The author gives full permission to distribute this work freely, as long as no alterations are made and the exchange of monetary units is not involved. Any questions, comments, suggestions, or complaints should be sent to esn1g(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.
"The human brain is a most unusual instrument of elegant and as yet unknown capacity."
Mind over Plasma
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Friday, September 4
"Oh, great," Jane said blearily. "You're still here."
Trent looked up from his pad. "Oh," he said. "Hey, Janey."
Jane sighed and leaned up against the wall of her apartment's living room as she looked at the rat's nest her brother had made of the couch. Several sheets - more than any single human could possibly need - were twisted around him in the form of a miniature hurricane with Trent in the center. Several items of clothing in various states of disrepair and cleanliness (or lack thereof) were strewn about the nightstand, coffee table, entertainment center, and basically everything else in the room.
Trent himself was dressed in a pair of wrinkled boxers and a ratty t-shirt. Jane was wearing much the same, but she had just woken up and was about to go change. Trent had apparently been wearing the exact same thing since he'd moved in around three weeks ago. As for wakefulness, he was perpetually caught at "asleep" or "just woke up", with little time spent in between. What exactly he was wearing for either of those two states never seemed to concern him overmuch.
"Wanna hear the song I'm workin' on?"
Oh, boy, Jane thought, then said out loud, "Sure, why not. Most of my brain cells aren't working this morning. Might as well kill off the few that are as an object lesson to the rest."
He chuckled softly as he started pressing the pad's controls. After a few moments, the apartment was filled with a series of sounds that were almost but not quite unlike music. Trent's soft, scratchy voice drifted in and out, singing what were almost certainly scratch lyrics . . . though having been listening to her brother's songs for several years, Jane supposed the fact that they were complete gibberish didn't tell her much either way. The song played out to an uninspired finish, but she had to admit that the overall piece showed a little bit of promise.
"It was okay," she said, "but I think it coulda used the sound of two cars in a mid-air collision falling five hundred meters to the ground."
Trent's eyebrow arched ever so slightly. "You're right," he said. "I shouldn't have taken that part out."
As Trent went back to his work, Jane tromped into the kitchen and dialed up a cup of black coffee. After a few seconds of thought, she added just a dollop of whiskey to the mix and sniffed wafting aroma deeply. The first gulp seared the top of her tongue and sent a jolt directly to her brain, waking up those cells that hadn't been permanently shut down by the cacophony that once again throbbed from the living room.
"Oh, sweet caffeine," Jane said quietly to her coffee mug, "paint my day a picture of a million points of light." Taking a second healthy slurp, she picked the comm up from where it was inexplicably sitting on the kitchen counter amidst several empty food packets. As she dialed, she resolved to once again teach Mr. Trent how to be Mr. Tidy.
"Hey, amiga," Jane said into the comm. "How's the arm?"
"Operating within acceptable parameters," replied Daria. "Is this just a social call, or should I start searching for mostly clean clothes?"
"Hmm . . . you should probably put on some underwear at least. I'm pretty sure the Pizza Palace has a strict 'no bra, no panties, no service' policy."
Daria snorted. "I'll show 'em. I'll wear everything but, and triple layers of that. Meet up there in fifteen minutes?"
"Make it thirty," Jane said, slugging down the rest of her coffee. "I'm going to see if I can rouse the lean, mean sleeping machine to join us."
Daria fell silent. " . . . okay, that's cool," she muttered a few heartbeats later.
"Oh, for Jane's sake, Daria," Jane sighed, "you're a grown woman. Sprout a pair already!"
"Wouldn't be much of a grown woman then," Daria mumbled quickly. "Thirty minutes."
Jane deactivated the commlink and shook her head ruefully. Daria was always ready to speak her mind about almost any subject imaginable and wasn't afraid to stand toe to toe with men three times her size in a fistfight, but bring up any guy that she had even the slightest interest in sexually or romantically and she turned into Miss Shrinking Violet 2172, fancy tiara and all.
Throwing the comm and her coffee mug on the counter, Jane walked back into the living room. Even if she wasn't going to try and shove Miss Shrinking Violet and Mr. Untidy together, she could still give a little nudge here and there. What had at first been a cute way to tease Daria every now and again had gradually turned over the years into a real desire to see the two freaks together and happy, and it was time to try another of those subtle nudges.
Of course, she still liked to tease Daria, too. And it always worked better when Trent was actually present.
"Yo," she called out. "Pizza?"
Without looking up from his workpad, Trent reached behind the couch and produced a wide, flat plasboard box. He shook it slightly, producing the sound of stale pizza rattling around within.
"Fresh pizza?" Jane asked with a frown.
"Sorry," Trent replied. "Fresh outta fresh. But I can order us some more."
"I mean, fresh pizza somewhere else." She arched an eyebrow. "Daria'll be there . . . "
That got his attention. His expression was still its usual lifeless self, but he was sufficiently interested enough to look up. "Will she?" he asked. "Huh . . . well, maybe you should bring her by after you guys are finished eating or whatever. She could help me with some lyrics or something."
As Trent turned his gaze back down, Jane threw her arms up with a huff and stalked off to get ready to leave.
Jane used the extra time afforded her to take an extra long shower before changing into her street clothes. She still wore her work boots, longcoat, and sunglasses, but her armored suit was replaced by a sleeveless black bodysuit that only had a few standard weaves in it. After a few hesitant moments, she went ahead and strapped on her shoulder holsters and shoved her gun gloves into her coat pockets.
She tied her hair back in a small tail and waved briefly (and futilely) at Trent as she swept out the front door. A short elevator ride to the parking garage later, she locked her lower legs into her gravbike's stirrups and took off into an overcast sky. A brisk wind breezed over her, promising the autumn to come without actually delivering it.
After only a few minutes on the skylanes, Jane was already approaching the Pizza Palace. Its convenient location almost direct center between her and Daria's apartments was one of the main reasons they had chosen the greasy pizza joint as their default hangout. Other factors included their shared excessive love of pizza and the fact that the Palace still made their pies by hand. The fully automated pizza places liked to say that there wasn't any difference, but neither Jane nor Daria agreed.
Jane's gravbike settled gently into the space next to Daria's car. After shutting it down, Jane entered the anti-theft security code into the control panel, causing the grav plating to reverse its flow and activate. With a heavy thud that was felt more than heard, the plating glued itself to the surface of the parking lot.
Once inside, Jane found Daria already sitting at their customary booth. She, like her partner, had dressed casually . . . Stetson and jacket, but no gloves or pack belt. Today was one of their rare days off. A day for pizza and cynical conversation.
"Thank goodness," Daria said as Jane slid into her seat and removed her sunglasses. "If you had taken any longer, you would have been sharing the pizza with my desicated remains."
Jane smirked. "Why, Daria, how uncharacteristically optimistic of you," she said. "You really think I would share?"
"You would if you wanted my corpse to pay its half of the bill."
"Blast! Foiled again. So, did you order yet?"
Daria shrugged and said, "I thought I'd wait on you for once. Our usual?"
"Everything but anchovies," Jane confirmed. "So, gotten any more work done on the Powers front?"
Daria pulled out a digipad and put in their order as they talked. "I'm going to have to get in touch with Quinn again to hammer out some of the finer details of what happened while I was out of it, but it's going smoothly otherwise. A bit too smoothly, perhaps . . . I'm half afraid that we won't have any crazy adventures that will beat The Love Equation."
Jane nodded. Despite the dire non-disclosure agreement that the Department of Extra-Normal Affairs had basically forced her to sign, Daria had told Jane everything about the strange events of just over a week ago. As much of a thrill seeker as she was, Jane was still glad to have missed out on that particular trip through hell.
"I liked the concept sketches you sent me for the cover, by the way," Daria said as she put her pad away.
"Glad to hear it," Jane replied happily. "But speaking of Little Miss Fashionista, how's Quinn holding up?"
The other bounty hunter slumped her shoulders a bit. "She's still a little jumpy but doing better," she said. "I think the whole thing might have set her back with her therapy a bit, but I'm trying to help her as much as I can. Now that my arm is all knitted up, I'm going to be teaching her and Stacy self-defense on the weekends. Oh, and she should be starting her new job with the Greenstar Investigative News Network here soon, if she hasn't already."
"Man," said Jane, "actually reporting on important news instead of picking through What's Hot and What's Not. Your little sis is moving up in the world!"
"It seems to be going around. I decided to test the waters the other day and sent the latest draft of Built for Crime to a few prospective publishers. I've already gotten back a few responses that weren't exactly scathing cesspools of hostility. One even said that if the other stories I was working on were even half as good, they would start preparing for the inevitable bidding war."
Jane gave a short laugh of triumph. "That's great, Daria!" she exclaimed. "I mean, that's really great!"
"Perhaps I am getting uncharacteristically optimistic, because it seems really great to me, too," Daria said with her slight smile. "Maybe the collection will become a super ultra best seller and we'll finally be able to cast off the shackles of servitude to King Tom and retire to lives of quiet relaxation and desperation."
"Hey, let's not get all crazy here," Jane said, holding up her hands. "I'm not sure I've had enough of my life of noisy terror and desperation just yet."
Daria laughed softly, then suddenly became serious. "So, um . . . where's Trent?" she asked.
"Noticed he wasn't here, did you?" Jane said with a smirk. "He decided to take a raincheck, but it sounded like he wouldn't mind if you came by after we got done here."
"Hmm," Daria mumbled noncommittally.
"So, are you coming over after?"
Daria looked like she was about to grudgingly answer when a waitress showed up at their table with a pizza and two drinks.
"Um, I don't think that's-" Daria started as the waitress started sliding the pie onto the table, but she stopped short when she saw it was indeed an everything but anchovies pizza.
"Wow, that was fast," Jane said, looking down at the pie in wonder. "You guys didn't switch to one of those auto-systems, did you?"
The waitress shook her head with a smile. "Nah," she said, "it's just the new guy we've got working the line. It's weird, but I'd swear he starts making the orders before they even get put in."
"Huh. Well, tell him we said thanks for the speedy delivery!"
"Sure thing, hon!"
As the waitress walked off, the two women dove hungrily into the pizza. They were only a few slices in when a sudden commotion came from the direction of the pizza parlor's counter. Jane smoothly slid her sunglasses back on and accessed an AR window showing the view from Daria's glasses as the other woman leaned out to see what was happening.
A man wearing a Pizza Palace apron over a long sleeved shirt and jeans was talking animatedly to the waitress, waving his arms in the air as he spoke unintelligibly in an off-putting nasal voice. He somehow managed to give off the impression of being thin and angular yet pudgy and dumpy at the same time, and he had something shiny packed under his uniform cap.
"Is that tin foil?" Jane asked quietly. "Do they even make tin foil anymore?"
Daria settled back in her seat but continued watching the altercation out of the corner of her eye. "Maybe he special orders it," she said around her drink. "Conspiracy sites need to make money, too."
With a quickness and agility that caused Daria to look back over in renewed interest, the strange looking man leaped over the counter and ran up to their table.
"Hi, I'm Artie!" he fairly shouted at them, causing both women to jump in surprise. He looked back and forth at each of them, a look of near desperation on his face. "You're the ones that are going to help me!"
"Uh," said Jane, "what?"
"I made your pizza!" he said, his mood shifting mercurially from frightened worry to happy pride. "And now you're gonna help me! You're gonna help Artie!"
Daria and Jane traded confused glances. "Well," Daria said slowly, "if you're wanting our help with something, you can try calling Slow Loan Bail Bo-"
"No no no!" Artie said, switching back to worried. "No time! You have to help now!"
Just then, the waitress caught up with Artie and grabbed a handful of his sleeve. "I am so sorry," she told the bounty hunters. "Artie, you better get your ass back in the kitchen before you get fired!"
Artie started up another litany of "no no no!" while making shooing motions at the woman. She, in turn, shook his arm and alternated between threatening and pleading with him to go back to the cooking line. Jane watched the dance in bemusement until a heavy shout stopped the show short.
All three of them stared at Daria in shock.
"Now that I have your attention . . . " Daria continued, her voice back to its normal volume and inflection as if nothing had happened. "Ma'am," she said to the waitress, "If you'll give us just a second, I think we can get this sorted out one way or the other. Artie," she said, turning to the odd little man, "if you're running out of time, then you need to tell us what you want as quickly and succintly as possible, or you need to leave."
The waitress let go of Artie's shirt, allowing him to turn back toward the table. "Okay," he said, speaking quietly this time, almost sadly. "Okay, but . . . I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Showing off that surprising quickness again, he snaked his arms out and grabbed hold of Daria and Jane's hands. Just as Jane was about to open her mouth to ask just what he thought he was doing, the world exploded.
She's five. She's five years old, and this man has shown up at the door. It's her father. She knows this intellectually, but emotionally there's only a slight connection, a thin fiber stretching between them that's so fragile it could snap if even the slightest breeze provoked it. He stays for a while, almost a month this time, before taking off to wherever it is fathers go. Her mother says he's traveling, and sometimes her mother travels, too. There are older brothers and sisters as well, but as soon as they grow up, they also start traveling. Except Trent is there. Only slightly older than her, yet he takes care of her as best he can, even though he can barely take care of himself. Even when he is grown up and she is still a child, when he can barely take care of himself and she ends up taking care of him, but he's still there. When all the others are gone, he is there. But he is not always enough. Is it lonely? Is it empty? She isn't sure, she's only five and very little makes sense to her yet. She has no other frame of reference to work from, and so she thinks of the word "family" as being a very loose construct that everyone in the world has floating about but never truly touching them. Loneliness comes for her, but she doesn't really understand what it is. All she knows is that sometimes, even when she's with so many other people, she is unhappy. She can't feel these other people. They are shadows, and the shadows frighten her. She is no longer five, and she has learned, in some ways, to cope with this. But still, it is painful. She has learned what loneliness is, and she doesn't want to be lonely anymore. She's fifteen. She's fifteen years old and she's just met Daria Morgendorffer in a class at their high school. Daria had just moved to Lawndale City, and like her, Daria has no friends. So they become friends, and now she never has to be lonely again. She's Daria. This is confusing. She's at a wedding. She is wearing a dress that doesn't quite fit her, shoddy workmanship by a seamstress who doesn't know how to deal with her particular body type. She hates this. She hates everything. So much anger at the world, so shut off from everything. It will never get any better. And then she meets Amy. Aunt Amy. Aunt Amy is just like her, only older and, if appearances are not deceiving, better adjusted. Still hard. Still bitter. But able to function in a way she only wishes she could emulate. And so she starts emulating it. She calls Amy after the wedding and forges a connection, and suddenly she has two bright spots in her life, Jane and Amy, two people she can let into her shell to help alleviate the anger, the hate, the pain. The connection strengthens. Her parents would be mortified if they knew, but Amy starts teaching her things. Martial arts. Knife combat. How to fire and care for a gun. How to track people. She learns everything about the job from her aunt. And when she leaves college, she takes that job as her own, the emulation of Amy nearly complete. And then Amy is gone. Dead. Someone killed Amy, and Amy is gone. That part of her that isn't Daria remembers this from her own perspective, remembers Daria's howls of fury, the anger, the hate hurled at the cosmos that would give her such a precious gift and then allow some lowlife thug to stain his weapon with Amy's lifeblood, taking that gift away. She is Daria again, and she is receiving the hat that Amy used to always wear. There is also a car and a not-insubstantial amount of money left to her in the will, but it is the hat that she holds most dear. It still smells like Amy, a scent full of happy memories, memories that make the word "family" mean something real and tangible and so very, very close. Anguish demands to be released from her chest in a cry of pain and loss, but it can't find an exit. There is nothing here but memory and emotion, there are no physical lungs throat mouth with which to cry. And suddenly she is someone else. She is a man, and he desperately needs to get away. The hunter is coming, and the hunter is getting closer, and the hunter will catch him, and the doctor will open up his head and take everything away and you can't let them do this to me you can't you can't you're supposed to help me you're the ones who are supposed to help I've seen it I've seen it in my head in the parts they want to take away you have to help YOU HAVE TO YOU HAVE TO PLEASE HELP ME PLEA
She's five years old, and this man has shown up at the door. It's her father. She knows this intellectually, but emotionally there's only a slight connection, a thin fiber stretching between them that's so fragile it could snap if even the slightest breeze provoked it. He stays for a while, almost a month this time, before taking off to wherever it is fathers go. Her mother says he's traveling, and sometimes her mother travels, too. There are older brothers and sisters as well, but as soon as they grow up, they also start traveling.
Except Trent is there. Only slightly older than her, yet he takes care of her as best he can, even though he can barely take care of himself. Even when he is grown up and she is still a child, when he can barely take care of himself and she ends up taking care of him, but he's still there. When all the others are gone, he is there. But he is not always enough.
Is it lonely? Is it empty? She isn't sure, she's only five and very little makes sense to her yet. She has no other frame of reference to work from, and so she thinks of the word "family" as being a very loose construct that everyone in the world has floating about but never truly touching them. Loneliness comes for her, but she doesn't really understand what it is. All she knows is that sometimes, even when she's with so many other people, she is unhappy. She can't feel these other people. They are shadows, and the shadows frighten her.
She is no longer five, and she has learned, in some ways, to cope with this. But still, it is painful. She has learned what loneliness is, and she doesn't want to be lonely anymore.
She's fifteen years old and she's just met Daria Morgendorffer in a class at their high school. Daria had just moved to Lawndale City, and like her, Daria has no friends. So they become friends, and now she never has to be lonely again.
This is confusing.
She's at a wedding. She is wearing a dress that doesn't quite fit her, shoddy workmanship by a seamstress who doesn't know how to deal with her particular body type. She hates this. She hates everything. So much anger at the world, so shut off from everything. It will never get any better.
And then she meets Amy.
Aunt Amy is just like her, only older and, if appearances are not deceiving, better adjusted. Still hard. Still bitter. But able to function in a way she only wishes she could emulate. And so she starts emulating it. She calls Amy after the wedding and forges a connection, and suddenly she has two bright spots in her life, Jane and Amy, two people she can let into her shell to help alleviate the anger, the hate, the pain.
The connection strengthens. Her parents would be mortified if they knew, but Amy starts teaching her things. Martial arts. Knife combat. How to fire and care for a gun. How to track people. She learns everything about the job from her aunt. And when she leaves college, she takes that job as her own, the emulation of Amy nearly complete.
And then Amy is gone.
Someone killed Amy, and Amy is gone.
That part of her that isn't Daria remembers this from her own perspective, remembers Daria's howls of fury, the anger, the hate hurled at the cosmos that would give her such a precious gift and then allow some lowlife thug to stain his weapon with Amy's lifeblood, taking that gift away.
She is Daria again, and she is receiving the hat that Amy used to always wear. There is also a car and a not-insubstantial amount of money left to her in the will, but it is the hat that she holds most dear. It still smells like Amy, a scent full of happy memories, memories that make the word "family" mean something real and tangible and so very, very close.
Anguish demands to be released from her chest in a cry of pain and loss, but it can't find an exit. There is nothing here but memory and emotion, there are no physical lungs throat mouth with which to cry.
And suddenly she is someone else. She is a man, and he desperately needs to get away. The hunter is coming, and the hunter is getting closer, and the hunter will catch him, and the doctor will open up his head and take everything away and you can't let them do this to me you can't you can't you're supposed to help me you're the ones who are supposed to help I've seen it I've seen it in my head in the parts they want to take away you have to help YOU HAVE TO YOU HAVE TO PLEASE HELP ME PLEA
And then the world unexploded.
Jane had barely come to terms with being just Jane again when she saw Daria burst into movement. At least she assumed it was Daria, since everything had become a blurry stain through the tears.
The green and brown blob that had to be Daria grabbed Artie and slammed him down on the table, his upper back landing right in the middle of the pizza. She picked him up with adrenaline-fueled strength and slammed him down again, grunting and snarling in exertion.
"What was that?!" she screamed in his face. "What the fucking hell was that?!"
"No no no, stop!" Artie screeched. "You have to stop! I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry, but I had to show you, and if you don't stop, you'll touch me, and it'll all happen again! Please stop!"
Jane wiped her eyes clear just in time to see Daria jump away from Artie, holding her hands back as if she had been about to touch a live wire. Which, Jane reflected, probably would have been less damaging than going through that . . . whatever it was all over again.
Artie picked himself up, a piece of the pizza falling from the back of his shirt and splatting on the floor. "I can explain everything," he said, "but we have to leave. He's almost here. He-" His eyes went wild. "He's here."
Jane pulled back as Artie scrambled underneath the table, brushing up against her legs. There was a single loud beep as the front door to the restaurant opened up and a man stepped through, brandishing a heavy blaster in his right hand. Shoulder-length hair caught somewhere between blonde and brown framed a smug looking face with a lantern jaw. Shatter-resistant AR glasses sat precariously on a nose that looked like it had been broken more than a few times. He wore a black t-shirt under a denim vest and dark jeans over rounded cowboy boots. Besides the pistol, he had a strange looking rifle slung across his back.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced to the entire lobby, "Tommy Sherman is here, and he wants each and every one of you to get on the gahtdamn ground!"
The waitress and the three other customers immediately dove for the floor when they saw the very large weapon in his hand. Daria simply turned toward him stiffly, and Jane remained seated as her sunglasses started scanning the man and his weapons.
"Hey, did you chicks not hear me?" The swagger in his voice matched the swagger in his walk as he moved a few steps toward them. "I said get down! And when Tommy Sherman says to get down, you get the hell down now!"
Daria took a step back and to the right, turning to face Jane and glance meaningfully at the table. Her eyes were red, and her face was set in stone. Daria's subtle expressions were usually hard for other people to read, but her partner could easily that death was riding behind that mask.
"Oh, Tommy boy," Jane said quietly, "did you ever pick the wrong time to crash this party."
With matching yells of exertion, Jane and Daria slipped their hands around the edges of the table, lifting it up and out. Tommy, caught off guard by this unexpected maneuver, took the flat top of the table full in the face, chest, legs, and everything else on the front of his body. The two women continued pushing the table, angling the top over until Sherman toppled over and they landed on top of him.
As Sherman flung obsceneties from his pinned position beneath the combo furniture and bounty hunters, Jane pulled her gloves from her pocket and slipped them on.
"Have you got your guns?" Daria asked.
"Yup," Jane replied. "You?"
Jane pulled her pistols from their holsters and handed one back to Daria, who popped the clip out, checked it, then popped it back in and primed the chamber. The table bucked wildly under them as Jane activated the targeting system in her glasses. A red dot appeared in the distance precisely where the barrel of her pistol was pointed.
Sherman exploded off the floor as the two bounty hunters rolled off to either side. When all three were finally standing, he had his gun pointed at Jane, but Jane and Daria both had theirs pointed at him. He looked back and forth between the two of them, breathing hard but apparently unworried. In fact, he almost looked ecstatic.
"Sir," Daria said darkly, "we are off-duty bounty hunters, but by the Lawndale Good Samaritan Act of 2106, we are-"
The man tilted his head back and laughed heartily. "Sweetheart," he said, "I know who you are. I didn't come here lookin' for you, but if there's one thing Tommy Sherman ain't about to do, it's look a gift horse in the mouth! Now, all you gotta do is tell me where that little ratfink Artie is, and I can take all three of ya to go meet the boss."
"I'm guessing that this isn't a voluntary relocation," Jane said, placing her targeting dot just to the left of the man's neck.
"Well, I'm not exactly in the habit of waving a gun around when I ask people to do things," Sherman said sarcastically. Then, after a second of thought, "Oh, wait. Actually, I am!" His braying laugh filled the lobby again.
"I'm afraid we have to decline," Daria spat. "Now put your weapons down on the ground, get on your knees, and put your hands behind your head."
Sherman waved his gun in the air. "Uuuummm, no," he said. Guess you're just going to have ta shoot m-"
Daria planted a stun blast right between his eyes.
Sherman's head snapped up and his whole body teetered back for a moment, but he settled back on his feet as his head came back down. His smug smirk had turned into a maniacal grin.
"HOOYAH!" he yelled. "Now that was a rush! Do it again! Come on! I mean, you put my glasses outta commission, but woo! What a trip!"
When Daria just stared at him, he looked over at Jane. "How 'bout you?" he said. "Hell, put it on kill, baby! I've been wanting to try that one out!"
Jane shrugged, flipped the setting on her pistol, and drilled a hole into his side, directly under his raised right arm. He took an involuntary step in Daria's direction and grunted in pain, then straightened up and started feeling under his armpit.
"Jane!" Daria yelled.
"Oh, you're just annoyed that you didn't get to do it first," she replied.
"That's not the point!"
"And he's probably got some healing thing like the others!"
"Jane . . . "
"And he wanted me to!"
Sherman's laugh brought their attention fully back to him. He had lifted his arm up, taking his aim off of Jane, and was pushing the singed hole in his shirt and vest around to show that there wasn't a hole in the skin underneath.
"Little Miss Sharpshooter's got it right," he said, then lowered his arm and put his gun in its hip holster. "But hey, I tell ya what. Healing or not, ol' Tommy ain't afraid to admit when he's stepped into a bad situation unprepared. I could just plow holes in both of ya and be done with it, but the boss wants you two and that other fellah alive. So why don't you chicks go gather Artie up and find yourselves a nice hidey hole to plant your skinny asses in while I go figure out a better way to collect all of ya without hurting ya too badly."
His facial expression turned semi-serious. "And don't you worry, Tommy Sherman will find you," he said. "Feel free to shoot me while I'm leaving."
With that, he turned on his heel and brazenly waltzed out the door. Once he was gone, Jane and Daria moved to check on the customers. Looking over at the booth they had recently occupied, they saw that Artie had disappeared from his hiding spot. When they got to the waitress, she was already standing up again, looking visibly shaken.
"Call the police," Daria told her. "Is there a back way out of here?"
The woman nodded silently and pointed at the door to the kitchen area. The bounty hunters left her and started that way.
"What do we need a back way for?" Jane asked. "We've got two perfectly good vehicles out front."
"If he hasn't trashed them already," Daria explained, "then it's most likely because he doesn't know they're ours. And either way, all he's got to do is wait out of sight and then follow us when we leave." She pushed open the kitchen door and walked through. "We can't stick around here until the police show up, either. I don't trust him to stay away from us until they show up. We're going to stay indoors as much as we can, try to lose him and get to the nearest police station."
"Hey, good idea," Jane said and followed her partner in. "I knew there was a reason you're the brains of the operation."
"Thanks. Artie?" Daria called out to the apparently empty kitchen. "Are you in here?"
A head popped out from behind a nearby table. Artie was still wearing his tin foil hat but had replaced the Pizza Palace eyesore with a black baseball cap with the StarVerse vid show logo on it. "Here I am!"
"Okay, we need you to come with us," Daria said once he'd rejoined them. "We'll take you to the police, where you'll be safe."
Artie's face dropped in horror. "No no no no!" he cried as he grabbed the sides of his head. "Not them! The police know! They'll just hold me there until the hunter shows up!"
"I guess you were right about the conspiracy site thing," Jane told Daria. "Come on, Artster, it's not so bad. Three squares a day until they figure out what to really do with you."
"Noooooo!" he wailed. "They know! I know they know, just like I knew you'd be here! Like I knew the hunter was coming! Li knows!"
Jane snorted. "Okay, maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all," she said. "That last part actually sounds reasonable."
Police Commissioner Angela Li was well known for her shady dealings. She'd never been actually caught at it, of course, but everyone who worked in or closely with the city's underworld knew well enough that she had done plenty of things to keep herself and the LCPD afloat, things both legal and illegal. Rumors abounded that she was connected somehow with organized crime, and even the least paranoid person had to admit that those rumors were most likely true.
"I'm psychic!" Artie yelled, pointing at his head in desperation.
"The man makes another good point," Jane said with a helpless shrug.
"Fine," Daria said testily. "Let's get out of here. Where's the back door, Artie?"
After Jane and Daria had put their weapons away, the squirrely man led them back through the kitchen. Just past the walk-in freezer, he pushed through the Palace's service entry. An extra-wide hallway laid just beyond, stretching off into the distance in two directions and dotted with doors to other buildings within the larger colony structure. Daria quickly picked a direction and started walking as the other two followed close on her heels.
"Artie," Daria said, neither slowing down nor bothering to look over her shoulder, "you said you're psychic, right?"
"Yes, yes I am," he told her. His gaze never seemed to settle as he walked. He kept glancing back and forth nervously.
"Well, that explains how you were able to do what you did to us, I guess," she said bitterly. "How did you get this way? Were you born like this, or are you another one of the experimental freaks running around town?"
"Aliens," Artie breathed fearfully. "They kidnapped me, took my skin and gave me this synthetic skin!"
Jane had to stifle a laugh. "And your skin . . . makes you psychic?"
He nodded earnestly at her and said, "Yes, oh yes. Your skin remembers everything, you know. That's why they wanted mine. When they gave me this artificial epidermis, it opened up parts of my brain, and now I can remember anything from anyone! It's very inconvenient."
"I can imagine," said Jane. She glanced at Daria, but noticed her partner wasn't smiling. "So, ah," she continued more seriously, "what's up with the festive headwear, then? If your skin is what makes it all happen, I mean."
"The skin just makes it faster, stronger, better," he told her. "Artie still hears everything, everything, e-e-everything. I hear the horizontal. I hear the vertical. I see and hear everything that everyone else can see and hear. My foil helmet blocks off most of it, but some of it still gets in, yes it does. I saw the hunter coming. I saw that you were connected to the things he's connected to.
"And sometimes," he said quietly, "every once in a while, I see things that haven't happened yet. I knew that you two would be here when the hunter caught up with me, so I-"
He paused as they walked by a group of people transporting a load of merchandise to one of the many stores the hallway connected to. "So I applied for a job at the Pizza Palace," he continued after they'd gotten far enough away not to be heard. "Almost didn't get hired in time. I'm so sorry I had to do this to you, but I had to. If the doctor gets me, figures out how to make the skin and change the brain, no one can stop them!"
They reached the end of the hall as it opened into one of the massive walkways that crossed between skylanes, keeping the city's massive structures connected for pedestrians and lighter traffic, like delivery scooters. Traffic flowed all around just outside the thick safety glass that formed the walkway's walls and ceiling.
"Okay, we know who the hunter is now," Daria said, leading them across. "Who's the 'doctor', Artie?"
"I don't know!" he said plaintively. "Even without my helmet, I can't always hear him! He's always so busy, but so quiet, so very quiet. His brain . . . it's like it's not always there, like he's an empty shell. I don't even know for sure that he's a he!"
"Thank you, that's very helpful," Daria shot back sarcastically.
The foot traffic in the building across the lane was much heavier than it had been in the last. Most of the people were wearing business suits, but there were enough dressed in rougher clothing that the trio didn't immediately stand out. They moved into the crowd as they quietly continued their conversation.
"So, if we're not going to the cop shop," Jane asked, "just where are we going exactly?"
"My place," Daria said. "We can't go to yours because that would endanger Trent. There's nothing back at mine that I'll care about losing if Sherman follows us and starts shooting up the place. Either way, we need more than just a pistol each if we're going to make it out of this. After we pick up a few supplies, we'll go by the office and see what Tom can do for us. After that . . . we'll figure it out."
"I'm guessing that calling ahead isn't an option," Jane remarked sourly.
Daria shook her head. "They probably hacked the comm lines as soon as Sherman's glasses scanned who we were. Speaking of which, you got a scan of him, right?"
"Yuppers!" Jane said, reaching into her coat pocket to activate her pad and pull the scan up on her glasses. She read silently for a few minutes as they walked, then chuckled. "Busy little bee, our boy Tommy," she said. "He's a mercenary, working freelance for any criminal mastermind with a hefty enough bank account and a willingness to help him get out on a technicality on the occasions he's gotten caught.
"Funnily enough, on every one of those occasions, he's been brought in with some sort of heavy injury, most of which were inflicted either through sheer bad luck or some stupidity of his own. He only just got back into town after an extended absence . . . I guess getting hooked up with fast healing was just too good of a payoff for him to stay away.
"His pistol was a Huon X42 hand cannon," she finished, "but I couldn't get a good scan of the rifle. It wasn't anything I recognized off-hand."
Daria suddenly stepped to the side, right in the path of a small gravcart. The cart pulled to a stop in front of her. The driver gave her an evil look until she uncovered the license on her jacket.
"I am a fugitive recovery agent on assignment," she said authoritatively, "and I am commandeering your vehicle. Please step out, sir."
The man managed to pull a small amount of his glare back into place, but he put the vehicle in park and jumped out of the driver's seat. Daria took his place while Jane and Artie sat in the backwards-facing back seats. Putting the small cart into drive, she pulled a U-turn and started plowing through the pedestrians, honking the little horn whenever anyone wasn't fast enough in getting out of her way.
Jane leaned back in her seat. "You know, I don't remember if we're allowed to commandeer vehicles," she said.
"Me either," Daria replied with a shrug. "But it beats the hell out of walking the whole way."
The water ran over Jane's hands as she scrubbed them thoroughly. Once she had decided they were sufficiently clean, she held them under the flash-dryer, slipped her gloves back on, and stared at herself in the mirror for a few moments. Digging through her longcoat's inside pockets, she pulled out a small tube and used it to touch up her lipstick. Though never really over-worried about her appearance, there were still some standards that she liked to maintain, even in the middle of life threatening situations.
Once finished, she walked out of the restroom and rejoined Daria and Artie where they stood at the opening of yet another interbuilding walkway. They had abandoned the gravcart a few minutes earlier, but Daria's apartment complex sat just on the other side of the busy skylanes.
Daria was watching Artie carefully as he hesitantly lifted the edge of his foil helmet and concentrated. Sweat broke out across his brow before he settled the helmet and its covering cap back into place.
"All clear," he said, sounding a little worn. "The police have been by, but they're not there anymore. The hunter is still far, far away."
"Any idea what he's doing?" Daria asked, but Artie just shook his head and shrugged.
"Probably buying a stun gun," said Jane as she walked up to them. "Huon doesn't make 'em. They use all the extra space in their pistols for extra concussive filaments. Might as well just use gunpowder and bullets." She made a sound of disgust.
"Ready to go?"
Jane gave a thumbs up. "Ready to rumble without peeing myself," she said.
The trip across the walkway and through the lift system was uneventful, and within a few minutes they were standing at the back entrance to Daria's apartment. A quick magkey slide got them inside the small kitchen area. Jane and Daria pulled their pistols once the door had closed behind them.
"Stay here," Daria whispered to Artie. "Get something to eat if you can find it, but don't make any noise. Unless you sense Sherman or any other unwanted guests . . . then I want you to scream your head off. Understand?"
Artie nodded, his eyes wide. He crept over to the fridge and started sorting through its contents as the two bounty hunters slowly moved through the apartment's few rooms. The last place they checked was the bedroom. When it proved to be clear as their psychic ward had indicated, Daria handed Jane's pistol back and took off her jacket.
"How much did you see?" she asked as she started strapping on her shoulder holster and forearm blades.
Jane stared at her back blankly. "Huh?"
"How much," Daria growled through her teeth, "did you see?"
"Oh," Jane said quietly, realizing what the other woman was talking about. "Um . . . not much," she said uncomfortably. "I mean, it was all kind of jumbled up. I think your eighth birthday was in there somewhere. That was one scary ass clown . . . "
She trailed off when Daria turned around, eyes wet behind thick glasses. Jane removed her own sunglasses and hung them from her front coat pocket.
"I saw Amy," she said.
Daria nodded, her face screwing up slightly. She fell back against the dresser and slid down to the floor, taking off her glasses and wiping at her eyes. Jane hesitated for a few seconds, then sat down next to her friend and put an arm around her shoulders. Daria's torso shuddered a few times, but she didn't make any sound. She threw her glasses on the edge of the bed and pulled her hat off to hold it in shaky hands.
"The biggest thing I saw was your family," she said huskily. "I'm sorry you're not very close with them."
Jane shrugged it off. "They're all still around, somewhere," she said. "Plenty of time to get to know 'em. Not all at once, of course . . . that never seems to work out. And Trent's about the only one that's worth a damn. When he's awake, anyway. Besides, when it comes down to it, you're all the family I really need."
Daria shook her head and said, "I'm not that great. It's my fault you're a bounty hunter, my fault you're in this situation. I followed Aunt Amy, and you followed me."
"Hey, hey, whoa," Jane admonished. "I'm the one that likes what we do, remember? I'm glad you got me into this. And sure, we're in a tough spot that's probably just going to keep getting worse before it gets better, but there isn't anywhere else I'd rather be than standing side-by-side with you against whatever shady bastards have decided to target us. I'll wear any price on my head. As long as we're wearing it together, I don't give a shit. Don't you ever blame yourself, okay?"
"Heh," Daria chuckled softly. "You know, I kind of said the same thing to Quinn about a week ago."
"Guess it must be good advice then."
Daria continued staring at the hat in her hands while Jane let her mind wander for a bit. Muffled sounds drifted in from the kitchen, but otherwise the entire apartment was still and quiet.
"I'm sorry about you and Trent," Jane spoke, barely audible. "I'll stop bugging you two." When Daria looked up in surprise, she added, "I may have been able to make out a few other things. I think Artie just kind of dumped everything into each of us, and it was just the strongest crap that floated to the surface. So the details are a little fuzzy, but I saw . . . well, enough to know it didn't go too well."
"Don't worry about it," Daria said with a pained expression. "It wasn't anybody's fault, and it was years ago. I'm the one that's sorry, that we didn't tell you. We just didn't want a big fuss until we knew it would work out. And it didn't. Nobody's fault.
"And maybe you should keep bugging us," she said with a sigh and a shrug. "It's been five years. People change. And you said he'd like me to come by. Or am I doing that optimistic thing again?"
They shared a small laugh. "I think we can use all the optimism we can get right now," said Jane. "With that and some luck, we might just get out of this alive."
Attention called back to the present situation, Daria nodded and they both stood up. Daria finished outfitting herself with her pack belt and gloves, then scrounged up a few extra energy clips for Jane's pistols. Finally as prepared as possible, the two women made their way back into the kitchen.
Artie was at the table, stuffing his face with a very large sandwich. Two more plates were set across from him. Jane looked at one and was surprised to find that it held some of the food that Daria always kept in stock for when she came over. The other was mostly covered in a thick slab of lasagna, Daria's preferred dinner. Cups sat next to each plate, Daria's filled with sweet tea and Jane's with fruit punch flavored sports drink.
Jane's stomach suddenly grumbled at her, unhappy about the skipped lunch and uncaring as to the reasons why it had been skipped. "Uh, thanks, Artie," she said as she and Daria sat down. "Psychic pizza and psychic supper. We're gonna get spoiled rotten at this rate."
"Eat fast," Daria said, cutting into the meat, cheese, and pasta with her fork. "The sooner we get to Tom, the better."
The taxi ride was paid for in advance and with cash to avoid leaving a hard data trail. The driver was allowed to keep the change as a hefty tip on the condition that he would forget that he ever saw the trio. Standing in a hallway on the opposite side of the structure that held the Slow Loan Bail Bonds offices, Daria and Jane waited as Artie did a quick mental scan of the area.
"Police!" he moaned. "Stakeout! Watching the entrance! Looking for me! Looking for you!" He started jerking his head back and forth, looking as if he were going to bolt.
Jane put a hand on his shoulder and gripped him fast. "Whoa there, little buddy," she said. "Which entrance? Inside or outside?"
Artie shivered, but managed to force himself to stay put. "Don't know, don't know," he told her. "It's so hard to hear it, there's so much noise. It hurts! Maybe one, maybe both!"
"Well, it's a good thing we can always take a third option."
The bounty hunters turned in surprise at the male voice behind them. Tom stood there, looking happily rumpled in one of his cheap suits.
"You scary son of a bitch!" Jane cursed. "Sneak up on us like that again and I might just shoot you on principle! How the hell-?!"
Tom held his hands out. "Before you get the wrong idea, I really didn't ask my parents to do this," he said, "but they paid to have a panic room installed under my office. There's a hidden exit just a little way from here. The police stopped by and told me you two had abandoned your vehicles at the Pizza Palace, so I figured you guys might try to make it here on foot. I've been wandering around looking for you since.
"So," he asked, "why are we hiding from the cops this time?"
"Believe it or not, we weren't going to at first," Daria told him. "A reliable source advised us otherwise, however."
Steering Tom away from the crowded hallway to a side area where they wouldn't easily be overheard, the trio filled him in on the situation. He nodded a few times, but did not interrupt or look surprised at the more fantastic parts of the story.
"Psychic, huh?" he said when they were finished. "Neat."
"Yes, but trust us . . . you don't want to ask for a demonstration," said Jane.
"Fair enough. Plan? Or are we bothering with a plan?"
"Sherman said that he would find us," Daria said, "and considering the backing he apparently has, there's little doubt he will. I think we need to face him on our terms instead of his. All we need from you on that is access to one of the safehouses."
Tom reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a ring covered in slim magkeys. He unclipped one and tossed it to Daria. "Done," he said. "But after you deal with the cartoonish supervillain, what then? If Li and her goons really are working for the same underworld overseers as Sherman, then they'll probably try grabbing you as well as Artie at some point. And . . . well, I keep telling you that I don't want to lose my two star employees. It'll be kind of hard to keep working for me if you have to ditch Lawndale."
A mixture of disgust and loathing clouded Daria's face. "It's not something I'm going to enjoy doing," she said, "but I've got a plan for that, too. Best not to talk about it or try it until we get where we're going, though."
Tom frowned, but kept any misgivings he had to himself. "Alright then. I better get back inside before I'm missed. Try to come back in one piece this time, okay?"
As they left Tom behind, Jane looked over at Daria and wondered just what her partner had in mind.
"What a dump," Jane said, looking around at the dusty interior of the warehouse. "Are we sure this is the right place?"
"The address matches the one in the key's chip," Daria assured her, "but we'll know for certain in a second."
A few crates of varying sizes lay scattered about the main room's three levels. Thanks to the building's location deep in the Undercity of Lawndale, all but the sturdiest of these boxes had been torn open and their contents looted. Despite her question, Jane was sure enough that this was one of the many safehouses Tom had set up throughout the city, meaning that none of the crates had anything interesting enough in them for the locals to make a concentrated effort at clawing their way in.
Artie and the two women walked over to the opposite end of the building and stopped in front of a heavy metal door. The keyreader sitting on the wall next to it had all the signs of attempted forced entry, but more than half of the scars were undoubtedly fake. Daria slid the key through, eliciting a short beep followed by the door sliding to the side.
The real safehouse lay just beyond. Roughly the size of Daria and Jane's apartments and with many of the same amenities, it was set up for at least several weeks of living without any contact with the outside world. It - and the other hideaways like it - were rarely used, but Tom had still found it helpful on occasion to have places where his employees could stay until whatever heat they had gathered died down.
Mob bosses can be pretty vindictive when you put their charges back in jail a second time, Tom had told Jane once. She reflected unhappily on his words as the trio stepped inside.
Holding her guns at her sides, she walked in between Daria and Artie as the former walked through the rooms and corridors, turning on the lights and various domestic machines. The psychic pizza cook had given them another all clear before they'd entered, but Jane still wasn't quite sure they could trust that one-hundred percent. Artie was unfocused and his powers uncontrolled. They could conceivably run into an entire Bolivian army in the back that had been skipped by his mental radar.
The all clear checked out, however. The safehouse's automated systems made sure everything stayed clean, but it looked as if no one had been inside for years, if ever. The trio convened in the den, Daria and Jane taking the couch while Artie perched uncomfortably in a nearby armchair.
They sat in silence for a few minutes before Daria spoke.
The man's head snapped up so quickly that it looked like it might tear straight off his skinny neck and fly across the room. "What? Yes? I'm Artie!"
"Your abilities," said the bounty hunter. "Just how far do they reach?"
He thought about it for a few breaths, then said, "I dunno. I can hear the whole city sometimes. I'm not sure about anything past that."
"That should be enough," Daria assured him as she pulled a small card from her pocket. "Can you concentrate on a whole group of people at once? Say . . . twenty or thirty? Maybe more?"
"More is easier!" Artie replied, nodding his head happily. He then became a little anxious, rubbing the back of his head. "Except I can't hear all the little thoughts," he confessed. "They get mixed up with each other."
"That's fine, too. As long as you can get a good general impression. Now," she said, holding up the card, "would having something that belonged to one of those people make it easier?"
"Mmmm," he murmured, unsure and eyeing the small piece of digital paper. "Not everything. Only some things. Not everything. What is it?"
She handed him the paper. "A business card, of sorts," she said. "Will it help?"
He flipped it over a few times, rubbing his fingers and thumb across the surfaces. After closing his eyes and concentrating a few times, he shook his head sadly and handed it back.
"Worth a shot," she said, taking the card back but not putting it away.
Her tone, already sounding very mellow, took on an almost motherly quality that started creeping Jane out a little. "Now, Artie . . . I know that opening yourself up hurts, and I can only imagine it gets worse the longer you've got your helmet off, but this is very important, understand? I need you to read some people for me, and I need you to go as deep as you can, checking them out. The police would've been bad enough. We really can't afford to make any mistakes with these people."
"No," Jane blurted in surprise, suddenly realizing what Daria had in mind.
"What people?" Artie asked.
"As much as I hate to admit it," Daria told Jane, "they might be our only chance here."
"Are you kidding?!" Jane said, incredulous. "They'll probably chop Artie up worse than this doctor guy is gonna!"
"What people?!" Artie asked again, his already nasal voice rising in sudden panic.
"They probably don't even know about Artie. And if they do, we'll figure out a way to keep him safe. Either way, maybe they can help us after!"
"Sure, if they don't just decide to lock us up forever or use us as bait in their little cat and mouse game!"
"What people what people what people?!" Artie keened sharply.
Daria sighed, her shoulders slumping. "DENA," she said when she turned back to face him. "The Department of Extra-Normal Affairs. They're a governme-"
"Yes yes, I know," he said, his head nervously bobbing. "I have dreams about them sometimes. Know more than they should. Know less than they think. They ask. They imagine. They investigate. They want to believe."
"If you know about them, this'll be easy!" Daria said happily. "What else can you tell us?"
"Um . . . that's it."
Daria sat in frustrated silence while Jane laughed.
"Okay," Daria said, forcing herself to calm down. "Okay. Then we need you to find out more. They have a local department here in the city. I want you to read them all for as long as you can, find out if we can trust them not to screw us over. Can you do that?"
Artie rubbed the back of his left hand, hemming and hawing. "Ah," he finally said, "I suppose I've got to."
Hesitantly, Artie put his long, bony hands on both sides of his StarVerse cap. His breathing became shallow and rapid. Then, with a quick jerk, his cap and foil helmet combo was completely off of his head, revealing a messy shock of orange-red hair.
At first it looked like he was going to be okay. He looked over at Daria and said wonderingly, "Oh my God, it's full of minds," just before his eyes went wild, his teeth clenched shut, and the first full-body spasm hit.
The two women launched into action just before the second erratic jerk, which rocked the chair onto its back legs. Daria leaped over his legs and ran to the kitchen across the hall, yelling "Don't touch his skin! Don't touch his skin!" over and over again. Jane grabbed a fistful of Artie's shirt in one gloved hand and lifted him up. She then snatched up the chair's cushion and kicked the chair itself across the room.
After laying Artie's convulsing body down on the floor with the cushion sitting under his head, she let go of him, turned to brace her back against the couch she and Daria had just recently occupied, and shoved it as far away as she could. With the area now clear, she grabbed onto his shirt again and flipped him over on his side. After a moment's search, she found his tin foil helmet sitting on the floor just a meter away. She snatched it up and jammed it onto his head mid-spasm, but he continued to jerk arrhythmicaly.
"Make way!" Daria shouted as she re-entered the room, an open first aid kit in one hand and a hypodermic patch in the other. Jane helped her hold Artie's head still just long enough to get the patch on his neck without making skin-on-skin contact, then they both stepped back and gave him a wide berth.
After a just a few seconds, the anti-convulsants in the patch had worked their way through his system and his seizure passed, leaving him unconscious. Daria reached down and adjusted the helmet so it covered the top of his head fully, then found the StarVerse cap and pushed it down over the foil.
As she rolled him over onto his back, she said, "I'm calling DENA. At the very least, I'm calling a doctor. Any objections?"
Dammit, Jane thought, easily recognizing the finality her partner's tone. Out loud, she said, "Just one. What about the comm hack?"
Daria stood up and closed the first aid kit she still cradled in her arm. "I've been thinking about that," she said. "Point the first, they were able to jam the tracer on Quinn, but only until I got within a certain distance. It's possible we've been giving them too much credit . . . they're good, but not necessarily great. Point the second, consider what Artie said about there being dirty cops at the PD."
"You might have actually been talking to a police officer," Jane said with a frown. "He just happened to be on Li's payroll. It definitely would have been easier to arrange that than actually phreaking the lines."
"Exactly," said Daria. "And point the last, neither of us may trust government people to run the country right, but I think we can definitely trust them to do everything they can to protect their own asses, and that includes heavy anti-hacking protocols for their communications."
"I still don't think it's a good idea," Jane said. She looked down at Artie. "But we may finally be getting in over our heads here. So sure! Let's do it! I'm excited about becoming government bitches! Woo!"
Ignoring her friend's sarcasm, Daria pulled out her commlink, flipped it open, and dialed in the frequency scrolling across the DENA business card. She listened for a moment, looked like she was about to say something, then closed the comm with a confused expression.
"Uh-oh," Jane said. "Wrong number?"
Daria shook her head. "She said, 'We'll be right there, but get ready, he's coming,' and then hung up."
They stood still for a few moments, trying to puzzle it out, then both heads snapped up. "'He's coming!'" they shouted in unison. They pulled out their pistols just as the hallway filled with super-bright light and a sound like a hyper-charged furnace. When both had dissipated, Jane could see that Daria's glasses had polarized, protecting her eyes from the flash.
"Plasma cannon," Jane snarled. "Stay with Artie."
Jane slid sideways into the hallway that bisected the safehouse, both pistols held in front of her. The front door was missing its top half, the edges of the hole glowing bright red from the heat of the plasma discharge. Sherman stood on the other side, calmly waiting for his rifle to recharge and munching on what looked like a granola bar.
He had just enough time to say "Oh, hey, ba-" before Jane unleashed a volley of laser bolts into his body. He rocked back with each shot as holes burned through his clothes and body. The former remained, but the latter started closing up almost instantly. Sherman's face remained impassive through the onslaught, and he continued to eat as if he were being buffeted by nothing more serious than a strong wind.
Finishing a twenty second count, Jane twirled out of the hall and into the kitchen. Putting her back up against the wall, she checked the charge in her pistols while waiting for the next burst of light and sound.
The strange looking rifle that had been slung across Sherman's back at the Pizza Palace had been a plasma cannon. Jane kicked herself mentally for not realizing that, but then consoled herself with the knowledge that they were individually made and as rare as hen's teeth. Gun nut that she was, she could not really have been expected to know. Other than that, only two things made the situation salvageable.
First, plasma cannons had a half-minute recharge time.
Second, Sherman had said that he didn't intend to kill them or Artie.
Jane could only hope he kept to that. Death by super-heated ionized gas was not a pretty way to go.
A light shoop noise came from down the hallway. In her mind's eye, she could see the small bead as it exited the rifle's barrel then smashed against the bottom half of the door, breaking open and releasing a short-lived burst of atomic fury. Reality took over for imagination as another blast of light flared through the hall, accompanied by a sound like that of a passing freight train.
She whirled back into the hall and opened up on Sherman once again, catching him as he was pulling another granola bar from a hip pouch. One of her blasts cut the bar in half as he held it up to open it. A look of mild irritation crossed his face.
When her clips ran dry, she backed into the den to replace them. "Y'know, chica," Sherman yelled after her, "a fellah might start thinking you don't want him around!"
"How's Art?" Jane asked.
Daria looked up from his inert body. "Still out," she said. "Need help?"
Fresh clips inserted, she stepped out and opened fire just as the mercenary was crossing the gradually cooling threshold. The rifle was hanging from its strap next to the Huon hand cannon on his hip, but he held a smaller pistol in his left hand. He shot back a couple of times, the telltale blue crackle of stun rounds going wide after Jane moved her red targeting dots onto his weapon arm.
Sherman took a step back and moved to the right side of the door, seeking cover. Jane stepped to the side herself to allow Daria to pass. Daria rushed down the hallway, her arm blades out and ready for business. She twisted her upper body as she sped through the melted door frame, sticking her left blade into Sherman's chest and grabbing a handful of his vest at the same time. She continued twisting around and used her momentum to pull him away from the wall, sending them both sprawling. A spray of blood flew into the air as Sherman hit the ground.
Both of them were back on their feet in record time. Daria leaped forward, blades at the fore, but Sherman used his superior reach to pop a fist in her face. She staggered back, blood erupting from a split lip. She recovered just in time to block a right hook with her forearms, then turned her hands around to grab his arm and jerk it along, pulling him off balance. Forcing him across the calf of her right leg completed the maneuver, tripping him and sending him to the floor once again.
Jane passed behind Daria as the smaller woman jumped on Sherman's back and started plunging her blades into his torso. He roared and flung his body back, pushing Daria away, then turned around to line up a shot with his stun pistol. Jane turned around to start climbing a ladder to the next level of the warehouse just in time to see Daria swipe one of her blades at Sherman's arm, completely severing the hand holding the gun.
Jane considered going back down for the pistol, but the hand holding it suddenly melted into a greyish goo. Tossing aside any thought of touching that possibly dangerous and almost certainly nasty substance, she continued clambering up the ladder.
Once she was on the second tier with its height advantage, Jane took one of her pistols back out, settled on one knee, and braced herself against a nearby column. Down below, Daria had directed the fight further out into the middle of the warehouse. In the dim light mildly enhanced by her glasses, Jane could see that Sherman's left hand had already grown back, the new skin looking pink and shiny. Half of a granola bar hung from his mouth, and he stopped every once in a while to pull it in with his lips to take a bite. His plasma cannon was nowhere to be seen.
As the melee progressed, Jane took every chance she could to pop a bolt into the mercenary. He started glaring up at her every time she did so, then finally growled loudly in frustration, pushed Daria away, and scrambled behind a column on the other side of the room. Daria, looking heavily winded, stepped back toward Jane and took the opportunity for a rest. She had been working him full tilt, dealing kill blows and cutting chunks off and out of him, but the only thing there was to show for it was a few small puddles of grey goop littering the floor.
"Damn and hell!" Sherman yelled out from his hiding spot. "I guess you two really do know how to fight! Tommy Sherman's gonna admit it . . . ya may not be much to look at, but ya pack a punch!"
"Is this your concession speech?" Jane yelled back. "'Cause I gotta say, it sucks!"
Braying laughter echoed across the warehouse. "No way," Sherman said. "I was just thinking, maybe we can cut a deal! I know you've got the brain boy squirreled away in there somewhere. Give him to me, and maybe ol' Tommy wasn't able to find you chicks after all! I can always come back for the reward on you later!"
From her vantage point, Jane could see that Daria had started moving amongst the crates on the ground floor, circling around to flank Sherman's position. "Nah, that's cool," Jane shouted. "But why don't you come on out? I've got something else you can have!"
"I'm still smartin' a little bit from all the other gifts you've given me!" he chuckled. "One thing they didn't tell me, just how much this healing thing would itch! Could drive a fellah crazy, y'know what I mean?"
Stun rounds erupted from behind Sherman's column and clipped Daria all along the left side. She fell to the ground, unconscious. Sherman stepped out, holding another stun pistol in his hand.
"Oh, by the way, I'm not stupid," he said. "I brought two of these little babies with me."
He turned and fired two bolts at Jane. Still shocked from seeing Daria fall, she was unable to react before they hit her in her legs. She fell back with a cry, suddenly unable to feel anything below her waist. The sound of boots pounding against plascrete echoed out as the mercenary ran across the room to the ladder that Jane herself had climbed up just a minute before.
Jane's brain threatened to shut down as she lay there, darkness edging in on her vision. Thoughts raced through the narrow tunnel of consciousness, but the only one she could make out clearly was He's coming! He's coming! Oh, God, he's coming!
She tried to shake sense back into herself when she heard his boots and hands hitting the rungs of the metal ladder. She needed to make a plan. She needed to get up and run. Neither her mind nor her legs seemed to be willing to do either. She had weapons, but shooting or cutting didn't do any good when the person wouldn't stay shot or cut.
Last ditch effort it is, then, she thought as she dragged herself to the edge of the tier. Wrapping an arm around the railing, she aimed her pistol at the ascending Sherman. He heard her moving and looked up, grinning maliciously at her.
Then, just before she could fire her first, completely ineffectual shot, he siezed up. His eyes became dinner plates, his jaw clenched, and all of the muscles in his body went taught. After a few seconds like this, his hands opened wide and he fell backward off the ladder. Artie - who had apparently climbed up behind him, reached into his jeans leg, and wrapped a hand around his bare calf - was pulled off after him. They hit the ground together.
Artie recovered after a few moments and scrambled away, but Sherman remained where he was, twitching and making grunting noises.
The feeling was starting to return to Jane's legs. She stood up and wobbled over to a nearby crate that was sitting on a gravsled. She reached down, activated the sled, and pushed it part of the way out over the top of the ladder. After looking down to make sure it was lined up properly, she deactivated the sled, causing it and crate to plummet to the floor below with a thunderous crash.
The high-pitched screaming started when she was halfway down the ladder. When she reached the bottom, she circled around the upended crate to see the top half of Tommy Sherman flopping around, cursing and spitting and wailing at the top of his lungs. Goo oozed from underneath the massive box, the remains of the mercenary's legs. The severed edge of Tommy's upper body twitched and seemed to be pushing outward as the nanobots in his system unheedingly tried to repair the damage. His muscles shrank before Jane's eyes as more and more of bodily tissues were reallocated to the effort.
It was then that Jane realized that the "granola" bars he had been eating earlier must have actually been concentrated doses of base cellular tissue. But it would've taken more bars than he'd had in that entire pouch to regrow almost half of his entire mass.
Sherman's plasma cannon sat nearby, its strap neatly sliced in two by Daria's blades. Jane picked it up, checked to make sure it was primed, and aimed it at what was left of the man.
"Fuck you," she spat at him.
Tommy Sherman managed to let out one last scream before he was consumed in the heart of a miniature star.
Daria came to after a few gentle slaps. "Did we win?" she croaked.
Jane shifted back into a crouch, the rifle laying across her knees. "Yup," she said. "Tommy boy is toast."
As the two women settled into sitting positions up against a nearby crate, Artie joined them. He looked as worn out as Jane and undoubtedly Daria felt. He gave them a feeble thumbs up, then seemed to doze off. Jane felt like drifting away herself, the lingering effects of the stun bolts and the sudden lack of adrenaline in her system conspiring to put her to sleep.
"We need to get Artie out of here," Daria said suddenly, bringing them both around.
"Too late," the former pizza cook said drowsily.
Outside the building, sirens wailed. They came to a stop just outside the main entrance, cut off, and were followed by the sound of tromping boots. Daria and Jane pulled themselves to standing positions and stood between Artie and the huge sliding door. They readied their weapons just before a squad of black-armored men and women burst through the smaller employee entrance a little to the side. "DENA" was printed on the agents' armored chests in bright white block lettering. Each held a compact rifle, which they pointed at the bounty hunters.
"Put your weapons down and get on the floor!" one of the agents yelled.
Jane hocked a wad of spit in their direction. "Come and take 'em, assholes," she growled. "'Cause you're sure as hell not taking him!"
"Of course not," an authoritative female voice cut over the scene. "Unless, of course, he wants to come with us."
The owner of the voice - a woman with short, flaxen hair - and a man with slicked black hair stepped from the middle of the crowd. "Stand down," the man ordered the troops. In response, they lifted the barrels of their weapons to the ceiling and stood at attention.
"Miss Morgendorffer. Miss Lane," the female agent said as she surveyed the warehouse. "I see that you have handled the situation well enough on your own."
Jane was about to fire off another retort when she felt a hand press against her back. "It's okay," Artie said happily. "They're the good guys!"
Daria and Jane looked at each other, confused.
"Your friend is quite correct," the male agent told them. "We mean neither you nor him any harm. We have another round of NDAs to go around, of course-"
"-but past that, the three of you are free to go your separate ways, as you wish," the female agent finished.
The bounty hunters lowered their weapons a bit, but still kept them ready. "Okay, I'm already tired of trying to see you around the elephant in the room," Daria said. "You do know that he's psychic, right?"
"Of course," the man replied without surprise. "He isn't the first we've come across and is very unlikely to be the last."
"Though he may be the most powerful," said his partner. "Just seconds after he contacted us, we started receiving calls all the way from the main HQ in DC, asking about him. His mental scan and info dump on your situation lacked finesse, but there is little doubt that he has quite the broadcast range."
"Stronger and farther than anything we have thus encountered." The male agent allowed himself a wry smile. "No wonder the doctor - whoever he or she may be - is interested in him."
"Okay," said Daria. "So where does that leave us?"
"We have an ambulance waiting outside," the female agent said. "After seeing to any injuries the three of you might have, we'll handle the aforementioned non-disclosure. After that, we hope that you will reconsider our job offer, Miss Morgendorffer."
"The same offer shall be extended to Miss Lane, of course," the male agent added. "We also wish to invite Arthur to join us in a more central role."
Jane hefted her rifle back up. "Sure," she said angrily. "As a guinea pig, right? Cut him open, see how he ticks?"
"No no no!" Artie told her quickly.
The agent woman held a black-gloved hand out. "Certainly not!" she said, approaching aghast. "He already saw our psychic program when he read our minds earlier, and he can tell you that it's nothing like that! We want to help him learn to control his abilities, to refine them. And, in time, to turn them off when he wishes so that he can lead a normal life."
"Unless he decides to join us more permanently, of course," the male agent said. "Admittedly, the life of a DENA agent is anything but 'normal'."
Jane looked at Daria, and Daria looked at Artie. He stared back at them with pleading eyes. "You can trust them," he said quietly. "Trust me. I'm psychic."
Daria and Jane lowered their weapons at the same time. One of the armored men jogged up and took the plasma cannon from Jane, who gave it up with a sigh of relief. She really hadn't wanted to fire the nasty thing a second time.
"We'll need to have our lawyer look over your contracts before we even consider signing them," Daria said as she holstered her pistol.
The female agent frowned and said, "The fewer people who know about this, the be-"
"She will be looking over the contracts," Daria said with finality. "And if there's even one comma or apostrophe out of place, she will come down on your heads like a ton of bricks, government agency or not."
"Besides," Jane added, "if you want us to trust you, you've gotta trust us back. Capiche?"
The agents glanced at each other. "Very well," they said in unison.
The ambulance workers ended up having very little to do besides tend to a few bruises and cuts. Daria had a thin strip of dermal patching on her busted lip, and all three of them had hypodermic patches on their necks, each filled with a cocktail of rejuvenating medicines.
The two field agents were talking to Artie in low tones as he was writing something on a piece of digital paper. Daria sat in the back of the ambulance a few meters away from where Jane was standing. Jane was just about to walk over to the other woman to ask her how she was feeling when Artie suddenly broke away from the agents.
He leaned down next to Daria and started speaking to her quietly. Jane couldn't make out what he was saying, but whatever it was had Daria's attention. She nodded at him, and he said something else just before taking the brim of her hat in one hand and placing the other on the side of her face.
Jane almost cried out in alarm and started to run over to them to pull Artie away, but he took his hand off of Daria's face before she could get more than one foot forward. A tear rolled down Daria's cheek and she clung to his shirt as if it were a life preserver, but then she looked up at him and Jane could clearly see her mouth the words "thank you".
Artie nodded sadly, then turned to walk toward Jane.
"Whoa there, Artster," she said as he approached. "I don't need my brain scrubbed right now. I'm planning on doing that with a fifth of vodka when I get home."
He laughed and then shook his head. "No no no," he said. "You helped Artie, so Artie's helping you. But I don't have ta touch you to do it. Here!" He handed her the paper that he'd been writing on earlier, then pantomimed flipping it over. He waved brightly at her and Daria before rejoining the agents and walking off to their car.
Once they were gone, Jane walked over to Daria. "You okay, amiga?"
Daria looked up, her eyes still moist behind her glasses. "Yah," she said distantly as she wiped her nose on her jacket sleeve. "I think so. What's that?"
Jane shrugged and started reading the paper. After a few moment, her eyebrows shot up. "Holy crap," she said. "It's a list of names. I think . . . I mean, I'm not sure, but I think this is a list of clean cops!"
She handed the list to Daria, who quickly scanned it. "O'Neill, not much surprise there," she said. "Barch, Defoe-"
"Thank goodness. I like her."
"-Smythe," Daria continued, "Nader, Bennett, Markson . . . there's at least five pages here, maybe six or seven. Names, addresses, badge numbers, the works." She looked up. "I think you're right. These are the good guys."
Jane laughed. "Score one for our team!" she said. "We'll be able to avoid the woolly wolves easy with this!"
"Not to mention get Internal Affairs to start looking closer at the ones not on the list," Daria said thoughtfully. "Though DENA had better be helping with that, too, if they want us to sign up."
"This is great!" Then, suddenly remembering Artie's gesture from earlier, Jane took the paper back and flipped it over. Another set of names and locations scrolled by as she watched, fascinated. "Holy crap again . . . "
Jane turned the paper around so that Daria could see profiles on all of the Lane family members flicker past. It had been several years since she had seen any of Jane's estranged siblings or their parents, but all of the photos sliding by appeared to be current. Comm frequencies were included with most of them, and all of them had physical addresses.
With a look of utter wonderment, Jane sat down in the rear of the ambulance with Daria, who put an arm around her friend.
"This is just . . . unbelievable," Jane said after a while. "If he gave this to me, I don't think I can imagine what he gave to you." She looked over at Daria, but the other woman just smiled back sadly.
She nodded in understanding, not wanting to press the issue, and said, "Right. Okay. So." She looked out and saw two more suited agents walking their way. "Looks like they're about ready to cart us back to our rides. You never did say if you wanted to come by my place or not."
Daria looked down before answering. "I think I'm going to have to pass for the moment," she said. "We've had a little too much excitement today for me to go stirring up anymore. But maybe tomorrow. Okay?"
"Okay," Jane said, squeezing Daria's shoulder and giving her a slight smile. "Maybe tomorrow will do just fine."
The agents walked up and introduced themselves - no names, of course - then escorted Daria and Jane back to their company car.
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
December 17, 2009