I shouldn't be nervous. I've broken the law many times; I've done much worse, actually. Yet, I can't stop sweating as I wait to enter North Bridge. It's not hot in this landrover, so I can't blame my perspiration on the heat. Why is it taking so long? I can't believe there's so much traffic today. Are some teleporters down again? That wouldn't surprise me. That damn Mother Brain. That "perfect" computer system has failed us all. What a piece of shit!

I pray I can make it through the security checkpoints. Fulvio said this ID would pass all detectors and scanners; Should I have believed him? For what I paid, it should be the best, and Fulvio can't be beaten. That mastermind even programmed the card to match my DNA. It should work; I was right there watching it being made. There's no way it'll fail, right?

Finally, the traffic is moving again. I can see the polezi bots that man the entrance now. I'm counting... four... five... wait, I see two more. There are seven total. It's weak security considering all of the activity with armed criminals these days. Hm... I guess I'm a criminal as well.

It's not my fault! That freak of nature with the weird ears... she was a biomonster! It was my duty to get rid of her, to protect everyone else from her. She didn't belong with humans; she was probably created by those weirdo scientists at Biolabs... or whatever that place is called... she wasn't meant to live! I was doing her a favor! But that hotshot agent had to step in. Well, thank the Light the leaders on Palma knew better and released me. Locked up for trying to eradicate a biomonster? Bullshit!

It'll be my turn to enter the bridge soon. By the time those bots figure out I'm not really Harlan K. Lewis and that I've violated my probation by traveling outside Arima, it'll be too late. Then I can get the money from Fulvio's men in Oputa and use this old telepipe to make it back home. Thank the Light I still had a telepipe before I was put on probation. They've been banned for civilian use, anyway. Bans! Restrictions! Everywhere! Yet the network does nothing when my daughter...

"CITIZEN, PLEASE PRESENT IDENTIFICATION."

About time I made it to the front of the line. These bots sound ridiculous. Let's see what it thinks of this supposedly foolproof ID card... Wow, they take such a long time to scan with that huge eye of theirs. No wonder traffic is moving so slowly. These stupid bots aren't anything like the new Wren models on Palma... wait, what's going on behind my 'rover?

Oh, now I see one of the bots scanning the landrover's plates as well. This is taking way too long! Fulvio, damn you, I swear if this doesn't work you'll be on my list! In fact, you'll come right after I turn every last Scoundrel into a blood smear on the wall! I'll blast that oily grin clear off your face, you bastard!

"ID AND VEHICLE SCAN COMPLETE. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST, BESNIK DARUM, FOR VIOLATION OF ORDER..."

What? This can't happen! No! Great Light! Why? Why? You're dead, Fulvio. Dead! I'm so hot; I can't hear what that bot is saying! I'm burning up! Oh, no. I can't stop it. No! The heat! I feel it in my gut... now it's running down my arms! I... can't... stop... this... anger! I have to...!

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Leave me alone, you fuckers! I just want my daughter back!"

I hate Foi. Oh dear Light, it hurts so badly to use this much of my power, but I have to! I must! Look at the way those bots completely melt! What are they made of? Wax? I smell something else burning as well. What is it? Fuck, the landrover's on fire, too! I have to get out of this thing now! It's going to blow!

That was too close. I can't believe it caused such a massive explosion! Oh, shit. The people in that cruiser behind me... are they...? Fuck! They're not getting out! They're going to burn! What now? I'm done. This is over. I should just give up and... no! Tiem! Tiem! I can't leave her to die! The government... Mother Brain... they do nothing. Nothing at all! They won't stop the Scoundrels, and now those rotten thieves have my beautiful girl! I'm not done yet! Wait... everyone's running, turning their vehicles around... not if I can help it!

"Hey, you!"

That idiot actually turned to look at me!

"Give me all your money! Empty your electr..."

Hey, where's he going? Did he not see me blow up two vehicles and a bunch of bots? Moron! Let's see how his cruiser holds up to a gravity wave!

Crushed like a tin can! And look how he weeps as I pull him from his smashed cruiser! Baby! Does he think I'll kill him? I'm not a killer! This was an accident! What? He wants to know what I'm going to do to him? Shut up! I should put a plasma ring over his mouth! How is it not clear that he's my hostage now? Can't he see I'm dragging him back to the bridge?

This bridge is mine now! Anyone who tries to enter must pay the toll! My toll! So help me Light, I will get Tiem back! You hear that, Ma Brain? You're in my head, aren't you? Give me my daughter and I'll give you this stupid bridge! Understand?


Algol was dipping below the horizon, looking to Rolf like one of the many plasma force field domes that dotted Paseo City had malfunctioned and was giving off a magnificent glare. It had been a long day of preparation, including research at the library, technique registration at the data center, medical updates at the clone labs and hospital, and now bad news-though not for Rolf-at the teleport station.

"Nei, I can't take you with me to Oputa. I'm sorry," Rolf told Nei, trying to sound truly broken up about not being able to purchase a teleport permit for Nei, but secretly relieved that she'd have to return home, away from his dangerous mission.

"Aw, but Rolf!"

"Not again, please! I'm not going to take a transport when I can get there much more quickly by teleporting. Sorry, that's just the way it is."

Nei froze on the sidewalk as Rolf kept walking towards the transit station. Before he turned around to drag her along, he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. This was exhausting. He was sure Nei would get bored during his research. That never happened. She seemed to like learning all about the various Mother Brain systems on Motavia. After that, he was sure she'd concede once teleporting wasn't an option. That didn't happen, either; instead, she begged and pleaded and begged some more for Rolf to take the long way with her. Now she was resorting to stubborn, childish behavior to make Rolf give in once again. He had to put his foot down this time.

"Oh well," Rolf shrugged as he turned around and walked back to the teleport station, waltzing right past Nei without looking at her. "I was going to take you home so we could enjoy supper together before I leave, but you seem to have stepped in some super glue. I guess I'll be off to Oputa then. Bye!"

Nei gasped, spun around and pulled his sleeve. "You wouldn't leave me here all alone!"

"I wouldn't?" Rolf feigned ignorance, putting a finger on his chin and pretending to contemplate Nei's assertion. "You're better armed than I am right now, after I bought you those claws you kept asking for. You're faster than I am, too. I bet you're a better fighter than I am, actually." He smirked. "Anyone would be completely foolish to openly attack you. I'm entirely confident you can find your way home safely." And with that, Rolf leaned down and gave Nei a quick peck on her forehead and walked off, grinning as soon as he had his back to her. He heard the first sniffle, then another, followed by a whimper.

"No, wait..." Nei swallowed a sob, catching up with her foster brother. "I... I want us to eat together. Just like you said! Please?"

Rolf made sure not to act too hastily. After a good pause he replied, "On one condition: This is the last time we discuss you coming with me. I'll tell you what; if it takes longer than a week, I'll spend every weekend at home. Will that be okay?" Much to Rolf's relief, Nei finally, reluctantly nodded her head in agreement. "Good," he exhaled. "Now, let's go home and..."

Just then his mobile comm signaled an incoming call, interrupting his conversation with Nei. He pulled the device from his belt and accepted the call, and the comm's screen filled with the commander's distraught visage. This couldn't be good.

"Rolf. My geo-tracer indicates you're still in Paseo," was the commander's hasty greeting. "Report to Central Tower immediately. There's been an incident at North Bridge."

Rolf scratched his temple. "What does that have to do with my mission?"

Commander O'Conner couldn't have looked more grave. "Nothing, but I need my best agents back at Central. Now."

Rolf knew he should agree and end the call, but this was already shaping up to be his weirdest day in recent history. He continued, "Nei's with me."

"Nei? Oh... right. Bring her with you. Yes, actually, she might be able to help us."

Rolf and Nei both stared at each other. "What?" puzzled Rolf. "How would Nei..."

"Darum."

Silence reigned for a few heartbeats. Nei began inching behind Rolf; her mind played back images of seven months prior, of Darum hunting her down like an animal. She was reverting to her old self; she clung to Rolf like a child, fearing for her life the way she had when Darum wished to kill her. Rolf was her protector then; he was her protector now. He was her shield.

Rolf felt Nei's grip on his arm tighten. He turned back to her and said in confidence, "Don't worry. The commander would never put you in the same room as that monster. I'm sure he just wants to ask some questions." He put a reassuring arm around her. I'll die before Darum puts another finger on her again, he bitterly thought as he looked back at the commander. "We'll be there shortly," he said finally.

"Good." The screen went dark.

Rolf secured his comm to his belt and tended to Nei, who had grown still and quiet. "You don't have to come. I'll tell Commander O'Conner that you aren't ready for..."

"No," Nei interrupted. She took in a long breath and stood tall. It was time to make use of this forced adulthood; there didn't seem to be an end to her accelerated aging. Who knew how long she'd have left to live, anyway? She couldn't waste her life at Rolf's house, and besides, the chance to prove to Rolf that she really was mature and courageous, mentally as well as physically, had just dropped out of the sky and right into her lap. Or into Rolf's communicator, anyway. "I want to do this. For you."

Rolf was taken aback by Nei's sudden determination. It wasn't that Nei never looked determined, but concerning Darum, it was unexpected, certainly. He perused her with a critical glare, scanning for signs of deception (and Nei was a terrible liar), but all he detected was honest fortitude. Perhaps that hybrid DNA of hers really was made of tougher science.

"All right, then," Rolf said as he nodded, urging the both of them to double time back to Central Tower, "but don't do it for me. Do it for you."

Nei beamed back at Rolf. She had something even better in mind, though. I'll do this for both of us, she resolved inwardly while rubbing her palm over the back of her other hand, feeling the tips of her claw's retracted blades.


Author's note: Many apologies for the strong language in the first part of this chapter. I know it's not my usual style. I tried refraining from cursing too much, but in doing so, Darum came off as completely unbelievable, reduced to a silly, bowdlerized version of himself. Should I change this to an "M" rating now? I don't know how many f-bombs I can use before having to move into "mature" territory.