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"Misery no longer loves company. Nowadays it insists on it."
The Love Triangle
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Monday, August 24
"Yes, Daria," Quinn said into her commlink, "I swear I read it! I know you still think of me as an illiterate bubblehead, but come on. I write for a living now . . . There's no need to get all snippy, Daria. I'll have you know that some of the articles I write are very long."
She sighed. "Well, I'm sorry, but I just don't get a lot of it. I mean, does she really have to fight the cyborgs topless? I've got some cute little sports bra designs on file that you could- . . . yes, I know the reader can't see them, but you could still describe them instead of going into all that detail about her areolas. People could get the wrong idea from that, anyway.
"Well, that's the thing, you're just going to make the whole thing worse," she said, getting exasperated. "I know and you know that you and Jane aren't like that, but-"
"Hold up, Daria, I've gotta go. Tell mom and dad hi for me when you call to bug them about it!" Quinn shook her head. "Well how was I supposed to know you already called them? Good-bye, Daria!" She signed out of the call, unclipped the comm from her ear, and put it in her purse. "Sorry about that, Tiffany."
The blank-eyed stare from behind the secretary's desk didn't seem to register the apology, or that there was even anything to apologize for. "Ms. Griffin is ready to see you now," Tiffany droned in her monotone voice.
"Thanks!" Quinn said brightly. She took a second to straighten out imaginary wrinkles in her business dress, then stepped into the opulent office behind Tiffany.
Sandi Griffin, the youngest and - by her own account, at least - prettiest editor-in-chief to ever work at Steel Fashions magazine was seated in a massive room and at an almost equally massive desk, behind which Quinn could just make out the very top of a dress that was the very epitome of high fashion and almost certainly haute couture. Stacy Rowe stood just shy of a meter behind and to the right of Sandi, wearing a highly practical yet still fashionable women's business suit. Both women's hair was impeccably styled, Sandi's with high volume and a great deal of pizazz and Stacy's in a series of complex braids running down to just below shoulder level.
Fashion assessment finished, Quinn walked up to the desk and waited to be directed to a seat . . . direction that she did not receive.
"Hello, Quinn," said Sandi. "I'm glad you could finally join us."
Each word was fired off almost like a physical attack, but Quinn was unfazed. Over the many years they had known each other, she had come to the conclusion Sandi always talked like that. And that most of the time, it actually was meant to be like an attack. Quinn had long ago simply decided not to take it personally.
"Hi, Sandi," Quinn returned with a smile. "Yah, sorry about not showing up at the meeting earlier, but I had a total fashion emergency, like Defcon 27! See, my nails hadn't quite-"
"Yes, well, your personal problems aside, Quinn, I have a job for you."
Stacy placed a digipad on the desk and slid it neatly across to Quinn, who picked it up and started scanning the text on the screen.
"Despite your absence at the general meeting, it was decided that you should be the one to cover the Cashman Fashion Expo tomorrow afternoon at the Lawndale Central Plaza." Sandi leaned forward delicately so as not to rumple her dress and frowned delicately so as not to risk damage to her immaculate makeup job. "I don't have to remind you that this expo is going to be our featured story in Steel's next issue, and so a great deal of responsibility will be riding squarely on your narrow little shoulders, Quinn. Make sure that you don't screw it up."
Quinn somehow managed to retain her grin and forced herself not to glance over at her own shoulders or pull out a pad to put in an immediate order for self-adjusting shoulder inserts. "I'm sure I can handle it," she said through her teeth. "After all, I am the 'zine's top field reporter! Who's going to be on the camera?"
"Well," Sandi said, "since you are the 'zine's top field reporter and feel you can handle all this responsibility, why don't you decide who you should take?"
"Oh!" Quinn was taken aback, but quickly said, "Well, of course, I'd be perfectly happy taking whoever you decided I should take, Sandi."
"No, that is perfectly alright, Quinn," Sandi replied, her eyebrows threatening to smudge up against each other. "It's your choice."
The polite rictus grin was starting to hurt Quinn's face. Fortunately for her, she had actually prepared for something like this happening. "Um, I suppose in that case . . . I'd like to have Stacy with me!"
Stacy's face dropped in shock for just a moment. Her composure was rapidly rebuilt, but Quinn could still tell that if Sandi hadn't been in the room, Stacy would have been running circles on the ceiling in pure excitement. Sandi, for her part, came perilously close to scowling.
"I am afraid not," she said. "Stacy is my personal assistant. She personally assists me. She does not go gallivanting around with expensive and very fragile video equipment."
"Oh, but, Sandi," Quinn said, pulling out Cute Pouty Begging Face #5 (aka The Working Professional Requires Leniency), "Stacy has been working during her off time to learn all of the camera equipment, and DJ even said that she was doing really well!"
"It's true! I-I-I-" Stacy stammered into silence and placed a hand over her mouth as if entirely unsure why her mouth had suddenly started saying things. Sandi gave her and Quinn both as stormy a look as she dared.
"Even if it were true," the editor-in-chief said, "and I am not saying that it is because DJ is a notorious wirehead who barely knows which way he's pointing the camera half the time . . . but even if it were true, I require Stacy's services here. I simply can't spare her."
Underneath her attempted stoicism, Stacy looked equal parts horrified and crestfallen. Seeing this, Quinn screwed up all of her courage and kept on pressing the issue. "Oh, come on, Sandi," she said, trying to sound reasonable. "You have Tiffany, don't you? I know that someone as busy as you does need both a secretary and a separate personal assistant, but don't you think Tiff can handle both for just a couple of hours one day?
"And even if she can't," she added quickly, seeing the oncoming objections forming on the other woman's lips, "you could always find someone else in the company to fill in for Stacy. There are lots of people here who would give their best hairstyles just to work with an amazing paragon of fashion like you! Tons of people!"
Sandi crossed her arms, but appeared to be mollified by the combination of reasonable alternatives and the liberal application of flattery. She ran her tongue under her lower lip and finally said, "Oh, very well. Stacy, you are hereby assigned to Quinn as camerawoman for the Cashman Expo. You had better be as good as advertised. Quinn's career depends on it."
Quinn and Stacy both ignored the barely veiled threat, each basking in the victory they had just won. Decisions made and meeting finished, Quinn copied the expo information over to her personal digipad and left to start doing prep work for tomorrow.
It was already looking to be a very busy and rewarding day for Quinn Morgendorffer.
The elevator dinged softly as the doors opened and revealed the Steel Fashions parking garage. Quinn stepped out, her heels clicking loudly against the plascrete floor. There were only a few cars dotting the dimly lit area, most everyone else in the building having headed out for the night.
Quinn had long ago grown accustomed to the emptiness since she tended to work longer hours than most of the magazine's employees. Her focus and dedication were two of the main reasons she was considered one of the top reporters at the 'zine, beside the facts that she had impeccable taste and was extremely popular with the male employees, not to mention the old men on the shareholder's committee.
As she crossed the space between the elevator and her car, Quinn mentally reviewed all of the information she had been able to dredge up on the expo. Cashmans Enterprises, the company that was running the show, had taken a small dive in popularity over the past few months after a series of poor decisions by their current CEO, Effete Masters, and was almost certainly trying to recapture some of that by putting on an extravagant gala. Quinn was a bit skeptical that it would work - some of the decisions had been exceptionally poor - but was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt if for no other reason than professional detachment.
The fact that they'd sent her an enormous gift basket just before the end of Steel's business hours didn't hurt, either.
Quinn slowed down, her train of thought momentarily derailed. Shifting the gift basket a little, she turned her head and listened carefully to the garage around her. Beside the steady hum of the wall lamps and various bits of machinery, there was silence.
She picked up her pace but was startled to once again hear the sound she thought she'd heard before. Without slowing down this time, she listened carefully to what she now knew to be footsteps that were attempting to mirror her own. With an ear finely tuned to fashion of all kinds, she recognized that the other set of footfalls were being made by someone in sneakers. Cheap sneakers, probably Ballers or ReNikes. Strangely, it sounded as if the shoes were a few sizes too big for the wearer, slipping and sliding around as he or she was walking.
Quinn's thought immediately jumped to images of a homeless person wandering around the garage. Steel was located far away from the Undercity, but it happened sometimes, even in this part of town. She felt sure that if she took the time to look around the nooks and crannies of the garage, she'd find a temporary shelter made of castoff plasboard.
But . . . why would a homeless person just looking for a place to stay try to match her footsteps? She and most everyone else at Steel were sympathetic to the plight of those less fortunate. They even ran articles on hobo fashion from time to time and sent the proceeds of those issues to various charities in the city. The destitute of Lawndale City had nothing to fear from them.
Just a few feet away from her car, Quinn stopped and turned around, scanning the area. The footsteps stopped a mere second after hers. She thought for just a moment that she saw one of the shadows move two aisles away, but it could just as easily have been her imagination.
"Is there someone out there?" she called out more confidently than she felt. Flashes of horror movie scenes flitted through her mind's eye, but after a minute of waiting, it didn't seem as if any masked killers were going to jump out at her just yet.
Getting her keys out, Quinn remotely unlocked her car and then held her thumb over the panic button on her key chain. She finished the last few steps to get to the door and stopped just short of opening it when she saw something sitting in the crook between the windshield and hood. Taking another look around and still seeing nothing, she set her gift basket on the roof and gently fished the object out.
It was a cartoon heart cut out of digital paper. When she turned it to the light, it activated and sent text and pictures floating across its surface. The text was a poem, overly saccharine in its professions of adoration, while the pictures were photos of her. Very flattering photos, she had to admit. Half of them she didn't remember having been taken, but considering the sheer volume of pictures and video captures of her that had been taken over the years, that wasn't much of a surprise.
The heart reached the end of its scroll and powered down, unsigned.
Quinn was used to such displays of affection being left for her in places both mundane and unusual. Normally she would have considered it quite the pick-me-up, but the entire situation just seemed a little too off-kilter. Were the footsteps before those of her secret admirer? It seemed possible, but why would they be wearing cheap, ill-fitting sneakers? The whole thing smelled of creepy stalker, and Quinn momentarily considered tossing the heart on the ground and hitting her panic button.
Still, she thought, it could just be a coincidence . . .
After a few moments of further consideration, she decided that she wasn't going to get anywhere thinking in circles. She opened the door of her gravcar, pushed the gift basket and heart both into the passenger seat, then got in after them and headed for the garage exit.
From the depths of the shadows lining the parking garage, a lone figure watched intently as she left.
Long ago, the Lawndale Central Plaza had been the highest building in the city. Years had passed since those days, however, as more buildings had been erected beside and on top of it. Still, it - and all the rest of the buildings connected to it - still held the grand honor of being part of the city's tallest colony structure. And through the generous application of large sums of money to the city planning department in the form of donations, the local social elite had managed to keep the skyline on the plaza's side of the structure clear, allowing for a beautiful view through the vast windows that comprised the majority of the building's western side.
Early evening sunlight filtered through these windows as Quinn and Stacy entered the plaza by the press entrance. After checking in and receiving their press kits, they moved out into the lobby to mingle with the rest of the people who had gathered to see the show. Various personalities of every social and wealth class were on display, from the upper crust in their beautiful designs that would have been just at home up on the runway as they were in the audience to those in the lower echelons who were doing everything in their power to at least make it seem as if they belonged.
Graceful sculptures lined the lobby, echoing the crowd by running the gamut from the dazzlingly beautiful to the horrendously grotesque. Quinn took a moment to appreciate these displays before moving in to greet acquaintances in the media industry and hobknob with celebrities and popular personalities that she had only passing knowledge of and interest in. Stacy, for her part, remained just behind Quinn's left elbow at all times, a position that she was accustomed to while following Sandi around and served her well in her capacity as supposedly unnoticed and unimportant camerawoman.
After a while, they moved further into the building to the expo itself. The enormous space reserved for such shows was fully stocked from one side to the other with displays, booths, runways, and people. Cashmans had really gone all out on this one, Quinn reflected as she looked over the massive assemblage. Many representatives of their competition - both Cashmans' and Steel's - had their own sections of the show, but Cashmans had definitely made sure everyone knew who was running things . . . all of the prime areas of real estate were bastions of their own products and were covered with the largest signs and advertisements.
"Ready?" Quinn asked once they'd taken a few moments to soak in the ambiance.
"Almost!" Stacy said cheerfully as she slipped on a pair of wide-lens glasses.
While Quinn had switched out her standard pink business outfit for a much more elaborate backless green dress, Stacy had come ready to work: designer jeans capped by wide-based high-heel boots and a denim jacket covering a faded yellow top-label t-shirt. Her intricate braid had been replaced with a much simpler ponytail held together with a fashionable scrunchie. On her belt hung the various gadgets she required for her new job, all networked into the glasses she was wearing.
When she gave a thumbs up, Quinn reached into her purse, pulled out her digipad, and activated her own system. Augmented reality images immediately sprang up on her contact lenses, bringing forth a whole new second life to the panorama before them. A small map of the expo appeared in one corner of her vision and the view from Stacy's glasses appeared in the other. Dense packets of information - most of it easily dismissible, such as the virtual ads streaming in from nearby booths - scrolled across her retinas as the two women began to browse.
Taking a moment to call up a larger version of Stacy's view, Quinn smiled lightly to herself. Despite Sandi's protestations to the contrary, DJ had been right . . . Stacy was showing a great deal of promise already. She kept her head steady, panning slowly here and there and lingering just the right amount of time on certain points of interest. Every once in a while, the image would freeze for just a second, an indication that Stacy had taken a still shot of something, either a particularly interesting looking booth, some fabulous bit of fashion on display, or a few celebrities chatting with each other. With only rare exception, Quinn approved of the other woman's selections.
For this first little walk around, it was Quinn's turn to fade into the background, letting Stacy walk ahead of her and work without interruption. She took this time of relative quiet to reflect on her camerawoman as a person.
She, Stacy, Sandi, and Tiffany had all been friends since high school, where they had formed an extra-curricular group, the fashion club. Sandi had been in charge back then, too, to varying degrees from girl to girl. Tiffany had generally been too oblivious of her surroundings to do much of anything but what Sandi told her to do and Quinn had had some modicum of independence, but poor Stacy . . .
Stacy had been the doormat of the group. She had actively kow-towed to Sandi in all things - a situation Sandi had been quick to take advantage of - and had often tried to do the same with the other two girls. For the longest time, Quinn had been uncertain that Stacy had ever had an original thought in her life, instead content to soak up the party line and regurgitate it on command.
As the four girls had matured into young women, however, the shift of power had subtly begun to change. College had been an especially tumultuous time for all of them, but they'd still remained friends and had even applied to work at Steel together. After they'd all made it in, Sandi had once again tried to reassert rulership of the group. Tiffany remained the same loyal rock that she'd always been, but Quinn had started defying the fashion queen's will more and more often, both behind the scenes and openly.
Stacy's emergence as an independent being was slower going, but it was still evident. Learning how to operate the 'zine's cameras was just one of several areas that Stacy had recently taken a shine to, one of several paths she was trying out in order to get out of Sandi's shadow.
And Quinn couldn't have been happier about it. Ever since college and her own gradual maturation, she had started viewing Stacy as the best friend she had made over the years. Quinn wanted to see her succeed in becoming her own woman, which was why she had jumped at the chance to get her this assignment.
"Are you ready to go check out the main show?"
The noise of the crowd, absorption in her own thoughts, and the fact that Stacy hadn't turned her head because she was still filming made Quinn uncertain for a second that Stacy had said something to her.
"Oh!" she said, shaking her head to clear it. "Yah, that's a great idea!"
Sharing smiles of pure excitement, the two women started making their way through the crowd. The main runway of the Cashmans Fashion Expo was situated all the way in the back, absolute center. It was by far the largest exhibit of any kind currently in the plaza, wide enough to allow fifteen models to walk along shoulder to shoulder. Three such models were making their way back up into the wings when Quinn and Stacy managed to find good seats near the runway's edge.
Quinn's AR immediately filled her in on all the pertinent information regarding the clothes on display. The names of the designers, the types of fabric used, and the projected availability and outrageous price of the piece amongst various other tidbits of information scrolled alongside each model as they did their little turn on the catwalk. In a smaller section off to the side, she could also see the names of the models and contact information for their agents.
As the show continued, Quinn started writing down notes on her pad, already formulating bits and pieces of the article she would later construct. Every once in a while she would glance over at the Stacy's-eye-view window. Though she could see the occasional mistake - a shot out of focus here, another zoomed in a bit too close there - much of Stacy's camerawork was solid if not exactly exemplary. She felt confident that the end result would easily pass muster, and between the two of them they would have a good, high-quality product to push across Sandi's desk.
Hearing a sudden call that had nothing to do with telecommunications, Quinn put her hand on her friend's arm, whispered quickly in her ear, and then stood up to find the nearest restroom. The plaza, fortunately, had no shortage of such and there was only a short line to contend with. Refreshed and ready for another round of sitting and staring and men and women wearing clothing that cost more than most people made in a year, she stepped back out into the main hall-
. . . and froze like she'd been made of stone.
Her paralysis lasted less than a second. Muttering a quick string of apologies, she started making her way through the crowd with increasing aggressiveness. Reaching into her purse, she tried to reset the controls on her AR as she walked so as to remove some of the more annoying virtual spam from her vision. Finally she gave up and simply shut it down entirely.
She continued to gently shove her way forward, certain that she'd seen . . . well, sure that she'd . . . well . . . she didn't know, really. And even if her eyes hadn't just been playing tricks on her, she couldn't be sure that it was even that important or related. Part of her brain, the intellectual part that she had spent so many years trying to hide from the world, was telling her that she was still just a little freaked out by the heart she'd found on her windshield the previous night. But another, more primal part was shooting up flares and waving little red flags for all its worth.
Finally abandoning her search through the crowd, Quinn made her way back to the main runway. She approached her seat at a nervous clip, but slowed to a full stop and felt her blood freeze as she looked down at the chair next to Stacy's. Sitting there with nightmare clarity that made everything else around it seem unreal and indistinct was a small holopad projecting a moving image of a woman laughing. She would stop after a few seconds and look into the viewer's eyes with gentle affection, then the image would cycle and she would start laughing again.
The woman in the holopic was a much younger Quinn.
She took the last few steps up to her seat and hissed at Stacy, "Where did this come from?!"
Stacy frowned slightly and tried to look over without taking her glasses off the runway. "Where did what come from?" she asked.
"This picture of me!" Quinn tried to keep her voice down, but she felt a wave of hysteria rising and threatening to take her vocal pitch with it. "Did you see who put this here?!"
The frown on Stacy's face deepened and she barely caught herself before she shook her head. "I'm sorry, Quinn," she said with concern, "but I didn't see anything or anyone. I've been looking at the runway the entire time you've been gone . . . Bigfoot could have sat down next to me and I wouldn't have noticed. What's going on?"
Quinn reached down to pick up the hologram, pulled her hand back as if she'd been about to grab onto a live wire, then reached back out and snatched it up. She took her seat, gripping the holo tightly and scanning the area around them. She quickly filled Stacy in on the strange events of the previous night.
The side of Stacy's face looked perplexed. She glanced Quinn's way several times and then said, "Well, that does sound kind of weird, but you get that sort of thing all the time, right?"
"Yes, but-!" Quinn started. She looked down at the pic in her hands and back up at Stacy. "When I came out of the restroom earlier, I saw . . . I mean, I thought I saw . . . an old boyfriend of mine from college."
Quinn was flustered for a moment. Not at the question itself, which was perfectly reasonable, but at the fact that she couldn't immediately retrieve the name.
"Jeffy!" she finally cried out, just a little too loudly. Several people looked her direction, but just as quickly and with complete disinterest looked away. "Jeffy," she said again, quieter this time. "He was wearing a hoody, so I only saw his face for a second . . . I don't know. I just don't know."
"I don't get it," Stacy said, actually forgetting herself and shaking her camera-adorned head a bit. "It sounds like one of your old boyfriends is just trying to get together with you again. He could be going about it a better way, but-"
"It's not just that," Quinn interrupted her. "Jeffy and I, we . . . well, it wasn't a very good breakup. Pretty rotten, actually."
Understanding dawned on the side of Stacy's face Quinn could see. "Wait," she said, "Is this Jeffy of Joey, Jeffy, and . . . and the third guy?"
Quinn nodded. "Yah."
"Oh . . . yah, that one was bad. You think he's the one leaving you these things?"
Quinn sighed and propped her head in one hand. Now that the initial panic attack was over, she felt tired, drained. She no longer thought the job she was on was exciting. She wanted to leave, to be anywhere else but there. "I don't know," she said weakly. "And . . . no, you were right before. Even if it is him, maybe it's just a way to get around to asking me out again. Under other circumstances, it would probably be romantic, but with the messy breakup and the sneaking around last night . . . maybe I'm just overreacting.
"No," she corrected herself again. "I am overreacting. He probably doesn't realize he's coming off like a stalker. He might not even care how badly things went last time we saw each other. He and the other two . . . they weren't exactly the brightest guys I've dated. The creepy part might be all in my head, not his."
She rubbed her eyes. "I've just been so stressed out lately. You know the real reason I wasn't at the meeting yesterday? It was-" She stopped, gulping back her words. "Well . . . never mind," she said. "It's not important. What is is that it was sort of an emergency but not a fashion emergency.
"I'm sorry," she said after a short pause. "I shouldn't be dumping this on you, Stace. It's just, seeing him made all that old stuff come up out of nowhere and it kinda ran right into all the new stuff."
Quinn felt a hand on her shoulder and looked over to see that Stacy had shut off her camera and was looking straight back at her. Concern lined the other woman's face.
"It's okay," said Stacy. "Don't you ever worry about telling me your problems, okay? Fashion club forever, right? And look, if you want to get out of here, we can do it. I think I've got enough footage to make a decent pictorial, and you can just jot down anything . . . all these shows are the same anyway, right? If there's any problems, I'll . . . I'll sort them out with Sandi. She's started listening to me lately, you know? Not much, but I can at least deflect most of her anger onto me.
"And don't worry about this stalker business. You can come stay the night at my place or I can come over to yours. If someone really is following you around, it might not be safe for you to be alone. And if Jeffy or whoever comes after you, they'll have to come through me first, okay?"
Quinn stared at her friend, absolutely dumbfounded. The confidence that was oozing off of Stacy as she talked sent Quinn spinning right back down into the pit of surreality she had fallen in when she'd thought she'd spotted Jeffy in the crowd. She'd just been thinking earlier that Stacy was starting to come into her own, of course, but she hadn't expected anything like this. Getting her away from Sandi's direct influence had evidently made even more of an impact than Quinn had imagined it would.
Or perhaps it had simply been the depth of Quinn's own panic and honesty that had inspired Stacy to step up. Either way, Quinn felt a wave of gratitude as she put her hand over Stacy's.
"Thanks," she said. "Let's stay and get the job done right, I think. Crazy stalker boy can't do anything more serious than rattle me a little in the middle of a crowd this size anyway. But I definitely don't dislike the idea of not being alone tonight. Which, if you untangle it, means that we'll figure out which one of us is staying with the other after we're done here.
"And thanks again, Stace. I mean it."
Stacy smiled warmly and squeezed Quinn's shoulder one last time before she reactivated her camera and turned back to the catwalk. Quinn tried to return her own attention back to the marching fashion plates as well, but she found her gaze slowly drawn back to the holopic in her hand.
The virtual Quinn looked back at her across the gulf of years and laughed.
"Oh, Stacy, your place is beautiful!"
Quinn set her bags down on the couch and looked around in wonder. It was a rather modest-sized apartment by her standards, but Stacy had obviously taken a lot of care in the furnishing and decoration. Almost everything was colored in subdued earth tones expertly lit by a series of beautifully wrought metal lamps. A set of shelves built onto a well-stocked entertainment center held a large number of crystal sculptures that caught and gently reflected the light, and several tribal style masks lined the walls.
"Thanks," Stacy said with a smile. "I know it's not much, but I tried to do the best I could with what the magazine pays me. You should take some credit for it too, though . . . you, Tiffany, and Sandi taught me just about everything I know about interior decorating."
Quinn waved off Stacy's mild attempt at self-depreciation and moved to get a closer look at the sculptures. Stacy, meanwhile, dropped her own baggage in the hallway and went into the kitchen to start preparing the dinner she had promised Quinn on the drive over.
The two women chatted over salads after Stacy had set some noodles up to boil. They talked about work, the expo, their hobbies, and various bits of gossip, everything but the strange events that had caused the earlier panic attack. Quinn was grateful for the small talk, enabling her to further center herself and see things from a better perspective. She had obviously overreacted. There was nothing to worry about.
Though admitting that her family was primarily of English descent, Stacy often claimed to have some Italian blood mixed into her heritage. Judging from the excellent quality of the fettuccine alfredo she was served, Quinn could definitely believe it. Obviously cooking was one of the other areas to which Stacy had decided to apply herself.
After the food was gone and the dishes cleared away, the two women poured themselves a third glass of ros wine each, cleared the couch of Quinn's bags, and sat down across from each other.
"So," Stacy said after a few minutes of silence, "I don't suppose you want to talk about it. Not . . . not that I'm pressuring you or anything!" she added quickly, seeing Quinn look down suddenly. "I mean, we don't have to if you don't want to!"
Quinn stared at her hands as she rolled the wine glass back and forth. "No, it's okay," she finally said. "But I don't . . . I don't think I'm ready just yet." She looked back up and stared intently into Stacy's brown eyes. "It's not you, it's me. I've just got a lot of things to work out, you know, and I haven't told anybody about it. Not Sandi or Tiffany or . . . or my family. And that picture . . . "
With a rough sigh, she reached down into one of her satchels and pulled out the holopic that had been sitting on her chair at the expo. She flipped her thumb across the activation stud and placed it on the couch between them. The image of a young, happy Quinn appeared in the air above it, laughing silently, happily.
She took a swallow of wine before continuing. "The photos on the heart," she said, "most of those were publicity stills and head shots for Steel and a few other magazines. But this . . . this was from back in college. This was one of three identical holos that I gave to the three J's."
"So when you saw it after you thought you saw Jeffy . . . "
Quinn nodded silently, looking back down at her hands again. "Maybe it wasn't him," she said. "Maybe someone else managed to get a copy of the picture. It's possible. But whether it was or it wasn't, it still brought up a lot of memories."
"Good or bad?"
"Both. Joey, Jeffy, and . . . Jack? They were really sweet guys, always giving me things and doing things for me. At the time, I thought that was the sort of thing I wanted. And they were so happy just following me around . . . they'd fight with each other over me every once in a while, but for the most part they managed to get along. For the longest time I thought the four of us would be okay going on like that . . . "
Quinn put a hand to her eyes and felt a tear trickle down to her palm. She felt Stacy move over and start rubbing a comforting hand up and down the back of Quinn's sweater. She tried to collect herself, with only a little success.
"It wasn't okay," she said, her voice suddenly and uncharacteristically dull and lifeless. "All four of us started fighting after a while, and eventually we broke up. It was one of the worst things that had ever happened to me."
She felt more tears start to carve their way through her makeup. Stacy, feeling Quinn's back start to heave with silent sobs, put both their wine glasses on the coffee table and pulled Quinn into an embrace. They sat that way for several minutes, Quinn allowing her frustrations to course through her while Stacy whispered soothing words and stroked her long, flaxen hair.
After a while they separated and Quinn picked up her glass to drain it in one gulp.
"Thanks," said Quinn. Her voice was a bit hoarse, but she sounded better put together than before. "Thanks for taking me in tonight and putting up with all my bullshit."
"It's not bullshit," Stacy said as she straightened a bit of Quinn's hair. "And even if it ever is, I'll still put up with it, Quinn. I mean, don't tell Tiff or Sandi this, but out of our little group, I always considered you my best friend. You've always been so pretty and strong, and you even let us see that you were smart after a while . . . and while I hate that this whole thing has got you feeling so bad, it's kind of nice to see that you're human, too."
Quinn laughed a little despite herself. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand, turned reddened eyes up to Stacy, and said, "That's pretty deep."
Stacy smiled back and picked her glass up from the table. "I blame the wine," she said mock conspiratorially as she took a sip. "Best friends forever?" she asked, holding up her free hand.
"Best friends forever," Quinn agreed, taking the proffered hand in her own. "Um, I hope my best friend doesn't mind, but I'm feeling beat and we have to get to work putting that article together early tomorrow. Think we could call it a night?"
"Sure!" Stacy said, happy to oblige. She threw back the rest of her own drink and set about the business of preparing the guest bedroom.
Once they were finished getting everything ready, Stacy said good night and closed the door behind her. Quinn stripped down and pulled on a pair of pajamas before slipping between the sheets and turning off the light. Mere seconds after her head hit the pillow, she drifted off into dreams filled with equal parts formless threat and bright comfort.
The next day dawned bright and clear. After taking turns in the shower, Stacy and Quinn enjoyed a quick, granola-based breakfast and started sifting through the first few chunks of expo footage and notes. The sound nullifier built into the camera had masked most of Quinn's freakout, and Stacy was easily able to isolate and edit out what little got through, leaving the rest of the expo's ambient sounds clear.
Quinn felt her face redden as Stacy worked. The bits and pieces of incoherent panic . . . had that really been her? Within the safety of her friend's home, fed and washed and with a good night's sleep behind her, it hardly seemed possible that she was the same person as that babbling crazy woman.
As they were getting ready to head out for the day, Stacy asked if Quinn was sure that she didn't want to stay another night, just in case, but she declined. They packed up her things, locked the door, and took Stacy's car back Quinn's apartment further into the city.
"We'll just drop off my things and go on to Steel," Quinn said as they walked down the hallway to her door. She gestured to her sweater and jeans and said, "These will be fine for today. I really don't feel like putting on my suit or anything too fancy today. And- oh, sorry, could you hold this?"
"Sure," said Stacy, taking the bag in Quinn's right hand as the other woman pulled out her magkeys and unlocked her apartment.
"Anyway," Quinn continued, "as I was saying, I don't care what San-"
A small strangled sound emerged from Quinn's throat. Alarmed, Stacy twisted to look over her shoulder and uttered her own small squeak of surprise.
Just beyond the entryway, they could see that everything in the den had been overturned, pushed over, or outright smashed to pieces. The ceiling to floor windows on the far side were covered with crisscrossing scratches that appeared to have been made with a blade. What looked to be food or garbage or both was tracked all across the carpet and smeared on the walls.
Quinn started backing up, pushing Stacy back out into the hall. "oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god," she droned tonelessly, a mad litany of fear.
"I change my vote to definite stalker," Stacy said, shocked.
Dropping the bag she still carried, Quinn deactivated the thermal seal on her purse and started digging through it. Within seconds she had her commlink out and clipped to her ear. "Dial police!" she screamed. "Dial police!"
The comm's recognition software detected the heightened voice volume and rapid pulse, so instead of dialing the standard police number it automatically connected her with emergency services instead. "Please state the nature of your emergency," came the calm, collected tones of the operator.
"Some psycho broke into my apartment while I was away and trashed the place!" Quinn screeched. "And I think he's been following me for the past couple of days!"
"Please try to remain calm, ma'am," the operator said. "Is the person still in your apartment?"
"I don't know!" Quinn wailed, trying to calm down like she'd been told but failing. "We didn't go in! We're still in the hallway!"
"Is there someone else there with you?"
"Yes, my friend Stacy!"
The operator was silent for a moment, and Quinn was almost ready to scream into the receiver when he suddenly spoke again. "Okay, ma'am, we've just pulled up your information and will be sending a black and white your way," he told her. "Please, for your saftey and that of your friend's, we ask that the two of you stay together until they arrive and, if possible, go to one of your neighbors and stay with them for the time being. Do not attempt to enter your apartment, and if you see the person you think has been following you in the meantime, call back here immediately but do not attempt to engage them. Okay?"
"Okay, okay," Quinn said, finally regaining some of her composure. "Okay." She reached up and disconnected the call, then said, "Dial Daria!"
Stacy put her hand on Quinn's arm. "What are you doing now?"
"Calling my sister," she replied. "She's a bounty hunter . . . she'll know what to do."
Stacy put her hand over her mouth and started glancing both ways down the hallway, her eyes wide with fright. Quinn turned back to stare at the devastation that had been wrought in her apartment as the signal went out. After a few minutes, there was a click followed by a sleepy "Hello?"
"Daria! It's Quinn! I just-"
She was cut off by a scream. She twirled around to see a hooded figure holding Stacy against the wall and pressing something up against her neck. Stacy's eyes drooped and she dropped Quinn's bag just before slumping to the ground.
Quinn had just enough time to let out a scream of her own before the figure planted a fist in her face and everything went black.
Consciousness returned in a pain filled rush. The left side of Quinn's face ached, and she found herself gagging on a rag that had been stuffed in her mouth. Her hands and legs were bound with what felt like plastic twine.
She was in the back seat of a car, her head resting on Stacy's. She twisted to see that the other woman was tied up just like her and that a hypodermic patch was stuck to the side of her neck, most likely feeding some sort of tranquilizer directly into her bloodstream.
The figure in the driver's seat was the only other person in the vehicle. As soon as he heard Quinn moving around in the back, he activated the car's autopilot and turned, pulling back his hood to reveal a thin, angular face framed by black hair. Quinn choked on the rag in her mouth in surprise.
It was Joey.
Joey looked down at her with obvious worry, then reached out and pushed a few stray strands of hair out of Quinn's face. His gloved hand lingered for a moment, caressing her bruised cheek softly.
"I'm sorry," he said, pulling his hand back as he did so. "I am so sorry. That was Jeffy that did that to you. You remember how excitable Jeffy gets, right? I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
He repeated the last part a few more times, then turned to rustle around in the passenger seat. Finding what he was looking for, he turned back and pasted a derm across the side of Quinn's neck. Almost immediately the world began to swim around her. Joey seemed to waver as she fell back down into darkness.
"I am so, so sorry . . . "
The waking world came back to her a second time as a slow dissolve rather than the previous hard cut. At first she couldn't see anything around her, only able to take stock of her own condition.
Her face hurt, and all the bones in her skull gave off a dull ache. Her mouth was painfully dry from the rag still held in place over her tongue. Her legs were still tied to each other, but her hands were now bound to the arms of the chair she was seated in.
The last of the drug in her system finally started to scrape away, allowing her vision to clear. It took a few moments for her to realize that the blackness that was left behind wasn't her eyes but her new environment. The only decent light source was a worklight sitting over a scratched and battered desk a few meters in front of her. The details beyond the circle of light cast were difficult to make out, but she thought it looked a bit like heavy machinery.
Looking to her right, she could see Stacy, tied to an old office chair just like her and with a look of pure terror on her face. Quinn stretched her fingers in frustration, trying desperately to think of a way to comfort her friend, to let her know everything was going to be okay.
All thoughts of everything being okay fled as a shadow moved on the other side of the worklight. Quinn could just make out Joey's form as he walked around the desk, engrossed in a digipad and with his hood hanging over his head once more. His footsteps on the plascrete floor immediately struck her as familiar . . . they were the same as those she had heard in the parking garage two night previous, the clumping around in too-large shoes.
As Joey circled around in front of the light, eventually becoming little more than a silhouette of himself, Quinn could see that virtually nothing he was wearing fit him very well. His hoody was far too baggy for a man his size, and his pants were almost falling down. The fingertips of his gloves hung loose and the openings seemed too wide for his hands. It was the same outfit he had been wearing at the fashion expo, and the same one from the attack in the hallway . . .
But hadn't he said that Jeffy had been the one who'd punched her in the face? And hadn't it been Jeffy that she'd seen for that brief second at the expo? Her head began to swim again, but not from the used up tranq patch still stuck to her neck. Why would they both have been wearing the same ill-fitting clothing?
Stacy made a small whining noise, causing the man to turn and pull his hood down. Jeffy's reddish-brown hair and wide face was revealed underneath. Then where is Joey? Quinn wondered, her eyes rolling around and searching the darkness once more.
Noticing that she was also awake, Jeffy ignored Stacy and walked over to Quinn and knelt down in front of her. With a touch to his pad, he activated a small set of lights behind the two women, bathing him in dim light and allowing her to see his concerned expression.
"Hi, Quinn," he said softly. "I'm gonna take your gag out, okay? Please don't scream."
Screaming didn't seem to be an option even if she'd wanted to do it. Once he'd removed the rag from her mouth, Quinn could barely do anything but croak. Jeffy stepped over to the desk and quickly returned with a water pouch. He put the spout to her mouth and she sucked down several mouthfuls of the clear, cold liquid inside. Eventually he pulled the pouch away, at which point Quinn spit out the last bit of water and started screaming, shrill and constant.
Jeffy dropped the pouch, put his hands over his ears, and winced. "Don't!" he tried to yell over it. "I asked you- dammit! Please stop! Would you just . . . come on! Stop . . . stop . . . " He leaned over her and roared, "STOP! SCREAMING!"
Quinn subsided in the face of the fury etched across his features. Tears formed in her eyes and she started to whimper. "Please don't-" she said, trying to control the wracking sobs that were forming in her chest. "Please don't hurt us . . . "
"Oh, oh no, baby!" Jeffy said, putting his hand on her face just below her bruise. "No, no, I don't want to hurt you . . . I'm sorry about punching you, I swear I didn't mean to, I just got a little carried away. It won't happen again, I promise. I don't want to hurt you . . . "
The anger had completely melted away from his face, leaving behind a pained expression of concern. He ran his thumb along her jawline, causing chills to run along the rest of her body. She tried to pull away from his touch, but he just moved his hand down to the base of her neck and started to massage her gently.
"Just don't . . . don't do anything to us," said Quinn, unable to contain her tears any longer. Her face twisted up in a horrible grimace.
Jeffy continued to coo soft reassurances to her for a moment before realizing exactly what she meant. He recoiled in absolute horror, jerking his hand back and standing up a few feet away. Even though his face had gone back into a shadowy area, Quinn could still see the look of disgust he was giving her.
"I would never," he said tremulously. "Never! None of us would! Don't even think that! Don't you ever think that!" He knelt back down and grabbed onto Quinn's hands. "You have to believe me, we're . . . I'm prepared to do things for your love, Quinn, but I would never ever do that. Do you believe me?"
"I don't know what to believe!" Quinn yelled at him, feeling anger start to replace some of her fear. "You've been following me around, you tore up my apartment, you've kidnapped me and Stacy! What the hell do you want, Jeffy?!"
"The same thing we've always wanted, Quinn," Jeffy told her, looking steadily into her eyes. "We want you to love us."
"Love you?!" Quinn screamed, her anger taking off like a rocket. She strained against her bonds, curling her fingers into claws. "You fucking abducted us! What made you think this was going to make me love you, Jeffy?! And what do you mean 'us'?! Where's Joey?! Where's . . . where's Jimmy?! What the fuck is going on?!"
Jeffy stared at her after she'd fallen silent, glaring back at him. He stood again and took a few steps back. "Things . . . are different now," he said, his voice flat. "I've changed. We've changed. It was wrong to take you like that, I know. I know we shouldn't have had to tie you up. But . . . there wasn't any other way, Quinn, you have to believe me.
"We've done something. We . . . it means that we have to hide now. So you have to hide, too, if you're going to be with us. We couldn't just ask," he tried to explain, his voice gaining an edge of pleading. "We're just doing what's best for us, for all of us. Including you. If you'll just trust me, if you'll just say you love me, we can let you go and show you everything. It's beautiful, Quinn . . . it's everything you wanted."
"I don't want any of this!" Quinn yelled. "You have to let us go, Jeffy! You have to stop this!"
"Just tell me that you love us and I will!" he begged her. "Please don't make this any harder! We don't want to, but I will make it harder if I have to! Just tell me that you want us, that you need us . . . "
Quinn choked for a second, then said, "I'm sorry, Jeffy. I can't . . . I can't love you. We've already been over this. We broke up, remember? We had to . . . I just . . . I can't give you what you want."
There was a silence. Then, "But I can give you what you want."
"What?" Quinn asked wearily. She looked up. "What could you possi-"
Her jaw dropped when she saw Jeffy's face start to shift. A muffled crack sounded out as his cheek suddenly pushed out, stretching the skin over it. Jeffy uttered a groan as more cracking could be heard and his body twisted. He held his hands up to his still contorting face, seeming to have to resist actually touching it. His gloves moved in strange patterns as the fingers underneath pulled around in ways they were never designed to move. His light brown hair gradually darkened to black.
Within moments, Joey was standing in front of her, panting with the exertion of the transformation. Quickly recovering, he stretched himself up straight and held his hands out at his sides.
"This is what you always wanted," Joey said. "Us."
Quinn gaped in terror, and she could hear Stacy making little squeaking noises of fear through her gag. While her conscious mind tried its damnedest not to shut down in shock, her subconscious started trying to throw out an analysis of the situation. As horrific as it was, the transformation explained the loose clothing . . . Jeffy and Joey each had different body types, so if what she had just seen happen had actually happened, they'd need clothes that would easily fit whichever body they switched to.
But it couldn't have happened! Quinn screamed inside her head. It's impossible! Her jaw started to work, but she couldn't force any sound to come out.
"We had a lot of time to try and figure it out," said Joey. "All the arguments, breaking up with us . . . it was because you couldn't choose between us. I'm sorry, Quinn . . . I'm sorry we tried to make you choose. We never should have done that, I know that now. But we fixed it, baby! You can have all three of us now! We can all finally be together!"
He took a step toward her, but she screamed and started trying to push her chair back with her bound feet. Joey retreated, putting his hands over his ears. "Stop! Please stop!"
"What are you?!" Quinn screamed hysterically. "Who are you?! Who are you?! Are you Joey?! Are you Jeffy?! Are you Jerry?!"
Jeffy/Joey's body contorted, snapping and twisting harder and faster than before. A lanky blonde man wearing their clothes rushed up and bellowed in her face.
"I. AM. JAMIE!!!"
He pulled himself back as his bones began to split again, but he managed to regain control. The bones settled back into place to leave him in Jamie's body.
"And Jeffy," he said calmly in his new, deeper voice. "And Joey."
"I don't understand," Quinn said, shaking her head violently. "I don't understand I don't understand I don't understand . . . "
Jamie sucked air in through his nose and blew it out explosively. "We fought even worse than before after you left," he said. "We were torn to bits over losing you. But a couple of years ago, Jeffy got us back together again. He told us that he'd found a way to get you back. There was a surgery, kind of . . . I didn't get all of what we were told, but after it was done, we woke up like this. All three of us are in this body, so all four of us can be together, just like you wanted."
"No," Quinn said sadly. "No, Je- Jamie. I didn't want this. I didn't . . . that's not why I broke up with you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You just have to understand-"
"But I don't understand!" Jamie yelled. His deep voice echoed off of distant walls. "You wanted this! I know you did! It has to be! If you didn't, then what the hell do you want?! Why aren't we enough for you?! Why weren't any of us good enough for you?!"
"It wasn't that!" Quinn cried. "It was never that!"
"Then what is it?!"
"I can't tell you!" she screamed at him, then sagged in her chair. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I just can't tell you."
Jamie glared down at her. "I can't accept that," he said, his tone dark and dangerous. "I can't accept that."
In two long strides he was standing at the scarred desk. Sorting through the various objects laying on it, he picked one up, walked over to Stacy, and moved to stand behind her. The knife in his left hand glinted slightly in the worklights.
"We told you that we would make this harder if we had to," he said. He grabbed Stacy's hair and held the knife up to her ear. She made ragged noises through her gag and tried to pull away, but Jamie easily held her head still.
"Don't!" Quinn yelled at him. "Oh please don't, please!"
"You care about this girl?" Jamie asked evenly. "If you care about her, then tell me you care about me. I don't want to do this, but I will start cutting her if you don't."
"I can't!" Quinn cried. "I can't! Please!"
Jamie leaned down and said, "I'm sorry, Stacy. You were always nice to us back in school. I don't want to do this, but she's not giving us any choice. Please don't take it pers-"
"Put down the knife and step away from the woman. Now."
Startled, he ducked down behind Stacy and flipped the knife so it was against her throat instead of her ear. Quinn whipped her head around at the new voice and gasped in relief as Daria stepped out of the shadows, her pistol aimed directly at Jamie's head.
"Daria!" Quinn called out. "Save us!"
"Yes, thank you, Quinn," Daria returned, her eyes never leaving Jamie. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do."
Jamie snarled and tried to squeeze himself down more behind Stacy. "Don't you try anything!" he yelled. "I'll cut her throat!"
"And then I'll shoot you," Daria said matter-of-factly. "It doesn't seem that would work out too well for you. So before I have to explain two corpses to the police when they show up, I'd suggest you follow my order and put the knife down."
Hope flushed through Quinn's body for the first time since her apartment. "The police are coming?" she asked, smiling widely.
"Of course they are," Daria said. "And then you're gonna have to deal with way more guns than just mine, Jack."
"I'm Jamie!" the man growled at her. Then, "Wait . . . Daria?"
"Yes, but my friends call me Miss Flower Baby Sunshines. Have we met?"
Jamie started giggling suddenly, a manic tinge coloring his laughter. "You're . . . you're the one Quinn was calling just before Jeffy grabbed her!" he said with a dark chuckle. "You're full of it! The cops aren't coming!"
"It must be nice living on Delusion World," said Daria. "Any other flights of fantasy you would like to throw my way? I called them just before I started tracking Quinn and then again after I figured out where she was. They're scrambling the jets as we speak."
"You didn't talk to the cops!" Jamie said confidently. "You don't know who you talked to! You don't have any idea!" He entered another jag of demonic chuckling. "Hey, I've got an idea . . . why don't you call them again, just to make sure? Go ahead. I'll wait!" He jerked Stacy's hair, making her give off a muffled wail, and then became serious. "All we've got is time right now."
Daria continued staring the man down, her expression unchanged. After a few moments of consideration, she took her left hand off of her pistol and, eyes still on her target, reached into one of the pouches on her belt. She flipped open her commlink, hit the speed dial for the police without looking, and put the comm to her ear.
"Hello," she said into the receiver. "This is Daria Morgendorffer, fugitive recovery license 334-A. I'm calling to confirm a pickup in the-"
She stopped, a look of confusion crossing her face. "Who is this?" she asked angrily, then flipped the comm closed and carefully put it back in its pouch. Her aim never wavered.
"What . . . what happened?" Quinn asked, her hope disappearing as rapidly as it had come.
"He laughed at me," Daria said with a frown. "And then wished me good luck. Sorry, Quinn. The cavalry has been canceled. Looks like I'm it."
"That's right, bitch," Jamie said nastily. "Looks like it's just you and me and her and me and her and me. Now why don't you put your weapon down?"
Daria raised an eyebrow. "No, thanks," she said, quickly changing a setting on her pistol. "I think I'll just shoot the hostage. Sorry, Stacy."
"Daria, no!" Quinn shouted.
"Shoot the wha-"
The rest of Jamie's question was cut off by the snap of a coherent light bolt. It hissed through the air, cut through the flesh right by Stacy's shoulder, and sizzled straight into Jamie's collarbone. His knife clattered on the plascrete as he fell back. His screams bounced off the high ceiling, underscored by the muffled sounds of agony coming from Stacy.
Daria switched the setting back on her pistol and started firing stun rounds at Jamie as she circled around and advanced on his position. The man was lightning quick, however, and managed to pick himself up and run off into the shadows before she could tag him.
Ignoring him for the moment, Daria holstered her gun and quickly popped out the blade in her right sleeve. With smooth, practiced motions she cut the ties binding Stacy and pulled the rag out of her mouth. Stacy gave a dry, ragged scream and clutched at her shoulder with numb fingers. Daria pulled a derm out of her jacket pocket and slapped it on the other woman's neck, right over the slight nick she'd received from Jamie's knife as he'd fallen.
"The doctor gave me these for headaches," she said as she laid Stacy carefully on the ground, "but I figure it'll work for laser wounds, too. Just sit tight and enjoy the sparklies."
As soon as Quinn was free from her chair, she launched herself up and clung to Daria like a drowning woman on a plank of wood. Her legs were full of pins and needles and floundered under her, causing both of them to stumble to stay upright.
"Oh Daria Daria oh thank God," Quinn babbled as she cried on her sister's shoulder. "He was following me and I didn't know what was going on and then he took us oh God he took us and he wants me to love him but I can't because I'm genophobic and I can't give guys what they want and I should have told you and I should have told mom and dad and I should have told Jeffy and Joey and and and Jamie but I didn't and this is all my fault because I didn't tell anyone and oh Goooooood . . . "
"Whoa, whoa, slow down there, Tex," Daria said in surprise as she pushed Quinn out to arm's length. "Look, we'll work it all out later, okay? For now, I have to go kick a little ass. Or three little asses. I heard most of what happened but didn't see it, so I'm not really sure how that works. But in the meantime, you need to pull it together and get Stacy out of here, okay?"
"No no no no," Quinn chanted dully. Her stomach churned as Daria's words settled in and she gripped her sister's shoulders tightly. "You can't leave us, you can't! We don't know where we are or how to get out!"
"Look, you just go out the way I came in. There's a service elevator . . . " She trailed off as she looked at the sheer terror racing visibly through Quinn's entire body. "Okay," she said with a sigh, "fine. But we're not going to leave with Mister Slice 'n' Dice at our backs and no cops to ride in and save us just in the nick of time. If you want me to stay with you, you're going to have to stay with me while I flush him out, okay?"
Fear briefly spiked in Quinn's brain again, but the sound of Daria's voice and her proximity was soothing. She was free, Stacy was free, and Daria was there. And though she would never admit it out loud, it was having a profound effect on Quinn to know that her tough, brainy sister was going to take charge of the situation. Daria wasn't afraid. So Quinn couldn't be afraid either. She would follow Daria's lead, and together they would end this situation once and for all.
She gulped down the lump in her throat, let go of Daria, and wiped her sweater sleeve across her face to clear off as much of the snot and tears as she could. "Okay," she said shakily but with conviction. "Let's get those bastards."
"That's what I want to hear," said Daria. "Now grab that knife your boyfriend dropped while I check on Stacy. Hey, Stacy, how's the arm?"
As Quinn retrieved the blade from behind the chairs, she heard Stacy croak, "Hurts. Water." She turned to find Daria holding a water packet up to Stacy's lips and the other woman quickly draining it.
"Easy now," Daria said, taking the empty packet back and shoving it in her jacket. "Can you walk? Can you move your arm at all?"
Stacy nodded to both and stretched her left arm out experimentally. She flinched in pain but still seemed to retain a fair bit of mobility in it, so Daria helped her up. "Sorry about that," the bounty hunter said. "I'll pay the doctor's bill on that one. That was my fault. Quinn, have you got the- oh, good. Okay, I want you two to stay together and stay behind me. Watch my back, and not just 'your back just got hit three times' watch my back.
"Stacy, if he comes at you, I want you to kick and scream and scratch for all you're worth. If you can, get your thumb down in that laser hole. It's cauterized, so there's no icky blood, but the nerve endings surrounding the hole are gonna be very tender . . . but look who I'm telling. Quinn, if he comes at you, stab the shit out of him. Don't think about it, don't hesitate, just do it. He wouldn't hesitate to do the same to me or Stacy, and for all we know he's pissed enough he might try it on you now, too. If you get a chance, you kill him, got it?"
Quinn and Stacy each had eyes as wide as saucers, but they both nodded their heads in understanding.
"Good," Daria said as she reached under her jacket and pulled out her pistol. "Let's go."
The three women moved into the darkness just beyond the semi-circle of worklights, then stopped when Quinn fumblingly gripped her sister's jacket. "Daria, we can't see," she whispered.
Daria stood motionless for a second before reaching into another pouch on her belt and producing a small case. She flipped it open to reveal three large round lens glasses just like the pair she was wearing. Normally Quinn would have balked at wearing something so unfashionable, but under the circumstances she and Stacy took a pair each without complaint. Daria showed them how to activate the nightvision then turned on her own and continued leading them the way Jamie had run.
The interior of the building lit up in Quinn's sight, still a little dark and overlaid with a slight greenish tint but she could finally see the details of what had been only hazy forms earlier. They were in a factory of some kind, as she had suspected. They room was huge and filled with various machines, the exact purposes of which she could only imagine. The three Js had tied her and Stacy up near one of the corners of the room, and she could see a large hallway opening in the wall behind them where Daria had undoubtedly entered.
She looked at Stacy to see that her friend was ogling the scenery through her own specs, a light green glow coming from the lenses. Quinn lowered her glasses and was relieved to see that the glow was not visible without them. She touched Stacy's right arm lightly, making her jump slightly, and then pointed at Daria. Stacy nodded and they both focused on watching out for Daria instead of just gawking around.
They moved slowly along the closest wall, Daria waving her gun steadily back and forth as she checked around the side of every machine that passed on their left. From the few glimpses Quinn got, she could see that Daria's face was set, determined. Even under the jacket Quinn could tell that her body was tense, alert for any incoming threats. Like before, Quinn took comfort in this display of bravery. Her heart thudded in her chest, but her mind was starting to find a comforting stillness.
The calm was broken in a single second as their quarry burst out from behind a piece of factory equipment inhumanly fast and grabbed onto Daria's arms. The pistol in her hands clattered to the floor was he slammed her against the wall, and she cried out in pain and surprise.
Daria twisted her body, jumped up a little, then planted both of her feet on the wall and pushed, sending both her and her attacker to the ground. In the confusion, Quinn saw a flash of light brown hair and knew that Jamie must have turned into Jeffy at some point. All three boys had played football in college, and Jeffy had been a-
Quinn's mind stopped short when she couldn't remember what it was Jeffy had called his position. She'd never had a good head for sports, and things like that tended to slip away from her. Panic began to rise in her chest as she suddenly realized that she had stopped paying attention to what was going on in front of her in an attempt to dredge up some stupid word that didn't even matter the slightest bit and why wasn't she doing something and-
Linebacker! her memory spit out. He had been an outside - whatever that meant - linebacker, and from what she recalled of what that entailed, she knew that he must have hit Daria like a freight train. Mystery solved, Quinn managed to pull her attention back to the fight and saw that however hard she'd been hit, Daria was hitting back like a champ. The two had rolled on the ground for a few moments, vying for superior position, but had finally broken off from each other and stood up before piling in again.
Stacy had obviously gotten the screaming part of Daria's orders down, but otherwise stood aside, too shocked and unsure of what to do. Quinn looked at the knife in her own hand, but couldn't get in to do anything with it for fear of accidentally cutting Daria. They were both forced to stand by and watch the unfolding pageantry of violence, helpless and unable to help.
Jeffy tried to make a grab at Daria, but the much shorter girl ducked down and rammed her shoulder and head into her opponent's midsection. Using her momentum and superior leverage, she carried him along with her as she rushed down an aisle between the nearby machinery.
They were out of Quinn's view by the time she heard a loud collision with something heavy. There were a few more sounds of fists and exertion, then dual metallic clicks. There was a shout of pain followed by two echoing sets of footfalls running into the distance.
"She left us," Quinn said, stunned. "She left us!"
"She what?" Stacy squealed. "She what?!"
Quinn shook her head to clear away the shock. "Wait, wait," she said quietly, almost to herself. "She's chasing after him! We have to go help her!"
Stacy caught her, wincing at the pain in her shoulder. "Quinn, no! This is our chance to get out of here! While she's got his attention!"
Indecision gripped Quinn as she looked at her friend and the direction her sister had run off. "No," she said. "You heard Daria. He's done something to the police, gotten to them or something. And if he does anything to D-" She choked on her words. "If he does anything to Daria, or if he gets away from her, he'll just come after me again, and there won't be anyone to stop him.
"That friend of hers, Jane! She's Daria's partner!" Quinn nearly yelled when she saw Stacy's uncertain look. "But Jane's not here! We're Daria's partners now! Or at least I am. I'm sorry you got mixed up in this, Stace. You were just trying to help, and . . . you should leave, get out while you can. I have to help my sister."
"Okay," said Stacy. "But I'm staying, too. I said I'd help you, and I'm going to. I mean, how in the world am I going to explain to Sandi that I let Steel's best reporter get cut up into tiny bits, right?"
Both women laughed mirthlessly, and Stacy let go of Quinn's sweater. Just as they started walking, Quinn let out a little "Oh!" and turned back to pick Daria's abandoned gun off the floor. She held it out delicately by the handle and asked, "Do you know how to use one of these?"
"No," Stacy answered, staring at the weapon with wide eyes.
"Well, that's just great," Quinn snapped. "The one thing on Earth you haven't been learning under Sandi's no-" She stopped when she realized what she was saying. "Oh, no, Stacy, I'm sorry! Oh, jeez, I don't know why-"
"It's okay," Stacy reassured her with a smile and a shake of her head. "I think we've all been having kind of a stressful day."
"Tell me about it," Quinn said.
After a few moments of consideration, she handed Stacy the knife and kept the gun for herself. As they made their way through the middle of the factory, she shifted her hand on the pistol's grip and hoped she was doing it right. She held it up in front of her as she walked ahead of Stacy, putting her left hand on the underside of her right like she'd seen Daria doing. She noticed an immediate difference . . . her hands were still shaking, but not as badly as before.
Even though she knew they were proceeding carefully, it still felt to Quinn as if they were rushing headlong. Everything around her blurred as she jerked her head around, trying to take it all in at once, watching every nook and cranny for danger. Her ears were starting to itch as she strained to hear even the slightest noise in the darkness and sweat trickled down her back.
They reached the far end of the room without incident and found an opening similar to the one on the other side. What Quinn had mistaken for a hallway over there she could now see was just a smaller work area. Worktables lined the walls, various gadgets littering their surfaces. About ten yards in, the side room ended in a mostly featureless wall, dotted only by air exchange vents and a single open door.
Quinn sucked in a breath and stepped through the door, quickly pointing the pistol to the left and right. The nightvision blurred everything as she whipped back and forth, leaving her momentarily unsure if she'd seen anything on the other side or not. No one attacked her, however, so she kept walking.
Beyond the door was a long hallway with doors and small windows along both sides. Looking into the first window she passed, Quinn saw that the room beyond was an office. It was completely empty, bereft of desk, chairs, potted plants, anything. The next few were the same, so she stopped taking her time and only gave the rest cursory glances as they moved along.
Just as they were about to reach the first intersection of corridors, Quinn let out a small scream and pulled the trigger. The figure that had come around the corner at her let out a whuff and fell back on the ground from the force of the point-blank impact.
Quinn's eyes teared up as she stared down at the prone form, her hands still up in the firing position. Stacy looked around her shoulder, knife at the ready, and gasped.
"Oh, my God, Quinn!" she cried. "You just shot Daria!"
Quinn's heart skipped a beat as she and Stacy dropped to Daria's sides. She came close to tossing the gun away as if it were something alive, squirming, and vile, but managed to remember their situation and clung to it even tighter.
"I didn't know it was her!" she keened. "I didn't! She came out of nowhere! I thought it was him!"
"She's still breathing," Stacy said, pointing at Daria's chest as it rose and fell softly. "And look, there's no laser hole! I think she's okay!"
Quinn shook her head, not understanding. "But I hit her, I know I-"
Daria suddenly sucked in a deep breath and spasmed, causing the other two women to jump in surprise. She had just enough time to sit up and cough before Quinn enveloped her in a crushing embrace and started babbling apologies.
"Hey, two hugs in one day," Daria said, gently peeling her off. "I think I'm already past my limit. You know, it's customary to not shoot the person who's trying to rescue you."
Quinn started to apologize again as they all stood, but Daria cut her off.
"Don't worry about it," the bounty hunter said. "It was my fault, really. I shouldn't have come around that corner so fast. Brain's a little fuzzy from the painkillers," she said, indicated the derm on the back of her right hand.
"But I shot you! How can I not worry about it?!"
Daria brushed herself off and then plucked at her jacket. "The gun was still on stun setting," she said. "If it weren't for the weave in my coat, I would've been out for an hour. If it had been set to kill, you would've blown a hole through me at that range, weave or no weave. But it wasn't, and you didn't, and I'm fine, so don't worry about it. We've still got your boyfriend to contend with, anyway." She winced a little, and Quinn noticed then that she was holding her right arm up against her stomach.
"The bastard broke it," Daria explained when she saw Quinn's expression. "My blade harness is working pretty well as a splint for now, but we need to get this done and get out of here before he breaks anything else. Damn J-crew is just a little too strong for my liking."
"They used to be football players," Quinn said, still trying to recover from the shock of shooting her sister.
Daria blinked in surprise, then grumbled to herself, "Great, more super-strong football players. Just what I need. Anyway," she said louder, "after he broke my arm, he ran off through what looked like another entrance to the factory floor and locked it behind him. That's why I was in a bit of a hurry . . . I figured he might be trying to get back to you two before I could catch up."
"We didn't see him," said Stacy, "but he might still be in there."
Daria touched the side of her nose with her finger. "Smart girl," she said. "That's what I'm hoping. He took us by surprise from the side last time, so we're going to try something different. All of us back to back in a circle. We'll have to move slower and we'll probably be tromping around like elephants, but at least we'll see him no matter which way he comes at us."
As they prepared to get into their huddle, Quinn suddenly remembered the pistol still sitting in her hand. "Oh, Daria," she said, proffering the weapon. "Here's your gun."
Daria waved her away and told her, "Keep it. I'm rubbish with my left hand, and you seem to be able to hit a target two feet away from you at least. Here . . . " She reached out and clicked the switch on the side from stun to standard shot. "Just try not to hit me this time."
Quinn stared at the gun fearfully, but nodded. "But what about you?" she asked.
"Well, I tagged him pretty good the last time with this." The bounty hunter gave a smirk, held up her left hand, and popped out her wrist blade. "I'll just have to give him another taste when next we meet."
Back to back, the women slowly started their way down the hallway back to the factory floor. Stacy and Quinn both held their weapons out with both hands as Daria took the lead position, angling her body to keep her broken arm inside the huddle and her weapon arm out and ready. As they shuffled between the first set of windows and doorways, Daria told them to double check each one as they passed just in case the three Js had sneaked in while they had been in conference.
After a few meters, Quinn asked, "Hey, Daria? Can we talk?"
"This isn't exactly the best time for a heart to heart," Daria replied quietly, "but sure. Just keep it quiet."
"How did you find us?"
The bounty hunter fell silent.
"I've put tracking devices in most of your clothes," Daria finally said.
Quinn's jaw dropped and she turned to her left to glare at her sister. "You've what?!"
"Oh, don't get in a snit," Daria said defensively. "I've done the same to mom and dad. All those times I would drop by for a visit? That was me putting new trackers in your stuff. Expensive trackers, I might add, especially since you go through wardrobes like they're going out of style. And it's a good thing I did it, too, or you and J-bo would be celebrating your honeymoon right about now."
Turning furiously back to her guard position, Quinn huffed noisily. "If we get out of this alive," she said, "I'm not talking to you anymore!"
"I don't think I've ever had anyone threaten me with something so nice," Daria said. After a few moments of silence, she said, "It didn't make it very easy, though. The homing signal cut out on me after a while. Whoever hacked my comm must've been jamming the tracer signal, too. I knew the general direction you were headed, but I had to go to . . . an acquaintance of mine to find out there were a bunch of garment factories out this way that didn't have any definite owners and, as far as his contacts knew, didn't actually produce garments anymore. When I got a few blocks from this one, your signal suddenly popped back up, and here we are.
"I should have seen the comm hack coming," Daria continued with distaste as they approached the door at the end of the hallway. "The tracers on you really are the best. Should have known that anyone capable of jamming them out even a little bit had some major toys of their own. Okay, class," she said, carefully opening the door, "it's time to play the quiet game."
They filtered through the doorway one at a time, then regrouped and started making their way through the side area as silently as they could manage.
Quinn looked around, reappraising her surroundings. Now that she knew what she was looking at, she could easily tell what each machine was designed to do, and she even had a fair idea how to operate some of them. As a field reporter for a fashion magazine, she had been in a number of factories involved in both the mass and specialty production of clothing. She simply hadn't recognized anything before because the machines had no product in them, giving her no real point of reference. It was simply the bare bones of the industry, completely cleared of the meat.
Feeling a bit of disgust at the metaphor, Quinn went back to looking for Joey, Jeffy, and Jero- Jamie. She and the two other women had finally made it out onto the factory floor proper, where there were any number of hiding spots from which he might burst. The three of them stared intently through their nightvision lenses, sweat starting to pour and blinking unthinkable. They were ready for him to come from any direction.
Except, of course, the one from which he came.
A heavy grunt came from above. Quinn snapped her head up just in time to catch a glimpse of a male form leaping down from the top of a nearby piece of equipment. Daria yelled for them to scatter, but too late. They had just started to break apart from each other when he landed right in the center of them and swung his arms out in a wide circle, knocking all three women on their faces.
Quinn flipped over to find that Daria was already back on her feet, swinging her bladed left arm at Joey as he stepped back with every attack. He was grinning maniacally, easily able to see Daria's attacks in the dark through his own softly glowing goggles.
"Up! Up!" Daria growled, punctuating each word with a swing of her blade. "Need to remember to start looking up!"
As Stacy and Quinn both stood up and prepared to step in and help, Joey ducked in after one of Daria's backswings, blocked the incoming forward swing, and drove his fist into her gut. Daria doubled over as the air in her lungs exploded out of her, then twirled back and away when he brought his other fist down across the side of her head. She hit the ground and didn't get back up again.
Stacy screamed bloody murder and ran at Joey with her knife extended. Joey turned nonchalantly, easily snagged her knife hand out of the air, and twisted it at the wrist. He took the knife from her nerveless fingers and stabbed her just above her belly, then tossed her several meters away as if she had weighed no more than a rag doll.
Quinn found herself to be the only one left standing. Fear coursed through her veins, but she forced her hands to stop shaking as she took careful aim at Joey's chest with her pistol. He turned and advanced on her, holding the knife still slick with Stacy's blood at his side. He appeared completely unconcerned.
The trigger seemed to pull of its own accord. The lack of kick from the stun round earlier left Quinn completely unprepared for the blowback of a regular blast, but the bolt still managed to burn its way straight through Joey's sternum.
He rocked back on his heals and came perilously close to falling over from the force of the shot, but he managed to keep upright somehow. He held a hand up against the smoking hole in his chest and opened his mouth as if to speak. No words came out, but sharp cracks filled the air as his body warped and reformed into Jeffy. Jeffy grinned maliciously as he moved the singed hole in his hoody around to show Quinn that the flesh underneath had become whole again.
Horrified, she put up no resistance when he snatched the pistol from her with his free hand. He put his knife hand against her chest and pushed her down, the flat of the blade leaving a blood smear across her sweater, then popped the energy cell out of the butt of the pistol and tossed it off into the distance. He turned slightly and threw the gun itself in the other direction.
Quinn felt all remaining hope drain from her as he crouched down and leaned over her. She pushed back up against the side of a nearby machine, trying to curl up into as small a target as possible.
"That wasn't very nice," Jeffy said evenly, pointing at her with the tip of his knife. "But we're prepared to forgive you for shooting Joey if you'll just stop fighting this. Stop fighting yourself. Stop making me have to hurt your friends."
She covered her face and sobbed, but no tears came out. "I can't," she said weakly, muffled by her hands. "I can't, I can't."
"Why?!" Jamie yelled down at her. "Why are you doing this?! Why won't you just accept it?!"
"I'm not doing anything!" she screamed back at him. "I'm not fighting anything! I'm not making you do anything! You're the one doing all of this! You, dammit, you! Just stop! Just leave us the hell alone!"
Joey looked down at her as if she'd torn out his heart. A single tear cut its way down his face as he reached out and gripped the front of Quinn's sweater. He lifted his knife high and said, "I'm sorry, Quinn. I'm so sorry. If . . . if you won't be with me in life-"
Joey's head flew violently to his left, dragging the rest of his body behind it. He let go of both Quinn and his knife as he flopped down lifelessly to the floor. Quinn stared at him in shock for a second, then looked up to see Stacy standing over her, a thick maintenance tool grasped firmly in her hands. The end of the tool was smudged with a bit of Joey's blood.
Stacy grinned in relief when she saw Quinn was still alive and unharmed. She dropped the tool and dropped to her friend's side, putting one of her hands against the bloody knife wound sitting between her ribs. "I told you he'd have to come through me first," she said.
Quinn screamed when Jeffy launched himself up from the ground and tackled Stacy. He grabbed her up by the back of her denim jacket and smacked her across the back of the head, causing her to go completely limp. He dragged her over to Daria and then hauled both of them over to the side work area, shoved them through the hallway door, and locked it after them.
"There!" he snarled. "No more interruptions! Now, Quinn-"
He turned around to find that Quinn was gone.
Chest heaving in frustration and lip curled in fury, Jeffy stomped onto the factory floor and started searching for his lost love. Getting angrier and more frustrated as he marched along the aisles, he started to slam his fists into random machinery, transforming to heal up the resulting broken fingers.
Jamie's deep voice echoed off the distant walls.
"Quinn! If you don't get out here right now, I'm going to go back and finish off those two bitches!" He kicked a heavy worktable, sending it flying. It cracked the plascrete floor when it landed. "Do you want that?! Do you want them both dead because of you?! I was going to let them live, just for you, but now you can forget it if you don't get your ass out here right now!"
Spit flew through the air and drooled down his chin as he raved. His eyes bugged out of his head. All of his muscles were pulled taut, and his body structure would occasionally break apart and reform, even when he wasn't changing from one body to another. Too much had gone wrong, too much, and he felt the situation slipping through his fingers.
He had to find Quinn. He had to-
Pain seared through his eyeballs and straight back into his brain as everything turned pure white. Bellowing in fury, Jamie clawed his goggles off and threw them on the ground. She had turned on the overhead lights, flooding the nightvision and blinding him. He stumbled around for a few moments, rubbing his eyes and trying to pierce the veil that had dropped across his sight.
After a few seconds, he could make out vague shapes, but it the process was going to slow. He shifted form to Jeffy, then again to Joey, but he still couldn't see. The ability that fixed injuries to the rest of his body evidently didn't extend to his eyes.
Snarling, roaring, he swung his fists back and forth, trying to find something, anything, to hit. He staggered ahead, stomping down with every step as if to punish the very floor for his predicament.
Small hands were suddenly on him, pushing him to his left. Caught off balance and unable to see, he found himself carried along as he flailed helplessly. Sooner than he'd expected, his knees caught on something and he fell over on a flat surface. He turned on his back and prepared to stand back up, but something had suddenly pressed itself against his chest, pinning him down.
His vision finally cleared enough for him to see what was going on. He was laying back on a conveyor belt and trapped under a robotic arm. Quinn was standing off to the side, next to the arm's control panel. Joey tried to push the device up, but Quinn had apparently managed to lock it in position, digging its attachment through the fabric of his hoody and into the flesh on his chest.
"Get this thing off of me, Quinn!" he demanded angrily. "Do it right now and I won't hurt you! But if I have to push this thing up myself . . . "
Quinn looked down at him as if he were a particularly loathsome bug. "You don't get to threaten me anymore," she said, low and dangerous. "Not ever."
Joey started pushing the arm up again, the joints squealing as his super-strength started to bend the plasteel pins. "Oh, I'll threaten you again, Quinn!" he shouted as he strained. "I'll do a lot more than that! I'm going to fucking kill you!"
Quinn started pressing the surface of the arm's controls. She quickly slid through menus that she recognized from factory tours. A good head for details and excellent memory retention was one of the hallmarks of a good reporter. Without hesitation, she activated the garment cutter attachment on the robotic arm holding Joey down, overrode the safety programming, and turned it all the way up to maximum power.
Joey's grunts of exertion turned into shrieks of agony as the cutter started burning white hot. The pattern Quinn had set it to run was small but intricate, a fact of which he became all too aware as the super-heated blade sawed its way across his chest and down to his stomach, slicing everything apart along the way. Cloth, skin, muscle, bones . . . the blade didn't slow for even a second as it carved its way back and forth through his midsection.
He became Jeffy, but the furrows dug into his bodily tissues didn't fully seal up, and the cutter continued blazing new trails unabated. He became Jamie, then Joey again, then Jeffy again. It didn't help, and in fact seemed to make things worse as other parts of his body were being eaten up in an attempt to close his wounds.
He stopped trying, even subconsciously, and settled in his Joey form. He hardly even felt the pain of the cutter anymore, and he laid back on the conveyor as his vision started to fade once more.
The arm slowly wound to a stop, the cutter gradually darkening. Quinn stepped up to the belt and looked down at him with an expression formed from some cross of fury and pity. He lifted his head and looked back with infinite sadness. With the last of his strength, he asked, "W-why?"
"You hurt my best friend," Quinn said evenly. "You hurt my sister. They are the people I love. Not you. Never you. And you will never hurt the people I love again."
Quinn had started to think she didn't have any tears left in her after all the events of the past few days. Standing over the dead, cooling body of Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie, she realized she was wrong.
The rest of the day was spent in the hospital and then the police station.
After waking up, Daria and Stacy had found their way back into the factory area to find the three Js in one body carved into sections and Quinn sitting on the floor nearby. At first it seemed as if she didn't even notice their presence, but eventually she snapped out of it and the three of them had piled into Daria's car outside.
Due to their more serious injuries, Daria and Stacy were under the doctor's care longer than Quinn. After getting patched up, the police had picked them up and put them through several hours of questioning. At first it seemed like no one was going to be inclined to believe them, but early in the evening a forensics report came through on the body found at the abandoned factory.
Contained within his bloodstream were the remains of an enormous amount of highly illegal nanobots that, the forensics team had to admit, could conceivably alter the appearance of an entire human body within seconds. Painfully and with great difficulty, but it was still possible.
Quinn, Daria, and Stacy were released just one hour later with a minimum amount of fuss.
Later that night, they were all over at Daria's apartment. Quinn and Stacy both still had a great deal of jitters over the events of the day and didn't want to leave the bounty hunter's side just yet, something Daria did not blame them for in the slightest.
Dinner was small, cheap, and eaten with little fanfare. Afterward, they were all sitting in the living room, Quinn and Stacy on the couch, sipping cheap cosmos from the drink machine, and Daria propped back in her favorite chair with a beer.
"So, when does the cast come off?" Stacy asked.
Daria held up her right forearm, which was almost completely encased in hardened yellow microporous plastic. "At least a week," she said, "then they want me under the bone knitter again. You holding up?"
Stacy nodded in return, resisting the urge to scratch at the dermal patches over what little was left of her own wounds. "Quinn?"
Quinn glanced up in tired surprise. It seemed to take her a few moments to realize where she was. "I'm sorry, what?" she said distantly.
"We were just wondering if you were okay," Daria said, taking a pull of her beer. "But I think we know the answer to that. Don't worry, Quinn. He's gone and he's not coming back."
Frowning and shaking her head, Quinn said, "No, no, it's not that." She looked down at the living room floor. "I know he's gone," she said flatly. "I'm the one that killed him. But . . . " She stopped and shook her head again.
Stacy placed her hand on Quinn's knee. "If you don't want to say anything, that's okay," she said. "We just want to make sure you're all right."
Quinn looked like she was about to say something else when the front door chimed. Daria cursed, set her beer down, and walked over to the viewscreen set next to the door's frame. She swore again and opened the door. Two people in dark suits and sunglasses - one a man with short, slicked black hair, the other a woman with bobbed flaxen hair - stood on the other side. The each held out an open wallet with a badge and license in it.
"DENA," Daria said in the same way she would have announced the arrival of a cockroach. "What, you guys are making house calls now?"
"We tried to intercept you at the LCPD but were hindered by . . . other things," the man said as they put their badges away. "Do you mind if we come in for a moment?"
"Yes, I do mind," said Daria. Then, after an awkward pause, "But I guess you can come in anyway." She stepped aside. Once they were inside, she went back over to her chair and picked up her beer. "Quinn, Stacy, these fine, upstanding people are members of DENA, the Department of Extra-Normal Affairs. They're the people who work oh so very hard at making sure ghosts stop stealing your socks while they're in the wash."
"We would advise you to take this more seriously," the woman said, a slight frown creasing her features.
"Right," Daria said, unconvinced. "So, I didn't see any names on your IDs, Agents . . . ?"
"No names," the man said.
"It's better that way," his partner added.
Daria, Quinn, and Stacy stared at them for a moment. "Okaaaay," Daria said, breaking the silence. "Then we'll just move on to the 'what do you want?' part."
The female agent took a digipad from her suit jacket's pocket. "This afternoon, the three of you came in contact with a man who was capable of shifting his body into any of three preset forms via the use of specialized nano-sized robots. According to the claims the three of you made in your police reports, he also seemed to possess the memories and personalities of the three people emulated in each form."
"To be absolutely frank," the male agent picked up without missing a beat, "this sort of transformation is impossible to achieve with the current known tech available. So, along with being an illegal use of nanotechnology, it's the illegal use of nanotechnology that we shouldn't be seeing for at least ten or twenty years yet."
Daria frowned deeply. "Just like Thompson and Taylor's suits," she said.
The agents seemed to glance over at Quinn and Stacy, but it was hard to tell with their dark glasses. "Yes," the woman said carefully. "Most people like to think that twice is a coincidence, three times is something else-"
"-but at DENA we don't believe in coincidence and prefer to skip directly to the 'something else'," the man finished. He looked directly at Daria and said, "This is the second unusual incident you have been involved in, Ms. Morgendorffer, and we believe that they are related, and not just through your involvement."
The female agent held her digipad out to Daria, who took it with a grimace. "We would appreciate your help in case another similar incident occurs," the woman said. "If you run across anything unusual in the future, we would like it if you gave us a call and apprised us of the situation. We would then lend you any assistance possible in resolving said situation."
"And all I would have to do is sign my life away," Daria returned, skimming over the contract she had been handed. "No, thanks."
"We understand your position," said the man. "Still, we hope that you might change your mind in the future." He drew three digital business cards and handed them to each of the seated women.
"If you change your mind, please give us a call," the woman said. "That goes for all of you. Ms. Morgendorffer, Ms. Rowe, if you run across anything strange, please let us know."
Quinn and Stacy nodded in confusion and looked at the cards. There were no names or addresses on it, simply a slowly scrolling commlink frequency.
The male agent took the digipad from Daria briefly, pressed a button on the control pad, and handed it back. "In the meantime, we will need all of you to sign this non-disclosure agreement. Your discretion on this matter is vital to our continued investigation."
"Not again!" Daria growled, shaking the pad back at the agents. "This is bullshit!"
"None of you will have to worry about your hospital bills, by the way," the female agent said, ignoring Daria's comment completely. "DENA has taken care of that as a thank you for your service in removing another extra-normal threat from our country."
"No no no," insisted Daria, "not this time! Do you honestly think we're just going to ignore that this happ-"
"Sign it, Daria."
The bounty hunter stopped short and looked at her sister in surprise. "Quinn, you're a reporter," she said. "You of all people should know that this is a violation of-"
"-our civil rights, as well as a morally reprehensible attempt to-"
"-bury the truth of- what?"
Quinn looked at Daria with eyes filled to the brim with weary resignation. "After today," she said quietly, "I don't want to talk about what happened. I don't want to hear about it. I don't even want to think about it. Regardless of the effects it might have on our lives . . . I just want today to disappear.
"So just sign it," she said. "Please."
Daria twisted the edges of the digipad so far that it seemed about to crack in half. With a snort of contempt, however, she finally picked up a stylus, signed the NDA, and handed it across to Quinn and Stacy to sign. The female agent then took it back and slid it into her pocket.
"We thank you for your cooperation," she said.
"Fine," Daria snarled as she stood. "Now get out."
She followed the two agents to the door, then slammed her left hand into the wall after they were gone. "What the hell was that all about, Quinn?" she asked. "Why on Earth did you just give in to those two-"
"I'm genophobic," Quinn said, her voice wavering slightly.
"You're . . . wait, what?"
Quinn sighed and set her drink down. "I've been meaning to tell you, and mom and dad, but-"
"Oh!" Stacy exclaimed suddenly and started to stand up. "I'm sorry . . . look, if this is a family thing, I can just step into the other room or something."
Quinn stopped her and said, "No, Stacy, it's okay. You almost died today because of me, and you're my best friend besides. You deserve to hear this, too."
She took a moment to clear her throat and started again. "For a long time," she explained, "I've known there was something was wrong with me, but it was only when I started going to therapy about a year ago that I figured out exactly what that something was. I suffer from genophobia, the irrational fear of sex.
"With the help of my therapist, I was able to see that my dating habits over the years have been molded by my desire to have sex conflicting with my absolute fear of it. I started building up this complicated fantasy in my head that I was just using guys for what they would buy me or do for me, but I was really looking for that one guy who wouldn't make me lock up from just getting too close to him. It never worked, of course, and I'd always break up with them before sex even became a part of it.
"It was different with Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie." Quinn's gaze became distant, lost in memory. "I couldn't remember Jamie's name half the time, obviously, but he was so nice to me. They all were. I just . . . I let it go too long, and they started trying to get closer to me. I didn't mind the romantic intimacy and I wasn't even afraid of commitment, but . . . they would want sex. Sooner or later, I knew they would, and it nearly drove me crazy just thinking about it.
"I didn't tell them exactly why I wasn't letting them any closer to me because I still hadn't really figured it all out myself. So we started getting into arguments about anything. Everything. We fought about the stupidest little things."
She wiped her hands back across her face and held the sides of her head. "So it's my fault," she said bleakly. "I didn't tell them what was really going on. It drove them crazy, and they tried to kill both of you, and it's all my fault."
"No, Daria, I-"
Daria raised her hand, cutting her sister off. "No, Quinn, listen to me," she said. "I've been hunting down all kinds of scumbags over the years, and if there's one thing I've learned about nutjobs like the J-crew, it's that they're just deep down crazy. It could be anything that triggers people like that. If it hadn't been you, then some other poor girl would have rejected them and sent them over the edge. There's nothing you could have done to have prevented it . . . it was just pure chance. You can't take responsibility for this."
Quinn shrugged noncommittally. "I guess it's just something else I need to talk to my therapist about," she said, but she said it with a smile.
"So is that why you've been missing work lately?" Stacy asked.
Quinn nodded. "Yes," she said. "I'm sorry about that. I've started seeing a specialist - a sexual therapist - every other week as well, and it's been cutting into my work schedule. But . . . I want to get better. I have to get better. I just can't live like this anymore."
"Of course," Stacy said in understanding. She took Quinn's hand in her own and squeezed. "If you need any help or support, you just call me, okay?"
"Same here," said Daria, clearing her throat. "Well . . . that is, if you're still talking to me after this is all over."
Quinn gave a short laugh. "I'm still not too happy you put homing thingies in my clothes without asking first," she said, "but I'm glad you did it anyway. I guess we can still do . . . oh, say, six words a month?"
"I suppose that'll have to do," Daria replied, giving her Mona Lisa smile.
Three days later, the doors to Sandi's office flew open.
"My God, Quinn!" Sandi stood up as Quinn and Stacy entered. "I heard you were, like, attacked by a crazy stalker or something!"
"Or something," Quinn said brightly when she stopped in front of Sandi's massive desk.
"Well thank goodness you are both back," the Steel's editor-in-chief said as she re-seated herself. "We still need that article on the Cashmans Expo, and poor Tiffany here hasn't really been working out as well as planned."
"Iiiiii'm tiiiiiired," droned Tiffany. Though her face was as impassive as ever, her hair and clothing were completely frazzled and the heavy bags under her eyes were barely concealed by thick layers of makeup.
Quinn and Stacy glanced at each other and seemed to be sharing in a private joke. "Well, the thing is, Sandi," Quinn said, leaning over the desk, "the events of the past few days have given us a little different perspective on our lives, and on the world in general."
"There are things out there, Sandi!" Stacy said, gesturing excitably. "Weird, wild things that certain people don't want us to know about! Things that don't make any sense!"
Sandi frowned deeply, no longer caring how her facial expressions might affect her perfect makeup. "The only thing here not making any sense is you, Stacy," she said nastily. "What has gotten into you two?"
Unperturbed, Quinn set a digipad on the desk and stood back up straight. "What has gotten into us is a whole new lease on life. We can't just sit around wasting our time on fashion and fashion alone. There are other things happening in the world, and we want in on that!"
"We're going to be working for an investigative news network!" Stacy squealed happily. "Isn't that great? Quinn is still going to be a reporter, of course, and I'm signing on as her full time camerawo-"
"You're quitting?!" Sandi exclaimed, looking up from the resignation Quinn had left on the desk. "You can't quit!"
"Oh yes we can," Quinn replied, "and we just did! It's been fun working with you, Sandi, but there are simply more important things for us to do."
"Shall we?" Stacy asked Quinn.
"We shall!" Quinn agreed, taking Stacy's proffered arm.
Behind the spluttering Sandi, Tiffany looked down at the massive pile of digital paper, digipads, and coffee cups she had cradled in her arms. "Hmmmmmmmm," the secretary hummed to herself. "Maybe Iiiiiiiii'm quitting, toooooooooo."
She dumped everything on the desk, causing Sandi to stammer and protest even harder.
"Fine!" Sandi yelled after them. "Like, maybe I'll quit, too! Yes, that's right! Maybe!" She sat back down in a huff. "They'll be back," she said to the empty room.
Outside the office, Tiffany and Stacy walked on either side of Quinn as the three of them headed toward a new future filled with mystery, excitement, and hope for something better just around the bend.
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
November 19, 2009