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Author's Note: Sorry that it's taken me so long to update this time around, but a lot's been happening in real life that soaked up all my time. I moved in with my girlfriend on the 28th of February and ever since we've been busy trying to turn that construction site called our apartment into something resembling a home. Still a lot to do, but it's starting to take shape now. So writing fanfiction had to take a backseat for some time.

Thanks again for the many reviews. Not too much trouble guessing what that black gem was last chapter, eh? Well, it was kinda obvious, I admit. And Angelus will be meeting some of the citizens of Cobra-La while tangling with Solomon Grundy, you can count on that.

And now, on with the show!

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Solo Missions 4: Joke's On You

#

The Hexagon
New Texas
May 22, 2427

Parallel 147

#

"So this is where the local big bad hangs out, is it?"

Your name is Faith Winters and you are currently in a very inhospitable place. Looking around, taking in the scenery, you are not happy to be here. The Hexagon, as it is called, is an area of the planet all the locals avoid like the plague. It is not simply a matter of superstition, though that is ripe here, too. No, the Hexagon is apparently the hangout of someone or something called Stampede.

"I've been here a few times," Bravestarr whispers from where he is crouched beside you, "but I'm afraid even after all this time I still don't have much of a clue what Stampede actually is. I only know he is dangerous and, for some reason, seems confined to this place. Which is something I'm very grateful for."

You nod. By now you have a pretty good idea what this Stampede guy is. The Hexagon is giving off vibes like crazy and has your Slayer senses in an uproar. If Stampede isn't a demon of some kind you'll eat this stupid cowboy hat you're wearing as part of your Marshal disguise for breakfast.

"Things might get a little less cozy if my boy has his way," you tell your companion.

Kevin McTaggert, better known as Proteus. You have told Bravestarr almost everything you know about him, foregoing only the detail that he is actually from another dimension. The rest, well, this is the 25th century and people, especially people like Bravestarr, are far more willing to believe in weird things than the 20th century versions you have left behind on your own world.

Proteus is a mutant, one of the most powerful ones ever born. Originally he was a young man with the rather impressive power of warping reality around him. Meaning that pretty much everything he wants to happen does happen, at least within a localized area. His only limitation is energy; his power eats up a lot of it. So much in fact that his own body simply burned out one day, leaving it a dried-up husk.

This might have been the end of the matter, but unfortunately Proteus discovered a further aspect of his mutant power. He can transfer his essence into other bodies. Not only does this give him a near-endless supply of new energy to fuel his power, but it also enables him to acquire whatever power his latest host has.

Which is exactly why you and Bravestarr are here right now.

"If this Proteus manages to take over someone as powerful as Stampede," Bravestarr speaks your thoughts out loud, "we might be looking at no end of trouble."

"You could probably kiss this planet goodbye at least," you add, earning you a somewhat sour look from the marshal.

"Let's make sure it doesn't come to that, shall we?"

There is something naggingly familiar about going into battle like this. You don't remember a lot of your past and what little you do remember tells you that you've always been a loner. Add to that the whole spiel given to you by your Watcher about how Slayers are supposed to fight alone and you think you should be uncomfortable working with others. You certainly were when it came to fighting alongside Buffy and her little troupe during those few short months you spent in Sunnydale before your past caught up with you.

This, though, it feels good. It feels right. Almost as if there has been a time in your shrouded past where you've worked alongside others before. You give Bravestarr a side-glance. He looks mighty fine, that much is for sure, but what really turns you on is the way he moves. Graceful, sleek, like a cat walking upright. You have yet to see him fight, but you're already sure that he can handle himself well. He is a professional soldier, unlike B and her ragtag band. Maybe that makes all the difference.

Your hand briefly strays to the dog tags you're wearing underneath your shirt. The ones that sport nothing but your name, Faith, and a serial number you can't make heads or tails of. The only link to your forgotten past, your most precious possession.

Shaking off these thoughts you remember that this is a bad time to engage in reminiscence.

"No sign of Tex Hex or any of Stampede's other cronies," Bravestarr whispers. "Looks like Stampede has an empty house tonight."

"All the better for us." A moment later you add, "and for Proteus, for that matter."

Feeling a sense of urgency you hurry on, making your way through the labyrinthine corridors of the Hexagon towards Stampede's main chamber. Bravestarr has been here before and barely escaped with his life. This is also something to consider, of course. Not only do you have to stop Proteus, you also have to get away afterwards. Your Slayer nature instills a strong urge to take care of this Stampede creature, too, while you're at it, but that would be interfering with the history of parallel.

Besides, Willow 12 assured you that, if you manage to keep Proteus from screwing things up, Bravestarr and some friends will eventually take care of Stampede for good.

Within minutes you reach a giant chamber, its only feature a kind of balcony jutting out from the corridor you came in. Apart from that the cavern seems empty, but it's hard to tell. About thirty meters in front of you everything vanishes into some kind of gray mist.

The lone figure walking in the chamber hasn't quite reached the mist yet.

"There he is," you yell, leaping off the platform without hesitation. It's a ten meter drop, but you hit the ground running. Without turning around you sense Bravestarr following you, making the drop with an equal lack of difficulty. Something has just changed about him, almost as if a kind of glow surrounds him now. He is suddenly quite a bit faster than a moment ago. Some kind of magical mojo?

He catches up with you and looking into his eyes for a moment tells you that he is just as curious about your powers as you are about his. Both of you are too professional to ask questions right now, though.

You can see Proteus ahead of you. Kevin McTaggert is only about twenty years old, but the body he currently inhabits is older, around fifty. Willow 12 said something about that being his father, James McTaggert. The son stealing the father's body. There has to be some kind of Oedipus complex involved in this, you figure.

"Remember," you tell Bravestarr while you run, "he can do pretty much anything he sets his mind to, so don't give him time to concentrate. And the only way to hurt him is metal."

Bravestarr nods, probably wondering why a near-omnipotent mutant is vulnerable to metal. You've wondered the same thing, but no answers were forthcoming. Maybe it's some kind of cosmic balance thing. The more powerful someone is the more mundane his weakness has to be.

Bravestarr mutters something under his breath. Something about a bear? A moment later you can sense the extra strength flooding into his body. You've gotten pretty good at measuring someone and right now you're pretty sure he could give you a run for your money in the strength-department. A smile plays over your lips. This could be really fun.

Then Proteus turns around, noticing you, and suddenly the entire world around you goes to hell.

#

Beta Space Station
Earth Orbit
August 4, 2103

Parallel 216

#

Your name is Niko Dal'Ariel and you are one fourth of the most elite team of law enforcement officers in this region of the galaxy, the Galaxy Rangers. In your relatively young life you have seen things most human beings couldn't even imagine. You have been part of dozens of missions, each of them life-threatening, each of them fantastic, each of them essential to the survival of the human race.

Compared to all that your current assignment should have been a walk in the park. One of your three teammates, Shane Goosman, actually complained that this job was too easy and boring for them. You admit, if only to yourself, that if you weren't an art lover you would probably feel the same way. Guarding one of the greatest art collections in the known universe from robbers isn't exactly the same as going up against the Queen of the Crown with the fate of humanity at stake.

You wonder if fate is punishing you for these thoughts by engaging you in a murder investigation.

The man who died, a security officer of the Beta Space Station, died by way of an unknown poison. It not only killed him, it made him laugh like a madman while it did and, in death, distorted his face into a sick caricature of a grin.

Forensics has yielded nothing so far, which means it is up to you to try and determine how and by whom this man was killed. You don't particularly like using your abilities like this. Attuning yourself to the psychic impressions left behind on his body will enable you to live through the final moments of this man's life as if they were your own. A death, even if it is that of a stranger, is always a very intense and traumatic thing to share. You are not looking forward to it.

Your three colleagues, Shane, Zachary, and Doc, are watching from several steps away. They have seen you do this a hundred times and not for the first time you wonder how much they truly understand. Do they know how draining this is for you? What it means to share a man's death? Probably not. And you will never tell them, either. You are a skilled martial artist, a detective, an archeologist, and an expert pilot and markswoman. Those are skills anyone can acquire, though. To be a Galaxy Ranger you need something extra, something no one else can do, and your psychic powers are it. You intend to pull your weight as you always do.

Touching your implant fills you with extra power. You don't need it to use your abilities, but without it they would only be a tenth as strong as they are now. You touch the dead body in front of you and psychic imprints begin to flow through your mind. You see his final hours. How he began his shift. How he chatted with a friend. How he noticed something funny going on in a supply cabinet and went to investigate. How he threw open the door, gun in hand, and ...

Dimly you are aware that you are laughing, laughing like you've never laughed before, but you quickly find yourself beyond caring. The psychic residue left on this dead man is drawing you in like a whirlpool, tides of insanity tearing at your very being, trying to shred it, trying to drown you in madness. You feel tears run down your cheeks as you keep laughing like a madwoman, every fiber of your mind trying to resist this onslaught.

Later on you will learn that the attack lasted less than a minute, but to you it seems like an eternity until you finally manage to pull away again. Your throat is raw from laughter, your knees are shaky, and you find yourself steadied by the strong arms of Shane.

"Niko?" he asks, apparently not for the first time. "Can you hear me? What happened?"

"Madness," you manage to whisper. "So much insanity."

"What are you talking about?" Zachary asks.

"Someone ... the man who did this ... he's insane. Completely, utterly insane. I've never felt anything like it. Even that imprint he left here nearly overwhelmed me."

"Did you see anything that might help us capture him? Anything?"

Closing your eyes you force yourself to go over the things you've seen, no matter how horrid they are. You caught but the barest impressions of the man himself, but that is enough to scare you to your very core. A man, simply a man. Not a decent man, but not a villain, either. Just a man who had a bad day and completely lost his mind. Drowning in a pool of madness that turned a small would-be criminal into a psychotic serial killer with the blood of hundreds on his hands.

There was one image almost crystal clear in his mind. An image of a dark shadow, a figure with wings, shaped like a bat. The one thing he fears, yet also the one thing he loves more than anything else. He is a locked in a savage circle of love and hate with this figure, a destructive downward spiral that can only end in death.

Something else was there, too. Something the murderer was focused on even as he killed the security guard. Something familiar. A small object you have seen before. Then it hits you.

"The Po Sensation Doll. He's after the Doll."

A moment later all four of you are on your feet and racing toward the exhibit's most valuable piece. Recovered from a dead planet that once housed a race of powerful empathic beings, the Sensation Doll has been compared to a battery. A storage unit for housing emotions. Inside it are the combined feelings of an entire race, a thousand different variations of love, hate, fear, pride, lust, and dozens more that the human language doesn't even have names for.

Being the last remaining artifact of a dead civilization makes it valuable beyond measure, but you've gotten the impression that your mysterious murderer is not after it for the money he could make. No, for some reason you are quite sure that he has other plans. You know that everyone who has subjected himself to the emotions stored inside the Sensation Doll have gone mad. You can't help but wonder what might happen if someone already insane were to touch it.

The exhibit has been closed to all visitors until this murder investigation is over with and done, so you don't have any civilians liable to get in the way. Or so you thought. When you reach the main exhibit room, though, you see a man standing right next to the display case that houses the Sensation Doll. A familiar man.

"Harris?" Zachary asks, lining up his gun. "Don't move, mister!"

He turns to look at you. It can't have been him, can it? You talked with him earlier. Even with your powers not activated you think that you would have noticed insanity of the kind you picked up from the body. Still, just because someone is mad doesn't mean he's stupid. He could have been faking.

"Mind telling us what you are doing her?" Shane is approaching Harris, his own gun drawn. Standard protocol for situations like these. When in doubt, Shane goes first. Of all four of you he is by far the hardest to kill.

"Is there a problem, Ranger Gooseman?" Harris seems much too calm for a man looking down the barrels of four blaster pistols. "Anything I can help you with?"

Though parts of you are screaming in fear you softly touch your implant, activating your powers again. Standing this far away you shouldn't be able to sense more than a general impression of Harris. Narrowing your eyes you brush your thoughts across his. No pull of madness, no whirlpool of insanity, but there is something strange about him. His thoughts feel ... old. Like the mind of a much older man.

"It's not him," you speak your findings out loud. "I'm not sure what he is, but ..."

Suddenly your words are cut off by a small object flying into the room. Your powers, still active, suddenly surge as you once again pick up the presence of that all-consuming madness and you recoil as if from a blow. The object (a grenade with a smiley face painted on it?) hits the ground at Shane's feet and immediately erupts into a cloud of gas. A cloud that quickly envelops Shane and Harris.

"Now that is just so much of a drag," a new voice rings out as the gas quickly spreads throughout the room and towards you. "A brave new world and it still has grown men and women running around in skintight jumpsuits trying to save the day. I want my money back."

Through the gas clouds you can see a tall, spindly figure appearing, wearing ... purple? A moment later you are too busy coughing as the gas has reached you, faster than you could run. Laughter bubbles up from your throat and you realize what this is. The same toxin that killed the guard.

Moments later you black out.


TO BE CONTINUED