The following short story is based on characters created and/or copyrighted by Glenn Eichler, Susie Lewis Lynn, and MTV. All other characters were created and copyrighted by Roland Lowery.

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.

"If the people who make the decisions are the people who will also bear the consequences of those decisions, perhaps better decisions will result."
-John Abrams

Strictly Business
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery

Tuesday, September 15
2172 AD


"You can't be serious."

"Absolutely serious."

"If you're not going to take this seriously, I don't think I want to play this game."

"I am taking it seriously. Think about it. The J crew were shapeshifters. Sherman could heal just about any injury. If you throw in some genetic manipulation . . . bam, werewolf. It's the next logical step."

"What about the undynamic duo's power suits?"

"Are you saying that werewolves can't wear suits? Do you have something against werewolves? Are you, perhaps, a werewolf racist?"

Jane rolled her eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry I even asked."

"Ah, but you did," Daria said, taking one hand off the steering wheel to waggle her index finger in the air, "and therein lies your mistake, because now it's your turn. What weird thing do you think we'll be fighting next?"

"Okay, ready for this?" Jane put her hands out in front of her for dramatic effect. "Killer. Robots."

"And you accuse me of not taking this seriously."

"What's wrong with killer robots?!"

"Honestly?" Daria asked. "It's pedestrian. The armed forces have had combat machines for years now, and we've faced some pretty nasty security 'bots ourselves before."

Jane waved her hand in the air dismissively. "Well, I'm talking about way past state of the art, ultra-slick, kill you in three seconds flat robots! And surely this doctor guy is getting bored with the nanotech thing. It's time for him to do something big, right? So, killer robots!"

"I'm not talking to you anymore."

Jane looked over at Daria with a smirk. "I guess that means I don't get to hear how it went last night," she said.

"I guess it doesn't," Daria replied huffily.

"Aw, c'mon, Morgendorffer!" Jane begged. "I wanna know if I can start expecting some more little nieces and nephews anytime soon!"

Daria considered putting her car on autopilot just so she could glare at her partner for the rest of the ride, but decided against it. "It was . . . nice," she finally conceded. "He took me to a show. Some local band he's been thinking about working with."

"Oh, really?" Jane asked, pretending enthusiasm. "So, where they any goo-who cares?! I wanna hear the deep stuff! Did you two get along? Was there chemistry? Are you getting back together? Do I hear wedding bells in the distance?"

"Only if you've started taking hallucinogens," Daria said with a frown. "It was nice. Trent's a nice guy and it was a nice date. But you can't just erase the previous failure of a relationship in one night."

Jane slumped in her seat and sighed. "I know, I know," she said. "Can't blame a girl for hoping."

"Hoping that we'll be happy together, or hoping that he'll move out of your place and back into mine?"

"I'm a big girl," Jane said. "I've got enough room to hope for both."

"Well, I hope that this isn't going to be another big disaster," Daria commented as she turned the wheel and pulled onto the Slow Loan Bail Bonds parking pad. "And yes, that was meant for both Trent and the meeting. Thankfully in my case, one of my hopes doesn't immediately hinge upon the other."

"Some hopers get all the luck," Jane said as she stepped out of the gravcar. She and Daria stretched their legs before entering their workplace's faux-retro environment.

Andrea, the secretary, scowled at them deeply as they walked in, her Gothic makeup working to enhance the look of displeasure. Neither bounty hunter paid her any attention as they walked past to Tom's office. It would have done them no good at all to acknowledge her when she was in that kind of a mood, especially since it was somewhat their fault that her typically low workload had been tripled in the past week. Hosting contract negotiations with a federal organization meant that Slow Loan's records and licenses were getting strained through a fine-toothed comb, and Andrea was the one stuck making sure everything was in order.

"And there are our wayward soldiers now," Tom Sloane said happily as Daria and Jane stepped inside. Their lawyer and the two agents from DENA were already there, waiting.

Helen Morgendorffer smiled warmly at her daughter, who tilted her head forward with her own slight smile. The older woman lifted the bifocals hanging around her neck up to her eyes, glanced over the surface of an expensive looking digipad, and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, if there are no objections, I believe we are ready to begin."

She looked around the room, but everyone was silent, expectant. With a satisfied nod, she said, "Very good. Before I begin, I would like to say that it is my hope that this proceeding will be short and simple. After a week and a half of negotiations, it would appear that we are down to a mere few last items of contention, and ideally we shall be able to come to mutually beneficial agreements on each of them before we leave. Sadly, I know all too well that things are not always ideal. Still, we do what we must.

"The first item of discussion," Helen continued, raising her voice to a more official sounding level, "is the full disclosure of all past, present, and future work done on the multimedia project titled 'Melody: Hunter' - including all hand-written notes and other artistic renderings - to the Department of Extra-Normal Affairs for assurance of compliance to previously signed non-disclosure agreements between the DENA, Daria Morgendorffer, Jane Lane, and other associated parties."

Daria ground her teeth in frustration. It would have to be that one first, wouldn't it? she thought bitterly. The DENA agents had insisted on full access to her notes regarding the story collection she was writing, particularly those that she had been keeping offline on small scraps of paper hidden around her apartment. She was sure that government hackers had already been inside her computer systems several times, digging out what she had written there, despite her best efforts to keep it hidden as well.

She had to begrudge them the point that it was important and in their best interests to keep tabs on her writing . . . she was basing the stories off of recent events that concerned an on-going investigation being held by the department. That didn't mean she had to like the idea of having some government stooge standing over her shoulder and making sure she didn't stray any closer to the truth than was legally acceptable. She had eventually agreed to allow such scrutiny, but only in return for an exorbitant pay raise for her future work as a temporary government-contracted agent.

DENA's lawyers had balked, citing that the amount of money Daria had asked for was well above the pay grade of several of the highest ranked members of their department. For several days over the following week, they had slowly but gradually worked the issue until for a time it seemed that neither side would budge. This day, however, the male of the two agents quoted a pay grade that Daria found surprisingly reasonable. It would be less reasonable after all the other pay adjustments had been made regarding other concessions in the contract, but it was still good enough that she agreed to it with a silent nod to Helen.

"Done," Helen said, noting the change on her pad. "Second item, the issuance of a full-privilege license to Jane Lane for the ownership, transport, and personal use of military grade body armor, specifically that of the XJL-001 model. The concession offered is a one point downshift of Jane Lane's pay grade."

Jane smirked as the female agent listened intently to the commlink bud in her ear. The higher ups at DENA had been extremely unhappy to hear that she owned a bodysuit crafted of custom-made, nearly skin-tight armor of a make of which they'd never heard, and they were even less pleased with her request for a license to actually use it for bounty hunting.

The only reason they hadn't seized the suit and immediately have her thrown in jail was that they conceded it might be of great use in the course of helping DENA in their investigation. Daria and Jane had faced some rather nasty customers over the past couple of months, and the bodysuit had already saved Jane's life once. DENA recognized that it would likely be needed for such a purpose again.

It also hadn't been brought up as part of the contract proceedings until a few days ago, when both sides were already deep enough in that they wouldn't want to quibble over what might otherwise be a deal-breaking illegality.

"Further concessions are requested," the female agent said once her unheard conference was finished. "We will need to know the method in which the armor was procured, including names, places, and dates. We will also need to study the armor at some future point. If it is truly unique, as we understand it to be, then we wish to be able to duplicate it."

"For the good of mankind?" Daria asked, cynicism dripping from her voice like venom.

"For the good of our armed forces and national security," the male agent returned.

The two bounty hunters traded a glance and knew they were each thinking the same thing. Artie, the psychic that they had befriended almost two weeks ago, had promised that the agents of DENA were the good guys, but they were obviously still government through and through.

At least they're pretty up front about it, Daria thought.

"Okay," Jane said, "I'm not gonna tell you where I got it. Sorry, that's just not happening. But I am willing to let you study and duplicate it, as long as you can guarantee that I'll either get it back in one functioning piece afterward or the very first suit you make from studying it goes directly to me."

Neither of the agents looked very enthused, but after a short commlink conversation with the DENA lawyers, they were nodding. "Provided," the female agent added, "you take a two point pay downgrade."

"Sure, sounds good," Jane said with a shrug.

Several other terms were brought up, discussed, and - for the most part - quickly settled. Amongst other things, they haggled for the retainer payment, finalized a line of credit, and argued over what exactly constituted a big enough emergency to pull Daria and Jane away from an unfinished fugitive retrieval job.

Half an hour later, it seemed as if things truly were going to get wrapped up that day. But both sides were still a bit edgy, as they knew that there was one last huge bomb to drop.

"And the last issue to be determined," said Helen, "is the total withdrawal clause proposed by my clients, Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane."

"The answer is still an unequivocal 'no'," the male agent said immediately. "If they are capable to pulling out of the contract at any time for any reason, there is no reason for DENA to enter into the contract at all."

Daria sighed and reached under her glasses to pinch the bridge of her nose. "You know as well as we do that this doctor and the people working for him are coming after us whether we're working for you or not," she said.

"That is why you need us, not the other way aro-"

"We need you?" Jane shot back, incredulous. "Maybe you weren't paying attention this past month. We got an assist on the Taylor and Thompson case, sure. But it was from the cops, not you, and we had it in the bag at that point anyway."

"The three Js were taken out by my sister Quinn," Daria added. "All you did was stop by my home and wave some documents around."

"And Sherman was smashed flat well before you darkened our safehouse doorstep," Jane finished. "Whatever you guys may think, we can take care of ourselves."

"And if you can't?" the agent asked. "If both of you end up dead or part of the doctor's next experiment? It will all be in vain if we aren't there to turn your defeat into a victory."

Jane shrugged expansively. "What do we care?" she asked. "We'll be dead by then anyway!"

"You guys want to use us as bait," said Daria. "We just want to make sure we can protect ourselves in case we end up not liking the hook you stick us on."

The female agent turned to Helen, pleading. "Mrs. Morgendorffer," she said, "surely you have to understand. Your daughter's life-"

"Don't you dare to try and make this a conflict of interest for me," Helen interrupted coldly. "At this moment, she is my client, not my daughter, and my client's life is hers to decide how she wishes to use it.

"She is taking a sizable risk in offering you some of that control. There is concern that working for you will make her and Miss Lane even more of a target. You will not pretend to me that your desire for their employment is purely protective in nature. Daria is absolutely correct. You intend to dangle her and Jane out like worms. Well dressed and armed worms, to be sure, but still a tasty-looking morsel for possible consumption by people that have already been shown to have technology beyond your own and morals questionable enough to use it.

"Even if you decide to try and lock them up for their own good, Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane will have to face these people at some point. You obviously can't stop that, as it seems all your department can do is struggle just to keep up with them. Granted, you can make things easier for my clients, and that is why they are even considering entering a contract with you . . . but the concrete contact they offer with foes you haven't even been able to touch is worth far more to you than your meager help is to them.

"And so, agents, you have a decision to make right here and right now." she said, staring them down and crossing her arms. "Are you going to help? Or are you going to get the hell out of their way?"

As Helen stared the agents down, the room became deadly silent. Jane glanced at Daria, both of her eyebrows threatening to lift straight past her hairline. Tom had a hand covering his mouth, and if the subtle shakes of his body were any indication, he was doing his damnedest not to burst into hysterical laughter.

The male agent's forehead creased. "Ma'am," he said, "we are the government of the United States of America. We do not 'get out of the wa-'"

He broke off as both he and his partner put a hand each to their commlink buds. Their looks of irritation deepened then were replaced instantly by expressions of surprise as they stood at attention. "Yes, sir," they said simultaneously, either forgetting that they could be easily heard on the other end through sub-vocalization or not daring to mumble at whoever it was they were talking to.

They gave another affirmative response a few moments later, then seemed to visibly relax, but only somewhat.

"The department is willing to accept the full-withdrawal clause on the following conditions," the female agent said, clearly unhappy at the turn of events but trying not to show it. "First, on cancellation of the contract, all rights and privileges extended to Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane by the contract shall be rendered null and void immediately. Second, debts accrued on all DENA lines of credit extended to them will be repaid in full. And third, their fugitive recovery licenses will be temporarily suspended for a period of no less than three months, and they will not be allowed to operate in any other capacity for any government body - federal, state, or local - during that time."

" . . . that's it?" Jane asked. "If we back out, all that happens is you take away the toys you're going to give us, we pay you back for all the stuff on our expense account, and then we take a short vacation in the service industry?"

"That's it," the male agent stated simply.

Daria, Jane, and Tom were equal measures confused and skeptical. Helen's expression was unreadable as she waited for the decision. She didn't have to wait long.

"Sure, why not!" Jane said. Daria nodded silently in agreement. Helen made the appropriate changes in the contract on her digipad, waited for the small proposed corrections and revisions by the team of lawyers sitting at DENA's headquarters, and quickly finished up the legalese back and forth. Once done, she handed the pad over to Daria and Jane.

The two bounty hunters skimmed through the document, stopping here and there at certain points that were of particular interest to them. They didn't bother reading the entire thing in full, trusting that Helen and her staff at Vitale, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter, and Morgendorffer would have already found any little traps hidden in the fine print if there had been any.

Satisfied with what they saw, they used a stylus to put their signatures down and handed the pad back to Helen. She in turn handed it to the male agent, who pulled out a digisig pen. Putting the point of the pen on the pad's screen, he placed his thumb on the scanner at the top and pressed the activation stud in the middle. After confirming his identity, it spat DENA's official digital signature out onto the document.

Tom was the last to receive the pad. "And they called me mad when I applied to be a notary," he cackled. "Mad!"

Once the contract was finally made complete and official, everyone gave sighs of relief. Daria and Jane stepped forward to shake hands.

"Welcome to the team," the agents said.

While Tom, Jane, and Andrea worked with the people from DENA to get all the planned arrangements started, Daria caught up with Helen just as the older woman was heading for the building's front doors.


Helen turned, then said a hasty goodbye into her commlink and hung up just in time to catch Daria in a hug. "Oh, sweetie," she said warmly, "not that you're a bad client or anything, but it's so good to have you back as my daughter again."

The two of them separated, Daria turning her face down so the brim of her hat hid the blush threatening to creep across her cheeks. "Yah, well," she said, smiling slightly, "don't let that get around."

"Don't worry, Daria," Helen told her with a wink. "I know how damaging it can be to one's reputation in the criminal underworld when word gets out that their mother loves them." The two women chuckled. "So, was there something else you needed?"

"I just wanted to thank you again for doing this for us," said Daria. "I know things have been kind of hectic for you lately."

Helen let out a good-natured huff and took Daria's hands in her own. Ever since she had finally made partner at her law firm the previous year, it seemed that everyone expected her to go straight back to being the overworked and never-present mother, wife, and friend she had been during Daria's teenage years.

"Honey, you know I'll always have time for you and Jane," she said. "Especially for things as important as this. And don't hesitate to call me if they start yanking you around on anything! I'll nail those bastards to the wall, I don't care what government they think they ar-"

Daria held up her hands in surrender. "Whoa, there, tiger," she said with a grin. "Let me get out of the line of fire first!"

Realizing that she'd been on the verge of shouting, Helen's demeanor softened as she and Daria shared another laugh. They had stood there for a few moments when Helen saw a shadow pass over Daria's face, as if she'd just remembered something. The younger woman's look became distant, but thoughtful, and it struck Helen just how familiar that expression was.

"My God, Daria," she said, putting the palm of her hand along her daughter's jawline. "You look more and more like Amy every day."

Daria's mouth twitched slightly at the mention of her dead aunt, but she kept her eyes locked with Helen's.

"I'm sorry," her mother said, being the first to look away. "I know that in many ways, she was more of a mother to you than I was. I try my best to make that up to you."

"She may have been my second mother," Daria said quietly, "but you will always be my first, Mom. She loved you a great deal, too, and it was never her intention to take your place. And she didn't."

Helen was surprised at the sudden statement of honest emotion. Her relationship with Daria had taken several leaps and strides toward good over the years, but this was entirely unexpected. Still, she saw the conviction in the bounty hunter's eyes. She drew Daria into another hug, then stepped back. "I better go," she mumbled, unable to think of anything else to say. "I love you, sweetie."

"Love you, too," Daria said back. "Give Dad my best."

They waved at each other as Helen stepped out the door. She walked to her gravcar, settled into the driver's seat, and wiped away a single tear before pulling out into traffic.

Tom and Andrea were stepping out as Daria went back into the office. "The twins would like to talk to you two privately," he said as he passed by, then shook his head mock-ruefully. "Getting kicked out of my own office," he laughed. "What a beautiful start to a business relationship!"

"He appears to be in a rather good mood," the male agent commented, raising a well-oiled eyebrow.

"Not all of us are unhappy about our arrangement," said Daria. "You've basically invited Tom to one of the poshest parties in town, and he's ready to start schmoozing. So . . . everything set up?"

The female agent looked up from her digipad. "For the most part, yes," she said. "We have transferred the necessary permissions, authorizations, information, and lines of credit to your personal systems. Hard copy versions of your new IDs should reach you within the week. Please use them sparingly. Your investigations may go better if as few people as possible know that you are now DENA agents."

Jane made a hacking, retching noise. "Aw, jeez," she wheezed, "don't say that last thing again! It makes it all real in my head!"

"So now that we're officially in the loop," Daria said, "I suppose it would be all right if we asked a few questions?"

"Of course," the male agent said with a nod, "though we can't promise to answer everything."

"Of course," Daria echoed. "So, how's the witch hunt in the LCPD going?"

The female agent frowned. "Quite poorly," she said. "Their Internal Affairs division is having to move slowly. There are too many people on Artie's list to pull them all in for questioning at one time, and even if they could, it would undoubtedly tip off whoever is running the show and make things even more difficult."

"So far, only two low-ranking officers have been pulled from duty and indicted for connections with a criminal organization," said the male agent. "It would seem, however, that those connections have nothing to do with the two of you. As for the rest, if Artie is correct in fingering them as crooked, then they and their second employers are hiding their tracks extremely well."

"What if the IA is in on it, too?" Jane asked.

"We've considered that," the female agent replied, "and have been checking them with the list as well. We are also considering launching our own investigation if they don't receive any results in the next few weeks."

"Hmm," Daria mumbled. "Well, we have a few avenues of our own we can explore, though it may take about as long to figure anything out."

"Hey, speaking of the Art machine," Jane said suddenly, "how's our little psychic pizza boy doing these days?"

"He's doing well, considering," said the male agent. "His training is proceeding as slowly as our investigation. He's simply too powerful for the standard battery of tests and exercises, so our people are having to adjust everything up until they've reached something appropriate to his level."

"He is still unfocused. We have attempted to utilize his precognition to bring this case to a close faster, but all he can tell us is that the two of you are the most important pieces of the puzzle." The female agent shook her head. "He can't tell us how, exactly, or even if that means that you will be successful."

"It may mean that you will be captured and used in some substantial way to further the doctor's plans," the male agent said grimly.

Jane gave a thumbs-up. "Hey, thanks for the vote of confidence!" she said sarcastically.

"He doesn't seem to think it's the most likely outcome, if it's any consolation."

"Beautiful," Daria said without enthusiasm. "Now, I know that you've had some of your thugs following us around for the past week. Have they actually caught anyone trying to cash in on us?"

"Two people so far," the female agent confirmed. "Lower echelon criminals that you had previously arrested. Obvious revenge motivation. We believe that the way you handled Tommy Sherman has scared off the bigger players for the moment."

"But they will be back," the male agent added, then held up a hand. "And before you start complaining about having DENA agents trailing you, we will be pulling them back. We simply wanted to protect our potential investment. Now that we can officially outfit you, the extra protection will not be necessary."

"No point in trying to cover up the bait," Daria said, calling back to the earlier analogy. "Okay, one more question and then I think we're done here, right? Is there anything you need us to be doing immediately?"

The female agent shook her head. "We'll need you to come in to headquarters tomorrow for a more detailed briefing, outfitting, and to sign a few more things, but for now nothing specific besides go about your daily routine and start working on the contacts you mentioned before."

"Best we get to doing that, then," Daria said. She touched the brim of her hat. "Agents."

"Good luck," the male agent said as they all prepared to leave the office. "And be careful out there."

Thursday, October 1
2172 AD

The golden bolt of compressed energy passed close enough to Daria's face to singe her eyebrows and cause her skin to itch. If she hadn't closed her eyes a second beforehand, she would have been temporarily blinded as well as mildly discomfited. A high-pitched giggle echoed through the construction area as Daria pulled her head back behind cover.

"Told you," Jane said from the other side of the opening.

"Why don't you try walking out there with your fancy armor, then?" Daria snarled back.

"And ruin my coat for the umpteenth time for some third-rate hooligan?" Jane asked, acting affronted. "I think not."

A sing-song voice lilted across the half-finished building, echoing slightly off the plasteel panels and interrupting the bounty hunters' conversation.

"Perhaps you first transgressed the laws of hospitality! All Ghosts instinctively detest the Man that fails to treat his guest with proper cordiality! If you address a Ghost as 'thing' or strike him with a hatchet, he is permitted by the King to drop all formal parleying, and then you're sure to catch it!"

The last few words reverberated, then fell silent. For several long seconds, all that could be heard was the rushing of air and whining engine noises of grav-vehicles passing through the nearby skylane.

"What the hell was that?" asked Jane.

"Phantasmagoria," Daria said, equally perplexed. "It's a poem by Lewis Carroll."

"The Alice guy?"

Daria nodded. "Maybe he's tweaking?"

"It's not just some current high, if that's the case," Jane said. "Probably a hacked ARG. Maybe Fun or Astral. What's the plan?"


The criminal informally known as the Smiler jumped through the opening Daria and Jane were flanking. His wide, manic grin was framed by a green cap, red shirt, and bloodshot eyes covered with a pair of AR glasses. Daria jerked her head back, pulling her body down with it to avoid the three laser blasts that were fired point blank at her. She dropped prone as the bolts flew harmlessly over her, then kicked out with her legs, nailing her assailant in the knees.

It was like planting her feet against plascrete. His legs barely moved, and he merely giggled, giving no indication that she had caused him any pain whatsoever. A shower of stun blasts hit him from behind as Jane opened fire, but the only effect they had was to push him back forward a little.

He hurled his free hand in a wide arc behind him as a fist, striking Jane across the cheek and sending her spinning. Daria took advantage of the momentary distraction and lashed out again with her boots, this time directing both of them at a single shin. There was a sharp crack as the bone snapped, sending him down to one knee.

The grin remained plastered across his face, but the way his eyes suddenly bulged and his breath rushed between his teeth in a muffled scream, it was obvious he felt it that time. Further capitalizing on her position, Daria gripped the Smiler's weapon arm between her feet and twisted around violently, turning his hand and forearm until he dropped the pistol.

Jane, having recovered from getting hit, came up from behind and snatched his AR glasses away. Two thin leads coming from the arms went taut and pulled free from the infojacks embedded in his skull right behind his ears. Suddenly bereft of the information flow, he screamed properly and dropped to the ground, unconscious from a combination of pain and dumpshock.

As Daria stood up and brushed herself off, she saw Jane's leg twitch as if she wanted to kick the Smiler while he was down. "Under arrest, asshole!" the dark-haired woman yelled at his prone body, then rubbed her face where he'd hit her.

Daria's commlink buzzed. She sighed and opened it as Jane rolled their quarry over to put a pair of handcuffs on him.


"Aaaaaah, excellent," an oily voice slithered in her ear. "I was hoping that you would be in, my lovely lady. I'm not interrupting anything, am I? Perhaps a candlelight dinner for one in desperate need of a-"

"Hello, Upchuck," she interrupted with a grimace. Jane looked up from her work and made a disgusted face to which Daria nodded in agreement. "What have you got fo-" She stopped herself and started again. "Have you got any information for me, or am I going to have to rudely but happily hang up on you?"

"Business before pleasure? Rrrrawrrr, feisty!" Charles trilled. "Suffice it to say that I have finally had a rather interesting breakthrough on that research case you legitimately hired me for some few weeks ago. I believe that I may at last have the answer you have so fervently sought, much like my own heart seeks for the path to yours, mon cheri."

"Really," Daria said evenly, trying to keep rising excitement out of her voice. "And that answer would be?"

"Tut tut, my dear!" Charles admonished her. "Loose commlinks sink legal and entirely above-board partnerships! I would suggest a face-to-face meet in order to facilitate the exchange of information . . . and, if you're up to it, perhaps the exchange of a few bodil-"

"Stop talking," Daria growled through her teeth. "We'll be there. One hour." She heard the first part of yet another lewd comment, but the rest of it was cut off by the snap of her commlink closing. "Got it figured out?"

Jane looked up from her digipad. She held the Smiler's AR glasses in her other hand. "Yup," she said. "Hacked game, like I thought. Some Carroll-based bit of nonsense. He thought we were the Walrus and the Carpenter. I was the Carpenter."

"Sure you were," Daria said sardonically. "Okay, let's get him stuffed in the car and drop him off. We've suddenly got more important things to do."

"Why, Daria and Jane! How very nice to see you!"

"Hello, Sergeant O'Neill," Daria huffed as she and Jane dragged the still unconscious Smiler between them. "Can we get some help here?"

"Oh!" O'Neill said, his painfully cheerful face dropping into a cherubic look of surprise. "Of course, right away!"

He snapped his fingers and called to two nearby officers, who took the criminal off the bounty hunters' hands. Both women heaved sighs of relief and leaned up against the sergeant's desk.

"Careful with him!" Jane shouted to the retreating officers as she tossed the Smiler's glasses in the middle of O'Neill's paperwork. "He's a tweaker, and he's gonna wake up with a nasty mad-on! Just kick him in the shin if he gives you any trouble!"

"We patched up his leg in the car," Daria told the sergeant, "but he'll probably still need to be taken to the infirmary. You got our report already?"

"Oh, my, yes," O'Neill confirmed. "Though I am a bit perplexed why you girls brought him here instead of going to the 5th Precinct. It was much closer to where you picked him up."

"Good ol' 6th here was on our way to another engagement," Jane said with a smile. And according to Artie's list, we can't trust the sergeant at the 5th any further than we could throw her, she thought to herself. "Anything else we need to do while we're here, Tim?"

"No, I don't believe so," the sergeant said as he carefully picked the AR lenses off his desk with his thumb and index finger. "We'll have the rest of the paperwork transmitted to Slow Loan. I do hope that you gi-"

"Well, well, WELL! If it isn't my FAVORITE fellow bounty hunter and her SIDEKICK!"

Daria and Jane turned around slowly, rolling their eyes and mentally steeling themselves for the coming confrontation. Standing behind them was a tall, thin man with greying black hair under a brown fedora. His grin was like that of a bare skull, and his right eye was bulging slightly as he squinted the left.

"Hey, Tony," Jane said with a long-suffering sigh. "What's happening?"

"What's HAPPENING, Miss Lane," DeMartino said, "is that I was bringing in a fugitive I had RECOVERED, when-"

"Dammit!" Jane suddenly swore. "I'm the sidekick again, aren't I? Why am I always the sidekick?" she asked Daria, who simply shrugged in return.

DeMartino's grin wavered just a bit. "Yes," he said. "ANYWAY. As I was SAYING, I just so HAPPENED to notice the two of you waltzing in like you still belonged here! Shouldn't you LADIES be off polishing your shiny new badges with the rest of the SECRET AGENTS?"

Daria groaned. "Okay, first off," she said, "we're just making a regular drop off. We're still working for Slow Loan, and we have every right to be here, as you perfectly well know. And second, even if we were secret agents, wouldn't that necessarily mean that we wouldn't be able to tell you that we were?"

"Oh, yes, so very CONVENIENT for you, isn't it?" he asked, stepping up to lean over them as his grin slowly turned downward. "You get to stand there, feeling all kinds of SUPERIOR and pretending you're NOT, but all the WHILE you're soaking up that fat government PAYCHECK while the REST of us are still SAVING UP to recharge our spare energy clips!"

He stood rigid for a few moments, snorting heaving breaths through his flaring nostrils. "Will you promise me something?" he said, sounding but not looking any calmer. "When you two are in DC, acting as President Masters' personal bodyguards, would you be DECENT enough to at least get me his AUTOGRAPH so I can BURN it to keep warm after I'm FLAT BROKE and living at the very BOTTOM of the UNDERCITY?"

"Heck, Mr. D," Jane said cheerfully, "we'll get you two!"

DeMartino turned on her and snarled menacingly. She smirked back and was about to make another quip when O'Neill broke into the conversation.

"Now, Anthony," the sergeant said in a sickening, syrupy tone that he most likely thought sounded very reasonable, "I really don't think that being antagonistic is the best response in this or any situation, is it? We should be building bridges with understanding, not burning them down with . . . um, with misunderstanding!"


"Well, er . . . " Perspiration almost literally burst out of O'Neill's forehead as DeMartino fixed him with a steely, bloodshot eye. "That is to say, we don't know for certain that they are working for the federal government, do we?"

Jane and Daria traded surprised glances at the almost coherent support. "Yah," Jane said, picking up the line of thought. "Do you have any proof that we're these so-called 'secret agents', what with the money falling out of our bodily orifices?"

The teeth in DeMartino's bottom jaw seemed to suddenly have a marked dislike for his upper teeth, as they started grinding furiously against each other. "I will GET this EVIDENCE you desire," he huffed, "and then you will have to ADMIT it and APOLOGIZE to me . . . and maybe, just MAYBE . . . you could put in a good word for me?"

"I suppose we could do that," Daria said, patting the man sympathetically on the shoulder. "I'm sure the government could use yet another kill-happy psycho on their payroll. Now, if you don't mind," she said quickly before he could retort, "we really do have someplace else to be."

"No rest for those of us on her majesty's secret service, I'm afraid!" Jane said loftily as they walked around either side of DeMartino and exited the building.

"I really REALLY hate those two," DeMartino growled.

O'Neill reached across the desk and said, "There, there, Anthony, I kno-"

"DON'T TOUCH ME," the bounty hunter snapped, swatting at the other man's hand.

"Tony's such a sweet fellah," Jane said as she and Daria pulled onto the skylane. "You just want to reach out and pinch those craggy ol' cheeks, don't ya?"

"I think I'm vetoing any further conversation until we get where we're going," said Daria. "I'm sure the people in the lane below us would appreciate it if I didn't open the door and vomit all over their windshields."

Jane laughed as they descended into the city, skirting the upper edges of the Undercity. Eventually, the twilight cast by the massive colony structures above and around them was cut through by garishly lit signs advertising various businesses, most of them pertaining to not-quite-shady entertainment ventures. Daria homed in on the bright neon purple and orange of the Lucky Llama night club/strip joint and parked out front.

Charles Ruttheimer III was waiting for them at his usual table, just close enough to one of the stages to drool over the dancers but far enough away from the main flow of the club to conduct business privately. Not that Charles was really one for being inconspicuous, as his powder-blue leisure suit, flaming red hair, and million watt grin attested. Daria and Jane both felt fairly certain that anyone who used enough teeth whitener that they could double as a police spotlight didn't have stealthy interactions in mind.

Regardless, Charles had long been a source of reliable information coupled with discretion. Early in their business arrangement, the bounty hunters had privately questioned whether or not he would sell them out as readily as he sold out so many others for the right price, but on several occasions his loyalty to them had been tested and come out the other end intact.

The women knew, however, that this was only because Charles wanted to get in their pants worse than anything else in the world.

"Why hellooooo, ladieeeeeeees," he greeted them as they slid into his booth. "I knew that my raw animal magnetism would bring you back e'er long!"

"Calling us for a business meet probably helped a little, too," said Daria. "What did you find out?"

"Names, my dear! I have found names for you!" Reaching into his lurid jacket, Charles pulled out a digipad and waved it at them. "Particularly, the names of those dastardly scoundrels who hired Kevin and Brittany for their crime spree and the dear departed Tommy to seek you out. Not to mention they are the owners of the factory from which Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie were conducting their rather nasty business!"

He moved the pad out to the middle of the table, then snatched it away as Jane reached for it. "Tut tut, dear heart!" he said, waggling his finger at her. "I'm afraid that this information is almost as juicy as your own luscious selves, and thus I must demand a larger slice for its procurement. Its very difficult procurement, I might add."

"How much?" Jane asked.

Charles appeared to think about it for a moment. "Oh, I would say approximately two million credits would cover it," he said, flashing a nasty grin. "Or, we could alwa-"


The lothario's face dropped in surprise and disappointment. "But . . . I didn't get to make my inappropriate advance," he squeaked.

"Do you want the money or not, Upchuck?" Daria asked angrily. "We've got plenty available to us. We can get more. Just name another price or take the two million, but either way stop wasting our time. We need those names."

"Um," Charles said. He swallowed, suddenly feeling very small in the face of the intense glares he was receiving from the other side of the table. Given his typical nature, he was used to being given all forms of dirty looks from women, but never before had he felt so certain that if he pressed things any further, he would suffer permanent bodily harm of some type.

"One million," he said quietly. "Perhaps it is not prudent at this juncture to be too greedy." He slid the pad across the table and snatched his hand back as Jane picked it up. "Payable whenever," he added quickly. "I'm in no hurry."

Daria and Jane ignored him as they scrolled through the information displayed on the pad's screen. Their frowns deepened as they continued reading until Jane finally let out a harsh, incredulous laugh and slammed the pad down forcefully.

"Bullshit," she said accusingly.

Charles held his hands up protectively. "I assure you, everything there is entirely factual," he simpered. "Would I lie to you? Especially when it looks like you want to chew up my genitalia, and not in the good way? Just look at the attached pictures, graphs, and other files!" he insisted. "It took forever for my people to dig through all the shell companies and redirection tactics, but you can go through all of it yourself and duplicate the results!

"If you can't, then you don't have to pay me at all, but I assure you," he said, regaining some of his bravado, "it will check out."

Daria shook her head slowly. "You want us to believe that two of the youngest trillionaires on the planet, the daughter and son-in-law of one of the most famous industrialists living in the North American continent, people with everything to lose and nothing to gain from engaging in crimes ranging from petty to federal . . . you want us to believe that Michael and Jodie Landon are the ones responsible for the things that have been happening?"

"Not solely responsible," Charles said, leaning across the table, "but they are the money and muscle behind it. Look at the files. For the past six months, large amounts of materials have been purchased by Landon Enterprises, materials that are technically legal, but definitely shady if you know what you're looking for! Check it out for yourself!"

Still skeptical, Daria picked up the digipad and started sifting through the data again. After a few moments, she grunted in surprise and showed the screen to Jane.

"Half a ton of . . . unstructured medical nanobot kits," the dark-haired bounty hunter read aloud sourly. "I'd ask what they needed with so much, but I think we all know the answer to that."

"And it's not the only unusual item on the list," Daria said. "Several factories were bought up and then either shut down or put through conversion processes, the exact details of which have yet to be publicly identified. Large orders for weapon platforms, more satelitte launching systems that anyone could ever need, and . . . damn. They've stored up four times as much base cellular material than nanobots."

"They've definitely been gearing up for something," Jane snarled. "Why haven't the feds already been crawling all over them?"

Charles held his hands palms-up. "They are all perfectly legal purchases," he told them. "And while they are somewhat excessive, they are also not unexpected for the company. The interests of Landon Enterprises extend into virtually every industry on the planet, including weapons construction, telecommunications, and medical supply. Most of their purchases are written off as being used for government contracts and humanitarian efforts."

Daria wiped a hand across her face and said, "Okay. This is terrifyingly plausible, and it would even explain a few things, like why the LCPD's Internal Affairs can't find any links to the standard organized crime set. The Landons must have their bribes and other hooks set up to look like perfectly above-board stuff so there wouldn't be a single trace of wrong-doing."

"How are you so sure it's Michael and Jodie, though?" Jane asked Charles. "Couldn't it be Old Man Landon himself?"

Charles shook his head adamantly. "If you look through all the memos and requisition forms regarding the purchases, you'll find their signatures all over everything," he said. "If Andrew Landon has anything to do with it, he's routing everything through them."

"Hunh. Well, I guess then at least if we catch them out, we cripple him," Jane said.

"If you can catch them out on anything," Charles said apologetically. When the two women glared at him again, he explained, "While I was able to find connections between them and the criminal elements you have dealt with, sadly these connections will not stand up in a court of law. Mostly circumstantial, you see. They're very good at covering their tracks!"

Jane sighed. "Why do things have to be so complicated?"

"So we find some evidence and uncomplicate them," Daria said. She turned to Charles and held up the pad. "Thanks, U- . . . Charles," she said. "This helps out a hell of a lot. We'll get you your two million creds as soon as we can, and I'll even try to talk Jane into going out with you sometime. I'd volunteer, but I'm already seeing someone."

"What?! Hey, hold up!"

Daria shuffled the cursing and spitting Jane out of the booth, leaving behind a shocked Charles. After they were gone, he settled back in his seat and reassumed his normal lusty grin. The promise of a date with Jane had most likely been a joke, but Daria had called him "Charles" instead of the derogatory "Upchuck", leaving him feeling all warm and fuzzy in certain body parts.

"Oh, yes, Mr. Ruttheimer," he said, waggling his eyebrows, "you've still got it!"

Wednesday, October 7
2172 AD

Quinn Morgendorffer was a predator, sleek and grinning, never stopping, and devouring everything in her path.

She barely gave the secretary at the front desk a glance at her GINN ID before blowing past and passing through the security corridor. Sensors of virtually every kind passed by in a blur as she strode purposefully toward the other end, never looking behind her or to the side. Her crew had been hand selected by her from the best available, and if they weren't able to keep up, then the best simply weren't good enough.

The security sensors read the chips in their press passes, scanned them for weapons, cataloged every piece of equipment capable of recording sound or images, and let them through without a hitch. Quinn's confident smirk deepened as she and her crew stepped into the first elevator and set it to take them to the top floor.

In the month since Quinn had joined the Greenstar Investigative News Network as a reporter, she had already gained a great deal of both fame (at the network and with their viewers) and infamy (with people she had interviewed and those she might potentially interview). Her reputation from Steel Fashions magazine had preceded her, allowing for a certain amount of prestige from the beginning, and receiving a surprisingly glowing recommendation from Sandi Griffin, her former editor-in-chief, had definitely been a boost.

It had been on her first assignment, however, that she had reached top reporter status and near super-stardom. She had been handed a mid-level story - not low, as a show of trust in her abilities, and not high, so as not to overwhelm her - and with a few short interviews had turned it into a blockbuster segment that later precipitated a full-out media frenzy. Even Quinn herself thought that it was a little early to be throwing around phrases like "potential award winner" and "best news segment in the history of the network", but that didn't stop people from doing so.

Her next three assignments had all been high profile and had each been handled in a similarly spectacular fashion. And as each went by, it became more and more apparent why she was hot stuff. Her interviewing skills were top-notch, her delivery was clear and concise, and she had charisma oozing out of every part of her personality, but it had become obvious that it was her incisive, almost prescient questions and unerring nose for dirt that allowed her to drive the stories home.

Her sources were always impeccable. They were well-documented, properly consulted, and always correct in the information they gave. The thing that confused followers of Quinn's rapidly rising star was exactly how she knew to approach those sources with exactly the right questions in the first place, as if she'd already known what she would find. Rumors had already begun to spread that she had elaborate spy network working for her, and searches for those shadowy informants were underway, though nothing had yet been found.

Quinn's secrets, if she had any, were well hidden. Her reputation was beyond sterling. And her position at Greenstar had been made secure for many years to come. Even if she started cranking out nothing but clunkers, she felt certain that she could continue working for the network for a very long time while they hoped and prayed she would regain her touch one day.

Not that she intended to start putting out bad stories, purposefully or otherwise. If nothing else, the interview she was currently going to could do nothing but propel her career to even greater heights. Not at first, perhaps. But she had confidence that the appropriate information would come to light in time, and probably in the most spectacular fashion possible.

She had faith that things would go wrong, and in doing so make everything go absolutely right.

The elevator opened with a soft ding, and Quinn poured out through the doors like water flowing from a burst dam. The secretary blocking her way this time looked a great deal more formidable that the one Quinn had breezed by downstairs, but she simply stood before him confidently and held out her ID in a way that screamed This is my I Can Do Any Damn Thing I Want badge, buddy.

"You're half an hour early," he said huffily.

"My people need time to set up," Quinn replied. "You don't want your superiors to be seen improperly lighted in billions of households across the world, would you? They say that once you lose your image, you may never get it back. And I would certainly hate to see anyone get damaged in the fallout caused by a loss of image. Wouldn't you?"

The man sneered ever so slightly, just enough so Quinn could see the bare edge of his displeasure. "They are in a meeting at the mome-"

"Excellent. I'm sure that whoever they are with will be among my future interviewees anyway. I can start laying the groundwork right away, and it will make things easier on all of us." Quinn flashed her perfect teeth at him. "Including you."

Face frozen in an expression of pure neutrality, the secretary leaned over his desk and pressed a button. "Mr. and Mrs. La-"

"Send them in."

" . . . yes, sir."

His cheek twitched as he pressed another button, causing a section of the wall behind him to slide away. An enormous office sat on the other side, opulent without being ostentatious. Amongst a small collection of modern art pieces and priceless antiques, Quinn could see both models and real versions of a number of Landon Enterprises' most successful products. Once she had stepped past the threshold, a volumetric display to her right caught her attention as it cycled through blueprints and other architectural displays of buildings that the company had either built, reconstructed, or otherwise funded.

Tearing her gaze away from her surroundings, she zeroed in on her targets and led her crew forward. There had been, of course, no meeting taking place. Such stalling tactics were expected, but Quinn had been happy to hear all pretense drop when she had pressed the issue. Time was too valuable a commodity to be wasted on pointless social moors.

"Miss Morgendorffer," Michael Landon greeted her warmly as she approached his desk. "A pleasure to have you here. Please, have a seat."

"Thank you," Quinn said as she settled into one of the plush office chairs across from him. "You don't mind if my crew starts setting up, do you? I thought we might just sit and chat before we begin, without any pressure."

"Of course," he replied with a smile. "Please, take all the time you need. My wife is handling most of our business for today, but I think I can deal with a bit of light conversation on my own."

Quinn glanced over at where Jodie Landon was standing a meter or so behind the desk, holding a wide-screened digipad and wearing a slick pair of LE Bizfirm AR glasses. Her throat gently flexed and relaxed every once in a while as she subvocalized into the commlink pressed firmly into her ear, most likely directing several projects at once. Quinn didn't fool herself into thinking that the other woman wasn't also completely aware of what was going on in the office around her. Several people had made the mistake of underestimating Andrew Landon's daughter, and few of them were still in business to sell the tale.

With a nod, Quinn set her people to task. Stacy Rowe, her faithful camerawoman, immediately began directing her two technical assistants to pasting light sources to various surfaces on and around the desks. Under the brunette's efficient management, even the most inexperienced worker couldn't help but do an exemplary job.

As the others scurried around them, Quinn turned back to Michael and said, "So, Mr. Landon, what's it like being a vice president in one of the world's biggest corporations?"

"Busy," he chuckled. "And please, call me Mack. But to be honest, it's challenging but rewarding. There are days I'd like to just chuck it all and run an ice cream truck again. But then I remember the ice cream truck was even more hectic and didn't pay quite as much."

Quinn laughed. "From frozen treats to world class products that can be found in virtually every household and government instillation across the nation," she said wonderingly. "I've read all of the biographies, of course, but it's always nice to hear it straight from the source. How did you get from there to here, Mack?"

As he told her the story in his soothing voice, she had to admit to herself that he was definitely a charming man. She had researched hours of footage of both of the Landons, so she'd known a little of what to expect, and she hadn't been disappointed. Mack was as smooth and charismatic as Jodie was proving to be cold and aloof.

"Three minutes," Jodie said flatly some time into the conversation, the first thing she had said out loud the entire time. "Will your people be ready in time, or should I send for some of my own assistants?"

Quinn matched the severe tone with one filled to the brim with syrupy sweetness. "They'll be done in just a moment, Mrs. Landon," she said, each word dripping with honey. She had learned long ago while doing the verbal tango with Sandi that trying to take someone like that on their own turf rarely worked. If Jodie was going to play the interview in full-on bitch mode, Quinn was ready to bury her in niceness until she screamed for mercy and gave up every secret in Landon Enterprises' history.

Mack shrugged apologetically as one of the techies checked the microphone mounted on the back of his suit lapel for the fifth time. The other of Stacy's assistants meanwhile leaned over to whisper in Quinn's ear. The reporter nodded and turned back to the Landons.

"Would there happen to be a smokeroom nearby that Bertha and Prudence could use?" she asked.

"Of course," Mack said, indicating the office exit. "My secretary can direct them."

The two techies nodded silently at him in thanks, then stepped outside. The secretary was still in a bit of a foul mood, but he pointed them down the hall and gruffly told them the room number. A few moments later, the two women walked into the sizable but empty lounge and let out twin sighs of relief.

"Gotta admit," one of them said, unzipping the front of her work coveralls, "the new job sure has changed that sister of yours for the better."

"It was almost like watching our mom at work," the other chuckled, pulling down her own zipper.

As "Bertha" stood watch, "Prudence" walked over to the nearest mini-fridge and opened it to find a small black bag fitted with a scan-lock. She grabbed a couple of sodas from one of the shelves and took them and the bag back over to the other woman. One thumbprint scan later and the container was open, revealing a small collection of various weapons and tools.

"Did you miss me, girls?" Jane asked, pulling her dual pistols out and giving each of them a quick kiss.

Daria smiled and shook her head as she slid her arm blades under her coverall sleeves. "Thank goodness for disgruntled security employees," she said with a grin and a sip of her pilfered soda. "Y'know, I might be able to get used to this secret agent stuff."

Once they had all their gear stowed away, they activated the second stage of their disguises. The color of their coveralls shifted from a light grey to a darker blue as the logos and IDs on the chests changed to those of janitors employed by Landon Enterprises. Daria's hair changed from red to black and Jane's went from brunette to blonde as the nanobots that had been strewn throughout altered their appearance.

Then came the uncomfortable bit. The skin on their faces began to itch as the nanopaste covering them shifted into its second configuration. Once they looked nothing like their previous selves - which had also looked nothing like their actual selves - Jane and Daria both removed their GINN AR lenses and replaced them with deceptively low-grade-appearing LE work glasses.

A pair of navy blue caps completed the look, allowing the two women to step back out where the security cameras were working without fear of discovery. Bertha and Prudence would be missed when the interview was over, but Quinn was prepared to make it last for hours if the need arose and the bounty hunters intended to be back long before that became necessary.

Pulling up a map of the floor on their glasses, they followed it to a nearby janitor's closet, where they collected a few items to make it seem as if they were legit. One of these items was a gravcart covered in cleaning supplies that Jane pushed along as Daria followed her.

The ID badges embedded in their outfits easily fooled each sensor they passed, allowing them to pass effortlessly as they circled around to a different elevator than the one they had come up in. The secretary in front of the Landons' office wouldn't recognize them as being the techies who had come in with Quinn, but he had seemed at least sharp enough to know whether or not any other employees should be passing near his area. The other people that they passed were apparently not quite as on the ball, ignoring the two women completely.

Elevator found, they entered, took it down several floors, and then disembarked. The difference between levels was immediately apparent. While the upper floor had been plush, carpeted, and modestly decorated, the floor they were entering was all metal and plascrete, giving off an air of clinical austerity. The halls were wide, high-ceilinged, and virtually empty of personnel. Daria was fairly certain she had seen a lab coat flutter around a corner behind them at one point, but otherwise, she and Jane walked the corridors alone.

They passed several doors as they wended their way through the floor's maze-like structure, but ignored them all as they continued following the maps written across the insides of their glasses.

"Here we are," Jane breathed as they finally reached their destination. An extra-wide cargo door stood before them, its silvery plasteel face looming in the harsh glare of the overhead lights.

Once they had been pointed at LE, the Department of Extra-Normal Affairs had conducted a low-level, high-stealth search through the Landons' laundry and had come to the same conclusion as Charles and his underworld minions . . . something stunk. Stepping up their invasion into LE's systems, DENA had stumbled across several areas that were covered in enough security that even the government hackers were leery about trying to break through.

The digital cowboys had been able to locate some of the real world areas connected to a few of the encrypted databases, however, one of which Daria and Jane were standing outside. It had been determined that it would be the easiest to reach - which it had - but that that might mean it would be that much more difficult to get back out.

Due to the possible danger, two DENA agents had originally been tapped to attempt an entry. They had planned a late-night raid when the employee population of the building would be at its lowest, to which Daria and Jane had immediately reacted negatively. At first in a joking manner, berating the secret agents for acting like common thieves instead of vid-star super spies, but later seriously as Daria developed the idea for a full daytime infiltration.

The powers-that-be at DENA balked, naturally, but the bounty hunters were finally able to convince them that simply learning the Landons' secrets wouldn't be enough. DENA needed Quinn's help for the operation to work, and the only way to get that was to let Daria and Jane do the job themselves.

While Daria professed that she wanted to be the one to take Mack and Jodie down personally, Jane claimed that she just wanted to play with all the cool spy toys. She gleefully tapped one edge of her ID, making it shift into a third configuration, and then held it up to the massive door's security scanner. Daria tapped her badge as well, turning both of them into the highest-ranked janitors in the company.

The door slid open slowly, just enough to let them through as its sensors didn't detect any large shipments sitting on either side. Once they had gone through, pushing the gravcart in front of them, it thudded shut, blocking them off from an easy escape.

As expected, there were no human security checks beyond the door, but that was where DENA's intel had ended. They had no idea why there were only automated security systems inside and had been lucky to scam entrance IDs from the system without putting up any red flags, so they hadn't pushed their luck any further. Daria and Jane unzipped their coveralls and readied their pistols for action. Past that point, their janitor uniforms would be severely out of place, and anyone who saw them would have to be stunned and secured before they could raise an alarm.

Jane grinned and waggled her eyebrows at Daria as they left the cart behind and pushed forward into the lion's den.

"I don't like this."

"You don't like anything."

"I like this even less," Daria said gruffly. "Office after office, completely empty, just like the clothing factory."

Jane grunted in irritation. "I guess you're right, this is pretty bad," she said. "Which is to say, boring. I wanna shoot someone already."

Both bounty hunters kept their weapons up just in case, but after ten minutes of stalking the corridors, they had found no one and nothing except short side-halls lined with rooms of various shapes and sizes, but all sharing the same lack of furniture, decoration, or any other sign that people ever used them for anything. The main hallway they trudged through was nice and large, but had no other interesting qualities. There were no signs anywhere, no boxes of cargo sitting around, nothing.

It was as if the Landons had hollowed out part of their own building and left it to sit in sterile stagnation.

"Okay, this is giving me the creeps," Jane said after a long pause, shuddering slightly. "Why all the security just to guard a bunch of nothing? These offices aren't even particularly nice rooms . . . they're more like prison cells without bars."

"Maybe we'll find out soon enough," Daria replied, a hint of hope entering her voice as she nodded her head forward. "End of the line."

Jane looked and sure enough, in the dim emergency lighting that had been illuminating their way she could see the end of the corridor. The first sign of any kind of activity past or present in the area was a wide display of actual signs plastered across the wall, each covered with a number of safety precautions, procedural lists, and dire warnings to unauthorized personnel.

Ignoring all of them, Jane and Daria approached the massive cargo door that the signs surrounded, and nearly opened fire when it started opening on its own. They managed to restrain themselves and quickly scrambled for the nearest side-hall. The door moved almost a meter and a half, then stopped completely. Several long seconds passed by as Daria and Jane sweated in the dark corridor.

Jane poked her head around the corner and swiftly moved back, a frown creasing her forehead. "Nothing," she whispered.

"Maybe our IDs tripped the sensors," Daria mused.

"From that far away?" Jane asked as she shook her head slightly. "Sensitive sensors."

Daria shrugged. "Well, we are the only ones here," she whispered back. "Maybe the door's dog brain didn't feel like waiting for us to get right up to it."

"I don't like this."

"I already said that," Daria pointed out wryly. "But we're not getting anywhere just sitting here. Let's go."

They moved in, but cautiously, approaching the massive door as if it were a dangerous animal. Once they reached it, they shifted over to stand to either side of the opening, their backs against the wall. Daria gave a three count, then they rolled around the corners and held their pistols out, ready to blast the hell out of anything that even thought about looking at them funny.

Unlike the rest of that floor of the building, there was something inside the new room, but it wasn't looking at the bounty hunters funny. In fact, it - or rather, they - weren't looking at anything at all. Daria and Jane still kept their weapons up, but moved into the room with a little more confidence. Keeping her pistol trained on one of the objects, Daria approached it and gave it a thorough once-over. Her glasses ran a scan on it as she did so, and all of the energy signatures it detected were either in stand-by mode or completely dormant.

She heard a loud clang and snapped her head over to see that Jane had kicked one. "Are you crazy?!" she hissed.

Jane chuckled at first as she looked up at the two meter tall monstrosity, then her chuckle became a laugh which gathered in intensity until she finally doubled over and started wiping tears from her eyes. "Oh . . . oh man, this is beautiful . . . " she gasped in between giggling fits.

Figuring that anything bad that was going to happen would have happened already, Daria lowered her gun and put her hands on her waist. "When you're done with your little nervous breakdown," she said flatly, "perhaps you could share what's so funny with the rest of the class?"

"Ki- eheheheh . . . ki-killer robots!" Jane guffawed. "I totally called it!"

Daria frowned in annoyance, then muttered, "Oh my God," as she suddenly remembered their conversation from several weeks ago. "You have got to be kidding me."

But as she looked out at row after row of the roughly humanoid machines, Daria had to admit that that was pretty much what it looked like. Her glasses were already reporting back to her that she was standing at the head of a group of FW2B-2170 Vexxer model drones. A few other bits of information were listed, but she couldn't make much sense out of them.

"Okay, alright," she said sardonically, "break time is over. I'm getting what looks like weapons schematics popping up here. What are we looking at?"

Jane did her best to collect herself and started reading in between giving the machines a real-world lookover. "They, uh, aheheh . . . well, they're Vexxers," she said, "and if I remember the ads right, that means they're built for speed and agility. Well, as much as you can get out of a 'bot, anyway. Past that, they're supposed to be multi-purpose models, used for anything from courier service to garbage cleanup.

"These guys, however," she continued, "have been turned into weapons platforms. Combat drones. I can see an Impeller laser cannon here, a stun net thrower there. Nasty stuff. But . . . I don't know. Not too nasty. If they'd wanted proper killer robots, they should have gone for something from LZR or Remington. Hell, LE makes a pretty nice battle chassis themselves."

"They didn't want this traced back directly to them," Daria said thoughtfully. "The question is, does it have anything to do with our mysterious doctor and his heinous inventions?"

"There's a few things that aren't registering quite right with the DENA databanks," said Jane. "Let's dig in and see what we can see, right?"

Daria nodded agreement, and the two bounty hunters stepped in amongst the giants. A new discovery was made almost immediately, though neither could figure out what it meant.

"This one isn't finished," Jane said with a hint of surprise. "There's some spots hollowed out in the chest and hands, and it looks like something was going to be fitted through the forearms here."

"Same with this one," Daria responded, stepping away from her own 'bot. "There doesn't seem to be any construction equipment in here, and there sure as hell wasn't any just outside. Why would they just throw a bunch of half-built robots into a half-lit room?"

Jane shrugged and said, "Probably a half-baked reason. Moving on!"

The next robot Daria checked was in even worse shape than the last. The flared lower half of each arm was completely missing, leaving only the spindly upper arms with various wires and other connection leads hanging down. The head had also been hollowed out, leaving an open space with an empty socket sitting right above the middle of the neck. Daria spent several moments staring at this oddity, pulling herself up on the tips of her toes by grasping the edge of the white robot's wide barrel chest.

"Hey, Jane, where do these things keep their brains?" she called out.

"Most drones store their computers in the chest cavity," Jane replied distractedly.

Daria hummed to herself. "That's what I thought," she said, "and the head just carries the primary sensor hub?"

"Usually," said Jane. "Though most have perfectly good secondary sensors in other parts of the body, so you can pop the top without stopping the 'bot. Why do you ask?"

"Seems like a bunch of them over here have gotten sensor lobotomies," the other woman said, looking around. "What've they got over there?"

Jane propped herself up on one of the machines. Being a few inches taller than Daria, she didn't have to stretch as far and got a better look in than her partner would have managed.

"Ummmm . . . oh, wow."

"What is it?" Daria asked.

"I'm not sure," Jane replied. "It looks like a sensor hub, but it's . . . I'm not sure I've seen one this sophisticated. It might be military. And there are a few additions here that look like holoprojectors. And get this . . . all of it is fit to sit right inside the head cavity!"

Screwing her face up in confusion, Daria let herself down from the drone she was leaning against and walked over to Jane to see what she was talking about. Jane pointed at the machine's head with a shrug and backed away so Daria could get a better look.

The front of the head had been taken off and the inside hollowed out like she'd seen with the previous machine, but a pod of various implements about the size of a grown man's fist was sitting in the slot attached to the top of the neck. But instead of being uncovered like the other 'bot, the drone had a "face" made out of a slightly curved plate of clear glass, sealing the hub away along with a lot of empty space inside the bullet-shaped head.

"So, this head is supposed to be complete?"

"I guess so," Jane said with another shrug.

"What are the projectors for?" Daria asked.

"Hey, you got me. I didn't build the damn thing."

Daria sighed in frustration. She hadn't expected much about the mission to make sense, but it was still getting on her nerves. They moved on again, finding several more half-built machines, but neither more questions nor any answers. Daria was just about ready to give up, leave, and tell DENA that whatever wrong the Landons were committing was more in the jurisdiction of the FBI or NSA when Jane gave out a cry of triumph.

Hurrying over to the other woman, Daria found Jane holding the hand of one of the machines palm-up.

"These back here are almost complete," the taller woman said happily, "and check this baby out!"

Jane held out the robotic hand for Daria to see. Instead of the uncovered internal mechanisms that the other machines had sported, this one had a fully contiguous plasteel sheathe with a raised area right in the middle of the palm. The area was circular with a slight ridge around the edge, and there were patterns on it that made it look similar to an old-fashioned circuit board.

Daria pointed at the raised disk several times, and excitement bubbled through her normal monotone. "The energy bomb dispenser on Thompson's suit!" she said.

"Bigger and badder than his," Jane said with a wicked grin, "but just similar enough to get a full-on investigation rolling! Shall we scan?"

"Let's," Daria agreed.

They started diligently working the image capture and sensors on their glasses, letting the lenses study the weapon from several angles. The digipads sitting in their coverall pockets quickly and efficiently sorted and stored all of the incoming data, preparing it for display back at DENA HQ as soon as Daria and Jane were out of the building.

So engrossed were the two bounty hunters in their task that they didn't notice any movement nearby until one of the drones had turned fully around and leveled both of its arms at them. Several barrels bristled from the flare surrounding each of its metallic fists.

"Well 'allo 'allo 'allo, luvs!" said a heavily accented voice coming from the chest of the machine. "Y'know, I'm beginning to fink that you lot ain't supposed to be 'ere!"

Daria and Jane glanced at each other, then slowly turned toward the drone, hands in the air. "Um, hello," Daria said slowly. "So . . . American assembled but English made?"

"What, this old bin? Nah, this 'ere is American and German," the voice replied. "Take it from an ex-pat, nevah trust that Brit rubbish."

Daria frowned dubiously. "We're not just talking to a recording, then?"

"Course not, luv!" he said. "So don't even fink about trying any fancy logic nonsense to mess wiv the robot brain, because it ain't got one! Now, I suggest we all just stay still and 'ave ourselves a little wait while security comes about. 'Ow does that sound?"

" . . . Axl?!" Jane's eyebrows shot straight up. "Is that you in that scrap heap?"

"You know this guy?" Daria asked.

"You know me?" he echoed. "Who the 'ell are you, then?"

Jane let out an incredulous huff and pointed at herself. "Axl, it's Jane!"

"J-?! Little Janey Lane?!"

The machine jerked back as if it were just as surprised, then retracted its weapons. A light puff sounded from its head as the sensor hub let out a light particulate mist, on which the holoprojector traced the disturbingly lifelike image of a human head.

Axl appeared to be a middle-aged man with a shock of brown hair streaked with grey and a face full of silvery piercings. He stared down at the two women and shook his holo-head in disbelief.

"As I live and breathe!" he said. "Issat really you under all that? Damn, but that's a brill disguise! 'Ow's that brovver of yours, luv?"

Jane snorted and lowered her hands. "Living in my apartment, eating my food, and running up my utility bills."

"Ha ha! That's our Trent, awright!" Axl laughed. "So who's this little bird with you, then? Wouldn't happen to be Daria, would ya? Bloody brilliant! Good ol' Janey! Well, this changes everything!"

"Yah?" Jane said hesitantly.

"Oh, yeh," Axl replied menacingly as he leveled the robot's arms at them again. "Weapons on stun, and security team called off. No reason to let anybody else try to take a piece of my reward!"

Daria, having steeled herself for this turn, ducked and rolled backward into the robot ranks. Jane, caught completely off guard, took a full stun blast to the chest and was thrown back, knocking robotic arms aside as she flew through the air. When she hit the ground, she slid until she came to an abrupt stop up against the legs of one of the machines.

"Bollocks!" Axl yelled when he saw Daria darting between the inert drones. "Best ya come back, luv! Don't want to mess up the merchandise coming after you, but I will!"

Daria slid behind one of the robots and glanced around it as she plotted a route back to where Jane was laying on the floor. "Yes, It would certainly be terrible if you messed up these half-built, shoddily constructed rust buckets!" she shouted back.

"Now now, there's no need to get personal," Axl's voice said from behind her. She whipped around but was unable to react fast enough escape the new machine's grasping fist. It lifted her in the air by the front of her jacket as Axl's holo-head grinned maliciously.

"Neat trick," Daria said as she grabbed onto the drone's thick forearm.

"Well, I do have my pick of Vexxers here." He swept his arm around at the other drones. "It would be a right shame not to use it to my advantage. Now, where were we? Oh yeh, I was just about to stun you into oblivion!"

Daria kicked at the machine's chest and beat on its hand, but to no effect. Grunting with effort, she reached out and found that, due to its superior reach, she could only barely place the fingertips of her right hand on its glass face.

"'Ere now, don't smudge it!" Axl groused. "And don't bother tryin' ta break it! This 'ere is high-grade safe-"

With a sudden smirk, Daria flexed her hand up, then pulled it down into a fist. The blade strapped to that arm tore through the sleeve of her coveralls and buried its tip into the glass with a loud tink! Cracks spread outward as the safety glass fractured along patterned stress lines, but it remained mostly intact. Axl crossed his eyes to look at the plasteel weapon as his head became less distinct, taking on the partially transparent quality of a standard hologram as some of the particulate started to escape.

"And this here is a mono-edged blade," she said. "Let's see what else it can cut."

Daria pulled the blade back, causing most of the glass to fully shatter and fall to the floor in precise, harmless pieces. With one swift movement, she pulled her arm up and then down, severing the machine's hand at the wrist. She dropped to the ground in a crouch, then launched herself away from Axl's drone as she weaved between rows on her way to Jane.

But when she reached the spot where her partner had fallen in a heap, Jane was gone.

Her location was easily re-ascertained, however, as a series of laser blasts marked their way across the back of the Axl-controlled drone. Jane let out a whooping yell as the machine was lightly rocked by the concussive element of her shots, but as it turned around Daria could see that the attack was doing nothing more than leaving dark marks on the hull's laserproof coating.

Snapping her armblade back into its sheath, Daria darted back into the same row with the active drone, picked up speed, and jumped up to kick the drone in the back with both feet. Most of the shock was absorbed by her boots, but a bit of pain still shot up into her shins as she bounced off and fell to the ground. At first she thought her attack had been for nothing, as it seemed that the wide bases of the flared legs were going to keep it upright, but very slowly it started to topple forward as it windmilled its arms in an effort to stay standing.

The machine tried to catch itself before it hit the ground but failed to compensate for its missing hand, causing it to crash hard. It sustained no damage from the fall, but its missing extremity also caused it some difficulty in getting back up, allowing Daria a chance to pick herself up and run to Jane.

Daria grabbed the other woman and dragged her away from the fallen drone, on which Jane seemed intent on testing her pistols up close and personal. As Daria pulled the protesting Jane after her, another of the robots nearby activated as they passed. It was one of the models that hadn't been fitted with a primary sensor hub yet, but Daria didn't trust it to be any less dangerous as a consequence.

Seeing the new threat step into the aisle after them, Jane stopped complaining and started running alongside Daria. The two dodged into an adjacent aisle as the drone fired stun blasts after them. After a few seconds, they reached the edge of the storage area and turned to run alongside the wall. As they continued to run, each machine that fired on them as they passed would shut down and another further along would take its place.

Axl, finally showing that he could learn from his mistakes, started activating drones ahead of the duo, forcing them to dash back amongst the rows of robots.

"Hey, Morgendorffer," Jane said conversationally as they ran, "I know that I can keep this up all day, but you can't be enjoying it. Have we got a plan?"

"Don't . . . get shot," Daria snarled. She knew she could keep up for several minutes yet, but she was already starting to feel a stitch start to work its way up her side, and the slight shock to her shins earlier was becoming slightly more noticeable as she went along.

Axl forced them into another abrupt course change, reaching out at them with robotic arms that had empty slots in its arm flares. As a first reaction, the bounty hunters turned to start running back further into the room, but Daria suddenly grabbed Jane's arm and jerked her the other way, back toward the attacking drone.

"Wha-" was all that Jane got out before Daria dropped to the ground and pulled them both into a skid between the robot's legs. Axl directed the robot to swipe its arms at them as they passed underneath it, but it was too slow. Once on the other side, the two women rolled to their feet and continued running.

"Door!" Daria exclaimed as she pointed at the massive cargo door they had come in through. She and Jane exploded out of the ranks of modified drones and crossed the open space between them and the exit in moments. Daria just barely slowed down before she slammed into the wall next to the door's control panel. Jane ran up at a slightly more reasonable jog, then turned around with both of her pistols held out, eyes scanning the machines for movement.

"He opened it, he closed it," she said sourly over her shoulder, "and he probably locked it. Was this really the best plan you could come up with?"

Daria popped her right blade out again, drew her arm back, and pushed the sharpened edge into one side of the panel. After retracting the blade, she pushed her fingers through the new hole in the gelscreen and pried it back to expose the underlying circuitry.

"He was trying to keep us away from over here," she said as pulled a small set of delicate tools from inside her coveralls and started finessing the door's electronic components. "Plus, no one was ever supposed to make it this far in the first place. It might not be that hard to break out. Just keep him off my butt for a few seconds, okay?"

One of the drones activated, turned to face Daria and Jane, then began to advance in their direction. It only had one arm, but laser barrels slid out over the hand of that arm and focused on the humans. Like the rest of the drones on that side of the room, its head hadn't been fitted with a hub, but its secondary sensors could obviously still see them well enough.

"Yah, okay, all over that," Jane said with a deep grimace as she stepped between the robot and Daria then opened fire.

The drone fired back, its shots going a little wide and proving that the secondary sensors weren't really that good. As Jane's blasts scored harmlessly on its hide, however, Axl easily readjusted the drone's aim. Its second volley wouldn't miss.

"Dammitdammitfuckit!" Jane screamed in frustration as she made a quick adjustment to one of her guns as she holstered the other. The weapon started to emit a high-pitched whine as she gripped it with both hands and carefully looked down the sight with one open eye. Gritting her teeth, she pulled the trigger and unloaded the entire charge of the pistol's clip in a single bolt of coherent light bright enough to leave a thick afterimage on her retina and with a kick that nearly pushed her back into Daria.

The drone never got its second series of shots off as Jane's shot tore through the center of its chest. The laserproof coating was able to keep it from going all the way through, but it still penetrated deeply enough to pierce several important systems. The machine fell backwards, its smoking hull twitching once before powering down for the last time.

"What the hell was that?!" Daria yelled.

"Just an old friend sacrificing herself for the greater good," Jane said mournfully as she placed the burnt out pistol in its holster and pulling its still-working twin back out. "Keep working on the door!"

"No need," said Daria. With a heavy sigh, the massive door moved over a few decimeters and then groaned to a stop. Once she and Jane were on the other side, Daria started pressing buttons on the intact side of the door's control panel. As she worked, Axl's voice suddenly pounded out, echoing across the walls of the storage room as if it were coming from a hundred different speakers at once.

"Clever, clever birds!" he said. "You always were quick wiv tha smarts, Janey, annit looks like you picked up anovver gehl just as bright! But clever as you are, there's only two of ya . . . "

As the cargo door started to slide closed under Daria's control, every single robot that Jane could see through the opening suddenly came to life. Those with complete legs stepped forward. Those with complete arms extended and raised their weapons. Jane stared in horror as they advanced.

" . . . and I've got you bloody well outnumbered!"

The door closed to the thunderous sound of a hundred laser cannons being fired in unison.

Daria and Jane backed away as the lasers hit the door, sending out vibrations that they could actually feel wash over them. Everything went silent then as the cannons went into their short cooldown period.

"How long do you think we've got?" Jane asked.

Daria shrugged and shook her head. "Minutes," she said. "Ten at most. Then they'll either blow it down or unscramble my hack."

"Then we'd better get moving."

"Yes. We'd better."

The second round of laser blasts started, breaking the bounty hunters out of their shock and sending them in an all-out run toward the outer door. The empty corridors to either side of the area blurred as they propelled themselves forward, Daria somehow managing to almost keep pace with the much faster Jane.

Jane still reached the other cargo door first and was jumping up and down next to its control panel when Daria caught up. "It's not reading my ID anymore!" she jabbered as she pointed at the screen. "Slice it!"

"I . . . can't," Daria said breathlessly as she leaned over the panel and reached into her coveralls. "But . . . let's see . . . what DENA . . . can do!" She pulled out a small pen-shaped device, pasted it to the wall next to the screen, and activated it. She then turned around to put her back against the wall and slide down to the floor.

"What?" Jane said incredulously. "That's it?! Why didn't you just do that with the other door?!"

"We only had a single robot coming after us then, and it wasn't as difficult a job," she said, giving the other woman an evil glare. "Anyway, it should have us out of here in a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, I think it's answer and question time. And the first question is . . . who the hell what that?!"

Jane crossed her arms and frowned. "Axl," she said. "Real name Alexander Morrison. He used to run a tattoo parlor over in Dega. He's the one who gave Trent his tats and both of us our piercings. Did good work, but just shortly after you and I met, his place was raided by the feds. As it turned out, it was a front for a hacker gang. He turned in evidence against his cronies to avoid jail time and then went white hat. If the rumors I heard were true, he's been spending most of his time building up the ice on the CIA servers."

"White hat, huh?" Daria said thoughtfully. "I guess he's back in black. Question two, how's your suit?"

"Fit as a fiddle," Jane said as she pulled aside her coveralls to reveal the jet black body armor underneath. "That blast was a doozy, though, even with it. I must've been out for at least twenty or thirty seconds. My turn . . . what's with the hologram of Axl's head? Is that weird or what?"

Daria looked up in surprise. "I thought you'd know that one if anyone did," she said. "There's this concept in robotic engineering that's been kicking around since the Resource Wars-"

"Oh, right, the Human Recognition initiative or whatever," Jane interrupted with a snort. "Nobody's bothered with that in almost fifty years, though. People are pretty used to robots these days."

"I guess whatever the Landons have planned for these things, they want to make sure they're humanized when they do it. Don't want to scare the kiddies while you're taking over the world. Kind of creepy when you think about it, actually."

"Speaking of creepy, how in the hell did he turn on all those machines like that?" Jane asked. "I thought he said they didn't have dog brains!"

"Well, he said that the first one he was controlling didn't have an AI," Daria pointed out. "But still, if any of the other robots had in fact been capable of operating autonomously, he should have activated them long before instead of continuing to access them himself. I think he may have been jumping into them through a direct neural interface, and now he's inside all of them at the same time."

Jane gaped. "But that's . . . impossible," she finished lamely, then conceded, "but then of course so is all the other stuff we've been dealing with. Okay, so it's not impossible, but it must be pretty damn hard or he would've just jumped into two or three of the bastards from the get go instead of waiting to activate all of them as a desp-"

A soft beep from the panel drew the women's attention. Daria stood up and pulled the hacking tool away with a curse.

"Is that a happy swear or an unhappy swear?" Jane asked. "Please say happy swear."

"Very very unhappy," Daria said through bared teeth. "He's not only upped security on this door and burned out this piece of crap tool-"

Jane turned as she heard a heavy groan coming from the other side of the area, followed by the sound of several plasteel feet marching in lockstep on the plascrete ground.

"-he's also managed to get the other door open. Time to go."

"'Go'?!" Jane repeated, her voice turning harsh with panic. "Go where?! There's nowhere to go!"

Daria pocketed the hacking tool coolly and raised an eyebrow. "Then we stay here, get our brains scrambled by stun rounds, and wake up in some mad scientist's dark and sinister lair."

"Hnh," Jane grunted. "Okay. Let's go."

Axl's brain itched.

Everything that he'd been told and everything he'd read said that his brain literally could not itch, as it had no nerve endings capable of handling such a sensation. That was reserved for other parts of the human nervous system. The doctor herself (Himself? Itself? Axl preferred to think of her as a woman, anyway.) had told him that if it was anything, it was just the nerves surrounding the brain tissue that were getting tripped off, but Axl wasn't sure if he believed it. As smart as the doctor was, she wasn't the one who had the itch, and he could swear that it went all the way down to the very center of his brain.

The fortunate part was that it only happened when he split himself using the Multiple Neural Relay system. Regular neural interface connections had the familiar feel of lead sitting in the back of his skull, which he didn't particularly mind, but every time he switched over - which, as the MNR's primary test subject, was often - it made him want to break his head open and start clawing away until he'd dug out everything inside.

Thanks to the neural cutout that froze everything in his meat body except for autonomic processes needed to keep him alive, however, he was unable to do that. Trying to move his arm caused the device he was connected to to move, and any attempt to scratch his hypothalamus would result in the destruction of property that even at his ridiculous amount of pay he could not afford to replace.

Once he had the door opened via a combination of brute violence and technical wizardry, Axl pulled himself out of the vast majority of the Vexxer drones and breathed a mental sigh of relief as the itch subsided from an ocean of misery to a few choppy waves lapping across an otherwise placid lake.

Only five machines marched into the vast space on the other side of the door. They were among the few that had been fully completed and were therefore extremely valuable, but Axl's targets had proven themselves to be resourceful, capable, and difficult to catch.

He hated resourceful, capable, and difficult to catch. At least, he hated it when they were qualities displayed by people other than himself or programs other than those he had personally created. Competition helped him improve, sure, but in the end, competition was something to be crushed. He would crush Janey and her little friend Daria, and damn the consequences. If they trashed four of the Vexxers he was controlling, he would just have to make sure to work that much harder to catch them with the fifth. The amount docked from the reward to pay for the ruined machines would be a mere drop in a bathtub-sized bucket.

He spread out as he walked through the corridor. Two of him went to each far side and walked down the smaller hallways, checking the empty offices as they went.

The sensation of being in more than one place at a time had bothered Axl at first, even more than the itching, but with practice he had long gotten used to it. The rewritten pathways of his brain could handle it. All he had needed to do was learn how to separate the different incoming signals and stimuli and then react to them all at once, as if he were several different minds connected through some sort of psychic link.

It was practice that he had tackled with relish, despite how uncomfortable the equipment made him. It was the sort of thing he lived for, the whole reason he had become a hacker in the first place. The tattoo parlor he had run for several years had been nice, and he'd excelled at his work there, but pushing the technological envelope was where his true ambitions laid. When the doctor and the Landons had offered him the chance to ditch the humdrum life of a government computer stooge and get back into something truly bleeding edge, he'd jumped at it head first, eyes open, and mouth set firmly in a manic grin.

And so there he was, mentally controlling five combat-modified robots in a search for two bounty hunters that had already given him more than their allotted amount of trouble for the day, including that one he actually knew personally.

That annoyed him somewhat. Little Janey Lane was a good girl. She and her brother had been two of the brighter spots of owning and running the parlor in Dega. Trent wasn't exactly the brightest apple on the tree and his music was almost universally awful to Axl's ears, but he had been a good-natured bloke and one of the parlor's biggest customers. The money he'd brought in alone - either from his own body modification or from referring others - would have paid for one of Axl's more powerful hacking decks several times over.

And Janey had been a boon to the business. She'd never gotten a tat herself, but she'd often contributed sketches and even full paintings for use at the parlor. More than one customer had come back to request another tattoo designed by the Lane girl. Where Trent's "music" was just mildly rhythmic nonsense noise, Jane's talent was unquestioned. And Axl was going to have to snuff that out.

He had no illusions about this. He would take them alive, as per the Landons' instructions, but then the doctor . . . there was no telling what she would do to them, but Axl was certain that even if it wasn't actively lethal, it was going to change them in ways he didn't want to imagine. He's heard about Sherman's last moments, writhing in agony as what was left of his body had just kept going, refusing to die. He'd personally seen the changes done to the three love-obsessed boys. And of course, he had his own experimental experiences.

And in all those cases, they were people the doctor liked, or at least tolerated, and they had all been changed in mind-bending ways. Just the thought of what she would do to people she didn't care for . . . it made Axl's skin crawl.

Still, it had to be done. Anything the doctor would do to the two girls could just as easily be done to Axl. If nothing else, she could take away what she had given, and he couldn't allow that. Between his friendship to Janey and his desire for the doctor's technology, he'd pick the latter over the former any day. The hunt continued.

He was halfway through searching the area when the lights went out.

Cursing to himself, Axl pulled up the security logs for the storage area on one of the Vexxer's HUDs. His cursing became louder and more prolific as he pieced together what had happened. He hadn't counted on Daria and Jane having more than one of the hacking tools - DENA was notoriously one of the lowest budget US agencies - but apparently they had, and after somehow restoring power to a panel in one of the offices, they had gotten into the environmental controls.

Once again, he had to admit to himself that they were very clever girls. He had turned the lights up earlier when he'd detected their fake ID badges as they'd gotten off the lift. If he'd left the lights off he could have tracked them by whatever illumination they themselves had activated, which they would have had to do since there was no ambient light to aid nightvision that far inside the building. He hadn't wanted to take any chances, however, that the dim amount of light would hamper his own maneuverability.

The element of surprise had switched over to the women's favor with their latest move. He shut off the holographic representation of his head that was floating above the five sensor hubs to remove the only sources of light in the room, which made him a more difficult target but also left him as blind as his opponents. And while they could quite possibly move softly enough to skip detection by the machines' instruments, he had to keep his heavy feet completely still and hope they wouldn't be able to damage him too much before he could counterattack.

Two mistakes, the hacking tool and the lights. That was two mistakes too many for him. He had to start playing things more carefully.

Extending the audio sensors of each drone to their upper limits, he waited with every ounce of patience he could muster. They wouldn't be able to get through the outer door, and it was the only exit that they could possibly know about. There was neither food nor water in the storage area, and he could wait for days if he had to, safe in his own little shell. They would make the first move. He just hoped he would be ready for it.

He wasn't. His thoughts scattered as pain shot through his aural relays. The sensor hub shut down automatically under the attack, giving him relief but leaving him deaf as well as blind. Too late he realized that he had been outmaneuvered again. They had realized that he would be listening for them and at least one of them had used something, most likely a commlink, to amplify a scream to unbearable levels.

With a snarl of frustration he snapped his holo-heads back on so he could have at least one ranged sense running again. Just as his nightvision kicked in, he saw the bounty hunters descend on two of his selves. Or rather, he saw one, Janey, as she bowled into the chest of a Vexxer. The other woman landed on the back of another machine and started clawing at it with her armblades.

His integrity sensors reported that the cuts were shallow, proving that the mono-edges weren't quite as effective on the metal alloy as they had been on glass, but Daria swiftly realized this and started aiming her blows at the joints of his neck.

With just two slices, she lopped his head off, cutting it from the primary power source and forcing him to switch to secondary sensors. He reached and tried to grab her, but she crawled up and over his torso before he could turn the arms all the way back. Meanwhile, Janey had started firing point blank stun rounds into the glass face of the machine she had tumbled, overloading the sensor hub and shutting it down. As he tried to snatch at her, she too jumped out of the way.

Axl mobilized his other three selves, sending two after Janey and the other after the new girl, who had jumped off and made a swipe at his knee joints. Janey was forced to flee as she fired wildly behind her, but Daria seemed to take the addition of a second opponent as a personal challenge. Axl brandished the Vexxer's laser cannons at her and prepared to fire, but she zig-zagged in toward him, ruining his shot and cutting his cannon barrels short on his right arm with her blades.

Janey had found cover in one of the side corridors from the stun blasts that had started flying her way. Axl grinned in anticipation as he walked the three machines her way. Those halls were dead ends, and she had just cut down her own maneuverability to nearly nothing.

Daria was proving to be much more of a challenge. Though she wasn't a match for her partner on running speed, she seemed to be as flexible as a snake and more than capable of staying out of the grip of Axl's lumbering robots. She remained too close to aim at well enough for either machine to get a good shot without shooting itself or the other, and she was slowly but surely whittling them down to spare parts.

But as she was only human, she inevitably stepped the wrong way at one point, and Axl immediately capitalized on it. He pulled the punch since he didn't want to actually kill her, but he could still hear a satisfying crunch on his reinstated audio sensors as her nose broke from the force of the blow.

One of Axl had its arm off at the elbow and the other had one leg that was almost similarly severed amongst many other bits of damage both light and severe, but Daria appeared to be down for the count. He turned his attention back fully to Janey as his three other selves stepped cautiously into the side hall.

He had expected to find her down at the very end, preparing herself for one last stand. What he hadn't expected was to hear a soft whine as something slid out of the darkness and under his feet. Looking down with the two drones that still had working sensor hubs, his nightvision clearly demarcated the outline of a laser pistol set on overload.

"Oh . . . bollocks!" the three Axls said in unison.

One of the remaining two Axls ran toward the hallway as the explosion dissipated, and the other leaned over Daria and prepared to haul her onto his shoulder. This plan was cut short, as was his already loose leg, when the bounty hunter suddenly sat up and sliced at his knee joint. With only a single support left, he crashed to one side and flailed as he tried futilely to right himself.

The last Axl stopped and turned back around, then held out his one remaining hand. The glow of an energy bomb grew over its palm, but as he pulled back to toss it at Daria, Jane burst from the hallway and slammed into his back. As soon as it hit the ground, the ball of energy exploded, taking off the hand that had held it as well as half of the attached forearm.

"Welp, this one's armless!" Janey said, smirking oddly at her own pun and then rubbing her shoulder. "And I will be too if I keep having to smash into these damn things," she added.

Daria crouched down to the last semi-dangerous machine and deftly severed its arms at the elbows. She then leaned over Axl's softly glowing holo-head, causing splotches of blood to drip from her broken nose onto the glass face.

"Hello," she snuffled. "I'm sure that you're already working on powering up a few more of your buddies to come after us, but you might want to consider that while I was hacking your lights, I was also shutting the inner door just as tight as you've shut down the outer door. I may not be as good a hacker as you are, but our benefactors have been kind enough to help level the playing field."

Wincing slightly, she put her hand up to her nose and let out a wet sounding sigh. "Believe it or not, this hurts like hell," she said conversationally, "so I'll keep the rest short. We want to cut a deal."

Axl's expression was a mixture of rage and confusion. He'd gone back through the security logs again and found that she had been telling the truth. The inner door was sealed, and the outer door was being hacked again even as they were sitting there. There was a general communications shut down in the area as well, which left him cut off from the security teams in the building. Even if he gave the computer situation his complete attention, it would be a race to see who would get through first, and it seemed that the hacking tool had a good head start.

Janey and Daria were going to get away, and with evidence against the Landons. He would get blamed. His pay would be severely docked for the ruined units. He might even get turned over to the doctor, and her next set of experiments on him wouldn't necessarily be as beneficial for him as the last.

He snarled up at Daria's smug face. "What kind ovva deal?" he asked.

"Nothing too different from what Jane's told me you've done before," she said. "What do you say?"

A million thoughts raced through Axl's head, and the holographic representation of his face contorted with each and every one. Blowing virtual breath through his virtual nose, he decided.

"Second 'allway on the right facing away from tha outer door," he said.

"No tricks?"

Axl scowled darkly. "No tricks, luv," he told her, sounding utterly defeated. "I ain't got any left."

Quinn was finally starting to get impatient, but question after inane question continued to roll off her tongue with practiced ease. She tried not to fidget in her seat too much, but it was difficult. She knew her sister and her sister's partner well enough to know that things had to have exploded in their faces at least fifteen minutes previous, but it almost seemed as if nothing and nobody was going to do anything to bring a sudden halt to the interview.

However things were going for Daria, they were starting to get prickly on Quinn's front. Mack seemed to be content to talk and talk and talk all day long, but Jodie was starting to give everyone in the room the evil eye. She had finished up her business quite some time ago, but only grudgingly entered the conversation from time to time, usually to correct some small factual error with almost obsessive-compulsive fervor.

Quinn felt almost ready to explode when Stacy suddenly turned her head a bit to the side and reached up to adjust the camera and transmission equipment hanging from her belt. She then caught the reporter's eye and nodded very slightly.

Quinn's entire demeanor suddenly changed. Before, she had been sweetness and light, asking tough questions about the Landon business but in a polite and contrite way, but she quickly settled back into being the shark that had first stepped into the building, grinning toothily at the Landons.

Mack seemed to realize the shift almost as it happened, sitting up straighter in his chair and quirking an eyebrow. He finished rattling off his latest answer to Quinn's latest question, then sat very still and quiet. Jodie appeared oblivious to the room around her, however, as she frowned at something displaying on her glasses.

"Mr. Landon," Quinn said, leaning forward in her chair, "how do you respond to the accusations that your company has been involved in the manufacture, use, and distribution of prohibited and illegally modified technology?"

Mack's jaw dropped, and his dark skin seemed to become several shades paler. "I . . . excuse me?!" he spluttered.

"You are aware that Landon Enterprises has recently come under investigation by the Department of Extra-Normal Affairs?" she asked, ignoring his amazed stare and listening intently to the chatter filtering in through the small commlink bud in her ear as she talked. "Also, that based on the evidence provided by a former employee of your company, DENA has frozen your assets and put out a warrant for your arrest?"

"Now hold up," Mack said, regaining some of his composure. "I'm not sure what's going on here, Quinn-"

"'Miss Morgendorffer', please," Quinn interrupted pleasantly.

"Whatever," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "We're not going to sit here and be talked to like this. Landon Enterprises has an impeccable record of ethical business practices, and your questions are clearly-"

"Mack," Jodie said, trying to tap him on the shoulder as she stared apprehensively at her lenses.

"-vicious rumors with no basis in reality whatsoever. I don't know why you would try-"

"Mack . . . "

"-to slander our good name in such a way, but I assure you that we will have the recording of this interview, we will have your job and the jobs of everyone who came here with you today, and we will-"


Mack jumped to the side as Jodie practically screamed in his ear. "Dammit, woman!" he exclaimed. "What?!"

"Put. On. Your. Glasses!" she hissed at him.

Looking at her oddly but deciding that starting an argument with her wouldn't be the most prudent course of action, he snatched his AR glasses up from his desk, slid them on, and opened up a line to her feed.

An image of himself immediately popped into his view. He was seated at his desk, shouting while Jodie was trying desperately to get his attention. The audio in the arms of the glasses played back the very same things he had been saying mere seconds before. In the upper right hand corner of the vid was the GINN logo, and scrolling along the bottom was a ticker giving details of the DENA shutdown of Landon Enterprises right next to the word "LIVE".

"But . . . but you have no proof," he said weakly. "And how could you know any of that . . . "

"The Greenstar Investigative News Network would like to take a moment to remind everyone watching that we have been given full permission by the Department of Extra-Normal Affairs to air this story as it is happening," Quinn said, sounding as if she were reading directly from a teleprompter. "All details that have been given in this report are accurate as we know them to date, though some information has been kept confidential to protect the former LE employee that DENA is keeping in protective custody at this time.

"Now, Mr. and Mrs. Landon," she continued, her predatory smile firmly in place, "let's start again from the top, shall we?"

"I can't believe it," Jane laughed. "After all that, they still tried to get away?"

The male agent's face almost took on a bemused expression. "Thankfully airport security saw the GINN broadcast and intercepted the Landons before they could board their personal suborbital," he said. "We're just holding them for questioning at the moment, but with the evidence we've already managed to collect from their networks, their eventual trial should see their stay becoming a bit more permanent."

"That's just plain awesome." Jane wiped tears of mirth from the corners of her eyes.

"Indeed," the female agent said with a nod. "And we would like to thank you for approaching Miss Morgendorffer with your idea, and Miss Morgendorffer for agreeing to cooperate. They may well have gotten away otherwise."

"The accolades she's getting for the scoop of the century are probably thanks enough for Quinn," Daria said, her voice even deeper than usual.

Daria's nose had been set, but the bioplastic strapped across the bridge and her new lower register was testament that there was still more work to be done. Jane had already started in on the drag queen jokes, much to her dismay and consternation.

"So, what about Axl?" Jane asked, suddenly serious. "I mean, hey, he did try to catch us and feed us to the wolves, but he's a decent guy under it all. I think, anyway."

"We're still holding him in protective custody for the moment," the male agent told her, "but there have been . . . complications."

The female agent frowned. "After he gave us enough information to start an open investigation on LE, he was put under a few tests-"

"Non-invasive," her partner interjected quickly. "And with his full permission."

"-which activated a series of nanobots in his system. They started to attack the memory centers of his brain and were able to wipe out several key memories before we could neutralize them."

Daria and especially Jane looked at them in shock. "Is he okay?" Jane asked worriedly.

"For the moment, yes," the male agent assured her. "The machines were only targeting those areas pertaining to the Landons' operations, and subsequent questioning revealed that he still retained enough to keep our investigation on track. Unfortunately, he claims that all memory of the 'doctor' is gone."

"Not to say that he knew that much in the first place," the female agent added. "During the original interview, his recollections of the doctor were hazy at best, and he could give no satisfactory answer as to why."

"So his memories were probably already tampered with," Daria said unhappily. "What are the odds that the Landons and everyone else involved are going to be the same?"

Jane blew air through her lips. "No bet," she said. "But at least this means he or she or whatever has lost a huge ass chunk of his funding."

"Which means it is even more imperative that we find him before he can procure another source," said the male agent. "Our deal is still on if the two of you are amenable."

Daria and Jane glanced at each other and sighed. "I guess we have to be," Daria said. "But just so we know how good a deal we've been getting, how's the investigation into the LCPD gone since the upset?"

"It hasn't, unfortunately," the female agent replied. "The connection to the Landons can be made, but there isn't any evidence as to what exactly any of them were doing for the company in return. Nothing illegal, in any case. Everything we have so far is circumstantial at best."

"So Li is still queen of the hill?" Jane asked sourly.

The male agent nodded. "It seems unlikely that she or any other member of her department will try anything against the two of you now that their financial backers, as it were, are out of the picture," he said, "but we would still advise a high level of suspicion and paranoia regarding your interactions with the LCPD."

"So, no change there," Jane snorted. "Hey, how's Artie?"

"Still doing well," said the female agent. "We believe he will be able to help us with our questioning of the Landons soon."

"As long as he doesn't end up pan-frying their brains in the process," Daria remarked, raising an eyebrow. "But wouldn't using a psychic to extract information be a violation of civil rights or something?"

The agents looked slightly uncomfortable for a second, for which Daria felt they deserved a little credit.

"At this time there are no laws regulating the usage of telepathic individuals in an interrogation," the male agent said, making her consider taking the credit back. "But we will be proceeding carefully in this matter in any case."

The female agent looked at her wrist, calling up the chronometer in her sunglasses. "If there are no more questions or statements you'd like to add about the case," she said, "we need to be moving on."

"Moving in the new equipment?" Jane said with a grin. "I hear you guys got a nice little budgetary bonus just recently. I figure you've gotta be getting in all sorts of new gadgets and gizmos, right?"

"I'm afraid that information is classified," the male agent said, but the corners of his mouth twitched upward as he did so. "Good afternoon, ladies."

"Well!" Jane huffed after the agents had left. "Another adventure done and in the can! What now?"

"Dunno," Daria replied with a shrug. "Pizza?"

Jane tapped the side of her head, smiled, then pointed at her partner.

"Clever bird," she said.


Roland 'Jim' Lowery

February 24, 2010