A CD I wrote during a spell when I thought I might try being more active in the FR. As usual, the impulse petered out, but at least I finished the CD.

Whistling in the Dark
(1) The Devil Himself

She paused as if to catch her breath, leaning heavily against the concrete wall of the abandoned underground, and stared hollowly ahead into the darkness, where someone was searching for her -- searching in order to finish the job he had begun. As a Reploid, catching her breath was a singularly pointless gesture, but it was still several moments before she could drag herself onward, leaving a trail of dark fluid behind her on the wall and floor.

It was a situation Wraith had rarely found herself in. Tight places were for Douglas to work himself into and her to work them both out of. She cut short a hissing intake of breath -- amusement or pain she wasn't entirely sure -- and stopped again, listening. She thought she'd heard the casual, off-key humming again, but she heard only silence, and nothing appeared on any of her scans. Frowning, she pushed onward again, double-checking her auto-repair systems even though she knew full well her damage was much more than they could handle.

Frustrated, she pulled herself forward with a fierce wrench, then gave a short gasp when the wall of the tunnel crumbled to nothingness, sending her tumbling down into a small heap of rubble. She swore, fighting back a howl of pain as grit worked its way into her injuries. The noise was more than enough to alert her pursuer, not, she mused grimly, that her trail would be too difficult to follow.

She forced herself upright, struggling into a sitting position and scooting until she felt her back hit a solid wall. Swallowing, she levered herself up, clutching a hand reflexively to the gaping hole in her side. With a grimace, she forced it away, instead reaching for her kodachi and dagger. He'd be along soon, and she refused to meet him cringing in a corner like a whipped dog. She wished her teleport unit wasn't broken. She hated desperate last stands.

He was, however, polite enough not to make her wait. Before long, she heard his lazy, measured footsteps and the low sound of his thoughtful, amused whistle. Padding almost inaudibly beside him, she knew, would be his dog, the one who had nearly hamstrung her in their first encounter.

Wraith drew herself up into a fighting stance as his shadow fell across her vision, a bluff, but also her last resort. He turned to her with the smile she'd seen on the streets above, though he was backlit even in the dim underground and she couldn't see his face at all. "Quite a chase, noble lady," he murmured, "though it got a little slow in the end, did it not?"

She didn't answer him, focusing on keeping herself upright and matching his gaze, framed by iron-gray hair and a matching beard. Such ordinary features on this demon of a Reploid. Her mouth twitched up into a smile.

"Ah, good," he said, apparently catching the expression. "I would hate to see so noble and beautiful a creature embrace death with only fear in her eyes."

It happened in an instant -- her defensive stance and his sudden charge, just as suddenly halted by a flash of golden light that arced gracefully between them to pin his out-thrust arm against the wall.

Wraith stared, even as he did, at the plasma axe that had appeared there, and she sagged slightly in recognition, only to tense again when the owner's voice -- not heard often, but etched into her mind -- echoed in the darkness. "How many times, Asher, do I have to define for you targets that are off limits?"

The tall, gray Reploid smiled, apparently pleased, despite his injury. He reached up to wrench the axe free, arm falling to his side to dangle limply as he tossed the weapon back to its owner. "She was an admirable opponent," he said, paying Wraith no further heed as he turned to face the other. "I would have been honored to add her name, but it seems today is not the day."

"Dammit, Asher," the other grated, an edge of real anger in his voice -- something Wraith had not heard before in her brief encounters with him. When he continued, however, his tone had returned to normal, sounding much as if he was scolding a wayward child. "This is one of the few things I'm very particular about, and I know I've told you so before. If you have a problem with me, Asher, you bring it to me. You don't involve my underlings, my teammates, or my family."

For a brief, bleared moment, Wraith was uncertain she was actually hearing and seeing the things before her, but it only took Asher's chuckle to remind her of the reality of the scene she faced. "You are so difficult to get ahold of, Bantau, but I suppose I was a bit out of line."

"Then I suggest you take your leave before things get much worse for you."

Asher was unfazed by the menace in his voice, giving a liquid shrug and reaching down to touch his canine partner's head. "You forget, my friend, it's more or less an even game now ... I wouldn't mind taking your name as well."

Bantau gave a faint snort. "You seem to think I came unprepared."

Footsteps sounded on the other side of the hallway, and Asher's shoulders gave a faint jerk. Then he chuckled again, scratching the dog behind its ears. "Outmatched today, then." He turned to Wraith with a thin smile and saluted briefly with his free hand. "Another time, noble lady." Then he and his dog were gone in a flash of light.

Silence fell briefly, and Wraith broke it by dropping heavily to one knee, breath rasping. Bantau appeared in the cavity she'd fallen through, brushing aside her attempts to ward him off with her knife. "My apologies, Jo, I guess that ran a little long."

Her vision grew hazy as she attempted to push him off, and he ignored her once again, reaching behind her to scoop her off the ground completely. "It's a bit of a jog back to our home base, but we'll be taking a shortcut or two. Hope you don't mind."

Her wild protestations went utterly unvoiced as her consciousness gave way to a haze of black, only briefly and vaguely aware of his footsteps bearing her away. She woke once when she was jostled into what seemed to be a small transport, but the hum of the motor soon lulled her back under, and she didn't wake again until a soft voice summoned her from the depths.

"Morning, Jo -- rise and shine. Rickett says you should be just about all right for movin' around again."

For a moment, the voice was unfamiliar, as was the name. She was wholly disoriented until she opened her eyes and saw her twin's face hanging in the air above hers. At her expression, his mouth twisted into an ironic grimace. "And here I was actually worried about you, Jo."

"Where am I?" She sat up, pushing him aside when he refused to move on his own.

"Two guesses!" he replied with apparent cheer, waving a hand around what seemed to be a small, poorly-equipped medical room.

She didn't answer him, swinging her feet out over the edge of the cot and getting to her feet. To her surprise, she felt no ill effects, and her balance was steady -- the wounds in her leg and side were all but gone. "How long have I been here?"

He didn't seem bothered by her questions, but he also didn't answer immediately, instead neatly arranging a small stack of bandages. "Two days, three maybe." He glanced at her again, frowning. "Your wounds were fairly severe. Asher does good work, unfortunately."

Wraith scowled at him. "He had no reason to attack me."

"He doesn't often need one." Bantau smiled thoughtfully, brushing back a lock of his white hair and turning to face her. "Unfortunately, we've crossed paths a few times, he and I, and therein lies his reason, if you take my meaning." The smile faded slightly. "Though I am not completely sure how he came by that information."

"I don't have any connection to you."

His features froze, then a flash of something darker and hotter skittered across his face before it resumed its usual expression of lazy amusement. "Cold, Jo. Very cold." He shook his head, an edged grin drawing up one corner of his mouth. "Cuts me, really."

She answered him with a silent stare, covering the sudden wrench in her gut with flat stoicism. "I need to go back."

He turned his gaze from her again, a sheet of his white hair falling across his face to hide whatever expression was there. She had no way to guess. "Where's your pup?"

"He didn't come along."

Bantau tilted his head back, gaze drifting to the ceiling. "Ah, Jo.. you shouldn't test me so."

The wrench returned, but she managed to keep its manifestation minimal, tightening her grip on the edge of the cot. He glanced over at her, and the smile returned, briefly, as he forced himself to relax, shoulders jerking once as he straightened. "I suppose I don't really mind, since it's you." He paused, considering her a moment, then stalked over to the cot to stand before her, arms lazily crossed.

Wraith had almost mustered the courage to shove him sharply aside and start for the door when he lunged at her, planting one hand on the wall next to her head as she jerked instinctively backward, hard enough that her impact with the wall was painful. He drew closer to her, stopping with their faces only an inch apart. "But there's a limit to my generosity, Jo.. even for you." Then he pushed away just as abruptly, starting for the door. "I'll arrange transport back -- don't go wandering. You may have recovered, but it still wouldn't be terribly good for your health."

The room had been empty for several minutes before she could force herself to move, and then it was only to slump slowly down onto the cot. Slowly, she pulled herself upright, and even more slowly buried her face in her hands, silently shaking her head and wishing for a bleared moment there was a god she could pray to for guidance.

(2) Uprooted Again

The transport rolled to a halt in front of the Stomping Grounds with little noise and less ceremony. Its side door slid open to eject its single passenger, a small woman with skin the color of pitch and hair that flashed blindingly white in the morning sunlight, then the door slid closed and it pulled away, leaving her standing alone on the street. Several minutes passed before she moved, giving herself a slight shake, as if to clear away any shadows that clung to her. She took a step and looked up, standing in place again with the expression of one whose most terrible fears have been confirmed.

Then she walked, step by plodding step, into the mercenaries' base and toward her quarters.

Douglas frowned slightly, scooping a metal panel off the coffee table and eyeing it for a moment before tossing it to the floor and onto a growing heap of debris. The floor was littered with similar, everything from pieces of wire to moving joints. Nearby, a large canine figure sat in repose, apparently shut down. Its central unit, a device that looked like a small, flat box with legs, was whirring back and forth across the desk agitatedly, chirping at the human with apparent alarm.

"Look, I know it's in here somewhere --" He startled, turning to face his door as it opened to admit his bodyguard. He blinked. "Wraith! Where've you been? You disappeared in the middle of a mission, we just got back -- why weren't you there for the debriefing?"

Her shoulders gave a jerk and she looked at him sharply, then looked at the floor, apparently mustering her concentration to change the subject. "What is that?"

"I would say it's a mess," he said comfortably, turning back to the heap. "A plasma bolt hit Fisker just right, and I've been having trouble repairing his stabilizers."

"What a pity." Her tone was dry.

The robot on the desk made a spluttering noise that sounded remarkably like a hiss.

"Yeah," the human drawled, continuing to sift through the parts on the table. "I can't seem to find any replacement parts for him, and he's getting a little cranky."

"I see." Wraith picked her way lightly through the disarray, stooping to sweep one hand under the bed. A moment later, she straightened, turning to offer Douglas what she'd found.

"Ah! That's it!" he chirped, snatching it immediately and turning back to the canine body. "As expected from my brilliant and beautiful bodyguard --"

"Replace it and be quick," she interrupted him. "Then pack all this up. We're leaving."

"Yeah, yeah, of course I'll clean it up -- what?" He stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded, dropping the replacement part from fingers suddenly nerveless. It rolled under the table with a faint clunk that sounded loud in the suddenly quiet room.

"We've been here too long. It's time to move on." Somehow, she found herself unable to lift her gaze from the part she'd found, studying its contours instead of the expression -- so like betrayal -- that flashed across her ward's face.

"You're joking.. right?" His voice was hoarse, weak. "'Been here too long'? What the hell, Wraith, nobody's even chasing me anymore."

"You don't know that," she said shortly. "We probably should have moved when you were shot."

The human's back stiffened slightly. "That was my own stupid mistake," he said, voice low. "It didn't have anything to do with being here."

"That's beside the point," she barked, eyes flashing. "We're leaving -- it's not up for discussion!"

"And what if I don't go?" Douglas asked flatly, folding his arms in a gesture he'd inherited from his father, now somehow more menacing than it had been in his teenage days. Wraith stiffened, jaw clenching, unable to think of a suitable reply before he spoke on. "You've more than fulfilled the duty required of you, so if you want to leave, then leave -- but don't try to drag me into it."

"I --"

"I've got a life here -- at least a hell of a lot more of one than I have in seven years -- and I'm not gonna give it up just because you got spooked --" She attempted to interrupt him again, but he overrode her. "What happened out there, Wraith?"

"Nothing," she snapped immediately, but he was not to be stopped.

"Did he show up again? Is that where you were for three days?! What did he do?"

"It's not your --"

"Don't you dare say it's not my business!" His voice rose in volume. "If what he did is what's making you try to throw away what little stability we've got here, then it damn well is my business! What did he do?! Why the hell are you so scared of him?"

"Because aside from you, he's the only person who's ever made me feel completely helpless!" she burst out savagely, fists clenched at her sides.

In the moment of silence that followed her statement, a business-like rap sounded on the doorframe before the door, still open slightly to the hallway, pushed in again. A Reploid woman in overalls and a grimy hat stood in the doorway, expression made mostly unreadable by a pair of heavy shades. "Sorry to interrupt," she said, raising a hand in a half-salute. "Just bringing up the parts you asked for."

Douglas cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his neck uneasily. "Uh.. thanks, Chaille. So.. you.. heard all that, huh?"

"I'd say most of the hallway heard all that, kiddo," she said easily. "Lucky for you, though, I don't think they care."

Wraith, silent until then, made a noise of deep disgust and pushed her way out, past Chaille and into her room next door. Once the door shut behind her -- slammed more viciously than she'd intended -- she set to work packing, efforts made feverish by her barely contained rage. It was only after she'd circled the room three times in an impotent fury that she realized everything she owned was already accounted for, fitted neatly into a single duffel bag.

She sank down on her bed, slowly running her fingers through her loosely ponytailed hair, and stared, unseeing, at the far wall, irony coloring her expression. It was in her nature not to settle in, to avoid connections and not accumulate baggage. So many times in the past she had been forced to drop everything on a moment's notice, even before Douglas' final leavetaking from his father's home, though more so afterward. Were things different now? The unfairness of her decision was evident, but she could think of no alternatives.

Giving a soft sigh, she lay down on the mattress, curling one arm up to drag her pillow down under her head. They had rarely fought, she and her ward, even during difficult ages and situations, though she did recall a memorable event involving the thievery of several high end computer parts from his father's lab. Her eyes drifted halfway shut, mind drifting over old memories -- data? -- as if in search of a solution.

She stayed that way for an hour, perhaps more, before rising into a sitting position and getting to her feet to sling the duffel bag with all her belongings over her shoulder. She walked silently into the hallway, finding it empty, to her relief, then walked to Douglas' door and hesitated once before she knocked.

The door swung open immediately. Douglas stood on the other side, Fisker -- evidently repaired -- next to him with two bags strapped to his back. The human himself had a heavy backpack on his shoulders. "Time to go?" he asked.

Wraith nodded. "You're ready?" she managed after a moment.

He shrugged. "Got everything I need."

She nodded again and turned to start up the hall. He followed in silence, his demi-canine companion casting a puzzled glance between his master and the home he'd known as they walked away.

(3) Padding Footsteps

The silence continued even after they had a motel room, the automatic paranoia of checking for bugs and setting up securing the perimeter not so automatic anymore. Douglas sank onto the single bed with a very faint grunt, releasing the cord that held the packs on Fisker's back so the dog-thing could wander a little more freely. Wraith, upon finishing her sweep, sat down in one of two chairs near a rickety table, hands resting loosely in her lap.

Observing her state of false repose, the human double-checked the ammunition in his rifle before flopping down on the bed and stretching. Fisker settled down at the end of the bed and activated his shutdown switch. "I'm going to sleep," Douglas said.

She nodded shortly, and he turned to face the wall. After several minutes, she rose to dim the lamp, half turned to go back to her silent watch when Douglas spoke, sounding only a little drowsy. "I was thinking, you know, the Caribbean might be nice."

Wraith turned her head to look at him, but he was still facing away, as if to make conversation with the wall.

"Maybe Bermuda? I don't know, though. It all seems a little tropical, and Fisker doesn't respond well to humidity."

She returned her gaze to the door.

"Besides, I'm a skinny nerd, so the beaches wouldn't do much for me -- aside from the view." He paused, apparently thinking. "Then I thought, maybe, Colorado. It's a nice, generic place to move, and I hear it's really pretty. I've always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. I thought we could make a road trip out of it, you know? We're already on the move, why not see some historic sites while we're at it?"

He fell silent. It took her several moments to realize he was waiting for a reply. "That sounds nice," she said at last, voice almost too soft for him to hear.

"Yeah!" he said, suddenly warming to his subject. "I thought --" Then he stopped in mid-sentence as the gentle hush and sigh of two teleports sounded in the room and promptly set off every sensor in the room, enveloping them all in a riot of noise.

In the moment it took the two infiltrators to finish materializing, Wraith was on the nearest, a slender Reploid female with a long ponytail of pale green. She seemed startled, first by the sudden assault and next by the fact she'd been noticed so quickly. Quick reflexes saved her from serious injury, deflecting the blow from Wraith's kodachi with a hurried parry from a plasma knife.

She gave a sharp hiss of "Pell -- Pell!" and Wraith slithered out of the way of a slicing overhead blow from the other attacker, a twin to the first in every way except her hair, short-cropped and feathered around her face. As the dark Reploid gave way, the twins pressed in, neither particularly skillful with their weapons, but each good enough that two of them made fending them off a challenge. She wasted no time on the mental swearing she strongly desired to indulge in, reaching instead for one of her slim throwing knives and flicking one at the first girl while she blocked a blow from the one named Pell.

A short yelp told her the knife had at least grazed its target, and she took that brief respite to bring into play the kodachi's counterpart, a fat, hooked knife designed with evisceration in mind. She slashed once at Pell, then fell back again as the other rejoined the fight with renewed energy, apparently taking the knife wound very personally.

Wraith shuffled back to make room for the longer blade, and it was then that her heel caught on the forgotten chair she had been sitting in. Now she did swear, lurching as she attempted to regain her balance.

Pell gave a triumphant cry, lunging in concert with her twin, when the entire room boomed, and a crackle of energy shot from the general viscinity of the bed to strike her square in the chest. She made a startled noise and fell to the floor, completely still save for a single spasmodic twitch. Her twin stopped in mid-motion, staring at her face, caught in an expression of shock with now-glassy eyes still open. "Pell --"

She was unable to finish, however, as Wraith rolled speedily to her feet and thrust her kodachi neatly through the girl's chest. This stunned her yet more, watching with morbid fascination as her opponent removed the blade with an easy jerk.

To further drive her victory home, the shorter Reploid set the blade against the girl's throat. "You have very little time to explain yourself."

Still seated on the bed, Douglas glanced up from where he had been examining his gun with interest and slowly scooted himself off it, ambling curiously over to look at Pell. "Cool," he said, sounding pleased.

Wraith ignored him, though she noted her captive's gaze darting over to stare at Douglas with something resembling horror. "Did Bantau send you?"

The human blinked, hearing the name, and turned to listen to the conversation.

"Yes," the girl said hoarsely, gaze darting aside again.


"We were ordered to capture you and the human," she said immediately, apparently more comfortable with this lie.

Wraith made a dismissive, disgusted noise and removed the blade from her throat, flicking the blade close enough to draw blood before she swept it away. "Take your trash and go."

"Can't we keep her?" Douglas volunteered, sidling closer as the girl backed away from his bodyguard. "She's kinda cute."

"Be quiet, Douglas," Wraith said shortly, standing aside to permit the girl access to Pell's fallen form.

She slipped jerkily past them, one hand drifting to the wound in her chest, which was trickling fluid. When she knelt, she nearly tumbled, catching herself barely in time to prevent a fall across her twin's body, which she scooped up gently, wobbling as she rose. Just as she flicked her wrist to access her teleporter, Douglas lunged closer, thrusting one hand out to give her bottom an extremely ungentlemanly squeeze.

The girl gave something between a gasp and a shriek, and she turned as if to slap him, but Wraith had beaten her to it, elbowing the human between the shoulders and knocking him the rest of the way to the floor. The green-haired Reploid opened her mouth, then gritted her teeth and twisted her arm around to tap the teleport. "You'll pay for that, human," she spat, too appalled to think of anything more.

As the room fell silent, Wraith glanced down at her grinning ward, mouth set. "I may let her have you."

"It was worth it," he said with evident contentment. Then he sprang to his feet in an easy motion and trotted over to where Fisker still slept. "I've really got to work on his detectors," he sighed, bending down to snap his fingers next to the caninoid's ear.

Fisker came awake at once, growling resentfully at his master. Ignoring the tone, Douglas ruffled his ears, then reached under his chin to disengage the body. A flat panel in its back popped open, and the small box whirred out, chittering in an indignant way. "Work, work," Douglas told him, wagging a finger, then trotted over to flop on the bed, tugging a keyboard out of his bag as he went.

"Not going to sleep?" Wraith asked, trying to keep the amusement out of her voice.

"What, after all that?" He made a tutting noise. "I have analysis to work on!"

She shrugged, smiling faintly, and settled back in her chair to wipe her blades clean. Replacing them in their sheathes, she settled in and leaned her head back, staring at the ceiling. "I doubt they'll be back tonight."

"Probably not," the human agreed, getting suddenly to his feet and waving for the small machine to follow him, holographic display up. He trotted around behind her, pushing her head upright and pointing to what appeared to be a 2D image of a city map.

"Bet you don't know what that is," he said with evident cheer, and before she could respond, he pressed two fingers to the side of her neck. She gave a startled jerk, stiffening, then went limp, body slumping in the chair.

He withdrew his fingers, guilt playing across his features. "Sorry," he murmured, then whistled sharply to the gadget, who chirped once, closing the display and hovering over to his canine body.

"Better work fast," the human remarked. "Probably won't take them too long to find it." He hurried to his bags.

(4) Night Carnival

- It's a trap, Commander. I'm not the brightest bulb, and even I can see that. -

Douglas, slouched in a half doze in front of a dimmed holographic display, came awake with a jerk that nearly upended the gadget, precariously situated on a cardboard box. He bit down on a startled swearword, leaning over to adjust the volume on his headset before turning back to the display and adjusting it against the darkness in the warehouse.

For a moment, things were so still he was afraid he'd been discovered, but the figures silhouetted in the open door suddenly shifted, the central spreading its hands in a lazy shrug.

- You worry too much, Darmot. But that's part of why you're so effective. If what Path told me is correct, it's the pup who set it, and he's hardly a match in a fight. -

- You're forgetting what happened to Pell. -

- On the contrary. - The figure turned back to face the warehouse. He took a step forward, and Douglas saw a smile play across his heavily shadowed features. - I welcome the challenge. -

An answering grin flitted involuntarily across Douglas' face. So do I, he mouthed in answer, but he stayed silent, waiting for the Maverick to take the next step. It hadn't been difficult to get the homing beacon in place, particularly since he hadn't wanted it hidden, and the adhesive would have kept it there long enough to suit his purposes. His head was still a bit tender where his ever-affectionate bodyguard had elbowed him, but that was the price to pay. Getting in position had been more of a trick, as he hadn't gotten the supplies to install all of Fisker's flight and booster capabilities, and he wasn't much on pony rides anyway.

He glanced briefly at the reclining, canine form, hatch open to receive the small machine at a moment's notice. Everything was going smoothly -- a sure sign that disaster was about to strike.

- I don't think you should go alone. -

Douglas turned his gaze back to the display with a faint scowl. Don't even think about it. He hadn't tested on multiple individuals, and this was not, in his opinion, the time for a trial run.

The larger figure took a step forward, but Bantau stopped him, voice taking a faint undertone of menace. - You and Ellen are going to stay outside and keep watch. Be ready. -

- Sir. - Two voices gave their reluctant assent, and Bantau walked inside the warehouse, three steps taking him completely into the shadows.

Once he was clear of the doors, they ground shut behind him with a thundering clang, and Douglas was pleased to see the Maverick leader made no move to flee. Instead, he watched them close with interest and turned back to face the empty insides. - Melodramatic, don't you think? - he asked of the darkness.

"It got the job done," Douglas answered him agreeably, another keystroke patching his voice through to the speakers inside the warehouse, situated at various points around the room.

Bantau listened for a moment in fascination and pivoted slowly on the spot, as if he was admiring the scenery instead of searching for the origin of the voice. Douglas watched him for a moment, then shrugged.

"I suppose you've figured out why you're here," he said, leaning back slightly in his chair.

- A chivalrous attempt to defend -- or avenge -- Jo's honor was my guess. - He continued to pivot, stopping when he reached his original position.

"Not bad," Douglas told him, grinning. "She's one of my favorite people, see, and I don't like it when folks mess with her."

- I can only imagine. - He was still watching silently, though the pivoting had stopped, as if waiting for some cue, a signal to act. Douglas smiled and tapped another key. The sound of a soda can striking concrete echoed heavily in the warehouse. The Reploid whirled instantly to face the direction the sound, and, almost as quickly, a flash of yellow light spun wildly through the darkness to colide with the far wall in a sizzle of sparks.

"Nice aim," said Douglas, and he tapped another button. "But those speakers are damn expensive, you know?"

Startled, Bantau swore, moving as if to retrieve his axe, then he stopped. His arms hung limp at his sides, but his eyes darted around the room in a parody of attentiveness, confusion and anger in his wild gaze. - What is this? -

"Well, that would be telling." Douglas leaned forward, tapping another key. "Right at the moment, I'm keeping you upright, but I've pretty much cut your body off from its control centers." He permitted himself the briefest moment of self-satisfaction, then tightened the field slightly, just to make sure.

Wraith stirred very slowly, limbs shaking from the last traces of the drug. At first, her thoughts were muddled, as she had difficulty rationalizing the improbability of what had happened. Then, unwillingly at first but with increasing speed, the implications came crashing down on her, and she sprang to her feet, all unsteadiness gone, and double-checked her weapons before bolting for the door.

She called up the last image she had seen before unconsciousness had taken her, the marked map, and started to run. Whatever else he had intended, she was his backup. And quite possibly going to kill him herself.

So focused was she on her intended destination, she nearly collided with the figure coming around the corner toward her. Split second reflexes saved her from being caught in that iron grip, and she sprang backward, ripping her kodachi from its sheathe and dropping into a fighting stance when she had her footing.

He watched her with apparent interest, reaching one hand up to scratch his neatly trimmed beard, then he smiled. "We meet again, noble lady."

A ghastly laugh sounded from Bantau's position. - Very clever, pup. I'm embarrassed to say I underestimated you. -

Douglas grinned. "Yeah, I get that a lot." He settled back slightly, scratching the back of his head and running once more over the script he'd had planned. "But hey, seein' as we understand each other -- I've got a couple of requests."

- I imagine you do. - The Reploid's voice was flat, all trace of humor gone from his tone. - And I imagine one of them is that I leave precious Jo in peace. -

"Yeah, you got that one pretty much on the nose, but there's more to it than that." Douglas rubbed his hands together, a beautific smile on his face. "See, if you want out of here in one piece, not only do you leave Wraith the hell alone, you pull all -- and that's all -- your surveillance on us. And after you do that, you go through and erase every file and document that connects her to you."

Bantau's jaw clenched. - I fail to see the necessity. -

"Oh, but you do." Douglas leaned forward again, folding his hands underneath his chin and injecting a note of menace into his tone. "I know you get a real thrill out of thinking you own some part of her because her schematics were on file with yours when you were first being built, and I know it'll be a real kick in the crotch to have to remove every single one of those from existence."

- So I am afraid I will have to decline your generous offer,- the Reploid retorted nastily. - And as I am sure you noted, I can have my companions here inside a moment. -

"Yeah, about that.. I'm afraid they'd be chasing their tails. Or at least they would be for about five seconds, until they got caught in the field." The human yawned, glancing at his watch with a mental sigh. Wraith was bound to have woken up by now. "See, here's the other thing. I've been pretty polite and just left you standing there, but if I chose to, I could make you dance an Irish jig or do the Funky Chicken -- or hell, Bantau, it's possible I could even do a permanent sever. It wouldn't kill you, but it'd make things damned inconvenient for a while, yaknow?"

For a moment, only the sound of breathing, made labored by rage, echoed in his headset. - So I see. -

"Then do we have a deal?" Douglas asked him pleasantly, permitting himself to feel another glow of self-satisfaction.

- I haven't much choice, have I? -

"That was the general idea."

- Done, then. -

"Good," Douglas drawled, tapping a short sequence on the keyboard. "I'll be checking up on you, so try to be prompt." He paused, then tapped another key. "Your functions should return in about a half-hour, but I'd go easy for a day or two. I haven't really had much chance to test it, and there might be complications." Without waiting for a response, he closed the connection and directed Fisker to get back in his body and get a move on.

Several minutes later, the warehouse exploded.

(5) These Little Things

"What do you want?" It somehow took no effort to keep the quaver from her voice, cool and professional in the face of the demon who had nearly killed her. She almost laughed at the irony, afraid of one, not afraid of the other. Both demons, but only one had nearly killed her, and she was not afraid of him.

The tall, gray Reploid spread his hands in an easy shrug. "It was a point of interest, noble lady," he said. "I was curious. It appears his information was correct."


"That is his name," he agreed with a nod.

"How did he find us?"

"Oh, the same way he always has, noble lady," he smiled. "He has been watching you since he knew that you still lived."

Wraith's grip on her sword tightened. "How.. do you know that?"

"Because, my fair, I have been watching him." He seemed to realize that this would require further explanation. "In our world, as in yours, there are many factions, many different points of view." A smile crossed his lips. "He and I .. do not share the same point of view."

"So I gathered," she said flatly. "That does not, however, explain why you are here."

He gave the very slightest of bows. "Indeed it does not. But it is the beginning of an explanation." He lifted his soulless gaze to hers. "Will you listen?"

"My options seem limited."

"You are limited only by your curiosity," he said with an easy shrug. "If you do not wish to listen, then I will take my leave of you, but that will also cut short our negotiations."

"What negotiations?" Her voice grew sharp, irritation gnawing at the edges of her control.

"The negotiations we will embark on should you chose to listen to me."

She gave him a long look, but he made no sign that anything he said was in jest. "I'm listening."

He inclined his head once again and spoke. "As I said, he and I have several, deep differences in opinion, and these differences, though perhaps small at first, have led us to an impasse. Either he must yield, or I must, and neither of us, as you have doubtless seen, is particularly inclined to take that backward step."

Wraith nodded briefly, and he continued. The normalcy of his words felt bizarre, making it difficult to keep a grip on the fact that this Reploid had, only days before, to kill her, for no reason that she had understood. "The nature of the disagreement is not important," he said, guessing that she wanted specifics. "The disagreement is information enough for your purposes. Needless to say, we have been exchanging blows for several months, and the situation is rapidly becoming unmanageable." He paused as if to permit her a moment to consider his words. "This, of course, is what brings me to your involvement, dear lady."

"Does it."

His expression became -- very briefly -- indulgent. "Even though you consider yourself unassociated with him, he is still very strongly focused on you. And so, noble lady, you become a bargaining chip."

She bristled, and he raised a hand placatingly.

"That was rude of me. I apologize. But understand this: those who wish to strike at him will strike at you, just as I did." He bowed slightly, and when he rose, the smile was back. "In deference to your lack of involvement, I will no longer target you in my attempts to gain the upper hand. At least at present." He paused once again. "I came in part to apologize for my actions three days ago. I came in part to ascertain whether you, as you also have no love for him, would be willing to take action against him."

"Ridiculous," Wraith barked shortly, mouth suddenly dry. "You're no better than him."

He gazed at her for a moment with his expressionless eyes, guaging or testing her, or perhaps simply refiling her elsewhere in his mind. "Very well," he said at last. "I assume our negotiations are concluded, noble lady."


He smiled once more, and the expression this time became a thing of menace, edged and cold, rather than the polite mask of their previous conversation. "Then understand, noble lady, that I may return again in time and ask your name. And I will have it of you."

Wraith, uncertain how to respond to this, remained silent, attempting to keep her stare cool and unruffled. If it had any effect on him, it was difficult to see, as he turned away and started up the street in silence. Not until he had vanished far into the distance did she relax her stance and lower her weapon.

He stirred slowly, body stinging and aching in ways he hadn't felt in years, vaguely aware of a burble of voices from somewhere above him. His eyes opened, and he found himself in darkness. Briefly disoriented, he called out, and one of the voices answered him, weak with relief.


"Commander!" said another. "Are you all right?"

"The warehouse exploded," explained the first. "We didn't know what to think --"

"Didn't catch the little bastard, either," growled the second.

Bantau swore softly, digging at the rubble he was buried under and ignoring the fresh waves of pain his movements caused. "That's because he wasn't here."

"But --"

"Remotes, Ellen, remotes," the dark-skinned Reploid snapped impatiently, then growled half to himself, "He's a very clever pup, very clever." Above him, Ellen and Darmot were rapidly clearing away debris, a task their muscular builds were well-suited for, which left him only brief time to brood before they helped him into the open air.

Pushing their efforts away, he stood on his own, staring bleakly at what remained of the warehouse that had held him prisoner, all evidence of what had done so destroyed in the blast. "Something will have to be done about him."

Douglas hesitated outside the motel room door, turning his card key over and over in his fingers. There would be no explaining what he'd done, and she was bound to be furious -- maybe more than furious. He had delayed as long as possible, loitering around Misa's bar until she told him to order or go home and face the music, then taking the scenic route past the gardens a few blocks over. Fisker sad down and opened his mouth in a very long yawn.

The human sighed, then stuck his card key in the slot and pushed the door open.

He was unsurprised to see Wraith standing in the middle of the room, arms folded and gaze cast to the floor. Fisker padded past him and flopped at the foot of the bed, but Douglas stood in the doorway and waited, letting the door close behind him with a faint click. He swallowed once, half opening his mouth to speak, but before he could, she had crossed the room in three steps and slapped him once across the face.

An expression of blank astonishment froze on his features as he turned his head back to face her, hand reaching up to his cheek as if to confirm the stinging sensation. Her gaze, when he met it, was icy. Don't ever do that again.

Then she turned away. "Get your things together. We're going back."