3. Equilibrium

They picked their way down the hallway, footsteps slapping loudly on the painted concrete floor and reverberating off the smooth, curved walls.

A narrow-gauge railway cut through the cement on their left, tracks countersunk into the floor. A yellow, knobbly caution strip bordered each side of the tracks, with good reason – an electrified third rail ran between the two outer guide rails. The tracks began a few feet in from the balcony entrance at a set of bumpers and continued to run beside them, straight as three arrows, until they faded into the distance.

Even though Kim slunk at a half-crouch along the right wall, she and Ron would have been instantly spotted by a passing tram. The railway, however, was completely vacant; silent as the corridor it ran through. Unnervingly silent, in fact. The hair-prickling mosquito buzz of the halogens pushed on Kim's nerves.

After about five minutes of skulking, Kim froze without warning, raised her left hand slightly to caution Ron, and silently backed into the lee of a vertical water main.

Her boyfriend followed, cramming against her in the shadow cast by the large pipe. "…What?"

"Shhhhh…"

Kim quietly knelt to one knee, eyes hard and calculating, ears pricked forward. A few seconds passed in silence. Then with a hollow, whispering moan, a draft scurried through the tunnel… as if heralding a distant approaching train.

Ron's freckles bleached as he strained his gaze down the access tunnel, searching the distance for a headlamp. "Is that…?"

Wordlessly, Kim stripped off one of her gloves, wet a finger, and held it in the air.

"Uh-uh…" she said at last, standing, giving her finger a shake, and slipping the glove back on, "Wind's coming from the wrong direction – blowing from the sea. Not a tram. Must've been a gust channeled down in here."

The hairs on the back of his neck still on sentry duty, Ron eased out from behind the pipe and looked up and down the corridor. "Creeeeepeeeeee…"

Kim joined him. She pulled out her blue PDA and awakened it from standby. "Wade, could you scan for life forms?"

Her techmaster clicked a few keys and pulled up a map. "…I whipped this up while you guys were landing," he explained as he opened an application, "There happened to be a few military satellites going overhead…." His CPU hummed gently as the program operated. "Ooo-kay, people show up as thermal signatures," he said as two fuzzy red dots appeared side-by-side on a cerulean blue band cutting through a deep navy field. "Those two dots are you guys."

The thermal image zoomed out to show a right-branching T-junction some 200 yards down the tunnel. "…The hot equipment and power sources Drakken is using is making human ID hard in some places, but as you can see, there aren't any other red dots in your area…. Oh, and BTW, you need to take that next right. I managed to get a map of the facility, courtesy of Jack Hench's mainframes, so I've marked exposed piping and other cover points for you. I've also been dropping GPS breadcrumbs so you can find your way back."

"You are typhoon rockin', Wade," Kim said gratefully, "Thanks."

He shrugged, smiling. "I do what I can."

"Anyone coming?"

"No change since the last scan. Oddly enough, security personnel seem to be motionless too."

"Let us know if anything changes."

"Will do," said Wade, and the screen went blank.

As Kim put the Kimmunicator away, Ron saw her glance warily up and down the corridor. Her shoulders twitched, as if she were warding off a fly.

"…Feeling trappish?"

"Yeah…" Kim muttered, "…Usually this place is swarming with Drakken's goons.This lack of contact is really buggin'."

"Silence feels…"

"Taunting, yeah," she said, her mind in sync with his.

"Seen any cameras?"

"No… at least that's one less obstacle to take out."

Ron turned to peer down the hall again. When he turned around, he found Kim smoothly withdrawing her pistol and sliding a magazine into the handgrip, metal locking into metal with a solid ka-chick.

When Kim looked up and saw Ron staring wide-eyed at the barrel protruding beyond her fingers, she blushed slightly. "Uh, sorry… Kinda nervous… Need something in my hand, yaknow?"

"I know the feeling…" Ron said, nodding. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a foam stress-squeezer in the shape of the Smarty Mart mascot and began squeezing it absentmindedly.

Kim stared at the anthropomorphic brain. "…You brought that?"

"Hey, it was free."

"Oy…"

They moved down the hall, Kim in front, the gun cautiously probing the air before her.

After a minute or two, as they neared the T-junction, a white florescent glow rose into the semi-darkness. Kim melded quickly into the wall, arms spread out to their maximum at her sides, palms flat, grasping the gun in right hand. She quietly dropped to a half-crouch, delicately balancing on the balls of her feet. They eased forward a hundred feet as the glow sharpened, and then Kim stood up abruptly with a self-criticizing laugh. They'd been spooked by a backlit map bolted to the wall at the junction. Ungluing herself from the wall, Kim bathed in the ethereal light, scanning her eyes over the floorplan of the complex. The diagram was printed on a sheet of translucent white acrylic, topping a frame sticking about an inch from the wall, much like a subway or mall map. The railway continued behind her, a second track intersecting it perpendicularly with a wye switch at the hallway junction.

Joining her at her side, Ron grinned and pointed to a large yellow-and-orange sticker planted overtop the secluded T-junction, plastered with the words, YOU ARE HERE. "He doesn't change much, does he?"

Kim laughed. "No… Bet you a Naco dinner for two he gets lost."

"You're on," Ron replied happily as traced his finger through the hallways. Taking the next right, he meandered through the passages until he arrived at a large, central room labeled "Raw Sewage Treatment Center." Crinkling his nose disgustedly, he kept one finger on the Treatment Center and skimmed another over the map until it came to rest on a small, out-of-the-way room on the far diagonal corner of the fortress. The label under his second finger read "Main Control Room." His face fell. "Awwww, we came in on the wrong side!"

Kim squinted between his two fingers, frowning slightly. "This doesn't feel right…" She pulled out the Kimmunicator and jacked it into an electronics port on the wall nearby. After a download screen finished, she texted Wade to figure out a power distribution grid. Returning to the map, still frowning, she traced the path Ron had taken until her gloved finger rested beside his. After she stared at the route for a few seconds, her frown flattened out slightly in a determined expression. "We'll take the next right, I think…"

"But, uh, Kim, that says Raw Sewage. Raw Sewage!"

"I know… I'm calling a hunch. I'm wrong, I'll buy you that Naco dinner." Moving forward, she exchanged the gun to her left hand. Moving to the intersection, she strained her eyes right, almost trying to X-ray through the perfect 90-degree corner just beyond the fingers of her right hand. Listening…

Silence.

She took a long, deep breath.

In one motion, she swung the gun in her left hand to bring it into firing hold with her right, legs moving liquid. She whirled low around the corner, legs crouched and braced, the gun pointed deadly in front of her. Her long firetail of hair accentuated the blinding sweep and finished her wave of motion, its tip gently kissing the bare skin of her left arm before flowing back.

Nothing. She held her battle position another second before she realized the only thing she threatened was silent air. Kim rose slowly, hands breaking apart, and the gun again slid in her hand to relax at her hip. Giving an all-clear wave to Ron, they jogged down the connecting hallway, Kim on point, the blonde covering the redhead's flanks. Twisting through more dim, empty hallways, T-junctions, and intersections, the oppressive, deceptive silence began to grind on Ron's nerves. He wished something would happen; this spine-prickly-ness was reaching F.E.A.R. levels.

Then something did. Kim skidded to a clutching halt, flinging out an arm to hold Ron back. Slamming into her limb, he gaped down the wide, empty hallway before them, saw nothing, then glanced at Kim's terrified expression. She was staring at something invisible at the level of her stomach, her abdomen thrown backward as if she'd almost run into a moving saw blade.

"Kim, what –?"

"Don't… move…" Kim growled out of the corner of her mouth, her expression paling as she fought not to fall forward, "Back… up… Slowly…"

Ron tiptoed away from whatever the invisible threat was, then came up behind Kim, put his hands on her shoulders, and gently helped her teeter backward.

"Thanks…" Kim gasped, untensing her midriff and slipping her gun back into its holster. She kneeled against the wall where it joined the floor, careful not to lean forward. After searching for a moment, she pointed to an innocuous black square pasted to the wall, about a foot above the floor. Swinging her arm, she gestured to another black square immediately opposite on the other wall. Then she raised her arm slightly and pointed in an arc across the hall. Ron squinted. There were over two dozen other black squares scattered along the stretch of wall.

"Laser grid," Kim whispered. "I just managed to spot the IR transmitter…"

"Of the cut-you-in-half variety?" Ron asked nervously.

"Not sure…" Kim said, pulling out the Kimmunicator, "I'll have Wade check." She moved back a few yards to another electronics port and jacked in the PDA. "…Wade, we nearly walked into a laser grid. The beams are invisible. Whadda' we got?"

The African-American tapped a few sets of keystrokes into his computer. A flash on his LCD monitor briefly illuminated the darkened bedroom behind him. "OK, I'm in…" he muttered. His keyboard clicked a bit more. "…I'm looking at the power these things are drawing… Definitely not killer-laser levels. You're almost certainly looking at security-beam stuff. Only difference is that Drakken finally wised up and got a few from a normal security supply company… Lasers are usually invisible, you know."

Wade swiveled in his desk chair and hunt-pecked a few keystrokes into a nearby computer. The computer churned for a second and then Kim and Ron saw a series of error messages glint off the boy's large forehead. "Urrrrgh, can't shut down the sensor beams…" He fired up another string of code. A grin twitched on the corner of his mouth. "…Buuuuuttttt…"

"Buuuuuttttt…?" Kim repeated, a smile growing over her face, "This is sounding really familiar, Wade! I love it when you use conjunctions!"

"…Buuuuutttt because Drakken got a really low-end set 'cause he's so – "

" – Cheap!" Kim and Ron said together, grinning.

"… I can juice the frequency so you can see 'em."

Kim pumped her arm and looked back at Wade. "…Please and thank you!"

He sat bolt upright in his chair, eyes closed and hands palmed in a moment of Zen-like meditation, before pouncing low on his glowing machines. His hands blurred into brown streaks on the keyboards, a rustling cacophony erupting beneath them like rain pounding a tin roof. After a few seconds, muffled beeping rang from one of his monitors. In front of them, beams of red light warbled into existence. The increased power draw sucked the juice from the overhead lights, plunging them into near-darkness.

"You hurricane rock, Wade!" Ron said as their bodies became washed in the crimson glow.

"I try, Ron, I try… Good luck, guys."

"We'll need it," Kim muttered as she slipped the Kimmunicator back in her mid-thigh pouch and looked up at the tangled web of light in front of them. Beams shot across each other in all directions and angles. The grid was so thick she could barely see the hallway on the other side.

"Oy… I'm getting vibes of Entrapment."

She paced back and forth in front of the grid, biting her lip. Pausing, thinking, Kim pulled out her compact and gazed between the small mirror and the laser beams. "…Maybe," she said slowly, "…If I break the mirror and use the pieces to…–"

"Won't work," Ron cut in, "Didn't you see that one episode of Mythbusters"

"Oh, right." She resumed pacing. After another minute, she stopped and sighed heavily, face set. "Well, I guess we'll have to do this old-skool…" Bending down, she unhooked her belt and slid it under the beams to the other side. She then stepped back from the beams and began stretching deeply, limbering up. "…You know how to play Twister, right?

Ron blanched, nodding weakly. "Couple times… kept falling over, though."

Kim's jaw clenched apprehensively. "Well, don't." She continued to contort like a gymnast, loosening her entire body. A few piercing looks encouraged Ron to start doing the same thing.

Finally, Kim straightened up, did a few calisthenics, and stood one last time in front of the grid, moving effortlessly, almost flowing. The harsh, bright light cast hard shadows above her cheekbones and along the bridge of her nose. Her eyes slowly wandered through the grid, carefully plotting her route.

"This would be a whole lot easier if I stripped…" Kim muttered under her breath, looking down at her baggy cargos.

She froze, the hallway suddenly enveloped in an extraordinary awkward silence.

Kim facepalmed. "…I… I just said that out loud, didn't I?"

Ron's blush was hidden by the red laser glow. "Errrr…yeah."

"Damn…" Her flush also blended with the light. After embarrassedly twisting her fingers for a moment, she backed several paces down the hallway and fell into stance, knees lightly bent; arms extended slightly rearward at her sides, loose; fingers wide. Closing her eyes for a second, she slowly inhaled. After holding for a moment, she deeply exhaled in a slow rush, feeling the warm exhaust play across her lips. Snapping her eyes open, she broke into a determined, hard-edged smile.

Ron moved out of the way. "Go all cheerleader on 'em, Kimbo!"

Kim nodded, smiled tightly, and charged. Throwing herself into a front handspring, she flipped over the leading beam, just missed clipping one right behind it on a slightly higher plane, snap-rolled through a narrow horizontal gap, planted both feet on a tiny swath of vacant floor, dove headfirst through a small hole in the web with her remaining momentum, and stuck the three point landing in a small clear patch. She remained rooted to the floor for a few seconds, muscles ironbound, as her landing impact dissipated through the painted concrete. Listening intently for alarms, moving only her eyeballs, she examined the space around her. Finding it relatively clear, she stood shakily upright, arms glued to her sides, breathing shallowly. She gazed around at the forest of red beams encapsulating her. Her ears filled with the prickling hum of millions of excited electrons.

Ron removed his gloves from his mouth. "…You, um, doing okay in there?"

"Yeah…" came the muffled reply.

"What's it like in there?"

"Like I'm in the middle of a pile of pick-up sticks…" She paused, looking strained. "…It's pretty tight in here… Wait… Hold up… I'm going to see if I can…–" Kim let the sentence hang as she gradually contorted her body and writhed snakelike up and through a beam grouping. "…Yeah, okay, that works… That yoga gift certificate you gave me really paid off."

Ron watched as Kim considered her next move. "Good to see it's, erm, working, then…. That thing was worth six Chimerito platters, you know…" The blonde trailed off as his girlfriend seemed to break in half as she eased backward overtop a waist-high beam. "…Doesn't that, uh, hurt?"

"Not really," Kim said lightly, easing out of a handstand pushup, "At least, not if you flex out beforehand. Those classes really helped… You should've come with me more often. It was just a few blocks away from the dorm."

"I wasn't a big fan of the tights."

"Your loss, then," Kim said with a giggle as she wriggled underneath another beam. "…Are you coming, or what?"

"And, uh, just h-how am I going to get over there?"

"Just follow what I did."

Ron paled. "Follow… what you… did. Right. Big help. Just follow… what… you… did… Right, should I stick my hand into a beam now, or do you want to wait until my legs give out?"

"Just… relax… concentrate… know where your hands and feet are… watch the beams," Kim panted as she moved again, unable to spare any more excess energy for conversation.

He nodded once, gulped, and took several steps back, falling into a runner's pose. "Relax… relax… relax…" he repeated to himself, building up nerve, "Just concentrate… concentrate… Just…. Heck, just hope that 'effing Mystical Monkey Power kicks in when it needs –TO!" Ron yelled the last word, surging forward. He lunged, attempting to perform the same front flip Kim had.

Teenage incoordination, male inflexibility, and the Ron Factor all channeled down at the same time. Halfway through the flip, his feet clipped each other.

Midair, Ron realized this was going to end badly. "Oh, sssshhhhhiiiii…!"

Form destroyed, he tumbled out of control. Falling through a narrow gap in the lasers, Ron hit the ground hard and rolled head-over-heels in a three-foot-wide channel of stacked parallel beams, miraculously not touching any of them, until he slid to a halt against the left wall.

"You all'right?" Kim yelled, concentrating completely on a Chakrasana yoga pose and unable to break focus to look over at him.

"Yeah…" he said weakly, waiting for his head to stop spinning. He heard beams buzzing less than six inches above his head. "Yeah… I'm doing just great…" He opened his eyes and looked up.

Convinced the fall had knocked him silly, he closed his eyes for a moment and slowly reopened them.

Directly in front of him, a few inches from his nose, was a low, narrow, triangular-shaped tunnel running all the way through the beam field. He blinked, assuming this was some optical illusion. The grid, however, remained unchanged. A design oversight had created a nearly-undetectable crawlspace through the lasers, barely two feet high, abutting the left wall.

As the beams hummed above him, Ron struggled to keep himself as flat to the ground as possible. Pushing his chest and legs tightly against the floor, he sucked in his stomach and awkwardly contorted his hands beneath his abdomen, easing his jutting elbow between security beams as he did so. Raising his hips a few inches – he could feel heat radiating from the amplified beams through his shirt - Ron carefully unbuckled his gear belt. Skidding it down the tunnel and out the other end, he mentally thanked himself for watching the movie Saw "until," as Kim had dryly noted, "your eyes bleed."

Lowering to a belly crawl, he spread himself flat. Breathing tight, sweat rolling through his eyebrows, immersed in a red hum, Ron inched forward, using just his fingers and toes for traction - a contracting and expanding earthworm movement. After what seemed like three or four days but was really just several minutes, Ron caught up with his gear belt. He remained on his stomach for several body lengths until he was fully clear of the web before standing up, taking his first deep breath since entering the grid. Cool air washed over him after the heat of the lasers. Sliding his belt away from the sensors, he was in the process of putting it back on when he heard a strangled yell to his right.

Kim had finally run into trouble. Limbs aching from the constant isometrics and balancing, she wriggled through a tiny gap and tumbled to the floor. She'd overestimated her landing space. The next set of beams loomed like the end of a carrier deck. Kim forced her tired muscles into a rapid handspring and flipped over a crisscross. Her careful plan disintegrating, momentum racing out of control, she twisted and bounced through vertical stacks of beams, gaining speed, landing and springing completely by grit, instinct, and chance. Handprints slapping the floor were darkened with sweat. As she neared the last laser stack before freedom, her core finally gave out. Launched into a final backward flip, her abs couldn't give it to her. Kim jerked short, falling backward, feet still planted on the floor, beams hurtling upward toward her curving back and arms. Out of the corners of her eyes, Kim saw red lines closing up on her shoulderblades. Contact was inevitable; she'd fall right into them and blow everything. "…Oh Gawd, NO!"

Inches from contact, she felt something catch her deltoids and she lurched to a halt. Stunned, panting hard, she stared blankly at the darkened ceiling for a few seconds, relief washing over her. Then she tilted her head backward. Ron held her up horizontally by the shoulders, leaning inward on his toes until he himself was at risk of falling inward, struggling to hoist her above the beams.

"Sheezus… Ron… thanks," she said, voice limp with gratitude and exhaustion.

"No… problem…" he grunted, straining to keep them both upright. He glanced down at the security beams, inches away from them both. "So… now… what…?"

Kim was silent for a moment as she scanned her surroundings. "…Can I move my legs forward any?"

"Yeah… Five… or six… inches."

Kim shuffled her feet backward until her cargos almost touched the sensor beams. "OK… now…" she said slowly, "Ron, can you lower my hands until they touch the floor? I'll try to keep my back arched."

"Sure… thing…" he gasped tightly, stepping back slightly and sliding his hands from her shoulders to her forearms. Gently, giving time for Kim to bend, he placed her hands flat on the floor. "…Got it?"

"Yeah… got it."

Ron took a step back. Kim was now bent into an inverted U, half-a-dozen beams streaking beneath the arch. "…Now what? You're stuck. You can't move without hitting anything."

"Gimmie a sec," Kim panted as blood rushed to her head, thinking fast. She rolled her eyes around, sizing up the situation. After a few seconds, she nodded to herself. "Oooo-kay, I think I've got something… Ever won a wheelbarrow race?"

"Middleton State Fair champ, two years running," he said proudly.

"Right, I forgot… Ok, that's how we'll get outta here. Ron, you lean in and lift up my legs, and I'll walk it out on my hands. Got it?"

"Yeah," he said, walking around her for a few paces to find the best place to put his hands in. Her sharply bent position made it so he couldn't grab her calves without tripping the alarms. After a few hesitant, embarrassed false starts, he leaned, blushing, over her outstretched body and put his hands under the main part of her hamstrings, just past her rear. "Um, s-sorry…"

Kim huffed angrily, arms shaking from exertion. "Ron Stoppable, I don't care! Just do what ya gotta do to get me outta here!"

Panting from the weight and lack of leverage, he lifted her legs level as she crab-walked backward. Letting her legs spool out as he held them up, he finally reached her ankles and helped her supine-crawl away. Once they were about twelve feet away of the security beams, Ron nodded an all-clear. With an exhausted grin, Kim let her arms collapse and thudded to the floor. Ron lowered her legs, slid over to her, and slipped an arm under her back, helping her sit up. The skin under his hand was drenched in sweat.

They looked at each other for a long second, then back at the laser grid, then back at each other. Simultaneously, they both burst out laughing.

"Hot… damn!" Kim chortled, giggling weakly. "There's one for the mission log!"

"I'll say…" Ron panted, wiping sweat off his face with the bottom of his shirt, "I'll say…"

"H-how… how in the heck did… you get through there…!" Kim asked, eyes tracing her route backward. "MMP kick in again?"

"Uh-uh."

"So if it wasn't MMP…I mean, you'd have to be some sort of… ninja to get through before me…" She paused and glanced sharply over at him. "You aren't a ninja, aren't you? Yori hasn't been holding back anything else from me, has she…?"

"No, no," sputtered Ron, alarmed as his girlfriend's eyes became even greener than usual, "I'm what you'd call an… an… accidental ninja."

Kim smiled, assuaged. "An accidental ninja… I like it."

"Well, actually, I came through there," Ron continued, pointing toward the tunnel. From this angle, the gap was rather obvious.

The redhead groaned and closed her eyes. "So all that backflipping I did…–"

"Not useless, not useless," Ron interjected quickly, "I wouldn't have found it if I hadn't tried to follow you."

"Thanks…" She smiled, gave him a one-armed hug around the neck, and then stood up.

The Kimmunicator awoke from standby. "…You guys OK?" Wade asked, squinting out at them through his webcam.

"Yeah, Wade, we got through, we're okay," Kim said, panning the viewfinder around at herself and Ron. Rufus waved from his new perch on Ron's shoulder.

"Good, good… Stand back from the lasers. I'm going to revert to normal power levels."

"Already clear, Wade."

After a few seconds of keyboard tapping, the security beams faded back into nothingness. As the local power drain lessened, the overhead lights ebbed back to life. Parts of hallway were now shadowed in darkness, where the halogen lights had extinguished completely from the voltage loss and were now slowly turning themselves back on.

"Lasers reset to normal, guys."

"Thanks… Anything up ahead we need to worry about?"

"Not for a while. I'm sorry I wasn't able to warn you of the grid beforehand –"

"It's no big, Wade."

" – But I've updated the program so it'll now pick up stuff like that. I'll peep you if anything pops up. For now, you want to keep going down this hallway, then take the first left past the check station…"


Ten minutes of lonesome skulking later, the Kimmunicator tweedled in Kim's pocket. The two teens flashed into a dim patch of wall at the lip of a 90° corner. On the left-hand wall, just before the turn, was a lightweight metal door labeled "Storeroom."

"Whaddya got, Wade?"

"My power load charts are showing some major blips up ahead. They seem consistent with your standard death-trap gear… Falling blades, thirty-oh-six-class laser cannons,M151 remote weapon stations pressure sensors, electrocution pits, and suchnot."

Wade flashed up a map, which showed the hallway forming a rough Z, the slanting bar positioned vertically. Thermal signatures positioned Kim and Ron at the bottom turn of the Z. The upper bar flashed yellow.

The teens glanced at each other, Ron biting his lip.

"…So we're looking at something like Operation Tango Sierra, right?" Kim asked warily.

"Actually, no," Wade said confidently, pulling up another window, "Drakken put in a bypass so he wouldn't have to put out a want-ad for a new goon every few days or so."

He chuckled darkly.

"…Anyway, there should be a door just to your left."

Both teens turned to stare at the bland, innocuous little metal door labeled "Storeroom."

Ron snorted. "C'mon, Wade, do you really expect us to believe that Drakken would put the go-around right out in the open behind some wimpy little door?"

Wade smiled. "Thanks, Ron. You just proved that, in some ways, Drakken is brilliant. What better way to hide something than to put it in plain sight? I'll bet six gigabytes that the door's locked, and that you wouldn't have given it a second thought if I hadn't pointed it out."

Ron's mouth fell open slightly. "You're… right… I… didn't…"

Holding the Kimmunicator in one hand, Kim left the shadows and walked to the door. She jiggled the handle. "Well, you were right about one thing – it's locked."

"The only reason I spotted it was because the thermal properties in your area could only exist if there was an opening somewhere to induce airflow. A check of Hench's original construction schematics confirmed it."

"Diamond…" Kim remarked, impressed. "Well, GTG, Wade. I need both hands free. Thanks."

"No prob. Hope this repays for the lasers. Wade out."

Kim pocketed the PDA and sized up the door, inspecting the lock and hinges. After running a few quick mental calculations, she broke off and turned around, grinning mischievously. Oh, what the heck…

"…Break it down."

Ron jumped, leaning against the wall in a lazy half-snooze. "Wha– ?"

Kim gestured grandly toward the door, as if letting him take the last place in an elevator instead of forcing through metal sheeting. "…Break it down."

"What, you mean… me?" Ron asked blankly, startled, wary.

"No, I'm talking to Cousin Shawn. Of course I mean you!"

"S-seriously…?" Ron stammered, "I-I mean, you've never let me do something like this. You're always the one who –"

"Eh, c'est la vie…. C'mon, you're always the one saying you never get to do anything cool."

"Uh… Okaaay…" Ron said, slightly nervous, backing up for a running start. He breathed deep, nerving up, gazing apprehensively at his target. He gulped. Then Kim watched, stunned, as he suddenly stood straight and steeled his gaze, balling his fists and turning a bit to his right. She saw a sharp, determined gleam cross his eyes, clearing them of doubt.

He… he… looks like… me…

Ron took another two steps away - then set and launched at the door, hurling himself into the air with his left leg, rotating his hips to the right, twisting and throwing his right leg out as a rigid ram as he leaped.

"Rrrryeaah-HAAA!!"

A heavy bass whoom echoed as the impact reverberated into a large open space behind the door. Ron seemed to freeze in midair, his right foot glued to the door just to the left of the lock as his kinetic energy flowed out of him and into his target. His eyes widened, pupils contracting. Kinetic force gone, impact echo still trembling, he slid straight down off the sheer surface, leg still outstretched, the door appearing completely unharmed. Ron hit the floor and bounced away, clutching his leg.

"Ow… ow… ow…! That… really... hurt…!"

As they watched, the lock suddenly clicked and the door swung inward, dripping pulverized tumblers from the bolt hole.

Kim's first thought was that the door was somehow faulty. Her second was a mental slap. Stop underestimating him

But… but… There's no WAY he can be better than me!

Stop underestimating him.

Her ongoing mental wrangling had begun in a hospital bed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. She still hadn't figured everything out. To bury the debate before it started, Kim inspected the door. To her surprise, it was nearly a textbook forced-entry. Ron's foot had contacted precisely where she herself would have aimed, the impact snapping the lockbolt and blowing the door backward out of its jamb. If Ron had applied just a few more ounces of pressure, the door would have opened immediately.

The entryway opened into yawning blackness. Light from the main hallway glinted off the metal door edges and slantingly illuminated the first few feet of darkness. It revealed a narrow passageway, barely five feet wide, lit every hundred feet by a single, dim, exposed compact-fluorescent. The curlicue lights seemed to hover in midair, unable to penetrate the darkness surrounding them.

She turned around to check on her boyfriend. Ron had stopped rolling around. He now stared quietly at the half-open door, looking awed.

"I've… I've… never done that before…"

"What?"

"Just… kicked down a door… on command," he murmured, gaze still welded to the pulverized lock. "Usually I need some sort of adrenaline charge… or I'm angry… or… or… scared for you…" He mentally blocked what he had seen as he crashed through one particular door in an Afghan mountain fortress.

Kim's face melted. "Awwwww, Ron…."

"…But now," he continued, "Nothin.' No real emotion to it. Never done that before… You telling me to do it… and I just… do it… Wow…"

Kim squatted down to help him up. "…Leg okay?"

"Yeah… Hurt a bit… Wasn't expecting it… It's fine now, though."

Extending one hand to pull him up, she laid the other on the inside of his thigh. The flesh beneath the cargos flinched slightly under her touch. Kim raised her eyebrows as she encountered a muscle contour.

"Hel-lo… You been working out?"

Ron shrugged defensively. "A… a… bit… I had to do something every day for football, so once we got to college, I'd already gotten into something of a routine, and it… I dunno… stuck around a bit…" He shrugged vaguely again, embarrassed.

"Ron, you don't have to hide the fact you're halfway ripped!"

He blushed slightly. "I was worried that if you caught me, it'd… I dunno… ruin my image."

She smirked. "Your… image?"

"Yeah… I'm usually goofing off… Bueno Nacho… gaming… I figured if you found out I've been taking initiative and going out running… it'd… I… well… It's… It's… complicated."

Kim wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him close. "Ron, I love you for who you are and what you do… You don't have to hide anything. If things you do make me change my view about you, I'm down with that."

She caught herself with a jolt, wondering if she'd actually said that. Her Type-A side spluttered apoplectic with rage; another part of her quietly cheered at the Freudian slip.

"…I'd… I'd…" she continued hesitatingly, "Never criticize you…. on… exercise… Unless you really needed it, of course!"

The both laughed a little.

"If you're getting into it… Want a running partner?"

"Yeah… but you-you'd probably lap me three or six times before I collapsed."

"'Course not… I'd let you set the pace, anyway…" She paused. "Tell you what… there's this trail leading off the Quad that goes on a real nice nature run. How 'bout meeting me there about half-an-hour after afternoon classes let out?"

"Sounds good… Thanks, KP."

"No big," she said, finally pulling him to his feet. "Ready?"

"For anything."

With that, they moved forward into the tunnel, intent on foiling a world-renowned megalomaniac and stopping his latest superweapon.

The light faded into dusky twilight, fed only by the illuminated corridor behind them. Kim moved away from the wall. No need to inch along in shadows when the entire hallway was full of them. At about 75 feet, light and dark swirled together to form a sort of anitlight, neither illuminating nor shadowing. It reminded Kim strangely of deep-sea dives she had led.

As they passed beneath the first coiled CFL, they momentarily enjoyed a circular pool of whitish-orange light. Beyond it, the passage quickly faded into utter darkness, the next CFL just a tiny, distant pinprick. Slowing to a halt, Kim clicked a button on her watch. An LED winked to life on the right edge of the watch housing. Extending her left arm ahead of her, she swept the moonlight-blue beam ahead of them, allowing Ron and herself to break into a light jog.

After about a minute, Kim activated the Kimmunicator from standby in mid-stride. The backlit screen flashed on, throwing a blinding spray of white light into her face. Kim stumbled, almost stopping, the contrast of light and dark throwing spots over her eyes. Then, after a second, a light sensor in the PDA's frame activated and the LCD dimmed automatically under a red filter.

"…Know it's a little late here, Wade," said Kim quickly, breathing lightly from the extended run, "But we aren't running over any pressure sensors or silent alarms, are we?"

"No, nope, you're clear," Wade said, facing away from the webcam slightly as he intently tracked their progress across one of his flat-panel displays.

"Drakken's goons, 'member?" Ron reminded her, running in-step one pace behind, "You gotta make everything stupid-proof."

"This should dump you out in about a hundred yards," Wade continued. "Hang tight. I'm processing another thermal sweep."

They slipped beneath the final light bulb and strode into opaque blackness. Kim slowed, easing forward with one hand lightly brushing the wall to her right. The watch LED danced, its pencil-thin beam providing only guesses at the terrain ahead. Out of the gloom, the watchlight suddenly sparkled on a vertical metallic surface barring their path. The redhead inched forward, her breathing tight. The penlight slowly revealed glimpses of the obstruction, eventually revealing it to be a door.

Kim wedged herself into the doorframe and flattened her back against the door. She pressed her ear firmly to the flat metal surface.

No footsteps. No yelling. Nothing.

Calculating each muscle movement, she slid her right hand to the dully glinting doorknob. Her fingers poised, grasping for a moment. Then she wrapped each finger individually around the brass bulb. It was cool, smooth, and worn; firm under her touch.

Kim rolled her eyes down, looking at the system only awaiting a command. The veins in her wrist automatically tightened as her arm prepared itself to move. Eyes still glued on her hand, dimly visible with her night-vision and the soft red glow cast by the Kimmunicator, she keyed the talk button on the PDA.

"Do we got a welcome party waiting for us on the other side, Wade?"

"Hold up… Hold up… Oookay, thermal processing complete," he answered. "Looks clear, Kim."

Wade squinted at his monitor.

"Odd… if my human search pattern simulations are accurate – I computed them using the repeated foraging patterns of Brazilian fire ants – there should be a red dot showing up 2.6 meters to the right of this outlet. And if my studies of Drakken's guard distribution habits are correct, there should be another four indicated in front of your target. But… even this close… there's nothing." Breaking away from the flat-panel, he looked up through cyberspace and directly into Kim's eyes. "Kim, I said it before on the plane and I'm saying it again now – I am not liking these vibes."

"OK, Wade, whaddya think we should do?" Kim retorted, "We're standing in the bowels of Drakken's fortress. I'm not one to call it quits when we've got a job to do."

"I know that!" Wade snapped, running his fingers tightly through his curly hair. "But… he's… he's… he's just not fitting into any of my models!"

"People aren't bits and bytes and C-coding, Wade," Kim said gently, "They don't fit nicely into flowcharts."

"I know… it's so frustrating…"

"Still having trouble finding a date?"

Wade crossly folded his arms. "You'd better go now before one of Drakken's goons shows up."

Kim smiled sympathetically. "Points for the slick topic change…. Kim out." She pocketed the blue device and looked up at Ron. He looked drained and washed-out in the trickle of illumination from her watch. He glanced up at her, twin pinpricks of light glinting off his eyes. Meeting her gaze, he nodded slightly and without a word scooted back-to-back with her against the door – covering left while Kim swung right.

Kim returned the nod, braced her arm, and twitched her hand counterclockwise.

The knob turned. Biting her lip to keep down a burst of excitement, she twisted her wrist a bit more. The handle rotated a centimeter more and then caught. Kim froze.

This always happens when you want to be quietest… Alllwayyys…

Holding the tip of her tongue anxiously between her teeth, she hesitatingly applied more torque. Nothing. Resignedly, she used more pressure… bit more… more… She knew the strain was building…. She knew it was coming… no way to get around it… Worth the risk? Yes, she decided, putting on more strain. She squeezed her eyes shut. Only a little… bit… farther… and…

POW!

The sound of the catch popping in the lock resounded down the silent hallway like a proverbial gunshot. Kim pulled in a quick, sharp breath; it hissed wetly between her clenched teeth. Rolling her grip, the doorknob easily turned the rest of the way. Bracing her right leg forward, she planted her foot against the bottom left corner of the door. Her entire body formed a series of tightening angles as it geared for action. Taking a deep breath and counting down from three, Kim rammed her shoulder against the metal and hammered the door open. Clinging to the door lip as it surged open, she planted her right foot as the door passed 90º of swing. Pivoting on the ball of her right foot, she swung her left leg forward, whipping around the edge of the door, and planted her left foot so she now braced shoulder-width apart in combat stance. Her eyes absorbed the scene in front of her and she reacted before she could consciously think –

"Clear!" The word escaped from her with the instinctiveness of a SWAT call.

The last syllable had barely left her mouth when she heard Ron echo behind her, "Clear!"

Falling out of pose, Kim scanned the dim, silent passage before her. Her yell echoed down the metal walls until it was lost in the far-off darkness. The corridor was roughly thirty feet wide and twelve high. The flinging motion on the door banged it loudly against the wall and then rebounded it back, revealing it to be an innocently-labeled "storage closet."

Another illuminated plastic map posted beside the door, also marked with a "you are here" sticker, marked the corridor as a main thoroughfare. However, even as the crash of the ricocheting door reverberated deafeningly off the flat, metal-plated walls, no one came running. The long corridor was silent as a mime's funeral.

Kim quickly scanned for laser cannons, motion detectors, CCTV cameras – anything. All that dangled from the ceiling, however, were thin wires, dark blue electrical tape wrapped around the bare ends. She hunched her shoulders as if against a chill wind.

"Feeling trappish again…"

"I dunno," Ron answered, gazing toward the other end of the corridor, "Who knows how long Drakken's been here? Maybe he hasn't had time to set up the video cameras yet."

"But wouldn't Hench's lairs come with that stuff preinstalled?"

"Buen punto, señorita…" He pondered for a moment, rubbing his chin."…'Kay, I've got nothin'."

Finishing her visual inspection of the hallway, Kim turned around. Forty feet down the wall to her right was a massive set of heavy steel double doors, stretching from floor to ceiling and running on tracks at the top and bottom. A black-and-yellow caution stripe ran at chest-height across each blast panel, meeting in the middle at a large, computerized lock.

Wary, Kim led the way to the door seam, which was fitted with a CBRN-grade gasket seal. Finding a servicing port on the lock, she plugged in the Kimmunicator – bemusedly noting that everything seemed to be connected to the Internet these days – and waited as Wade did his stuff.

"…This might take a while, guys," the techmaster replied after a few moments of careful typing, " I've got to figure out how to remotely hotwire this thing, disable the hacker intrusion alarms, and once I've got all that out of the way, start working on what looks like a nasty bit of encryption coding…"

"…The code wouldn't happen to be seven-and-a-half, would it?" Kim asked wryly.

"What?"

Grinning, Kim slipped off one of her carbide-tipped shoes and held it up to the viewscreen. A silkscreen ink on the heel insole read US 7.5; UK 7.

Wade rolled his eyes. "Kim, I really don't think that'll work. Drakken's used a Zicrome Industries lock with tungsten deadbolts reinforced with diamond nanograins." With an exasperating, know-it-all sigh, he turned back to his monitors. "…The amount of force necessary to open this lock without hacking the electronic systems would be…. be… be…"

He unexpectedly faded into silence, staring in disbelief at the figures on his LCD.

"…Well, go ahead, kick it," he said in a hollow, incredulous voice.

"So now you're trying to break my foot?" Kim teased.

"It doesn't matter if you want to kick it or not, really… It wouldn't matter. The door is… the door is… the door… isn't… locked."

"…What?!"

"The door isn't locked," Wade repeated, still in shock, "Go right in. You should be able to push it open."

Kim and Ron glanced ominously at each other. "…Thanks, Wade," Kim said at last and slowly removed the Kimmunicator plug from the lock port. Wade gave them a final salute and blinked out.

The two 19-year-olds glanced at each other again, nodded in unison, and took cover behind opposite leaves of the door. Hunched against the lip of the right half, Kim dug her fingers into the vertical rubber seal and pulled hard.

To her surprise, after an initial strain, the door halves spread silently apart, running smoothly on well-oiled guiderails, perfectly counterbalancing each other. Letting go after a short tug, Kim waited as the doors coasted to a halt, a four-foot-wide black rectangle now separating the two leaves. She cautiously peered through the gap. Light from the hall scattered and refracted on particles in the air and illuminated nothing. From the slight drop in air temperature, she knew the space beyond was huge. "…Whaddya think's in there?" she wondered aloud.

Ron came to stand next to her and shrugged bracingly. "…I've got nothin'… 'Cept your back, KP."

"Thanks…" She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He reddened slightly, grinning.

Pressing her back against the right door half, palms resting lightly against the metal, Kim glared over her shoulder at the dark well beyond the door lip. Her chest rose and fell more noticeably as she breathed harder, steeling up like a high-diver before the jump. She suddenly broke her concentration, eyes widening. After gazing into her thoughts for a moment, she reached across her body to her left hip and slowly pulled out her Smith & Wesson Sigma 40. She stared at it moodily for several seconds, watching light ping off facets of the weapon as she shifted it gently her hand. A sad line creased the bridge of her nose. Then with a sigh, she ejected the full bullet load, placed the magazine within instant reach at the top her hip autoloader, and pulled the slide back to clear the hole. Kim looked up to find Ron staring at his rippled reflection in the burnished steel.

"…So you're gonna have it out?" he asked softly.

"Yeah…" Kim replied quietly, holding the gun out at arm's length and squinting down the iron sight before bringing it back to her body. "…Unloaded, though. Scare-factor fr' the win, hopefully…. That, and nerves… Don't wanna take anybody's head off by mistake. I wanna make sure I'm gonna need it."

Ron nodded understandingly and fell into position on the left half of the door, covering her six. Kim lifted her gun to the ready and revamped her nerve, breathing slow and deep.

This is it. All or nothing. …Here we go.

With pulse pounding and gun held whisperingly just under her chin à la Bond, she exchanged a final look with Ron and silently flashed her fingers. One… two… three…

On cue, they galvanized into action. The move was practiced; oiled; SWAT precision. As Kim peeled off the metal plate and slid around the half-open door slab, Ron checked the hall left-right and then pirouetted left and backed in after her. They moved inward as a single unit, Ron covering their flanks, his hands grasped in a gun shape, while Kim scanned the front with a real gun, arms locked and ready.

Away from the bright lights of the hallway, their eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom. The space, voluminous as a pro football stadium, was faintly lit from above by dull-orange security lights. Pupils widening, Kim perceived that the smooth cement floor was dotted with machinery cores of varying heights, rising up like ancient monoliths in a vague semblance of a grid. Some were big as marine engines; others were wide and flat like tabletops, barely four feet high. They looked like sealed-up engine blocks as they hummed gently behind die-cast shells. The room's edges were just visible in the gloom. A wide mezzanine jutted from the wall, ringing the circumference. Near the far wall, in front of them, a platform sprouted upward, roughly a hundred feet high, its top indistinct. In the middle of the room, in a wide clearing, loomed Drakken's usual monitors, colander-shaped nanospot welder, and chemistry lab. Beneath the mezzanine and between the various machinery, Kim could see a massive clutter of boxes, shipping containers, floor lockers, open bins. A chillingly distinct shape rose from one of the bins, catching her eye…

But… that's not… he couldn't have–

Abruptly, without warning, they were hammered into pitch-blackness by the crash of a hundred flatlining halogens. Kim nearly screamed. The blackness slapped against her eyes like a coffin lid… Exactly as it had before she awoke in an ICU in Germany.

Just as suddenly, they were blinded by a massive white spotlight, throwing them into a circular tower of light, hemmed in on all sides by total darkness. Reacting as one, Kim and Ron drew tightly back to back, falling into identical combat poses.

"…Ahhhh, my teenaged foe…."

The familiar growl echoed from above some distance to the left, amplified through a speaker system. "…And… and… that-one-guy's-name-I-won't-say-because- it-means-we'll-lose."

A circle of lights snapped on to their left, revealing Dr. Drew Lipsky standing alone in a boom-car thrusting out and down from its connection to the mezzanine. Bright, orange-yellow LEDs flared upward from the chassis of his circular platform. The foot-lights cast deep shadows above his cheekbones and across the wrinkles of his blue lab coat, giving the pretense of greater height and sinisterness. Shego was nowhere to be seen.

Twitching a knob on his control panel, Drakken extended the platform toward them with a hydraulic whine, telescoping boom elongating and umbilical wires growing taut.

Ron stepped forward, shaking a fist. "It's STOPPABLE!!"

"Mmmm, yes, right," Drakken said indifferently. He remained swelled upright – pompous, haughty, and self-proud – for a more few defiant seconds before deflating spectacularly, looking browbeaten and morose. "…How did you find us this time?" he asked desperately, "I'd switched the room names and everything!"

Kim smiled. "Wade ran a check on how much power each room in this place is sucking. Most sewage treatment plants don't draw over 2.8 kilowatts, you know."

Drakken snapped his fingers triumphantly. "Ah-HA-ha-ha, I knew I forgot something…" He whipped out a stack of index cards and a small pencil and scribbled frantically on the three-by-eights, using the inside of his palm as a clipboard. "Edit… Wikipedia… about…. sewage… treatment…" he mumbled aloud, "…Increase auxiliary power… to… conceal… Inner… Sanctum… Hmmm… is that sanct with a "c" or a "k"…?" He flipped to yet another card. "…Make… location… of… Inner Sanctum… less… blatantly… obvious… Raid federal mint… to… pay… for… increased… e-l-e-c-tri-cal… bill… Hmmmmmm… …Ha, THERE!"

Drakken frowned as his last word echoed through the Great Hall and tapped a throat mike. "Dang… is this thing still on?"

"Still using the notecards, I see."

"Yes!" whined Drakken reproachfully, "They're an effective organizational tool!"

"…Aaaaaand effective self-foiler. Thanks for the federal mint tipoff."

"Drat." He pulled out another notecard. "…Treat… any… mike…. as… though… open…"

"Speaking of open… what's up with the clam-up lately? Do you, like, have some massive zit you don't want anyone to know about? And, now that we're here, don't you have some new superweapon to taunt us with before we kick your butt again?"

It was Drakken's turn to smirk. "Heh…. I wouldn't be so presumptuous if I were you –"

"Wow, very good, Drakken – four syllables!"

The blue-hued scientist brushed off the jab with startling élan, divulging only a small, knowing chuckle. Kim was abruptly slugged by a massive lurch of foreboding. This wasn't normal… Drakken did not usually grin at her insults as though he were in control of the situation….

"Laugh all you want… I've developed something small, mobile, versatile, and amazingly adaptive that can effortlessly create a blinding swath of mayhem, chaos, and destruction……." He paused melodramatically. "…I give yoooooou….. My new superweapon!"

A hundred feet up in the dense blackness, spotlights suddenly blasted into life upon the large, bare, elevated platform to reveal –

…Shego.

Unarmed, unadorned, standing languorously in the hot spotlight, arms crossed nonchalantly.

Alone.

As the lights flashed on, Kim experienced an overwhelming wave of déjà vu. For a fraction of a second, the smallest stitch in time, like a single misplaced frame in a movie reel… Shego… changed. Her relaxed, au fait stance did not alter, but her black hair became tinged with a swath of white, the pattern of her uniform changed, and something, as though a cape, folded from her shoulders. Even her elevated position seemed inexplicably familiar. Then, like a flicker of static on a radio, the vision was gone, Kim blinked, and Shego returned to her usual raven-haired, killer-nails form.

But…. something was still different. From the distance, as the rest of the halogen lights came on, she could see Shego had some sort of indistinct black tube slung across her back.

Ron was the first to recover. "Dude… you build up all that for… Shego?" he asked Drakken as Rufus made an underwhelming wah-wah-waaaaaaahhhh noise, "…I mean, she's hot enough to blister steel – and, now that I think about it, occasionally does – but considering we're trading swipes with the same babe for the 367th –"

"368th," Kim interjected.

"Sorry, 368th time, your setup seemed a bit… lacking. You really need to find yourself a better marketing agent."

Drakken made a defensive noise. "Nnnnnnggg… Just you wait - you'll find that Go is the new Stop!"

"OK, see, now you're just ripping off the iPod!"

"I did not!"

"Did to!"

"Did not!"

"Did to!"

Kim decided to cut the nonsense and stepped forward into the open, locking into combat stance. "Shego... Ready when you are!"

"Gawd, finally," the spotlighted woman drawled, sounding almost bored, "I was about to pop from all the missed mock-windows… It's really hard to make a grand entrance when you've got an irrepressible urge to point out incompetence…"

She broke off and eased into a chillingly lazy smile. "Buuuuut the funny thing now, Kimmie, is that I'm feeling a little short on words at the moment…" Her tone became disturbingly proud and arrogant; savoringly, sadistically gleeful. "…I think I'll delegate this convo to a good buddy of mine..." She slung the black tube off her back. "Say hello to my little friend!"

Ron suddenly yelped and dived for cover. Kim squinted, wondering what in the world Shego was hoisting onto her shoulder.

Then it hit her.

Literally.

The explosion blasted her off her feet, the shockwave hurling her through the air like a ragdoll. Air momentarily sucked from her lungs as the fireball consumed the nearby oxygen. Her torso twisted, arms flailing uncontrollably. Hitting the ground, Kim screamed as her newly-healed intestines torqued. The yell was silent – the blast rendered her momentarily deaf. Tumbling across the floor, she slumped to a halt, ears ringing. Dazed, she saw that she'd landed a good twenty feet away from a large, smoking crater.

After her world stopped spinning, Kim looked up to see Shego ramming another round into her Chinese-made RPG-29.

"Little wake-up call, Princess!" the woman yelled down at her, returning the Vampir to firing position, laughing madly. "…And here comes room service!"

She fired.

Pain knifing through her abdomen, Kim scrabbled to her feet and dived to the right.

Whheeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiii– OOOOMMMMM!

The overpressure blast from behind flung her legs and rear up, nearly sending her skidding face-first across the floor. Pushing herself up on her elbows, Kim clawed desperately for the safety of the machinery cores as explosions tracked after her, half-running, half-crawling.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman armed…!" Drakken yelled down from above, "Now you see the power of my newest superweapon! …Ain't it just dandy!"

His gloat was cut short as a piece of concrete shrapnel sliced through the bucket boom, sending the open platform crashing to the floor. Catapulted over the railing at impact, Drakken bounced a few times before scrambling to his feet, yelping, and dashed for cover behind his nanospot welder, hands clutched tightly over his head.

As she ran-crawled, hot fragments swatched erratically across Kim's back and shoulders. They caught and pulled at her clothing. Her old cotton things would have torn to rags in seconds, but the thin Kevlar stood up to the knife-edged bits with a sound like a zipper closing. A thin, lighter track in the black followed as the stitching unwove slightly. Between the blasts nipping at her heels, Shego's laughter rang loudly in her ears.

After an eternity, she reached the lip of a large machinery core and crawled into the cool, dark protection of the marine-turbine-sized metal block. As her shoes passed into the shadow's lee, something grabbed her upper arm. Reactively, she twisted on her knee, a fist flying. With excellent muscle control, she managed to stop her knuckles inches from her boyfriend's nose. "Gahhh…! Sorry, Ron."

"No big," the blonde replied, helping her to his side. Kim collapsed against the conveniently bulletproof wall, hugging her knees, panting. Detonations rippled on either side, throwing up blinding flashes of yellow light and blasts of heat. Slitting open a medic pouch, Kim dribbled a bit of QuikClot anti-bleeding powder across her cuts, gritted her teeth at the fiery bite as the clotting agent sealed her skin, and then jammed her pistol down on the autoloader with her free hand. Another RPG impacted against Shego's side of the machine block.

"O-kay, I think I'm gonna need this!"

Ron gazed at the firearm for a moment and then sat back against the metal, looking pensively at the upper right corner of the block, toward Shego.

After another moment of meditative thinking, he solemnly turned back to Kim. "Ya know, this is really reminding me of that fight with The Boss in Metal G-"

"Ron…" Kim answered, deadpan.

Undaunted, he tried again. "Oh, ok, that show with the red-haired crime-fighting chick, I think it was Alia—"

"No."

"'Kay, how 'bout that one time in Gears of –"

"Uh-uh."

Puzzled, Ron furrowed his brow, thinking hard. After a moment, his eyes widened. He sat up abruptly and made a series of excited finger-snaps, the answer hovering on the tip of his tongue. "Ooo! Ooo! I know! I know! This is just like that Disney thing about that cheerl-"

An explosion cut him short, the sun-flash bleaching their faces into monochrome negatives. Kim grabbed him by the shirt collar and flattened him to the floor, just below a spray of deadly shrapnel. "Ron…! Real life calling!" she yelled, her nose a few inches from his, the shout barely heard over the roar of combat, "This ain't polygons! This isn't TV! This isn't some… some… cartoon!"

Another detonation. The air was again sucked from Kim's lungs as the fireball ate up the oxygen, and then rushed back, searing and smoky. "…Real life calling!!"

Finally getting it, Ron nodded. "…Got a plan?"

"Kinda. Sorta. Maybe." She smiled weakly, flinching as another RPG shrieked overhead. "You go deal with Drakken and find a way to shut this place down; I'll distract Shego and draw her fire."

"Right, gotcha…" A determined, resolute half-grin twitched up one side of his mouth. Crouched, he spun on the ball of his right foot and leaned forward to make a dash across the gap separating their machine block from its neighbor. Suddenly, Kim saw his back stiffen as he froze solid. Using his fingertips, he slowly pivoted back around on his toe, looking dumbstruck. "…Say that again."

"Ron what are you…?" She broke off, her mouth falling open like a drawbridge as it dawned on her. "Ohhhhh, no! No! I am not gonna…! I didn't mean…!"

"Say it again," Ron repeated, face blank but clearly enjoying this.

"Ron, stop acting like a baby!" Kim yelled, a flush spreading up her neck that had nothing to do with anger. "Get going!"

"Not until you say it."

"No!"

"Then I could stand up and yell, hey, over here."

Kim caved, giving him a small whap as she did so. "You are so infuriating sometimes…. Rrrrrrgggg…. YougodealwithDrakkenandandshutthisplacedownwhileIdistractShego… There!" She crossed her arms and made a face at him, still flushed.

Ron smiled infuriatingly. "I thought that's what you said…" Without a word, he turned back around, rocked up on his toes, and dashed low in the shadows for the adjacent engine block, vanishing into the maze of metal after fifty feet.

Watching until the gloom swallowed him up, Kim turned in the opposite direction and crouched behind the metal. Scanning her surroundings, she noticed a large standing locker against the right wall, slightly diagonal from her. Focusing on foreign writing stamped large on the locker's side, she blinked, both to give the chip time to process and to make sure what she was seeing what she was reading. The language chip hadn't failed her – the Cyrillic indeed spelled "RPG Containment."

What in hell…?! No time to figure out why… Never used one, but, well, at least it'd give me more oomph than a pistol…

Waiting for a lull in the rocket-propelled grenade barrage, Kim made a run for it, putting her parkour skills to the test as she jumped and skidded over low machinery cores.

About to ram her last shell down gaping mouth of the launcher, Shego noticed the redhead break cover. Hoisting the RPG-29 back onto her shoulder, she tracked Kim's line of travel through the optic site. Dang, that girl's fast… Can't get a good bead on her…

Scanning the targeting circle forward from Kim along her beeline, she gasped. Oh, no she didn'tI'm all out up here, and if Princess gets her hands on one of those…

Thinking fast, she snatched a coil of TOW guidewire lying nearby, tied a bowline knot around a support post, and then wrapped the free end of the wire around the fins of the RPG. Short-circuiting the warhead with a burst of plasma, she stuffed the missile down the barrel of the launcher. Shouldering the makeshift grappling gun, she aimed at a point just to the left of the weapons locker and fired. She sidestepped slightly, careful to avoid the deadly ffffiissssssssk of flashing cable. A chunk, a pop, and the line beside her twanged tightly on the anchor. Locking the "L" of the shoulder brace and launcher tube against the wire, she curled her arms firmly around both ends of the barrel and kicked off. Wind snapped her hair back as she zinged down the steeply-sloping cable, line screaming shrilly. Halfway down, she saw the redhead close within forty feet of the locker and hurled a blast of plasma at the metal container.

Kim skidded to a halt and threw up her arms as the locker exploded. The shockwave pulsed through her body, vibrating her insides unpleasantly like a heavy bass note from an enormous concert speaker. Heat roared past her; Kim smelled the plastics in her clothing charring. A blinding, blossoming orange fireball ripped her backward, leaving her stunned and half sprawled, the shinbone of her rear leg flat on the floor, the fore leg outstretched, bent lightly at the knee. Holding up a hand to visor the glare, Kim looked up in time to see Shego explode through the heart of the fireball, ensheathed in a protective membrane of plasma, hands alight, coming down at her, left leg drawn up for the strike. After staring openmouthed for a few milliseconds, instinct took over and Kim rolled reflexively out of the way. Shego's hammerblow slammed into the floor, two-point on her striking foot and rear knee, body spread low by the force of impact, arms flexed out into a sweeping T. She looked up at Kim, grinning viciously. Part of her raven hair draped over her face, green eyes blazing through the silken veil.

"Just droppin' in."

Heat and shock fading, Kim popped to her feet en-garde, a fighter's smile tracing her lips. "Witty banter, then?"

"Sure."

Kim charged forward, swinging back her fist, forgetting she still carried the gun. Shego sliced away from the right hook, Kim's glove almost sideswiping her ear. Grabbing the teen's now-unbalanced limb by the wrist and upper arm, she twisted it painfully up and back as Kim's momentum carried her past. The move snapped the teen short so they locked back-to-back; the redhead's arm pinned backwards over the black-haired woman's shoulder.

"…You kept us waiting," Shego said, almost conversationally, as Kim struggled to break free, "Could've played a game of Risk by the time you popped in here. You gotta lay off those burrito dates with dork-boy, honey… You're getting slow."

"What?!" Kim froze, both women panting – the teen, from the effort of breaking free; the vixen, from the effort of keeping the girl pinned. "We got in here friggin' undetected!"

"Nuh-uh. The ping-boys spotted a plane, Russian, I think – " The sentence had its desired effect; Shego smirked as Kim made an disbelieving choking noise. " – On the new 25-miler, and you just confirmed my hunch when smarty-pants Nerdlinger thought it'd be cute to fuzz the system."

"Twenty-five miler?! Twenty-five miler?! Wade told me this place had crappy 15-mile stuff! When in hell did Drakken get a 25-mile radar array?!"

"Must've come online for the first time a few minutes after you jumped. Thanks for all the prep time, by the way. Gave me time to clear everybody off the halls. And… Correction. My 25-mile radar array."

"You…?!"

"Yep. Congrats, Princess… you just walked headlong into a trap."

"KNEW IT!" With that, Kim popped up slightly, wrapping both her legs around one of Shego's as she came down, and wrenched hard. Caught off-balance, the woman toppled, twisting the pair sideways. Using Shego's slightly heavier weight to her advantage, Kim let their bodies rotate so the pale-skinned woman's right shoulder took the brunt of impact. With a yell of pain, Shego instinctively released her pin hold. Writhing free and rolling away, Kim grabbed her pistol by the barrel and swung it grip-first at the woman's head.

Again Shego dodged, scuttling away and getting to her feet. With a yell, she charged. Kim met it. In a whirlwind of kicks, punches, and blocks, they scythed across the floor, passing boxes and boxes of conventional weaponry.

Holding off a judo chop with a crossed-arm block, Kim glanced sideways at the myriad labels, spanning virtually every weapons supplier in the world. Her eyes widened as she saw American manufacturers sandwiched alongside German, Italian, Chinese, and Russian companies.

"…Who makes all these?!"

"I do, practice with them three hours a day, yaddda yadda yadda," Shego quipped. "…Can't thank you enough for that little three-month vacation you gave us after the attacks."

"'Cause my guts were full of stitches!"

"Whatever. You gave me time to lay low. Go underground. Get all the new toys. Hank – you remember Hank, don't you? – assigning me to minor weaponry and office supplies was probably the best thing that could've happened. Gotta love the irony, don't cha'? Drakken types have no appreciation for the power of so-called minor weaponry… It's either hand-to-hand or suborbital lasers. But you gotta remember that AK-47s have killed more people than any A-bomb ever did. It was completely boring at the time, but the post gave me a taste of what I could do with stuff like that… Gave me contacts that got useful later…"

"So that's why your finances took some hits?"

"Wade found those out too? Good boy…. Yep, I paid for all this new crap myself. Radars, RPGs, guns, you name it. It pays to be prepared, Possible. Stockpile. Drakken couldn't figure out why the FedEx people kept dropping off so many crates until I told him."

"And the SAMs outside…? Those are yours too?"

"Yeah. Getting those put in toasted my border-patrol bribing budget…. But now that you've gone hardball, I can sell 'em all off to anybody who'll buy. I got most of this stuff off the Chinese black market, so I'm able to making a killin' in the markup… And now I've had three whole months of training and target practice. Thanks for everything, Kimmie-cub."

She abruptly broke the judo lock and slammed the ulna bone in her right arm into the bottom of Kim's right wrist, popping the firearm from the teen's fingers. Simultaneously, she rolled into a half-backflip and sunk her feet into Kim's torso, sending the redhead flying.

Kim's gun skittered away across the floor. Shego dived for it. Doing a tuck-and-roll as she hit the ground, Kim one-handedly snatched a Longbow T-76 sniper rifle by the stock and trigger guard from a nearby bin. Fully contacting the floor, she skidded on one knee, ramming a magazine into the rifle's port and pulling the bolt back in one motion. The friction, her momentum, and sudden centrifugal weight from the long rife spun her around. As the scene of Shego diving for her gun whirled into her vision, Kim fired, gun and arm still flung straight out.

Shego jumped, hand outstretched, as the .338 bullet skimmed just above Smith & Wesson, forcing her jump over and away from the pistol to prevent from being hit. Springing to her feet, Kim caught the rifle between her hands like a staff.

Backflipping away, Shego grabbed a similar rifle from an adjacent store, twirling it intimidatingly between her hands and around her back like a drill teamer before deftly catching it, also like a staff. They closed, circling. Kim had no time to reload, to manually pull the bolt back to feed a bullet from the magazine into the firing chamber. Shego had only been able to load two box magazines.

The curl in the black-haired woman's lip became a gritted snarl. She crouched slightly - then let out a sharp growl and launched at the teen. Kim took a surprised half-step back, bracing hard, adrenaline pumping, her sniper rifle barking hard against the other in a flurry of blocks. She now regretted this. There was no space, no time, to swing the long, unwieldy rifle back into firing position. Shego's hands shifted and mixed over the stock, twisting and twirling like an out-of-control propeller, altering her attack almost faster than Kim could move to fend it off. The machinery around them reverberated with a frenetic staccato symphony of metal-on-metal.

Their movements were strangely fluid, strangely choreographed, strangely beautiful. They hammered at each other, all blocks, round the back, over the head, locking face to face, both too good to land a punishing blow. It was as if they were transported to a time before gunpowder, using .

Skilled though she was, Kim realized she was slowly stepping backward. Her defense was strong, but there was no way she could mount an effective offensive against the onslaught. Flicking her eyes back, she saw a large machinery core rising out of the floor behind her. If she got caught on that, there was nowhere to back out of. Shego could batter her to pieces.

As her arms became increasingly sore under the frenzied pounding, a single, long-ago taunt burned into her brain with continuously building weight:

Lesson time, Princess.

Kim brought the rifle swinging down like an executioner's axe, catching the pale-skinned woman's rifle directly between her hands as she raised it for a block. Struck by the composite butt at one of its weak points, the middle, the sniper rifle bent neatly in half, barrel crimped like something out of Loony Toons.

Kim stepped back, bracing, smirking arrogantly, as she eyed her own weapon for damage. "Looks like your gun's toasted, Sheg –"

The vixen stared at her broken gun for a moment, then smiled supremely, closed one hand around the bend in the middle, and ignited plasma in her clenched palm. Spurts of viridian fissured upward through her fingers. With a small creak of shearing metal, the gun melted in half. Shego now gripped two new weapons like a pair of sai, the splintered, twisted ends of the broken barrel glinting razor-sharp.

Kim's eyes widened. Shego laughed like a snake and then charged again.

This is unbelievable, Kim thought as Shego remounted her attack, changing her tactics effortlessly from staves to whirling thrusts. Killigan sure as hell wasn't a pushover, but…

Kim's attacks melted under the tactics change, able to do little more than continue to throw blocks against the fury bearing down on her. Scratches began to mount as her focus splintered between two individual weapons instead of one. Shego was almost hidden behind a twirling, blue-gray film of metal.

"Resourceful, aren't you?" Kim grunted, as Shego continued her salvo of swings and jabs. The three weapons blurred between the two fighters as the coal-haired tigress inexorably backed Kim in the direction of the machinery.

"Sum of th' parts, Princess," Shego hissed, driving her further backward under a fury of blows, "A gun's miserably single-purpose if you view it like most people… A tube, a bullet; bang, yer dead." She took another swipe at Kim, who parried. "…But if you're able to look beyond the mundane, unlock the value of each and every part, you become soooo much more powerful…"

The thin metal spikes on the barrel ends finally hammered useless by Kim's blocks, Shego twirled the gun pieces backward in her hands, pressing the clip-eject button as she did so, and caught the two magazines as they fell out of the rear stock. Dropping the gun and shifting a magazine box to each hand, she continued to fight, using the metal boxes like brass knuckles.

"Don't… give… up…, do… you?!"

"You should try this some time, Kimmie… does wonders for my triceps!"

Kim glanced back again. Only fifteen feet between her and the machinery core.

"Yeah… but… magazine… boxes?!"

"…Sum of the parts…" Shego repeated, redoubling her attack, finally seeing the end in sight.

Kim suddenly had an idea. Ducking low under one of Shego's punches, Kim took a half-step back and planted her rifle butt against the ground. Before Shego could react, the redhead whirled around in a living scythe, lifted completely off the floor by centrifugal force, using the upright rifle as a support pole. Her foot catching Shego near the hip, the latter staggered, caught off balance.

"Thanks for the tip," Kim snarled, slapping the rifle flat on the floor, holding onto it with her arms behind her in a supine pushup. Rocking back, curling her feet and legs off the floor, she used the rifle as a brace and pistoned her coiled legs into Shego's midsection. The vixen flew backward and toppled over a low machinery core before sliding to a halt. Springing up, Kim dropping the rifle and dived for her pistol. Her hand closed around the textured grip. Rolling upright, she snapped the gun out in front of her, holding it in police stance.

"Nicely done, Possible…" Shego panted admiringly as she staggered upright from behind the machinery core, clutching low at something on her left leg, out of sight. "But…"

In one smooth, fluid move, she kicked the SteyrTMP out of its holster and leveled it, holding it by both grips. "Mine's bigger."

Kim's eyes widened as she stared down the black hole of the machine pistol's barrel. "You've got a gun?!"

"Funny, that's what we said."

Noticing an infinitesimal tightening of Shego's rear hamstring, Kim threw herself behind a three-foot-high machinery core just as the vixen opened fire. The Styer chewed out bullets, missed rounds pinging in contrast to the smoothly mechanical whir-whir-whir of the machine gun's action. Skidding out the core's other end on her side, Kim returned fire from the hip as she slid through the gap. Her hasty, unbraced spray had predictable results, and none of her shots came close to hitting her target.

Finding herself unshot, Shego tore after her, springing across the core tops like a gymnast.

Kim tumbled safely into the shadow of the machinery and got to her feet and ran, weaving through the dark, narrow channels between the hulking blocks of bulletproof metal. Gaining tactical distance, she took cover, rammed a fresh clip of cartridges up into the grip, wrack-wracked the bolt to chamber the hole, and again opened fire.

Thin, hissing tears ruptured across Shego's ripstop latex bodysuit. She flattened quickly to her stomach behind a core, jolted cautious. Seeing her land, Kim took action and dashed along an isle between the machinery, snapping at Shego's flanks. Her adversary countered, edging away counterclockwise to move her flank. Snipe. Countersnipe. Weave. Dodge. Evade.

A flash of green; Kim skidded to a halt, braced the underside of the Sigma's barrel on the flat top of a core, and pistol-sniped at the rich black coif sticking above cover. A bullet slicing a few inches past the end of her nose and shattering on the diecast beside her, Shego ducked and slewed the TMP horizontally, snicking off a lock of Kim's hair and forcing the teen to take cover. The running gun battle, roughly circular in shape, slowly pinwheeled its way toward the open space in the center.

Kim grinned slightly as they again circled counterclockwise, with the final ring of cores before the open space at her back. She'd cut her nemesis off.

What Shego did next made the redhead's mouth fall open. As the vixen realized that Kim now stood between herself and the more powerful weapons on the other side of the room, Shego sprang onto the top of the core she crouched behind and began bounding and springing along the tops, toward Kim and toward the open space. The sheer stupidity of the move stunned Kim so much she didn't raise her gun until Shego had done a backflip over the gap between the rows of machinery cores in which she kneeled – Kim swore she saw Shego flash a self-satisfied smirk at her – and landed in the space beyond. Too late the redhead drained her magazine in an attempt to take Shego down as she made the jump. A series of small poofs dusted up from the dim roof, tracking after the vixen's leap.

With a swear, Kim reloaded and dropped to a crouch behind the four-foot-high block of core metal, belatedly tending to a graze on her upper arm. She quickly drew her Strider SMF from her hipbelt, pried the blade tip up on a facet on the metal block, and clapped the blade out with a sharp downward flick of her wrist. Then taking out a field dressing, she ripped open the packet with her knife, the plastic packaging making a jagged, saw-toothed cut. She placed the chitosan wadding over the wound, wrapped the dressing over it, and tied the ends with her teeth.

Self-aid done, Kim rocked onto her toes and peered over the core's low lip. Shego stood in the middle of the open space, backdropped by the nanospot welder. She held the gun by the fore and rear grips, canted nonchalantly across her hips, pointed downward at ease.

Arrogance and black lipstick

As if hearing the redhead's thought, the sculpted woman looked up and locked eyes with Kim. The TMP snapped upward to ready. "'Ello, Princess!"

Kim yelped and dropped heavily onto her seat. Pressing her back hard against the machinery core, gun held Bond-esque next to her ear, she panted with anticipation, fear, and adrenaline.

Shego's next comment blindsided her.

"…Know what I really hate?!"

Kim gasped slightly. Bringing that up was just plain nasty. Thinking fast, she yelled angrily back, "...Thaaaaaat your date melted?!"

"No!"

Kim heard Shego grind her foot against the floor for traction, then a series of fast, hard, loud cracks as boots met concrete, gaining speed, recognized from her cheerleading days the signature final pounding footfall of a frontflip launch, the light pat as her fingers brushed the floor, and…. silence.

Kim panicked when the slap of landing did not register after the expected pause. She flattened against the surface of the core like a freaked cat, mind jerking, eyes frantically searching in all directions, head twisting on a swivel.

Where in the hell did she –

PLA-CHANNNG!

Kim whipped around on her toes, heart nearly exploding as the metallic crash reverberated a few inches above her ears. As she spun to a halt, she found herself staring eye-level at the tips of a pair of green and black boots.

Her stomach and windpipe froze.

Taking a slow, cold gulp, Kim slowly panned upward.

From the low angle, Shego towered over her, grinning with vicious triumph, the TMP barrel zeroed on her nose. The amount of purified Coolonium radiating from her would've blown up a Geiger counter.

It looked familiar. Chillingly familiar.

Now she knew how Drakken had felt when he first stared up at her in her vengeful, battlesuited form.

The vixen's eyes roved the gun in Kim's hand. "...That people don't know what they're getting into!"

They wordlessly locked eyes for a long, long hearbeat. Then almost intuitively, Kim dove to the left as Shego's index twitched against the trigger.

She sprayed the TMP lazily from her hip, sweeping down the trench Kim had just occupied. She wasn't intending to hit her – seeing terror in someone's eyes was so much more enjoyable than clouded death – but it would've been an unexpected bonus.

Behind her, the stream of thirty bullets cut off with a metal klich, and Kim rolled to her feet and ran, firing furiously back over her shoulder. As five slugs whined by her, Shego dropped flat and rolled off the core top, landing with her body an inch off the floor like some four-legged spider. Reverting to an ammunition store running along her spine, which served as a spinal cord protector when not depleted, she withdrew a fifteen-round magazine from a carefully-camouflaged slit in the rear of her suit. Sliding the magazine up into the machine pistol's rear grip, she quietly flipped the fire-selection switch to semi.

Kim zigzagged away from her foe until she skidded behind a marine engine-sized machinery block and dropped to one knee. She looked up, panting lightly. Her shoulders and hamstrings throbbed from the wild dives; she guessed she's have bruises tomorrow. The ligaments in her hip protested slightly as she rested, and Kim wondered if her recent twist had tweaked something a bit. Light was fading. Many of the ceiling lights had been shattered by stray gunfire and shrapnel. Metal blocks loomed around her, casting dark, confused, overlapping shadows like a gunmetal hedge-maze. Her straining heart quickly dropped back to normal levels, and her breathing slowed to a deep, practiced rise-and-fall. Rising from her kneel, Kim slid forward against the block. Silence reigned, apart from an undertone of distant fizzes and crackles as Ron and Rufus systematically destroyed the equipment in Drakken's lair. She knew Wade had installed an EMP pulsar in her boyfriend's Ronunicator.

Kim carefully looped back toward the room's center, going clockwise, hoping to catch up to Shego's six. After the sharp crackle of pistol and machine gun, every small sound flicked at her hypersensitive ears. Girders high above in the black ceiling groaned faintly as the roofing material expanded in the South Pacific heat. The coldly nondescript machine blocks hummed smoothly, casting a halo of internal warmth from their metal shells. White noises clicked and whirred around the atrium's perimeter, stabbing sharply into the tangled quiet pressing around her. Reaching the end of the massive block, Kim suspiciously peered around the blind corner. Her intersection was vacant. On tenterhooks for footsteps or breath, Kim dashed across the isle at a crouched run. Huddling into the shadows, she looked back at the dim hole from where she had come, crossed by the light patch she had just forded. Nothing followed her. Taking a long, shaky breath, Kim continued to pick her way forward, back toward the middle of the room, eyes peeled for a flash of black and green.

Shego, for her part, chased after the teen until she lost her in the labyrinth of machine cores. Hackles up, breathing tight, she stopped in a dusky intersection and scanned down the four isles branching away from her. She hesitated, squinting into the shadows for a sliver of red hair or Caucasian skin. Nothing. Then, going against a slight gut feeling, she turned around and began moving counterclockwise, by dead reckoning, hoping to catch up with the brat's rear.

After about five minutes of skulking, the center arena and Drakken's machines hove back into Kim's view, visible through gaps when the machine cores got into the right alignment. Sneaking forward across the final isle, she positioned herself beside a three-foot-high machinery core forming the circumference of the center circle, near the bottom left corner. Another taller core sat six feet to her left, continuing the circumference. A four-way intersection lay to her back, the left of two in her local two-by-six core grid. Kim paused, adrenaline warming, and scanned the open space. It was vacant. Airless. Quiet.

But whatever you do, Kim chided herself quickly, Don't ever ever ever say "Too quiet." Any movie extra can tell you, the moment you say that, you're hosed…

She suddenly pivoted right and stepped sideways into the isle, gun outstretched, as she heard a faint tap to her five o'clock. Her eyes zipped around in their sockets, heart hammering, the palms of her gloves soaking through with sweat. Kim held her battle position another second before she realized the only thing she threatened was dust motes. The four-way intersection at the other end of her machine core, where the sound appeared to have originated, was bare. Kim sidestepped quickly back into the safety of the core block. Lowering into a crouch, legs shaking crazily, she had the terrifying, intangible feeling that something had just been there. Something told her – a sixth sense, a gut sense – that the air in that intersection had been recently disturbed. The airborne dust had appeared to shimmer and ripple in a way she couldn't explain. Something had… been there.

To quell a sense of panic overwhelming her Zen meditation training, Kim absentmindedly tapped the Sigma's grip butt against the autoloader. She nearly dropped the gun when a magazine clicked sharply into place, the sound unusually distinct in the quiet. She'd been carrying an empty gun.

Fifteen horizontal feet away, Shego heard a crisp, unmistakable metal-metal chack to her ten o'clock and dropped flat. The open space to her right and the metal block to her left masked the direction of the sound.

These ninety-degrees are murder… Dammit, I told Drakken to stagger them!

Breathing hard as the sound faded into unnerving silence, she wrestled the TMP's action near her face and flicked the selection switch from semi to full auto.

Kim heard a muted, directionless metallic clink somewhere close. She bit down a squeak and huddled into the L where the core joined the floor, shakily sweeping the gun before her in a semicircle. Reflecting off the flat surfaces around her, the sound seemed to have come from behind her. Her nose growing numb from her quick, deep breaths, Kim rose into a low crouch and began backing toward the open space, keeping her gun trained on the intersection. On a spur of bravado, she pulled the hammer back.

Small hairs on the nape of Shego's neck stiffened as a loud, clear, menacing kack echoed very nearby. Gawd, echoes are a bitch… Sounded like it came from somewhere above me…

Sweeping her six, she balanced up onto the balls of her feet, knees lightly bent. Wrapping one leg around the other, she warily moved backward, toe-heel-toe-heel.

Finally rounding the sharp corner, Kim felt her shoulderblades bump into something warm and pliable. She jumped and whirled clockwise, arms locked out, gun following through on the spin…

…And came face-to-face with Shego, completing her own startled 180.

With a terrified yell, they both raised their arms, guns snapping to rest against each other's foreheads in a single, cold, sharp click of arming weaponry.

In that single instant, the world zeroed in on itself, falling away, echoing into silence, imploding down to two women and the three feet separating their bodies. Their simultaneous exhales intertwined and melted together, the only sound in their bubble of existence. Heartbeat, breathing, and time itself smashed to a stop. Kim and Shego locked eye-to-eye, staring each other down, daring the other to break. Kim felt a sensation of cold spread through her body, paralyzing her, as the barrel of the carbine pressed against her forehead like a ring of ice. Moving as one tense, seamless unit, they stood up fully, guns glued to the other's head with outstretched arms.

"…KIM!" The cry echoed across the room from fifty feet away. Both women flicked their eyes sideways. Side-by-side, Ron and Drakken had emerged from their hiding spots in rubble of the mad scientist's nanospot welder, gazing, stunned, at the scene before them. "KIM!" Ron yelled again, horrified, "What th' –?!" He shifted upward in the pile, as if to move forward.

"Don't… move!" Shego shouted, her voice high and panicky with fear. Ron froze. "Dr. D, that goes for you too! …Don't… move!" Her eyes were wide with the fear of death. "Don't move! Either of you try anything, Cupcake here gets it!"

She snapped her eyes back to Kim, the latter's face warped into a bravado snarl.

"Don't try any of that gun-kata shit on me, Possible," Shego barked sharply, breathing hard, staring cross-eyed at the barrel planted between her eyebrows, "Don't try to be a cute little hero. You'll get us both killed. This ain't Ultraviolet." She carefully changed her tone, burying her terror and transmogrifying it into trademark arrogance. "You've had that little pop-job, what, two months…? I've had mine ever since some two-bit drug runner tried to feel me up in Costa Rica… …Took me for-eeeever to polish his name off the barrel…"

"So why didn't you pull this thing out before now?" Kim demanded, swallowing overwhelming panic and a desire to heave, desperately fighting for time.

Shego shrugged, throwing up a façade of cool. "I have. Picked it up in my merc years between Team Loser and Blueberry." As she continued to talk, she gained control, and fed off it. "I like to use the Glow when I can; leaves less collateral. No blood evidence, fewer murders to bump me up the hot list, no bullets to trace, perfect for evidence control, and the EMP effect wipes the slob's short-term memory so they never saw me… just a big blank space… They think they whacked their heads or something…. With the whole superpower shtick, I really didn't need the pistol. But when you're talkin' underworld, Possible, you're talkin' the bottom of the barrel. Hitmen so stupid they barely know how to stand. Not everybody knows what the pulsating green energy coming out of my palms is… But everybody knows what a gun is."

"So why not me? All this time, all those fights, you could have pumped me, easy."

The woman again rolled her shoulders noncommittally. "Never found that I needed to use it. First time around, with that stupid tick-thing, you caught me without it. After that, I realized that fighting you was… fun. It was adrenaline. It was a charge that nothing else could match. You and I are adrenaline junkies, Possible, don't deny it. Snowboards, explosions, standing on the ramp, waiting for the jumplight… That's your addiction. That's your heroin. As for me… the gymnastics… judo… karate… jetboarding… hot cars… hotter jets… skydiving… high-speed chases from the Go days… X-Sports… They'd all worked for a while. Made me feel alive. And then when I got into the underworld… taking stuff that wasn't mine and getting away with it… It's a rush, Possible, believe me.

"After a while, though, it got less effective, less powerful. Didn't relax me anymore. Even the small-time stuff started getting lame. I tried getting into other stuff… Didn't work. Just for the record, amps suck. They buzz you for a little while, but leave you feeling like shit afterward. It ain't real. For the PSA, Straight-Edge, don't do 'em. They cost a few dozen spa treatments, and frankly, pun'kin, the guys that push 'em ain't exactly beefcakes. Adrenaline's better than any drug… Still, you can build up tolerance to it. I was getting bored out of my skull while Drakken was in his start-up stages…" Her face changed, softening somehow. "…And then… You came along… You were the only one who came close to matching me… It was amazing. The closer you pushed me toward death, the more I knew I'm alive… And I figured if I put a bullet in your brains, it'd get boring again. Killing you would wreck the all-mighty status quo."

"Thanks…" Kim snarled, "I'll remember that the next time you dunk me in a giant cake mixer."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, Possible, I've wanted you dead… But... just… temporarily dead. I'm sure you've thought the same…" Whether by design or strange accident, Shego's bangs parted slightly to reveal the white scar running down the side of her temple. "But I have I ever wanted you dead dead dead? Nah. Offing you is just as much a part of the job as the Señors leaving you and the deathtrap alone by your lonesome… 'Sides, killing somebody isn't any fun. Too quick. Too easy. Too final."

She flashed a thin, icy smile.

"The thrill of smashing somebody within an inch of their lives… Knowing that just one more punch will send them into oblivion… Holding back… Holding that power… Holding… The feeling is positively orgasmic…" She paused, face twisting with a kind of a disconnected ecstasy. Glancing down at Kim, it transformed into an evil leer. "…But you wouldn't know about that yet, would you… Princess?"

Kim reddened and tightened her grip on the pistol, knuckles creasing the glove material.

Shego smirked, the tight grin curling tauntingly up one side of her mouth. "Ooooo, looks like I struck a nerve… Hope I don't make you decide to do anything... rash, Possible..." Her eyes flickered in Ron's general direction. They snapped back to center, widening slightly, as the .40 muzzle imprinted harder into her skin.

The younger woman's flush had disappeared, except for a faint stripe just below her eyes, replaced by a defensive snarl. No…! No! She's not getting to me! I'm not that insecure! I don't play like that! Ron and I – Ew, gorchy…!

Really…? a dark section of her mind wheedled, Odd how quickly you can forget your own dreams… Besides… holy-than-thou pinky-swears have this odd habit of... slipping...

ShutUPshutupshutupshutupshutupupup!

"…So, back to the sitch, Kimmie," Shego continued, glancing up at the Sigma 40 pressed against her pale skin, "I kept the line between what I did on merc jobs and our little play-dates… I only started thinking about using it on you once you went out and upped the ante… You're the one who got yourself into this. Not me."

"Dammit, I don't want the stupid thing! This thing was shoved down my throat! Do you really think I had a frickin' choice?!"

"Eh, too bad, not my problem. You kept the gun. You wear it. You –"

"That's because there are al-Qaeda people trying to kill me!" Kim screamed. "This isn't me! This isn't my choice!"

"You brought it," Shego continued, unperturbed, "You brought it here. You made the conscious decision to bring that thing into 'world saving.' Congrats, you kicked off an underworld arms-race. You crossed the line with that thing. I saw you, comin' in here with that Sigma out, actin' all tough and badass. What's in your face right now is just what gets spit back out at you. Reap what you sow, kiddo. Everybody saw you when Air Force One landed. Everybody. You had that thing flaunted around your waist. Sends a message."

"You set all this up because of something you saw on television?!"

"You are what the media makes you."

"I am not!"

Shego snorted. "Like hell. You become whatever gets vomited up by the networks. I learned that quick in the Go days; I'm surprised you're still so naive. You can't tell them what to show or what to spin. You lose free will the moment they bring out a cam– I said don't move! "

Ron froze for the second time, caught in the act of winding up to heave Rufus into the standoff and knock Shego off-balance. Squirming out of Ron's suddenly-rigid grasp, the mole rat scurried across the blonde's motionless arm and ducked apologetically into a chest pocket on his owner's shirt. The vixen didn't relax until Ron smoothly and carefully lowered his arm and stepped back down, returning to stand side-by-side with a nervous-looking Drakken.

"Sorry!"

"...Do what she says, Ron! I'll be all right!" Kim shouted hopefully.

Shego flashed a cold, cynical, deadly half-smile. "…You wish."

Without warning, the TMP twitched slightly in her hands and fired.

"Shit, KIM!"

His girlfriend jerked involuntarily, gasping, as a single bullet sliced along her left temple, just above her ear, and vanished into the far darkness. Teeth gritted, she barely flinched as blood flooded out from graze, returning to her previous stance in less than an instant. Kim felt something hot and wet run down the contours of her skin, channeling into the thin furrows around her eyes like ochre eyeliner. Breathing hard and fast through her nose, she stared resolutely through the pain, blocking it out, eyes glazed slightly. After a stab to the gut, this was nothing.

"Why you…!" Ron's shout was cut short as crackling blue energy erupted of its own accord along his hands and arms.

"Put the light show away, Stoppable… Even MMP can't race a bullet to the end of the barrel!"

Mouth half-open, teetering on the brink of a furious step forward, Ron extinguished the energy and crossed his arms, seething.

"…You… bitch…. My face…" Kim breathed, tasting blood leaking down into her mouth, "…You… bitch… My… FACE!"

Shego's eyes delicately, almost hungrily, tracked the line of crimson oozing down the side of the teen's face, then lifted to lock with Kim's. "There ya go… Take it… Take it… There ya go… Breathe…"she said gently, almost soothingly. "…Now we're square…" Arching her eyebrows, she parted her hair slightly so her jagged vertical scar shone through. "How ya feel? Angry…? Murderous? Marred? Deformed? Slashed? Disfigured? The score's all tied up now, Princess. Now both of us have gotten caught up in the moment… Or, rather, you did. All wrapped up in your little self-indignation and your own little mistake and you decide to kick me into an electrical tower. Only a freak bit of geometry with the falling concrete kept me alive… On the other hand… The TMP's on full-auto. You don't have the control to do what I just did. Half my face would be gone… We're even, Kimme. It's even on the same side of your face. You get that thing fixed, though, Cupcake, and I promise you that next time, it will be a few inches to the left."

Horror sparked in Kim's eyes through her rage and pain. "Y-you'd… better… not… Or… I'll… I'll…"

"Or you'll what?" Shego taunted, smirking belittlingly.

Kim faltered, then abruptly recovered, grinning nastily. "Or I'll call in some favors with military brass. You so much as go near me or my family, I'll order an airstrike to blow this place to smithereens."

Shego paused, taken aback, stunned. "…So that's the way it's gonna be, then? Blackmail? Eye-for-eye? Might makes right? He who has the biggest rocket wins, huh?" She raised her eyebrows appreciatively, looking impressed "…I like the way you roll, Pumpkin."

Caught off guard, outraged, Kim pressed the gun hard into the vixen's forehead, casing her to lean backward slightly. "All these yous aren't lowering the chances of me pulling the trigger!"

After a tense moment, Shego looked down at her foe and smiled gently. "…You aren't going to kill me, Possible… And I'm not saying that you're weak," she added as Kim furiously opened her mouth, "…Think about it…You don't want to be killing me. Without me, you'd have nobody to banter with. Nobody to fire you up… Without me, you'd be falling back on gag-inducing one-liners in a week, just like my dumbass brother, just to get your witty kicks. Think about it… you'd have nothing to suck away that pent-up energy… Nothing to challenge you… Nobody you could vent your living daylights on… You'd wind up just like me, Possible."

"…I… will… never… be… like… you!"

"Really? But you've got such a good start already. Blackmail… threats… packin' heat…I heard you beat the stuffing out of bin Laden, laughing all the way. You're goin' dark fast, kiddo. My advice? Stay the good road, 'cause one of us is gonna get iced if we're both tryin' to take over the world."

Shego's pronouncement faded into terrible silence, silence that ratcheted upward in intensity with every passing second. Conversation died, pushed to its logical end, as both women braced up, for what appeared a final climax. No more words needed to be said; no more words seemed to be enough. Kim repositioned her hands on the pistol stock and pressed the weapon harder against Shego's forehead, forcing the latter's head back a few inches. Shego returned the force, teeth bared, face death-pale. Seething, lips curling into a snarl, Kim retaliated with yet another push.

It devolved into a small-scale shoving match, tit-for-tat worthy of kindergarteners, strain redoubling with every return. They both wound up leaning backward slightly, arms at maximum extension with barrels pressed tight. Green eyes bored into green, flaring and sparking. Both women were panting, gasping, verging on hyperventilation, terrified. Blood roared in Kim's ears. The sound was drowning her, dragging her down. Her arms and legs quivered, feeling weak but charged with blood and venom. Adrenaline churned her stomach and chest, making her dizzy, sick. As icy fever-sweat glistened along her forehead, down her neck, along her arms, Kim inadvertently flashed back to her now-dim vision of life timers, which she had related to Ron months ago aboard Air Force One.

We're all gonna kick the bucket eventually, so… I've gotta live the best life I can, every day I can… And hope I go down fighting.

In vain she tried to recall her own timer.

This isn't "it," she thought hopelessly, This wasn't how I wanted to go... Not Shego. Not me. I never wanted it to end like this…

She snapped out of that vision and back into reality, staring up at Shego's dilated, fear-soaked pupils. Abruptly she was sucked into another hallucination, the image of a volcano – a Mt. St. Helens, ready to blow. Almost as if watching a computer-generated movie, she envisioned magma blasting upward, flooding upward through the labyrinth of passages inside the mountains. Red hot with rage, the molten flow roared onward, boiling. The perspective rotated; she saw it zeroing in on the cap, the weak, worthless plug, which attempted to bar its way to the outside, the flume curling and foaming into an unstoppable fist…

She dissolved back into reality with a bright flash.

Tension had become unbearable. This wouldn't hold, this couldn't hold, this was nitroglycerin in a moon bounce. Kim geared for action, determined, if it had finally come to this, to make the first move. She wrapped her hands tighter around the pistol stock, trapping a film of ice-sweat between skin and leather, choked down her emotions, bent her face into an ugly mask to bury thoughts of what would happen to her worthiest opponent, and very likely herself when she squeezed her index finger. She could sense the climax arriving, the moment peaking, knew the instinct was mutual, boiling for the blast with the fury of magma. She squared the gun, took a deep breath…

Inexplicably, without warning, as she stared into Shego's face, the latter's mouth twitched slightly. This single twitch fired off a whole succession of spasms, quivering along Shego's lips. She rolled her lips together, desperately fighting to contain some paroxysm threatening to burst out of her. Her emerald eyes widened and her cheeks bulged as she struggled to restrain herself.

Then, in an act that drove any thought of pulling the trigger out of Kim's head, Shego started to laugh.

Kim recoiled, wide-eyed, feeling as though she'd been punched in the chest. The Sigma unstuck slightly from the vixen's face. This was even more terrifying that the snarl. Once started, Shego's mirth went on and on, her cackle the fluid, liquid, effortless laugh of the unhinged. Finally she calmed down enough to choke,

"…I-I'm… I'm sorry – you're probably going to blow my brains out for this, of course – but… but… your expression… it's… it's… just so funny!"

Kim looked positively alarmed now; gun trembling in nervous, shaky, uncertain hands. She knew stress and misguided endorphins could do this; Kim vividly remembered instances from her youth of giggling as she looked at gashes from the latest rollerblading accident. Wide, frightened eyes flicked all over Shego's face, searching for confirmation that the green-tinged woman had snapped like dry firewood.

"…It… it… doesn't even look like you!" The older woman continued, twisting her face into a very good imitation of Kim's snarl.

The redhead's lips parted slightly as she stared into a blanched mirror of her face. Ron had told her once she'd melted in a dream of his, but she didn't know her face could actually do what her opponent now reflected.

Unbending her face, Shego started laughing again, chortling. It was infectious. Even as she stared, aghast, Kim felt muscles in her face twitching upward, a force push up through her windpipe, a dizzying warm flush seize her brain… and she was… she was… laughing. Tension melted; stress and fear oozed out of her body and into the floor; terror and fear sucked away like water down a drain. The gun in her hand, the muzzle pressed into her own forehead – now warmed by the heat of her skin – the entire situation, even the blood on the side of her face, suddenly seemed utterly absurd. She knew it was probably illogical, completely insane; two mortal enemies with guns planted in their faces, giggling their heads off.

At least madness has company…

She glanced over at Drakken and Ron. The scientist's arms flopped loosely at his sides, frame sagging. Both males appeared poleaxed, stunned and nonplussed by this abrupt turn of events, completely at a loss as to what to do.

Finally, the women's hilarity fit died away, leaving them flushed, heady, and dizzy. Kim dimly noticed her cut didn't hurt half as bad anymore. Kim looked up and was surprised to see her foe smiling… and even more surprised to feel a grin herself. Panting, loose, easy, and deep this time, she again met Shego's eyes. The bright emerald irises lit up. Kim had the odd feeling of a line connecting their bodies, a crazy kind of bond that only forms around brushes with death. Shego inclined her head faintly.

And as if reacting to an unspoken cue, they both simultaneously lowered their weapons.

"WHAAAAAATTT?!!"

The astonished, furious cry burst out to their left. They turned. Drakken had leapt atop a pile of rubble, practically foaming at the mouth.

"Shego…! S-Shego! What are you doing?!" he screamed, disconnected from the strain of looming death, the mental carnage involved in deliberately taking a life at close range, and the washing, cooling relief of a good laugh, "Y-Your revenge! Remember your revenge! Remember what she did to your face! You wanted to be the one to defeat her! This is what you've been complaining about forever! This is why I kept putting up with all those damn package drops! You screwed up three of my plans for this moment! You're snatching defeat from the jaws of victory! She's right there! She's right there! Do it now! Take her down! Kill her! Kill – ork!"

He abruptly broke off, face softening, as Ron rapped him smartly on the back of the head with a bit of broken pipe. Wavering for a second, eyes rolling up slightly, he crumpled to the ground at Ron's feet. A dreamy little warbled over his face as he began snoring gently.

Stunned silence followed as they both stared at Ron, Drakken's words hanging in the air like fog, until it was finally broken, loudly and with a tone of exuberant, long-suffering relief, by Shego.

"…ThankGawd! I've been trying to get him to shut up for ages!"

"Sorry…! He was getting kinda annoying…" Ron called over helpfully, tossing the pipe over his shoulder and starting a search for Rufus.

"Couldn't bring yourself to conk him?" Kim added sardonically.

"Nah. He might've cut my paycheck when he woke up… Finally might be able to get away on that Singles Cruise I've been pestering him about."

Kim glanced sideways at Shego through surprised, curious half-eyes. "Didn't…. you... and Drakken….?"

For the first time in Kim's memory, the tracings of a flush warmed the pale-white crests of Shego's cheeks. "Wellll… ish… kinda…" she muttered at last, squirming. "Both of us sorta got caught up in the winner's rush after the invasion collapsed and Drakken got his medal…"

"I caught the flower thing on CNN's broadcast of the UN ceremony…" Kim said with a smirk. "Nice dress, by the way."

"Thanks… and… well… yeah," she finished lamely, "That."

"He still able to do auditions for Lilies of the Valley?" Kim snickered.

"Ha, ha. Yeah, he's still pushing daisies," Shego said with a laugh. Kim groaned. "…I know, stinker, I know. He still blooms from time to time, but the effect seems to be slowly wearing off. He's trying to figure out which bits of his DNA are making the flower-power effect, and then modify some weed killer to subdue it."

"Points for the topic change. So what about you and Blueberry…?"

"Yeah… well… in the euphoria after we won… We… thought we could make it work. It was practically a Disney ending, after all… Problem was, we had no idea what we were "supposed" to do. We'd never done anything "romantic" before. Neither of us had ever been on a date… 'cept under the control of a mood chip, of course." She and Kim rolled their eyes knowingly. "I don't really see my boy-toys as people, just as… objects… and trophies… and me-gifts for a job well done… To tell the truth, I'm pretty much content with superficiality and the feel-good, in-out-done, the hunks and the… uh… golden touch…" Two spots of pink lit up on the rear edge of Shego's jaw, below her ears, "And Drakken's… well… Drakken. Never looked back once the Bebes flunked. On top of that, we'd never really thought of going after each other," she made a squicked face, "It'd always been employee-employer. So we tried to do the dating thing… And… It felt really awkweird. We've been snarking and insulting each other for years, and now we were supposed to talk nice? We… we… tried a pretty intense make-out session. Drakken got so excited he started hyperventilating, and I had to run to the kitchen for a paper bag. Kinda killed the mood…

"Nothing seemed to go right. To me, it was way too constrictive; I couldn't talk natural anymore, couldn't snark him to pieces and feel good about it… I missed the liberty and choice I had before. As for him, he felt pretty uncomfortable about it, too. He'd seen himself as a protective, almost fatherly role, if you can believe it, and trying to fit into this new role… Well… Squicky." She paused for a breath. "In the end, we decided to call it quits. To tell the truth, we were both glad when it was over. I didn't have to water down my words anymore, and I was free to do what I wanted… And he could slip back into his overwatch role again. Worked out good for both of us, and I've tried to a little less scathing at some of his more glaring screwups."

Kim snorted, arching her eyebrows.

Shego grinned sheepishly. "I said I was trying… It's the thought that counts, right?"

Kim nodded slightly, thoughts trailing. Unconsciously, she reached up and sponged away some of the blood seeping down her face with the edge of her shirt. Shego didn't object.

After a few moments, she glanced quietly down at the Smith & Wesson in her hand.

"…So…" she said softly, "…Where do we go from here?"

"What?"

Kim stared pointedly at the machine pistol in Shego's grip. "… I mean, what're we going to do now? We fought to a draw this time, and nearly got our heads blown off for all the effort… Is this gonna happen every time until one of us finally takes a bullet?"

The older woman held up the TMP and tilted it so the facets twinkled in the light, carefully studying the shadows crisscrossing the textured grip. After a moment, she looked up, her eyes zeroing on Kim, face half-masked by the sideways-tilted gun. "…You were serious when you said it wasn't you?"

"A hundred percent."

"…And you're not planning to go vidge and gun after us?"

Kim blinked, looking affronted by the suggestion. "No way. I don't go bloodthirsty that quick… unlike you." Shego frowned sharply. "…I was more freaked about how your people would take it, that you'd open up before I got a chance to explain." She laughed hollowly. "Looks like I was right."

The vixen fell silent for a long moment, staring hard between her TMP and a pock in the concrete a few inches to the left of Kim's foot. She delicately chewed her lip, smooth, flawless brow furrowing slightly.

Then, to Kim's astonishment, Shego looked up, stripped off a neon-green glove, and stuck her hand forward across the gap between them.

"Truce?"

The redhead hesitated, staring at the gesture. Her arm jerked slightly, undecided, fingers spread and flexed with caution. Wary for a trap, she drew in long, slow inhale …then impulsively swung her hand forward to grasp Shego's.

"Truce."

They sealed the handshake with a single firm pump. Then Kim coiled her foot back and drove it into Shego's shin. The villainess dropped to one knee with a startled yelp, clutching the front of her leg. After a stream of curses, she looked up furiously at the redhead standing over her.

"What was that for?!"

"That was for shooting me in the face, thank you very much!"

Shego grinned ruefully, and slipped the TMP back into its calf holster. When she looked up again, she saw that Kim had extended a hand.

"No tricks this time?"

"Uh-uh," Kim said as Shego grasped her hand. She pulled her to her feet. "I'm vented."

"…Remember what I said about getting it fixed, though." Shego said flatly, torquing Kim's wrist slightly.

The redhead looked like she might kick her again, lips twisting into a bitter smile at the pain. "Don't worry…" she growled, "I'll have something there, no matter what I do to it. It's gonna need stitches. Can I at least get my mom to get it as clean as possible, if you'll excuse the pun?"

The coal-haired woman stared coldly at her for a few seconds, then relented with a sigh. "Alright…" She suddenly brightened. "Do you think she could get mine kinda into the shape of an S?"

"Anne's a neurosurgeon… But I'd bet you a manicure she has connections with some really good dermatologists"

"Cool…"

"Now, about this truce…?"

"Yeah… Like I said, fighting you is a lot more fun than killing you. Agree?"

Kim nodded.

"I'll agree to keep the guns out of our game, toss the "real world" arsenal, and return to the status quo, if you promise to do the same. If you're not packing heat when you show up, I won't either. Forget, though, and it's all out."

"Sounds good to me. If I never have to use this thing again, I'll be happy." She stuffed the Sigma back into her hip holster and affirmed the truce conditions with another handshake.

"This still doesn't mean I'll be pulling punches with anything else, though… Bullets are for sissies." The older woman gave Kim's fingers a hard, painful squeeze.

Kim's mouth only twitched into a tight smile. "Couldn't have it any other way." She returned the intimidation with a vice-grip of her own. Looking around, she smiled bemusedly at the smoking carnage around them. "How're you going to get rid of all the heavies?"

Shego shrugged. "Dunno. Sell 'em off on black market to the highest bidder. Gotta recoup the costs somehow."

The redhead scowled. "You. are. not."

"Then the deal's off."

"Fine, then." She pointed to her midriff scar. "You are not forking grenade launchers and SAMs over to al-Qaeda and Hamas."

Shego sighed. "Gawd, get Nerdlinger on the line and ask him if SSS kicked the bucket… I think I'm channeling his spirit…" She shook her head. "Okay, okay, not the black market. If you're going to be so bitchy about it, I'll sell the stuff to the Army at overprice… That's my offer. Take it or leave it. Happy?"

Kim crossed her arms. "No… but it's better than black market."

"Glad you see it my way."

The redhead shot her a dirty look, and then glanced around again at the weapons crates ringing the walls. "At least we've got our sitch worked out… But how's this gonna go over with the rest of the baddies?"

Shego popped her claws out, blew on them, and then retracted the blades. "You've got your head stuck so far in the goodness clouds that you never realized that everybody's got a stash," she said scathingly, "Everybody 'cept SSJ's old man, of course… Considers it "bad villain form." Hell, his own boy's probably got a Desert Eagle stashed in a closet somewhere, 'cause he felt he had to make up for something…" Shego grinned briefly at Kim's puzzled look and then continued. "But like me, they never really thought about using it until you evened up without knowing it.…" She started ticking off fingers. "Dementor's always been practical, so he's got a stockpile in a timeshare somewhere that rivals mine. Knows how use it damn well, too. Drakken doesn't have anything; that's what I'm for. Monkey Fist dug up –literally – a Lee-Enfield belonging to Howard Carter, then modified it into a semiautomatic and put some MMP hooky on it. I'm not sure what happened to it after his socks got rocked… Duff's got a machine gun in the bagpipe, Eddie tried to impress me with an S&W Model 500 'volver," Shego made a face, "As if… Gemini packs a Beretta, and Hench has got something shiny and expensive."

Kim paled, mouth falling open. "I-I've been fighting them for years… I thought they were all pushovers… And all this time they could've… all this time they could've…" She reeled, knees buckling slightly, feeling as though she was going to be sick. Shego put a hand on her shoulder and steadied her.

"Drakken's been hyping this showdown all over the Villainster PM system. People are going to see this as a bellwether – proof-of-concept. They're looking at this for acceptance. Once they see that we couldn't paste Kim Possible across a wall even with enough firepower to take down your average Latin American junta, they'll all have second-thoughts about the whole "minor weaponry" gig."

"S-so… so…"

"So that means they might dump the stuff. They've always been uncertain about how effective "real" weapons are, since, by their logic, shiny and flashy equals goody. Once they hear what happened with our try… who knows. I'll try to persuade them to stick with lasers and deathtraps."

"Thanks…" Kim murmured, resisting the urge to give Shego a hug as Ron sidled up, Rufus on his shoulder.

He glanced warily between his girlfriend and her nemesis. "Ummmm… I think I missed something… Are you two not gonna shoot on sight anymore?"

Kim shook her head, putting an arm around Ron as they faced Shego. "Nah… We both got too much to live for."

Shego put her hands on her hips. "Awwww…. You've got a cowlick in back, dork-boy."

Ron nervously patted down a tuft in the back of his head, blushing slightly. After a moment, it sproinked back up again.

"Ah, forget it… You can't fight fate sometimes…" She turned slightly and gazed hard at Kim. "Remember, Princess…" Reaching up, she traced a finger along her own scar.

The redhead set her mouth into a thin, hard line and inclined her head an inch.

After a short, tense staredown, Shego broke into a grin and pointed toward the open door. "…Now, get out of here, 'before I change my mind,' or whatever I'm supposed to say at this point. I've gotta go book my Porto Carras reservations."

After Shego gave them a parting mock-salute, Kim and Ron turned and began walking arm-in-arm toward the way they'd entered, leaving Shego standing in the middle of the floor.

Just as they reached the threshold, without warning, Drakken suddenly revived and popped to his feet, screaming without interruption as though he'd never been out, "-her! Kill h – wargh, what was… wait… wasn't he just… and you just…. And I were…. Sheeeeeegooooooo, what just happened?!"

The vixen whirled toward the exit, her easy expression vanishing under a mask of fury, both hands exploding into towers of writhing plasma.

"Damn it, there goes my vacation! POSSIBLE, GET BACK HERE! YOU DIDN'T DO IT PROPERLY!!"

Standing the doorway, Kim turned at the yell, a hand sliding to her waist. As her eyes took in the scene, she smiled wryly.

"Oh… and Shego…"

At her name, the woman froze, immobile with rage, the crackling plumes of green energy the only things moving on her. In one fluid motion, Kim popped the snap on her grappling gun, leveled it, and fired. Shego didn't flinch as the gleaming hook hissed past, a foot of her face, and buried itself into the self-destruct button twenty feet behind her. The complex instantly erupted into a cacophony of battleship horns and flashing warning lights.

Kim cheerfully returned the mock-salute. "…Have fun."

They skidded out of the room as a furious, futile burst of green plasma sizzled into the hallway wall opposite them, before Shego broke off and dived for the escape hatch.

Kim strapped the Kimmunicator on her wrist mid-stride with a velcro strap. Wade's GPS "breadcrumbs" pointed them toward the exit as they dashed back down the darkened shortcut and through the deserted corridors. Kim's and Ron's icons moved jerkily on the screen as the satellites struggled to keep up.

Flying down the corridors, they rushed headlong through the security beams they'd been so meticulous to avoid earlier. As the laser diodes tripped, sirens wailed in some deep recess beneath them. It didn't matter. The complex was one big klaxon by this time.

Skidding to a halt in a wide T-junction, Kim spotted a self-guided electric tram. It looked like it'd been lifted straight off an Austin Powers movie set. (It had.) Recently abandoned, it sat motionless on its tracks, mercifully pointed in the right direction. Kim rolled into the driver's seat, pulling Ron in after her. He tumbled into the rear row before clambering awkwardly over the seat backs and strapping himself in beside Kim. Scanning over a control panel she didn't have time learn, Kim gave up, went with Ron's usual approach, and punched the densest collection of dials hard. The cart protested and shuddered forward slightly. The redhead curled downward in her plastic bucket seat and pistoned the heel of her foot into the throttle.

Electric motor whining, the cart shot down the rails, blue sparks surging around the wheels. Cold, fast wind snapped Kim's hair out behind her like a bonfire in a gale, her eyes watering. As Kim rammed the throttle forward, the flimsy plastic handle snapped off under the strain.

"You've got about thirty seconds before everything hits the fan," Wade piped up as the tram zoomed down the access tunnel.

"Tell me something I don't know!" Kim yelled, trying to keep the accelerator nub pushed against its stops.

"I mean that literally. Drakken's got Henchco's standard 842-ZW self-destruct kit. An impeller blasts an ignition agent through the air ducts until interior saturation is reached, then automatically lights it, creating a massive fuel-air explosion. Given this is Drakken, I'd assume he's tampered with it a bit."

Around them, series of lights started going down as electricity cables were automatically cut. The orange running lights beside the tram tracks were the first to go.

"So you're saying things are probably gonna get wayyy out of control here."

"More or less. You've got about another thirty seconds before the oxidizer releases into the venting system. Another thirty seconds after that, you've got the right fuel-air ratio and ignition. Whatever comes after that, I'm still working on."

The unending string of metal-halide lamps running along the crown of the ceiling flickered out. In the sudden darkness, a blast of whitish-blue light shone at the far end of the blackened, echoic tunnel. The Pacific Ocean glinted a hundred yards down the tracks.

Abruptly, electricity for the tramcar failed. The cart coasted to a halt in the darkness fifty yards from the mouth of the tunnel.

"C'mon, Ron!" Kim shouted desperately, frontflipping out of the driver's seat and sticking the three-point landing.

"I'm comin', I'm comin'!" Ron shouted back, scrambling over the hood of the vehicle. His shirt sleeve caught on a lever and he wasted several seconds wrenching it off. Freeing himself with a jerk, he stumbled backward, tripped over the protruding center rail, did a backward roll, and popped to his feet beside Kim.

She stared at him. "Nice."

"Ain't physics great?"

Making up for lost time, they ran to daylight, sprinting as though the hounds of hell were after them. Flashing into the blaze of hot sunlight, Kim scooped up the backpack she had deposited earlier and flung it over her shoulders. Without breaking stride, she vaulted onto the low stone parapet in one step and flung herself over the ledge in another.

"KIM!" Horrified, Ron slammed to a halt against the balustrade, peering desperately over the edge.

Tumbling over a hundred feet, Kim finally stabilized herself and yanked on a ripcord flailing on the left backpack strap. With a hiss of shredding canvas and the roar of a rocket engine, a jetpack erupted from the backpack, wings and helmet sprouting in one fluid motion. Falling dead-level, looking perfectly in control, Kim plummeted another two hundred feet before the jetpack managed to overcome gravity's embrace. Pulling on the aileron controls as hard as she could, she executed a swooping J-curve, pulling up and leveling out just a few yards above the jagged, rocky shoreline, and zoomed out to sea.

"Oh, dear lord," Ron panted weakly, knees trembling, as he slipped his backpack over his shoulders. "…Oh, dear lord… Kim… Kim… I don't think I'm doing that." With both feet planted firmly on the balcony, he pulled the ripcord. The jetpack blossomed from his back and clamped the helmet over his head. After a few moments, the engine gained enough thrust to float him into the air. He tentatively pushed the controls forward, swiveled prone, and was soon scorching north toward Kim's rocket exhaust.

After a short period at max thrust, he caught up with his partner and fell into wingman position. Throttles to their stops, they both flew low, not more than twenty feet above the waves, to give the stubby wings on their jetpacks as much lift as possible in the thicker, moisture-laden air.

Temporarily locking his throttle clutch, Ron adjusted his mike to his mouth and activated it. After a second of static whussssss, the bandwidth cleared.

"…Girl, what in the name of ever-lovin' nacos was that for?!" he shouted, voice cracking with abridged panic and relief.

He heard Kim make a chagrined noise. "…Sorry if I gave you a heart attack… Seemed like the fastest way to launch. I hadn't counted on the ripcord deploy time."

"Eie-yie-yie…" Ron shook his head, melodramatically placing a hand over his chest. "That which don't kill me…"

"…Can only make us stronger," Kim finished with a laugh. Glancing through her flight visor, she frowned slightly. Setting trim tabs, she lifted her right hand off the flight controls and pressed a small button on the right temple of her helmet. Instantly, small computer icons leapt to life on the translucent yellow, polarized visor and began calibrating.

The visor's inner side was glazed with a molecule-thin layer of OLEDs. With current, the normally-transparent electroluminescent film allowed for augmented reality, much in the style of a HUD or in-game videogame information display, which Kim could manipulate at-will. When Wade upgraded the system, he had put her through a series of exercises that seemed strange at the time – her head secured in an ophthalmologist brace and surrounded by a MRI in the shape of a salon hair dryer, he had instructed Kim to flick her eyes up, down, to each side, to each corner, and roll them.

Once the helmet upgrade came out, however, Kim understood. The visor's dynamic visual format operated much like the "blank slate" of an iPhone. Using only her eyes as a stylus, she could open windows and execute functions. A low-power MRI contained within the helmet's shell registered which areas of her brain lit up in response to her eye movements and translated them into commands, much like a finger's electromagnetic signature on the iPhone's touchscreen. Timing sensors differentiated between a simple glance and a command prompt.

The icons finished warming up and settled into a bar along the bottom edge of the viewscreen, modeled after the iMac application dock. Kim glanced steadily at a Kimmunicator sprite, which began bouncing happily and blossomed into a viewing screen. Training her eyes on the center of the comlink, she "click-and-dragged" it into the lower quarter of the visor, leaving the upper portion clear. When she focused on a YouTube-style play arrow in the middle of the viewscreen and slowly blinked once, the screen immediately began streaming a real-time WadeCast.

"Kim," he started, speaking quickly, "How's everything working?"

"Fine," Kim replied tersely, concentrating on flying straight and level, "There are still some issues with drag-lag, and it's kinda hard to get things where I want them in one go when I have to keep glancing up."

"Thanks for feedback…. Does Ron have his running as well?" His tone switched to the imperative. "Ron, if you've got this working, give aud-vid confirmation."

The blonde flashed a thumbs-up while speaking into the mike, "Hear ya loud, hear ya proud, Wade."

"Good, good, sensors indicate both systems online…." He typed a few keystrokes. "And… now they're linked so you each get the same warnings." The African-American directed focus back to the redhead. "…Kim, stay fast, stay low. The ignition spray got released into the vents about ten seconds ago. I'd say you have twenty seconds before it lights." As he spoke, she activated a stopwatch icon and swirled the countdown box into the upper right corner with an eye-roll.

"How do you always get it so accurate?"

"The moment you hit the S-D button, it sent out a signal to the lair's electronics to begin frying themselves. The Kimmunicator's shielded, but it can pick up on the signal. All of Hench's self-destruct kits come with their own stock countdown that can't be modded. Once I got the signal, I set up a timer from there."

"Thanks. What's the outlook?"

"I can't do much for you once it goes up; you and Ron are pretty much on your own. There's a short-range radar sensor in the top of the helmet that sends out a 180-degree fan behind you. It won't give you a lot of warning once fragments start coming down, but hopefully it'll be enough."

"It will be," Kim asserted, "Gotta think positive."

Wade gave her a forlorn thumbs-up and set the feed on standby, displaying the KP monogram.

Kim keyed Ron's frequency. "Kilo-Kilo-Yankee?"

"Sounds 'bout right. Throw in a few broken scissors?"

"Do we have enough altitude?"

"I think so."

Kim glanced at the countdown. "Gets interesting in six… Watch my back?"

"Consider it watched…" He cat-growled.

Kim returned with her own amorous come-on, then sighed exasperatedly. "Boys…"

Slamming to a halt in a line of zeros, the countdown box morphed into an excitedly-hopping alarm clock. Its shrill ring was overwhelmed as the world exploded behind them.

A tremendous shockwave followed on the heels of the deafening explosion. Seawater below them turned white as the blast visibly swept across the water's surface in an expanding bubble, ripping the crests off waves and flinging the spindrift into the preceding roller. Kim and Ron's low position and the detonation's relatively high altitude gave them slight protection, but only just. Broiling heat flashed around them, superheating the very air, instantly drenching Kim in sweat. With a blast like a hurricane, it wrenched with their legs and wings, skidding them into a yaw. Kim pitched downward, her vision suddenly consumed with navy blue, the rocket engine suddenly propelling her to her doom. With an expert yank on the controls, she recovered and leveled out. Her lightly-dangling feet brushed the water, nearly breaking her toes, but Kim bit down a flinch and carefully eased higher.

Caught in the turbulence, Ron flipped sideways and sliced downward. He was saved when a wave, jumbled by the explosion, split into a trough just deep enough for Ron's wing to skim through. Amazingly holding the sideways tilt until his wingtip cleared, Ron snap-rolled level and fell in parallel to Kim.

She had just enough time shout, "Nice!" before various sections of the screen began flashing red in response to rearward-approaching threats.

A beeping flasher in the upper left corner quickly established dominance and silenced the other warnings. To her right, receiving the same warning, Ron peeled starboard. Kim followed.

A sucking howl enveloped her senses as a giant slab of intact wall plummeted into view in the upper left corner of her peripheral vision. So impossibly big and bizarrely out of place, it seemed to fall and tumble in slow motion. At high speed, water cushions like concrete, and the chunk skipped like a stone upon impact. The debris flung up a straight row of five lethal splashes, the sound of each impact pounding through her like a heavy bass note, even at this distance, before catching an edge and virtually self-destructing. Pellets of rebar and concrete fanned out from the final skip like shotgun spray.

"Holy…"

Ron's mouthing cut short as his visor began flashing again; this time, the warning ran along the right edge of his screen. They rolled left as an entire turbine unit arched gracefully into the water to their right. Kim guessed it had been near the top of the explosion, and thrown on a much steeper trajectory, since its path into the water was nearly vertical.

Buuuh-shoooommmm!

Its entry sound and resulting plume were much like a hand slapping into a pool, multiplied a million times. Fat, heavy, briny drops pelted them, making the wings wobble. The alarm system started going haywire as hundreds of chunks began raining down.

"Broken scissors?" Kim shouted.

"Booyah!"

They turned toward each other and began weaving back and forth, alternately crossing, forming a double helix if viewed from above. Rocks and shrapnel pummeled through the open center bulges and fell wide at the "pinches." With both flight paths in constant motion, the pair greatly lowered their chances of being hit. Ron had termed the maneuver "broken scissors" because it splayed out one way, crossed over itself, and then splayed the other way, much like a pair of scissors with a busted hinge. Since neither was a WWII vet, they never realized the crisscross by its true name, the famous Thach Weave.

As they completed another bulge and again rejoined, side by side, both the left and right sides of Kim's OLED screen lit up.

"Brace!" she screamed, shooting into a dive, as two simultaneous eruptions exploded to life on either side. Wingtips nearly touching, the teens zoomed through the gap between the columns, Cerberus twins snapping and snarling at their flanks, threatening to destroy them with a single bite. Spray lashed them as they cleared, peppering Kim's visor and causing her to hack as sharp droplets needled up her nose. Ron whooped insanely, channeling Zorpox, high on adrenaline. Kim snarl-yelled through gritted teeth from somewhere back in her throat, a base, animal sound.

After a short pause – the stunned, breathless silence just before the shock registers – the visor warning system broke into a flatline tone. Kim blinked quickly as the loud, flat, unbroken scream resounded in her ears and terror reared from somewhere deep inside. The top edge of her screen lit up. Before she had time to comprehend, a massive machinery core hurtled into view from her six o'clock, arcing directly over her head. Kim watched, openmouthed, as it tumbled through the air directly in front of them. The sight of something so huge flying through the air was utterly surreal. Following a relatively flat trajectory, it passed low over their heads, buffeting them with slipstream.

Enveloped in a kind of muted, choked silence, the core slowly revolved a final time and eased into the water a hundred yards ahead with the careful elegance of a supermodel into a jacuzzi. A small white flash spirted up as the core broke the water's surface. Time ripped back to normal as the core jerked short, rotation broken, and vanished with a roar behind a massive column of tortured water.

Before Kim could react, a towering wall of water, as if from an underwater nuclear blast, loomed above her head, filling her world as nature and flesh closed for the collision. Reflexively she snap-rolled left, body perpendicular to the surface. Vision tunneling, she hardly noticed as Ron split away on her right. Carving into the vertical turn, she skirted the edge of the column like fluid caressing a midstream rock. As she smoothed out of her turn at the rear of the explosion and resumed her beeline, Ron swooped to her side, completing a nearly-identical turn. As they again formed a seamless unit, Kim blew water off her microphone.

"Seem familiar?!"

"Hell yeah!" Ron yelled, also remembering their blitz down the mitten of Lake Michigan near the end of the Lorword invasion.

The warning system screamed, the top edge and both upper corners lighting up this time.

"Break!"

Nodding curtly to Ron's choked warning, Kim again peeled left.

Moments later, a hail of V8-sized rubble bits splattered into the gap, forcing it wider. They separated.

Kim flew flat along the surface of the water, a few inches above liquid death at 150 miles per hour. The jetpack cut a shallow white hollow into the sea behind her, rocket backblast searing water out of its way. The warning system tone hyperventilating, points of red flickered wildly along the screen's edges. Subcompact-sized chunks plowed into the water with the randomness of shotgun pellets. Kim s-curved wildly, snaking through pluming jets of solid water, each one capable of decapitating her instantly. As she twisted and barrel-rolled, the debris pieces gradually thinned out and became smaller – but faster. Slicing left as water exploded upward twenty feet from her left shoulder, she carved back as another impact vaporized to her nine o'clock, wing suspended vertically by the force of her turns.

Falling momentarily level, Kim had just enough peace to pull a single breath before a shrill tone blared in her ears and the screen's upper left and lower right corners simultaneously lit up. Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, she rolled 135 degrees and pushed the control stick down. Ailerons flipped, the wing shot upward. Holding inverted, she climbed through the space between two incoming projectiles, forming opposite corners of an imaginary parallelogram. Now below her, the two chunks clipped each other and smashed into the water precisely where Kim's unaltered path would have taken her. Humping out of her climb and snapping level, she opened her eyes, flicked a smile to herself, and dipped into a shallow dive to gain speed. Glancing right, she saw Ron zigzag around a few remaining splashes, pull off a messy modern Immelmann, and settle on her flight plane.

Kim tensed for a moment as red indicators flickered weakly in the lower corners of her OLED and piiiisssshhhhhh-splashessizzled behind her, but then relaxed as the indicators quieted and died and the impact spray fell harmless. Hair-trigger cautious, Kim tentatively held her straight-and-level. The warning system remained dormant. Nothing followed.

After a second of silence, her own whuuuuu of relief hissed loud in her ears across the microphone. Lungs draining empty, she refilled with a wild, drained laugh, shaking her head.

Ron's exhausted voice crackled across the airwaves. "Oooo-kay, that has to be the closest I've ever come to wetting myself!"

Kim snickered. "Even more than that Excelsor thing?"

"Good point… OK, this tops Peru by a hair."

Kim throttled down to cruising power and checked her body and equipment over for cuts and fuel leaks. Abruptly the Wade-Cast fizzled out of standby mode and Wade's face filled the video square.

"Kim, Ron, you guys clear yet?" he asked quickly, looking frazzled. Little white marks dotted his cheeks where he had clenched his fingernails while listening to their radio chatter.

"You bet," Kim chirruped, "No doubt. I'm stoked, and Ron flew like a damn Blue Angel. What's the sitch?"

"Kim, from the Richter readings the trans-Pacific stations are picking up, there's a very good chance that Drakken did mess around with that self-destruct. I'll have to check the specs, but I don't think the power core array would have held up too well."

"Held up too well…? Wade, the blast just blew half of Drakken's lair into the stratosphere. No way anything could survive that."

"Yeah, seems like it, but apparently Henchco sells the self-destruct kit and power cores as a set. Those cores are crazy-expensive… A whole bunch of pretty nasty chemicals, and the S&H bill is insane. Not the type of thing you go out and restock every time the lair blows up. Hench provides a containment-and-protection kit – sold separately, of course – to protect the users from what's in there during normal op and then shield the core from the blow-up. Each model of power core has a withstand rating paired up with the destructive power of the self-destruct kit… The idea being that everything else gets leveled by the blast, so the authorities don't bother to check the rubble, and then once everybody's left, the baddie can come back and airlift the core to a new location."

Kim cut Wade's explanation short for a moment as she dodged a lone, stray piece of debris. "…But?"

"But I checked Drakken's shipping records –"

"You've even got his shipping records?"

Wade shrugged. "I get emailed whenever something mails to that magazine subscription." He casually licked the tip of his thumb in an attempt to look suave. "Hey, sometimes a hefty bribe works."

Kim glared.

His aloof cool faltering, Wade nervously wiped his thumb on his shirt. "…And like I said, the Richter ratings didn't match up with the stock blast-stats on Henchco's website. From the looks of it, Drakken bought the cheapest model he could find and then tacked his own "improvements" on it. Knowing him, if he's modified the self-destruct, he probably went stingy on the containment as well and then tried to DIY it."

He took a breath and continued.

"Kim, when you're dealing with the forces that thing has to take, you don't want to be doing any welding to it. It could change the composition of the metal. It's probable we're looking at something like a warp-core breach… uhhhhh," Wade caught himself, "I mean, a meltdown… Thermal scans are picking up hot spots where there shouldn't be. Which means there's a good chance that we've got another explosion coming up in about five minutes that's gonna toss up all the rubble that's come down on top of it."

Ron's voice cut across the mike. "Aww, man, not again…"

"Wade, you mentioned chemicals…?" Kim asked, voice hard and worried.

"Yeah. By EPA standards, this, unfortunately, is going to be pretty messy. To complicate things, this is pretty much international water, so nobody's going to want to touch it. I'll see if I can get the International Marine branch of the U.N. involved, but it'll mean a lot of lengthy red-tape and paperwork. Best thing we've got going for us now is that the explosion will fling the stuff over a wide area, so it'll be fairly diluted. I'll have to do some more research on the area's thermohaline circulation and the reaction of the core's chemicals with seawater."

"Thanks, Wade… at least we've got 411 on the 911. What should we do in the meantime?"

"Well, there aren't any more big threats on my radar at the moment… I don't think you need to burn any more fuel on zigzags. Just try to get as far out of the blast range as you can. I've got a support team on its way, but they're running into headwinds. Just keep your heads up. I'm still working with raw data. I'll refine my breach estimates and try to give you guys a more accurate time window."

"Good luck on that, Wade. Kim out."

"Tell those support peeps to hurry, man. Ron out."

"Thanks, guys. Wade out."

Kim keyed her mike, limiting it to Ron's frequency. "How you doin' on fuel?"

"So-so."

"Ditto. The running start gave me a few extra seconds of burn time."

"How's the cut?"

The redhead twisted her head from side-to-side slightly, wincing as blood crusted on the inside of the helmet. "Okay… Hurts. Had worse… But it still hurts." She swore.

"Nice one, K.P.!"

"Man, you watch fifteen minutes of Jerry Springer when you're twelve and you never forget it… Anyway, I'm going to get my mom to take a look at the cut… Dunno if there'll be anything she can do with it, though. Shego said not to get it fixed, but… I think…"

"What happened back there?"

Kim was silent for a moment. "It's… a girl thing. Complicated."

Ron shrugged his shoulders. The movement jiggled his wings slightly and sent him sluicing across the sky for a few seconds before he brought it under control. "Well, bright side, you got that scar you've always wanted."

"I never wanted a scar… and I've already got some, thanks."

"Oh… right. That was me. I read somewhere that girls think it's really hawt if you've got one going –"

"Ron… TMI!"

With Ron following her lead, she dropped within three feet of the wave crests, checking her fuel gauge every few seconds. Under ideal conditions and with careful nursing of the thrusters and wing lift, maximum flight time was about four minutes. The shrapnel slalom at prolonged max thrust, however, cut total burn time down to roughly two and a half minutes. The ground-effect lift just off the wave tops helped increase her range slightly, but with the digital fuel meter passing three-fourths empty, she guessed they only had about sixty seconds of flight time left… She knew from history class that the massive sharks of the South Pacific had found quite a few meals in downed fighter pilots during WWII.

Kim set a new timer in the visor HUD and started praying.

As the flickering digital numbers plunged past thirty seconds and the sea remained mercilessly empty, Kim started reviewing ditch procedures and contemplated using her remaining fuel for a gentle settling-with-power. Just as she keyed the mike to relay her plan to her boyfriend, she spotted a large airplane streaking across the water a little over a mile away, just slightly off parallel.

"Kim, we're never gonna make that!" Ron shouted desperately into his microphone, catching sight of the craft as well.

"I know!" Kim yelled back, "They might see us go down, though!" She frantically scanned the remaining horizon. "…Where are you, Wade?"

Abruptly the distant airplane spotted them, waggled its wings, and heeled sharply over, slicing away hypotenuse.

No… way

As the angle and distance closed, she saw that it was a C-17 – painted charcoal gray without any markings except a small American flag on the vertical stabilizer. Intersecting their flight path about 500 yards ahead, it fell in line directly ahead of them and cut speed and altitude until it seemed as though it was going to land on the waves.

"No way."

The rear cargo ramp snapped down on well-oiled hydraulics.

"No way!" Her voice rising.

A handful of airmen checked the ramp before scattering to the sides as something charged toward them from the bowels of the airplane. Before Kim could blink, a massive white powerboat lunged stern-first out the cargo bay on a pallet like a baby out of the womb. An extraction parachute inflated horizontally from the rear of the pallet as it caught the slipstream, and the boat yanked to a mid-air halt as if pulled by a massive string. Under the sudden deceleration, the pallet stripped away from the bottom of the boat along with the parachute. The ship continued forward, crashing into the water a few yards below with a huge splash. Heaving to the surface, water pouring off the bow deck in solid sheets, the yacht stabilized and began bobbling in the waves.

"NO WAY! NO WAY! NO WAY!" Kim screamed, cackling insanely. "WADE, YOU… ARE… AWESOME!!"

She looked up. A lone airman stood in the center of the cargo door's mouth. He crisply bent his arm in salute. Kim returned it enthusiastically, using her whole arm. She saw him nod. The ramp winched up, the door closed, and he was gone. Giving its wings a final parting waggle, the C-17 pulled up sharply and banked away.

"Kim!" Ron's voice cut through sharply, "Kim! My fuel – !" The words were barely out of his mouth before beepers went off on Kim and Ron's wrists, indicating they had fifteen seconds of flight time left.

Kim winged over and plunged toward the bucking yacht. Yanking upward into a quick hover, she saw a metal latticework platform bolted above the transom. A red bulls-eye was painted in its center. Ron pulled up beside her in a tremulous hover, signaling ladies first with a flourish.

The rocket now spurting in chokes and gasps as the beeper on her wrist fell into one solid tone, Kim lined up with the target circle and gently powered down, stepping daintily onto the platform as the powerboat crested a wave. An exhaust chute beneath the metal lattice channeled the backblast safely over the transom and dispersed it over the water. As her feet brushed the metal, the jetpack wheezed a final time and quit. Wrenching the quick-release straps, Kim hurled the pack aside and clambered off the platform. Sliding down a short ladder and hitting the deck, she gave an all-clear wave to Ron.

Waiting on the roll, Ron maneuvered over the bulls-eye and eased off the throttle. Unfortunately, his standstill takeoff and recent hover had burned his fuel more quickly, and six feet above the pitching landing platform, his engine abruptly died. He hung in midair for a split second, floating in shocked silence after the all-consuming jet roar, before crashing straight down onto the landing circle. The pause caused him to miss the top of the roll; as he hit the platform, the ship bucked forward as a wave lifted it from behind, catapulted him over the rear deck, and sprawled him into the helmsman's chair.

After a moment, he limply released the pack harness and sat up in the white leather armchair, looking dazed. Turning around, he gave Kim a bleary thumbs-up over the seat back.

The same wave pitched Kim into the pilot deck stanchions and pinned her against the fiberglass. As she tried to disentangle herself from the cleats, the Kimmunicator beeped.

With difficulty, she wrenched it out of her thigh pocket. "Sitch me, Wade!"

"I've refined calculations of Drakken's power core containment. As I suspected, it wasn't built for the explosive magnitude it went through, and as usual, he was shoddy with construction. OSHA regs went out the window with this one. Twenty seconds."

The midocean swells jiggled the adrift boat crazily and knocked her to the floor. "Ron!" she yelled, looking up at him on the elevated deck, "Know how to drive one of these things?"

He looked frantically down at the controls. "Me?! You're the one who's done this before!"

"You're closer! No time!"

"Only time I've driven something like this myself was a PT-boat level in Push to Berlin!"

"Fine! That'll work!"

"Yeah, but –"

"Go!"

"But –"

"GO!"

Twisting around front, Ron torqued the key – it was already in the ignition – locked his left hand around the wheel, and slugged the throttle forward with his right. The twin 480-horsepower Mercury sterndrives belched once and then roared to life. With a snarling, gurgling bellow, the engines dug hard and skewed the powerboat violently to starboard, carving a deep hollow into the water. Hanging on as the deck sloped like the roof of a house, Kim looked to her right and saw a frothy wall of white-yellow-green seawater level with her eyes. As the torque curve leveled out, Ron guided the boat out of the S-curve with a smooth back-and-forth on the wheel. Engines spooling up, the boat plowed heavily through the first waves as it gained speed, slamming Kim and Ron around the helmsman station and deck. Reaching planing speed, the boat began skipping over the wave tops, rhythmically hammering buusshhh... buusshhh... buusshhh... across the crests, throwing spray. Even with seat padding, Ron's kidneys felt the aluminum seat column pounding through on his tailbone and lumbar. The twin 480s whined as they tasted air between gulps of seawater.

Kim lugged herself up the ladder to the cockpit and stood next to him, gripping the windscreen frame hard and flexing her legs and hips against the jarring impacts as the boat charged full-out across the waves. Staring ahead, she narrowed her eyes against the spindrift. Her hair rippled out behind her in the slipstream. After bracing stiffly as the prow split straight through a large aquamarine roller, she retrieved the Kimmunicator. "Time, Wade?"

The techmaster entered a set of keystrokes. "…Six seconds… five… four… three…"

A sound like a thousand artillery shells erupted behind them. A swift, hot shockwave flashed over their heads and kicked up a series of tight white ringlets like a helicopter. Both Kim and Ron twisted back. Drakken's lair had vanished completely, leveled to the volcanic pedestal upon which is stood. A light gray mushroom cloud boiled upward from the destruction, lit up from below by pyrotechnics.

"Oh…" Wade interjected after an awed, speechless moment, flashing a bemused smile and shrugging, "Well, I guess he'd cut more corners on the welding job than I thought…" A monitor started beeping. "…Oh-ho, it looks like my satellites are picking up a light craft running due south at high speed. FLIR indicates two signatures, not counting the engine."

"So Drakken and Shego got out okay?" Kim asked. Ron noticed she seemed almost relieved.

"Looks like it…" He glanced to another LCD. "But, uh, it looks like you have bigger problems… 4.8-meter debris chunk impacting a hundred meters off the port beam in two seconds." On cue, a jagged aggregate of metal, rock, and concrete arched down out of the sky, making a slithering, sucking sound like ripping wet canvas as it fell. Impacting like an asteroid, the chunk threw up a depth-charge plume and flung a steep wave at them. The speedboat fishtailed. Ron laced his arms through the spokes and wrestled the boat straight.

"Kim, press the purple button on the side of the Kimmunicator housing," Wade continued quickly, "And hold it up aft. There's a PSR projector on the top where the hologram-maker used to be… It'll let me know what's coming… Heads – 3.3-meter piece impacting fifty yards off starboard quarter. "

The boat swirled between and around the incoming missiles like a sub running depth charges, Ron guiding it purely by intuition, the feel of the wheel beneath his hands, and sheer beginner's luck. As chunks spiraled in around them, Wade rattled off incoming threats and directions with the cool, crisp, detached efficiency of an aircraft warning system.

In a pause between impacts, the crash of water subsided and the sterndrives reestablished their monotone dominance. Kim wiped spray off the Kimmunicator screen and turned up the volume. "Looks like the worst's over," Wade commented, twiddling with a UHF knob, "Air resistance and lack of momentum's thinned out the smaller stuff, so only the big ones with a lot of oomph and favorable aerodynamics are getting this far. I've tagged a big-boy on a really high parabola, but it shouldn't be a problem unless a whole bunch of complicated three-dimensional vectors work out just ri–"

Two or three alarms went off at once.

"Um, nevermind… Evasive, evasive! 6.2-meter projected impact fifty yards dead ah-- Hard right! Hard right!"

With videogame reflexes, Ron peeled the wheel starboard to its stops. As the boat carved over, a giant debris chunk impacted port a few degrees off the dead-ahead. Kim felt the hull shudder as the impact radiated through the water. The boat was drenched under heavy spray, soaking the windshield. It simultaneously pitched up and heeled starboard as the first impact wave caught the hull on the fore port quarter. She wallowed on the crest, only pale white-blue sky visible over the long bow, before tipping downward. The Mercs howled, rising to a scream as the bow dropped into the trough and lurched the stern out of the water. Charging into the watery hollow, the bowsprit plunged into the second steep impact wave immediately following the first, burying the first ten feet of ship in aquamarine. With a roar, the engines again bit into the water and the ship muscled up and through the wave, wriggling like a dog through a tight hole before exploding to the surface in a blast of spray. A mound of water trapped on the forepeak exfoliated away in smooth sheets, flushing out the deck scuppers in solid jets.

As they cleared the impact, a spattering of small stones followed them, one punching through the amidships skylight. Ron curved the boat from side to side, avoiding the worst sections. Gaining calm water at last, the yacht showed its legs and quickly cleared the fallout umbrella.

Ron eased off the throttle and locked the wheel. Standing, he and his girlfriend turned to gaze aft. Now some distance away, the black spear of land jutted from the sea like an obscene middle finger. Thick, oily smoke rolled away from the extinct volcano's blasted summit to the southeast, fanning out from a tight coil as the trade winds caught the plume. Cut flat by the winds into a mushy cloud, the smoke drifted for miles until disintegrating into a hazy smear on the horizon. Light, high-flung pieces of debris continued to rain down around the island, flinging up quick white jets as they hit the water.

Kim turned slightly to Ron and draped an arm around his neck, looking at him warmly. "Niiiiice-ly done…"

"Uh, I'm pretty much as surprised as you are…" Ron stammered, eyes still tracing their wake backward, "I mean… Wow… Talk about the Ron Factor… I… really… had… no… idea what I was do–"

He was cut short as Kim twisted his body into hers and swooped in for the fiery kiss. Ron squirmed awkwardly for a moment, caught off-guard, before reforming his mouth and pushing back with his own, aching with pleasure. After a full ten seconds, Kim pulled away slightly, breathing hard, hypersensitized lips so close to her partner's she could sense their heat. Ron was panting too, pupils dilated, hormone flush lighting up his cheeks, ears, neck, and median line.

Kim smiled sensually. "…Now… What do I get in return…?"

Ron stared at her for a moment, then rolled his eyes and sighed. "Alriiiiight, fiiiiiine, I'll go see The Memo Pad II with you."

"Eeeeeeeee! Thanks!" She gave him a quick, tight hug.

"…So does this mean there'll be two eight-dollar sodas and one significantly lighter wallet in my near future?"

"You're broke?"

"I believe it's a called college."

"We'll dutch it, then. You front for tickets and I'll cover popcorn and stuff?"

"Booyah… Sounds great."

The Kimmunicator chirruped. Kim dug it out of her pocket and activated it. "'Sssup, Wade?"

The African-American squinted into his webcam, noting their twin flushes. "Iieeeemmmm… not interrupting anything, am I…? Biosensors are picking up elevated core temperature and blood pressure."

"Nuh-uh," Kim said, "Not, uh, by the time you rang, at least…" She cleared her throat and glanced at Ron, feeling slightly embarrassed as the hormone rush spun down. The blonde fidgeted and looked away, blushing as his dream-machine reeled back, back, back, back…

"Um, glad to hear that…" Wade said, crunching his eyes closed with a pained look, "I'll just decide to ignore that… You've got a confirmed clear of the trajectory range, BTW."

"Spankin'… Thanks for the H-U."

"The what?"

"Heads-up."

Wade shook his head. "This is what happens when you skip high school… I keep tellin' them, they'd make a mint if they came out with "Hooked on Girl" tapes."

Chuckling, Kim leaned against the radar arch. Her mood quieting, she gazed around at the powerboat, the whuffling engines, and then out to sea along the phosphorescent wake. In the distance, an olive-drab splotch fluttered occasionally as sea breezes caught the parachute fabric.

"I've gotta hand you the slick save, Wade… but what's the eco-hack on this? Drakken's boom alone is gonna take a least… six solar roofs to pay the carbon balance."

"I've got it all covered, actually."

Her eyes widened. "Really… The landing crate?"

"Made of wood and weighted so it'll sink. I've had it stuffed with nutrients so it'll make a real nice short-term reef."

"Parachute and lines?"

"Constructed out of cellulose. They'll dissolve completely in about an hour. Forty-five minutes, if you get a good chop."

"And the C-17?"

"Carbon credits."

Kim pressed the PDA against her in a quick hug. "You rock in stereo, Wade!"

Listening along, Ron lounged back into the helmsman chair, disengaged the motor lock, and crooked one arm lazily over the wheel to hold it in place. There wasn't anything to hit out here, anyway. Kim sunk into a white leather bench seat ringing the cockpit and tilted the Kimmunicator so both she and her boyfriend could see. The boat rocked slightly as it plowed through a series of steep waves. Kim put a hand on the cushions to steady herself.

An email pinged on Wade's system. He opened it and read. "On a more serious note…" he said after a few moments of quiet speed-reading, "An insider of mine just sent me another status update on something brewing at Henchco… I'll have to get him something nice for Christmas…"

"What?"

"Probably a Pentium 12, but that's not important right now."

"No, for Hench, duh."

"Right… My insider's been tracking this for the past few months… The project kicked off about a week after you stepped off Air Force One, actually. Hench is developing a man-portable force field, designed to be worn around the waist, which can just about stop anything short of a plasma cannon. From what I can tell, one of Hench's goons nabbed some prototype sketches from some little out-of-the-way agency called the UNSC…" Wade shrugged. "Never heard of it… Anyway, the shields react to the kinetic energy of an incoming projectile. Kicks and blows don't have enough momentum per surface area, so people and vehicles can still go through. Knifes might get through too, but they might get stuck halfway, depending on how fast the blade was going. With a bullet, though, the field seizes up like cornstarch, and the round bounces off."

"…So my gun becomes useless. And anybody they target is in pretty big trouble."

"Precisely. It's a field-leveling technology, and it was developed in direct response to you. It's got some kinks – the hip-belt generator's the weakest part of the system – but it's still had supervillains signing up in droves.… And guess who's at the top of the list with her Swiss bank account."

"Figures," Kim muttered, rolling her eyes.

"…However, if the several hundred layers of encryption I had to dig through were of any indication, there are a couple things Hench wants to keep quiet. Mainly, the fact that his shields prevent bullets from going out as well as coming in."

Kim's eyes widened. "Meaning?"

"Meaning that if somebody like Dementor opens up a Mac-10 inside one of them, he'd better be wearing safety goggles 'cause those bullets are going to disintegrate on that shield like they were hitting a brick wall. It's zero sum. The advantage you have is neutralized, but they can't take advantage of it, at least with conventional weapons."

"Has Hench told anybody about that little tidbit?"

"Are you kidding me? People have already put their money down. All he has to do is shrug his shoulders and say they should've read the fine print better."

"So we're gonna see some pretty tweaked baddies the next time they try to raid a military instillation, aren't we?" Ron commented.

Kim nodded and bit her lip hard, a single drop of red blood welling up to reflect against her white teeth. Tensing her core muscles against the yacht's motion, she popped the snap on her holster and pulled out her Sigma. Kim turned the gun over and over in her hands, restlessly chewing her tongue. Leaning back, she stared unfocused out over the water, watching the lair's smoke plume without really seeing it. Flipping the firearm again, she dejectedly rubbed her thumb over the textured grip.


She had no way of knowing, but she had been crying in her sleep ever since her return from Afghanistan. Her mother discovered it soon after Kim returned home.On a midnight patient check, Anne had entered the loft bedroom to find her daughter trembling, drenched in sweat, tears silently coursing onto her pillow. Kim had no memory of any dreams the next morning. Anne Possible and her neurosurgery fellows, even with their arcane knowledge of the inner physical workings of the brain, were still somewhat stymied when it came to the wispy intangibles of consciousness, dreams, and thought. After discussing with her husband, Anne had refrained telling her daughter about her deep-sleep-cycle episodes while her physical wounds healed, correctly assuming that Kim would become even more distraught and traumatized over the revelation and dwell on the fact that she had night-fits, prolonging her recovery process. Later, however, whenever she tried to ease into the subject, Kim always managed to avoid her. This wasn't difficult, considering she had a transportation network that spanned the globe. To cope, Anne and James formed a small support group with Mr. and Mrs. Stoppable. They met about twice a week, when their respective son and daughter were on missions. Through their impromptu meetings, they learned that Ron's nights were, if anything, worse. Kim, at least, had been unconscious during her harrowing transport, surgery, and recovery coma. Anne had talked extensively with the hospital's psychiatric ward and arranged counseling sessions through private services; the following week, she would finally get the opportunity to tell her daughter of her condition straight-out.


"…So, from here," Kim said slowly, turning to Ron and the Kimmunicator and blinking to refocus, "we've got to wait until the superfreaks figure out their purchases don't work As Seen On TV." She air-quoted. "From there, about three things could happen." She ticked off fingers to order her thoughts. "We go guns-guns. The baddies figure out the shields are useless and ditch them. Shego learns I'm still packing and brings her armory back in… Someone will be shot and killed. Two, we ditch using guns, and the baddies ditch the shields… but they don't stop using guns. Someone, probably from our side, will be shot and killed. Three, we ditch the guns, the baddies ditch the shields as firearms protection. My draw with Shego encourages them to ditch their guns too. The baddies use the shields for self-protection instead, and our side comes up with a counter technology. Status quo restored."

Standing, she began pacing feverishly across the deck. Ron watched, somewhat frightened. As Kim nervously fidgeted with the gun, the S&W logo flipped to the surface. She froze, staring at the engraving, her teeth gritting into a snarl. Fighting an internal battle, she stepped forward, back, then impulsively turned with an anguished cry and made to fling the gun into the ocean.

"…I wouldn't do that if I were you," Wade said quietly from the Kimmunicator.

"Why not?!" Kim yelled, turning, desperate fire in her eyes.

"Because Hench has no plans to sell the technology to your standard insurgent or religious nutcase. He, Drakken, and the rest of 'em have a kind of mutual disdain for them. Consider themselves to be a higher standard… If they are, of course, is up to debate," he added to Kim's incredulous look. "They like to think they're classy, grandiose, self-important. They are, at least, a lot less likely to work with al-Qaeda, Hamas, and the like, because, to them, science is the God that will give them victory. Religion's a crutch for the feeble minded and the Great Unwashed. Drakken and Dementor, particularly, think the current breed of terrorists are unimaginative, untalented posers, who can't come up with anything original on their own, and instead have to bastardize religious texts to get anything done."

"Drakken said that?" Kim said with arched eyebrows, passion replaced with disdain, "Drakken? Hello, the man calls ripping off Dementor "outsourcing" and he can't micromanage worth a damn without Shego."

"This is Drakken we're talking about, 'member?"

Kim shook her head. "Right… My bad."

"So," Wade concluded, "Hench considers it beneath him to deal with terrorists, so you'll still be running across AK-47s and RPGs, no matter what the supervillians do."

"Fine…" Kim growled, grudgingly placing her Smith & Wesson back in its holster. Damn…

Wade tapped down his computer screen. Abruptly, his eyes lit up. "Hay-lo…" He paused for a moment as he double-clicked. "…I got an email from Dr. Wong."

"Dad's boss, right?"

"Yeah. Works in microcircuitry," Wade said as he scanned the message, "…Any…way…" His eyebrows went up. "…Looks like it's really lucky I caught this. It got lost in a flurry and it was on-deck for deletion when I discovered I hadn't read it."

"What's up?"

"Well, Dr. Wong was just writing me to say that her research team had discovered something… uh, interesting about your language chips –"

"You mean our tracking chips, don't you, Wade?" Kim interjected icily.

Wade squirmed uncomfortably. "Errm, yeah, right, those…. Anyway, there's apparently something peculiar about your v.1.235 series that they missed during prototype testing…"

All the color drained out of Kim's and Ron's faces and they glanced at each other. "W-wade," Kim said shakily, voice rising, "Th-those things are embedded in our brains. If there's something wrong with them, that means we are totally screw–"

"It's not critical, not critical, you're not in danger," Wade assured them quickly, "What they found was more of an unexpected quirk, a conversation piece, than anything else. To get to the point, it appears the Fibonacci series of chips can, under very rare sitches, be influenced by the specific electrical impulses created during REM sleep –"

"REM?" Ron cut in.

"Rapid-eye-movement. It's a sleep phase where brain activity is very similar to wakefulness. It's hard to explain, but to put it simply, it's the strongest electrochemical phase of sleep, so it's when you get the most intense, vivid dreams. But back to the chips, their positioning just under your skulls complicates matters a bit. It's improbable, but if you somehow got your heads really close together – more or less touching – in precisely the right spot, it's theoretically possible the chips could begin interfacing under the influence of REM, if by chance you happened to lean on each other at exactly the right time. Under just the right conditions, the intense electrical activity and close positioning could cause distortion, interference, and resonance crossing between the signals… Which means, essentially, you could share the same dream."

Waves smacking the hull was the only sound for a moment as the statement sunk in.

Kim gasped. "So… so… that… explains –"

Ron felt a sudden, tense, inexplicable lurch of foreboding.

"… – that museum dream we had!"

Unwittingly releasing a breath he'd unwittingly held, Ron relaxed.

Man…Wouldn't it be really gorchy if… Naaaahh.

"…That would do it," Wade assented. "The chances of that happening again are really low, though."

Kim glanced at Ron out of the corner of her eye.

Soooo glad he doesn't know about one in particular…

"So, just letting you know," the webmaster continued, "Any other questions?"

"What're we going to do with the boat?" Kim asked.

"Please, the Navy insisted we call it a ship."

"Sorry, ship. What are we doing with the ship?"

"I'll start calling in airlifts to get you guys and the yacht home once you narrow in on a suitable place. You're a few hundred miles from anything, but the GPS is wired to the rudder and cruise control, so once the GPS locks onto something, the ship takes care of the rest. There's enough fuel and supplies onboard for about five days, although you shouldn't be out here more than forty-eight hours."

"Cool, Wade," said Kim. "I think that's everything."

"CMBM," he replied, and the screen flickered out.

Up in the cockpit, Ron turned back to the windscreen, leaning heavily on the wheel, maneuvering it gently with the bottoms of his crossed arms. Lowering his gaze, he examined the various gauges, dials, and LCD displays.

Rufus set the autopilot. After a minute or two, Ron lounged back in his plush bucket chair, watching the chromed wheel twitch and turn by itself. Meeting a series of high swells, the I/Os automatically dug in and growled, forcing the ship up and over the crests. The bow yawed slightly across the wave face, kicking up spindrift, switchbacking through areas of least resistance. Regaining the casual hump and fall of normal waves, the engines slackened again.

Ron twiddled with a rearview side mirror, glimpsing Kim in the reflection aft. Kneeling on the rear deck, she had their gear spread out on the teak before her, running inventory and maintenance. Spray from the waves and mist from the churning propellers settled gently over her bared forearms and midriff, making her exposed skin gleam as if oiled.

She thinkin' what I'm thinkin'…?

Breaking his eyes from the image, Ron swiveled his chair around. "…Kim?"

"Hmmmmm?" Kim said, looking up from the gadgets. Her red hair inadvertently draped alluringly over her shoulder.

"…What're the chances the next island we come to'll have Bueno Nacho?"

July 10th, 2007

Somewhere southeast of Fiji

USNS Fast Break

5:37 PM

END