All things ReBoot are property of Mainframe Entertainment. All other things are property of their respective owners. Any resemblance to anything else is totally coincidental.
Comments, criticism welcome. MiSTers too.
Timeline: This takes place sometime in mid-January 2499.
Rating: PG. The usual.
System Anrev was a relatively peaceful system.
Admittedly, it had its fair share of scares in the past, especially when there was that huge explosion at 1600h one day, but it was still relatively quiet.
Jason Sterling, Guardian Lieutenant, hated it.
He called up the chronometer function on his keytool, Orion. 0300h.
So it was 0300h in the morning, eight days into his current mission, and he was still nowhere near completion. The pouring rain outside, courtesy of System Anrev's weather generator, did nothing to alleviate his sour mood.
Currently, Jason was in the Solar Heart Bar, as proclaimed by a large sign outside. The bar itself was fairly small, but not cramped. There were nine tables inside the bar, all capable of sitting six or seven people. The counter, which Jason was now sitting at, was capable of sitting eleven.
Not that anyone else was in the bar. As far as Jason could tell, he was the only one in the bar, with the exception of the bartender, who was currently polishing a glass in the fashion of bartenders everywhere throughout time and space.
Jason felt strange. Something was missing. Something that, while not essential, was extremely noticeable in its absence...
His throat was dry.
Yeah, maybe that was it.
The bartender glanced at him. "Yeah?"
"Another beer. Bottle. No, make that two."
Mike reached under the bar, and produced two bottles of alcoholic concoctions. "Sure you can take it?"
Jason looked at the four other bottles he had already finished. "Yeah, I'm sure."
Jason poured himself the drink, and chugged it back in one gulp. Ah, that hit the spot. Nothing like real alcohol. The synthesized stuff they served at the more respectable bars just couldn't cut it.
He went back to his scrutiny of the surroundings. There was an ancient relic in a corner of the bar. It was old, it was out of date, it was pre-twentieth century, even... gods, wasn't it pre-Industrial Revolution? Although they were probably still making these things up until the 2300s. Nothing could keep for so long, that was for sure. But it was still in good condition. Jason was immediately reminded of those things that other bartenders used to keep, lovingly restored or just plain well preserved. What were they called... something about containers... boxes... Jukeboxes. That was it. Although this relic predated those by far.
He tapped the bartender on the shoulder. "Hey, whazzat?"
Mike glanced at where Jason was pointing. "Oh, that. Here before I came. The old man got it, I think. Called it... a piano, if I remember correctly."
Jason nodded to himself. A piano. One of those old musical instruments. "But what's it doing in that corner?"
"You wanna try moving it? That was the best place we could think of, that didn't take up so much space. Besides, the acoustics there are incredible."
"Why not trash it, and get a synthesizer or something?"
"Hell no. It's an antique, and if nothing else, it's something the old man left me, so I wouldn't throw it away. Besides, maybe someone will be able to play it."
"Good luck finding that someone."
Jason glanced at his keytool. 0327h. Damn. Thirty-three more minutes until closing time. "Mike?"
"Two more bottles."
"Geez." Mike produced the beer.
The door opened.
Jason resisted the urge to turn in his seat. He listened to the footsteps of the newcomer.
Newcomers, he corrected himself. Two sets of footsteps. One wearing sneakers, the other wearing boots. Boot-wearer is fairly tall, and walks with confidence. Sneakers is shorter, but seems more energetic, almost bouncing around.
A pair of elbows rested on the counter, beside Jason. "One Pina Colada, please." This was Boot-wearer.
"Hot chocolate?" Sneakers piped up.
"Coming right up," Mike said, serving the drinks.
Jason pondered over this eventuality. The voices had definitely been female. From the sounds of it, Boot-wearer was around 25, while Sneakers was still in her teens.
The two of them began talking animatedly. Jason tried not to overhear anything, but in the silence of the very early morning, a conversation, carried out at what would already be considered a loud volume, was very attention-grabbing.
"Nice work there, Mae." This from Sneakers.
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Stella." Boot-wearer.
"I'll be direct, then. What the hell possessed you to drive the car right into the wall?"
"Hey, the suspect was in the way."
"That's not much of an excuse."
"What, you wanted me to run him over?"
"Not really, but still..."
Jason noted that the conversation seemed to have ceased. He was aware of eyes upon him.
"What?" he said, while appraising the two women. The sprite girl named Stella was definitely in her teens, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Short silvery hair, yellow eyes, pale green skin, definitely what some would call 'cute'. Her human friend was in her mid-twenties, with long reddish hair, as well as penetrating blue eyes. Both of them had a wary look to them, as though they expected the Guardian to turn on them any moment.
Then again, if these two people were who Jason suspected they were, they had good reason to be paranoid.
The woman named Mae shook her head. "Nothing," she said.
Like hell, Jason thought to himself. He turned back to his beer.
After a while, he turned back to them. "Excuse me."
Stella started in her seat, while Mae was more composed. "Yes?" she inquired.
"Let me guess. Mae Rovin and Stella Collins." He let that hang for a moment. "The most famous team of bounty hunters in the Net."
"Not exactly," Mae said. "I'm sure that there are plenty of other bounty hunters much more capable than us."
"That may be so, but I'm very sure that none of them have had as much recognition in the Supercomputer as you two."
Stella scratched the back of her head. "I get the feeling that there's a lot of innuendoes and whatnot going on around here."
"Partly right," Jason said with a perfectly straight face. Throughout the whole exchange, he had not averted his eyes from Mae's almost-glare.
"Care to tell me what those are?"
"Not really," Mae said.
Stella shrugged. "Who are you, anyway?" she asked Jason.
"Lieutenant Jason Sterling. Just another grunt in the forces."
"A grunt with a mission that might require our help," Mae said, "or we wouldn't be having this conversation."
They glared at each other for several more minutes. Mike considered telling them that it was closing time, but then decided against it.
Stella, for her part, was wondering how both of them managed to keep from blinking for such a long time.
Finally, Jason said, without averting his eyes, "Orion, display holo number 2388."
The keytool bleeped, then displayed a holo right between the two glarers. Both of them blinked at the same time.
Well, Stella thought, that's one way of solving it.
The quality of the holo was obviously not very good. It had probably been taken from an old record or some such. But the information it displayed was clear.
Mae watched silently as the holo displayed a pretty sprite girl of no more than nineteen. She had shoulder-length dark blue hair, almost black. Green eyes, pale skin, and a wary look to her.
"That's the best picture we have of her," Jason said. "Her name is Krissie; and she's currently wanted by the Guardians."
"Wanted? What did she do?"
"Nothing that can be proven in a court of law. Except maybe existing."
"She's half virus. And we have reason to suspect that she has retained her parent's Infection ability. In addition, she has been linked to several terrorist bombings. Not conclusively, but enough to warrant an investigation."
"So... you want us to capture her."
"There is a bounty on her. Not a large one, but still quite impressive."
"Four hundred thousand credits."
Stella froze. "Repeat that."
"Four hundred thousand credits."
Mae looked at the holo for a while longer, considering it. "It's a high-risk job, isn't it?"
"Why do you say that?"
Mae was silent. Her eyes, however, flickered towards Stella, then back to the holo.
Jason shrugged. "Take it or leave it."
Mae pursed her lips. "I'll think about it," she said.
Jason shrugged. "If you make up your mind, contact me. Or leave a message with Mike," he said, nodding his head to the bartender.
"And in the meantime?"
"In the meantime, I'll do my job, and you'll do yours. Agreed?"
"Agreed." She turned on her heel and left. Stella scurried after her, sparing a quick wave at Jason.
Jason sighed, and grabbed the one remaining bottle on the counter. "Put it on my tab," he told Mike.
Mike just watched silently as Jason left the bar, closing the door behind him. Then he went about polishing the counter top.
Until the door opened again, admitting a very tired girl.
Mike scowled. "You again."
"Please, I promise I'll pay my tab at the end of the month," the girl pleaded. "Just give me something cool."
Mike grumbled, but poured the girl a glass of isotonic liquid. The girl grinned, and downed the thing in one gulp.
"That makes it one hundred and thirty credits you owe me," Mike reminded her.
"Hey, chill. I'll get the money to you. Don't worry." The girl rushed back out of the door.
Mike shook his head, shut the door, and continued cleaning the bar.
Jason trudged back to the police station, ignoring the rain, and occasionally taking a few gulps of beer from the bottle. It has to be said that even after he tossed the empty bottle into a nearby trash receptacle, he was still walking in a perfectly straight line.
He had been intending to avoid all social interaction until he reached his quarters, but his luck ran out at the door.
"Took you long enough," Sergeant Robert Dyson told him. "Sir."
"Had some business. What now?"
"The old man wants to see you."
Geez. You'd think that the mission would wait until morning. Wait, it IS morning. Technically. "Thanks... Sarge."
"You're welcome. And don't call me Sarge."
"Sure thing, Sarge."
Jason was starting to feel the buzz of the alcohol when the resident Guardian Captain, Jacob McDall, admitted him into his office.
"We've received some information on your quarry," Jacob said. "An anonymous caller gave a tip that the suspect is planning a strike somewhere in this system soon."
Jason nodded. A pleasant alcoholic haze was beginning to encroach upon his consciousness.
"The caller did not give any details, but we're fairly sure that the information is legitimate. We can arrange to have assistance on hand if you require."
Jason was struggling to keep the slur out of his voice. "No sir. Assistance is not required."
"You're planning to go it alone?"
Jacob was expressionless. "It's your decision. In any case, be alert. We don't know where or when exactly the suspect is attacking, and our resources are limited. So be on your guard."
Jason somehow managed to navigate his way to the door, open it, and close it. He shuffled back to his quarters, drunk and tired. It could wait until morning. Then he can go find out about the broken piano or whatever the hell the chief was talking about.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, thanks to the weather generator. It was a day to be happy, a day to be relaxed, a day to have fun.
Jason felt like shooting the weather generator's programmer.
He stumbled out of bed, trying to ignore the pounding jackhammers in his head. Everything was done by rote. Boil water. Wait. Make coffee. Wait. Drink coffee. Too hot, wait, drink. Make mental note to replace alarm chrono. Check Emails.
He glared at the Emails he had received. Three of them, to be precise. The first one was a request for an update on his current mission. Can't think clearly now, file that away until later.
Second one. Apartment. Sale approved. Place of his own now. Jason peered at the screen, trying to read all the small print. Ah, hell. Leave it for Sylvia.
Third one. Who the hell is Stella? Stella, Stella... oh, yeah, the bounty hunter. Asking how he was, wishing him a good day, still thinking about the offer. How the hell she got his Email address, he didn't know. He considered replying, then dismissed it as too much trouble.
Get up. Go to bathroom, attempt to shave. He stared at his reflection in the mirror for a moment, and shuddered.
Finish shaving. What else? Breakfast? Oh yeah. Shuffle, shuffle.
He quickly whipped up some eggs. He stared at it for a moment before picking up his fork.
Mae glared at the note on the living room table. "'Gone out to see Chris'," she muttered. "Damn it all."
She took out her pre-cooked meal from the storage unit. "Damn it all," she repeated to herself.
Involuntarily, she began thinking about Jason. Tousled black hair, tanned skin, handsome... she imagined herself looking into those liquid brown eyes...
She shook herself. Dammit, get a hold of yourself! You only met him last night! And the man was a drunkard; she remembered the number of bottles he had around him.
In a foul mood now, she stalked back into the living room, and flopped down onto the couch. She switched on the holovision, but there was nothing interesting on. It was then that she noticed another note on the floor, in front of the HV.
Mae read it. "Ah, crap. The Wayside case. I clean forgot about it."
The Wayside case was a relatively simple one, if irksome. Wayside Weapons was Mae's and Stella's main source of armaments, but they had been in financial difficulties recently. The main director had allegedly been blackmailed, and he had hired Mae and Stella to catch the blackmailer.
Mae grabbed her coat, grabbed her car keys (to the spare car), grabbed a sandwich from her breakfast, and left the apartment, slamming the door behind her.
Jason had decided that the best thing to do would be to try to relax. A worried mind would not be productive, after all.
At the moment, he was strolling along the park, regretting his decision. It wasn't that the environment was unsuitable for relaxing. On the contrary, it was the very embodiment of peace, with couples walking down the gravel path that ran through the park, and children playing in the grassy fields.
It was basically because Jason was bored.
He looked around, trying to find fault in something, anything. His eyes settled on the large building that was right beside the park.
Damn estate planners, putting a damn factory near the damn park. And a weapons factory, no less; and... and... hey, isn't that Mae?
The bounty hunter had not noticed Jason. She was walking towards the factory with a business-like air. Probably dealing in weapons, Jason decided.
He started walking towards her. After all, he DID need to find out whether Mae had accepted his offer.
Damn, DAMN weapons factory. If that damn half-virus decides to strike there, the fireworks are gonna be impressive.
Mae was halfway to the factory at this point. So was Jason.
I've got a bad feeling about this... almost like Krissie IS going to strike now at the factory, and-
Jason felt sick.
He shifted uncomfortably in his bed. He never knew up until now that the use of one's legs is essential in moving, even when one isn't even standing.
In reflection, he was lucky. Two sprained ankles was nothing, compared to what his hospital roommates had.
Mae, in the bed beside his, was still unconscious, the result of a serious blow to the head. The doctors assured him that she would be fine, once she wakes up, which would be soon.
The patient in the bed opposite his was awake, and evidently fine. Jason vaguely remembered throwing up a shield, courtesy of Orion, and diving to protect this innocent passerby, hence his sprained ankles. Female Khatran, around 15, golden eyes, brown fur. She was reading a book, and seemed unconcerned about her broken left arm. Jason noted her dexterity in handling the book, an actual paper book, with only one hand.
The girl noticed him looking at her, and gave him a big smile. "You okay?"
Jason nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay. Probably gonna be discharged real soon."
"Same here. Thanks for saving me like that. My name's Luka."
"Ah." She nodded towards Mae. "You know her?"
"Huh? No! Of course not." Where did she get that idea? "Business partner. Sort of. I was about to ask her if she accepted my offer."
"I see. And that girl who was here just now? The sprite?"
"Oh, you mean Stella." Stella had walked into the room, stared at Mae for half an hour, absorbed the doctors' assurances, glanced once at Jason, then left, all without saying a word. "She's Mae's partner."
"Seems like she's in shock."
"Yeah, I get the feeling that the two of them are pretty close."
Luka smiled, and returned to her book.
Jason was discharged the next day, with strict orders from the doctor to take it easy for the next week. Nanobots may be good, but they aren't all-powerful.
Luka had also been discharged, and she was waiting at the bus stop, experimentally flexing her newly-healed arm.
Jason felt the need to strike up some conversation. "So... uh, what do you do?"
Luka shrugged. "This and that. Odd jobs. And I practise some martial arts, too."
"Aren't you supposed to be schooling?" Damn, Jason, bad move, always think before you speak, then you won't have to taste shoe leather all that often...
Luka, thankfully, took no offence. "I'm attending night classes. And before you ask, yes, my parents approve. At least, they didn't disagree too violently."
"I see." Pause. "Just asking... how good are you?"
"What, the Art?"
"Enough to get by. Want me to demonstrate?"
Jason looked at her, noting her superior muscle tone. "Erm, maybe next time."
A black hovercar pulled up beside Jason. Its driver rolled down the window. "Dammit, you could have chosen a better time to be discharged, you know."
Jason blinked once. "Sylvia?"
Luka quickly assessed this new arrival. Dyed light blue waist-length hair, pale skin, brown eyes. A business-like air to her, as well as a faint aura of exasperation.
"No, it's Cleofatra, the obese ruler of the Nile," Sylvia snapped. "Of course it's me. Now get in."
Jason opened the front seat door of the hovercar, then thought of something. "Hey, Luka..."
"You wanna hitch a ride?" Hah! That's getting back at ya, sis.
Luka scratched the back of her head in a gesture of self-consciousness. "I don't really want to bother you..."
"No bother at all. Right, sis?"
Sylvia shot Jason a look that could puree. "Of course not. My pleasure."
"Thanks." Luka opened the back seat door, and hopped inside. Jason plopped himself down on the front seat, ignoring the Evil Eye of Sylvia.
"Where ya headed?" Jason asked.
"Say, I'm heading the same way myself." It was true. His new apartment was in Sector 4.
The hovercar began moving. "Oh yeah, this is Sylvia Sterling, my sister. Sylvia, this is Luka."
"Pleased to meet you," Luka said pleasantly.
"Same here." Sylvia glanced at Jason. "By the way, Jason, I got your stuff to your new apartment already."
Jason sighed. "Okay... how much do I owe you?"
"No charge, this time. Jeff moved most of the stuff."
They stopped in front of an apartment building. Luka blinked. "Thanks, but how did you know I lived here?"
It was Jason's turn to blink. "You do?"
"Oh, hey, I remember something about a new tenant in the apartment below mine. Maybe that would be..."
Jason pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket. "Number 08-12?"
"Yeah, that's it." She got out of the car.
"Fancy meeting your new neighbour at the hospital," Sylvia said. "Oh, by the way, Jason, I need you at the office. Signing the ownership papers."
Oh damn, he forgot about that. "See ya, Luka."
"See ya too." Luka waved at him as the car pulled away.
Sylvia drove in silence for a while. Jason started whistling idly.
"Talk about cradle-robbing."
Jason choked on the next note. "Wha- what?"
"She's what, thirteen? Fourteen?"
"Hey, it's not like that! We were in the same room-" Ah, damn, gotta rephrase that. "I mean, in the same hospital room. I saved her life down at the park."
"The Sector 3 park?"
"Yeah, that one. Why else do you think I had to go to the hospital?"
"Heh. That big boom caused quite a stir in the office. Wayside Weapons was just about to file a bankruptcy statement. You can imagine the gossip around when news of the explosion reached us."
The hovercar pulled into a designated parking spot outside the Hamilton And Hawking law offices.
Jason sighed. "Exactly how many forms are there to fill in?"
"Anrev's a big system. We have to go through lots of bureaucratic shit before we get anything done..."
"How many forms?"
"Well, not a lot. About twelve or so."
"Honestly, Stella, this is the craziest idea you ever gave me-"
"Shut up and keep working."
Jason finished signing the last of the forms. "In this day and age," he sighed, pocketing the pen, "we still have to rely on paper for a hard copy. Paper, of all things."
"I didn't make the world," Sylvia said, picking up the forms. "I just live in it."
Jason glanced at Orion's chronometer function. "Damn, I'm late for work."
"Drive you there?"
"No thanks. Why're you being so nice to me, anyway?"
"Because if you strain yourself and end up back in the hospital, guess who has to pay the bills?"
Jason really, really wanted a drink.
He also knew exactly why he wasn't getting one. The definition of "one drink" tended to vary greatly in terms of actual volume.
He was drinking a glass of synthesized beer. Synthesized beer, with synthesized alcohol. The manufacturers touted it as being "just like the real thing", but to Jason, the synthesized beer was nowhere near "the real thing". Hell, he already wiped out three bottles, and he still didn't feel the buzz.
He briefly reflected on the clichedness of the setting. Isn't it always the same, all over the world? Secret agent meets his contact in a high-class restaurant. The contact waits there, until a total stranger happens to approach him, and that stranger turns out to be the aforementioned secret agent...
Hm. Footsteps behind him. "Hi, Jeff."
Agent 17, Jeffrey Mason, slumped down into the chair next to Jason. "Damn, bud, you gotta tell me how you can spot me like that."
"It's a secret." Jason turned to face him. "So, what do you have?"
Jeff took out a small E-memopad. "Lessee... the transient known as Krissie was indeed responsible for the attack on Wayside Weapons recently. Motive would be... plain terrorism. I dunno, maybe she was bored."
"Stick to the point."
"Keep your bloody hat on. Right, method was rigging one of the machines to self-destruct, right in the ammunitions section. How, I can't say."
Jason sipped his beer. "Maybe she Infected it."
"Could be. We'll never know now. Casualties are surprisingly light. Seems it was an off day for the factory workers."
"Did Krissie plan it, or was it unintentional?"
"How the hell do I know? But get this; Krissie was careless this time."
"Now you get to the interesting part."
"Yeah, yeah. She left a small clue for the investigators. I think she expected it to be destroyed in the blast, but somehow, it wasn't."
"Get to the damn-"
"Getting there, getting there. She seemed to have caught her clothes on a corner or something, and ripped a bit of it off. It's not really noticeable, but it's there all the same. So. We traced the origins of the cloth, and we found out where our little half-virus buys her clothes."
"A little shop down in Sector 5. Not a large one, or a very famous one, but in accordance to the rules, it tags its clothes with an ID. We cross-referenced the buyer, and voila! Instant win."
Jason raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me she gave her real name when she was buying her clothes?"
"Yes indeed. Maybe she was confident that we couldn't catch her. But we did. She was so confident, she even gave an address."
Jeff read out the address. "It's a small building in Sector 7. It's supposed to be scheduled for demolition, but in the true spirit of bureaucracy, the demolition plan's bogged down in red tape."
"Lucky for us, then. Anyone else know about this?"
"What, the address? Only me and you. And I'm not touching this case; she's your girl."
"Good enough for me."
Stella pushed against the door. It yielded to her light touch, and she stepped inside.
The interior of the building was dark, even in the day. She could vaguely make out silhouettes of various items strewn about the floor.
She nudged a shape with her foot. It made a metallic sound, and Stella correctly identified it as a pot. A few more tries yielded what seemed to be an old electric lamp. She fumbled for the switch, and turned it on.
The dim yellow light cast long shadows on the wall. Stella traced each shadow back to its source. Most of them came from the items that were on the floor; now that Stella could see them clearly, she could tell that they were part of a campsite. A sleeping bag, a heater, some freeze-dried meals. A kettle. A few pots and pans. An old electric stove.
Stella frowned. Something wasn't right. Something about the shadows...
She turned back, and picked up the lamp. As she straightened, however, she froze as she felt a light touch on the back of her neck.
"'Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly,'" a voice spoke.
Stella wanted to scream, to run, but she couldn't move a muscle.
"The thing is," the voice continued, "I don't remember inviting you here."
"Wh... who are you?" Stella managed.
The voice laughed, a pleasant sound, if it weren't for the fact that there was a malicious undertone to it. "I'm sure you know." The voice had a slow, languorous quality to it, almost as if whoever was speaking knew that Stella was totally helpless.
Then again, she was.
"You are... Stella Collins, aren't you." It was not a question. "Stella, Stella. Here's some advice for you. Never, ever, put your pretty nose where it doesn't belong. It might get broken."
The touch on Stella's neck became a vise-like grip. Stella struggled for air, then stopped as her vision gradually faded to black.
The lamp fell to the floor. A hand reached down, and switched it off.
Mae considered breaking open the door to her apartment, then decided to try one more time.
She fumbled the key into the hole, cursing the head injury that the doctors said would temporarily affect her motor skills. Finally, after much cursing, she managed to unlock the door.
She opened the door with rather more force than was required, and slammed it behind her. She flopped down onto the couch, and grabbed the remote control for the HV. After a few tries, she managed to switch it on.
A sound behind her made her turn. "Oh, hi, Stella."
Stella had her back to her partner, and she was standing in the kitchen. She wasn't doing anything; just standing there.
Mae cocked her head to one side. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing." Stella's voice was strangely soft, almost a whisper.
"Like hell. What happened? Get in a fight with Chris?" That never happened before, but there was always a first time for everything.
"C'mon, tell me."
Mae shrugged. "Suit yourself." She switched off the HV, and stood up. "I'm going to see the Guardian. Discuss his offer."
Mae looked at Stella strangely, before opening the apartment door.
Mae froze, then dived to the floor. An energy beam just missed taking her head off.
She rolled, and quickly got up into a fighting stance. "Stella!"
The sprite girl was moving jerkily now, mechanically. Her skin was now so pale as to be almost white, and her eyes glowed an unnatural green. She reaimed the blaster towards her former partner, and pulled the trigger.
Mae somehow managed to dodge the energy beam, and barreled out of the building, without looking back.
Stella expressionlessly watched her escape, and then quietly closed the door to the apartment.
Corporal Ami Nakamura was apologetic as she ushered in a shaking Mae. "Sorry sir, but I can't understand a word she's saying. But I understood when she said she wanted to see you."
Jason waved a hand at her. "Dismissed, Corporal." He waited until Mae calmed down. "What the hell happened to you?"
"Stella... she... she attacked me..." Mae broke out into fresh sobs.
Jason eyed her for a moment, before reaching into his desk. "Here," he said, handing her a fairly large bottle of whisky. Mae accepted it, and downed half its contents in one gulp.
Now more composed, she proceeded to tell Jason about Stella's changed appearance and behaviour. "I think that virus infected her."
Jason's mouth was set in a grim line. "I checked out Krissie's hideout earlier. I found her stuff, but she wasn't there. My guess is that she infected your partner, then decided to follow her back to your place."
Mae took a deep breath, as she recalled how close she had been to getting killed. And by Stella, no less! "I want to kill that bitch," she grated.
"You and me both... eh?"
The intercom button was flashing. Jason thumbed it. "What is it?"
"There's a boy here who wants to see you, sir," Corporal Hikaru Nakamura's voice came. "He says his name is Chris, and that you might be interested in seeing him."
Mae's head snapped up. "Chris? Christopher Braken? Send him in, please."
Jason glanced at her before turning back to the com. "Send him in."
The boy that entered the office was a shy-looking sprite, around eighteen or so. He was gangly, with unruly silvery hair, pale green skin, and blue eyes. His clothes were extremely rumpled, and there seemed to be a lot of objects in his pockets.
"Who're you?" Jason asked.
"Christopher Braken, sir." The boy was evidently uncomfortable around authority. "Um... Miss Rovin there can probably vouch for me..."
"He's Stella's boyfriend," Mae supplied. "And an inveterate inventor."
"Inventor, huh?" Jason was unimpressed. "And why're you here?"
"To apologise. Um. I planted a bug on you."
"A bug? Where?"
Jason took the aforementioned pen out. "But this is Sylvia's... hang on. I don't think Sylvia ever had a pen like this..."
"We, erm, planted it in your sister's office, sir. Me and Stella. She wanted to know all about the explosion at the Wayside Weapons plant."
Jason was beginning to see where this was leading. "So you overheard the conversation between me and Jeff. And Stella went to find the culprit responsible for the explosion. Which turned out to be more than she could handle."
"That's about it."
Mae sighed. "Stella always wanted results, fast. She wasn't going to wait around for me to wake up; she was going to get revenge then and there."
Jason twirled the pen around. "You do know that bugging a cop is illegal."
"Yes, sir." Chris avoided his gaze.
Jason sighed. "Do we really have to?" he asked Mae.
Mae nodded. "If Krissie's in our apartment, then we'll need him. Stella booby-trapped our apartment pretty well; Chris was the one who designed the system, though."
Jason turned to Chris. "So you know where all the traps are?"
"Yes, sir." Chris took out a small paper memopad and a pencil. "This is a rough sketch of the existing system... assuming Stella doesn't add anything on to it."
"Looks fine... the only danger spots are the doors to the rooms. And stop calling me sir."
Mae pointed at a spot on the rough map. "But the front door's trapped pretty well. If the system is activated, they can't get out, but we can't get in. Plus, these traps are all bombs. If we set off even one, then it's pretty likely that the whole building will go down."
Jason frowned. "That rules out a large force, then. If Krissie happens to see a lot of Guardians heading her way, she's likely to panic, and her psyche profile does state that she's not afraid to kill herself. Chris, how sophisticated is the trap?"
"Not very; we were a bit rushed for time. Any Guardian with a keytool should be able to disarm it. But it'll take some time, and it won't exactly be very quiet."
"Which means that we need a distraction. Krissie's probably confident enough to take down a single fighter, so she won't be rash enough to self-destruct. Maybe... is the window booby-trapped?"
"No, and Stella doesn't have the materials to trap it at the moment. But it's near-impossible to get there. The walls are too slippery and too hard for any normal person to climb; even if they managed to do so, only a ninja can do it quietly enough to maintain the element of surprise."
"A ninja, hm?" Jason smiled. "How about a martial artist?"
One advantage about being well-versed in the Art, Luka mused, was that one could be as quiet as one desires. The old masters called it hiding one's aura, but Luka just preferred to think of it as plain stealth.
She reached the window. Lessee... how did the plan go? Ah, right. Get here quietly, and then...
Make a distraction.
Luka grinned, gave thanks for the existence of gloves, and smashed the window in.
Before anyone inside the apartment could react, Luka leapt inside the apartment, and sweep-kicked the sprite that was just about to blast her. The sprite went down, and a quick neck-chop put her out of commission.
The apartment's other occupant snarled, and went for Luka's neck. Luka coolly stepped aside, and grabbed the half-virus's arm. She quickly had Krissie in an arm-lock, and was slowly forcing her to the floor.
A half-virus, however, has rather more strength and dexterity than a normal sprite. Krissie twisted free, and retaliated with a backhand that sent Luka sprawling. Luka managed to tag her opponent's leg before she hit the floor, and Krissie went down onto one knee. Luka quickly recovered, and went for an immobilisation lock. Krissie rolled out of the way, and caught Luka on the shoulder with a quick scissors-kick that also brought her upright.
Luka feinted to the left, then dashed in the opposite direction, intending to catch Krissie unawares. Krissie, however, anticipated the move, and gave Luka a hard elbow to the ribs. Luka responded with an uppercut that connected with Krissie's chin.
Both of them were panting heavily now. Luka was feeling the bruises from the hits, and an unpleasant sensation in her shoulder indicated a swelling that would probably not go away for a long time. Krissie, for her part, looked particularly winded.
Krissie made the next move, going for a high kick. Luka ducked that one, and jumped over the sweep-kick that followed. She retaliated with a series of quick body blows, and jumped away to avoid the return swing. She wasn't fast enough, however, and a punch to her midsection made her gasp. She staggered back, wheezing.
Krissie launched herself at Luka, but Luka grabbed her before she could strike. A quick twist, and Krissie was thrown halfway across the apartment.
Luka held the wall for support, catching her breath, and watching the half-virus get back to her feet. "Had enough?" she wheezed.
Krissie grabbed a nearby table, and tossed it at Luka. Luka caught it easily, but couldn't dodge the chair that followed. She collapsed backwards, while Krissie rushed towards her, intending to finish it for good...
The door burst open, and then Mae was running towards Stella, while Jason was aiming his keytool towards Krissie. But he was too slow, and Krissie extended her hand, preparing to snap Luka's neck, but then Chris stepped in front of Jason and raised a weird-looking gun of his own...
Krissie was slammed into the wall, knocking all the wind out of her. Jason quickly file-locked her hands, while Krissie could only slump to the ground, whimpering in defeat.
Mae had refused Jason's suggestion of restraining Stella. She was trying revive her partner, unsuccessfully.
Meanwhile, Chris was disarming the anti-intruder system that Stella had activated. Jason was tending to Luka's wounds, while Krissie was sitting in a corner, seemingly resigned to her fate.
Mae glanced over at Luka. "Are you going to be okay?"
Luka gave a faint smile. "Yup. Just a few bandages, and I'll be perfectly fine."
"Sorry about dragging you into this mess," Jason apologised.
"No need for that," Luka said. "I was happy to help." She tilted her head to look at Krissie. "You're a good fighter."
Krissie glanced up in surprise.
"It's not everyday that I can fight a challenge like you," Luka continued. "You've got quite a few good moves."
Krissie cracked a smile. "Th... thank you."
Mae leant towards Jason. "What's going to happen to her?" she asked, indicating Krissie.
Jason shrugged. "I don't really care. We'll probably send her to the Supercomputer, or to the Guardian Academy..."
"And then, it's the viral breakdown chamber." This was from Krissie.
Luka gasped. "But... that's awful! You're getting killed just for existing?"
Krissie gave her a sad smile. "Welcome to the real world, baby."
"You did kill others," Jason reminded her.
"I prefer to think of it as self-defence. They were trying to kill me."
"That's because-" Jason caught himself in time.
"Because I'm a half-virus? Like it's my fault who my parents are."
Mae scowled. "That victim-of-circumstance act is getting you nowhere."
"Indeed? Then how about this?" Krissie closed her eyes.
At first nothing happened, then Chris shouted, "Look!" He was pointing at Stella.
Slowly, the colour returned to Stella's skin. Everyone watched as the Infection was slowly leeched out of her. After it was over, Stella coughed once, then opened her eyes, which had reverted back to their normal colour. She sat up, shaking her head blearily.
Krissie released the breath she had been holding. "A virus grows stronger with each Infection of a living being. With each release, he... or she... grows weaker."
Stella tensed, but relaxed when she saw that Krissie was restrained. "You made me betray my friend," she accused.
"All in self-defence. As I recall, all of you were out to kill me. Especially you, sprite girl."
"You blew up that factory!"
"I had to think of a way to be heard. Maybe it wasn't the best way, but I had already fallen into the deep pit I dug myself."
Stella stood up, holding onto Mae for support. "So what's going to happen to you now? The death penalty?"
Suddenly, the anger seemed to go out of her. "But it's not right," she said. "It's just... not right."
"Stella, what are you saying?" Mae asked, confused.
Chris frowned. "Maybe Krissie still has a hold on her."
"Like hell, handsome," Krissie retorted. "Guardian, go ahead and scan her."
Jason did so. "Much as I hate to admit it, the half-virus is right."
"This is my own opinion," Stella said, "but I don't think anyone should be forced to die just because they exist. Dying because of some stupid law... It's just plain wrong."
"I have to agree with her," Luka said.
"Mae?" Stella asked.
Mae looked at her partner, then relented. "I suppose you're right."
Jason threw up his hands. "You guys are hopeless."
"C'mon," Luka said. "Can't you find a loophole or something?"
Jason thought for a while.
"I can't," he finally said.
"But-" Luka began.
"But," Jason interrupted, "maybe my sister can."
"Your sister?" Mae asked.
"Yeah, Sylvia Sterling, Attorney At Law. She practically memorized each and every law that ever existed. If there's a loophole, she'll find it."
"Glad to hear that," Krissie said.
Jason sighed. "Krissie. If I remove the file-locks, will you promise not to make any more trouble?"
"Promise. On my word of honour. Which, before any of you protest, is worth quite a lot."
"I hope I'm not making a big mistake," Jason said, as he released the file-locks.
Krissie rubbed her wrists. "Thanks."
Chris, meanwhile, was running through the conversation in his mind. Waitaminutewaitaminute... she called me... what?
Stella was also having the same belated thought. Did she just call my boyfriend 'handsome'?
They reconvened a few days later at the Solar Heart Bar.
The bar was deserted. Mainly because Mike had put out the "private party" sign.
"You guys owe me a hell lot for this," he muttered.
Jason, meanwhile, was holding his head in his hands. "I can't believe it... I can't believe it..."
"Believe what?" Mae asked.
"Mikey here knew Krissie. She comes here every morning, just before opening time."
"Like it's so surprising," Mike said. "And don't call me Mikey."
The door to the bar opened to admit Sylvia. "Sorry 'bout that," she said. "Had to pick up a few documents."
"So what's the verdict?" Jason asked.
Sylvia smiled. "The good news is, Krissie is now officially recognized as a non-virus, due to her sprite blood."
Krissie smiled. "You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that." She stood up, and began wandering around the bar.
"But," Sylvia continued, "you have to be 'gainfully employed' before they'll leave you alone."
"That could prove to be a problem," Stella said. "Who'd employ a half-virus?"
There was a sudden burst of music.
All eyes turned to Krissie, who was halfway in the middle of a piece. She felt the others' gaze, and grinned nervously at them. "Erm... is there a problem?"
"How the hell did you learn to play a piano like that?" Mike demanded.
"Well, once I crashed out at an abandoned concert hall or something. I basically taught myself how to play."
Mike was shaking his head in disbelief. "I'll have to hand it to you. A job, I mean."
"I was looking for a piano player, but it looks like I don't have to look anymore."
Jason shrugged. "Fine by me."
"So now I have a job..." Krissie considered this turn of events, and grinned widely. "Cool."