|Ha ha, this one I didn't even finish. Which is a-okay by me, 'cause it was pretty stupid and rapidly spiraling out of control. And I completely forgot what I was doing with it, to boot. Oh noes, cliffhanger!|
(1) Spy Games
Douglas hummed thoughtfully to himself, tweaking the resolution slightly higher on the holographic display he'd installed on the Gadget just before the last mission. It had worked quite nicely then, though it had blurred once or twice as if overtaxing the small device's power supply. The diminutive machine chirped at him irritably, attempting to wheel out from under his tools. He batted it back, much like he would a misbehaving puppy.
"Hold still, would you?" It'd only take a minute if you didn't squirm." He pinched a tiny panel closed, then scooped his pet project up off the floor. "We're going to have to see about that power supply. It doesn't seem to be doing you justice." He pinged one finger off the glowing, crystalline device in the flat box's center. "I really like the green, though."
The lights in the room next door flickered and faded, indicating that Wraith had finished yet another simulation. He peered over the edge of the window to watch to the computer tally her kills: 24 of 24, mission accomplished. Typical. He wondered if she played through them just for fun.
"Or maybe for lack of a social life," he muttered aloud, turning back to the Gadget, which was wheeling its way toward an open terminal, access cable at the ready. "Aaa -- no you don't!" The brown-haired human lunged forward to catch it before it reached its destination. "Are you trying to get dismantled? You know what she'd do to you if you messed with her records."
The Gadget whirred dismissively.
"She never liked you to begin with, and you haven't done anything to improve your reputation," Douglas continued to lecture it, ambling back over to his tools. "You should try ingratiating yourself someti -- hey!"
The machine had given him a small electric shock, causing him to drop it in surprise. Its tumble toward the floor was arrested when its repulsors kicked in, dragging it back up to eye level with its human creator. The holo monitor popped up, displaying an incoming call.
"Well, why didn't you just say so?" the human grumbled, rubbing his hand. "Display it already."
It beeped politely, and the monitor wavered, solidifying into a shoulders-up display of a surprisingly attractive blond woman -- human or Reploid he couldn't tell right off. Her eyes narrowed slightly, peering at what was probably a blank screen. The Gadget could display holo images, but it didn't have a camera suitable for returning them.
"Douglas Brandt," the human said pleasantly, grinning when an expression close to startlement flashed very briefly across her face.
"Really.." she murmured. "And I'm to take your word on that, am I?"
Douglas arched an eyebrow, suddenly glad he hadn't installed the camera. "All things considered, ma'am, I'd say you're the more untrustworthy of us -- since I can think of approximately three people who have this number, and none of them are quite so pretty." He wondered if he should have given away that he could see her and after a moment's debate decided he didn't care.
A smile was twitching at her mouth now, and he noted that it made for a very compelling expression. "Well, Mr. Brandt --"
"Douglas, please. My dad is Mr. Brandt."
"Douglas, then." She nodded as if conceding the point. "Would it soothe your feelings any if I told you I received it from a trusted associate?"
In a pig's eye. "Don't got any of those," he said, both intrigued and bored by the conversation. "Ma'am, if we could just stop with the silly spy game stuff and get to why you're accessing my private account?"
Her face stiffened slightly -- not so pretty, in Douglas' opinion -- but the expression cleared almost immediately, replaced with the slightly quirky smile that he preferred. "If you insist." She glanced to one side, then back forward. He wondered if it was awkward, doing that to a blank screen. "My employer wishes to hire you for a job that's quite suitable to your skills."
A puzzled expression settled on his features. "Your employer wants me to blow up a building?"
"Er.. not those skills."
"Ah." He sighed a little. No one ever wanted to use those skills. Always with the techno-babble hacking and cracking. He'd just gotten off a mission full of that. "So?" he asked finally, when she remained silent, evidently waiting for a response.
"I understand that you and your father are not on the best of terms?"
"That's one way of putting it," he said agreeably. "I take it you're offering me the opportunity to do him a bad turn?"
Annoyance, quickly quashed, dashed across her features. "You're quite astute," she said, smiling with slightly gritted teeth.
"And ..." He drew the word out slowly, flicking his gaze lazily over the call trace. "Ooh, Dubois Technical. No wonder. Your stock is really in the toilet, you know? Glad I never bought any -- but then, my dad's the best!" He nearly spasmed with suppressed laughter at the scowl that bent her features. He plunged on before she could muster up a response. "So, what's the deal? You want me to steal technical documents? High-level info?"
"Something like that." Her jaw was getting stiffer. He noted that it made her somewhat resemble a bulldog. A remarkably attractive bulldog, but a bulldog all the same. "We'd like information on their latest project -- code named Kirinji.
"The one in direct competition with your Dauphin."
"Which I should somehow be able to get to more easily than other people because I'm related to the guy."
"Yes." Her scowl deepened.
"Even though we hate each other."
He grinned. "So all right, why don't we meet tonight around seven at.. oh .. the Cross Street Bar? It's hard to do dirty, under-the-table deals with my watchdog around, you know?"
"Wh-what?" She had evidently expected to seal the deal over the 'secure' line.
"See you there!"
He signed off with a flourish, ignoring her panicked spate of babble, then jumped at a voice from behind him.
"What was all that about?"
"Oh.. nothing!" He gave Wraith his biggest fake smile, and she frowned at him.
"Nothing in the sense that you're not telling me." She folded her arms, eyes growing darkly irritable, and he watched her warily, knowing that he'd have to play his cards very carefully to avoid being tailed.
"Of course not, geez." He tapped in the Gadget's shutdown sequence, sighing. "If you really have to know, I've got a date."
She gave a short, barking laugh.
"Your skepticism hurts me, my lovely bodyguard," he sniffed. "I'm headed out at seven, and I'd really appreciate a little privacy for once."
Her measuring stare worried him for a moment, then it cleared. "Fine."
"Thank you so very much for graciously permitting me to have a social life." He gave a sweeping bow.
"Do be quiet, Douglas."
(2) Mystery Disc
He was at the bar early, despite Wraith's lifted eyebrow at his departure, slouched comfortably in the back corner and irritating the staff by not buying a drink. The crowd was thin, but not thin enough that she could pick him out immediately when she entered, which she did, almost exactly on time. For a moment, he contented himself with watching her. She was conservatively dressed, but the business-like attire did hug her curves pleasantly. A lovely body and a perfect fit. Probably a Reploid.
She paused in the doorway, looking around suspiciously, but when no one waved to her, she walked to the bar, a small crease of irritation marring her pretty forehead. Douglas decided to let her wait.
Ten minutes and two propositions later, the brown-haired human got to his feet and sauntered over to her, leaning abruptly on her shoulder and leering, "Buy you a drink, gorgeous?"
The manuever nearly got him slapped, but she managed to stop her hand right before it connected with his face, recognition dawning. Definitely a Reploid.
"You know, I never did catch your name," he remarked, taking the seat next to her as if she'd given him a friendly hello.
"Susanna Lloyd," she said, a trace of stiffness in her voice. "Are you going to take the job or not?" Evidently, he'd thrown her entire rhythm, and she was sulking.
"I thought we'd haggle first, if it's all right." He grinned widely, and she favored him with a suspicious stare. He ignored it. "What are you offering?"
"Ten thousand now. Twenty when you give us the information."
"Thirty?" He affected tones of disbelief. "Twenty now. Thirty after."
She scowled at him. "Are you mad?"
"I know code-monkeys who get paid more than that," Douglas snorted. "And besides, with the information your company's going to be getting out of it, you'll more than make up my cost."
Her eyes flickered darkly for a moment, then went distant, as if she was thinking it over. Or listening to an internal transmission. Douglas sighed mentally. "Fine," she said when her expression snapped back into focus. "Fifty. You're very annoying."
"It's one of my finest qualities," he replied pleasantly, wondering at her sudden change. The woman he'd talked to earlier had much more finesse. Susanna, in fact, appeared agitated, as if the last place she wanted to be was here. "So --"
"Detailed instructions," she interrupted him, pressing a small disc into his hand. "They'll scramble after being accessed, so make sure you get everything you need the first time."
"And my pay?"
"On the disc!"
She left hurriedly, before he could ask another question, so he settled for staring rudely at her bottom as she flounced out the door. Once she was well out of sight, he slid from his seat, dropping the disc into his pocket. "Too weird." With a sigh, he shuffled out the door.
As he turned to head back to the mercs and his room, however, a voice remarked, "Interesting. They actually coded credits onto a data disc."
Douglas started, jumping sideways, and turned to glare at Wraith, who was holding his disc up to the setting sun. He started again, slapping his pocket reflexively, then yowled. "Dammit, Wraith! You said you wouldn't follow me!"
"I said no such thing." She handed the disc back to him with a level stare. "There were three agents in that bar. Two outside, but I took care of them."
The human's look of disgust faded to resignation. "Might explain why she was so nervous.." At Wraith's inquisitive stare, he shrugged. "She was smooth as silk over the holo-phone. Ah well. Let's go back and see what's on the disc."
She arched an eyebrow. "You don't think it's what she said it was?"
He grinned. "I don't think she knew!"
Five scans and three hours later, they were still ignorant of the contents of Susanna Lloyd's mysterious disc. The Gadget declared that there were no invasive programs, virii of any kind, hidden sequences, or detonator switches on it while simultaneously announcing that it was unsafe for access. Wraith had lost patience a half-hour into the project and was sitting on a chair, flipping through on of her ward's books on robotics theory. Douglas, personally, was grateful she kept out of his way, but he was rapidly reaching his limits with the obstinate machine.
"One last try," he muttered darkly. "Let's see if you can decode it and dump it raw on the hard drive, shall we?"
The Gadget chirred at him, running a brief test on the plausibility of that option. Moments later, the machine confirmed the operation's viability and announced that it would take fifteen hours to complete.
"How long?" Wraith asked without looking up.
"Fifteen hours.." The human got to his feet. "I'm going to bed."
"I'll wake you if he finishes."
Douglas grunted, kicking his sneakers off and flopping, fully clothed, on his bed. He had classes the following morning, but he was likely to skip them anyway for the sake of research. He still had a couple of friends at his father's lab. They could probably give him some of the information he needed. He was musing on the possible uses of fifty thousand credits when sleep swept in and gently pushed his eyes closed.
It had only been an hour and a half before the sound of the door buzzer rousted him. He rubbed his eyes, head buzzing crabbily, and rolled over to see Wraith half-bent over the bed, about to wake him. "Who'sit?" he mumbled, and she frowned slightly.
"Go and answer."
That was a bad sign. He sighed, pushing off the bed, and ambled over to the door, still sock-footed. Wraith stayed close at his elbow, eyes alert. "I wish you'd just tell me," he muttered, tapping the door open. He turned his head back to the now-open door and froze.
"Douglas Brandt?" asked the blue-uniformed Reploid.
Douglas took a step sharply backward, bumping into Wraith, who grabbed his arm in an iron grip and held him still. Her message was clear. Don't run. "Yes," he said, voice rasping.
"Sergeant Bael, Detective Finnigan." At the second name, he gestured to the human woman at his side. "We have a couple of questions -- mind if we come in?"
They weren't arresting him. Was that good or bad? If they weren't arresting him, what did they want? He stepped aside awkwardly, as Wraith still held him, and gestured to the dim room, now lit only by the glow of his monitor. The officers stepped inside, eyeing his quarters with professional interest, then the Reploid spoke again.
"Do you know this woman?" he asked, holding up a holo-image.
Wraith released Douglas and turned on the light. The detective nodded her approval and continued her inspection of the room, looking at the Gadget curiously.
Douglas looked away from the pair to the image, and his breath caught. "Susanna Lloyd," he said blankly. "But.." The woman in the image was very clearly human. She was also very clearly dead.
(3) Old Demons
Douglas wobbled on his feet, prompting Wraith to return to his side. She took in the image without comment, then asked, "What happened?"
Sergeant Bael scratched the back of his head. "Miss Lloyd was murdered, if you didn't guess." He snapped the hologram off and put it away. "And we're thinking that Douglas, here, was the last person to see her alive."
The human felt a thin scream rise into his throat, and he crushed it brutally before it came out. "I see.."
"Can you tell us what happened?"
He glanced warily at Wraith, who nodded. Tell them everything. He did. When he finished his narrative, Detective Finnigan had returned to her partner. "I'm afraid we'll have to take that disc."
Douglas glanced over at the computer -- and at the Gadget, who was sprawled out next to it, still at work. "It's.. I mean.. I'd be happy to give it to you, but.."
She frowned at him. "You can't interrupt the process?"
"It.. might damage it." This was not entirely the truth, but in spite of his mounting terror, he'd be damned if he let them run off with his assignment and his pay. "I can bring it by tomorrow.." he offered.
The pair exchanged a thoughtful glance, and Bael nodded. "That'll be fine." He paused. "Well, we've taken up enough of your time. Call us if you remember anything else." They exited, leaving Douglas holding a business card loosely in his hand.
After a moment, it fluttered to the floor, and Wraith had barely a second's notice to catch her ward before he went crashing after it. "Sorry," he mumbled, wondering why his legs had stopped working.
She didn't respond, supporting his weight easily and moving him over to the bed. She left him there long enough to lock the door, then returned, settling carefully beside him. "Douglas."
He was staring at the floor, hands clenched around each other. Every once in a while, a tremor shook him. She sighed, laying a hand gently between his shoulders and rubbing at the knot of tension there. "They're gone. They weren't here for you."
A shudder shook him, but this time it didn't stop. "I thought.. they finally.. oh god." His hands unclasped and he buried his face in them, still shaking.
She hushed him, pulling him to lean on her shoulder, and removed his hand, stroking his hair comfortingly. His hands dropped from his face, and he wound his arms around her, the terrified embrace she remembered from six years ago. "They're gone," she murmured soothingly. "They're gone." After a few moments, she began to sing, a sleepy melody that she had sung when he was a child, and rocked him quietly until his trembling ceased.
By morning, Douglas had settled into an exhausted and dreamless sleep, and Wraith remained by his bedside, letting him rest -- even though he wound up missing his morning classes, and the Gadget buzzed around annoyingly because it had completed its assignment. She was finally at the point of shutting it down with a baseball bat when the human stirred, sitting up groggily.
"He got bored and decoded the credits." In fact, he had decoded them one by one, bleeping after each finished.
The human rubbed his eyes, swinging his feet to the floor. "Were they all there?" Something was nagging at the back of his mind, but he couldn't remember exactly what.
"And more. Seventy thousand, total." Wraith was leaning over at the terminal, eyes intent on the screen.
"That's not right.. she barely wanted to pay me thirty." He got up, scratching an itch. "And only twenty up front."
"You're the one who said she didn't know what was actually on the disc." She turned her head to give him a sober look. "Are you all right?"
"Uh-huh." He sat down in the chair with a slight thump and scanned the data the Gadget had dumped off the disc. He rubbed his temple. "This looks like code."
"Can you make sense of it?"
He sighed. "I hate programming."
She gave a soft snort. "Hate it if you like, but it is one of your talents."
"Mm." He ran his fingers through his hair, yawning. "Hey, can you go get me some cappucino from the Mess? I need a pick-me-up."
She hesitated. "I'd prefer it if you came with me."
He turned to her with a grimace. "Wraith, you don't need to put me on suicide watch. Just get me a drink."
The dark-skinned Reploid folded her arms, sounding slightly huffy. "If you insist." She stalked stiffly out the door and shut it a little harder than necessary. Douglas sighed. He'd apologize to her later. Right now what mattered was this slop-heap sitting on his hard drive.
A few silent moments passed, and the door opened and shut, this time quietly. "That was quick," he remarked, but when he turned his head, he saw a small, purple cat sitting in the doorway, scratching behind one ear.
"Hullo, Munchie." He turned back to the computer after she'd meowed a response. "You've been scarce the past couple of days." She didn't actually respond to his remark, too busy clambering into his lap and curling up drowsily. "Ah well." He transferred the decoded credits into his account, smiling a little contentedly. Now maybe he could afford a couple of those upgrades he'd been needing.
And maybe a little something for Wraith, who returned with his caffeine-laden breakfast in due time, glancing with lifted eyebrow at the occupant of his lap. She'd tried several times to Munchie-proof the door with no success whatsoever.
"Any luck with that code?"
"It's laid out funny," he offered unhelpfully.
He pushed the chair away from the terminal, scooping Munchie out of his lap and settling her up on his shoulder. She made a disgruntled sound but continued to snooze. "I'm gonna take it over to the lab and see if Keichi can't make a little sense of it."
"Will he help?"
"Sure. He's got no reason not to."
"Even though you're going to feed a rival company information."
Douglas shot her an exasperated look. "Do you stick your nose into everything?"
"It's my job, Douglas."
He rolled his eyes. "I don't know enough about what's going on right now. I want to know what this information is.. and then I'll see what I can do about it, all right?"
Her gaze was hard. "Fine."
Great, now I made her even madder. "Can you take the disc to the cops?" he asked, attempting to straighten out a tremor in his voice at the thought of going to a police station. "Tell them to be careful of the contents, though. The last thing I need is to accidentally screw up the police computer network."
"If you wish."
He winced at her frosty tone. Might as well finish the job. "And I'd really appreciate you not running straight to my dad about this, if you don't mind."
The look she shot him was pure venom. Munchie mrred as he shifted her to his other shoulder in an attempt to keep from meeting her gaze.
"I know what I'm doing, Wraith."
This was greeted with a skeptical snort. He felt a flare of resentment and was unable to keep from snapping, "Believe me or don't, I don't care! But I'm going to do it!"
Munchie startled awake and yowled her displeasure, voice doubling in volume when Douglas dumped her unceremoniously from the bed and marched out the door after grabbing and disconnecting the Gadget. He slammed it as hard as he could, feeling childish, but continued his headlong rush out of the building.
He was halfway to the lab when he finally stopped and took a deep breath. It wouldn't do him any good to get there in this state. Keichi was the senior scientist on his father's staff, and he was bound to report the visit to his father. The least he could do was look the picture of innocence. Wraith would say it was impossible, he thought with a wince, wondering if she'd actually carry through with her part.
(4) Brotherhood of Geeks
His cloud of gloom lifted almost immediately upon opening the door to his father's primary lab facility.
"Hey, stranger! It's been ages since you've darkened our door!" A woman slightly older than him, lab coat hastily thrown on over jeans and sneakers, lunged out of nowhere to catch him in a friendly headlock.
Douglas laughed, stumbling forward to permit the door to swing shut, and twisted his head around to grin up at her. "Heya, Brock."
Melissa Brock released him with an mock-indignant whuff, putting one hand on her hip and wagging the index finger of the other at him. "'Heya'? That's all you have to say to me? And here I thought we were the very best of friends!"
He pulled himself upright and promptly offered her a sweeping bow. "I'm sorrier than I can ever express for standing you up that Saturday -- how can I make it up to you?"
She laughed, shaking her head. "Seriously, it's been too long. What brings you out to our neck of the woods?"
"I needed to see Keichi," he told her easily, pulling the Gadget out for inspection. "Got some data I thought he might be able to help me with."
She smacked her forehead, sighing melodramatically. "I might have known. What am I supposed to think when I can't compete with a man twice my age?"
"And not nearly as pretty," Douglas supplied, grinning.
She snorted, reaching over to pull on his cheek. "You little snot, my mother used to change your diapers."
"Sure, if Wraith ever let her," he said impishly. "Is he around?"
"Yeah, let me buzz him." She ambled to one of the convenient wall panels and tapped in an extension. Keichi answered after two rings, looking unusually harried. His dark hair had a few more strands of silver than Douglas remembered, and his face was a little more lined.
"What is it?"
Brock put on her best smile. "There's this weird guy down in the lobby who wants to talk to you --" She shot an impish look at Douglas, who made a noise of protest. "I dunno, though, he looks kind of scruffy, and he seems to think he's a ladies' man --"
"Brock! Let me talk to him --" He tried to push her out of the way, but she held him off, laughing.
"I'll be right down," said Keichi, looking mystified. The screen went blank, and the shoving match stopped as the two darted over to the elevators to wait for him.
When the doors swished open, heralding the scientist's arrival, both them stuck their hands in the air as if asking a teacher to call on him. "Hi, Dr. Shimura!" they chirped in unison, then collapsed in gales of laughter.
The doors almost shut again before the older man recovered from his stunned silence, not understanding the joke in the least. "Douglas Brandt, is that you?"
Douglas, now recovered, stood up and saluted. "That's me!" He grinned. "Good to see you again, Keichi."
Keichi reached over and caught his hand in a firm clasp. "It's been too long."
"So I'm told," the brown-haired human murmured sheepishly.
"Heh, I'll let you two catch up," said Brock. "Reports!" She waved the clipboard she'd been carrying threateningly and trotted off up a hallway, blowing Douglas a kiss over her shoulder.
"What brings you here?" Keichi smiled, though his brow bore a concerned crease.
"I've got some data I want you to look at, if you're not too busy.." He activated the Gadget so he wouldn't have to carry it. The machine beeped irritably at him, hovering in midair. "It's all stored on my buddy here."
"Of course. Did you build him?" the older man eyed the machine with interest, smiling when it whirred at him.
"Yeah!" Douglas said enthusiastically, then sobered. "Er, but I can tell you about that later. The data's important. I'll explain on the way."
Keichi nodded, and they stepped into the elevator. By the time they'd reached the upper floors, the scientist's face was grave. "I'm glad you were cautious. That is indeed very strange." He plucked the Gadget from the air (it whirred furiously) and reeled out a bit of its network cable.
"We can use this machine," he remarked, heading through an open door on the hallway. "It's used to run dummy programs -- isolated from the rest of the network."
"Handy." Douglas scratched his head, then stuffed his hands in his pockets, watching his father's right-hand man set everything up. "What really gets me is that lady.. she didn't seem to have a clue what was going on. Like she thought I was someone else entirely."
"Hmm.." He had the code open now and was browsing it lazily. He frowned a bit, eyes widening. "You say a woman in a bar gave you this?"
"Yeah ..." The younger man glanced at the screen. "What's up?"
"This is -- it looks like the groundwork for the personality code of a Reploid, but it isn't quite correct. Several of the variables are in unusual places -- potentially unstable ones, at that. And it's tagged on after an extremely invasive viral program."
Douglas blinked, cringing inwardly. "The Gadget said it didn't detect any virii."
"It's an unusual one. Custom-coded."
"How come I couldn't figure all this out?" Douglas asked himself irritably, and Keichi laughed.
"It's all very jumbled," he said, smiling. "I recognized it primarily because.." His brow furrowed. "It's very similar to one of our projects."
"Too weird," the younger murmured.
"If it's all right, may I keep a copy? I'd like to run some comparisons."
"Uh? Oh, sure." Douglas shook his head, clearing cobwebs of thought. "Lemme know if you find anything interesting."
"Of course." He smiled. "It is good to see you again."
Douglas grinned. "The same." He glanced at a wall clock and winced. "I better get going. I'll see you around!"
He waved over his shoulder as he ran out the door and saw the man's answering wave paired with a sad smile. He felt a surge of guilt. I can't believe I've forgotten all these friends I have. As he stepped off the elevator, he narrowly missed another headlock from Brock.
"Darnit," she said, regaining her balance. "Clipboards throw me off balance."
"A likely excuse."
"Heh." She dusted herself off and smiled a smile similar to Keichi's. "You should come by more often, Doug. The old man misses you awfully. It's just not the same arguing theory with me."
He attempted a weak returning grin. "I'll see what I can do. I've missed you guys, too," he offered up to soften the blow.
She accepted the token with a sigh, then shooed him toward the door. "Out, out with you! The sooner you go, the sooner you come back, right?"
He laughed and let her push him out. "Sure thing." Then the door swung shut and he was standing alone in front of the building. "Time to go home." He ran back most of the way, something he hadn't done for fun in quite a while, and nearly collided with Wraith as he rounded the corner. They froze in place for a moment.
"So.. uh.. you get it delivered?" he asked warily.
She shrugged. "I said I would, didn't I?"
"You.. remembered to tell them to be careful, right?"
She gave him a level stare.
"All right, all right." They went into the building side by side, Douglas rapidly relating what he'd found out at the lab. "I don't know any way to find out what's going on besides going straight to the source, you know?" he said as the door to his room swished open.
Wraith's face froze, and she clapped a hand to his shoulder.
"What?" He spun his head to look and could only stare blankly. "What the.. hell?"