Won't Get Fooled Again

by Sean Gaffney

(deep breath) The characters of Kei, Yuri, Mughi and the 3WA itself are (C) Haruka Takachiho. Shasti, Deirdre, and Cory Emerson are (C) Toren Smith and Adam Warren. Lazarus Long and all his family are (C) Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein. Asuka and Rei are (C) Gainax. Jimmy is mine, although he is based very much on Roger Daltrey. I do believe that's it. :-)

This story takes place: a) some time after the DP manga "Fatal But Not Serious", b) sometime after the Heinlein novel "To Sail Beyond the Sunset". The flashbacks, interspersed throughout, take place: a) between the DP mangas "A Plague of Angels" and "Sim Hell" and b) between the Heinlein novels "The Number of the Beast" and "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls". Asuka and Rei are from an alternate universe, and don't impact with the normal Evangelion timeline at all. In addition, this takes place after my DP story "I Am One", and that story should be read first.

Have I bored you to tears yet? Here we go!


Part One: Goin' Mobile

Shasti sat in the darkness, listening to the various sounds coming from the Lovely Angel. She could hear the ship's engines as they took them to an unknown destination. Unknown to Shasti, at least. She was trusting Kei, Yuri and Cory to get help for all of them. It was difficult for her. She wanted to do the job herself. That way, she could count on it being done properly, and if she failed, there wouldn't be any partitioning of blame.

Cory had ceased ranting for the moment, and Shasti could hear the quiet click of a keyboard. *Don't tell me she's trying to write this up as a story,* Shasti thought. *I doubt she'll ever get back to her magazine now.* The ruination of Cory's journalistic career was another thing that weighed on Shasti's mind.

There was so much blame that could be laid at her doorstep, and she didn't know what to do with it. For over five years, she had killed, robbed, and blasted her way through life. Now that her mind was reasonably sane again, she wasn't sure whether or not she could cope with that knowledge.

Cory had tried to give Shasti back her mind, and had succeeded for the most part. She still heard voices from her head that sounded like one of her four personalities, but more and more they all sounded like _her_. Different aspects, but still Shasti.

She turned and looked at Deirdre laying in the next bed, sleeping soundly. She too had been manipulated, a clone created by Jimmy to kill Shasti. But the clone had been too perfect, and the real Deirdre was able to break free of her creator's manipulation.

Seeing Deirdre alive and sleeping next to her disturbed Shasti more than she would care to admit. Deirdre's death had always preyed on her mind, even in her worst moments of insanity. There was an odd gap in her consciousness now that she could no longer grieve for her. Was she that desperate for feelings, _any_ feelings, that she would rather see her friend dead?

A stabbing pain seemed to shoot through her heart. No. She would rather die a thousand times than see Deirdre die again.

Deirdre's face suddenly crumpled, then she cried out. She sat bolt upright in bed, still shaking somewhat.

Shasti looked sympathetic, and also a little wistful. "Did you have a nightmare?"

Deirdre nodded. "I suppose it's only to be expected. I mean, like, after what we had to go through, who wouldn't have nightmares?"

Shasti turned away slightly. "Me."

Deirdre realised her mistake almost at once. "Oh, Shasti, I'm sorry. I forgot."

Shasti smiled half-heartedly. "It's all right. I can imagine that the nightmares help somewhat?"

This time it was Deirdre who looked away. "Dreams and nightmares do help, yes. It's part of the human mind's way of sorting through the day's events."

Shasti said nothing, merely laying down on her bed to stare at the ceiling.

Shortly after they'd been assigned as partners, Deirdre had discovered that Shasti did not dream. Shasti seemed surprised to hear what dreaming was about, and declared that she didn't mind in the slightest. As they got closer, however, Shasti started to confess to Deirdre some of her feelings of inadequacy. It could only be between the two of them, for the 3WA would never have tolerated any admission of weakness.

Shasti confessed that there were things that she yearned to do that she never could. At the top of her list was dreaming. After they talked about it, Deirdre made a point of not bringing the subject up. She always noticed, though, that whenever she woke from a nightmare, Shasti would be there, staring at her with an odd mixture of compassion and jealousy.

Deirdre cursed herself for forgetting about this. She got up and went to the bed, taking Shasti's hand. "I guess it's not going to be as easy as we thought, huh?"

Shasti turned towards her, though she remained laying down. "What do you mean?"

Deirdre smiled weakly. "I had thought now that we were all right again, things would, like, go right back to normal, y'know? The old team again, the best of friends, no problems."

Shasti didn't answer for a long time, thinking over what Deirdre was saying. Finally, she spoke up.

"It's not going to be easy. It'll take a while for us to get back to how it used to be, if it ever does. We're different people now, Deirdre, with different experiences." She got up and clasped Deirdre's hand in her own. "But don't ever think that it will be difficult for us to be friends. You will always be my best friend, Deirdre. I forgot that once. It will never happen again."

Deirdre was embarrassed to discover that she had tears in her eyes. She gathered Shasti into a tight hug. "I forgot too, for a bit. Let's make sure that we always remember our friendship."

Shasti was crying as well. "I promise."

Deirdre drew back and looked at Shasti's face. "You may not be able to dream, Shasti. But you can laugh and cry, and those are two of the most important human qualities there are. There's no doubt in my mind as to whether or not you're human."

Before Shasti could reply the intercom buzzed. "Cory here, guys. We've arrived, and Tertius is hailing us. I'd rather not answer them, so I'm going to go get Kei and Yuri."

Shasti and Deirdre looked at each other, puzzled. "OK, but do you think they're in any shape to do so?"

Cory snorted. "Trust me, they're _bound_ to make a better impression on this place's resident lord than I will..."

***

Cory opened to door to Kei and Yuri's quarters silently, in case the two of them were still asleep. No such luck. They were both wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Mughi sat between the two beds, wanting to help them but not knowing what to do.

However, Cory needed them right now. "Um, hi? We're here, and they're hailing us. It's not Athene this time, so I think you should answer so that I don't screw things up. God only knows what would happen if a new computer patched me through to _him_ or something...um, hello?"

Kei and Yuri hadn't even reacted when she spoke. Cory sighed. She had hoped that their little breakdown shortly after getting away was a sign that they were beginning the healing process. It seemed that it was going to take a lot longer than that.

She spoke up again. "Guys, come on. We need to get down there and see if the 3WA has any more surprises in our heads. For all we know, the three of us could be containing bombs or something."

Kei still didn't move, but she spoke quietly. "That's true. Hey, we could even have something in our heads that turns us against our closest friends, and forces them to kill us."

"There was nothing you could have done."

Yuri suddenly leaped out of bed, coming right up to Cory's face. "Bullshit! We should have been able to do something! Clarisse was our friend! We owed it to her!"

"Clarisse was gone!" Cory was beginning to get mad despite herself, trying to break through the Angels' self-pity. "Jimmy killed her and the rest as soon as he erased their minds. Deirdre told me that once he did that, they were _dead_! There was no getting them back!"

Yuri was brought up short by Cory's anger. Kei sat up too, looking into her eyes. "We shouldn't have had to finish the job."

Cory sighed. "She was turned into a mindless killer. She would have continued until Shasti was dead, and then Jimmy would probably have gotten rid of her and her fellow agents anyway. Face it, there wasn't a lot you could do because it wasn't your fight. All of this was between Shasti and Jimmy. We were merely incidental."

Yuri spoke up. "And that's supposed to help?"

"Well, it's a lot better than blaming yourself for everything that went wrong! Look, once we get to Boondock and Ishtar takes a look at us, you can grieve to your heart's content. But for now, please try to cope. We need to get down to the surface, _I_ can't land this thing, Deirdre and Shasti aren't familiar with your ship. Plus you two like everyone down there. You can deal with them."

Cory tried to see if anything she said had gotten through. The two women paused for a moment, still lost in thought. Then Kei said, "Fine. Let's get ourselves checked out."

Yuri grunted as she got up, her shoulder still only rudimentally fixed. "Probably a good idea."

Cory frowned. Well, they weren't what you'd call back to normal yet, but it'd do. Now to go hide...

***

After saying who it was, and a quick rundown of possible medical problems, they were allowed to land right next to Dora, so that they could get to the clinic as soon as possible. There to greet them were Ishtar, the head of Boondock's medical department, Maureen and Minerva, who were acting as her assistants, and Hilda, who was there because tehy were dealing with an interuniversal meeting. Also present was Lazarus Long, the oldest human being alive (though he didn't look it.) Lazarus didn't really need to be there, but that had never stopped him before.

They were rather surprised at the group who emerged from the Lovely Angel. Kei and Yuri were a far cry from their usual brash, confident selves, and also looked to be wounded. Following them were two others, trouble consultants by the look of their uniforms. They didn't seem to have any physical injuries, but their eyes were just as haunted as those of the Angels.

The tall brunette turned around as they left the ship. "Are you coming out, Cory?"

The answer was shouted from within the ship. "Is _he_ out there?"

The brunette looked puzzled. "He who?"

Kei and Yuri, despite their injuries, sighed at this. Some things never change, they both thought. "Yes, he's out here."

"I want him gone! I'm not leaving the ship until I hear he's gone!"

Yuri shouted back. "Cory, this is childish!"

"Damn straight! How does that make me different from him?"

Ishtar spoke up. "How bad are your injuries?"

The blonde was the one who answered. "Kei and Yuri are badly hurt, and we have no idea how many dirty tricks have been implanted in our minds, or when they could be activated."

That was enough for Ishtar. "Lazarus, get out."

Lazarus began to bristle. "I am not going to be told what to do by some jumped-up cub reporter who, for some odd reason, has developed an irrational dislike of me. I refuse -- "

Ishtar cut him off coldly. "She's not telling you what to do. I am. Leave now, for the sake and safety of my patients."

Lazarus looked around, but saw that Hilda and Maureen wore the same expressions of stubbornness. He wouldn't even get help from Minerva this time. With an air of great suffering, he left the clinic. *I'll just have Dora keep an eye on them,* he thought.

Meanwhile Cory peered her head round the doors of the Angel. Seeing that Lazarus wasn't around, she sighed in relief and stepped out. "Hello, everyone -- " She wasn't allowed to finish the sentence, as Ishtar gave her a cold look.

"And as for you, Ms. Emerson, if I find that you have endangered the lives of anyone here with this childish act of yours, I will make your life far more difficult than Lazarus ever did. Is that understood? This is a hospital, and therefore we do not put up with foolishness."

Cory had turned a bright red. "I'm...I'm sorry. He brings out the worst in me."

"Now, who can explain for me quickly and simply what happened and exactly why you are worried."

Between the five of them, the story of Shasti's recovery and Jimmy's attempted revenge was told. Minerva seemed to show a special interest in what the Central Computer had to say about all of this. She wanted to ask them a few questions, but Ishtar moved quickly. She had been examining the five of them, and quickly whispered in Maureen and Hilda's ears. She then gave each of them a small sedative, and also gave one to Minerva.

She turned back to the little group. "First of all, the five of you are much too tense. I'm giving each of you a relaxation injection to calm you down. Minerva, Kei and Yuri please?"

Minerva nodded. However, before she could give the shot to the two Angels, Ishtar, Hilda and Maureen had each quietly injected the other three. Cory, Deirdre, and Shasti dropped like stones to the ground, unconscious.

Kei and Yuri reacted quickly, turning on Minerva. There was a hurt expression on their faces. "Hey, what's going on here?" asked Yuri.

"I don't want to be _that_ relaxed!" added Kei.

Ishtar waved Minerva off. "That was just a pretext. I had no idea what to expect, so I scanned for everything I could think of. The two of you have a nasty cybervirus in your head, but you already know the details of that one, and it's in no danger of being used in this universe. The other three, however, have so many time-delayed wetware poisons running through them that I'm not even sure if I can save them. I didn't know how they would react to this, or more specifically how the infected part of them would, so I gave them a shot to knock them out. They should be out for quite some time, and we'll see what we can do." She signalled for three hovercarts, which magically appeared, and Hilda and Maureen began to put the unconscious Shasti, Deirdre and Cory on them and lead them into the bowels of the clinic.

Ishtar turned to Minerva. "Minnie, get Kei and Yuri to Room Four. Have Galahad give them a once-over," she said, ignoring Yuri's groan, "and then have him see me for recommendations."

She came back to the Angels. "Even though there's no immediate danger in your cyberviruses, I'd still like to get them out of there as soon as possible, both for your peace of mind and my own. The idea that there is someone out there in the multiverse who would deliberately engineer something like this is monstrous. He is dead, you say?"

Kei nodded. "Deirdre killed him."

Ishtar frowned. "Killing would have been a mercy to him, and frankly I'm not inclined to show him any. But what's done is done. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go look at the others, especially Shasti."

"Is there anything you can do?" asked Yuri.

Ishtar turned back, unsure. "I don't know. Shasti is a bioroid, unlike the rest of you. Her cyberware and hardware is as much a part of her as your heart and lungs. It may be impossible to separate the two. I have an idea on how to get around it, but I'd have to talk to her about it. Which may be dangerous in and of itself."

Ishtar snapped out of her funk. "Which is all the more reason why I should get a move on. I'll see you in a little while, ladies."

As she left the two of them stopped her once more. "Ishtar? Thanks for doing this. I mean, considering the mess we gave you last time..."

Ishtar smiled. "You were no trouble at all. In fact, Laz and Lor will be ecstatic when they find out you're back. No, the only one who will be put out by your visit is Lazarus."

As she walked away, she called behind her. "And what better reason is there for a visit than that?"

***

As Ishtar entered Room 3, where Cory was currently laying on a bed, still unconscious, she was rather surprised to find Lazarus standing by the door staring at her.

Lazarus turned, looking rather sheepish. "She hasn't woken up, so I think we're safe."

Ishtar's eyes narrowed. "Safe from her, perhaps. Lazarus, do you take pleasure in flouting me?"

Lazarus turned away from her gaze. "You never said I couldn't see her here."

Ishtar sighed. "Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that you ever grew up, Lazarus. She doesn't want to see you."

Lazarus frowned. "I know."

Ishtar began to realise that there might be more to this. "I thought that you disliked her as much as she disliked you. Why the concern all of a sudden?"

Lazarus wouldn't answer, instead going back to looking at Cory. Ishtar decided to try and answer the question herself.

"You're bothered by the fact that she seems to hate you and it wasn't your choice. You have no idea how to convince her that you're really a charming rogue whom everybody loves. And because of that, you get even more defensive around her, am I right?"

Lazarus looked back at Ishtar sharply. "Can I keep any of the thoughts in my head a secret these days?"

Hilda walked into the room. "Face it, Lazarus, you're an open book when it comes to women." She looked up at Lazarus, thoroughly unintimidated by the fact that he had over a foot of height on her. "Here's my recommendation: shut up around her. The reason she dislikes you is that you can't keep your big mouth closed. Cory is already very uncomfortable in Boondock. She told me so last time. She has a low self-opinion, and hanging around with us gorgeous gals didn't help."

Ishtar took over. "If you are polite to her, rather than treating her like you treat the rest of us, then perhaps eventually she may admit there's more to you than meets the eye. The problem is that you two are far too similar for your own good, and she can be incredibly stubborn."

Lazarus continued to sulk, but it was obvious from his eyes that he would give Hilda and Ishtar's suggestion some thought. He grumbled and left the room, and Ishtar began to see how Cory was faring.

Hilda caught up with Lazarus a little ways down the corridor. "Lazarus, there's something else. What did you think of their explanation of that man, Jimmy?"

Lazarus turned and attempted to put an innocent expression on his face. He was totally unsuccessful. "But Hilda, my dear, you know that I left the room before I could hear anything -- "

Hilda ran right over his sentence. "Lazarus, quit trying to one-up me. When you were having Dora spy on us, and listening to their explanation, what did you think?"

Lazarus gave up and considered the problem. "Sounds like a rather nasty piece of work to me. But that's all in the past."

"Is it?" Hilda was getting a shrewd look on her face. "Considering what we've been told of Jimmy, I find it impossible to believe that he would allow himself to be killed like that. The entire final fight Shasti told us about seems false somehow."

Now Lazarus was equally serious. "You want the Time Corps to scout it out?"

Hilda nodded. "And if it's as serious as I think, I want to call the Circle. This could be a major operation."

***

Deirdre awoke slowly, attempting to get a sense of her surroundings. She was in what looked like a hospital, except that no hospital room was ever as spacious as this. Didn't they know that the room was supposed to be cramped, uncomfortable, and have the walls painted a rather bilous shade of green? She attempted to sit up, but quickly regretted it. It felt as if her head was disconnected from the rest of her body.

Suddenly a voice came from near her ear. "Ah, are we awake?"

Deirdre looked up, startled. There was no one else in the room. She looked around to see if there was a doorway behind her or anything.

"Don't be alarmed, you can't really see me. My name's Persephone, and I'm the main computer around here, or at least I have been for the past six months."

Deirdre was curious despite herself. "Did the previous computer, like, have a breakdown or something?"

If Deirdre didn't know better, she could have sworn that Persephone actually snorted. "No, she just decided to come out of her shell and get married." Deirdre waited for a further explanation, but none seemed to be forthcoming.

Deirdre decided to get a few things straight. "So, like, why did you all sneak up behind us and knock us out? Do you treat all your guests like this?"

Persephone seemed unfazed by this retort. "We had no idea how the infected wetware in your head would react if we took you to surgery while you were still conscious. It seemed better to sneak up on it and try to explain things to you later. I apologise if we upset you."

Deirdre did look annoyed, but nevertheless said, "Well, if it gets that garbage out of our heads, I guess it's OK."

Persephone went on. "Anyway, how do you feel today?"

Deirdre moaned quietly. "I feel like someone used my head for bongos. Totally."

The computer seemed puzzled. "Totally what?"

Deirdre snickered. "Y'know, like, totally. I'm sure, no way."

Persephone apparently decided to ignore this and move on. "Anyway, we need a little bit of information, and Ms. Emerson is being, according to Ishtar, 'her usual uncooperative self'. Since you came through your surgery with flying colours, I thought I would ask you for some of the information I need."

A thought crossed Deirdre's mind. "So, what exactly did they find in me, anyway?"

There was a pause. "Perhaps I had better wait and let Ishtar tell you exactly what they did."

This didn't make Deirdre feel any better. "What, did something go wrong?"

Persephone was quick to respond. "No, no. As a matter of fact, you helped us more than you'd think. Do you know that you were born with an organic computer in your brain?"

Deirdre smiled. "Why do you think I'm one of the best TC's in the 3WA? It was, like, the reason they scouted me."

"Well anyway, your brain decided to provide signposts of a sort, dictating to Ish exactly what had to be done. As a result, there are almost no complications."

"Most bodacious."

Persephone sounded slightly annoyed. "Are you doing that deliberately?"

"Yep."

"Anyway, I was wondering if you could see your way to answering a few questions?"

Deirdre shrugged. If the questions got too personal or dangerous, she could refuse to answer, after all. "Go ahead."

"Name?"

"Deirdre Voxx."

"Date of birth?"

"December 14, 2114."

"Place?"

Deirdre sighed. This was dull. "Encino, California, USA, Earth."

"Universe?"

"Like, what?"

"Aren't you familiar with the concept? Your ship did have a Burroughs/Libby device..."

Deirdre continued to look puzzled. "It's Kei and Yuri's ship. I've got no idea what you're talking about."

Persephone attempted to explain. "There are many, many different universes out there, all accessible by modes of rotation and translation. We identify most of them through the first person to walk on the moon. In the universe you're in now, it was Leslie LaCroix, an employee of Harriman Enterprises. Who was it in your universe?"

"Different people walked on the moon in different universes?"

"Most of the major nexus universes are similar to each other until about 1939, but then begin to diverge wildly."

"Oh. Well, it was 1975, Colonel Greg Sandborn. It was a big military thing, y'know?"

"Got it. That places you in Universe 16..."

The door opened, and Ishtar stepped in, with Cory just behind. Cory was on crutches, and looked rather pale, but was still able to move. That didn't last, however, as Ishtar led her over to the bed next to Deirdre's.

"I thought you could use some company. Being trapped in a small room with Miss Emerson is an experience I want to share with as many people as possible." Ishtar smiled slightly at the annoyed look that passed over Cory's face.

Deirdre, however, had other things on her mind. "When I asked exactly what was taken out of my head and how it was done, the computer gave me the run-around and told me to ask you. Therefore, I ask you. What did you do to us?"

Persephone was shocked. "What happened to the weird speech patterns?"

Deirdre would have glared, if she'd known which direction to point it in. "This is serious. When I'm being serious, I talk seriously. When I relax, I talk in my normal speech patterns."

Persephone still seemed unconvinced. "Those were _normal_?"

"_If_ I could just interrupt for a moment," Ishtar said, breaking into their conversation neatly, "I can explain everything now. I wanted to get you two together so that I wouldn't have to go through this twice."

Deirdre tensed at that. "Wait a minute. Where's Shasti?"

Ishtar sighed. "That's part of what I want to talk to you about. She _should_ be just fine," Ishtar quickly said, noting the look of agony that passed over Deirdre and Cory's faces, "but her recovery will take much longer. A month at least."

"WHAT?!" Cory was stunned.

"Let me take this one at a time. For one thing, both of you have been unconscious for nearly a week." She paused and let that sink in. "Kei and Yuri were released after only a couple of days. The device in their brains was simple and crude. Since they tell me that it was implanted in all of their classmates, it was probably put there on their graduation, which means it was not very state of the art. They've been to see you every day, though they're not here at the moment."

Cory was curious. "Do you know where they are?"

Ishtar smiled. "Kei said something about letting the city know that the Lovely Angels have arrived and are taking prisoners."

Now Cory smiled. "Getting laid, in other words."

"Probably." Her look turned serious. "You two were infected more recently, so your surgery was harder. Deirdre, we got a lot of assistance from your computer brain, which could analyse the devices within it. Why in God's name didn't you use it before?"

Deirdre shifted uncomfortably. "Jim told me not to. I was confused, not thinking straight. They kept my mind busy being enraged at Shasti, so that I couldn't see what they were actually doing."

Ishtar rested a hand on Deirdre's shoulder. "It's all right. From what we could tell, there are virtually no malevolent impulses in you at all now, except towards 3WA, understandably, and those are tempered." She paused, frowning. "There is one thing you might be able to help me with. Your computer mind -- "

Deirdre stopped her. "If my computer mind did this, why can't I remember any of it? We're not completely separate, you know."

"You were kept in what we call a Lethe field. It keeps your mind from remembering most of the pain. The next time you access your computer mind - please don't do it now, it taxes you too much - you should recall all of this. What I was saying is that it noticed that a part of the infected wetware had been removed."

Deirdre frowned. "Did it extrapolate?"

"It guessed that it would correspond to some sort of controlling device, preventing you from doing what you did, which was accessing your computer mind." Ishtar looked at Deirdre closely. "Someone else has been messing with your head. You should thank them, whoever they were. If that component had been inside your brain, you would have had killed Shasti with no problems whatsoever."

Deirdre shuddered. "I hate the thought of people messing with my mind so much."

"There were also a large number of wetware poisons, most of them meant to ensure that once you had completed your mission, you would never have survived. These were considerably more advanced than Kei or Yuri's, so it took much longer to remove them. By the way, neither of you have any implants whatsoever anymore."

Cory yelped. "WHAT? How are we going to survive?"

Ishtar attempted to soothe. "Cory, you certainly don't need them here. Persephone is large enough to handle any sort of data uplink you might have needed. Personally, I recommend reading. Taking in the information you want through the eyes is much more satisfying, if a little slower." Cory grumbled, but said nothing.

"All of your wetware was infected. _All_ of it. And we don't have the skills necessary to replace it here. We've never needed to; cybertechnology never took hold here as it did in your universe. We opted to search for the secret to immortality instead."

Deirdre was just beginning to realise how advanced these people really were. "Immortality?"

Ishtar smiled. "That's something that can be saved for another time. Cory, they must not have had much time to do anything major to you in that medical exam you got. There was just one thing they did. They planted a fission bomb in your head."

For once, Cory was speechless. Ishtar went on. "It was set to go off if anyone tried to remove it. I can't think of any reason why it would have been implanted in you. Your death wouldn't have set it off, only a deliberate attempt to remove it by outside parties. Jimmy was apparently a sadist as well."

Cory was beginning to shake. Ishtar tried to relax her. "Don't worry, Cory. Remember, we've got a few millennia on your universe. Your surgery was conducted while you lay in a low-level stasis field. The bomb was removed without it even realising, and then destroyed."

While Cory continued to shudder, Deirdre was beginning to put a few facts together. "Wait, you said that we had all of our computer implants removed. What about Shasti? She's a bioroid. She's got so many implants in her, she can't survive without them."

Ishtar sighed. This was the difficult bit. "No, she could not. I couldn't figure out a way to remove the infected components without killing her. There were many, most of them installed at her creation, and most of them tied to her nervous system. Removing them would not only have meant death, but an agonisingly painful one."

Cory was pale now. "What did you decide to do? You told us she was fine."

Ishtar went on. "Despite Shasti being a bioroid, there are also several organic components to her, and those were not infected. We took a cell sample, and began to construct -- "

"A clone," Deirdre finished. "You're making a clone of Shasti, and will put her mind in that body."

Ishtar nodded. "It's been done before. And I don't just mean with you. We've -- "

"Did Shasti approve this?" Cory's voice had dropped a few degrees.

"Of course she did," Ishtar replied. "She may not have been completely conscious, but her answer was certain enough."

"What was her answer? In exact words," asked Deirdre.

Ishtar frowned. "She said that she wanted to be human. We took that to mean that she approved of the cloning..." Ishtar trailed off as she saw both Deirdre and Cory's reactions.

Cory spoke up first. "You take a woman who has always been unsure of her identity, drop her ultimate dream in her lap, and then you wonder if she'll take it? God, of _course_ she would have said yes! Why didn't you ask any of us to be there when this occurred?"

Ishtar shrugged. "It was her body, and therefore her decision."

Deirdre shook her head. "She didn't think it through. All she saw was that she could finally become a complete human being. I've told her that she's human in all the ways that count, but she never really believed me. This is going to backfire on you."

Ishtar thought for a few moments. "There's nothing we can do in any case. This was the only option available if Shasti wanted to live."

"Oh, I'm not saying it wasn't necessary. And don't think I'm ungrateful for saving her life, because I'm not. I'm just saying that when she wakes up, Shasti will realise what it _truly_ means to be completely human. And I don't think she's ready for it." Cory was nodding her agreement.

Once again, silence pervaded the room for a few moments. Then Ishtar said, "In that case, I apologise to you. Would you mind very much if we asked you to be there when she wakes up?"

Cory grinned. "How were you planning on keeping us away?"

"Well, I'll leave you two to rest. You probably won't be sleeping much just now, as you've just woken up after nearly a week. But you are still weak, and you should stay in bed until you feel better."

Ishtar smiled at the two of them again, and left the room. Deirdre sat back.

"Well, this was certainly surprising. Cory, what did she mean when she said that they were a couple of millennia ahead of our universe?"

Cory coughed. "Um...well, this is the 47th century. More or less, their calendars are so weird that I can't convert it properly."

Deirdre's eyes widened. "OK, I want a few answers. How do the three of you know these advanced people from another universe?"

Cory laughed. "I'm actually an alien, sent by my race on a secret mission to destroy the Quagaars of Nexus III."

They both laughed, then Cory went on. "Seriously, it's a long story. Do you feel up to it?"

"It's not as if we're going anywhere," Deirdre replied.

"Well, I had been on a mission with the Angels once before, to Kalevala. Unfortunately, that one ended in a PR disaster, so my entire story was censored. I didn't think I'd hear from the 3WA again, especially considering the bitching out I gave them the last time. I dunno, maybe that was what convinced them to call my editors again..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cory groaned as she came back into consciousness, hearing her screen beeping incessantly at her. *Why can't they ever call me when I'm conscious?* she thought. "WHAT?"

Her editor appeared on the screen, unruffled by her outburst. "Hi, Cory. You're looking radiant today."

Cory growled. She got up off the couch where she had apparently passed out the night before, and tried to block the mess from her boss' view. "And what news do you have for me today? Don't tell me, you've discovered that I'm actually the missing Princess?"

He actually had the temerity to laugh. "No, Cory. An assignment for you, one that will hopefully go a little better than your last major job."

"If you recall," Cory interrupted, "it was the 3WA who censored that story. It was not my fault."

"Funny you should use that phrase," he replied. "I've just gotten another call from the 3WA. They said that despite your, and I quote, 'major attitude problems', your report was one of the best they'd seen that tried to capture the Angels in a favourable light. And after the PR disaster on Leifker IV, they need more help than ever."

Cory attempted to twist her mind around what her editor was saying. "The 3WA wants me to write another story on the Angels? After all of the problems I had with the _last_ one? Are they out of their friggin' minds?"

"Actually, Cory, you weren't their first choice. However, both Kei and Yuri made it very clear that, and I quote once again, 'if they were going to drag around some nosy reporter whose job it was to drag their names through the mud, it might as well be Cory.' You seem to have made quite an impression on them, Cory.

Cory flushed, not sure if the Angels' statement was a compliment or not. "What would this story involve?"

"There's rumours of a financial take-over on a space station in the Centauri solar system. The 3WA has been hired to make sure that this new entry into the business world doesn't have any ulterior motives. The Central Computer assigned the Lovely Angels to the task."

"And I'm supposed to find this fascin--"

Cory stopped and thought for a long moment. Then she turned back to the screen and said, "OK, I'll go. When do I leave?"

Her editor seemed surprised. "Um, I've got your tickets right here. You'll meet the Angels at Pacifica and go with them to the station."

"Fine," Cory responded. She seemed to have her mind on something else. "I'll get ready, then."

Her editor smiled. "Good luck this time, Cory."

"Uh-huh." Cory cut the transmission.

Her brain was working overtime as she got dressed. A financial take-over. All that was needed was to make sure that the newcomers were on the up and up. First of all, why would the 3WA be called in?

And second, why would the Central Computer pick the Lovely Angels for such a mission?

***

Cory stood in the hangar, waiting for the Angels to arrive after their briefing. She wasn't sure whether she was looking forward to this. She'd had a lot of fun on the last mission, but looking back on it she realised that it wasn't fun at the time -- only in hindsight. At the time she was scared out of her wits, distrustful of the two psychotic maniacs with her, and generally flailing through the situation out of control.

She decided not to worry about it. If the assignment _does_ turn out to be as dull as it sounds, then maybe I can even give them a good write up.

Kei and Yuri came towards her. They didn't seem to have changed one bit, except for the fact that the bikinis have shrunk _once again_. Cory thanked God that she hadn't accepted their parting gift of a 3WA trouble consultant's uniform; trying to imagine her body in one of those things caused great pain.

"Hey, Cory, ready for more action, excitement and thrills?" Yuri said, hugging her.

Kei grinned. "Then you're not going to find it here. In order to protect our miserable reputation, we've been assigned to the dullest mission ever recorded." For some reason, Yuri winked at her.

Cory frowned. "Yeah, I wanted to ask you guys about that..."

Kei grabbed her and started dragging her towards the Angel. "First things first. It's going to be a two-day journey, so we want to make sure to start it off right. We are getting as _drunk_ as we possibly can. Then you can interview us. I think it'll be a hoot, don't you?"

Cory looked back at Yuri, who merely grinned and held up a bottle. "It's OK, Mughi can drive."

Cory moaned. To think I was excited about this...

***

After take-off, they went back to the 'living area' of the Lovely Angel and cracked open a few beers. Cory was still attempting to stop them and try and get down to business. "I was wondering if we could talk about this case you're on..."

Kei looked up at Yuri. "We're away?"

"Yup," Yuri replied, laying down on a bed. "And, as ordered, we're under radio silence."

Kei turned to Cory. "See, this mission is a biiiiiig secret." Kei seemed to believe that she was already drunk, though she hadn't even touched a drop yet. "We have to sneak in there, find out what we can, and sneak out again."

Cory decided to cut to the chase. "And has it occurred to you that it's a little odd to assign the two of you to this kind of mission?"

Kei and Yuri both stopped and looked at her, their eyes wide. Cory thought they looked like an anime. "Cory! Are you suggesting that this is a simple mission that could just as easily have been handled by one of the economic trouble consultants?" Yuri gasped.

Kei came in, sounding just as amazed. "And you can't possibly mean that this is the sort of case that 3WA shouldn't even be getting into, and that sending its top team of trouble consultants in seems like overkill?"

Yuri looked at Kei. "You don't think that they're expecting some major kind of trouble, but they can't tell anyone about it, so they're sending us in hoping that when things blow up we'll be able to put a lid on the situation?"

Kei threw her hands up into the air. "Of _course_! It all makes sense now! Oh, thank you, Cory, for explaining this all for us! I'm afraid we're just bimbos who like to shoot big guns, so this sort of thing would never have occurred to us."

The pair looked at Cory, who watched them through narrowed eyes. She raised her hands and began to clap, slowly and deliberately. "Bravo. Now that you've made fun of me, perhaps you can tell me what you really think about this case."

Suddenly the girls smirked and dropped all pretence of getting drunk. "It's a set-up, obviously," Kei began. "Cory, we've been in the 3WA for _years_, and these sorts of things happen. It's probably some big internal political thing that the 3WA wants to keep hushed up."

Cory began to get annoyed. "And you two condone that sort of thing?"

Yuri shrugged. "What can we do about it? It's not as if we'll ever get promoted, and I doubt we'd accept one if we got it. We don't run 3WA, Cory, despite what the tabloids say. We get our orders, and we go do it."

Kei frowned. "Getting back to the case, what's really got me thinking is not the fact that we were assigned to it, but that they chose this case as the time to try and do another story on us. If this really is a hushed-up political thing, why assign you? Unless they plan to censor your story again, and I think you gave them a pretty good idea last time of what would happen if they tried that."

Cory smiled; she'd mentioned hot branding irons. "That occurred to me too. Maybe it is all on the up-and-up; after all, if they assign you to a nice and easy case, then there's a chance that nothing will go wrong for a change." Cory noticed the Angels glare at her. "I mean..."

Yuri smiled weakly. "We know what you mean, Cory. Believe me, we're not unaware of our reputation. It's just that most of it is false. That's the major reason why we insisted on you being the reporter to interview us."

Kei nodded. "We trust you, Cory. You've seen us at our best and at our worst, and you know firsthand how things can snowball out of control on a mission. _You_ won't be interviewing the Dirty Pair." Kei shuddered as she said those two words. Cory knew how deeply they despised their nickname.

Cory smiled. "That's good to hear. But from what you've been telling me, you don't think this is a 'reporter' assignment?"

Yuri frowned. "No, I don't. From the briefing we got, this assignment sounds dull as dirt. Nobody wants to read an article about the Lovely Angels watching over some financiers. There's something else behind this, and I'm not sure what it is..."

As Mughi flew the ship towards its eventual destination, the three occupants sat quietly, lost in their own thoughts. Each of them reviewed what they'd been told about the case, and each of them came to the same conclusion: something doesn't add up.

***

"In and out, no questions asked, and -- "

" -- no complications. Right. This'll be easy -- "

" -- believe me. Yeah, right. You know how much is -- "

" -- riding on this, yeah. It's not as if we're -- "

" -- pirates anymore. Well, we might as well be, if -- "

" -- something goes wrong. But nothing will."

***

The Lovely Angel came up on the station from around the back side of the planet, trying to keep a low profile. Yuri was explaining what the plan was.

"The company we're looking at is Lawson Enterprises. They're a new business firm, mostly cyberware but they're trying to expand into real estate. This space station could be the first step for them. As for the company itself, the owner is one of those geek billionaires you hear so much about. Rumour is, though, that he isn't the brains behind the outfit, that there's a team behind his ear telling him what to do. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all the rumour mill can say. Their business deals tend to be kept _very_ secret. Even 3WA couldn't give us much help."

"Since we don't really know anything much, Cory, you're going to be doing a little more than just tagging along this time. Your instincts for smelling out lies are better than ours. So you will basically be yourself, arriving on the station to interview the big honchos, and generally making a big pain of yourself. Kei will be your photographer, and also will take over in case anything happens to go wrong. Meanwhile, I'll be doing my best to hack into their systems and finding out if they have any sort of ulterior motive."

Kei growled. "Why is it these plans always turn out the same? I stand around and look tough while you go hacking."

Yuri grinned. "I can't help it, Kei. I just can't look like an evil psychotic bitch as much as you." She then grinned cutely.

Cory smacked her head. She'd forgotten about this. Kei and Yuri were the best of friends, but for some reason they couldn't relate to each other except through bickering. It might have been fun for them, but it gave Cory a headache.

"Do we _have_ to do this? Look, Yuri's plan is fine, and no Kei, you're not a bitch. Now let's get out of here!" Cory was also annoyed by the fact that, even though she'd come along simply to write a story, she was once again being dragged into the action.

Kei grumbled, but subsided. Yuri kept grinning, feeling she'd won their little debate. "Let's go, then. I'll head out first. I'll contact you when I've found something." Yuri finished putting on her space suit, and quickly went out to the airlock. After a few seconds, Kei and Cory could see her small form jetting towards the station.

Kei turned to Cory. "Well, Miss nosy reporter, ready to be at your most obnoxious?"

Cory grinned. Alright, perhaps this assignment wouldn't be so bad after all.

***

Yuri huddled in an alcove near the outside of the station, totally unremarkable in all respects except that most of the power and computer lines ran through here, providing an enterprising young hacker with a perfect running start. Judging from the open panels and wires laying around, Yuri thought, I'm not the first one who's been here. Hopefully no one else will pop in while I'm here.

She quickly interfaced with the computer, then got as much information as she could on Lawson Enterprises. Nothing surprised her, it was pretty much what they told her at 3WA. Admittedly, their reason for this purchase seemed rather arbitrary. It wasn't as if the station had any tactical value, it was just a hunk of metal -- albeit a _rich_ hunk of metal.

Yuri decided to take a look at the company that currently owned the station, Mizuno Industries. Yuri hadn't needed to be briefed on them. The owner had turned a minor manufacturing plant into one of the fastest growing contractors in the galaxy. She was in the top five of Fortune 500, and was voted the most eligible single in Business Daily recently.

That was about as far as the rumour went, though. Yuri felt herself growing frustrated. She'd really love it if there had been one whiff of scandal. The problem was that the owners of the two companies were relentlessly dull. They apparently lived their work. Dammit, what ever happened to old-fashioned corporate piracy?

Abandoning this line for a moment, Yuri began to do a background check on the recent entries onto the space station. This took a lot longer, even for someone of Yuri's skills.

Bingo.

Eleven people had recently come on board, all separately. They all belonged to an organisation that called itself the Bureaucratic Watchdog Office. Calling up their history, Yuri found that they attempted to 'keep businesses honest and on the straight and narrow'. What this translated to was harassment. They'd already been issued with orders to cease harassing several companies, including, Yuri was pleased to note, Lawson Enterprises _and_ Mizuno Industries.

Now, either these guys are just loonies holding a grudge, in which case it's a good thing we're here, or there really _is_ something fishy in this deal...in which case it's a good thing we're here.

Grinning, Yuri unplugged herself and went to contact Kei and Cory.

***

Kei was in a foul mood as they left the main promenade. In her eyes, the whole interview with Lawson had been useless. The man was a mensch who hemmed and hawed about 'preparing for the future of industry' and then cut out.

Cory, on the other hand, was bubbly about the whole thing. "Did you see the way he conducted that interview? I can't believe he hopes to get away with this. He might as well have just slapped a sign on himself saying, 'Please Investigate Further!'"

"But we didn't get anywhere!"

Cory laughed. "I didn't expect to. Kei, businessmen don't act nervous. They get to the top of their profession by being able to talk to a board of directors without flinching. The fact that he is obviously nervous is a definite sign that there is something here. And that is what we were supposed to be looking for."

Kei grumbled some more, looking out over the promenade. "And now we get to depend on Yuri to save the day again. I can do that sort of thing too, y'know. It's just some of us don't think that we look cool with a computer plug in our neck all the time. Cory, you agree that I'm not just the brawn of this team, right?"

There was no response, which puzzled Kei. She turned. "Cory?"

The promenade was filled with people, but none of them looked remotely like Cory. Now, if this had been Yuri, or if the situation had been reversed, Kei would not have worried. After all, much as they didn't like to admit it, the two of them were flighty enough to run off after some guy or some bargain at a moment's notice.

Cory was not that type, however. She would have told Kei if she had seen someone or run off somewhere. Therefore, Kei began to suspect that she had been taken.

She widened the area of her search, giving up any pretext of looking incognito. She was wearing her uniform, after all. If these people didn't know enough to not hinder a 3WA officer in the course of her investigations, then they got whatever was coming to them. She took the search in stages at first, but soon gave up when she realised that Cory was nowhere in sight.

*I knew there was more to this case than we thought. _Dammit_! I need to get in touch with Yuri.*

She started to head out of the promenade, but was interrupted by a cry from a level above. She looked up, and saw two identical young redheads, in bodies that made Kei's look like Moms Mabley, glaring at her over the railing. They ran down the escalator towards her.

*Who have we offended this time? Let me guess, we destroyed their lives, killed their parents, shot their dog and stole their bible.* Kei felt her mood getting even fouler.

The twins rushed up and began yammering at her, alternating back and forth in an incredibly annoying fashion.

"Aunty Libby, what are you -- "

" -- doing here? Did Lazarus send you? If he -- "

" -- thinks he can't trust us, why did he bother -- "

" -- sending us on the mission in the first place?"

"Aaagh, STOP!" Kei shouted, placing her hands over her ears. The twins looked at her, appearing to be shocked. Something in their manner of speech seemed strangely familiar to Kei. *Where have I heard that before?* she thought.

The twins stared at her curiously. "Aunty Libby?"

"Don't call me Aunty!" Kei shouted. "And it's Kei! Special Trouble Consultant, 3WA!" Maybe throwing around her title would get some respect. Or would get them to run away screaming, which served just as well.

The twins' eyes seemed to bug out even further, and they looked at each other.

"Well, we should have expected this, after what -- "

" -- Commodore Hilda told us about World as Myth, but I -- "

" -- didn't think we'd end up in one right -- "

" -- away, especially not one with -- "

" -- the Dirty Pair!"

Kei had not been having a good day, and this finally made her snap. "LOVELY ANGELS!" she shouted.

The twins seemed unimpressed by her outburst. "Wow, she's just like the real thing."

"Do you suppose she's the anime or manga version?"

"Stop it! Stop talking about me as if you know me!" Kei was beginning to feel a little out of her depth.

The two twins finally seemed to understand how mad Kei was, as well as the crowd they were beginning to attract. The one on the left spoke up.

"Miss Kei, we should probably explain things. Is there somewhere we can talk?"

"I don't have time to chat with two twin terrors! I've just had Cory disappear under my nose and -- "

"Manga version," both girls said. In unison.

Kei realised that she had advanced to that state of beyond mad. She suddenly began to feel very calm. She turned away from the twins and began to walk down the promenade. *The first step is to find Yuri, and then we can find this Lawson guy and shake him down. Then...*

The twins were following her. She rounded on them. "WHAAAT?!"

The one on the right answered this time. "By any chance, was Cory investigating a group called the Bureaucratic Watchdog Office?"

"What?" That came from behind Kei. She turned, and saw Yuri there, a frown on her face. "How much do you know about them?"

"Look, for God's sake, can we get off the promenade?" Kei said.

The twins nodded. "We have a safe place to talk, if you'll trust us."

Kei and Yuri looked at each other and shrugged. Even if it was a trap, there wasn't a cell built that could hold the Lovely Angels. They began to follow the twins towards the hangar.

***

"I don't fucking believe this!"

Laz and Lor had just explained who they were, if not exactly what they were doing. Yuri was just as lost, but Kei now knew why they had seemed so familiar.

"I have to admit, you two have them down. You look like them, you sound like them..."

Lor smiled. "We could say the same of you."

Yuri was just getting more confused. "Kei, what are you talking about?"

Kei turned to Yuri and grinned. "This shows what happens when all you read are textbooks. These two are doing an excellent imitations of those twins from the Heinlein books, Laz and Lor."

Laz and Lor took this opportunity to give each other dry looks."

"It's good to know that we can successfully -- "

" -- impersonate ourselves. Now, if we ever need -- "

" -- a good disguise, we can always dress up -- "

" -- like ourselves."

Kei shivered. "Actually, it's more than an excellent imitation. How do you two _do_ that?"

Laz sighed. Kei, please understand. We _are_ Lapis Lazuli and Lorelei Lee Long, and we are not from this universe. We come from another universe, in fact one where the two of you are fictional characters, in both anime and manga form. In fact the Dir -- "

" -- _Lovely Angels_ has always been one of our favourites." Lor interrupted just in time.

Kei began to feel her headache coming back. "You mean all that shit about World as Myth is _true_? How am I supposed to believe you? Can you provide me with any proof?"

Laz and Lor looked at each other. "Well, we could use the widget to take them back home -- "

" -- but we need to find out what happened here first."

"I suppose we could drag out our old photo albums..."

While the twins debated, Yuri sidled over towards Kei. "This is getting totally ridiculous. Anyway, why didn't I read these books?"

"You said something about them being too sexist and repulsive."

"Oh. Wait, this wasn't the guy who wrote the book that had the girl expounding on the joy of breasts for two pages, was it?"

"That's the one. What are you complaining about? We talk about our breasts all the time."

"It's not the same thing!"

Lor interrupted them. "Wait, weren't we supposed to be discussing something else?"

Kei and Yuri both flushed, having completely forgotten about Cory temporarily. "Right. You two mentioned the Bureaucratic Watchdog Office," Yuri said. "First of all, what makes you think they're responsible for Cory's kidnapping, and secondly, how do you know they're even on the station? It took someone with my expert hacking skills to get that information. I can't see either of you doing this, you don't even have any cyberjacks."

Laz and Lor shuddered briefly. "I had forgotten how mechanised everyone had become in this universe," Laz finally said. "Look, the reason we know is that we have quite a few little tricks that you two don't. We've been researching this case for almost a year now. Believe me when I say that Lawson and Mizuno's companies are not the problem here, though they are the cause. If there is any sign of terrorist activity, you can bet it'll be the Bureaucratic Watchdog Office, who are _much_ more than they seem."

"They're a bunch of harassing dickheads who barely manage to keep inside the law," Yuri offered.

"That's why she said much more," Lor added darkly. "This is a key nexus point in history."

"Lor," Laz muttered dangerously. "We can't just..."

"Why not? It might help them believe us. Besides, if they've already resorted to kidnapping _journalists_, it's a sign that things are moving much faster than we thought."

Laz thought for a moment, then nodded.

Lor continued. "This is a key nexus point in history. This is where the Bureaucratic Watchdog Office goes from being a minor blight on the face of businesses to a major terrorist organisation. The space station is due to explode in seventy-two hours. The resulting repercussions, especially considering that Ms. Mizuno is on board, will result in businesses tightening their security and hiring more muscle, including the 3WA. The BWO gets more and more desperate, realising that they are fighting a losing battle."

Lor paused. "This goes on for a few years, and involves many more participants. In the end, billions of innocents are killed."

Kei and Yuri had paled. Somehow, the fact that the twins had explained the point clearly and seriously, without the usual back and forth between them, made the speech all the more chilling. Kei finally managed to snap herself out of her fugue state.

"All right, suppose we do decide to believe you. My question is, are you here to stop it?"

Yuri turned. "What?"

"You should really try to read those books, Kei. Do-gooders they may try to be, but not always." She turned back to the twins. "Are you here to try to prevent this, or are you here just to observe?"

Lor smiled. "We wouldn't have researched this group for a year if we were just going to watch them destroy everything. The Circle is still a fairly young organisation. This is our first attempt to actually change history, to try to improve things. Lazarus wanted to try to ensure that Nehemiah Scudder had never been born, but we wanted to start with something unconnected to our own universe. This seemed like a good start."

Laz grinned. "And they trusted _us_ with the assignment. Our first real mission where we're not pirates. That's why fixing this is important to us."

Kei decided to try and bring things back to something resembling a point. "So how do we go about rescuing Cory? And how do we stop these guys?"

Laz grinned. "I said that they _eventually_ became a dangerous terrorist organisation. At the moment, they're just a pissed-off activist group. Trust me, this rescue will be one of the easiest we've ever done..."

***

Philip was both bored and nervous, not the best combination, especially when you're guarding a prisoner. Basically what this amounted to was locking her in a stateroom and putting Philip outside the door. There really wasn't anything for him to do except watch for hidden dangers. However, keeping an eye out for hidden dangers had left him a nervous wreck. Every time he heard a noise, he spun around, his gun in his trembling hands.

Thus, when a beautiful young woman appeared in front of him, he nearly screamed. She just grinned cutely, though. Taking a closer look, he went from scared and panicky to hormone overdrive. *There is no way that this girl...could she? Is she a trap to stop me? How do I react? Oh God, she's winking at me!*

Philip's brain being thus involved, it took him a while to realise that the woman was speaking to him.

"Excuse me, sir, can you help me?"

He quickly tried to think of a suave, sophisticated answer. "Um, I...sure, um...what?"

This didn't seem to bother him in the least. "You see, my friend is in that room that you're guarding, and I'm trying to figure out how to rescue her." She came a little closer, putting her body right up against his. "But you see, the guard is a very clever and handsome man. I just couldn't bring myself to do anything to him. Do you have any ideas on what I could do?"

By now, Philip's brain had locked up. He found himself desperately trying to think of a way to help this girl. "Well...if the man is as handsome as you say he is, why not try seducing him?" There, that was a suave, sophisticated response. It was sure to impress her.

That was when he heard a voice behind him. "Idiot. You fail to grasp Tai Kwon Leep. Boot to the head." Then he felt a sharp pain, and slumped to the ground.

Yuri leaned over him. "Oh, I'm sorry. I decided to try distracting him while my partner sneaks in and disables him. But thank you very much, I'm sure you're a very sweet man."

Kei was searching him for keys, with no luck. "Yuri, save the flirting with the enemy for when they're conscious." She gave up, and simply blasted the door with her gun.

They left soon after, slightly hampered by the fact that Cory, who had overheard the entire conversation, was laughing so hard she could barely move.

***

Arriving back at the Dora, Cory had now been brought up to date. Like Yuri, she hadn't read Heinlein either, so Kei was having even more difficulty explaining who Laz and Lor were. It didn't help that Kei was having difficulty believing it herself.

The five of them were now sitting around a table discussing what to do next.

Kei turned to Laz. "I don't suppose the history you researched has a reference to Cory being kidnapped?"

Laz frowned. "It doesn't mention you at all, which I find very odd. If you two were here, you should have been mentioned. After all, trouble seems to follow you around."

Noticing the twin glares coming from the agents, Lor cut in. "However, it doesn't mean that it didn't happen. There wasn't a lot of information we could get. We know that in about two days, the BWO plants a bomb on board the station. It explodes, killing thousands, including Lawson and Mizuno. What we need to do is find out why they bothered to do it. A bomb seems rather strong stuff. This group has up until now stuck to harassment."

Yuri frowned. "Are we sure that Lawson and Mizuno are innocent? Maybe the BWO knows something that we don't."

Cory was looking over the info Yuri gathered. "Don't hold your breath. I've heard my friends at _High Sense_ complaining about Ms. Mizuno, who apparently has the dullest life this side of a nunnery. And from what I see here, Lawson's the same. Squeaky clean, desperately dull. No, there's got to be something else..."

Dora chose that moment to break in. She sounded rather panicked. "Um, hey kids, remember that explosion that's supposed to happen in two days time?"

Yuri and Cory looked startled. "It's the AI for this ship," Kei explained.

"Yes, Dora, what about it?" Laz and Lor didn't like to see Dora nervous.

"It's moved up to about two minutes from now."

This got everyone's attention. "WHAT?!"

"I was watching the probability charts, and they suddenly _jumped_. I don't know why, but we have to get out of here."

"Wait!" Kei shouted. "We can't just leave! How do we stop them?"
Laz turned sharply. "Our information may be better than yours, but not by much. We have about a minute now, and we don't know where they are. Lor, Dora, stand by to rotate."

Yuri's eyes shot open. "Mughi! Oh God, we've got to go get him!"

"There's no _time_!" Laz yelled. "Rotate!"

"Rotating," Lor replied.

And with that, they were suddenly elsewhere. Kei stared at the screen in shock.

Lor spoke up. "Ten seconds."

Laz said, "There's no way we can watch it. I don't know if that's a blessing or not."

"Now."

There was no sound or anything, but everyone knew. "The station has exploded. No ships were observed to leave in the few hours before. Even the BWO didn't survive."

Lor put her head in her hands. "Great. Our first mission and we end up making things even worse. I don't want to explain this to Lazarus."

"Fine, I'll explain it to Lazarus. _You_ can explain it to Hilda."

Kei and Yuri said nothing, just staring into space. A tear was trickling down Yuri's cheek.

Cory was out of her element again, as usual. She wondered if they could ever get back to their universe again. She wondered if all this wasn't just a crock of bull and they were still hidden somewhere in their own universe. She thought about all the people on that station that had died, and of Mughi, as the explosion must have taken out the Angel as well.

*Well, I guess this isn't going to be just another puff piece,* she sighed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"...and so we ended up coming back to Boondock, which is where we met everyone."

"Um...since I just saw Mughi when we got on the ship, I presume there's, like, a little more to this story?" Deirdre looked to be just as baffled as Cory had back then.

Cory laughed. "We need to get more people in here to tell that part. After all, it didn't revolve around me. I talked to Kei, Yuri, Laz and Lor and got their stories of what happened, but only up till the explosion."

Maureen came back in. "Time for you two to go to sleep. You've been talking for hours."

Deirdre had one last request. "I want to see Shasti."

Maureen frowned. "They've already started work. It's incredibly difficult, and I..."

Deirdre repeated herself. "I want to see Shasti."

Maureen sighed. "Alright. But tomorrow."

Deirdre prepared to glare some more, then realised how tired she actually was. She didn't even think she could make it out of the bed.

"Fine. Tomorrow."

Turning out the light, Maureen waved to them. "Get a good night's sleep."

***

Yuri came out of her room, stretching and looking happier than she'd been in weeks. She went over to the room next door and knocked.

"Rgnkmg," came the answer. Yuri decided that translated to "Come" in early morning Kei, and walked in. Kei was laying on the bed with her mouth wide open, snoring. If she had answered Yuri, it had been unconsciously.

Yuri quickly closed her mouth, and also squeezed her nose shut. After a few moments, Kei shot up, gasping. Yuri giggled. "I _wish_ you wouldn't do that," Kei groaned.

"Sorree," answered Yuri, extending the final syllable as she always did. "I just don't know of another reliable way to get you up."

Kei grumbled some more, but her heart wasn't in it. "What's on the schedule for today?"

"We're going to see Cory and Deirdre, they've just woken up."

Kei sighed. "Of course, Shasti won't be up for a while yet."

"There was no other way. They had to get her into a clone body or else she would have died."

"I know, it's just...Shasti was a bioroid, and now she's going to be a clone. Deirdre's a clone. Things are getting too damn complex."

Yuri frowned. "You mean you don't trust them? Don't think they're 'real' enough?"

"I don't know. Deirdre seems fine now, but was controlling her that easy? Would they have been able to turn her against Shasti like that if she hadn't been a clone? And Shasti's head has already been screwed six ways from Sunday...who knows what this will do to her?"

"Still, at least they're alive. Shasti has pledged that she won't go rogue again. I don't think she will, either."

Kei turned, surprised. "You were the one who was so convinced that she was still the enemy."

Yuri looked down. "And I was convinced that Clarisse was still my friend. Look where that got us."

Kei got into the shower, trying to sort out her feelings on the subject. Coming back, she sat by Yuri and put her arms around her.

"Cory was right. Jimmy killed Clarisse, before we even met her that day. All we did was kill her body, her spirit was gone. We can mourn her death as a friend, and we will. But we're not going to mourn that we killed her. We didn't."

Yuri sighed. "I just don't know who to trust anymore. I mean, we always knew the 3WA was a little corrupt, but not to _this_ scale... what kind of organisation would create something like Jimmy? We trusted the Central Computer, it always cleared us from any wrongdoing. Can we believe that anymore?"

"Yes," Kei answered roughly. "Because if we didn't, if we thought that all those missions, all those deaths were our fault, then we'd go insane. So I do believe it."

Yuri shuddered, but nodded. "We need to relax. We couldn't even get anyone back to our beds last night."

Kei laughed. "We're out of practice. Don't worry, that won't last." She got up and began to dress. "Besides, I understand Galahad was asking after you..."

You could hear Yuri's yelling from three corridors away.

***

Cory and Deirdre both walked silently out of the hospital. They had just finished visiting Shasti, if you could call it a visit, and had found out what Ishtar had to do.

"It's not as easy as I made it sound," she had said. "First of all, we couldn't normally do this. The human brain is just too complex and unpredictable. Shasti's brain, however, was designed to be compact and simple. Therefore, she will still have the same mind."

Deirdre had interrupted her. "How can you do that? You said that all of her wetware had been corrupted. Wouldn't that include her brain?"

"No. What we were worried about was her central nervous system. Most of the damage the viruses would have caused had happened there. The brain was about the only place we could be sure of saving. There weren't a lot of viruses there, because Shasti had to keep running. I imagine when you trained there were a lot of accidents?"

Deirdre had nodded. There had been several missions where something had gone wrong, Shasti's mind had crashed, and they had barely been able to get out alive.

"Well, don't blame her mind, and certainly don't blame her. The viruses were responsible. Quite frankly, I'm wondering exactly how many people were in on this. She must have had a few other doctors look at her. Why didn't they notice this?"

That was what Deirdre was thinking about while she and Cory went back to their rooms. Why hadn't they? Shasti had been treated at off-world hospitals, and not all of them were 3WA. Were all the doctors plants? Or were they 'taken care of' afterwards? Deirdre's mind sifted through more and more paranoid responses. She didn't like the way she was thinking.

These were, after all, the same people that had brought her back into existence as a clone. The only reason she was alive at all was to be an instrument of vengeance for Jimmy Daltrey. Now that that was no longer possible (thank God), what was the purpose of her existence? Did Deirdre Voxx have a right to live at all? *Maybe I should have stayed dead.*

Deirdre was brought out of these depressing thoughts by thumping into Cory's back. "What's up?"

Cory pointed. "I think we're being hijacked." She didn't seem scared, just annoyed.

The corridor in front of them had vanished. In its place was a small door, with a picture of a snake eating its own tail.

Deirdre looked at it curiously. "You know what that is?"

Cory sighed. "Yes. And I suppose I should have guessed we'd be talking to them sooner or later. Come on."

Deirdre noticed Cory's posture. "If you're not worried, then why are you so tense?"

Cory snarled. "Lazarus."

***

As Deirdre entered, she found herself in a large white room, bordered by a podium with eight seats. Only three of those were currently occupied. One of the women who had greeted them the week before, Hilda, occupied one. Lazarus was in the second seat, and she could feel Cory's jaw clench from here. In the third was an older man, who looked very much like your stereotypical sage. Hilda introduced him as Jubal Harshaw.

Hilda brought the meeting to order. "Thank you for being co-operative about coming here. I would like to have waited until Shasti was well enough to join us, but we may not have the time. We couldn't even call a full meeting of the Circle in this time, so consider this an 'emergency' meeting."

Cory was curious. "I thought you always said that Time Corps operations -- I presume this is about some such thing -- always had plenty of time."

Lazarus answered, being remarkably polite. "In most cases, that is true. Here, however, the time factor is hampered by the fact that the people we are watching are actively looking for us. Or rather, for you."

All four of them felt a chill. "I thought the Central Computer was going to leave us alone," Kei said quietly.

"Quite frankly, I have no idea whether to trust the Central Computer or not," Jubal said. "We've had all of our resources -- and I mean _all_ of them -- working on this problem for the past week. They have not been able to come up with any information on the Central Computer's motives."

Lazarus spoke up again. "We're worrying them needlessly. Let's get to the point. We discovered that far from the world being curious about your disappearance, the Lovely Angels are alive and well there, though their assignments have been getting _noticeably_ more violent. The last one had casualties of several billion, taking out a star system. It would appear that someone has cloned the two of you as well."

Kei and Yuri began to shake, and had to grab on to each other to stop. "_Billions_?" Yuri said in a tiny voice.

Lazarus went on. "The source for most of this was one of the most popular talk shows on the vids. It's name is _Cory!_, and I'll let you guess who is supposed to be hosting it." A small whine emerged from Cory's throat.

Hilda spoke last. "All of these discoveries pale in comparison to the final one, which is that the managing director of 3WA, following the death of a Mr. Goulet." She paused while Kei and Yuri gasped. "The director is named Jimmy Daltrey."

All four of them immediately froze. Hilda went on. "The fact that he isn't even bothering to hide his existence using a false name makes me think that he just wants to draw us out. Well, it worked. The number one priority of the Circle is now to stop Jimmy Daltrey, by any means necessary."

Kei, Yuri, Cory, and Deirdre looked at each other, their eyes wide. *He didn't die after all* was what each of them were thinking.

***

Meanwhile, a few universes away...

Bast went through the seemingly unending paperwork on his desk. As humanity had advanced through the stars, so had the forms that needed to be filled out. And as his boss was above such things, it was up to him to make sure everything was above board, or at least as above board as things got in the 3WA.

To most people, Bast would have a truly enviable job. He was executive assistant to the head of 3WA, Jimmy Daltrey, a man who had personally directed the rise of the agency to a major player in the security of the galaxies. Bast, having his ear, would be what the civil service called a 'high flyer', earmarked for the top.

Quite frankly, however, Bast would have dearly loved to leave the 3WA and go be a hermit on some island now. He had, at one point, had some loyalty to the agency. Years of finding out what it really took to run an organisation the size of the Worlds Welfare Work Association, and the amount of money and other forms of bribes that had to be paid to ensure that that organisation could do its job without hindrance, had managed to batter Bast's loyalty down. There was only one thing keeping him from resigning right now.

The fact that, if he did so, he probably wouldn't survive until the next day.

Jimmy Daltrey was the ultimate example of a modern, outgoing boss. To the trouble consultants of the 3WA, he was a fun guy who gave them little trouble and always rewarded them for their efforts, not to mention standing up for them in court when their failures got out of hand. It was only those who knew him closely, and there weren't all that many, who knew what Jimmy was really like.

Completely insane.

This was why Bast stayed on as Jimmy's executive assistant. He suspected that, if he tried to resign, Jimmy might just shoot him right there in the office, then hang his head on the back wall.

There was only one person who scared Bast more than Jimmy. Luckily, she almost never came to see Jimmy in his office, so Bast had to deal with her as little as possible.

The door opened and a young trouble consultant entered. Bast frowned. Under Jimmy's reign, most manners had gone out the window, in favour of climbing your way to the top. This one looked to be one of those latter-day, "I can blow stuff up if I join the 3WA"-type people.

Bast put on his best disdainful voice. "Yes, can I help you?"

The girl looked him up and down, seemingly unimpressed. "Are you Sebastian Weinberg?"

"Yes...?"

She gave a haughty look. "I'm Soryuu Asuka Langley, and I have an appointment with Mr. Daltrey now. If you could let him know I'm here."

Oh, _this_ girl, Bast thought. One of the great mysteries of the world is why the CC keeps her here. Out loud, he said, "I'll see if Jimmy is ready for you. And I'd advise being on your best behaviour, Ms. Langley. Don't forget who you'll be talking to in there."

Asuka immediately sported a wide grin. "Don't worry! I'll manage! Thanks for thinking about me, though!" Then, in just as perky a tone, she added, "Vielen dank, sie arschkriechender kleiner Buerokrat!"

Bast's eyes narrowed. *So, insulting me in German, huh? Have I got a surprise for you, little lady...* He in turn, being just as perky, said "Not at all! You can go right in! Jederzeit gern, sie kleine zickige Kuh!"

Asuka flushed, and tried to hide her face. She looked as if she couldn't decide between embarrassed or furious, but it didn't take her too long to settle on the latter. "Thank you. Good day!" And she marched right in.

*God, that felt good,* thought Bast. *I really needed that.* He then looked at the mountain of paperwork still on his desk, and sighed.

***

Despite her outward bravado, Asuka was terrified. She was easily the longest serving trainee. When she was recruited, she was told that most trainees either were let go after two years, or became trouble consultants. Asuka had been there for four years now, and she saw no sign of the 3WA making up its mind either way. She was worried that this would be Mr. Daltrey telling her that she had to go.

It wasn't that she wasn't a good trainee. In weapons training, she was one of the best. Tactics was a little less good, but after four years she'd managed to pull up to the top there, too.

No, the main reason she was still here was that Asuka failed every test to pair her up. The 3WA troubleshooting agents worked in teams, and Asuka was not a team player. She'd been through eight different partners, and none of them had worked out. Much to her chagrin, six of those people were now in teams of their own.

She'd studied enough history of the organisation to know how vital teamwork was. She didn't exactly go out of her way to ruin her partnerships. It just happened that everyone she was paired with was a moron. She had to do _everything_, leaving her partners behind in the dust. It wasn't something she enjoyed...why couldn't they just keep up with her?

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that she went into Jimmy's office. She was repeating a mantra to herself: Call him Jimmy, call him Jimmy. She had been raised to show a healthy dose of respect to her superiors, for that frequently meant promotion, according to her mother. Unfortunately, Jimmy was the sort of boss who felt that an informal group is a happy group, and frowned on people who used his last name. This had frequently led to trouble for Asuka, and she was trying to remember this time.

Jimmy looked up as she entered his office. He had been standing by the fireplace reading a report. Jimmy's face was too long and angular to be called handsome, but it projected a sort of roguish charm. He had recently started growing his hair long, and it now fell around his shoulders in long blond curls. He smiled as Asuka walked in.

"Asuka! Great to see you! Please, get yourself a drink and sit down!"

Asuka went over to the fridge and got herself a Coke. The last thing she needed was to be getting drunk in front of the big boss. She wondered if she should make small talk at first or just get right to the point. Running through her extremely limited repertoire of small talk, she decided to take the second option.

"Sir...um, Jimmy, I'm curious as to why you've called me here. I know I'm one of your top trainees, but...you've rarely seen me personally."

Jimmy smiled. "I know, Asuka, and I'm sorry. You've had an extremely difficult time here, and much of it is not your fault. It is well known that the 3WA prides itself on two people working as a unit. We haven't changed that philosophy. But I think we were going at it the wrong way with you. We were trying to adapt you to the 3WA. This has proven to be impossible."

Asuka paled. They were going to get rid of her! My God, what was she going to do? She didn't have anything else planned! Her mother had groomed her to be a trouble consultant since the 3WA's beginnings! Attempting to keep her face composed, she asked, "So you've decided to give up on me?" There was a faint tremolo in her voice, much to her disgust.

Jimmy laughed, which made her look up in anger for a moment. Then she realised that she was getting angry at the man who held her future in his hand, and quickly stifled it.

"No, no. You misunderstand. We were trying to adapt you to the 3WA. That didn't work, so we're going to try to adapt the 3WA to you. I had the Central Computer do a search to find a trainee on this planet who would be your ideal partner. It took a while, as you are a very individualistic young woman, but we found her!"

Asuka's eyes got big. If they were willing to have the Central Computer look for a partner for her...she'd obviously been underestimating her importance. The 3WA had been testing itself, looking for the perfect partner to match up with someone such as her! She could actually feel her ego inflate. She finally spoke up. "So do I need to report to the training grounds to meet her?"

Jimmy grinned that grim of his again. "Ah, that's my other surprise. Because the Central Computer has perfectly hand-picked this partner of yours, no training is necessary. We're ready to send you out in the field."

Asuka's jaw dropped. "Sir...Jimmy, what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that your long wait has come to an end. May I offer you my congratulations Trouble Consultant Langley? You did it!"

In that moment, all of the control that Asuka's mother had instilled in her went right out of the window. She laughed, and began to dance around the room. "I did it! I'm a TC! Hahahahahaha!!!"

Then she realised again where she was. "Aaah! Um, sorry, sir.. um, Jimmy. I was just excited."

He didn't seem to mind in the least. "Of course you were. Don't worry about it. I think it's time to meet your new partner."

Asuka was very interested in this. She had been through so many of them that she was sure she was incompatible with any partner. What made this one so different?

As if to answer her, Jimmy said, "The CC decided that the problem lay in how your partners were chosen. They were too similar to you, and that led to control problems. So it decided to choose someone to be your partner who was the complete opposite of you. Someone mild, calm, not having the fiery spirit that you possess. Together you could be quite a team!"

As if to answer him, the door opened and a young woman walked in. She was already dressed in a Trouble Consultant's uniform, and her pale skin made it stand out even more. In fact, she almost looked like an albino. Her light blue-grey hair gave even more of an impression of someone who was encased in ice. She looked at Asuka, but her face showed no expression.

Jimmy made the introductions. "Soryuu Asuka Langley, this is Ayanami Rei. She's been training separately from the other cadets, so that's why you haven't seen her up until now."

Asuka looked at Rei curiously. "Separately? Why?"

Rei remained silent, simply staring at Asuka. Jimmy coughed. "Well, though I said the two of you are completely different, there is one thing you have in common. Rei also has trouble working with people, to such an extent that normal training with her is impossible. However, her skill as an agent was so good that we kept her here and tried to find another way. That turned out to be you. We never dreamed of putting the two of you together, but the Central Computer told us it would work beautifully."

Asuka stared at Rei, who still had barely moved. "Um...hi, Rei. It's nice to be working with you."

Rei tilted her head a little. "Hello." That was it.

Asuka was feeling a little frustrated at the lack of communication going on here. Was this woman some sort of cold fish or what? She turned her attention back to Jimmy, who was speaking again.

"I can see that you're having some doubts about this. I had a few myself, to be frank. But Asuka, don't think of this as trying to be partners for a TC team. Think of it as an exercise in drawing someone out. Rei's major fault is that she doesn't know how to react in certain situations. You do, you're a positive sea of reactions. While you learn from Rei about calmness, about thinking before rushing into combat, we hope that she will learn about your fire, about the inspiration that can lead a person to solutions."

Rei had remained stone-faced through this whole exchange, and Asuka's doubts were growing. Nonetheless, she kept a happy face on. "So, do we have an assignment?"

Jimmy smiled. "You do indeed. I'm going to tell you a story about the 3WA's little skeleton in the closet...she's called Shasti."

For the next half-hour, Asuka got a rundown on the 3WA's only rogue agent. Apparently Shasti had decided to turn to criminal activities a few years ago, and had been terrorising half of the galaxy. A good deal of 3WA's resources were devoted to hushing up the story to avoid bad publicity. However, recently Shasti had stolen a cloning machine, one used by the 3WA itself to recover agents who might be killed in the line of duty. She had cloned her former partner, Deirdre, and also, Asuka was shocked to find, the Lovely Angels, Kei and Yuri.

"She cloned the Dirty Pair?!" Asuka said unbelievingly, until her brain made her realise her error. "Er, I mean..."

Jimmy smiled. "The Angels aren't in the room now, Asuka, and I think we can forgive you that one lapse, though I wouldn't recommend saying it to their faces."

Asuka flushed. "Of course not, sir."

"Since there is no telling how Shasti could influence those clones, and the possibility of four trained 3WA agents overrunning the galaxy is almost too horrible to contemplate, the 3WA can no longer afford to just work quietly on this while maintaining a low profile. You and Rei will have only one goal for your first assignment. You will find Shasti and her clones, and subdue them by any means necessary. And yes, that means you might have to kill them."

Asuka felt a chill run through her. Sure, she knew it came with the job, and there were some practice missions where it seemed that she would revel in the task, but she had never actually killed anyone before. She had never given much thought to that aspect of a trouble consultant's work, even though the TC training missions tended to end with the ground littered with corpses. Being a trouble consultant meant going around waving a gun and solving people's problems. Being a trouble consultant meant finally being able to please her mother.

And it would appear that being a trouble consultant meant killing people as well. She hoped she could do it.

None of this showed on her face, of course. However, it seemed as if Jimmy caught her general reaction anyway, because he smiled warmly and reached out to pat her hand.

"I know it might seem tough. If it will help you, you don't have to think of them as 'real'. After all, except for Shasti, they aren't the originals. And Shasti is only a bioroid."

This only succeeded in disturbing Asuka more. She had never been comfortable with the 3WA's new cloning policy in the first place, but they had stressed the importance of the fact that the clones were exactly the same as the originals. Telling her now that they were less than human left Asuka with some very disturbing thoughts. Nevertheless, she just nodded. "I'll do my best, si...Jimmy."

Jimmy seemed to be more amused than annoyed by her constant slips, Asuka was relieved to note. Turning to Rei, she was astonished to find she had actually moved, and was now looking at Jimmy. Jimmy noticed this as well.

"Well, why don't I wrap things up here. Asuka, I need to talk to Rei for a few minutes, and then the two of you can begin to get to know each other."

The prospect of getting to know Rei did not thrill Asuka in the least; nevertheless, she tried to look cheerful. "I'm looking forward to it!" she said to Rei. Rei looked back at her, but her expression still didn't change from its blank stare. Asuka coughed; she was beginning to dislike this woman.

She noticed Jimmy looking at her, and realised that this was her cue to exit. "I'll meet you in the lounge in ten minutes, all right, Rei?" One last chance for a reaction.

Rei turned. "Yes." She then turned back to Jimmy. So much for a reaction.

Asuka started to salute, then stopped herself. Flushing once more, she thanked Jimmy and left. Passing the annoying assistant without a second glance, she mused on what had just happened.

*Well, I can't say I like everything about it, but who cares! I'm finally a 3WA TC!*

And finally, almost as an afterthought:

*Mother. I'll make you proud.*

***

As Asuka left the room, Jimmy turned his gaze to Rei. She had actually reacted during his speech to Asuka. Not enough that Asuka notice anything, but Jimmy could tell. He therefore wanted to talk to her and make sure her priorities were still in order.

He grinned. "Rei, were you a little upset by my speech about bioroids and clones not being real people?"

Rei kept staring at him. He knew she would answer eventually, if he just waited long enough. Sure enough after about ten seconds, she actually spoke. "I was not upset."

"But you thought about it?"

"Yes."

"Rei, that speech was what I used to give Asuka the push she needed. The two of you are supposed to be a fully-functioning team. That means that we can't have Asuka doubting herself. Don't worry about it. Yes, I know you are a bioroid, but you forget that I am a _clone_ of a bioroid. The best of both worlds, and I still regard myself as a true example of the pinnacle of human society."

For a moment Jimmy just sat there, grinning like an idiot at her. Then his tone got serious, though the smile remained.. "Now, you are aware that there are certain aspects of my speech to Asuka that do not apply to you. You are not to let yourself be influenced by her behaviour. I told her to try and draw you out because it would give her something to do, but I don't want to see it working. You were created for a purpose. You know what that is."

"Yes," Rei replied.

"There are various likely points of arrival for the four of them. In addition, they might have considerable backup. The backup is not your concern. Take out Shasti, Deirdre, Kei, and Yuri. _Immediately_. The longer they live, the more danger they are to us."

Rei looked up. "And the fifth?"

Jimmy was startled for a moment, then grinned again. "Should have known you'd have the briefing memorised. No, Miss Emerson will be handled by someone else. Your only concern are the four TC's."

Jimmy's face actually ceased smiling for a moment, as he looked straight into Rei's eyes. "Asuka might give you trouble. We have fully prepared for that possibility as well. You may be forced to kill her. If so, do it quickly and quietly. We do not want any witnesses to what we are actually doing."

Rei was silent. Jimmy waited for her response, but realised after about thirty seconds that she wasn't going to make one. Irritated, he spoke up. "Rei, do you understand what I just said?"

Another pause, then Rei spoke. "Yes, I understand."

Jimmy's smile came back. "Good. Now, it's time to go deal with your partner. She is very good, Rei, so don't be afraid to use her in the mission. However, if it comes to a choice between letting her know what is going on or remaining in ignorance, choose the latter. You can go now."

Rei nodded, and left. Jimmy stared at the door for a moment, then relaxed. He got up and went to the sideboard, pouring himself a martini. Personally, he preferred run and Coke, but a martini fit the style of the room better, and nothing was more important to Jimmy than style.

The meeting had been interesting, to say the least. It was times like these that he missed Jim. Getting used to only the one personality had been very difficult, but there wasn't much of a choice. The clone could only accept Jim or Jimmy, and there was no doubt which was the more important.

Still, it had its benefits. He'd felt more free than he ever had this past year, and had quickly risen to the top of the 3WA organisation, helped along by a few accidents. Those who didn't know him well thought he was the coolest boss they'd ever had, and those who did were too terrified to tell them any better.

He heard the panel behind him click open, and he smiled. Without turning, he said, "How was the show?"

He felt a pair of arms around his chest. "It went very well. I managed to sound partisan while at the same time leaving no question as to where the blame lay."

He giggled. It was only with his lover that he could truly let himself go all the way, and the giggle became a loud laugh. He turned and looked at her with a twinkle in his eye. "How long were you listening to the meeting?"

She smiled. "Since Asuka left. I'm curious, Jimmy. Why aren't you letting Rei kill Emerson? Don't tell me you're becoming soft- hearted in your old age?" There was a gleam in her eye that matched his.

"Far from it, my dear. In fact, that was my surprise. I thought it would be a lovely idea if you could take care of her yourself."

She squealed. "Oh Jimmy _darling_," she said, and kissed him deeply. "You won't regret this."

He smiled. I know I won't. I know you've wanted to do this ever since your 'birth', so to speak. After all the universe isn't big enough for two Cory Emersons."

Cory smiled, as she began to remove his shirt. "It certainly isn't."

End of Part 1