged. It had taken all her skills with persuasion, blackmail, and general nagging to get him to take any class at all. She might as well let him do this part his way. He'd have to grow up someday, wouldn't he? Am I his bodyguard or his mother? Honestly ... Her moody reflections accompanied her all the way to their quarters, whereupon they vanished when she saw the message light blinking on her console.
"What's that?" her charge asked curiously, following her inside. "Don't tell me you actually made a friend while I wasn't looking ..."
"Would I ever do something like that without telling you?" She walked over and tapped the console, attempting to conceal a surge of apprehension. Almost no one had her contact information, as far as she knew, and unless it was someone from inside the Freelance Reploids ...
It was voice-only, the visual static on her monitor. "If my source was correct, and you're receiving this information ..." The door swished shut, and Douglas was at her side in an instant, deadly serious. It was a bit disconcerting. "... then you probably already know what I wish to contact you about."
"Do not," murmured the human, and Wraith shushed him.
"I wish to hire you for a task of the utmost gravity. You will be well-paid for your trouble, I assure you."
"Somebody sent the script for their new spy flick, you think?" His serious demeanor was fading rapidly.
"I cannot give you any information through this medium. It's far too dangerous. If you are listening, Jocasta, you will know what to do. I beseech you -- I beg you to respond. Forgive me. I can say no more."
"Message ends," chirped the computer, and Douglas turned to his bodyguard with a bemused chuckle.
"That was some crap, wasn't it? Crazy! Just like in the movies." When she didn't respond, he nudged her. "Wraith?"
"It's nothing --" she blurted, like one coming out of a dream. "I'm sorry, I must have spaced out." A lame excuse, even by her standards. She attempted to cover it up by shooing Douglas out the door. "I need to shower, Douglas," she snapped in answer to his confused protestations. "Wouldn't you, after two hours in the sims?"
She shut the door in his face, then turned back to the screen, gazing silently at the message, which had printed on the screen as the voice spoke. She wrapped her arms around herself as if she'd felt a chill.
Perhaps she had.
(2) Ebony and Ivory and Crimson
She left before dawn broke the following morning, out into the momentary hush where even the city briefly slept. Behind her, she had left a brief note to Douglas with instructions that he would probably ignore, mostly concerning his drinking habits, his classes, and whether or not he should attempt to contact or follow her. Even she doubted her assurances that she wouldn't be gone long and this was nothing to concern himself about.
It is just like a spy flick, she thought glumly, padding her way past a snoring drunk and hopping the fence into the next alley. But the stakes -- the stakes were on a wholly different level than national security or an atomic bomb. A much more personal level.
Jocasta. Who would know that name? Who but Arthur Brandt, Douglas' father, and the scientists who'd given it to her? And if it had been Brandt, he would have contacted her by other means. It was not his voice. Familiar, definitely, but not his. She glanced at the skyline and stifled a swearword. There was no way she'd be there before dawn.
Maybe she was getting soft. Or old. The past seven years had been a whirlwind of turmoil and confusion. Even at the beginning of it, she had performed poorly. She had hesitated. In choosing between her ward and her master, she had hesitated. There shouldn't have been any hesitation. Her duty was to Douglas, him alone.
Dawn was streaking the sky before she'd reached the site where the lab, her "birthplace" had once stood. Still stood, in a way. The crumbling structure had been condemned several years earlier, but no one had found the time to demolish it, so it stood an eyesore, invisible in the middle of everything.
A strange sensation washed over her as she stepped into the cracked and weedy parking lot. She found it unlikely to be nostalgia, but she pursued its origins no further, interrupted by movement near the building's entrance. A moment's observation identified the figure as one of the scientists who had worked there -- she wondered idly if he'd been on her development team. He also seemed preoccupied, as scientists typically were. In her experience, anyway.
To her disgust, Wraith managed to get within five feet of him before the man even noticed here. He was absorbed with taking in the old lab's decrepit remains, occasionally shaking his head with a gusty sigh. Up close, she recognized him as one of the leading members of the entire team, though he was older than his photos in the journals Douglas read obsessively claimed he was. His salt-and-pepper hair was more liberally sprinkled with white now, and his movements were hesitant from decaying bone and tissue.
After a few more minutes passed without him taking note of her, she cleared her throat with a mental sigh. "Dr. Langstrom."
He whirled as if he'd been bitten. Wraith was unable to keep an ironic expression from her face as she inclined her head. "Jocasta," he breathed, barely audible.
Her expression hardened very slightly, arms crossing over her chest defensively. She'd always hated that name; it had taken her a long time to get used to Brandt calling her "Cass".
The man lifted his hands placatingly. "I'm surprised you came," he said, wrinkles deepening in the middle of his forehead.
"How could I resist, after such a dramatic message?" She tried to keep her voice from dripping venom, but it was difficult. All that bluster about danger, and here he was ambling among the daisies without a thought to his own safety or privacy.
Langstrom laughed weakly, putting a hand to his forehead in an attempt to soothe out the worried knit of his brows. He only succeeded in making it deeper. "We wouldn't have called you -- especially you, hardly under the lab's jurisdiciton anymore -- but we've gotten into a bit of a tangle.. it's really quite ..." He trailed off to stare blankly at the weeds in the pavement, waving gently in the breeze.
"We?" How she kept her voice even was a mystery. By her information, the lab had disbanded six months after she'd been sold to the Brandt family, and the scientists were all either retired or assigned to different projects.
The gaze he shot her was a surprise. His eyes were wide, rounded with what seemed almost like panic. She resisted the impulse to take a step back. "I.. that is.." To her blank astonishment, he broke, a sudden wellspring of terrified babble. "P-please, Jocasta, you absolutely must help us -- they have us right under their thumbs -- tell the Hunters, tell someone --" He lunged forward as if to grip her arms and faltered in mid-step, gurgling slightly. "S-secrets.. you.. must.. they --"
His eyes rolled up, and he pitched forward. Only her reflexes kept him from tumbling face-first into the gravelly asphalt, and she rolled him over carefully to discover a dart buried in the side of his neck. Spittle foamed at the edges of his mouth, still working as he tried desperately to communicate a last message to her. Nothing she could make out. Nothing coherent. He reached a hand toward her, and it fell halfway, dropping heavily to his chest.
She caught it gently, then froze -- both at the sound of someone dropping neatly to the ground nearby and at the crinkled paper she found secreted in the dead man's hand. She with drew her hand carefully, concealing the paper -- a damned inconvenient way to transmit information -- as she settled the body on the ground in a semblance of peaceful repose and rose with liquid ease to face the newcomer.
If she had been capable of blanching, she probably would have. He matched her mannerism for mannerism, feature for feature. Taller, more muscular, and very clearly male, and his face was different: jaw stronger and more square, nose slightly longer and firmer, but eyes the same icy blue. His white hair hung loose to frame his face, cut even just below the jaw, and his skin was the same dusty black as her own. Even worse, the familiar insignia of the Mavericks gleamed on his chest.
"So you're the famous Jocasta," he murmured, bringing the familiar features to a terrifying life.
Wraith couldn't stop a snort. "Famous."
"Oh, yes!" A charming grin lit his face, and she was briefly pressed to remember that he'd just killed a man in cold blood. "I heard all about you from Jeremiah and the others." He gestured to the dead man. "I'm a little disappointed in him, to be honest -- I didn't think he'd break and try something this foolish."
"Who are you?" she asked shortly. It was a stupid question, and she was afraid she already knew the answer to it, but it would keep her on balance -- as on-balance as she could be at this point.
He touched his chest briefly, surprised, then smiled again. "Bantau is my name," he said lightly, "built by the same scientists who built you."
I never would have guessed. The sarcasm, thankfully, did not escape her lips. "And?"
He laughed, looking almost sheepish, and scratched the back of his head in a gesture that sent a chill down her spine. How could he be so much like Douglas? When he brought his hand down, to her relief, all trace of her young ward was erased from him. His eyes were bright and calculating, lips curved in the lazy, uncaring grin of a killer. "I won't bore you with the brother-sister shpiel, dear Jo," he said, expression at once dry and amused. "I've always thought it was a boring way to look at it anyway.. there are other possibilities I find much more.. entertaining."
She felt her expression go stony at his suggestive lilt. "Bantau." She made a note of his name. "What do you want from me? I've got nothing to do with the lab or your friends." Her eyes flicked again to the insignia, and she was gratified to see his smile fade slightly.
Instead of growing angry, as she had almost hoped, he chuckled. "No one has told you anything, have they? Nothing at all."
As far as Wraith was concerned, there was nothing to be told, but Bantau was still eyeing her thoughtfully, as if considering what to do with her. Whether to tell her. What to tell her. She tensed, ready to leave, when she suddenly found his face inches from her own, his hand clasped under her jaw to force her gaze upward into his eyes. "I'll have to think about that a bit," he breathed, then dropped his mouth down to cover hers.
She attempted immediately to push herself away, but the world vanished abruptly into a blur of light and color. As she felt herself drop to the pavement, his voice echoed cheerfully, "I always do enjoy it when a woman faints at my touch." She was vaguely aware of his fingers tracing her jaw. "I'll be in touch, Jo." And everything was darkness.
Wraith woke from a roiling, dreamless sleep to find it raining, pouring down sheets. She was sodden, not to mention muddy and gritty from where her face had pressed against the pavement. Diagnostics showed her system was clean, except for a residual trace of -- an offended expression stole across her face. Static! A recent street discovery that worked something like a tranquilizer on Reploids; a substitute, since ordinary tranqs usually had no effect.
Her head reeled for a moment, and she glanced over to the body only to discover it gone. She cursed mentally, then aloud. There was no one here to be offended anyway. She was relieved, however, when the paper she had secreted away was still in place -- at least Bantau hadn't had the wit to search her. Her shoulders gave a rippling shudder at the thought.
Or perhaps merely with the cold and wet. The pale-haired Reploid stared skyward for a moment, a soft sigh springing from her throat. It was growing dark, and not just with the storm. Time to go back. To do some research. Her thoughts stole guiltily to Douglas, wondering if he was worried, berating herself for doing such a damn fool thing as leaving him alone.
Her return journey to the mercenaries' headquarters was mercifully uneventful, but what greeted her upon entering her quarters more than made up for it. Douglas, bleary-eyed, was camped on the edge of her bed with a heap of books, clearly intending to make his home there until her return. The note she'd left was prominently displayed on her end-table, and the message she'd received from Langstrom the night before lit the monitor at the back of the room.
She had only a moment to take all this in before the young human had jumped to his feet and rushed across the intervening space to grab her by the arms and shake her fiercely, demanding to know what in heaven's name she'd been thinking. Still foggy from the drug, it took her a moment to think of a response.
"It didn't concern you," she groused, attempting to disentangle herself. He refused to let go.
"Didn't concern me?!" he snapped. "The hell you say 'didn't concern me'! You get all weird on me last night, and then in the morning you've disappeared -- what was I supposed to think?"
She couldn't quite make out what all this fuss was about. She'd left him a note, hadn't she? "My duty is to protect you," she defended herself, which only made him angrier.
"Yeah, and you left me behind --"
"Where you'd be safe," she growled with an air of finality, pushing him irritably away. Safer, anyway. Who knew what Bantau would have done if he'd been with her. Thinking on it, she really had no idea whatever, and the thought was somewhat frightening.
Douglas was silent for long enough that she thought she might have won the argument, but as she pushed her way past his books to blank her monitor, he spoke again, voice almost pleading. "Wraith, what is going on?"
For a moment, she was silent, tempted to order him from her room again. Half-turning, she saw the expression on his face -- worry, lonliness, fear. With a soft sigh, she relented. Returning her gaze to the now-empty screen, she murmured, barely loud enough for him to hear, "You know nothing of my beginnings, what existed for me before your father's contract, not merely because I haven't told you.. but primarily because there is very little to tell."
Douglas took a few minutes before replying. "You're talking crazy on me, you know, Wraith."
She turned to him, arms crossed, and surprised him with a smile. "I know." She paused. "Believe me, Douglas, it's as strange for me as for you."
"Lay odds," he muttered under his breath, then made his way slowly to her one chair and seated himself, eyeing her expectantly. "Well, as long as you're in this forthcoming mood, I might as well milk it for all it's worth."
She harrumphed slightly, then settled onto her bed. "What I'm told is that your father chose me from a group of pre-constructed Reploids, rather than having me constructed to his specifications." She flicked her ice-blue eyes at him in a hesitant, sideways glance, then continued. "I don't know anything about the group that I was chosen from. Not what they were created for, not what they were like. I don't know how your father managed to convince the lab to let him take me from it."
A wry smile twisted the boy's face. "He has his ways."
She let the comment pass and shrugged. "Things have gotten.. very strange."
"That message last night, was it from one of the scientist guys?"
Startled, she met his inquisitive gaze. "Yes, it was. The head of the team that constructed me."
"Huh.. so I guess you went to meet him? How did it go?"
"Badly," Wraith said shortly, the man's end flashing vividly across her memory.
"Aw, don't get quiet on me now ..."
Her expression grew irritable. "May I remind you, Douglas, that this really isn't any of your business?"
"Okay, okay.." He sighed, looking much put-upon.
Repressing a snort, she drew in a deep breath. "He wanted my help for something -- I don't know what, as yet, because a Maverick killed him before he could tell me." She had already decided to keep the details on Bantau to herself, especially since she didn't feel particularly like dwelling on them. Looking at Douglas' face, frozen in a contortion of shock and fury, Wraith became certain that the decision had been a correct one. "All I have from the meeting is this, really."
She produced the scrap of paper and tossed it onto the small table. The ploy to distract him worked; he picked it up curiously. "What's in it?"
"I don't know. I didn't have the chance to look before you started levelling grievances at me," she commented drily, and he stuck his tongue out, unfolding the scrap.
"Nonsense, it looks like," he murmured. "A password or something?" He tossed it onto the table again, and she retrieved it.
"Looks more like a serial number," she said thoughtfully.
"Maybe we should go to the Hunters," Douglas remarked carelessly. "They have the largest directory of Reploid serial numbers.."
"Unless it's a Maverick number. If so, chances are they haven't got it."
"Why would he give you a Maverick serial number?"
"Why would he give me a serial number at all?" She leaned back slightly. "I suppose the Hunter directory would probably be the easiest place to start, in any case." It didn't bother her in particular to go and visit them, though she imagined most of the mercenaries would look askance at such a venture. Well, let them look.
"Great, let's go!" Douglas sprang to his feet cheerfully, tone belying the measuring glance she received as he rose.
Bah. "It's getting a little late for that," she pointed out. "Surely even the Hunters close their doors at night."
"Eh." He lifted his cap off and scratched his head, squinting at her. "So we'll go in the morning. You promise you won't run off without me, though."
Wraith couldn't stop a growl. "Unlike a certain young idiot, I can take care of myself."
He gave her a hard look. "I'm going."
"Your classes." Weak attack. She was losing her touch.
"Monday-Wednesday-Friday!" he retorted triumphantly, and she gave up, weary of the whole business.
"Fine. In the morning," she dismissed him curtly. "If you sleep in, I'm leaving you."
"Then I won't sleep in, will I?" He plastered on his most smugly charming grin and waved his way from the room. "Ta, now! Sleep well!"
"And yourself," she groused, sincerely doubting that she would sleep at all.
"Dad always calls you Cass, you know." Seven-year-old Douglas was staring at her importantly, as if he were about to discuss something that might change the world. His world, at least.
"Does he?" She folded her arms lazily, watching as he rose from his work with a heap of legos and dusted himself off.
"Yes, all the time."
She shrugged. "What of it?"
"Is Cass your name?" He cocked his head in the inquisitive look that would stay with him all the way to adulthood.
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, it does!" He seemed so serious. And so young.
"So, is it?" He became impatient when she didn't answer.
This answer gave him pause, and he considered for a moment before speaking again. "Then why does he call you that?"
"Because he wishes to."
"But it's not your name!"
She nodded agreeably. "No, it's not."
He stamped his foot, realizing she wasn't going to give him the information he wanted, then gave up and asked something else instead. "So what is your name?"
"What do you call me?"
".. Wraith!" He sounded offended that she didn't know something so obvious.
"Then that's my name."
Wraith's head was buzzing when she awoke from her unexpected nap, nodded off in her chair. A blanket was wrapped around her shoulders, testament to that kitten-thing's coming and going while she'd been asleep. Annoyance and gratitude struggled with each other for a moment, then she gave up thinking about it and slipped over to put herself in some semblance of order.
She was grubby and unkempt from her adventures, and she hadn't had a shower in two days. Of course, there was little she could do without making herself later than she wanted to be, so after a moment's indecision, she ambled into the bathroom and took a shower, permitting herself to luxuriate in the pleasant heat of the water for longer than she normally would. As she was towelling off, just about to get dressed, a knock sounded at the door.
As promised, Douglas had not slept in.
"I'm coming in," he chirped, and she rolled her eyes, pulling her clothes on and stepping out to greet him with a slightly deadpan stare.
"Do you think they're open yet?" he asked mildly, making a show of glancing at his watch. She wondered if he'd remembered to wear it specifically for that purpose.
"Probably. It's not that early." She pulled her hair back into its traditional, loose ponytail and started for the door, slinging her weapons over her shoulder. The Hunters probably wouldn't appreciate an armed Reploid who wasn't one of them marching into one of their buildings without so much as a by-your-leave, but the white-haired assassin wasn't in a mood to care.
"Do I get to eat?" Douglas patted his stomach, which was probably growling, the barest trace of petulance in his voice.
"After the Hunters," Wraith said, stepping out into the hallway. It was curiously empty. Maybe there was another mission afoot.. or perhaps most of the mercenaries slept in to ungodly hours.
"Have a little mercy," the human grumbled, following her out, but she declined with a snort and started off.
The rain had stopped, to her relief, but the skies were still heavy and ominous. Douglas waved a cheery hello to the one mercenary they encountered on their way out -- apparently they had shared a drink once, or something. She paused on reaching the sidewalk. The Hunter base, though not all the way across the city, was far enough away that walking would take longer than she really wished. Public transportation wasn't her favorite method of travel, but..
Without consulting Douglas, she turned toward the monorail station. He had no objections -- in fact, he spent the bulk of the trip gawking out the window like a tourist or a small child. Wraith wished briefly that she'd brought a newspaper. All the same, they made their way unaccosted to the main offices of the Maverick Hunters -- unaccosted, in fact, all the way to the receptionist's desk.
The young man seated there gave them a look best described as "why do I get all the weirdos", right before assuming his best "we can't do that" expression. Wraith did all she could to exude cool professionalism, reining in her immediate desire to grab the boy by the hair and bonk his face against the counter a few times. Douglas paid the receptionist no heed, cheerfully craning his neck around to get a good look at the place.
She rolled her eyes and ignored him, returning her attention to the receptionist, who was eyeing her expectantly, awaiting his opportunity to deny her request. "I'd like to look up a serial number, if that's possible," she said crisply.
He gave her a strange look, as if that was hardly the request he'd been expecting. "I'm afraid I can't just give you access to our database," he replied apologetically, and he was about to continue, but she tossed the scrap of paper in front of him before he could.
"Then just look it up." She folded her arms, not to be toyed with.
"You're pretty good at being menacing for a short person," Douglas chirped from behind her, his flippancy almost cracking her cool facade.
As much as it annoyed her, however, the remark had its (apparently) intended effect: the receptionist lost much of his stiffness, chuckling and flashing Douglas a grin. Wraith settled for trying not to look grumpy as he tapped the numbers into his console. Moments later, a slight frown creased his forehead, and he shot Wraith a puzzled look out of the corner of his eye.
"What is it?" she asked sharply, hoping wildly that it hadn't been something incriminating.
"Well, ma'am," he began, then paused. "It's, ah, giving me an error." Unbeknownst to him, though, Douglas had worked his way around behind to get a better look at the monitor. He tossed Wraith a significant glance and jerked his thumb at the door.
As she had several times that day, Wraith sighed inwardly and nodded politely. "Then I apologize for bothering you." She retrieved the paper (to the receptionist's evident distress) and ambled out the door, Douglas following after tossing him a friendly wave good-bye.
"Well?" she asked without preamble once they were out the doors.
"He was lying."
"I gathered that."
He gave her a wounded look and shrugged. "It wasn't giving him an error.. the report came up classified. Asked for a security clearance."
"It did?" She looked down at the paper in her hand. "How very odd." She folded it away, drawing out a credit chit from her other pocket. This she handed to Douglas. "Bus fare home."
A level stare. "I have somewhere to go." But of course, that won't satisfy you, will it?
"And why can't I come?"
"Don't pout, Douglas," she snapped. "Study or do your homework. I don't need you underfoot." She immediately felt she'd gone a bit too far.
Judging from the expression on his face, her ward agreed with her. "Fine," he snorted softly, turning on his heel.
He stopped, not looking back. "What?"
"Don't even think about following me."
He growled something inaudible and slouched back to the bus stop. Despite sudden misgivings, Wraith turned away from him and hurried on her way, hoping that what she needed would still be there.
(5) Best Laid Plans
The lab smelled. It wasn't strictly a brilliant observation, but it was certainly her first upon reentering the solemn edifice that was her birthplace. Her second was that she wasn't its first visitor in all these years. The dust on the floor was covered in prints -- so many, in fact, that the floor almost wasn't dusty anymore. Less chance of whoever it is noticing me, I suppose, she thought wearily, briefly entertaining the notion that with her luck, whoever it was would still be around.
No one appeared as she walked the halls, quietly searching, though she didn't know for what. An occasional memory fluttered against her consciousness as she moved deeper into the lab; her birthday (an ironic quirk of the mouth) forced its way to the forefront as she passed one of the development rooms, but it wasn't there. Whatever it was she searched for, it wasn't to be found in the rooms she knew.
Wraith huffed a slightly ironic sigh, leaning against the wall just outside the late Dr. Langstrom's office, musing over the serial code he'd given her. How he had expected her to decipher his little brainteaser she had no idea, having only known him for a few months before Brandt had taken her home. Rubbing her temples, she tried cross-referencing it with the data she had on the lab building itself and perused the blueprints while the program ran.
Her breath caught, and she glanced left up the hallway, eyes doubtful, but the blueprints stubbornly read the same, every time she looked. She turned and walked down the hall, running her fingertips carefully over the wall. It looked like the other walls and scanned like the other walls, but the blueprints firmly believed there was another room hidden next to Langstrom's office.
"Begin embedding code: Jocasta, Model #2F."
"Jocasta," she muttered aloud, trying to grasp the wisp of memory and make it something solid. Before she had the opportunity, however, the wall next to her hand buzzed, and a small panel slid open.
"Voice recognition confirmed," its generic, digital voice informed her pleasantly. "Please enter password."
"Password." Without hesitation (and with a certain weary resignation), Wraith tapped in the code Langstrom had passed on to her.
"Password accepted," the panel said agreeably. "Welcome, Jocasta."
Wraith resisted the impulse to tell it exactly what it could do with its password, instead concentrating on the remarkably camoflaged doorway that slid open next to the panel and the contents of the room inside. Paper files, she'd thought. A hard copy backup of his research. Just a secret storage room.
She had not anticipated a fully equipped lab that had apparently been running on generators for over twenty years.
"Data subject to retrieval upon the death of Dr. Jeremiah Elliot Langstrom and / or the unit's confirmation of said death."
The door slid shut behind her as she stepped inside. She heard the computer voice ask her something, but she wasn't paying attention to it and never thought to reply. The machines were practically antique, she supposed, but that was hardly the point -- their value was more in the data they held. Though she wasn't entirely sure what that was.
"This is an unofficial test of Storage Method #7 in Langstrom and Seth's Unlimited Memory Theory. Parameters for success are complete retrieval and comprehension of stored data."
The dark-skinned Reploid gave her head a sharp shake and continued her inspection of the machines. They didn't appear to be password protected or secure in any recognizable fashion, apparently relying on the integrity of the door. With a sigh, she gave in to curiosity and sat down at once of the consoles. Puzzlement wrinkled her brow after an initial scan brought up nothing at all; there wasn't so much as a solitaire program on any one of them.
"End embed. Jocasta Model #2F prepped for activation."
A surge of irritation pressed against her skull, and she quashed it quickly, wishing she had Douglas' assistance. Her area of expertise was decidedly not in the direction of turning computers inside out. Pressing her hands against her temples, she leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, letting her mind drift as she considered her next step.
"Oh, hello, Malcolm -- I just finished in here. She's ready to activate any time."
"Gotta nix that, Jerry, didn't they tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"That Brandt guy wants her. Apparently he's into sexy bodyguards --"
"You're kidding! We need this unit!"
"Hey, I'm on your side ... but he has the money, and finance says we're borderline ..."
"Don't take it so hard, Jerry. There'll be other robots."
"That's hardly the point ..."
"But don't tell them that ... it'll all work out, you'll see. Even if she ships out and we both wind up six feet under, the data's there somewhere, right?"
"That's true enough -- wait! You're suggesting we just leave her as is?"
"Where's the harm? Brandt's not going to go digging through her brains.. he needs her for brawn."
"I suppose you have a point, but --"
"Just relax. Look, let's go get a drink. We can make the modifications he wants tomorrow."
"Yep -- he wants her top of the line. Not that she isn't already, given the specs we had to work with, but hey, gotta keep the customer satisfied."
"And speaking of customers, what about the ones who commissioned her to begin with?"
"We'll, uh, have to replace her."
"With what parts and what time? We're barely on schedule as it is."
"Yeah.. well -- Tonda'll probably just cut the price and say we ran out of time.."
"I suppose that's better than 'we got a better offer' ..."
"Relax, Jerry. Everything'll work out."
Wraith sat up, dazed. It rang true with what she'd come to understand about her origins, but she found herself unwilling to fully trust the dream -- or memory -- not without proof of its veracity. Nevertheless ... She ran a hand through her snowy hair, eyes half-closing of their own volition. She'd been part of an experiment in addition to being the missing member of a commissioned Maverick squad? It was ridiculous -- more over-the-top than most of Douglas' childhood inventions.
She got to her feet. Whatever her origins, they didn't change the here and now. She had a job to do, and she had been neglecting it, she realized with a pang of guilt. Well, she could apologize to Douglas later.
A slow shuffle of feet startled her, and she spun, half-unsheathing her kodachi before she froze in shock.
"I'd like to say in my defense," Douglas said with a weak grin, "that I did not follow you."
(6) Que Sera, Sera
"It's true, Jo," came the smooth, familiar voice of the person standing behind him. "Don't be too hard on him -- I did rather insist he come along." Bantau stepped into view, a pleasant smile fixed on his dark face.
The silence was thick, heavy. Wraith was calculating scenarios as fast as she could, but none of theme seemed viable with her lookalike standing that close to her ward. Douglas, for his part, didn't seem at all alarmed by the situation, glance flicking inquisitively back and forth between the two.
"You know," he remarked, breaking the silence, "you really do look a lot alike. Could be twins, eh?" He grinned at Wraith and winked, and she relaxed very slightly. So he did understand the situation. "I mean, he's a bit taller than you, and you're definitely prettier than he is, but --"
A fierce, backhanded blow to the chest cut him off and sent him sprawling backward into the now-closed door. He struck its metallic surface with a dull clang and slid to the floor, head lolling loosely.
"Bantau!" Wraith reacted almost before the blow landed, knives coming within an inch of the other Reploid's unprotected face before they struck energized metal with a sizzle.
To her surprise, she met a gaze of rage almost equal to her own. "That," Bantau hissed, a lock of his pale hair falling into his eyes, "is the human you abandoned us for?"
"I didn't abandon you," she snapped, grinding her blade against his weapon, a plasma-enhanced hand axe. "I never knew you!"
Her opponent broke their locked blades with an abrupt motion, darting forward to snap the axe at her ribs. She sidled lithely away, drawing her thick dagger as she feinted with the kodachi, brow creased with irritation. Drawn-out battles were not her style, but it wasn't as if she had much choice. Bantau jumped away and began to circle her, eyes gleaming ferally. He clearly wasn't interested in ending the fight quickly.
"Ignorance is no excuse, Jo -- you belong with us."
"I belong with my ward." She matched his pace, trying not to let her worry through; she had wanted to keep herself between Bantau and the unconscious Douglas, but he evidently wasn't going to allow that either. He appeared to be focusing primarily on the ongoing battle of word and weapon, however, much to her relief.
"You could be so much more with us," he said furiously, face twisting into a dark snarl. Wraith was beginning to wonder how she'd seen Douglas in him at all. "If you could only see --"
"Did they send you to fetch me?" He was blocking her view of her ward. She snaked forward and slashed at him, nearly thrown off balance in surprise when the blow landed, marking him deeply across the chest.
He seemed unaware of it, eyes oddly vacant, snapping back into focus when a trickle of fluid trailed its way from the cut down his torso. "Send me?" he repeated. "Send me? I came to get you back!" He looked down at the wound and frowned almost petulantly. "I came to save you, and you --"
Wraith drew back a pace, suddenly doubting her Maverick twin was entirely sane. "There's nothing to save me from," she said evenly.
"Well, damn," he laughed, the dark look in his icy eyes belying the smile on his face, "I guess I should just give up and go home -- what a misunderstanding!" He fingered the cut, wincing slightly, then lunged at her, teeth bared in a grimace of hate.
She parried the swing and stumbled away, taken aback by the ferocity of the attack, but she had little time to recover as he swung again, then again. "This isn't a game, Jo," he roared over the clash of their weapons, "and I'm not a fool!" He was backing her into a corner, she noted clinically, and she couldn't find an opening through the skilled -- if wild and rage-induced -- barrage of attacks. "If I can't take you back, then I'll just kill you!"
Wraith's back struck the wall, and she barely blocked his next swing, locking their weapons together to keep him from swinging again.
But he didn't try to swing again, instead pushing both their weapons out of the way and leaning his face in until their noses almost brushed. "You believed that, didn't you, Jo?" he breathed, eyes lighting briefly with amusement. "Did you fall for the little kid act, too? That's pretty gullible, for a bodyguard ..." He pressed closer, and her head bumped against the wall as she instinctively attempted to back away. "I think I like that." He leaned forward with the intention of capturing her mouth --
And several things happened at once. Wraith braced her hands on both her weapons and pushed as hard as she could, and two popping noises sounded at the other end of the room. Bantau, caught between two forces, thrashed forward, slamming into Wraith and their weapons, then bounced away, staggering slightly. He gave a hoarse cough, dropping to one knee.
"Guess.. we'll never know how much was acting," he murmured half to the floor, then looked up at the somewhat dumbfounded bodyguard with a grin. "'Til we meet again, Jo." In a pale flash, he teleported out.
Wraith looked across the room at a sound something like the clearing of a throat and saw Douglas half-bent with a small gun in his hand. She nearly dropped her kodachi with relief, then remembered herself and resheathed it and the knife before hurrying over to him.
"I may be crazy," the human said, free hand pressed carefully against his chest, "but it looked like he was about to kiss you."
She snorted softly, supporting him. "He was."
"So why didn't you kick him in the crotch or something?" he glanced at her sideways, slipping the gun back into its hidden holster. "That's what you'd do to Cross."
A dozen snappish replies popped into her head and were dismissed. "I'm not afraid of Cross," she said finally, leading him out the door.
Wraith leaned back in her chair, glancing over at the bed where Douglas lay snoozing, one hand resting on his bandages. His hurts hadn't been bad, but she refused to chance his recovery. The data retrieval had gone much as she suspected it would -- not so much a sudden influx of information as sudden access to information that had always been there. The Mavericks must have known about the room -- perhaps even known there was no data in it. If they had sent Bantau after her, it wasn't for something as noble as returning a lost lamb to the fold.
I never thought I'd be the one who was hunted. Her gaze flicked back to the bed, she discovered that Douglas was awake and watching her.
"Get that information to the Hunters?" he asked sleepily.
She nodded, and he smiled contentedly.
"Good.. poor bastards need a little help.." He yawned. "Couldn't find their own asses with both hands most days."
She snorted softly, looking to the screen again. "At least they might get the scientsts out before the Mavericks finish them off. Their time's up when the Mavericks figure out they don't have the information they need."
"Yeah." The human was silent for a moment. "You're worried about him, aren't you?"
Wraith's brow knit, but she shrugged away her unease. "I hate to leave an enemy alive."
The human grinned at her. "You'll win," he said confidently, dismissing her doubts with a wave of his hand. He yawned again, rubbing at his eyes. "You're the best."
"Go back to sleep, Douglas."