Untitled



PREYING ON A HATE DREAM
Part One: The Other Side

For the timid or directionally challenged, the bowels of Von Reichter's fortress were a destined death trap, for they continuously branched into capillary tunnels that often terminated into darkened rooms containing the most unspeakable horrors that could be bred from the sickeningly fertile plain of a deranged scientist's mind. If they didn't render you terrified it was only because they had swiftly rendered you asunder, for most of the nocturnal terrors sprouted claws like scythes and teeth curved like knives, or tendrils like barbed wire that lashed and writhed and continuously coiled among their heavy masses.

It was the Minotaur's ceaseless maze, Frankenstein's dread laboratory, and the warped set of a Tim Burton film all rolled into one.

Fortunately for the diminutive figure goose-stepping determinedly onwards, past tanks filled with the hibernating foetal-forms of the aforementioned horrors, all peacefully adrift within a sea of neon-green chemicals, he knew the intricate blueprints of the laboratory quite well. A decidedly unpleasant chance encounter with a gibbering organism after an errant turn, and without his usual heavily armed escort, had prompted him to take a good hard look at the layout of the building and have it committed it to memory.

The last thing José wanted was to be disembowelled by one of his father's own creations. Aside from the excruciating painfulness of the entire messy procedure, it would be a most unbecoming way for a genius such as himself to meet his end.

As his resolute march carried him through one of Von Reichter's Null labs he deigned to pass a disdainful glance at some of the more twisted occupants it contained. Most of the specimens floating within the vertical tanks, misshapen silhouettes against the sickly neon glow of incubation lamps, he knew to be confirmed failures awaiting complete dissolution so that their organic material could be reformed back into more promising creations. He even recognised a few of the more notorious abortions; there was Upright No.8, who had marked the crucial occasion of its birth by happily attempting to devour itself from its feet upwards. And there, still bent nearly in half as it hung limply in its chemical bath, was good old Quad. No.14, whom fate, not to mention an unfortunate miscalculation on Von Reichter's behalf, had decreed to be born without a spine. At least its flopping fish-like attempts to lift itself from the grating of the floor before the scientist had order it carted away had proven moderately entertaining. And just beyond it he could spot the detestable Vocal No.87, a creature that had emerged from its tank all but perfect in its design. And yet no sooner had the ungrateful beast made its exit had it crumpled to the floor and begun screaming in a most unbearable fashion, as if entreating to the heavens to rid it of some unspeakable misery it could no longer stand.

And the heavens had been swift to provide it solace in the form of an irritable José and a length of rusty piping, the former of which later protested to his father that the confounded noise was interrupting his sleep patterns in a fairly offensive way. The latter remained relatively indifferent to the matter.

His wayward gaze passed over them all with the dispassionate impartiality of a GAP shopper at a Bi-Way sale; they were beneath his concern and unworthy of his attention. And yet when his roving eye happened to cross over a particular familiar silhouette he paused in his jaunt through the lab and stepped up to its tank, hands balled into fists on his hips and a glint of light reflecting venomously off his perfectly round glasses. He smirked.

For there, not to be discounted, was the now infamous female specimen Upright No.12, tall and sleek, humanoid and powerful, whose striking black and orange markings had swiftly earned it the name Oriole. During the period of her creation Von Reichter had long sustained high expectations of her capabilities, even going so far as to boast to a sceptical José of her soon-to-be revealed superior intelligence. She had been his obvious pet favourite of his most recent batch and received the benefit of his almost undivided attention for the better part of a month. José, virtually ignored and bereft of any orders for destruction from his father, had spent the time bored and sulking and had swiftly grown to hate the attractive specimen with nearly the same intensity he did Cybersix and midget jokes.

The day of her first test trial had been a momentous one for the German scientist; he had all but dragged his petulant son away from his own mechanical creations and down to the sub-terrain lab that would be the site of her triumphant emergence from the sealed Sustenance tank. José was to be a witness of her success, of Reichter's success, one to behold the first steady steps of a being that would prove itself the final dread deliverer of death to the detestable Cybersix.

José himself, for the most part, had been largely unimpressed by the entire state of business and irritated by the fact that it was eating into his own valuable time. However, he went along with his father's whims and privately entertained the malicious hope that Von Reichter's precious "Oriole" would somehow prove itself a magnificent flop, and that he would be allowed back to his own lab to continue tinkering with his latest invention in peace. However, test data collected had promised the female would be nothing of the sort and even he had to admit that the specimen, an ominous, baleful-eyed figure suspended in its green sea of toxic Sustenance, was an impressive thing to look at. Powerful arms and legs terminated in curved claws like razors, balanced on a lithe form with all the curves of a human woman and a predatory cat. Even floating stationary in its glass tank it looked as though already in motion; hurtling through space with grace and vigour was clearly destined to be its preferred method of propulsion.

Clearly his father was pleased with the beast. Even as he stood impatiently some three feet from its tank awaiting its emergence, José had half expected the Fixed Ideas gathered for the occasion to rip off some sort of spirited twenty-one gun salute at an unseen command from Von Reichter to honour the event. Instead they had maintained a respectful distance from the tank, evidently instinctively dreading the unborn creature with the same fervour that scientist's son despised it.

The tension had swelled; the moment arrived. Von Reichter had made some silly sort of pretentious announcement as the final switch was thrown and valves on the standing tank opened. Green Sustenance gushed forth and was quickly swallowed through sluices opened into the floor, designed to drain any sort of noxious fluid that might freely spill during the scientist's experimentations. At the first breath of cold air across its damp skin the specimen had opened its eyes, pupils rapidly expanding to adjust to the dim light levels. Its chest had heaved to suck in vital oxygen as it glanced about itself with predatory awareness and, clawed fingers wrapped securely around the edges of the open tank, it had taken its first unfaltering step towards its destiny.

And then spent the better part of fifteen minutes vainly attempting to walk up a vertical wall. While his father had screamed virulently at the stupidly determined beast, José had quietly left the lab with an escort of confused Fixed Ideas, calmly locked himself in his own private room, pulled a pillow over his head and laughed like an utter maniac for the rest of the hour.

And here she was, right before him, in the section of the lab reserved solely for the drooling inept and mind-numblingly insipid. It was the final resting place for specimens that simply couldn't make the cut due to their physical lacks, their mental insufficiencies or, as in one case, for placidly chewing through the wires of José's extremely illegal cable hookup. That particular pathetic lump had made a very merry fire, he recalled.

With that pleasant memory fixed firmly in mind, the boy grinned and continued on his airy march towards his final destination.

Von Reichter's innermost laboratories were his private sanctuaries, so far buried within the depths of his peninsula fortress that they were unconditionally free from the unwelcome intrusion of light and unwanted visitors. To reach them one had to first pass through a veritable labyrinth of chambers and walkways, some little more than damps cells designed to store the slumbering victims of his perverse genius, the sight of which would fairly seriously dissuade even the most ardent adventurer from continuing further.

José, sufficiently jaded towards the gruesome displays, paused just inside one of his father's lab and waited for the door to automatically hiss shut behind him. He quickly spotted the scientist himself bent over a dissection table and it's immobile occupant like a great gangly vulture over hapless roadkill, a stark profile against the harsh glow of an examination lamp. He cleared his throat loudly.

"You summoned me, father?" he piped up in a suitably respectful tone.

At the sound of his voice across the lab Von Reichter slowly straightened, unbending each crimp in his back with glacial deliberation. Through the mess of cables and wires dangling down like Spanish moss from various machines suspended across the high ceiling of the lab, José could spot the smatters of gore arranged in artistic patterns across his father's white smock. Though the distance between them was some ten-odd metres and one of the operating instruments assembled at the head of the table was chirping out a distracting measure of the occupant's heartbeat, he could faintly catch the nearly inaudible sigh that escaped his father's lips.

"I'm afraid to say, my boy," the scientist began, "That Cybersix may no longer hold the dubious title of my most unfortunate failure."

His son threaded his way across the room to his father's side and eyeballed the gelatinous lump spread open on the operating table with barely concealed disgust. Biological experimentation was far too messy and riddled with unpredictability for his tastes, despite his father's best attempts to draw his interest towards "Daddy's job." Besides, its subjects had the annoying habit of unexpectedly dying on you in mid-dissection.

No, he indefinitely preferred the stark, sterile business of mechanical engineering. His machines were clean, complex treasures fully deserving of his brilliance and attention. Most importantly their obedience was absolute, save for the odd robot that would completely chuck Asimov's rules out the window and make a spirited attempt to bite off the head of its pint-sized child creator. And once you learned to accept the fact that the odd machine was going to spontaneously burst into flames for no discernible reason whatsoever, the inherent beauty of engineering made itself readily obvious to the inflammable enthusiast.

"I'd ask what's wrong with this thing, but that seems to be pretty obvious," José remarked distastefully. "Aren't organs traditionally supposed to be on the inside?"

"Hush," Von Reichter murmured absently. "I'm deliberating."

"On flushing it, I hope," his son muttered.

'Hideously malformed' seemed to adequately describe the mass of flesh deposited on the table; 'Some Jesus ugly' would perhaps more crudely suffice. In the most vague and abstract sense it appeared human, only in that the black-haired boy thought he could spot a bloated arm or leg protruding up from the sticky pink lump, fingers and toes delicately curled. How his father could willingly don his surgical gloves and muck around inside the thing was beyond him; José wouldn't even have prodded the mess with a pointed stick if paid to.

"I guess this means you're giving up on the Upright Female series, right father?" he said. "First Oriole, and then this."

Von Reichter gazed down at him along the beak-like length of his aristocratic nose, his monocle flashing. "Don't be so quick to judge, boy," he chided. "Remember Grizelda."

José smirked and crossed his arms. "I remember something about Grizelda plummeting off a bridge to a grisly death," he said, working a note of spite into his voice. "Was that what you meant, father?"

If the scientist noticed the sarcasm he made no indication of it. Instead he began to pull off his gloves, picking fastidiously at the blood-smeared fingers to loosen them. "It is true that she displayed an inordinate amount of independent thought and personality that led to her eventual destruction," he admitted. "But you will also recall that in her commitment and execution of her task she proved remarkable efficient, willing and capable, and prior to her momentary lapse of better judgement displayed intelligence worthy of my approval. In that I consider her construction a success."

Von Reichter made a disdainful gesture to the prone figure on the slab. "In both Oriole and this I attempted to recreate those admirable traits," he continued. "But No.12 has since proven to have incontestable problems in the development of her intelligence-"

"Dumb as a post," his bespectacled son agreed, rocking back on his heels.

"-And this sad specimen, No.13," the scientist continued, oblivious, "Is grossly physically deficient in that it is simply incapable of maintaining a solid, defined shape for any length of time. And in that it is worthless to me, even as a recyclable source of organic matter. An utter Null."

"You're not going to keep it?"

Von Reichter made a violent cutting motion with one hand. "I want it taken out of my sight entirely," he said sharply. "I've spent enough of my time trying to salvage this miserable thing, to save whatever worthwhile quality this flesh might contain, but despite my ample efforts No.13 has proven a thoroughly defunct specimen. I want you to simply dispose of it."

A smartass reply immediately leapt to mind, but José prudently kept it to himself. Instead his mouth bent sharply downwards into a churlish scowl and he testily said, "You called me down here just to toss out your garbage?"

"In summary, yes," his father calmly replied, slapping his gloves in the opposite palm. "And don't make that face. I also want you to bring me back Oriole. Perhaps her inherent stupidity can be countered by programming for uncompromising obedience."

José gaped at him. "Upright No.12? But I hate that thing! It stares at me!"

Von Reichter's chilling silence was enough to quell any of his son's further objections. "I don't recall asking for you opinion, boy" he said. "Just have it brought here once you dispose of that... thing on the table."

The black-haired boy glared but snapped his fingers in obedience to his father's strict command. A Fixed Idea, slouching listlessly in one corner, raised its head from a spot on the floor it had been staring at in absorbed fascination and shambled forward to its bantam master's side.

"Pick that mess up," José snapped. "Or whatever of it you can get a hold of."

The Fixed Idea promptly scooped up an armload of the organic material and the smell of rot and decomposition immediately wafted from every cavity of its being. A half-formed arm slipped free from the shapeless mass and landed onto the slab with a meaty thunk, then oozed to the floor. José stared at it.

"That is so incredibly disgusting that it defies definition," he declared, screwing up his face in abject revulsion.

"Stop complaining and get it out of my sight, sharp," his father said, already dismissing the matter in his mind and focusing his attention to the readout on a small laptop displayed nearby instead. "I shall await your return with Upright No.12. Perform this task to my satisfaction and perhaps I shall permit you to blow up an Arby's for dinner."

With his back thus turned he entirely missed the vile look his diminutive protégé shot him before stamping out of the laboratory, Fixed Idea meekly treading at his heels.

It was a great pity that all of the doors in his father's fortress were automatic, he reflected as he marched along his original route back through the interior maze of labs, because at that moment he really wanted to slam one good. He would not stand to be the Igor to his father's Frankenstein creations, or be treated as some sort of mad scientist's evil Cabana boy! He demanded some sort of respect! The whole situation really was intolerable, and with each step stomped the hotter his temper grew until, upon finally reaching the entrance of the fortress, he very nearly put his oxford-shod foot through the door.

The night-time sky outside was overcast and dark, lit with just a smattering of stars and the air, while certainly crisp, did little to cool his temper. A pair of Fixed Ideas were standing guard at the door but he barely gave them a second glance as he tramped around the edge of the building and disappeared into the treeline. The Fixed Idea following at his heels plunged after its master without hesitation, taking care not to drop its grisly armload.

Nearly twenty years ago Von Reichter had ordered his fortress built in a copse of pines and cedars standing on a high rocky peninsula overlooking the bay. He reasoned that it was an inhospitable enough tract of land to thwart the casual hiker from stumbling onto it, and yet close enough to the object of his interest to serve his purposes ideally. On a clear night, from the top of the observatory one could see well out across the bay to where the city of Meridiana sat snugly in the curvature of the land, lights sparkling out across the water. Indeed, on such nights the city that had so staunchly resisted his advances of conquest seemed to taunt him, throw back each and every one of his resounding failures into his face, to flaunt its victory like the bared ankle of a juke-joint jezebel.

Of course, those were also the nights that he usually wound up popping some pills and lying down until the walls stopped talking to him.

José, who only saw the peninsula as being a suitable encampment for Evil with a whole lot of trees and a bloody big cliff on one side, wasn't bothered by the same visions that plagued his father. And at the moment his only concern was the location of a shallow ravine that had been dug for a most explicit purpose and currently seemed to be avoiding him like an unfaithful friend.

"Where is it?" he snarled when a bent branch rebounded neatly back into his face. "I know it's around here somewhere!"

The Fixed Idea shuffled its rapidly liquefying armload and tapped the boy's shoulder, then helpfully pointed North.

José stared dumbly at the finger for the space of a second, at the direction it indicated, and then slapped it aside. "I know that, you undead idiot!" he shouted. "You think I'm stupid or something? Just follow me!"

The Fixed Idea shrugged and did exactly that. Moments later the bespectacled boy found the ravine in question by nearly falling into it; only some frantic pinwheeling of his arms prevented him from somersaulting down into it entirely. As he wiped the back of one hand across his forehead, loose shale that had been disturbed by his feet went slithering down the gently sloping sides of the concavity and collected at the bottom. He eyed it meditatively, then looked up at the Fixed Idea standing docilely beside him at the edge, patiently awaiting further orders.

"Don't just stand there! Toss it!" José commanded. The humanoid servant obediently stretched out its massive arms over the lip of ravine and released the organic mass, which fell as if dropped from a bomb-bay door. After several seconds of freefall they heard it hit the bottom of the crater with an unpleasant squelching noise. Immediately afterwards the ominous silence of the night came crowding back in, just as the moon broke free from a cover of clouds and painted the scene with white light and stark black shadows.

José brushed his hands together with a sense of finality. "And yet another of father's creations goes spiralling down the tube," he announced smugly. "Lets go see if I can't get that idiot No.12 to join it. If so, I'll personally drop-kick it down after this one."

He gestured sharply and disappeared back through the trees. The Fixed Idea hesitated momentarily, glanced back, then quickly followed. The branches closed over its back like water and soon the sound of their noisy passage became only a distant murmur of activity.

The ravine was not a natural landmark, for it had been categorically dug to serve as an open grave for all of Von Reichter's most unforgivable failures. The toxic material it periodically contained was enough to mutate any unwitting hiker in a fairly serious way, and yet the isolation of its location meant that no one ever unintentionally stumbled upon it, and consequently into it. Even intentional visitors were rare and few between, for the only patrons it entertained were those left to slowly dry out beneath the sun at the bottom or be picked apart by crows.

At that particular moment its only occupant was slowly pooling into a slight concavity at the rocky bottom, already an indistinguishable mound of partially degraded organic matter. The chill of the night air began to cool its external temperature and the liquid of its matter sluggishly bubbled as slow-acting internal currents worked upon the various gases contained within its mass.

For most of the night, as to be expected, absolutely nothing happened. Clouds banked across the midnight sky as if in preparation for the approaching dawn, stars blinked like dispassionate eyes, and the single white orb of the moon continued to reflect down its meagre light. And yet several hours before the arrival of dawn the absolute unexpected happened, and the long-forgotten mound of material shifted.

It was not the idle motion of residue settling down upon itself for its final rest but a deliberate movement, the stirring of life itself. The liquid percolated again, but instead of delivering up bubbles of interior gas a single open eye floated to the surface and returned to the stars their disinterested gaze. It blinked once and then rotated slowly, as if taking in its surroundings and noting the shallow sides of the ravine in which it was unwillingly entrenched. A minute passed in what would be called in a sentient being absorbed contemplation before the eye rolled back to its original upwardly staring position and then, like a round white whale, it sank slowly back beneath its sea of organic material.

The world seemed to drift into stillness. The mass, however, began a sluggish but deliberate crawl up the shallowest side of its grave.

In any other ravine the task would have been all but impossible, but Von Reichter's half-assed approach to digging the crater meant that its slopes were slight enough to make the ascent more akin to the climb up a wheelchair ramp than the struggle up a cliff. The rocky nature of the incline aided a great deal in the specimen's determined attempt, although frequent patches of loose debris sent it slithering back down the sides on more than one occasion.

Two hours before the sun would lift itself from the horizon the mass reached the lip of the ravine. Without pausing in its forward motion it immediately pressed on forward and plunged into the underbrush leading away from the grim silhouette of Von Reichter's fortress.

Within the forest its locomotion was largely unchecked and it navigated itself blindly through the brush and brake with startling ease, occasionally sprouting thin tendrils of material that lashed around available purchases and pulled or propelled it ever forward. Unlike any larger organism its momentum was not to be hindered by branches or fallen debris, and as it progressed along its inexplicable journey it rapidly gained velocity until it was moving with such speed that it was violently hurling up great clumps of loose sod in its wake.

Twelve minutes before the break of dawn it had reached the outskirts of the city of Meridiana. Only then did it pause in its pilgrimage, and where the lengthening shadow of a billboard met the edge of the forest the organic mass finally came to a complete halt. Its exterior rippled briefly and the single eye bobbed again to the surface. Revolving slowly in a complete circle and then tilting upwards it regarded the image pasted up on the billboard, of an attractive blonde girl with a vacuous smile hawking a can of some sort of sugary, tooth-rotting beverage that probably tasted disgustingly of cherries. The orb studied the vapid face meditatively for a moment and then dipped back within the warming depths of the mass.

Two minutes before the approach of daylight a perfectly manicured hand stretched up from the brush and fixed its fingers firmly around the lowest branch it encountered on the closest tree. The rest of it was soon to follow.

***

[One week later:]

Adrian Seidelman surveyed what was now, for the time being, his domain and saw that it was Good.

Actually, he knew that his presence patrolling along the school grounds during the hour lunch break was mainly just to serve as a deterrent for students with the inclination to smoke on school property, abuse the weaker among their ranks, or perform unspeakable acts upon the faculty cars. It still made him feel good to know that while his watchful eye roved over the packs of free-roaming Meridiana teenagers some unfortunate scraggly kid wasn't going to get ten kinds of merry hell beaten into him in exchange for his money, and that poor Mr Brockman wasn't going to find dead squirrels stuffed into a rip in his car seats again.

Come to think of it, the students seemed to be unwittingly following some unspoken rule that was dictating the events of his life lately, that everything was to run smoothly and without life-threatening incident. Even Lori Anderson, one of the more problematic, if amorous, pupils had maintained a respectful distance lately, content merely with idolising him from afar rather than "appreciating" him up much closer than his sphere of personal space felt comfortable with. It was an odd occurrence, but certainly not a complaint.

And then, of course, his - or rather, her - true ego was enjoying a quiet period of similar repose as well. Indeed, as Cybersix she had seen neither hide nor hair of the detestable José or any of his homicidal abominations for the better part of a month. Ever since Grizelda had made her fatal, if selfless plunge into the frothing white whorls of a waterfall - an image that continued to paint itself with unsettling clearness across the back of her eyelids when she slept - she had encountered absolutely no new nightly terrors on her now traditional forays across the Meridiana rooftops. Even the Fixed Ideas seemed to have disappeared entirely. While this ordinarily was something most certainly to be celebrated over, she couldn't help but feel a selfish twinge of personal concern as well.

Fixed Ideas meant Sustenance. Sustenance meant survival. And while her hidden stockpile of Sustenance vials, a precious horde buried beneath the papers in her nightstand table would last her another month yet, if Von Reichter's half-witted lackeys persisted in maintaining their absence she could be in for some fairly harsh times ahead.

Was Von Reichter deliberately keeping a tight-rein on the Fixed Ideas? Had he hit upon the idea of simply starving her out as a way to end her existence? Were these peaceful times merely a protracted siege?

Cybersix - no, now Adrian - shook her head. Fretting over the matter like a dog worrying a bone would do her no amount of good. Clarity of thought was one of her most devastatingly effective qualities, one that had served her well during past threats, and she wouldn't shove it aside just because her biological instincts were stirring uneasily.

From someplace behind him Adrian heard his name called and he half-turned where he stood, momentarily startled out of his private thoughts. Across the schoolyard he saw a big man with sandy-blonde hair awkwardly trying to both jog in his direction through a congregation of chattering students and shake himself out of his long coat at the same time.

"Hullo, Lucas," he said amiable as the biology teacher drew near.

The other man stopped and leaned far over, his hands on his knees and his coat wedged firmly into the crook of one elbow. "S'hot out," he panted finally, in exchange for a friendly greeting. "Don't know why I wore my coat this morning. Not too smart. Howdy, Adrian." He straightened and drew the back of one hand across his forehead to wipe away beads of perspiration gathering there.

Adrian smiled faintly. Although his broad-shouldered friend looked like the type that bench-pressed Volkswagons in their spare time, he was actually an eternally good-humoured sort of fellow with a surprisingly sensitive side that was prone to showing itself at the most unexpected moments. Both his open, friendly nature and discerning intelligence had earned him great popularity as a teacher at the Meridiana high school, and Adrian supposed that his friend's cheerful manner was also the perfect foil for his own seriousness.

"Anyway, sorry I'm late," he said, grinning. "We, ah, had a bit of a mess to clean up after class today. Even after we put out the fire the monkey was so spooked that it took three of us to wrestled it back into that little plastic collar they give you."

Behind his glasses, Adrian's eyes went wide. Entering one of these particular conversations with Lucas was like watching a horror movie through your fingers - the bits and piece of it you caught inevitably worked out to be the scary stuff you could have lived comfortably without.

Oblivious to his black-haired friend's alarm at the state of his mental health, Lucas continued with characteristic good cheer. "So are we still going out for lunch before third period, or are you on duty today?"

Adrian shook his head. "On duty. Sorry."

His friend waved it aside. "No worries. I kinda had a feeling you were. Want some company?"

The Literature teacher regarded him with surprise. "Won't you get hungry missing lunch?"

Lucas shrugged, slapped his hands across his stomach and grinned. "Nah, I had a big breakfast. Missing one meal isn't going to kill me in any serious way." He laughed. "And besides, with me here you'll be better prepared to handle any sort of heinous riot these teenaged terrorists try to pull during their brief allotted period of freedom before we get to lay the smack back down on them in class."

He made an expressive gesture towards the flock of students haphazardly scattered across the school grounds, most of which had collapsed in various positions of lazy repose to eat their lunch, talk to their friends, and bask beneath the warm springtime sun. Even Adrian had to grin at the thought of any one of their numbers spontaneously springing into any form of action anytime soon.

"Maybe you have a point," he said dryly.

They began an ambling stroll through the yard, Lucas with his hands crossed comfortably behind his head and his coat draping from one shoulder, and Adrian with his curriculum binder tucked carefully beneath his arm. Overhead the sky stretched from horizon to horizon like a broad blue canvas, upon which was painted vaporous puffs of white clouds. Despite all his apprehensions about the future, Adrian had to admit that beneath the allure of such an entirely lovely day the majority of his problems seem to evaporate like mist in the morning.

Maybe his premonitions of woe really were just silly hunches, brought about by the sheer surprise of finding himself finally facing some well-deserved time off. It was true that a lack of Sustenance wasn't a thing to be lightly scoffed at, but even if Von Reichter's creations didn't put in an appearance for another month or so he - or she, rather, as Cybersix - could always go out hunting for them. The idea of the mad scientist entirely giving up on his machinations seemed highly unlikely, and as long as Von Reichter lived she could almost definitely expect to square off with his various experiments again.

"So how goes things on the Lori front?" Lucas suddenly asked with a sly grin.

Adrian blinked as the question pounced upon his thoughts and scattered them like sparrows. "Surprisingly well, actually. In class today she displayed a remarkable grasp of language and analysed several of Lady Macbeth's soliloquies with an ease I would never have expected from her, and without once even batting her eyes at me."

At the mention of the girl who was debatably his greatest fan, Adrian felt a sudden cold clutch of dread close upon his chest. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and the sense of being watched crept slowly along the stream of his consciousness. Disguising the motion beneath the innocent guise of rubbing a crimp out of his neck, he cast a hooded glance across the length of the schoolyard and spotted the now-familiar figure of the redheaded girl perched on the hood a car nearly a hundred feet away. She was laughing uproariously with a group of her friends and seemed totally unaware of the oblique scrutiny.

Adrian shook his head slightly, bemused. He must have imagined the whole thing.

Not noticing his friend's suddenly preoccupation, Lucas laughed. "Yeah, she'll surprise you on occasions. At one moment she'll disrupt the class entirely by trying to sing "Barbie Girl" in three different languages at once, and then when you've figured her so far out in left field she's never coming back she'll surprise you by memorising the entire periodic table and reciting it perfectly."

"It was definitely unexpected all right."

His blonde friend smiled up at the sun, squinting. "It's the unexpected that gives life a certain zest. That, and hockey. Speaking of which-" He glanced back down at his friend, his broad face split with an innocent look harbouring mildly sinister purposes that Adrian recognised all too well. "There's a game on tonight. They'll probably be showing it at the café. Hockey night in Meridiana, Adrian! You interested?"

The Literature teacher cringed internally. It wasn't that he didn't want to take an interest in his large friend's favourite pursuits; it was just that he simply couldn't understand their appeal. Baseball was tedious, football alarmingly pointless, rugby just plain alarming, and golf horribly dry. He was secretly dreading the upcoming Summer Olympics and the 24/7 policy over the television that their favourite café seemed to put into effect whenever an important sports season rolled along.

"I can't make any promises, Lucas," he said warily, clutching at his binder as if it were a lifeline. "But if nothing comes up I'll meet you there."

"Terrific!" the big man enthused. He slapped Adrian across the shoulder in a friendly fashion, although the casual power of the blow nearly sent his slimmer friend staggering forward. "The game starts at eight, but if we get there early we can grab a bite to eat first. I don't know about you, but I'm starving, and since it's Wednesday they'll probably be serving wings."

Adrian frowned and opened his mouth to point out the obvious; then thought the better of it and shook his head in amusement. But before he could add any further comment the familiar sensation of being closely studied flitted back across his awareness. Once again he shot a furtive eye out in Lori's direction, still convinced that she was the actual culprit, but the young girl was evidently completely unaware of his presence. Cross-legged on the hood of the car, a beat-up looking beige hatchback, she was alternately sipping from a plastic cup and absently picking at a box of french fries balanced precariously on one of the windshield wipers. Seated in various positions around her like demin-clad crows were her usual assorted group of friends and admirers, including one blonde girl in a white T-shirt on the roof that Adrian didn't recognise from any of his classes.

A closer scrutiny of the unfamiliar student's face revealed why: what appeared to be a girl at that distance was actually a young woman. Even as she chuckled at something Lori was telling in her usual animated fashion, lines of age rippled across her features like electricity.

"Who is that blonde woman over with Lori and her friends on the roof of the car?" Adrian asked curiously, jerking his thumb in the straggly group's direction.

Lucas glanced perfunctorily out towards the centre of Adrian's interest and shrugged. "The owner, I hope. Otherwise somebody is going to wind up sued."

"Maybe it's one of their parents." She looked old enough to be one, anyway.

"Probably," the big man replied. "Delivering lunch or something and hangin' with the young folk."

Adrian passed him an amused look. "Pardon?"

Lucas grinned widely and rolled his eyes in a grossly exaggerated parody of one of Lori's more infamous gestures. "You're so utterly uncool, Mr Seidelman!"

Even one as serious as the Meridiana Literature teacher had to laugh at that. Foolishly pleased with the success of his little joke, the big man prepared to happily launch into another of the subjects he seemed to mentally stockpile for chance encounters with any members from his vast collection of friends. However, whatever it was he had to say was cut short by the shrill blast of the mid-noon bell. Adrian could have sworn he heard a collective weak moan rise up from the sluggishly amassing students at the detested sound as they slowly began to shamble back indoors with a remarkably vast lack of enthusiasm. Across the parking lot Lori and her friends vaulted off the car, kicked their garbage discreetly underneath its tires, and began an ambling course that would probably eventually take them back somewhere within the general vicinity of the school.

Beside him the bespectacled teacher heard Lucas groan pitifully as well. "Back to the monkey," he said with a grimace, shoving his hands deeply into his pockets. "If you don't see me at the café tonight it's only because the thing bit me and I'm off dying somewhere from some incurable jungle disease."

"Have fun," Adrian replied with a perfectly straight face. Lucas offered him a single dirty look, raised a hand in farewell, and strolled over to greet a group of his afternoon students walking back through the doors of the school.

His friend smiled at the sight and then turned his attention back to Lori Anderson as the tarmac slowly drained of its last few teenaged stragglers. When her little group had drawn close enough to the building that it actually appeared as though they might be seriously considering to attend the remaining few classes, he quickly engaged in an intercept route and lay in wait for them just outside the doors of the school.

"Good afternoon, Lori," he said quietly as she bounced past him, absorbed in conversation with her friends. "I don't think I've ever seen you here before at this time of day."

For the briefest of seconds an expression of acute disappointment and fear flashed across her face as she skidded to a surprised halt. But when she turned and finally got a good eyeful of exactly whom it was that was talking to her displeasure was all too quickly replaced with keen satisfaction.

"Oh, it's you, Mr Seidelman," she exclaimed in relief, the red-painted fingernails of one hand pressed lightly against her chest. "For a moment I thought we were in for some real serious trouble there."

A corner of Adrian's eye twitched involuntarily but he ignored it. "Who was it you were talking to at lunch?" he asked instead.

The redheaded girl eyed him up and down in an appreciative fashion that, if it weren't for the iron self-control he exercised for just such circumstances - not to mention his actual state of femaleness and all - would have sent him blushing to the roots of his hair. "I dunno," Lori said, shrugging. "Just some chick that bought us lunch."

Adrian frowned deeply. "What were you talking about?"

Lori grinned sharply and flounced past him, head held aloofly high. "Just school and stuff," she said and, with a wicked glance back over her shoulder, coyly added, "And maybe something about certain cute teachers."

She winked and waved and disappeared within the school with a dramatic whirl of her long red hair, her tittering teenaged posse in close pursuit. When the acoustic sound of their laughter had long since faded within the depths of the halls, their black-haired Literature teacher allowed his face to crease into a puzzled frown. One hand on the edge of the door, he turned slightly where he stood and cast one final glance out into the empty school grounds, past a long stretch of green grass and grey pavement hedged within a few scrubby trees and littered with a whole lot of crumpled plastic garbage.

The car still remained where it was parked, but the woman was long gone.

***

Several miles away, at the northern-most outskirts of Meridiana, a small convoy of canvas-covered military trucks was just pulling up inside the front gates of a rose-brick mansion, their tires kicking up a great trail of dust in their wake. At some unseen signal they turned in perfect unison, brake lights flashing red as the three heavy vehicles flawlessly co-ordinated a parallel parking job that would have been the envy of any veteran soccer mom with a unwieldy mini-van at an overcrowded grocery store lot. Brakes screamed, silencing the drone of the summer cicadas prowling in the tufts of gorse and furze that grew up at the edge of the woods encircling the compound, and when the vehicles had come to a complete halt the dust cloud washed over them and painted them tan.

The passenger door of the leading truck flew open as a diminutive figure vaulted down from the seat and directly into the settling dust haze. He coughed irritably and fanned one hand in front of his face in an aggravated fashion.

"Get everything unloaded!" he commanded, feeling as if at any moment he was going to hack up a lung. "I want to be able to get my hands on a really big gun by seven o-clock this evening or somebody's going to lose their head!"

No further prompting from the pint-size dictator was required; canvas flaps burst outwards as Fixed Ideas spilled out of the backs of the trucks like ants from a disturbed nest in their haste to obey. An inhuman chain formed at the rear of each vehicle within minutes of the tailgate being lowered and soon heavy wooden crates marked with bold red arrows were being busily passed from hand to shoulder to hand again up and into the mansion.

José surveyed the industrious proceedings with the critical eye of a feudal lord from his perch upon the hood of his truck, arms crossed imposingly and bright afternoon sunlight reflecting blindingly off his glasses. For the moment, most assuredly to prove a temporary one, he was entirely pleased with his state of affairs. His month of boredom and inactivity had finally come to an end and he couldn't have been any happier about it. No longer was he trapped beneath his father's thumb within the scientist's stagnant, monstrosity-infested fortress off in some hick corner of Meridiana. His feet were once again firmly planted on his territory, in his city, and he couldn't wait to feel Cybersix's broken back beneath them as well.

It was nice to be back in business again.

Twisting slightly, rubber-soled shoes squeaking against the metal hood, he cast an appraising eye up the towering height of his ivy-trailed mansion. Unlike Von Reichter's cavernous citadel, this was a strictly a place of science and engineering and business, not mad experimentation. This was a place that bred diabolical plots and uncompromising results, not demonic lizard babies.

Not unlike Disneyworld, this was where the real magic happened.

It was also served a purpose as an unassailable fortress of seclusion, from within which he was free to scheme as he pleased. Von Reichter relied on isolation and the vague sense of impending doom that seemed to hang about his castle like damp moss to deter the morbidly curious. José's manner of discouraging the casual visitor was much more brutally straightforward: he picked out the biggest Fixed Ideas he could find among his recent batch and gave them both heavy arms and the order to shoot on sight. It was needless to say that number of horseback riders, bicyclists and overly inquisitive bears seen in the woods around the area had decreased dramatically since his arrival.

And that wasn't mentioning the fact that it was a pretty nice piece of real estate to boot, if somewhat overgrown with old growth and creepers at the moment. And best of all it was utterly, wholly his, paid for with money forged from his very own presses. His mansion, his domain, and his wallpaper choices. Once safely through the heavy front doors José knew he would be left largely to his own devices; that is, his father periodically passed down to him his orders and he was left to determine the exact nature of the messy death they were to preordain. It was a working arrangement, and so long as it kept him on a free rein to range and wreak his own brand of havoc throughout Meridiana as he pleased he sure as hell wasn't going to knock it.

José inhaled deeply and grinned at his surroundings, fists on his hips. It was good to be home.

His happy-thoughts were abruptly flushed at the splintering sound of a something heavy, wooden and probably containing high explosives smashing heavily against the ground some distance away. He whirled sharply towards the direction of the offensive noise and found a guilty-looking group of Fixed Ideas shuffling nervously around a tall vertical crate. Judging from the puff of disturbed dust raising up from around its bottom edges and the unhappy, muffled yowling noises coming from somewhere within its depths, it was the likely victim of the wholly unauthorised clumsiness.

Temper slowly stewing, José catapulted down from the truck and marched towards the offending party, Fixed Ideas scattering away from his path like shrapnel. At his approach an individual broke apart from the group and stepped forward, wringing his hands. The bespectacled boy was quick to recognize it as one of his Technos, although a name to the face eluded him.

José stopped and glared upwards. "Is there a problem here?" he said acidly.

Although the boy barely came up past his knees the Techno nevertheless shied back sharply, as if the mother of all king cobras had suddenly reared up its head from the dry grass. "Ah, not really, boss," he quickly replied. "We were just a little surprised when this crate, uh, first sort of hissed and then tried to disembowel us."

"Sharp," one of the Fixed Ideas lulled mournfully, fingering a sizeable tear in his shirt.

When Ron Reichter's son merely grinned instead of going riotously ballistic, as the Techno had been dreading, it was all he could do to prevent himself from staring in open-mouthed shock. "Yes, we're carrying special cargo in this particular box," José said mildly, laying one hand flat against the side of the crate and giving it a friendly pat. "A little present from my father. I would appreciate it if you would perhaps drop it a couple more times on the way into the base, and maybe kick it down any flight of stairs you happen to come across."

Standing on his toes, he peered with one eye into a small hole that had been punched through the wood. "Ya hear that?" he yelled at the crate. "That'll teach you to stare, you stupid cat!"

The Techno blinked once slowly. "Uh, 'kay."

José turned his attention from the crate with a final jeer, waved several nearby Fixed Ideas forward to continue carrying it into the mansion and turned to regard the man sharply. "Has anything happened while I was away?" he said.

The Techno shook his head. "Nothing, boss. It was dead quiet."

"Any sign of her?"

Neither of them needed to mention aloud exactly who "her" was in reference to. "Nothing at all," the Techno said. "We didn't let any of the Fixed Ideas go roaming into the city, and she didn't come out of hiding to find them." He laughed nervously. "You'd think she was dead, or something."

The black-haired boy screwed up his face into a ferocious scowl. "Not before I kill her she's not," he replied darkly and stomped off sulkily while his puzzled lackey was left to mentally rearrange the statement into something ressembling a coherent sentence.

José stalked up the curved staircase leading to the entrance of the mansion, his mind whirling with scraps of thought. Although the area was swarming with Fixed Ideas carrying heavy crates of supplies and munitions off of the trucks and in through the doors he didn't bother to check his route, but marched straight through the forest of inhuman legs and left Fate to act upon the automatic assumption that they would get out of his way in a damn hurry.

So, Cybersix was enjoying a quiet moment of repose in his absence, was she? He'd have to change that, toute suite. Maybe he would drop her a little something to announce his return to Meridiana. Like a neutron bomb

Pausing at the open doors of the mansion, oblivious to the sudden frantic backlogging of traffic he caused by doing so, he squinted up at the sun. It hung pendulous just over a bank of birch and poplars to the west, a golden yellow orb within a dusky pink and orange sunset. There were still several daylight hours to pass before it sank behind the horizon altogether, and that would give him plenty to time to organise a well-armed welcoming community before the curtain of the night dropped on the city. He smiled crookedly at the memory of the weapons and artillery he had managed to cram into thirty sealed crates - at the rate they were stockpiling in the underground vaults of his mansion the only competition he had to fear in the arms race was possibly Iraq.

And yet Cybersix… Cybersix! The name itself tasted like the vilest poison on his tongue and the simple mentioning of it twisted his fingers into claws. She defied the very physics his science relied upon; she flew faster than bullets, vaulted higher than missiles and traced such nimble circuits throughout the spires and rooftops of Meridiana that his cleverest weapons and machines were unable to follow her. She delivered the power of concussion grenade with the precision of a sniper rifle. If the merest sight of her didn't all but send him into a frothing frenzy, a very tiny part of him might almost have remarked of a grudging admiration for the cyber's strength. He half suspected that his father, although quite adamant in his proclamations of her utter success as a total failure, would be privately inclined to admit likewise.

It suddenly struck him that what he needed above all else was a really big tank.

Oh, she was strong and quick and clever all right; but his was that kind of genius with the coldness and impartiality of a butterfly knife, designed to strike and hurt and sever, and leave its victim behind to bleed until dry. Brilliance was best used as an offensive weapon, and his was one the victim never saw coming. Pleased with that particular bit of mental imagery, José turned and walked through the doors, whistling happily to himself and entertaining wild notions of Cybersix and knives and spilt blood drying thickly in the sun.

Unfortunately for Von Reichter's son, there are times when sheer unmitigated genius has to take a backseat to the humble benefit of merely having both a good set of eyes and the vigilance of a meercat. Indeed, had he taken the time to pass a glance further up the high walls of the mansion, he might had spotted within the shadow of a domed bell-tower a patch too solid and black to be shade, and thus become alerted to the presence of one of his most hated enemies.

But he didn't, so sucks to be him.

When José disappeared from view the shadow stretched and yawned, powerful forelegs extending to reveal heavy paws sheathing four curved claws on each. The mouth gaped wide and exposed a pink tongue framed within two rows of strong white incisors. Stiff black whiskers raked back from its thick muzzle. Above them yellow eyes blinked with sleepy intelligence, then narrowed with predatory attentiveness. Its tail lashed like the coil of a black whip across the marble roof.

Cybersix had, of course, chided him severely for the risk he ran by breaking his nocturnal schedule to maintain a wary vigil over the Reichter mansion while its most notorious occupant was conspicuous with his absence. And he had long admitted that she had raised several noteworthy points against it; the sight of a giant black panther running loose in civilised society was, obviously, going to attract a great deal of unwanted attention. But he took care to restrict his activities solely to Meridiana's rooftops and the highest branches of its leafiest trees. She worried of the danger posed to him should he encounter a group of Fixed Ideas; he had taken a mild offence at her assumption that he would be brash enough to attack a party of superior numbers, or lose to one of inferior capabilities.

His dearest friend's concern had deeply touched him, but he'd ignored her warnings anyway. Somebody had to keep a watch on the Reichter mansion while it remained disconcertingly empty, someone perhaps without a secret identity and a teaching career, and logic seemed to dictate it should be him. He had been diligently awaiting this day for a long time now, a silent rooftop sentinel who appeared without sound in the early hours of sunset and left just before dawn.

He had his own private reasons for accepting the task as well. The only thing Data 7 liked less José himself was not being able to keep a good eye on him, for the bespectacled brat's malignant tendencies not only warranted him close and suspicious attention but a good smack upside the head as well.

Well, well. After a month of relative tranquillity within the city of Meridiana, Von Reitcher's little bit of nastiness had resurfaced at last. Had the beast been human he would have stifled a sigh of regret at the sudden revelation. The peace had been good while it lasted.

Comfortably stretched out along one flank, the panther regarded the cluster of Fixed Ideas milling about far below him with lazy indifference, secure in the knowledge that his lofty perch was too high up to attract their notice. Evidently they had finished their chore; as he watched with interest two of the empty trucks were backed out of the lot, undoubtedly being taken to a hidden location to await further use. He followed their trek back down the drive with his eyes until the rear lights of the last vehicle had vanished through the trees. A third remained parked outside the door, and he cocked a curious eye at it as well. What purpose it was to serve was yet beyond him, but he had a strong feeling that if he hung around long enough he would find out.

Seven o'clock this evening, huh?

Laying his head down upon his crossed paws, Data 7 closed his eyes and patiently waited for the approaching night.

***

Lucas' premonition of chicken wings had proven remarkably accurate. He had already purchased two dozen of the greasy little things with the hasty assurance that, between the two of them, they would easily be able to polish off the lot once the game started. The Literature teacher couldn't think of a reason to doubt him; during the course of their conversation over the evening they had already managed to pick apart a dozen or so once Adrian had been convinced that something that small and full of bones was, in fact, totally edible. He had, however, managed to fend of the big man's cheerful attempts to foist off a beer on him with the weak protest that his system was incapable of handling anything stronger than black coffee.

Seated at their usual table at their usual café while the evening sky blossomed into rich shades of orange and blue and purple outside, Adrian now idly chased errant lettuce around his plate with a fork while listening with horrified fascination to one of his friend's familiar twisted tales of the public educator. Lucas had been a high school teacher for well over seven years and had, by Adrian's approximation, seen nearly the entire spectrum of colourful things the selectively creative student mind could think of doing with rubber cement, some foam padding and a bevy of concrete yard gnomes. He liked to kid that he was a veteran of education in the same way that a Vietnam soldier was a veteran of war: both had seen things far too bizarre and horrifying for the human mind to fully comprehend.

Although Lucas was fond of these stories and told them with a certain zest that so characterised the big man's dealings with his friends, Adrian suspected that half of them were shamelessly exaggerated. Sometimes, while restless roving through the school halls before of one of his classes, the black-haired Literature teacher would allow his abstract wanderings to carry him to the door of the Biology lab, where Lucas was typically entrenched with a group of his pupils. Taking care not alert the easily distracted students of his presence, he would carefully lean forward until allowed an oblique view of the room through the smudged pane of glass in the door and inevitable found his friend happily engrossed with his teachings. That Lucas enjoyed the youth, companionship and occasional bouts of enthusiasm of his students was beyond debate, and often it seemed that he went far out of his way to encourage them any way that he could.

It appeared that his teenaged charges reciprocated those feelings, for in a world where a position of authority usually earned its holder nothing more than a laxative in their coffee, the Biology teacher was easily the most popular adult figure on the school grounds. Adrian harboured dark suspicions that most of his stories of mayhem and school property destruction were so intimately known because they came to him through some pretty seedy sources. Namely, the perpetrators themselves. Whether they considered Lucas a sympathetic figure to confess and seek wisdom from or fellow accomplice with inside connections was yet to be determined. He liked to suspect the former, although knowing the big man's relaxed attitude towards anything that wasn't outright illegal harboured doubts regarding the latter.

His roving thoughts sent his eyes drifting over to a binder sitting placidly beside his elbow. It was crammed neatly with papers he had originally planned to mark while the hockey game was playing, although he now suspected that he would not find an opportunity to even glimpse at them. Lucas' virtually non-stop stream of enthusiastic chatter in praise of the sport had lasted the duration of the trip from the school to the pub, and Adrian did not want to disappoint his friend by appearing disinterested. Perhaps a sport where the athletes strapped sharpened blades to their feet and tried to beat the crap out of a little round bit of rubber with a bloody big stick would prove rather entertaining after all. It had to be better than soccer.

Lucas' voice shook him out of his reverie. "Adrian," he chided. "You didn't even crack a smile when I told you that it took us four hours to melt the adhesive and pry those gnomes off the front entrance balcony. Either you're thinking about something pretty serious or you just don't find wayward lawn ornaments as funny as I do."

His friend smiled and collected his thoughts. "I admit I did have something on my mind, but nothing serious. Actually, I was just thinking that this is a pretty good way to spend some time off."

The big man raised an eyebrow. "Time off? You busy at the school or something?"

Adrian blinked, and then silently cursed his careless tongue. As far as Lucas knew, Adrian Seidelman didn't have enough of a social life to need to worry about a break from a hectic schedule. "Well, yes," he said lamely. "You know, everything's due now that finals are approaching and all. I guess I just must get bogged down with more marking than you."

"Yeah, Biology doesn't exactly lend itself well to three thousand word essays and such," Lucas agreed amiably, much to his relief. He poked in the direction of Adrian's binder with a half-eaten wing. "That why you brought that with you?"

The black-haired teacher regarded him with as much innocence of purpose as he could muster. "Yes?" he ventured.

Lucas grinned broadly and leaned back in his chair. It creaked in protest. "Yeah, that's what I figured. Adrian, buddy, we've seriously got to do something about getting you out more. You spend enough time indoors these nights after school as it is."

While the Cybersix ego giggled at the irony of the whole situation, Adrian fought to keep a perfectly straight and composed expression. "You really think so?" he asked, pokerfaced.

"Definitely," Lucas grunted from around a mouthful of wing. "Dedication to your job is really great and all, but if I find out you're spending all your Friday nights marking papers for Monday morning I'm going to have to step in and do something about it. And you know how much I'd really hate to do that."

He said it with such a sombre tone to his voice and cast to his face that Adrian couldn't help but laugh. At the sound Lucas grinned again and winked and added, "Just do what I do when the class asks for their assignments back and tell them that you were somewhat disappointed with the marks and you're taking extra time to adjust the class curve. It's amazing how quickly they forget about 'em after than."

The Literary teacher held up his hands in a feigned gesture of resignation. "I surrender to the greater wisdom," he replied, amused.

"Damn straight," Lucas remarked good-humouredly. A thought seemed to suddenly strike him and he screwed close one eye and, tipping back his head, contemplatively regarded his friend from along the length of his nose. "Say, have I ever told you about that one time we found a kid stuffed in one of the Music room pianos?"

Adrian shook his head and lowered his hands, recapturing his fork and resuming his chase of the food on his plate. "To my best recollection, no," he replied.

Lucas beamed. "Hey, that's swell, 'cause it's a pretty funny story. You see, the Manhunt season had just rolled around - that's this insane game that some of the Outdoor Ed students play during their spare when the snow's thawed enough that they can get their hands on some really big sticks - and I'd been hearing that some kid had managed to get a hold of a length of snow-tire chain-"

***

The hair would have to go.

Her mirror, a slim length of scratched glass she'd carefully dug out a garbage bin five days earlier and which was now propped up against a dumpster lid, revealed that much. For a while it had appeared that the blonde mass might yet be salvaged, but within the past twelve hours it had become so tufted and torn that the only way to save what remained would be to cut it again.

She sighed dismally and leaned back against the alley wall as the sky overhead blackened like a bruise. At the beginning of her week her hair had been long and luxurious, like that first girl's, and she had thoroughly enjoyed the sight and weight of it along her back. But within days it had become too unmanageable, too distracting, devouring too much of her concentration to maintain, and in a brief period of laxness the colour had leeched and the scalp become ravaged. In desperation she'd cut it to a respectable shoulder length with the same piece of glass that served as her mirror and the problem seemed to have been solved. The colour and bounce had slowly returned, and the lessened mass meant that less concentration was required to maintain it.

And yet now, only half a day later, it was again so torn and pale that she felt nothing but despair at the sight of it. And a familiar cold, terrible anger.

Too much! Too many sensations, too many distractions! The concentration required to keep hundreds of thousands of follicles healthy and growing simply overwhelmed her already severely taxed system. Already the task of circulation had taken her a day to properly master, respiration two, and digestion was a process that mystified her still. And even then each act required such care and attention to maintain its proper performance level that she found her concentration spread dangerously thin. Should it by chance be broken she feared the horrible possibility that each system would collapse completely, and that the painstaking undertaking of teaching her body those biological funtions that were automatic to all but her would begin all over again.

She scowled. It seemed terribly peculiar that the same set of instincts that screamed for the blood of a woman she had only ever seen from afar would not allow for the simplest, most basic functions of, oh, survival and all. The only sustenance they ran on now were anger and hate, both noxious fuels that she produced at a rate she had never touched before, and knew she could not keep up.

Providing the body itself to house these systems had proven the first of her arduous chores, but it had been a surprisingly easy task to perform when the immense stores of her anger were pure and untapped. Sheer rage had fed the flesh like rich blood and kept it alive when there was yet no heart within the chest to beat. Her fury gave it solidity of form. It had changed from the blueprint of the original image too, for that girl was too uselessly thin and frail in design to provide the frame any real power. And that idiot grin had been among the first things to go. She had nothing she particularly wanted to smile at.

In the end all that had remained to remind her of the girl in the picture was the beautiful blonde hair, and even that was failing her. The only petty vanity she might ever have had the notion to entertain in her life was cruelly being taken away from her with each swish of the mirror's razor edge.

But she was learning. That couldn't be denied. And with every hour passed her mastery over her body was growing more and more complete, and the yearning to finally put it to good use increased exponentially with it. Tonight her patience would finally pay off and the terrible urge to hurl herself into an unceasing flurry of motion, to hunt and to kill the woman whose image was burned into her brain, finally satiated. She would go slowly at first, for one must learn to walk before running, and if her systems held up to the stress adequately, she would be in flight before anyone could stop her.

At least she no longer had to crawl.

***

The panther's ears twitched, as if brushed by a fly. It was barely more than an involuntary spasm, and yet predatory instincts fired up like generators within the animal and the big cat's eyes instantly flared open. Lids flitted across the golden orbs as briefly as shadows as Data 7 lifted his massive head, blinked and began a rapid assessment of the changes to his surroundings since the period he had, unwittingly, fallen into his light doze. During the time that had elapsed - perhaps two hours - night had fallen across the countryside like a black shroud. Directly south he could easily spot the city of Meridiana, all aglow with coloured lights that sparkled off the land like the glittering stones upon a jeweller's velvet display. A star spangled sky stretched vacantly overhead, a deathless mantle crowned with a thin crescent moon.

The panther regarded it in solemn silence, then yawned once and drew one forepaw across his muzzle. Something had interrupted his sleep, a noise or slight vibration from within the mansion perhaps, of that he was certain. Great ears rotating like furred satellite dishes, he tried to detect even the faintest murmuring of foreign sound and heard only the ceaseless soft drone of cicadas and crickets buried deep within the tall grass, and a slight undulation as gentle breaths of crisp night air whispered through the topmost leaves of trees. Inhaling deeply he smelt oil and gas and sweat and damp vegetation, but nothing new to arouse his suspicion.

Indeed, against all of his doubts, all was as still and silent in the woods surrounding the Von Reichter chateau as a sepulchre. Silver birch and inky green pins bristled up from the earth and wove spider's legs of stark shadows across the overgrown lawns. In the pale light cast from the moon the tremendous building had bleached bone-white, with trails of ivy creeping up its flanks like black hairline fractures.

Data 7 shifted his weight almost imperceptibly, muscles rippling smoothly beneath his skin. In face of this grim and untarnished stillness he was all but ready to push aside his worrying instincts and resume his slumber, when a narrow beam of yellow light sliced across the staircase directly beneath him like a laser. Almost instantaneously his keen ears caught the sound of an irritable voice arguing from someplace within the mansion, eking out from some thin crack. He immediately recognised it as belonging to José - for whom else within the mansion would dare adopt such a querulous tone?

As he peered down over the edge of the roofline with increasing curiosity he saw the way the line of yellow light fanned out as the main doors were pushed open, interior brilliance spilling down across the stairs. All at once the unbroken stillness of the night was fast split asunder with terrible noise and light and confusion, all pounding feet and blinding illumination as, without pause, a troupe of Fixed Ideas spilt out of the mansion and began to single-mindedly scramble into the back of the awaiting truck.

Once his eyes had adjusted to the new light levels he quickly spotted José himself standing astride the top of the staircase, fists planted firmly on his hips and legs akimbo, sharply outlined against the yellow light and barking out orders over the din like a four-star general. His shadow stretched out thinly across the lawn and ran into the opposite woods. A familiar Techno hovered behind him like a gangly spectre but was virtually ignored by the company of Fixed Ideas and their diminutive commander. At the elbow of Von Reichter's son stood a passive figure the panther didn't recognise, no matter how intense his scrutiny; because it was facing away from the mansion its features were hidden in shadow. It didn't appear to be another Fixed Idea and judging from the peculiar way it was standing, shoulders rolled in towards its chest as though bunching in preparation for flight, it wasn't entirely human either. Its dimensions were also wrong - the arms and legs were unusually elongated, the hands alarmingly bulky with the fingers curled delicately in towards the palms.

Data 7 narrowed his eyes into slits and pushed his head forward, as if unconsciously hunting for unfamiliar scent. He was mildly surprised to find himself quelling a gentle growl somewhere in the back of his throat at the sight of the thing. This particular apparition practically had "I came from the lab of Von Reicter!" scrawled all over it.

As the panther watched from his place of concealment, José half turned and said something abrupt to it once the last of the Fixed Ideas had been bullied into the waiting truck. In unspeaking compliance the creature silently shambled towards the vehicle and obediently slipped sinuously between the canvas flaps at the back, disappearing within the blackened depths beyond. He saw how the bespectacled boy and the Techno exchanged a few brief words - that is, José spoke sharply and the lackey listened - none of which his wedge-like ears could catch. The conversation terminated, however, with the boy vaulting down the stairs and into the passenger seat of the truck, which promptly roared into ignition.

Nearly everyone in the immediate vicinity, Data 7 included, winced in pain when it ground its gears noisily - over the horrible grating sound he could easily discern José yelling something furious at the driver. Eventually the truck began a slow, banking turn around the lot, gravel crunching beneath its tires and its front headlights cutting a path through the swarthy darkness like twin white blades through butter.

The panther leapt softly to his feet, his tail uncurling and swishing from side to side in an agitated fashion. It was fast becoming blatantly obvious that the venomous little brat was up to one of his usual plots, although the true nature of it still mystified him entirely. There were an awful lot of Fixed Ideas packed like sardines into that truck, however, and an awful lot of Fixed Ideas with an awful lot of anti-tank weaponry inevitably meant an awful lot of public property damage. Not to mention an awful lot of hassle.

He also wasn't particularly fond of the look of that mysterious beast accompanying them. There was an easy, loose, predatory way to its movement, like a tiger stalking through the long grass, that concerned him; whatever it was it had clearly been designed to hunt and kill. He had a fairly good idea exactly who the intended prey was.

The truck was just rolling up beneath his aerial roost. With one lithe and languid motion he leapt from concealment, thick body arching in mid-air as all traces of the roof departed from beneath his heavy paws and left him plunging into the black void. A narrow veranda appeared like a ghost as he fell; twisting his trunk like a spring he gathered his feet beneath him and seconds later felt the impact jarring up through his legs. Without wasting precious momentum he immediately vaulted clear of it, his paws dislodging flakes of plaster and brick as his new trajectory swiftly carried him directly over the canvas canopy of the truck.

With legs spread wide and rigid he landed as lightly as a puff of wind, velveteen paws muffling all sound and with barely a ripple of disturbance from the tarp. Eyes alert for the first signs of detection he silently waited, stiff-legged against the shock as the truck bumped and bounced its way down the narrow gravel drive. Directly ahead the headlights painted pale circles of white light and made monsters out of trees and ruts along the side of the path. He felt his fur blown back in the whack of the wind of their passing and he flattened his ears. When the vehicle turned onto the road and began to pick up speed he carefully lay down across the width of the tarp, so as to not make a distinctive bulge in the material, and hoped like hell he wouldn't be spotted by a passing motorist.

The truck and all the amoral souls contained therein were headed into Meridiana all right; his sharp eyes easily picked out the route they were travelling and recognised it as a long stretch of highway that would eventually turn to follow closely along the curve of the bay. The glow of the city lights was a faint smudge of orange on the distant horizon, and the wind knifing through his whiskers carried with it faint traces of the familiar aroma of the sea. The stars continued their vigil overhead, the moon a ghostly form cresting the spires of black pines that raked its surface with branches gnarled with age. Data 7 surveyed it appreciatively with great, unblinking yellow eyes.

The truck rumbled on, and the dark closed in behind it.

***

"GOAL!" Lucas screamed joyously. The big man vaulted to his feet, knocking over his chair in the eruptive process, and brandished one fist triumphantly as the rest of the café erupted into a cacophony of boisterous cheering and catcalls.

Adrian, whom had abandoned his vain efforts to follow the game after the first period in exchange for winsomely staring out of the window and admiring the stillness of the night-time scene outside, started upright at the sound. "What happened?" he said in alarm, raising his chin from his cupped hand. "What did I miss?"

"Did you see that, buddy?" the Biology teacher enthused, pointing up to the television mounted on a bracket above the bar and slapping his friend once hard across the back. "Top right corner! Man, that was beautiful!"

Adrian squinted up at the screen while absently stirring a silver spoon through his coffee. "I see a man in a mask with a bloody nose."

Lucas cackled. Actually cackled. Albeit gleefully, but it was still a rather disturbing sound to hear from a man so eternally good-humoured he'd give an Irish Setter a run for its money. "Yeah, he missed the puck but caught an elbow. God, I love this sport!"

Catching the back of his fallen chair, he deftly twirled it around on one leg until it was facing away from the bar and promptly plonked back down into it. With a beer bottle cradled lovingly in one loose hand, his chin resting across his forearms where they crossed along the back of the chair and a lazy smile tilting crazily along the width of his jaw beneath eyes shaded with half-lidded eyes, the big man couldn't have made a more perfect picture of utter health and relaxation if heavily doped up on Nyquil.

Adrian allowed himself a tiny, secret smile at the sight and disguised it by dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. Despite his earlier trepidation regarding an evening spent watching yet another of Lucas' dubiously entertaining and inexplicably violent sports, he couldn't help but notice a certain slackening of the ever-present tenseness to his mien and senses. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, lazy with beer and wraiths of cigarette smoke tracing wispy plumes in the heavy air and waxy orange light; perhaps it was the good food, or maybe even the Biology teacher's idle contentment was rubbing off on him like shed cat fur. Whatever it was, it was sopping up the last remaining traces of his anxieties and fears like a bar rag until he - and yes, the Cybersix ego as well - felt so utterly at ease that it was all he could do to remain a respectable level in his chair.

While Lucas hollered something buoyant at the television screen along with a dozen or so other hockey enthusiasts collected around the bar, Adrian twisted in his seat and tilted back his head until the vista of the Meridiana night sky came into view again beneath the window curtain. He smiled up dreamily at the twilight panorama and, from its perch above the city skyline, the crescent moon returned his attention with a Cheshire grin. The Literature teacher recaptured his chin with his palm once again and leaned into the wall until he felt his forehead touch the window. The glass was cool on his skin, the sky above his eyes coal black and frosted with stars.

Such an entirely lovely night found the Adrian of her personality blithely entrenched within a cheerful pub with a heavy dinner settling somewhere around his midsection and smoke curling around his head like a wreathe. Cybersix herself, however, pressed her fingers up against the glass and ached to bury herself within the inviting night as if it were a thick black blanket. A Meridiana night was her first friend and her only true confidante, a paramour met by moonlight upon the city's most vacant terraces. She loved the night, loved it for the liberty it kindly lent her, that brief freedom to thrill in the reckless abandon of unfettered motion, to dare gravity to catch her as she leapt through the rooftops as if in flight. It was the only time she really, truly felt like herself, for when the curtain of night fell she finally threw her adopted ego aside like a stage mask and revelled in her rightful identity, in the stillness of a moonlit sky, in cheap melodramatic prose-

Adrian blinked abruptly and regarded his reflection in the window with great amusement as the chatter and noise of the pub swam back around him like a school of guppies. Cybersix may very well be able to flit across the city rooftops beneath the shroud of darkness with grace and power, and that was all well and good, but Adrian the Meridiana Literature teacher could spot a poorly constructed bit of creative imagery a mile away. It paid the bills, after all.

He smiled at his foolishness and hazarded a quick glance back at Lucas. Utterly absorbed by the action on the screen and with his arm buried nearly up to the elbow in a bag of communal Dorritos, his friend evidently hadn't noticed Adrian's lack of attention. Once a game started - whether hockey, baseball, soccer or woman's tennis - nothing short of a nuclear holocaust or commercial break would peel the Biology Teacher's eyes from the television anyway. While this loyalty to the Great Glass Babysitter was ordinarily somewhat exasperating, particularly when Adrian had a conversation he wished to pursue, at the occasions where he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in his meandering thoughts the distraction was a welcome one.

His smile slipping lopsidedly at the thought, he picked up his coffee and turned back to his window to gaze dreamily at the stars. As he stared out into the night he spotted a patch of black flitting across the roof of the building directly across the street and the smile bent down into a frown.

Adrian carefully set his coffee cup back down into its saucer and cast an oblique glance around the bar. Without fail all faces and eyes were turned up to the television set and it's glowing images like sunflowers. The conversation swirling around him all involved hockey in some way; it appeared that little attention was being paid to anything else. He shot a hopeful look at the inviting exit, then turned a guilty one upon Lucas and cleared his throat in a meaningful way.

When the big man entirely failed to respond to the cue he rolled his eyes and added, "Lucas!"

"Mmm?" his friend said absently, eyes still fixed on the game.

Adrian tried again. "Lucas, I'm afraid to say I'm going to have to leave early tonight." He rose from his seat to prove the point, plucked his coat from the back, folded it neatly over one arm and stood behind his chair to patiently wait for the inevitable protestation.

Lucas didn't disappoint him, and whirled around with an expression of great surprise and dismay. "But it's only halfway through the second period!" he exclaimed.

The Literature teacher smiled apologetically and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, then tapped his watch. "I know, and I know I promised to stay for the entire game, but I really do need to phone some people before it gets too late."

His conscious twanged remorsefully when his friend's face creased with a crestfallen expression. "I mean, I won't head out and leave you like this if the calls weren't important, but I completely forgot about the whole thing and I really do need to make them before ten-thirty, and-"

Lucas grimaced and held up a hand to cut off the one-sided stream of conscious conversation. "Adrian, you're babbling," he said good-humouredly. "It's a damn shame, but if you've gotta run then you've gotta run. No worries. I can catch you later this week."

"You sure?" his friend pressed anxiously.

The big man shrugged half-heartedly. "Yeah. It's not like the hockey season it going to end in a day anyway. I've got plenty of chances to inflict it on you later."

He grinned crookedly at that and gave a farewell salute with his bottle of beer. Adrian returned it with relieved smile and a dip of his head, then hastily shrugged his way into his jacket and dashed out of the café.

The crisp nighttime air outside slapped across his face like a damp towel. Shoving his hands deeply into his pockets, Adrian inhaled happily and smelt a heady brew of salty sea air and approaching rain. He turned his head towards the bay and spotted a dark thunderhead of clouds several miles out to sea blustering in towards the city. Whether it was a shower or storm, or would pass them over to the west he couldn't guess, but it loomed in a manner that suggested that somewhere, someone was going to get very cold and wet.

He shivered involuntarily and suddenly remembered exactly why he had come outside. Casting a furtive glance at the neighbouring sidewalks to ensure they were empty, he darted out across the street and slipped into the first alley he encountered. Safely concealed within its shadows, Adrian Seidelman, Literature teacher, leapt soundlessly up above the rim of the rooftops and lightly touched down on the shingles of the apartment above as Cybersix in mind and body, if not attire.

Almost immediately Data 7 appeared at her side as silently as a shadow and touched a wet nose to the back of her hand. She smiled and crouched down on one knee next before him, affectionately rubbing her fingers through the fur between the panther's ears.

"Hello, brother," she murmured. "I've missed you these past few days. Where have you been?"

He drew back from her embrace and growled softly, then pointed his muzzle out towards the city in a meaningful fashion. She followed his gaze in puzzled silence; all traces of joy washed from her face.

"It's José, isn't it?" she said, her brow furrowed deeply and her expression stern. The great cat gave what would have amounted to a sigh in a human and lowered his head.

Cybersix exhaled loudly and closed her eyes. Pushing her glasses up to her forehead, she pinched the bridge of her nose between a thumb and index finger. "We knew this couldn't last forever," she finally said. "He was bound to show up sooner or later. All right. Do you know where he is right now?"

Data 7 inclined his head in affirmation as she reopened her eyes and stood up.

"Take me to him," she said. After a moments thought she spread her arms, glanced down at her modest apparel and added, amused, "After a brief pit-stop back home, of course."

***

The church tower rushed up through space to greet her and she met it with both feet planted firmly forward. No sooner had they smashed into the stone than they were separating again as powerful muscles in her legs snapped into motion like industrial cords and hurled her aloft. Her rapid retreat left buildings ands streets seeming like a child's tiny model below her as she arced across the void.

And as she flew she fought to keep from crying out. But for the first time in her meagre existence the stifled scream was not one of pain or despair, but of a voiceless joy and fierce defiance.

It was working! She could do it! Absolutely nothing was falling apart or breaking off entirely or some other such horrid thing! Indeed, all her biological systems seemed to be running as smoothly as clockwork, with nary a hiccup to disrupt their natural processes. Even that damnable digestion wasn't causing any further wrenching intestinal agony. Her limbs moved without effort or resistance, her senses sharp and almost painfully acute. Even from that tremendous height she could clearly trace out the outlines of cars and streetlights far below as she tumbled through space.

Perfect. Absolutely bloody perfect. Things were progressing far better that she had dreamed they would, such a stark contrast to her previous existence. But then again, it had been filled with cramp and pain, with disappointment and despondency and misery beyond bear-

And no, no, she didn't want to go there. That life was past her now. This life was her own. She belonged to herself now, and nobody else.

Gravity coughed politely and reminded her of her obligations. She fell back to earth like a stone in grudging compliance and alighted upon the top of a tall factory chimney, legs firmly planted akimbo. The wind whipped through what was left of her hair and ruffled her black shirt. She ignored the former and smiled down at the latter, flattening the fabric across her stomach by pressing with the flat of one hand. It was scuffled, untucked and sleeveless, but the best she had found at such short notice. The previous owner wouldn't be missing either it or the khaki shorts anytime soon; she had hit the human woman hard enough that it would remain unconscious for a good long time. The wad of bills found folded neatly in the back pants pocket had been an added bonus.

The wind knifed past her bare limbs and she welcomed the touch of the cold as it froze the blood in her veins. Sensations were cherished now, no matter how unpleasant. Still, she reflexively rubbed her arms as she cast an appraising eye out across the city. That black-haired woman was nowhere in sight, but she hadn't maintained high hopes of spotting her right away anyway. Still, she was determined to find her tonight. Now that she had made a positive sighting that very day of the face that haunted her sleep, she would not rest until it was broken and bloodied.

She smiled thinly at the thought. It was a comforting mental image, and warmed her considerably. That trip past the local high school had been nothing more than playing off a hunch, and yet had paid off very nicely. She thanked whatever god was watching over her that 'Mr Seidelman' walked to work. There was a good chance she would have missed him otherwise.

She wouldn't miss anything now. The chimney was an excellent vantage point; beneath the great industrial building Meridiana spread out across the landscape like a relief map, brilliantly lit with streetlights and stars. There was little to do now other than sit, let her legs dangle over the rim and wait.

And watch.

***

"Oh man! This is so much more fun than Yahtzee!"

José's voice echoed around the empty warehouse like a shot, bouncing amidst the rotting beams and timbers until it finally faded out of range. He wholly approved of that sort of thing. Good acoustics never hurt the villainous image.

Von Reichter's son cracked his knuckles and regarded the creature standing placidly in front of him with a superior gaze. "Ok, Oriole, José says… stand on your head!"

Oriole did.

"José says… eat dirt!"

Oriole did that too.

"Stupid! Smash that girder with your head!"

Ever obedient, Oriole complied.

The black-haired boy jabbed a finger at her in triumph. "Ha! I didn't say "José says," fool!"

Oriole reeled, a thin line of blood running down between her unfocused eyes as she staggered away from the sharply bent girder. José threw back his head at the sight and laughed like a loon. Even the Fixed Ideas clustered amidst the stacks of weaponry piled around him grinned stupidly at his excessive mirth. One began to clap.

"You really are dumb," José remarked after he'd calmed down somewhat, grinning at her pain. "But Father programmed you well. I've had remote controlled cars that don't follow commands as well as you do."

The black and orange feline-humanoid only shook her head groggily in reply and tried to stand back at attention.

José sneered and was about to taunt her further when a voice drifted down from the rafters above and effectively sealed his mouth shut, one so familiar it froze him in his place like an electric shock. "Didn't Daddy every tell you to play nice with your toys?" it said. "I swear, if you keep breaking them as fast as he hands them out the day's going to come that you won't get a single thing for Christmas."

"Shut up!" he shouted back angrily, whirling in place and frantically scanning the beams overhead for a sign of his tormentor. The dark rafters gave up no trace of their shadowy inhabitant, however, and he turned back to the Fixed Ideas practically spitting in fury.

"Shoot at the voice!" he ordered. "Flush her out so Oriole can handle her!"

As the Fixed Ideas obediently opened fire with a deafening cacophony of noise, he happened to cast a glance at Von Reichter's feline creation. She had evidently recovered from her momentary concussion and was standing alert and ready, the muscles in her arms and legs as taunt as cables. At the end of each elongated arm the fingers of the hand were spread and curled, the great curving claws pointed out to an unseen enemy. Her yellow eyes were open to their fullest extent and flitted back and forth within their sockets like buzzing insects, so sharply attuned they tracked even the slightest indication of motion from the rafters above. Stupid she may be, but the female beast was clearly to prove a determined fighter with a terrible potential for violence.

José always wholly approved of that sort of thing.

A Fixed Idea behind him grunted in pain, and he spun on his heel towards the sound. As the creature slumped to the ground he quickly spotted the sight of his detested enemy standing just behind it. She lowered her fist when their eyes met, winked at his shocked expression and lithely vaulted back to the safety of the girders above with a saucy snap of her red cape.

José ground his teeth while mentally noting that his Fixed Ideas were still blithely peppering an inoffensive section of roof with gunfire. He turned back to Oriole and waved her forward. "After her!" he growled. "Chewtoy, Oriole, chewtoy!"

The feline had already caught sight of Cybersix and was watching her like a kestrel does a mouse, utterly engrossed and with claws poised at the ready. She didn't even glance at Von Reichter's son when the order came but simply unleashed her bottled-up energy all at once and propelled herself into action with a feral snarl. In one fluid motion she'd reached the rafters and landed heavily amidst the network of timber beams; on all fours she galloped nimbly along the structure, her nostrils flared wide as she scented out the prey lurking somewhere within the shadows. It was an invisible trail that lured her, a maddening cocktail of sweat and warm blood that sent her heart strumming in her chest and urged her to run faster and faster, until she finally blindly threw herself forward with claws outstretched.

Cybersix hadn't heard her coming but had felt the vibrations through the beam beneath her feet; she was half-turned towards the attack when Oriole smashed into her torso. With a breathless gasp of surprise she found herself hurled from her lofty perch.

The pair writhed in midair, the Cyber trying desperately to push the other to a safe distance. Oriole sank her fingers into her cape and clung on determinedly, hissing angrily.

The floor of the warehouse was rushing up towards them with unsettling speed. Cybersix stared at it hopelessly and an idea suddenly seized her. Swinging her arms forward she caught the throat of the creature's black bodysuit, forcing its head back. Oriole gurgled and fought against the pressure, but her neck soon arched back to an awkward angle. Planting her stiletto boots firmly into Oriole's midsection, Cybersix allowed their momentum to swing the pair around until they were plunging headfirst towards the flooring; then, at the last conceivable moment, heaved herself away from the black and orange feline with one violent thrust of her legs. Oriole's claws tore her cape into fluttering strips but her hold was broken.

Cybersix hit the ground hard on her shoulders. Pain flared along her back, but she was able to roll neatly back to her feet and regained a wary stance. Oriole, however, took the landing entirely on her neck with a sickening crack and lay deathly still.

José was screeching something furious somewhere behind her, but she ignored the spectacle he was making and stepped cautiously towards Oriole's still body. The feline didn't stir an inch as she approached, and the thought that she had actually killed the poor beast flashed uncomfortably through her consciousness.

Dead? Could she be dead? It couldn't be possible; Cybersix never killed. Not even Von Reichter's most horrible creations deserved that kind of death by her hands. Panic rushed through her as she crouched next to Oriole and stretched out a timid hand to touch her shoulder-

"I said SHOOT HER!" José howled. Cybersix spun, startled out of her reverie and instinctively prepared to leap into flight.

Oriole's claws sank into her upper arm. The Cyber turned back with a cry of pain and saw a pair of yellow eyes staring up balefully from the floor.

Pandemonium broke loose. Gunfire tore up a strip of planking immediately beside her, spraying her with wooden splinters. Oriole heaved to her feet and threw herself out of the way, dragging Cybersix with her. The latter struggled weakly in her iron grasp, relieved to find the feline alive and well and decidedly put out over the fact that she could feel blood dripping thinly over her wrist.

As José shrieked for an immediate cease-fire, Oriole swung around to face her prey and slashed out at the Cyber with her other clawed hand. Cybersix managed to both duck beneath the blow and wrench her arm free from the feline's hold. She sprang clear as Von Reichter's creation pressed its attack and, without pause, leapt for the sanctity of the rafters. Catching a beam with the tips of her fingers she hauled herself upon it and lay along the length of her stomach, panting. Her right arm throbbed abominably where the feline's claws had left a neat row of bloody gashes, but it didn't feel as though the muscle had been torn.

Pressing the opposite hand tightly over the wounds to staunch the blood flow, she scrambled to her feet and made a frantic dash for the small attic window she had used for her entrance. Far beneath her she caught sight of Oriole's astonished face, but evidently the feline was wasting little time in shock and Cybersix soon heard a muffled thump somewhere behind her and a low, throaty growl.

With the retort of Oriole's rapid approach thundering along the beams underfoot, Cybersix kicked open the window with one foot and hurled herself onto the rooftop beyond. She tumbled along the concrete before rolling back to her feet, then raced to the edge of the roofline and vaulted towards the neighbouring building.

From some distant place behind her she heard Oriole struggle with the window latch; then the sound of shattering glass was followed by a dreadful stretch of ominous calm. She didn't have to hear the footsteps to know that the black and orange feline was running soundless in her wake, a silent predator on the hunt. Her feverish senses seemed stretched to their very limits, every little sensation almost painfully keen. She could almost imagine she felt Oriole's hot breath on the back of her neck as the creature closed in, then cold talons ripping through the muscles of her back, crippling her, dragging her down as those long fingers closed upon her neck like a lion's jaws-

Oriole was much more skilled in close combat than she was, that was obvious. The feline's powerful limbs and murderous speed spoke clearly of that, and in close quarters those claws were as efficient as knives. If Cybersix could perhaps lure her out onto the open rooftops she stood a much better chance of overwhelming and confusing Von Reichter's creation with her own swiftness and agility.

It was her best plan of action and, at the moment, her only one as well. Swallowing hard, she threw every ounce of the energy she could dredge from her already taxed systems into flight, into the tremendous effort of forcing her legs ever forward. With the wind screaming thinly in her ears she hurled herself from building to building, each powerful leap chipping off flakes of concrete beneath her boots and each landing driving hairline cracks into the next rooftop. Above her head the sky rumbled angrily, great banks of clouds flashing copper and purple as the thunderhead crept along the edge of the bay. Her face was speckled with light rain and debris. She ignored it and pressed onwards, towards a vacant stretch of open roofline she knew from familiarity to be somewhere ahead.

At last the final length of broken rooftops passed beneath her feet, and the empty space she had so desperately longed for yawned directly ahead. She made one last leap across the void of an alley and landed heavily upon it, stumbling slightly as her exhausted muscles unexpectedly relaxed themselves. With the shredded remains of her cape fluttering wildly behind her like streamers she spun on her heel to face her unrelenting attacker, dropping immediately into a wary crouch and her hands held at the ready.

Lighting tore open the sky overhead and the scene was thrown into glassy brilliance. Oriole was nowhere in sight.

Cybersix's defiance faltered; she lowered her hands in confusion as the rain began to pelt down upon her upturned face. Wiping one hand across her brow she straightened and scanned the skyline for any indication of the feline's advance but saw nothing but chimneys and fire escapes, dazzlingly outlined against the raging sky.

During her flight had she somehow managed to outdistance the feline-humanoid? It seemed unlikely, for Oriole was nearly as fast as she was and should have easily been able to maintain her pace. Perhaps the creature had become thrown off course by the violence of the approaching storm, already washing away all traces of her original trail along the Meridiana rooftops. Maybe she had given up; maybe José had called her back to plot anew, maybe-

Lightening flashed, and before the thunder could reply she heard the shrill sound of an animal scream, so shockingly close to where she stood that she recoiled sharply in horror. The tortured sound drew itself out like a note, then abruptly petered off.

Cybersix tried to move, but the cry seemed to have frozen her in her place. The wind snapped her cape around her ankles as she tried to reorganise her scattered thoughts. She had recognised the call as being one of terrible pain, and every instinct she owned shrieked at her to turn and bolt without giving it any further consideration. Her voice of reason, however, sternly reminded her of her self-appointed duty as Meridiana's nighttime protector and, together with her courage, bullied her into motion towards the origin of the sound.

She leapt back along her path as lightly and cautiously as a bird, at any moment half-expecting Oriole's claws to carve bloody strips along her shoulders. But the attack never came, and as her gingerly treaded course took her back towards the warehouse some of her tension gradually drained away. She remained wary and alert, however, for some unfortunate creature had been badly injured somewhere along these rooftops and it seemed likely that Oriole was the hunter responsible. A roll of thunder rumbled high above, as if agreeing with her unspoken sentiments.

Landing lightly on the eaves of an apartment a block away from the warehouse, Cybersix paused to take her bearings. Her roving eye travelled up the gentle slope of the roof and she gasped aloud as it fell upon a crumpled human shape lying half across and half over the edge at the summit of the roof, the arms dangling limply over empty space. After the initial shock of the sight wore off she dodged to the side of the stricken victim while maintaining her wary vigilance of the city skyline for signs of Oriole. Her impulsive and compassionate nature overcoming her fear of the entire situation, she stooped next to the prone figure and carefully turned it onto its back.

Lightening flashed, and Cybersix's hands flew up and pressed tightly against her mouth as she fought back a cry of alarm as the victim's face lolled into view.

It was Oriole. Her eyes were wide and staring, reflecting back the violet sky above, her mouth slack and rimmed with blood. Her chest heaved brokenly as the feline fought to breathe, each whistling exhalation bringing a bubble of saliva and gore to her lips. A bloody froth already streaked her chin and coated her chest like a bib.

The Cyber regarded the suffering creature with a mix of horror and pity, and gently tilted back her head to a more comfortable position. Although there were no visible wounds it was clear from the awkward angle Oriole was lying that her back had been broken just above her hips. Judging from the harsh red lines embedded into the soft flesh at her throat her windpipe had been severely crushed by unknown hands as well.

The strength and violence required to inflict such grievous injuries was frightening to consider, and the assailant appeared to have struck without warning and with tremendous speed; aside from a few dislodged singles there were few signs of a struggle. Oriole, so intent upon the chase, must have never even seen the attack coming.

And just where was this unseen opponent now? A paralysing fear gripped her heart like a vice, and Cybersix rose to her feet in a flash. She stared wildly at the nearby buildings, silent black towers printed starkly against the luminous clouds, and yet spotted nothing out of the ordinary. Even by straining her ears she could only hear the sound of rain pounding out a staccato tempo against the eaves and the distant peal of thunder as the storm began to beat up along the coastline. Whoever had attacked Oriole had either fled far out of range or was so well concealed that the Cyber's acute senses were unable to track them.

Cybersix shifted uneasily and turned back to Oriole. Von Veichter's creation met her eyes with unsettling calm, her lips mouthing out feeble words. It was obvious that with a broken back she should not be moved, and yet the Cyber's sense of decency rebelled against the idea of simply leaving her there in the rain. But before her erratically weaving mind could fasten onto a plan of action Oriole broke the awkward pause with a harsh inhalation. Something rattled wetly in the back of her throat and she stiffened sharply, her limbs convulsing violently before falling limp. As the black-cloaked Cyber watched in alarm the feline's gaze turned glassy, the mouth gaping open in a silent scream.

As Cybersix crouched beside her and stretched out with trembling fingertips to touch her shoulder, the creature simply dissolved within a neon-green cloud of vapor. Her black bodysuit billowed, and then collapsed in upon itself. There was a muffled 'tink' somewhere within the folds of fabric, and a second later a thin glass vial rolled out along the concrete. Cybersix picked it up and regarded it sorrowfully as the rain beat down against the broad brim of her hat and ran into her eyes.

Enemy or not, that had been a miserable way to die. The Cyber tucked the vial into a hidden breast pocket and pushed herself to her feet. The wind whipped through her hair as she looked down upon the empty clothes and the lonely rooftop.

Something screamed shrilly overhead. A wall erupted in a vicious spray of brick shrapnel someplace behind her and she was nearly thrown off her feet by the force of the detonation. Gasping in alarm she pivoted and leapt in one easy, instinctive motion even as a nearby section of roof promptly exploded upwards beneath her feet. Through the hail of debris she caught sight of José and a group of Fixed Ideas gathered on the edge of a neighbouring building; the former gestured wildly and the latter immediately launched a salvo of rockets.

The missiles streaked towards the Cyber where she hung helplessly in mid-air; she gave a cry of relief as she felt gravity tugging her sharply back towards the ground and out of their flight path at the apex of her leap. The volley whistled harmlessly above her; seconds later she heard an explosion as it disintegrated a distant building.

And that was her cue to beat a hasty retreat. Her arm was aching magnificently now, and exhausted as she was she wouldn't stand a chance against José and his heavily armed wolf pack. Silently praying that Data 7 had made his escape as well, she let her free fall carry her swiftly and unerringly towards the roof of a low apartment. At the last moment she twisted in mid-air and landed heavily on her feet, then darted down into the adjacent alley.

From his position high above the streets of Meridiana, José peered intently through the wall of rain at the place she had last disappeared and waited for the nimble Cyber to make her reappearance. Oriole may have botched things horribly and abandoned the lot of them, but he still had one hundred and fifty pounds of heavy ordinance that would finish the job quite nicely. However, when a minute had ticked past with still no sign Cybersix's emergence from the other end of the alley he swore once loudly, stepped away from the edge and waved forward a pair of Fixed Ideas.

"Go after her, you idiots!" he shouted imperiously, his voice piping up just above a rumble of faraway thunder. "Find her and shoot her! Severely! And smack around Oriole if you happen to find her too! Nobody bails out on me and gets away with it with their legs intact!"

The Fixed Ideas exchanged a lopsided grin and shouldered their rocket launchers, then promptly bounded down from the building and ran off in the direction she had disappeared in.

The black-haired boy muttered something sour beneath his breath and squinted across the space between him and the place he had initially spotted the Cyber crouching. Amidst the rubble scattered along the roof he caught sight of something black and shiny and suspiciously vinyl. He frowned sharply and glanced back at the sole remaining Fixed Idea slouching next to him.

"Take me to that apartment!" he ordered, pointing to the faraway rooftop. "Immediately!"

The Fixed Idea hesitated. It squinted, following the finger to the place indicated, and screwed up its face as its brain chugged into activity, mentally tallying simple equations involving distances and wind velocities and added weight distribution. It scratched its head and pondered while its bantam leader tapped his foot impatiently.

Then it shrugged, scooped up a surprised José underneath one arm, and leapt.

They smashed into the roof several seconds later and the Fixed Idea primly set its quivering armload upon the shingles. José stared glassily ahead, rigidly upright as if petrified with shock.

"If - you ever - do - that again without - warning me first," he said haltingly, his voice warming with fury. "I - will really - kill you - a lot!"

The Fixed Idea bowed its head and slunk off to a far corner of the roof. José shook himself out of his daze, shot its retreating back a vicious look, and began to root through the debris with a businesslike air.

After a minute or two of intense scrutiny he let out a yell and hauled up a scrap of smooth black vinyl. Curious despite itself, the Fixed Idea shambled over to its master at the cry and bent over in time to have the fabric nearly shoved up its nose.

"Do you see this?!" José yelled. "Do you?! That idiot catgirl is dead! Cyberix killed the stupid thing! Of all the lousy luck!" He threw down the offending piece of cloth and stamped on it furiously. "Father can't make a creation worth squat! I told him No.12 was too incurable dumb to be worth anything to us, but did he listen to me? Gosh, NO! He never listens to me! I knew Oriole was useless, and he didn't listen! She was, was-"

"A thoroughly defunct specimen," a voice finished for him from some place high overhead.

"Yeah, exactly," he agreed, calming down by degrees. Then his eyes bulged.

"Who-" he began, and scrambled back in alarm when a woman in casual clothing dropped down softly in front of him. She straightened sharply, smiled pleasantly and ripped off a salute worthy of the most sadistic drill sergeant. "Upright No.14 at your service," she said crisply.

José stared. One of his eyebrows had shot up incredulously. At first he had thought his father had sent him another of his worthless Technos; the woman looked cannily human. She was tall and wiry, with short pale hair that stood up from her scalp in untidy tufts. Her bare arms and legs were thickly roped with muscle, however, and there was an unsettling gleam to her eyes that spoke clearly of a canny intelligence.

"No.14?" he exclaimed, bemused. He shook his head and glared at her. "Why would father send you out right after he gave me Oriole?"

The female specimen actually had the good grace to look properly embarrassed. "Uh, I believe that Von Reichter was actually anticipating the destruction of No.12 shortly after it passed into your possession. I have been on standby to replace her ever since you left the fortress."

There was a moment of tense, awkward silence. A peal of thunder grumbled somewhere along the distant midnight horizon, as if reminding them it was still there.

The black-haired boy's face had turned an interesting shade of purple and the Fixed Idea edged away from him nervously. "He did WHAT?!" José finally yowled, stamping about the roof in a tight circle with his fingers knotted in his hair. "How dare he expect me to get that stupid cat destroyed! How inept does he think I am?! It was Cybersix's fault! Hers, I tell you! Her-"

He froze in mid-rant, one foot still poised in the air as if placed on an invisible step and passed the female specimen a sideways glare with his eyes narrowed shrewdly. "Father wasn't working on an Upright No.14 model," he said suspiciously.

"Not one that you knew of, sir," she replied smoothly. "To my understanding he did not wish for you to know of my existence until now."

"Dad's such a bastard," José muttered, half underneath his breath. "Do you know why father sent you here?"

No.14 straightened smartly. "To smash in Cybersix's skull with a bloody big rock and suck out her brains with a straw," she barked.

He shrugged. "I would also have accepted mutilating her hideously to the point of a messy death, flaming her corpse and jumping on the ashes, but you've got the gist of it. You're in."

The female looked pleased with herself. "Thank you, sir," she replied.

José eyed her appreciatively. "At least you've got a brain in your head, unlike some others I could mention." He kicked at the scrap of black vinyl and turned back towards the warehouse. "Let's go," he ordered. "There's no point standing around here like fools if Cybersix isn't going to show up again and I'm not getting wet just to wait for those other two idiots to catch her. Nuts to this - I'm going home."

The Fixed Idea trotted towards him, its arms outstretched in an amiable, if meaningful way. José spotted its intentions and quickly sprang out of its reach.

"And I'm taking the stairs!" he yelled.

Standing quietly behind him, the pale woman smiled.

***

Her bed had never felt quite so wonderfully soft and warm against her skin as it did now. Cybersix sighed into her pillow and thrust her face against the fabric, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. It had taken every ounce of her remaining energy just to towel the rain off her hair, shoulder into a clean T-shirt and slacks and slip between the sheets. Her Cybersix outfit lay bunched in a crumpled heap on a chair, moisture running off it in rivulets and marking her floor. The broad-brimmed hat lay discarded in a corner. She'd thrown the shredded cape into a garbage pail.

Outside the storm continued its retreat along the bay; occasionally it lit up her room with frosty light and indigo shadows as lightning gently rippled through the clouds. The rain pattered down against her window, and the pattern of sound smoothed out her tattered nerves and lulled her ever closer within the clutches of sleep. Drafts of cool night air eked around the panes of glass and billowed out her curtains like diaphanous white sails. The breeze smelt of rain, of wet earth and leaves. It pressed her damp hair against her forehead.

Against the protest of her exhaustion, the Cyber opened her eyes when she heard the soft tread of padded feet along the carpet. Moments later she felt a cold nose against the back of her left arm, then a velvet muzzle pushed itself insistently beneath the limb.

Smiling, she lifted the arm and wrapped it around the neck of the great panther hovering worriedly at the side of her bed. She drew the cat's head towards her own and gently scratched his ears. She could feel the vibration of his answering purr right through the sheets.

"It's all right," she said softly, her voice muffled in the pillow. "I bandaged my arm and I'm going to catch some sleep. Nothing should happen until tomorrow night."

She sighed and met his distressed gaze. "And Von Reichter's creation is dead now, anyway. It's only José and his Fixed Ideas I need to concentrate on. So please don't worry."

His warm breath stirred the hairs on her neck and she silently prayed that her dearest friend would place trust in her confidence. Data 7 silently nosed her fingers and regarded her with unblinking yellow eyes. She met his gaze with a reassuring smile and he finally sniffed discontentedly and turned away, her bare arm slipping free from his neck. With one eye she watched as he padded some distance away and lay down in the shadow of her night table, his head on his front paws and his tail curling around his hindquarters. Within minutes he appeared to be asleep, although a certain twitch to his whiskers led her to suspect that his slumber was little more than an elaborate show. It was just like her brother to watch over her until the very early hours.

Cybersix smiled again and closed her eyes as the oblivion of sleep without dreams overtook her troubled consciousness. And outside her window the sky continued to weep for the morning.


End Part One