Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories

Omnibus Edition, Volume Six

These mini-stories first appeared in the Undocumented Features Mini-Stories area on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum, with the exception of "Three Views of Diqiu", which is presented in this Omnibus Edition for the first time anywhere.

July 25, 2013

Table of Contents

  1. Enterprise
    October 12, 1999
  2. Per Aspera Ex Umbra
    September 27, 2009
  3. The BatCo Trilogy
    Part I: Reinvent
    Part II: Renew
    Part III: Revive
    2382 / 2411 / 2412
  4. War Stories
    September 13, 2390
  5. Whosoever Holds This Crowbar...
    June 9, 2403
  6. Line of Duty
    July 12, 2407
  7. Late Arrival
    August 24, 2407
  8. Agent Selection
    May 6, 2410
  9. Welcome to Gotham
    June 17, 2410
  10. Contract Negotiation
    July 14, 2410
  11. Titan Snapshots
    2410 / 2411 / 2411
  12. The Other Side
    November 1, 2410
  13. Spectres
    February 4, 2411
  14. Holiday in the Sun
    June 15, 2412
  15. Sibling Rivalry
  16. Contempt Level
  17. Omnibus Bonus Story: Three Views of Diqiu
    2397 / 2401 / 2404

This is basically me pouring out a 40 for the Space Transportation System: You were flawed, sometimes catastrophically so, but the fact remains that you were the aerospace icon of my childhood. So long, Shuttle.


Tuesday, October 12, 1999
02:12 Eastern Standard Time
NASA Parkway East (The Causeway)
John F. Kennedy Space Center
Merritt Island, Florida, Earth

Floodlit against the Florida night, the STS spacecraft stack on Pad 39B didn't look unusual. There were no outward signs that the mission it had been painstakingly, and in great secrecy, prepared to fly was in any way out of the ordinary, insofar as any space flight in the late 20th century could be described as "ordinary".

Well... there was one, but at this distance - a little more than six and a half miles from the pad - no one could make it out. Certainly there was nothing in the gross configuration of the stack to cause anyone, even the hardcore space nerds who turned out for night launches, to suspect there was anything different about this flight. Here in 1999, the journeys of the Space Transportation System had become routine, at least to the general public. Only NASA's own publicity materials (and they had been copious, but only in the last few weeks) gave any strong indication of how special this one was to be.

The first hint was in the mission's designation. It was the 96th launch of an STS orbiter, but it wasn't STS-96; thanks to the strange vagaries of the STS mission assignment system, that number had been used on the 94th mission, an International Space Station supply flight back in May. (Even more confusingly, the next mission, number 95, in July, had been STS-93.) In fact, it didn't have a proper sequence number at all, because it wasn't technically an STS mission - it was just borrowing the system's hardware. The NASA publicity documents called it "Project Concordia", and the flight was simply Concordia 1.

And as for what it was supposed to do, well...

Standing at the edge of one of the causeway crowds, a man in a loud shirt turned to the man next to him and said, "Do you believe what they say about this thing? That it's supposed to go to another solar system or somethin'?"

The one addressed, a stocky, shortish guy in an old Army field jacket, shook his head. "That's not what it's for," he said.

"What? Sure it is. It said so in that magazine," the guy in the loud shirt protested.

The man in the Army jacket eyed his interlocutor warily, sensing that the loud-shirted man had probably had too many anticipatory Schlitzes to follow any explanation he might attempt to give, but the very tall man on the other side of him seemed game.

"No, this is just a test of the technology," the tall one said. "They'll only get about as far as Jupiter. If it works, they could build a ship that could get to another solar system, but the Concordia hardware's not intended to go anywhere near that far."

The man in the loud shirt squinted at the tall guy - something he didn't like about his attitude, kind of smug, like he Knew Something and it made him happy - but before he could finish deciding whether to get belligerent about it, night turned to day several hours ahead of schedule and the whole crowd on the causeway went ooooohhhh.

The tall guy, the short guy, and the man in the loud shirt stood and watched with everyone else as the spacecraft stack rose from the pad atop an ever-expanding cone of fire and noise, slowly at first and then gathering speed until it was gone into the night, leaving behind nothing but a knotted column of white vapor dissipating slowly in the glare of the empty launch pad's floodlights. The man in the loud shirt found this so astonishing that he passed out entirely, stretching out full-length on the ground.

The tall guy turned to his shorter companion and said, "That was deeply satisfying."

The shorter guy grinned. "I'll say. I only hope the rest of it works as well."

The original plan, on which NASA engineers had wasted nearly 18 months, was to develop a brand new system, spacecraft, booster, and all. That, everyone now agreed, would never have worked in the time available. Unfortunately, the time wasted just in figuring out that it wasn't going to work might have doomed any attempt to do what it was now obvious they should've been doing all along: develop "the package" as a payload that would slot into an STS orbiter, like Spacelab or [REDACTED]. Handed this new mandate after blowing a year and a half out of the seven available chasing a dead end, the engineers realized instantly that the new approach could, would work... then put their heads in their hands and moaned as their initial calculations showed that they'd have needed the full seven years to pull it off with any margin for comfort at all.

More than once, people - some of them in fairly high places - seriously considered cheating. Anybody with Top Secret/PERIHELION clearance knew that somebody had already done most of this engineering right there on Earth. It seemed like pure folly, just a pointless PR exercise, to reinvent the wheel in this arduous fashion. Back in '94, even the President had toyed with the idea.

"Why bother doing this at all?" he asked. "Can't you just play it like The Day the Earth Stood Still? Show up, land on the South Lawn, we come in peace, I come out and shake hands, and boom, we're done. You and I are on the cover of Time and humanity enters the Galactic Age."

His visitor shook her head. "No, Mr. President, I'm sorry, but as much as that image appeals to me for sheer theater, it won't do. Not only don't I think it'll fly with the American people, let alone the rest of humanity, I know it won't fly with the galactic community. Your people need to be seen to take the first step yourselves. Now, once you have, I like your suggestion, and we can certainly do it that way... but the opening move is up to you."

The President sighed glumly, leaning back against his desk, hands in his pants pockets. "We're behind schedule and we've already had to scrap one idea entirely. Without at least getting a hint or two from your guys at Incom... " He shook his head and made a wordless pchoooo noise. "I just don't know, Your Highness."

Princess Asrial of Salusia smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "My father has faith in human ingenuity, Bill," she said. "If he didn't, he'd never have allowed Subpro to make backchannel contact with Incom years ago."

A year after that meeting, NASA's engineers would have suspected that Asrial's confidence was misplaced, had they known about her at all - because Project Concordia had gotten precisely nowhere. No clear leader had emerged, and without one, the project's engineers zigzagged wildly from one unworkable notion to the next, not knowing how the Special Equipment would even be shoehorned into an operational orbiter, much less do the rest of its job. The engine itself was ready, thanks to the genius of one man and the hard work of his dozen or so handpicked companions, but an engine alone was not going to get the mission accomplished.

At one point, in despair, the Concordia project managers even considered building a new orbiter just to avoid the problem of dealing with all the existing plumbing, and the run-in idiosyncrasies any incumbent member of the fleet would inevitably possess. That idea lasted precisely twelve hours, which was how long it took someone to dig through the files and get a rough idea of how long it would take to construct a brand new STS orbiter spaceframe from scratch.

The answer, when it came, was one of those blinding flashes of realization that make people jump out of bed in the middle of the night and grab a pen to write it down before it evanesces. The Gizmo (as its makers usually called it) had to go into an STS orbiter, but they didn't necessarily have to try and shove it into an operational one or build a brand new spaceframe. There was already a perfectly good one around, fully realized but barely used and never fitted with most of the really troublesome parts that the Concordia flight article wouldn't need anyway.

It would still be a monumental pain in the ass - but it had to be easier than starting with a blank Sheet One of 250 Zillion, didn't it?

In the end, it nearly wasn't, but what NASA, its international peers, and its web of carefully vetted contractors needed wasn't an easy design - it was a vision. And a helluva lot of money, but for once in the grim post-Apollo era, there was no problem getting hold of that. Once they had those, it was just a matter of putting in the hours. By Christmastime in '96, they had the shape of the thing defined well enough to start selecting and training the crew. By the spring of 1997, they were able to start building the infrastructure; summer 1998, to start testing the hardware - and telling the public what they were trying to do.

Not the part about paving the way for peaceful contact with an alien species, of course; most of them didn't even know themselves that that's what they were working toward. But the part about preparing the testbed for Earth's first faster-than-light engine? That part they were all about publicizing... once they were reasonably sure it was going to work.

Getting to orbit was little different than it had been on any previous successful shuttle mission. The Concordia Flight Article lacked the complicated rocket engines of her sister ships in the STS fleet, contributing her share of the takeoff thrust with advanced fusion rockets, but from the commander's seat the difference was largely academic. Many in the project office thought it said something about the occasion that that these amazing engines - which would themselves have represented a monumental advance in human aerospace technology on any other day - were given a sort of by-the-way mention some way down in the Project Concordia publicity bumf. Some speculated that they were being downplayed so because they were the principle Russian contribution to the hardware; an unworthy notion, but not an impossible one.

In any case, the ride up was as routine as such things ever got; but it was still with a real sense of satisfaction that mission commander Bob April keyed his press-to-talk and said,

"Houston, Enterprise. Ready for HMDS power-up."

"Roger, Enterprise," the voice of CAPCOM Eddie Tagorsky replied, then added a moment later, "Enterprise, you are GO for HMDS power-up."

April turned in his seat and regarded the three other members of his crew. This project was being run under the ægis of NASA, because only NASA had the resources to assemble all the hardware, and the infrastructure to support the mission; but the effort it represented, unlike Apollo, was an international one. The peoples of the planet Earth were in accord, not competition, this time. That was why it was called Project Concordia, after the Roman goddess of understanding.

As such, April was the only American astronaut in the spacecraft's crew of four. That his copilot (officially the mission's Navigation Pilot, since he himself was the Commander) was a Russian cosmonaut was not, perhaps, surprising, even given the grumbling about the fusion engines. The United States and what had been the Soviet Union had been the two chief contenders in the 20th-century space race, and it seemed only natural that they should go the last furlong of that race, in the waning days of the century, together.

Tatiana Korbolkova's presence on the mission was not merely a matter of politics, though, and the man was a fool who believed otherwise, much less mentioned that belief within earshot. She was one of Roskosmos's most experienced cosmonauts, arguably possessed the agency's best mathematical mind, and was in every respect the ideal choice for humanity's first faster-than-light navigator.

That the crew's third member, the Computer System Specialist, was English was a bit more of a surprise. Only a handful of Britons had ever flown in space, most of them under some other citizenship, and Her Majesty's Government had long had a space policy that specifically excluded manned spaceflight. As it happened, however, the world's foremost expert on the experimental technologies that lurked within the forward half of the Concordia payload was English, and so monumentally bullheaded that parliamentary reluctance was no match for her furious determination to be part of this mission... and so she was here, and April was glad of that. The back half of the payload might be where the magic happened, but it would be happening uncontrollably without the super-advanced computer systems in the front, and no one on Earth could command those systems better than their creator.

Melinda Daystrom unbuckled her harness and cocked an indulgent smile at the man seated next to her. Though no astronaut, she had taken to the preparations for this mission with the same sort of natural, instinctive grace she showed in dealing with information systems. This meant she was first in line to deal out ribbing to the fourth member of the Enterprise crew, who most assuredly hadn't.

Even now, five minutes after MECO with the cabin quiet and serene, Propulsion System Specialist Zefram Cochrane had a deathgrip on the side rails of his seat and his pasty face was stippled with sweat as he stared glassy-eyed in no particular direction. It wasn't until Melinda touched his shoulder and said, "Oi. Zed. We're there," that he started and seemed to return from the startled fugue into which the launch had placed him.

"Wha!" he said, then shook his head, took a deep breath, and said wryly, "OK! That's the least dangerous part of the mission over with, then... "

"That is what I enjoy most about you, Dr. Cochrane," said Korbolkova as she unstrapped and came back to help him out of his harness and Advanced Crew Escape Suit. "You are always so positive."

"I'm positive I wish I'd never thought of this thing," Cochrane replied, "but what're you gonna do? God and country, right?"

"You're Canadian, Doc," April reminded him.

Cochrane blinked as if he'd just remembered that. "Oh yeah!" he said. "In that case, is it too late to get outta this chickenshit outfit?"

April's eyes flicked to the settings on the comm panel, reassuring himself that they weren't on VOX. He had decided very early on in his association with Cochrane that at no time would there be a hot mic to Houston in any spacecraft under April's command that he was aboard. Particularly on this mission, with the entire world listening. Then he grinned, reminding himself for the thousandth time to lighten up - When am I ever gonna make the first human FTL flight again? - and said, "I'm afraid so, unless you want to walk home."

Cochrane gave a put-upon sigh, interrupted by a sputtering noise as Korbolkova dragged his ACES neck seal over his head. "Oh well. I guess I better make the best of it, then." He zipped himself into a flight coverall, dug his ratty old lucky Jays cap out of his locker, rammed it down backward on his head, gave it a couple of extra tugs to make sure it wasn't going to float away, and then said, "Well, whaddaya say, Mel? Let's go see if the VAB guys broke the Gizmo."

Ten minutes later the two scientists were on the orbiter's lower deck, strapped loosely into a couple of rear-facing jump seats erected forward of the control consoles for the payload. Vast and complicated arrangements that made the flight controls upstairs look like the controls on a VCR by comparison, these had been painstakingly and professionally installed, but their design retained a distinctly homebrew flavor. This was a legacy of the fact that Cochrane and Daystrom had built the original, nonflying, proof-of-concept version by themselves in a warehouse in Calgary. NASA, Roskosmos, and ESA technicians had built this "production" version, but there were still quite a number of parts inside the machinery abaft the bulkhead that the two had made and assembled with their own four hands.

The advantage of this was that, however crocky the layout might look to anyone else, the two who were destined to operate it knew it like the backs of their hands. During the training process for this flight, April - who was not just mission commander but in fact Commander Robert April, USN - had remarked darkly that Daystrom and Cochrane required adult supervision. He had only half-jokingly recommended that a fifth crew member be added, in the form of a third military-trained astronaut to ride on the lower deck with them and make sure there wasn't any horseplay. Now, though, it was with a cool and brisk efficiency that would have startled pretty much anyone who knew them that the two eccentric geniuses worked their controls, bringing systems online and reporting their status to each other, the stream of impenetrable jargon flowing in quiet, businesslike tones.

Listening to them with half an ear on the intercom, April found himself smiling slightly. For all his exasperation at their tendency toward civilian grabassery - "the payload specialists from hell," one of his colleagues had called them - he'd grown fond of the scientists during the run-up to the mission. It was impossible not to like Daystrom, who was the calmest, most laid-back owner of three doctorates April had ever encountered; and most of Cochrane's character faults were (April had to admit) held in common with many astronauts, chief among them lechery, a congenital inability to take things entirely seriously, and an outstanding capacity for strong drink.

None of those three traits was in evidence now as he came on the intercom and reported briskly, "OK, Bob, everything looks good down here. The reactor's online and in the green, output at idle. All the motivator's self-tests show normal. Linkages and flow capacitors are good. I'm ready when you are."

"Dr. Daystrom?" April asked.

"Monotronic systems online and stable," Daystrom replied. "Backup circuits on standby. Ready for program entry."

April thumbed his press-to-talk. "Houston, Enterprise. We're ready for navigational prestage."

"Roger, Enterprise," Tagorsky's voice responded. Then, a second later, "Enterprise, you are GO for prestage."

April turned to Korbokova. "Looks like you're up, Tania," he said with a grin.

Korbolkova nodded and switched on the panel to her right. "Navigation system online," she said. Pressing her own PTT, she announced, "Houston, Enterprise. I am ready for uplink."

"Roger, Enterprise, uplink commencing." There was a pause as a ground station fed the navigation computer the very most up-to-date available information on local conditions that might affect FTL navigation: the orbital dynamics of nearby bodies, plotted locations of potential obstacles, all the complicated variables involved in jumping to hyperspace this close to a planet that had not, it had to be admitted, been as tidy as it could've been during its first fumbling half-century of space exploration.

One day, Korbolkova knew, all this information would have to be updated aboard ship, kept constantly current as position and conditions changed, but right now the sensor and computer technology simply didn't exist. Even Dr. Daystrom's stupendously powerful monotronic stacks back in the payload bay had all they could do, at this size, to store and utilize the summarized information now being beamed up from Houston. The computers down there that had actually prepared this summary took up a building nearly half the size of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy.

"Enterprise, Houston, uplink complete. How show you?" Tagorsky asked.

"... Roger, Houston, uplink confirmed," Korbolkova replied. "Loading course plot for test range alpha." Her fingers flying over the keys of her station, the cosmonaut worked steadily through a huge mass of information flowing across three screens at once, making sure it was all flowing downstairs into the right buffers and registers of the Gizmo's control computers. Not until she had received nineteen separate positive status reports did she nod with satisfaction, press one last key to commit everything to semipermanent storage, and then turn to April and report with a faint smile, "Course computed and locked, Captain."

April gave her a self-deprecating nod. "Thank you, Number One," he said, then thumbed his PTT again and reported simply, "Houston, Enterprise. We're ready."

There was a brief pause. April pictured the flight controllers in the Mission Operations Control Room having one last round-the-horn, checking that all their telemetry agreed with what the crew were telling them, before giving the word:

"Enterprise, Houston. You are GO for FTL."

"Roger, Houston, GO for FTL." April released the button - the intercom had hot mics, even if communications to the ground did not - and declared, "All right, Doctors. It's your show. Let's make history."

Then, with only a moment's hesitation, he reached to his panel and threw the switch that transferred control of the ship downstairs to Daystrom's computers.

"I have control," Daystrom reported calmly, like it was just another day in the simulator. "Positioning spacecraft for FTL jump." Enterprise's RCS jets started to pulse in a very precisely orchestrated sequence, swinging the spacecraft's nose away from the Earth. "We're in position. Inertial dampers to full power. Stand by, motivator unit."

"Bringing motivator unit to full power," Cochrane concurred. He flipped a couple of switches, got one green light while the other stayed red, and thumped the panel with the heel of his hand. The other light turned green. "Everything looks good." A low hum filled the cabin as the ship's spaceframe picked up increased vibrations from the fusion reactor - still another revolution that had gone all but unnoticed in the shadow of the giant advance it was enabling. Gauges on both panels and up in the cockpit responded, running up to the first of two prepainted green marks, then hovered there.

Cochrane tightened his straps and turned to his colleague. "Ready, Dr. Daystrom?" he asked.

"Always, Dr. Cochrane," she replied. "Hit it."

Cochrane turned back to his panel, muttered, "I hope to Christ this works!" and then pressed two buttons. Much to the surprise of April, Korbolkova, and indeed pretty much all of humanity, one of them filled the cabin, the intercom, and the air-to-ground comm channel - for no man could keep Zefram Cochrane from getting on the radio if he so desired! - with a harsh vocodered voice and a thumping beat.

/* The Beastie Boys
Hello Nasty (1998) */

The other cut out the final interlocks and engaged the full reality-bending power of the Concordia Systems Payload, AKA the Gizmo, AKA the Hyperspace Motivator Drive System. For a few seconds nothing seemed to happen; then the reactor's low hum kicked into a higher register as the motivator unit began to draw its full operational power, the relevant gauges ticked up to the second mark, and there was a sensation peculiarly like all the cosmos holding its breath.

On the flight deck, Bob April's jaw dropped as he saw the stars filling Enterprise's cockpit windows smear into elongated lines, like a time-lapse photo of the desert sky at night, except centered on his own point of view.

In Houston and around the world, MCA declared to the entire human race that if it battled him he would revile... and then there was silence as the transmitter conveying his challenge left the universe.

A blue light winked on at the top of Cochrane's panel.

"Lightspeed!" he cried, throwing up his hands as if he'd scored a touchdown. He and Daystrom leaned against their straps and shared a high-five.

"Confirmed," said Korbolkova, her eyes huge as she wrenched them away from the view out the windows and consulted her instruments. "We are in hyperspace, on course at factor two point five."

Daystrom flipped a few switches, observed some readouts, and said, "Monotronic systems stable. All readings normal."

Cochrane looked at his own gauges. "Reactor's nominal, motivator's... " He smirked. "Purring like a kitten." He pressed a key. "My board is locked, I'm hands-off 'til MOCO."

Korbolkova's eyes flicked to the corner of her navigation display. "Motivator cutoff in 360 seconds... mark."

April gazed out the window in front of him for a moment longer, then said, "Dr. Cochrane... Dr. Daystrom... would you come up here for a moment, please?"

A pause. "Why?" Cochrane answered. "We need to be here for the jump back to realspace."

"I know," April said. "So make it quick."

Cochrane emerged from the ladder tunnel to the lower deck a moment later, looking puzzled. As he used the empty crew seats to pull himself up between the pilots, with Daystrom right behind him, he asked, "What do you need - ... oh wow."

There were no windows on Enterprise's lower crew deck; no one had thought they would be of any use, and windows were harder to engineer, so they'd been omitted from the original design. Cochrane and Daystrom had never considered that there'd be much of anything to see on this flight either... but now, gazing past the pilots into the whirling blue chaos of hyperspace, they acknowledged that they had been utterly wrong.

"Would you look at that," Daystrom murmured.

"Zowie," Cochrane agreed.

They stared at it in rapt attention for a minute or so; then Cochrane seemed to remember himself. Tagging the commander's shoulder, he said sincerely, "Thanks for not letting us miss that, Bob," and then turned to head back downstairs.

"Thanks for making it possible for us to see it, Dr. Cochrane," April replied.

Most of the crowd which had observed the launch was still there, on the Causeway, when the PA speakers along the roadside crackled and the Voice of NASA announced,

"Ladies and gentlemen, you may be pleased to know that Enterprise has just emerged from hyperspace 400,000 miles beyond the orbit of Jupiter. They report that everything is working perfectly."

A cheer eclipsing even that which had met the launch rose up at this news. Down in front, the man in the army jacket turned to his very tall colleague and offered a hand, which the tall man shook.

"And we didn't even have to cheat," said Gryphon. "That ought to do it."

MegaZone nodded. "Even if the Gizmo broke down now, which it won't, they've got provisions enough to make it back the long way." Surveying the crowd and the jam of parked cars on the Causeway, he added mock-ruefully, "As it is, they'll probably be home before we are."

Nineteen days after the flight of Enterprise, Princess Asrial of Salusia made the official First Contact of an extraterrestrial species with the planet Earth - not on the White House lawn, but rather at Castle Clinton, on the southern tip of Manhattan.

As many had feared, Earthborn humanity's transition from solipsistic single-planet species to galactic citizen was not altogether smooth. Less than two years later, a shocking act of resistance to that leap into the future would take place within sight of the fort. The ultimate outcome, though, was never in doubt, and within five years Earth's United Nations were collectively a member of the United Galactica. The planet has never looked back.

"Enterprise" - a Golden Age mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Sunday, September 27, 2009
3:34 PM
14 Shrewsbury Ave, London, United Kingdom

At the sound of the doorbell, Wilfred Mott sighed, folded his paper, put it down, and rose from the chair. Muttering a bit, he called out, "I've got it," as he approached the front door.

He opened to a fascinating sight: three people he didn't know, two men and a woman, all of them looking rather serious. The one in front, dark-haired, square-shouldered and bespectacled, inquired, "Is this the residence of Donna Noble?"

Wilfred regarded them, then summoned up his pugnacity and replied, "Who want to know, then?"

The three broke into smiles, and then the first offered his hand. "I'm Don Griffin, this is Romana and this is the Master. We're friends of the Doctor."

The other man, with close-cropped blond hair, broke into a somewhat manic smile and added, "Or arch-enemies (or perhaps bromantic nemeses might be better) who are somewhat done with that thing!"

The woman sighed. "Yes, thank you, Master." Then she returned her attention to Wilf. "Might we come in? We have some business with Donna, but we should probably talk it through with you first."

Wilf frowned, then stepped back. "Dining on the left, I'll put on some tea."

"Rassilon's teeth, I love early twenty-first century England," the Master said as they entered, "most civilized lot I've ever met. The Trakenites were generally nicer, but here they've got tea."

Settled around the table, with tea and cakes, Don began. "I'm not sure how much you know about Donna's travels with the Doctor --"

"I know enough that if she sees him again, her mind will burn right out of her head!" Wilf shook his head. "She was so much more when she travelled with him, and now... she sleeps a lot and just goes through her day, barely interested. It's like he sucked all the enjoyment out of her when he... did what he did." He rubbed his face, tiredly, then went on. "I sometimes think it might be worth finding him, even if it kills her. She's not living, just... going on. It's not right. Not fair at all. So not fair."

The young woman - Romana, he remembered - laid one hand on his arm. "We think so too. And we've worked out why this all happened as it did. And how to fix it. How to bring her back to life."

Wilf's eyes widened. "Well, do it, then!"

The Master tapped the table, a little four-beat drumming, thump-thump-thump-thump. "See? I told you!"

"The thing is, Mr. Mott - " Don began.

"Wilfred. Or Wilf. If you can bring Donna back, you're my best friends ever!"

Don nodded, smiling a bit more broadly. "Well, we're pretty sure we can. See, the thing is that the Time Lords - the Doctor's people, our people," he added, gesturing around the table, "aren't that alien. Their ancestors were basically human. Hell, I was human once, I'm from Maine, not outer space."

"Although the two are often confused," the Master chipped in.

Don paused for the barest of instants, then went on as though his colleague hadn't spoken, "So it's possible for a person from Earth to become a Time Lord, just... not easy. It has to be done carefully. There's a lot of preparation involved. A factory-standard human body's just not up to the challenge. The problem is, what happened to Donna was accidental. She wasn't properly prepared. All the, the knowledge, and cosmic sensitivity, and, and stuff that comes with being a Time Lord was just sort of rammed into her head - into her unaugmented human brain... which simply couldn't hold it."

The old man frowned. "Are you saying she's not smart enough to... " he began, but Don shook his head vigorously.

"No no no," he said quickly. "No. That's not what I'm saying at all. It's not a matter of intellect, it's not a value judgment, it's physical reality. Like putting too much current through a wire. It heats up, it melts, the machine stops. Like that, only... " He tapped the first two fingers of his left hand against his forehead. "... inside her head."

"What the Doctor told you at the time was correct," Romana put in. "Left that way, it would've killed her."

"As far as the Doctor knew, there was no way to correct that situation after the fact," Don went on. "The normal preparation wouldn't have helped at that point. It'd be like trying to put a foundation under a building while it's collapsing. That's why he felt he had to do what he did. But one of our colleagues... begs to differ."

The Master's ever-present smile widened slightly. "She usually does," he added.

"Our colleague believes she's found a way to complete Donna's... conversion, if you like," Romana explained. "So that reawakening her memories - what you might call her true self - would be safe for her."

Wilf looked around the table, from Time Lord to Time Lord, his expression one of faint wonder. "Four of you for Donna. What makes her so special?"

Romana looked momentarily solemn; the Master smirked a bit. Don glanced thoughtfully at Romana, and seemed to be about to speak before she beat him to it:

"She saved the Doctor's life, kept him moving forward at a critical time, and in doing so ensured that our colleague's life's work wouldn't come to nothing. She considers that a debt worth running any risk to repay."

"What kind of risk?" Wilf wondered.

"Well... " Romana looked uncomfortable.

"There's a small chance that she'll be killed in the attempt," the Master said, as if it weren't that important. "Our colleague, not Donna," he hastened to point out. "If it goes wrong, chances are she'll be no worse off than she is now." At Wilf's vaguely horrified expression, the Master went on, "Don't look at me like that, you don't know this woman. There's just no talking her out of anything when she gets like this." He grinned. "It's really quite adorable. Anyway, she'll be fine. The odds of complete failure are really quite small. No more than three - "

"In the interest of full disclosure," Romana overrode him, "I should note that it will make her... not entirely human. Initially, she'll seem the same, but at some point in the future, she'll change. She'll keep all her memories, but there's a chance she may not look the same, or even act entirely the same."

"Ah. She'll be like the Doctor," Wilf said. "He does this thing where instead of dying, he changes. He told me about it once."

Romana nodded. "It's a Time Lord trait. Some of us can control it., others not so much. There's no telling until the first time it happens."

Wilf took that on board, then said, "Well... the Doctor's one of the best men I know, and if that happens to her, well, I supposed I'll deal with it. Unless I'm dead first, in which case it won't matter."

Before anyone could speak to that, all four turned as footsteps came down the stairs.

"Hello, Gramps. Who's this lot?"

None of the three Time Lords at Wilf's dining table had ever seen Donna Noble in person before, but they'd all reviewed bits of the Doctor's TARDIS's sensor logs that featured her, and she hadn't borne much resemblance to the woman who regarded them from the doorway now. There was little lustre in Donna's auburn hair, or in her eyes, and her voice lacked that crackle of energy that it had always featured in the records.

"Hello, Donna," Romana said, rising. "We're... friends of a friend you don't remember." She offered her hand. "My name is Romanadvoratrelundar, but my friends call me Romana."

Donna took the hand in a perfunctory grip, looking at her. "Wot's that, Russian or something? I could go for some tea." As if on cue, the Master handed her a cup of tea. As he did, Don rose and eased up alongside her. After a sip, Donna blinked twice, then her eyes closed and she slumped into Don's arms.

"Telepathic suggestion," Romana said. "Nice! I didn't even see you dose the tea."

The Master made a self-deprecating little bow. "Some skills don't fade."

Wilf looked at each of them. "What's going on then?"

"She has to be unconscious for what happens next," Don explained gently. "She can't know what's happening until it's over, not without her brain going up like an overloaded fusebox. So the Master gave her a little something to help her sleep." Then he thought. "Want to come along? You can make sure we're not up to anything terribly untoward."

The Master added cheerfully, "For once in my life!"

"So not helping," Don muttered to him out of the side of his mouth.

The next thing Wilf knew, he was escorted towards a soda machine that turned out to be like the Doctor's device, down several corridors, and into an observation room with comfortable seats and a tea service. In the clean white room on the other side of the window, Donna lay on a table, from the ceiling above which protruded a number of what appeared to be antennae. Two women - one blonde, one redhead - sat in chairs on one side of Donna, so they were all facing the big window.

"Who are they?" he asked Don.

"Well, you know Romana, and the other is our aforementioned colleague: Professor Rose Tyler."

Wilf blinked a few times. "I know that name. She... she was with the Doctor. Before Donna was. He talked about her a lot. But she was... lost or summat."

Don smiled. "She found her way back. It's what she does. But here's the thing: He was only here for her to find because of Donna. So now she's paying it forward. She knows what Donna's up against, because like me, she's been through it. Once a human, now a Time Lord. She's the one who looked at all the records, figured out what went wrong, and came up with the solution. We hope."

Wilf rose and went to the window, placing his hand against the cool surface, and regarded the preparations taking place in the next room.

"All this," he murmured. "All for Donna."

The door opened. "All for Donna," a familiar voice confirmed. "Hullo, Wilf."

Wilf turned towards the door. Standing there, pensively, was the Doctor. He looked like he didn't know whether he should extend a hand or not, a quandary the old man solved for him by crossing the room and seizing the Time Lord in an embrace.

"Should have fixed this earlier, Wilf, but I didn't know how," the Doctor admitted when Wilfred released him. "Thankfully, Rose came up with an idea of her own. But... I'm sorry, Wilf. I'm so, so sorry I didn't find a better way at the time."

The older man took a deep breath, and let it out. "She lived until someone could, yes? Then you did what you could, and now you can get it dealt with properly."

"Yes. Yes, I can." The Doctor hugged him again. "And thank you for taking care of her until I could. I owe you so much."

The Master entered, slipping past the two men with a tray balanced waiter-style on one hand. "I brought Kendal mint cake!" He grinned cheerfully and put the tray down next to the teapot. "It might take a bit, so I thought we should be comfortable."

Inside the room, Romana slipped off her chair, walking towards the window. Rose stood and did something to the side of the table where Donna lay. A moment later, it changed shape, converting seamlessly into a structure that looked not unlike a dentist's chair, conveying the unconscious woman partly upright. After moving her chair so that it faced Donna, Rose didn't sit back down, but instead stood before her, a pensive look on her face.

"Recorders on," Romana's voice came through a speaker, as she touched keys on the wall. "Whenever you're ready, Rose."

Rose nodded, then folded her hands before her chest, in what the Doctor recognized as a Ryôzan meditative gesture. Her breathing became deeper and more rapid, the thought line between her eyebrows deepening; her lips moved, silently forming the syllables of an ancient oath - and her hands began to glow with an eerie orange light.

Recognizing that light, the Doctor hurled himself reflexively at the window, shouting, "Rose, no! What are you doing?!"

/* The BBC National Orchestra of Wales & Ben Foster
"Vale Decem" (starting at 02:23)
Doctor Who Series 4: The Specials Original Television Soundtrack (2010) */

She didn't hear him, of course; that window would've stopped the sound of a cannon shot. Don and the Master darted forward and caught him by the arms, preventing him from pounding on or trying to go through the transparent impervium (which would have done no damage to the window and rather a lot to the Doctor).

"Rassilon's nuts, Doctor, you do not want to break the Professor's concentration!" the Master cried, completely serious for the first time the Doctor could recall in a very long time. Looking him in the eye, his ex-nemesis went on, "This process is incredibly delicate!"

The Doctor tried to free himself, but to no avail - Don's stocky frame outmassed his own by a factor of at least 50%, while the Master had the wiry strength of a madman. Eyes wild with something very like panic, he could only watch as Rose suddenly threw her arms wide and released a torrent of that orange energy straight into the unconscious form propped up before her.

/* 02:50 */

"What is THAT?" Wilf asked, alarmed, as the glare washed through the window and filled the observation room with what felt like firelight.

"She - " The Doctor paused, blinking rapidly, then shrugged himself free of his colleagues' grip and went more peacefully to the window, putting his hand against it. His expression melted from horror to wonder.

"She's passing on a regeneration!" the Doctor exclaimed, then turned back to Don and the Master in amazement.

The glare flickered, ebbed, and died away. The Doctor whirled back to the window to see Rose stumble back and half-fall into her carefully positioned chair, the last crackles of regenerative fire sparking from her fingertips and eyes. Romana went to her side, wielding a mediscanner with practiced hands, but Rose waved her off and gave her a thumbs-up, so she went to check on Donna instead.

"Yes, well," the Master said, "a metacrisis is a partial regeneration. It stands to reason that if you needed to finish it off, you'd need another shot of the same energy." He smiled less manically than usual. "I don't like to brag," he went on, drawing a faint snort from Don, "but I know more about regeneration than anyone else of our generation. Get it? Gen... re... anyway. When Professor Tyler had her - incredibly brilliant, by the way, I totally get what you see in her now - idea, she brought it to me and I told her what I could." The Doctor favored him with a glare at such a blithe comment, only to have the glare returned with a cheery smile.

"Why didn't she tell me?" he demanded.

"Because you'd have tried to stop her, you imbecile," said the Master with cheerful patience. "Besides, you're rubbish at regeneration. Which she knows firsthand, you may recall. You'd have been no help at all. Speaking of which, old chum, how did you manage to cause a metacrisis in the first place? It's a bit of a faff making one happen. Almost impossible for even you to do by mistake, I would have thought, unless your attention was seriously elsewhere."

Tuesday, August 24, 79
Pompeii, Campania

The blast propelled the Doctor and Donna into the TARDIS, the door slamming shut behind them. Both gasped, she from the force of being pushed onto the floor of the TARDIS, he from the fact that a chunk of lava had just hit him square in the back. He felt that sudden surge inside him, and found himself wanting, incongruously, to belch. He crawled over Donna, who objected strenuously to that, until she spotted the smoking burn on his back.

"Good grief, you're hurt bad!" She wiggled out from under him, and started to get up. "Where's the first aid kit? We'll get a bandage on that then get you to a... er... another doctor!" She stepped forwards, between him and what he was reaching for, crouching to look under the console. "In here? Wait, there's nothing in here but that freaky hand-in-a-jar thing."

The Doctor tried to say something that might've been "get out of the way." Donna turned, thinking to ask him if he might speak up, and saw that his hands and face were glowing with a bright orange light. Before she could ask him what that was all about, a burst of that light streamed from his hand, straight into the jar stored under the console... and right through Donna, who hadn't gotten out of the way.

She looked down at her chest in blank astonishment as the energy streamed through her, to no evident effect; she didn't even feel it. A couple of seconds later it ended, and the Doctor pulled himself to his feet.

"Eh... the hell was that, space boy?" Donna demanded. She went around behind him and stared at his back - cleanly healed - through the charred hole remaining in his coat, suitjacket, and shirt. "What did you do?"

"Little trick Time Lords can do," the Doctor replied offhandedly, trotting over and crouching down to look in on the now-faintly-glowing hand. "We can restart our whole bodies if it looks like we're going to die. Usually means a complete makeover, but I didn't want to change, so I figured if I could get to my spare hand, I'd be able to stick the rest of the energy into it and stay me." He dusted at his sleeves. "And it worked!" he said cheerfully. "Brilliant."

"Wh - well what's your weird alien energy going to do to me?" Donna demanded.

He turned, peered into one of her eyes with an ophthalmoscope he seemed to have been carrying at random in an inside pocket, then grinned. "Nothing, apparently," he said. "Stands to reason, you're not Gallifreyan and all. Now!" he continued, bounding to the console and starting to set controls. "That thing the Pyroviles mentioned - their home planet's gone missing, along with the Adipose breeding planet? I think we should follow that up, eh?"

"But you were wrong," said Don.

"Terribly, terribly wrong," the Doctor agreed, hanging his head. "The missing planets turned out to be part of a Dalek masterplan. We stopped Davros before he got the rest of his reality bomb put together, sent the Daleks packing - but he shocked her with an electrical weapon, and that activated the metacrisis. All my knowledge, crammed into her head, coming alight all at once, and no way for her neurons to contain it."

Donna couldn't quite think - no, that wasn't it, it was that she couldn't stop thinking. All the thoughts running together, all this knowledge, all running through her. Just running running running...

"Donna. D'you know what's happening...?" The Doctor's voice soft, and pained.

She found herself replying, "... yeah."

"There's never been a human/Time Lord metacrisis before now. And you know why. Because there can't be." She watched him move towards her, and for a moment, she felt terribly afraid of him.

"I want to stay," she said.

"Look at me, Donna," said the Doctor firmly. "Look at me."

Even though she didn't want to, she did, looking up into his eyes. Tears starting to fall, she gasped out, "I was gonna be with you. Forever."

Solemnly, the Doctor nodded. "I know."

"Rest of my life. Traveling. In the TARDIS. The Doctor-Donna. Oh, but I can't go back. Don't make me go back, Doctor. Please."

His eyes started to well up too. "Donna. Oh, Donna Noble. I'm so sorry. But we had the best of times. The best." He paused. "Goodbye." He placed his hands, gently, on her temples.

Tears continued to fall, unbidden, unwanted, unrestrained, as she whispered, pleaded, even though she knew what she wanted was impossible, not sure whether she was begging the Doctor to relent or the universe. "No, please, no, no, no..."

Donna Noble opened her eyes, rubbed them - then suddenly realized that things she hadn't remembered were there again. She finished rubbing her eyes and looked around to find herself in her bed, surrounded by a number of people, only a few of whom she knew and one she locked eyes with.

"Doctor!" she said, climbing out of bed.

The Doctor smiled his beaming smile, arms open in welcome. Donna took two strides toward him, then socked him across the jaw, dropping him straight to the rug. "You son of a bitch!" she exclaimed, then shook her hand and added, "Ow!"

The Master - she knew suddenly who he was - said kindly, "Thumb outside when you do that, hurts less. Also, don't hit the bony parts next time; go for the solar plexus." She gave him a sour look, then turned to look around the room.

"Well, then. What the hell's gone on here and..." She suddenly palmed her forehead. "... oh. Regenerative energy infusion to resolve the metacrisis. Right. Up to speed. Makes sense." Then she smiled broadly, the shine back in her eyes. Wilf nearly wept at the sight of her, the old Donna back again, and then she hugged him and he didn't try to hold it back.

"It's all right, Grampa. I'm back. And the Universe best watch out!"

A cheer went up around the room, and the gathered Time Lords welcomed their newest member. Even the Doctor, once he'd picked himself up from the floor, joined in.

"Lebanese for everyone!" the Master declared happily.

"What now?" Donna wondered, wiping lamb grease from her hand with a paper napkin. Next to the dining table, her valise was packed. She'd dressed in some clothing that Wilf had hidden away - a dark grey coat, a pair of jeans, light boots and a sturdy shirt, good for adventuring - but hadn't been willing to get rid of.

"Well," Don said, having finished his kebab, "there's all sorts of things. We could take you to Gallifrey, get you a quick pass on the exams, then get you a TARDIS and you can do the sorts of things that the Doctor and Rose do."

"And me!" the Master chimed in, through a napkin so he didn't spit tabbouleh across the table.

"The International Police over in the twenty-fifth century would take you in a heartsbeat," Romana added in. "But you still might want to go to Gallifrey and sit the exams, just to get that out of the way. I can take you," she said, smiling, "and I'm quite sure you'll pass!"

Donna bowed her head, grinning. "Thank you very kindly, President Pro Tem Romanadvoratrelundar."

"Pfft," Romana said, "I told you, my friends call me Romana. And I think we'll be friends."

"If I could pass them," Rose said around a mouthful of chicken, "you'll find it a lark."

Donna gave her a Look. "I believe you had some help." Then she smiled, rising. "Can I have a word with you, Rose?" Rose swallowed the bite, then followed into the living room.

"Should I be worried?" the Doctor asked rhetorically.

"Listen, I need to know - you and the Doctor. It's, well... you-and-the-Doctor, yeah?" Donna said, softly, to Rose. When Rose looked like she didn't quite know how to answer that, Donna made an exasperated little sound and went on, "You're in love with him. And vice versa, obviously."

"Yes!" Rose's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Why?"

Donna grinned. "Because he's my best mate, and it helps to know these things." She put an arm around Rose's shoulders and added with cheery sarcasm, "Beyond me why you'd want to climb that beanpole, but to each her own, eh?" Rose gave a snort of relieved laughter as they started back for the dining room. "Anyway, I'd roll out the traditional best-mate threat here, but under the circumstances... " She flipped a hand.

Rose laughed. "Yeah."

Donna nodded, still grinning. "Yeah, exactly."

"Shall we go distress him a bit?" Rose asked impishly.

"Fine idea, Professor Tyler. Fine idea."

"Sylvia," Wilf called up the stairs, "I'm headed to the twenty-fifth century for a bit with Donna, so don't hold dinner for us!"

Sylvia Noble sighed, and made a mental note to find a home for her father, until she heard a sudden noise, and then burst into tears, realizing that wheezing, grinding noise - the sound of a TARDIS - meant that someone finally had figured out a way to bring her daughter back.

"Per Aspera Ex Umbra (A Rough Road Out of Shadow)" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Geoff Depew with Benjamin D. Hutchins
Scene from "Journey's End" by Russell T. Davies
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, April 2, 2382
New Gotham City, Kane's World
Conroy Sector, United Federation of Planets

It hardly seemed possible to Dick Grayson that the Joker could really be dead. The man had been his archenemy, and Bruce's before him, for so long he was like part of the background music of life. An unpleasant part, to be sure, but always recurring, always there. You didn't look forward to it, but it would seem strange if it wasn't there.

Besides which, it had all seemed too convenient, too... pat. The Joker? Killed on April Fool's Day? How blatant. Obviously, it had to be part of some enormously convoluted plot. The Joker had "died" before, after all, and it had always turned out to be something else. But Dick had seen the body - what was left of it. More importantly, Dick had scanned the body. He'd had the Bativac running and rerunning the numbers all night, and every time the result was the same. There was no imposture here, no dressing up some hapless victim and flinging him off the roof, no single-bit cloning errors or teleporter traces.

There could be only one conclusion: On the first of April, during a mundane, everyday foot chase with the police, without Batman anywhere in sight, New Gotham's most feared psychopath had zigged when he should've zagged and fallen to his utterly banal death from the roof of a 40-story building on the Upper East Side.

It seemed like cheating somehow.

But if the Joker's end was unsettling and strange, what happened the next day was even stranger.

One of the changes Dick had made when he took over as Batman was to establish a hotline so that certain people and organizations in the city could get in touch with him, rather than go through the police and the Bat Signal. To Dick this made good sense: it preserved the Signal for genuine life-or-death emergencies, but let various other worthy concerns reach him without relying on the urban grapevine. Bruce had kvetched that it would erode the mystique, but truth to tell, Dick didn't mind if the mystique got eroded just a little. It was one thing for criminals to be afraid of the Batman, but why should, for instance, the good people in charge of the St. Bonaventure Sanctuary for Victims of Domestic Abuse?

So it was that, while he was out patrolling the industrial areas near the spaceport, Batman received a phone call on the Batmobile's encrypted line.

"This is Batman," he said, noting (as he did every time) that even seven years after taking over the job, saying that still gave him a little thrill.

"Batman, it's Sister Joanna at St. Bonaventure's."

Here was another difference between the Wayne style and the Grayson: Bruce would just have sat there in silence until the nun got nervous and went on. Preserving the mystique. Dick, on the other hand, said, "Good evening, Sister. How can I help?"

"Well... I'm not sure," said Sister Joanna. "it might be nothing, but... we have a guest here tonight who wants to talk to you, and... well, I have a feeling she's for real."

Dick considered. He would normally shy away from a call like this - community outreach was one thing, but he'd had run-ins before with women (and men, let's be fair) who thought what they needed to complete their lives was the personal attention of Batman, or Nightwing before him, or even Robin before him. He was far from unsympathetic to anyone whose life's path might lead her to St. Bonaventure's, but on its face this had all the hallmarks of a crazy.

On the other hand, he knew Sister Joanna generally had sound judgment in these matters. She'd been working on Gotham's mean streets for longer even than Dick's 40 years in the caped crusader game. If she believed this woman was genuinely in the kind of distress she needed Batman to help her with, Batman believed it too.

"I'll be there in five minutes," he said.

He parked the Batmobile around the corner from the shelter, a converted and still unobtrusive brownstone, then approached the back entrance from the alleys. He'd be doing the sisters no favors by parking the beast right in front of their establishment and hitting the front stoop like the milkman. People didn't come to St. Bonaventure's because they wanted to attract attention.

"Thank you for coming," said Sister Joanna when she met him at the back door. "She's right through here. I don't know what's happened to her, or why she insists on speaking to you, but she's obviously been through the wringer, so I've let her wait in my study."

"Thank you," said Batman. He followed the elderly nun down a hall and to a heavy door she gestured him through. He entered, and she closed the door behind her. The room beyond was indeed a study, decorated with only a painting of Christ and an old-fashioned brass cosmosphere. Batman wondered whether Sister Joanna had an interest in astronomy or had inherited it from some previous holder of the office.

There was a woman sitting in the leather wingback chair facing the sister's desk. At the sound of his entrance she rose, drawing her buff- colored trenchcoat close around her, and turned her eyes toward him.

"You came," she said, sounding as if she didn't quite believe it.

Richard Grayson had a great deal of experience in not looking surprised when he was, but even so, it was a challenge to keep his face neutral as he realized that the woman in the trenchcoat, with her bedraggled blonde hair and red-rimmed, dark-ringed blue eyes, was Harley Quinn.

He immediately considered the possibility that this was some kind of elaborate revenge scheme - he hadn't had anything to do with the Joker's death, but Harley wasn't exactly the most rational person herself. He discarded the notion in fairly short order, though, just because she looked so stunned that he'd answered her call. Harley was many things, but a great actress had never been one of them.

"You wanted to see me?" Batman asked, a bit more harshly than he'd really intended.

Harley nodded. "I wanted... I wanted you to tell me... 'cause you're the only person in this town who can. 'Cause I know that... whatever happens... you won't lie to me." Raising her eyes to his, she looked imploringly into them and asked in a tiny, brittle voice, "Is he really gone?"

Batman considered his response carefully. She might be looking for an excuse to start a rampage... but, again, he didn't think so. When had Harley Quinn ever needed an excuse?

So, keeping his eyes on hers, he nodded gravely. "Yes."

And then, as her eyes filled with tears (obviously not for the first time today) and her lower lip trembled, he heard himself, quite ridiculously, say, "I'm sorry."

She stood trembling before him for a moment, and then - even more ridiculously - threw her arms around him and bawled like a toddler into his chest, streaking the bat crest there with the pancake makeup she'd plastered on to conceal her chalk-white skin from the sisters. Dick, completely at a loss but still possessed of ordinary human compassion, put his arms around her and just let her get it all out, which took maybe ten minutes.

Then she lurched backward, sniffling and wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief. Seeing the mess she'd made of his costume, she tried to clean it up with the handkerchief, but really only managed to smear it around a bit before giving up and just resting her hand against his chest.

"Sorry," said Harley, her voice small and hoarse. She leaned her head against him once more, not weeping this time but just standing there quietly, and Batman was starting to wonder what he ought to do about it when she said out of the blue,

"I'll be honest with ya, I thought about roundin' up all the stuff we had left and goin' out with a bang, an' takin' half'a this town with me, but... " She sighed, stepping back, and made eye contact with him again. "My heart just ain't in it. With my puddin' gone - " She put a fingertip against his lower lip before he could speak, if indeed he'd been considering it. " - and don't make that joke, you don't think it's funny either, I know you - there's just... no fun." She turned away from him, taking a couple of slow and listless steps across the room, then turned back to face him, face downcast. "I'm done," she said. "Take me in."

Batman would've raised an eyebrow if his mask had allowed for it. "You want me to take you back to Arkham?"

Harley shook her head. "No, not to Arkham. I'd be better off in Blackgate. People don't get well at Arkham. I used to work there, remember? I've seen it from both sides. It ain't a hospital, it's college for crazies." With a barely-suppressed sneer, she added, "The best thing that place could do for Gotham is burn down."

"Speaking of which," Batman put in, "where's the 'stuff you had left' and how many people will I need to send to get it?"

"I already called it in before I came here," she said. "That way I wouldn't be tempted to chicken out and go back. The cops are probably takin' the place apart right now."

As if on cue, the voice of Bruce Wayne spoke in Batman's earpiece. "Dick. I just traced an alert from NGCPD Hazmat. They say they've been tipped to the Joker's last hideout. What's going on out there?"

Batman quarter-turned away from Harley and replied in a low voice, "Later. Just... later. I'm handling something else here. Batman out."

Harley smiled slightly for the first time since he'd entered. "That must be Batman the First," she said. "I knew he couldn't be dead." At Batman's puzzled look, she added, "Mr. J thought he was."

"I should be so lucky," Batman replied, drawing a short, sharp laugh that surprised its utterer almost as much as its hearer.

Harley did, in fact, go to Blackgate, after a week or so of wrangling with corrections officials. They couldn't quite grasp the notion of one of our local costumed crazies, particularly one who could probably have made it stick, dropping any pretense of non-guilt-by-insanity. To widespread surprise, she owned up flatly to everything the DA's office cared to enumerate and took her sentence - 20 to life in maximum security - with a straight face.

The Joker's funeral was handled carefully and privately. Harley was granted a day pass for it, as she was his only known companion - the closest thing he ever had to a next of kin. It was... very closed-casket. She laid her hand on the casket and said something softly; I didn't listen. Bruce presumably did. Then I escorted her to the police car, and they took her back to jail.

Only three people know where the Joker is buried: Bruce, Jim Gordon, and me. Both to keep people away, and because Harleen Quinzel asked for his grave to be anonymous. I'm pretty sure she could find it if she wanted, but I don't think she wants to.

Monday, April 22, 2402
The Bat Cave, New Gotham

Terry McGinnis emerged from the double-secret elevator, dropped his backpack on the table by the batarang machine, and said, "I hope you've got a quiet evening planned, boss, 'cause I've got a ton of real-life work to do."

At the Bativac's console, Bruce Wayne made no response for a few moments; then he swiveled to face Terry and replied, "Just one thing. Harley Quinn's getting out of Blackgate today. I want you to go and meet her."

Terry arched an eyebrow. "Why? Does she need a ride?"

"Don't be funny. Just remind her that we haven't forgotten her."

"Oh, that's nice," said Terry, rolling his eyes. "Let's harass the only villain you've ever had who stuck out an entire stretch in prison."

"Just do it," Bruce growled.

Which is why, half an hour later, I was lurking on the street side of the Blackgate Penitentiary prisoner release gate, watching Prisoner #4843-298 resume her life as a regular citizen.

I'd read her file, of course; I've read all the files on Bruce and Dick's old villains, even the ones who are dead, because in this business you never know. Like so many of the old guard, she had a story that was tragic and stupid at the same time. Harleen Quinzel had been a psychiatrist once, not long out of med school and newly hired at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane - fresh-faced, optimistic, and ready to heal the world. Unfortunately, she was also gullible and easily manipulated (and maybe she had some psychological fault lines of her own that no one had noticed before), and one of her first assignments was to treat the Joker during one of his many stays in Arkham.

Before long she'd decided she was in love with him - don't ask me how, I've never understood the criteria women use to make that call - and had not only helped him break out of the asylum, but also gone with him and become his moll, in the old-fashioned Gothamite sense of the word. She'd spent something like 20 years with him - the tail end of Bruce's career and the beginning of Dick's - by the time he took his one-way trip to 94th Street.

The woman who emerged from Blackgate's prisoner release exit now didn't look all that remarkable, but I knew by then that such things didn't mean much in Batman's world. For instance, she still looked young, maybe in her early 30s, but I knew she was over 70. Her hair was still blonde, carelessly chopped into the standard butch prison cut, and by the way she carried herself, I could tell in spite of the old trenchcoat she was wearing that she had been, and probably still was, an athlete. The only visually striking thing about her from where I stood was her paper-white complexion.

She reached the sidewalk, where thousands of ex-cons have stopped, turned, and had a look - most hoping it'd be their last, many knowing it wouldn't - at the prison... but she didn't do that.

Instead, she looked straight at me with an expression that was not quite scornful and said, in the same Bensonhurst accent she had in the Bativac's old file vids, "Well, that didn't take long."

Terry considered remaining still and seeing if she'd reconsider having spotted him, but something in her eyes said she wasn't going to go for that. Oh well. If he didn't want Bruce bitching at him all night, he'd have to confront her sooner or later anyway. Now he switched off the Batsuit's camouflage mode and emerged from the shadows of the alley across the street where he'd been watching her from.

"Ms. Quinzel," he said.

"That's Doctor Quinzel to you, Bats," she replied. "I ain't licensed, but I still got my degree. Not even the Board of Corrections can take that away from me."

Batman nodded, conceding the point. Truth to tell, Terry felt a kind of perverse admiration for this woman. Sure, she'd been a dupe and done a lot of bad things for what any reasonable person would have been able to tell was a poisonous parody of love, but since when was love reasonable? That was kind of what it was about. Besides, easy as it was to dismiss her as weak and gullible, he figured she had to have something pretty sturdy inside her somewhere just to have survived that ride. He could only imagine what life had been like as the Joker's squeeze. And then to pass up the revolving door of Arkham and deliberately opt for a 20-year stretch in Blackgate? Yeah, she'd earned the right to stand on ceremony about her academic qualifications if she felt like it.

While he was mulling all that over, Harley crossed the street and stood looking him over with a critical eye.

"You're a new one, ain't'cha," she said. "Not just a new suit, you're taller. Face is thinner. What happened to my Batman?"

Terry blinked, unsure of how he could or should respond to that. "... He retired," he finally said.

Harley peered closely at him again, unnerving him further, and then smiled a slightly sardonic smile and shook her head. "Jeez, you're just a kid. Oughta be studying for final exams at this hour."

"Tell me about it," Terry replied before he could stop himself, and Harley surprised him by letting out a high, clear, not at all crazy-sounding laugh.

Then she sobered and said, "The old man gotcha runnin' his errands for him, huh? Well, you tell him message received... and I ain't scared of him."

Terry considered his answer, then nodded, smiling faintly. "He'll be thrilled to hear it," he said dryly.

"Is that it? You just here to show the flag?" Harley asked.

"More or less," Batman replied. Then, gesturing to the low, dark shape of the Batmobile parked at the other end of the alley, he asked, "Give you a lift somewhere?"

Harley eyed him skeptically, then laughed again and clouted him on the armored shoulder. "Yer awright, Batguy. No thanks, I'll walk. Been a while since I had the opportunity."

"Where are you headed, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Let's be honest with ourselves, you're just gonna follow me anyway."

"Of course, but it's only civil to ask."

She laughed once more. "Fair enough. Better than havin' a parole officer. I'll be at St. Bonnie's for a week or two, then I got a few things in the works. Everything goes according to plan, next couple'a years, you'll be able to find me at Gotham State Med or Mercy West." At his puzzled look, she said, "I gotta retrain before I sue the state to get my license back. Even if I wasn't 40 years outta date, I need a new specialty." She rolled her eyes. "I'm so over psychiatry."

Batman blinked at her, then smirked slightly - at himself, and what Bruce's reaction was sure to be, not at her.

"Good luck, Dr. Quinzel," he said.

Harley inclined her head graciously. "Thank you, Mr. Batguy," she replied, and then turned away and sauntered off down the street, hands in her coat pockets. True to his word, and not entirely for reasons of personal suspicion, Terry shadowed her to St. Bonaventure's. There he found himself laughing in spite of himself as she paused on the threshold, turned, and gave a huge Nixon-boarding-the-helicopter wave in the direction she assumed - correctly - he'd be watching from.

When he got back to the Bat Cave, Bruce Wayne asked him without turning around from the Bativac's console, "How'd it go?"

Terry pulled off his helmet. "Not bad," he said. "We'll have to keep an eye on her, obviously? But I think she's gonna be OK."

Bruce grunted. "When you've been disappointed as often as I have... " he said, leaving the rest of the statement unsaid.

Thursday, August 18, 2405
East End, New Gotham

"So how do you want to play this?" Catwoman asked. "Good cop/bad cop? Bad cop/worse cop? Dibs on worse cop."

Robin shook his head. "That won't be necessary."

"Tim's right," Batman agreed. "We already know she has a good reason. I just want to see how she takes finding out that we know."

Catwoman looked skeptical. "She appears to have a good reason," he said. "I've read her file, though. The whole thing is a textbook setup for - "

Batman sighed. "You sound like your old man, Lena."

Catwoman frowned. "Well, if you're going to put it that way," she said, settling her goggles over her eyes. "Fine. Let's go be nice to the lady who's experimenting with her notorious dead boyfriend's lethal neurotoxin. I'm wearing my nose filters."

It was well after hours, and though the light was (as always) on over the emergency entrance, all was quiet at the East End Free Clinic apart from the low, metallic sound of rock music turned down low in the upstairs office. The proprietress was in there, working on some of the endless paperwork involved in operating a free clinic in New Gotham.

From his perch at the window, Robin had her in a little bit less than 3/4 profile, about 10 feet away. He compared her appearance now with her various images in the Bativac's files and his own mental expectations. She didn't really match any of them, though in part he supposed she couldn't help that. She was dressed, for instance, in an odd combination of East Gotham street style (black and red leather motorcycling pants, a black tank top with the Gotham Knights football team's logo on it) and the de facto uniform of the independent urban physician on a budget (a white lab coat and old-fashioned high-top sneakers).

Her hair was drawn back into two short, fat plaits, the left side dyed jet black and the right a bright crayon red, and her skin was the color of chalk, but she didn't look all that whimsical as she sat, legs crossed at the knee, free foot bobbing in time to the music, and filled in a form. Part of Robin's analytical mind filed away the fact that she listened to Bad Religion without any conscious thought about whether that information had any prospect of being useful later.

He didn't think she'd noticed him, or Batman at the opposite window, or Catwoman at the door behind her, until suddenly, and without looking up from her work, she spoke:

"Wipe your feet if you're comin' in here, you three," she said. "This ain't a barn."

Robin blinked and glanced at Catwoman, who shrugged and stepped less stealthily than she'd planned into the room. Robin climbed in one side window, Batman the other, and moved to flank Harley's desk, but if she was at all discomfited about being suddenly surrounded by costumed crimefighters, she gave no sign. She didn't even look up until she'd finished the form she was working on and stuck it in the OUT tray on her large and very cluttered desk.

"Harley, Harley, Harley," Batman chided her gently. "Not even back in the medical business for six weeks and you're already experimenting with the Joker's old laughing gas?"

Harley swiveled in her desk chair and picked up a binder from the top of one of the piles of documents on her desk. "Before you bust me," she said, "lemme show you the clinical trial results so far." She slapped the binder down, fished out another, and held it up in turn. "And the consent forms." Putting that binder down atop the first one, she dug out a third. "And the case studies that show it's actually workin' at helpin' some of these people with their problems!" Adding the third binder to the pile, she gestured to the small but sophisticated chem-lab setup in the corner of the office. "I don't wanna get too far ahead'a myself here, Bats, but Compound 487 might just be a cure for NAS, at a net cost of about a nickel a dose. Can you imagine what that would mean for all the people who can't afford - what're you smilin' at?!"

"Relax, Harley. We know all that." Batman gestured to Robin, who bowed. "Robin hacked your computer two weeks ago. We've been following your work with great interest. So great, in fact, that we came tonight to bring you this."

Harley took the piece of paper he was offering her, looked it over, then glanced up from it to meet his eyes. "... A grant for research funding? F'real?"

Batman nodded. "If you're serious about this, well, I'm sure you figured out years ago that I have some pretty heavy backing. I might as well use it for something else to help people. Also, I've never heard of anybody de-weaponizing a chemical before. Kind of curious to see how that works out."

Harley weighed the grant, an elaborately official document printed on paper so heavy it was practically cardstock, in her hand. It authorized the East End Free Clinic, Inc., to draw on a fund maintained by the Gotham Trust Company in support of the clinic's research into medical applications for certain high-risk neurochemicals, subject to the requirements of proper documentation and the continued goodwill of the Kane's World Medical Authority. She read it thoroughly, then looked back up at Batman's masked face with a wry half-grin.

"Yer awright, Batguy," she said again, as she had when they'd first met.

"I do my best," Batman replied.

Harley put the grant down on top of the case studies binder, then got out of her chair and hopped up instead onto the edge of her desk, where she could see all three of them without craning her neck.

"Well, well, lookit you two," she said with a grin, looking from Robin to Catwoman. "Boy Wonder and Kittycat. I useta run with a Catwoman sometimes, back in the day. Good times. She had the smarts to get outta this town, unlike yours truly," she added candidly. With a glance back at Batman, she went on, "You're buildin' up a regular crew. I see on the news the other day where even ol' Vic Fries is workin' for you now. The old man would'a never done that. Surprised he lets you get away with it."

"We have an understanding," Batman said. He'd concluded from the first that it would be futile to pretend that his activities weren't directed and supported by the person Harley thought of as the Original Batman, just as those of Dick, the man she still regarded as "her" Batman, had been. She was too sharp a customer to fall for that.

She nodded. "Good. You need all the friends you can get to get by in this screwed-up town, especially nowadays. You oughta send Vic by sometime. We can reminisce about the pepper steak they used to serve on Tuesdays in the nuthouse." She sighed with mock nostalgia and said again, "Good times. Speakin' of, what can ya tell me about that li'l hottie in the tuxedo? The new Penguin? Is he really related to old Ozzie?"

"His son," Batman said, nodding.

"No kidding," said Harley, wide-eyed. "Good for him. Poor old Pengy, he deserved some lovin' in his life. I always said all's most of us needed back then was a hug."

Robin was starting to feel that the day had gone well past the off-ramp for Surreal Boulevard at this point, and a glance at Catwoman confirmed for him that she felt much the same way.

"You're... very up-front about your past," he observed, trying to steer the conversation back to somewhere a little less bizarre. "Does that cause problems for the clinic?"

"Not so's you'd notice it," Harley told him. She gestured to the window he'd come in through and the rough neighborhood beyond it. "This is the East End, Boy Wonder. People around here are desperate enough they don't care if the doc is a crazy clown lady with a criminal record so long as she's good at the job." Then, becoming fully serious for the first time since they'd arrived, she looked him in the eye and said flatly, "And I am. I'm the best damn doctor this neighborhood's ever had."

Batman gave a faint chuckle. When she looked a question at him, he explained, "I guess you're over your assertiveness problem."

Harley snorted. "I'm over a lotta my problems, Batguy." Then, her little grin returning, she added, "I only got one left, and she gets outta the joint next year."

"She could be a big help to your project... or a big problem," Batman agreed.

Catwoman raised her hand. "Excuse me, um, are we talking about who I think we're talking about?"

"Probably," Harley said easily. "What about it, kittycat? Plant people need love too."

Catwoman blinked, momentarily flummoxed. "I... yeah, OK, sure. It's the 25th century, why not."

"I'm not sure we should take this topic further with a minor in the room," said Batman sardonically.

Harley made a dismissive gesture, hopped down from her desk, and ruffled Robin's short black hair on her way to the coatrack in the corner of the room.

"Timmy's a big boy, he'll survive a couple'a vague allusions to the love that dare not speak its name," she said airily, plucking a bell-bedecked jester cap from the rack and settling it on her head. She breezed past Catwoman, jingling merrily, then paused in the door and looked back to see all three of them staring at her in silence.

"What?" she said. "You guys ain't the only detectives in town." Grinning, she added, "Protip, Boy Wonder: Next time you hack a crazy clown doctor's computer, don't do it from home."

Catwoman and Batman both looked at Robin. He, in turn, shot Batman a faintly fierce, challenging look. Batman withstood it for a couple of seconds, then looked away and mumbled lamely, "Max said it was untraceable."

Harley laughed. "I'm just messin' with ya, McGinnis," she said. "Tim was actually the hardest one to nail down! As it were." She angled a thumb at Catwoman. "Lena was easy. Her mom warned me she was comin' to town. Then it's on the news that her father turns out to be Bruce Wayne?" She gave a jingly shake of her head, smiling with satisfaction. "It was all downhill from there."

Catwoman palmed her face. "Dad's going to kill all four of us," she said, but Harley just laughed and clapped her on the shoulder.

"Relax, kid, it ain't gonna be a problem. Brucie and me, we go way back. 'Course, he doesn't know I know that yet, buuuut... " She shrugged. "Anyway, you guys can stay here if you wanna, but I'm done for the night. I got me a cravin' for some Whitmore Diner home fries. Who's comin' with me?"

"Reinvent" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Geoff Depew with Chris Pinard
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, December 22, 2411
The Bat Cave
New Gotham City, Kane's World

Decked out with holiday lights and a Christmas tree, the lounge area near the Bativac's console was looking especially festive. Though the holiday itself was still three days away, the executive board of BatCo (for which read Terry and Lena) had decided to have the party tonight. This was mainly because Christmas fell on Sunday this year, and weekends were generally the firm's busiest times, holiday weekends doubly so. The whole crew was in, suited up in case of a sudden emergency, but sans masks and relaxed as they gathered on the sofas, knocked back soft drinks, and eagerly awaited this year's fantastic holiday spread from Nora Fries and Alfred.

Kirk Langstrom stood regarding the Christmas tree's crowning decoration. Instead of a star or an angel, the traditional choices, the Bat Cave's tree sported a hood-ornament-like sculpture of Man-Bat, in a dynamic flying pose with wings outspread, his eyes the tiny bright points of red LEDs. He had a Santa hat on his head and a large sack marked TOYS slung over one massively muscled shoulder.

"Cute," Langstrom said. "Do I even want to know where you found this?"

"A friend of mine at school made it," Stephanie Brown reported. "She's very artistic."

"It's a good likeness," he admitted.

"I didn't think of it until it was too late, but I should've had her do a third LED for the nose," Stephanie added.

Langstrom eyed her skeptically over his glasses, making her giggle, then turned back to contemplating the tree topper. "It's just as well," he said dryly.

"I might get her to make one every year," Stephanie said. "Like a Hallmark series. Next year's can be Victor," she added, drawing a chuckle from Dr. Fries.

"Won't she get suspicious eventually if you do that?" wondered Maxine Gibson.

"Nah," Stephanie replied. "She just thinks I'm weird."

"About which she is not entirely wrong," Ozzy Cobblepot remarked.

"True," Stephanie admitted cheerfully.

"Speaking of weird, where's Harley?" Terry asked.

"Clinic's open 'til 8:30 on Thursdays. She should be along anytime," Lena told him.

"Good, good." Terry got up and rubbed his hands together. "So! What should we do first? Pictionary? The Guns of Navarone?" He gave Lena a comical leer. "Twister?"

She laughed while Ozzy and Langstrom facepalmed and Stephanie rolled her eyes.

"That's for later," Lena said with a grin, then - without looking at her - elbowed Stephanie while the latter made an exaggerated gagging noise.

Before anyone could say anything else, an unfamiliar voice made them all freeze in place, the hairs on the backs of their necks standing on end, as it demanded,

"What the hell is going on in here."

There followed a slightly absurd and undignified scramble for masks before Terry turned around and faced the source of the demand. Standing next to the giant penny, nearly invisible in its shadow, was a small, dark-clad figure. While the various members of BatCo stood and stared in disbelief, it stepped out of the shadow and advanced toward them, revealing itself to be a young boy. He was about 10, Terry figured, wiry and hard-looking - a bit like he himself had been at that age, when he'd been a budding juvenile delinquent. This kid wasn't dressed the way Terry had at 10, though; he looked like a miniature commando, all ripstop synsilk, chunky boots, and one of those black sweaters with the elbow patches.

The boy advanced into the "lounge", his face set in a scowl incongruous on one so young, and stopped in front of the tree. This he regarded as one might regard an unexpected and unwelcome visitor on one's doorstep; then he said to no one in particular,

"What is that."

Batgirl found her voice first. "... It's a Christmas tree."

"Why is it here?" the boy demanded.

"Because Christmas is this Sunday?" Batgirl asked. Then she shook her head and said, "Wait, why am I explaining this to you? Who are you and how did you get in here?"

"I belong here," the boy replied. Then he gave her a hard, flinty look and added, "Unlike you, Miss Brown."

Batgirl threw up her hands. "Oh, nice. Complete strangers who've somehow wandered in off the street are now telling me I shouldn't be here. This is a new low even for me." Whirling, she stalked away toward the Bativac's console and snapped, "Batman! Handle this, I'm out before I punch a ten-year-old."

"She raises a fair point," said Terry, who even under the circumstances felt no particular need to go into Terrifying Scourge of Crime mode when talking to a fifth-grader. "How did you get in here?"

"Through emergency access tunnel six," the boy told him, then added sharply, "You haven't changed the code in more than three years, McGinnis. Sloppy."

"How did you - " Terry paused, leaning forward, and squinted thoughtfully at the boy's face. "Ohhh no," he said, drawing back slightly. "Do not even tell me that you're the old man's unknown son or - "

Next to him, Lena put a hand on his shoulder, leaned toward him, and said quietly, "Terry. Look at his eyes."

Terry did as he was told, performed an epic double-take, then pulled off his mask and stared hard at the boy. The boy stared back, his eerily familiar face pugnacious and determined. Terry's own face passed through stages of puzzlement, startled realization, and disbelief before breaking into a huge grin.

"You gotta be kidding me!" he cried, throwing his arms wide, but before the boy could reply, another new voice cried from the top of the stairs leading up to Wayne Manor,

"Helloooooo Bat Cave! The party may now officially commence!"

For the first time since he'd appeared, the boy's face took on a new expression - one of near-infinite shock. He turned, looking up, and saw the figure, dressed in civvies but unmistakable, of Harley Quinn standing triumphantly on the upper landing, in the manner of the heroine of one of those musical-film production numbers that take place on a grand staircase.

Lena slumped, resting her forehead against Terry's shoulder. Terry was too busy facepalming to notice. The boy stared at Harley in horrified astonishment for a second more, then turned a furious glare to Terry.

"You let her in here, McGinnis?" he snarled, then added sarcastically, "Oh, wait, what am I saying - clearly you've let everyone in here."

As was her usual procedure, Harley made the journey from the landing to the lounge level in a series of expeditious, acrobatic, and not necessarily safe leaps from various rails and bits of structural ironmongery, alighting next to Terry in a gymnast's "ta-da!" pose, then noticed the glowering young man he, Lena, and all the others were currently staring at in disbelief.

"Oh!" she said, blinking; then she leaned forward, hands on knees, and said, "Well, hey, cutie! Who might you be? Terry's kid brother?"

"Uh, no, Matt's twenty-seven," said Terry. "And he lives on Yocha. Anyway," he added wryly, "you two've known each other a lot longer than I've known either of you."

Harley gave him a puzzled look. "Batguy says wha?" she said, then looked back at the scowling boy again. Just like Terry's had, her face passed through all the stages of puzzlement and disbelief, then cleared into a beaming smile.

"Brucie!" she cried, delighted, and then - to Bruce Wayne's abject dismay - swept him up in a huge hug.

Stephanie Brown shoved back her mask and scratched her head at the sight while Terry barely contained his laughter, Lena didn't bother, and Max, Langstrom, Fries, and Ozzy just stared.

"Man, I picked the wrong week to stop sniffin' glue," she quipped.

"I know, right?" said Ozzy, slack-jawed.

Bruce had just about struggled free from Harley - which he supposed he could have done more expediently if he'd been willing to break her collarbone - when the double-secret elevator dinged and Alfred emerged.

"Dinner will be served in 30 minutes, Master Terry," he announced. Then, noticing the young man just extricating himself from Harley's embrace, he added without missing a beat, "Shall I notify Mrs. Fries that an extra place setting will be required?"

"I, uh, think that'd be a good idea, yeah," said Terry. Before he could go on, Bruce wrested himself entirely free, straightened the sleeves of his sweater in (given his appearance) a comically grown-up manner, and then stepped around Terry so Alfred could see him plainly.

"Hello, Alfred," he said.

Everyone in BatCo knew and cherished Alfred Pennyworth's unflappability. No matter the circumstances, the man was never put off his stride by any eventuality. Even a pitched battle with the synthoid soldiers of General X on the grounds of Wayne Manor itself had elicited from him only a bland, "Mind the glass, sir," in the aftermath. As much as they loved and valued him for it, though, each one of them had long secretly harbored a wish to see his veneer crack just a little, just once.

Now they all got their wish, for at the sight of Bruce - a sight he, alone among them, recognized instantly, for had he not been here the first time Bruce Wayne was ten years old? - he froze for a moment, eyes going wide, struck absolutely speechless.

And then - just like that - the moment passed, his composure returned, and he said as calmly as if Bruce had just returned from a trip downtown, "Welcome home, Master Bruce."

Friday, January 13, 2412
Titans Tower
Pérez Island, New Avalon

"This is a mistake," Bruce Wayne said flatly. "I shouldn't have come here."

"It'll be great," Tim Drake reassured him. "You're gonna love it."

"I don't love things," Bruce growled, as much as a man in a ten-year-old's body can growl.

Tim sighed. "Bruce, you know we had to do it this way. If you'd stayed on Kane's, you and Steph would have killed each other by now."

Bruce snorted. "She's welcome to try."

Tim rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't be such a baby."

Bruce glanced at him sharply, then smiled ever so slightly. "Touché."

"C'mon," said Tim, "we're up," and then he led the way through the door and into the Titans' main briefing room. His appearance - and that of the unfamiliar boy in the brightly colored costume with him - quieted the chattering murmur of his teammates in a moment.

"Everybody, I want you to meet a friend of mine from New Gotham," he said, putting a hand on Bruce's shoulder. "He'll be working with me and/or Dick here in town for a while. I know we don't usually do the secret-identity thing here in the Tower," he added, "but for right now, he'd prefer it if you just call him Robin."

Rose (the Ravager) Wilson put up a hand. "I have a question!" she said brightly.

Tim hesitated, as he always did when Rose had a question, but as always, he couldn't quite bring himself to just ignore her. "... Yes, Rose."

Looking straight at the new Robin, Rose asked, "Is he really the original Batman, mysteriously de-aged with weird science for some nefarious purpose and now on the run from the villains responsible?"

Both Robins stared at her in dumbfounded silence for a couple of seconds. Her one visible eye widened in amazement. "Get out," she cried as all the other Titans' jaws dropped around the table. "I totally thought I was joking! That is James Bond intuition!" Breaking into an impromptu sort of "butter churn" end-zone dance, she chanted, "Go Rosie! It's my birthday!"

Tim and Bruce looked at each other.

"This was such a mistake," Bruce said.

"It'll be fine," Tim replied, then added with a small grin, "Also, incoming."

"WhaURK," said Bruce as - entirely flummoxed by the situation and, for obvious reasons, not completely on form lately anyway - he was unwontedly blindsided by one of his new teammates and, for the second time in a month, subjected to an unsolicited hug.

"Welcome, formerly old Batman!" Starfire declared, squeezing him soundly. "Since Timothy has evidently forgiven you for your shabby treatment of him when last we met, I shall as well. Let no one say that Queen Koriand'r the First of Tamaran clings to unnecessary grudges!"

As he had in the Cave, Bruce considered several different ways of escaping, but discarded them all - in this case, either as unworkable vs. Koriand'r's alien strength or certain to cause too much of a scene, not that she wasn't doing a fairly good job of that last part all by herself. Instead he just tried to fend her off as best he could, which wasn't terribly effective, and managed to grate out a deadpan, "... I'm so pleased."

Batgirl leaned toward Raven and murmured, "Wow. Who knew Batman was Boy Raven in the fifth grade?"

"Shut up," Raven muttered back.

Tim leaned against the wall, arms folded, and watched the scene with undisguised glee. He had mostly forgiven Bruce, and the poor guy did have enough on his plate without Tim piling on just to get him back for messing everything up with his grumpy old control-freak ways back in the day... but that didn't mean he couldn't stand back and enjoy the moment.

By the time Kori turned him loose, Bruce found himself surrounded by most of the other Titans as well, crowding in to exclaim about the amazing circumstances that had brought him among them and profess themselves pleased (or, in Elise Thawne's case, "totes stoked") to be working with him.

"This is gonna own," Rose declared. "Wait'll I tell Uncle Jay who I'm teaming up with this weekend. He'll go mental-er. Is that a word?"

"No," said Batgirl. "And please don't do that."

"Awww... oh, fine," Rose relented as Cassie gave her the Look. "Still gonna own, though," she added with a grin.

Bruce turned and looked out of the crowd at Tim, who still stood watching with a broad grin.

"You're enjoying this, Drake," he said accusingly.

"You bet I am," Tim said. "But mostly because I think you will too, once you get over being angry at everything and realize what a chance you've been given." Then, putting on his mask, he gestured to the briefing room's full-height windows and the city beyond.

"What do you say, sport?" Red Robin said, clapping Robin on the shoulder. "Getting dark out there. Let's go fight some crime."

Bruce tried to maintain his scowl, but found it impossible in the face of the Titans' welcome, Red Robin's grin, and the prospect of punching some bad guys. He smiled.

"Now you're talking," he said.

"Renew" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins with Chris Pinard, Geoff Depew, and Philip J. Moyer
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, June 16, 2409
Planet Tawet-443 IV
Outer Rim Territories

Bruce Wayne awoke and knew immediately, without opening his eyes, that he wasn't in the same place he'd gone to sleep in.

Damn, he thought, you're slipping, old man, and then he opened his eyes and sat up to have a look around.

As bedrooms went it wasn't much different from his own - a little smaller, perhaps, but (if it's possible) even more sumptuously appointed, in a more Gothic style than Wayne Manor boasted. There was a tall French door off to one side that opened onto a stone balcony, and beyond it a vista of some craggy, lofty mountain range with which he was not immediately familiar.

Wayne got slowly, carefully out of bed, found his robe hung over the back of a different chair than the one he'd hung it on when he took it off, and belted it on. His slippers were under the same chair; he stepped into them, then went and tried the door. It opened smoothly, soundlessly, onto a dark-paneled corridor. Faintly - he might be old, but his hearing was still sharp - he picked up the sound of classical music filtering through the partly open door at the end of the hall. Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, played by an expert.

He went to the door, already reasonably sure of what he'd find there, and opened it to discover that he was entirely correct. The room was a library, richly and tastefully appointed like the bedroom. Sitting at the concert grand in the corner, broad strikes of white showing in his wizard's beard, was one of Wayne's oldest, deadliest, and (perversely) favorite enemies - Ra's al-Ghûl, the Demon's Head.

Seeing the old man enter, Ra's stopped playing, closed the piano, and rose to offer a stiffly formal bow. Wayne's sharp eye caught the hesitancy, the extra stiffness, in his old foe's movements, and he realized with a faint sense of surprise that Ra's was an old man too. Of course, chronologically he was much older than Wayne and (obviously) always had been, but he had a way of cheating death and time that had kept him fit and vigorous for decades longer than Wayne had managed it. Seeing that he, too, was greying and slowing down was thus a faint shock.

"Yes," Ra's said, faint sadness in his voice, as though Wayne had spoken his surprise aloud. "Time catches up with both of us, Detective."

"What do you want, Ra's?" Wayne asked sharply. "Not to kill me. Your people could have done that more easily than bring me here."

Ra's smiled slightly. "Still the detective. Always the detective. In this case, though, you're only half right." He walked toward a side door, beckoning for his guest to follow him. After a moment's hesitation, Wayne did so. The door concealed an old-fashioned cage elevator, which Ra's operated himself. They descended through darkness for a few moments, then emerged into a natural cavern, its ceiling studded with industrial floodlights - a cavern filled with an acrid, clinging chemical stench Wayne recognized immediately.

Seeing Wayne's bemused look, Ra's smiled his dry little smile again and said, "It always seems to be about caves with you and me, does it not?"

The elevator arrived not at the cavern floor, but rather at a metal mesh platform two stories or more above it. This led to a catwalk that extended to the far side, perhaps a hundred yards away. On a platform at the far side stood two people: a slim, dark-haired woman and one of the towering, bald-headed, interchangeable guardsmen who always were to be found somewhere near the Demon's Head. They were too far away for Wayne to make eye contact with the woman, but he nodded slightly to her, and could just make out her own nod in reply.

Ignoring them both, Ra's led the way out to the end of the catwalk, then gestured to what lay below it. The smell had given it away the moment they arrived, but a look through the mesh confirmed it: Far below, its oily-sheened surface gently roiling like a pot of soup just coming to the boil, there was a Lazarus Pit.

"You are not so old a man by this era's standards, Detective," Ra's said, "but your constant pushing of yourself to the brink has undone you. I know you haven't long to live."

Wayne didn't argue. He'd felt as much himself lately - some ineffable internal clue that the fuse was, at long last, reaching its end. Instead he kept silent and waited to see where Ra's was going with this.

"Even a few years ago, my men would never have been able to spirit you from your mansion in the night... and I... well." Ra's chuckled mirthlessly. "I have known the years' pitiless embrace many a time. I know when I am reaching the end of a cycle, and now that end approaches fast."

Ra's removed his long green cloak, hung it over the handrail along the side of the platform, and turned to face Wayne. At his side he wore a long, cruelly curved cavalry saber. In his hand he held another by the throat of its scabbard, its grip presented to his guest.

"You have been a worthy adversary these many decades, Detective," he said. "The worthiest, perhaps, that I have ever had... and so I offer you a chance. We will do battle, you and I, one last time. The winner shall earn the use of this, the last of the Lazarus Pits. The loser shall die." He smiled coldly. "In either event, I win. Either I am rid of you at last, or I die knowing you have abandoned your lofty self-righteousness in favor of preserving yourself."

Bruce Wayne regarded his old foe silently for a few seconds, eyes narrowed.

Then he cast off his robe, stepped out of his slippers, and - standing straighter than he had in years - drew the offered sword from its scabbard.

"So be it," he said, raising the blade in salute as Ra's discarded the scabbard and drew his own saber.

Saturday, January 14, 2412
02:14 AST
Titans Tower
Pérez Island, New Avalon

As he stepped into the quarters he'd been assigned, Bruce Wayne reflected that the evening had been both depressing and exhilarating. Exhilarating, in the sense of being on the street again, taking up the Mission, back to fulfilling the oath he'd sworn to his parents so long ago. Depressing, in that he now had direct confirmation that he wasn't up to some of the more demanding techniques he knew. The body of a ten-year-old, though much more agile, resilient, and energetic than the aging shell that had originally forced him to give up being Batman, simply wasn't strong or fast enough - even with his intense training to bring it to the edge of what was possible - for things like Muay Thai or Salusian drunken boxing. Because he at first hadn't known, and then for a while hadn't wanted to believe, that, his first evening on the streets in decades had been a painful learning experience.

But, he thought as he unfastened his utility belt and started meticulously inventorying the contents, he was learning things.

Bruce was still suspicious of some of the Titans - for example, the Thawne girl, and the Ravager, because of their family histories; and the witch girl, Raven, because Bruce had long ago learned that only a fool ever fully trusted a sorcerer on first acquaintance. But even after Rose Wilson's somewhat disastrous guess as to his identity, the team had simply put it aside as not important right now and gone out to do their jobs.

Even though he knew it intellectually, seeing Cassandra - Batgirl - in action was a revelation. By herself, she was a weapon, able to dismantle any opponent she faced. With the Titans, she had become something greater. When she, Tim, and Bruce had come across a car collision, they had gone in like they'd planned it. One of the drivers was an elderly Tellarite whose ears showed the deep purple of cardiac arrest. As Cassandra pulled him out of the car, almost casually she tapped him in two places on his chest - using her martial arts skills to give him the Tellarite equivalent of pressure-point CPR and restart his heart.

She'd also learned to read somewhere. When Bruce had known her, she was utterly and profoundly illiterate, one of the many relics of her twisted upbringing she had constantly to struggle against. She not only couldn't read, at least one of the neurologists she'd consulted during her time in the Cave had concluded that - thanks to the way that upbringing had left her brain wired - she probably could never learn to read. Whenever she'd used a computer system involving any sort of text display, she'd had to rely on a neurotrode interface device originally developed for the use of the blind, and she hadn't had an easy time even with that. In any other alphanumeric situation, she was entirely helpless.

But tonight, Bruce had seen read road signs and check the ID of the Tellarite she'd saved. He'd even seen her use a quarian multitool - a holographic multifunction wrist computer manufactured in the Scandia system - to summon EMS to the scene of that crash, and later to coordinate with Red Robin in overriding the security systems as the nanotech lab the Sky Raiders were attacking, the scrolling text of its displays plainly evident. Maybe Terry's joking remark had more truth in it than was initially evident: This town was good for what ailed you.

He smiled darkly, remembering that raid - the centerpiece of the evening, involving a full callout of the whole currently active Titans team. Bruce had stepped back, to serve as a reserve and watch. And watch he did. It was a marvel: the entire Sky Raider heist team barely had time to know what happened before the Titans mowed them down. The organization, the training, the skill shown, with barely any need for anyone on the team to speak aloud (although the Ravager couldn't seem to help serenading the downed Raider team with a swing version of "Enter Sandman"), was a sign of how brilliant a leader Tim was.

And as much as it galled Bruce, he'd spent years forcing himself to be brutally honest with himself. And the honest truth was that Tim was probably the best possible choice to be the leader of this team. New Avalon would be immeasurably the poorer if he hadn't come here - and so would Tim. Now, seasoned and tempered but never beaten down by his years in this city, possessed of a calm maturity beyond his years that was yet leavened by a streak of whimsy, Timothy Drake was perfectly positioned to help Bruce grow back up to be... whoever he was going to be. Batman again eventually, he assumed, but then again, who knew when or if Terry would ever retire?

His introspection was disturbed as something disturbed his sense of the place, and he realized one of the room's curtains moved a bit strangely. As he turned to look, he growled, "What do you want?"

The shrouded figure replied, "To talk to you," in a rasp that Bruce recognized. It was enough that he removed his mask.

"Hello, Dick."

The Batman moved away from the windows, reaching up to remove his own cowl. "Hello, Bruce." Dick Grayson shook his head with a wry little smile. "Terry told me, but I didn't quite believe it."

The two regarded each other briefly, years and words between them, and then in a move that surprised even himself, Bruce hugged Dick.

Dick Grayson chuckled and hugged back. "Can't call you old man anymore," he quipped. "And now you're Robin. Jeez, you're younger than I was." The two let go. "Just wanted to see how you were settling in."

Bruce frowned, and for a moment Dick was worried, until Bruce said, "I'm a little tired of being a kid."

With a chuckle, Dick nodded knowingly. "Oh yeah. I know that feeling." Then he sobered. "But what happened? What kind of weird science did this to you?"

Bruce's face stilled. "Ra's al-Ghûl."

Talia bint Ra's al-Ghûl had watched both of these men she cared for battle time and again, to the edges of their endurance and beyond. But this time was different: Bruce Wayne's age was catching up with him despite his willpower pushing him through all the weaknesses it brought; her father, Ra's al-Ghûl, was determined that the force to push the detective into Death's realm would be not be nature, but the might of the Demon's Head himself!

Both men were tired, their limbs moving slowly with the fatigue that plagued them. Their eyes were both glassy from repeated blows, bodies aching with injured muscles and broken bones, the blades of their weapons chipped and scarred. Even the metal catwalk over the Lazarus Pit looked as if it was about to give way, weakened by their battle. The battle was now that of two prizefighters in the 15th round, and neither willing to let down the assault.

Finally, fatally, one made a mistake, and that one was Bruce. The platform shifted, he didn't adjust, and he was open. Ra's eyes flashed with the sense of victory, and he lunged forward for a thrust that would - at last - finish the detective.

His plan was spoiled when a figure in black cycling leathers and a grey hooded sweatshirt suddenly dropped out of the ironwork around the ceiling lamps, landing between them just as he committed to the thrust. The sword failed to strike Bruce... but it pierced Selina Kyle straight through the middle of her body.

"What - ?!" Ra's snarled, eyes going wide disbelief.

"Selina!" Bruce Wayne cried, his grim air of resignation replaced in an instant with genuine dismay. His sword clattered to the catwalk as he took a step toward her, but she - still standing, seeming almost not to care that she'd just been run through - held out an imperious hand to stop him. Her other hand seized Ra's by the wrist of his sword arm, preventing him from withdrawing or releasing his sword.

Both men stared, horrified, as Selina coughed blood up, then pulled back her hood with the hand that wasn't clamped like a handcuff onto the Demon's Head's arm. Though the years had been much kinder to her than to Bruce, who was only a few years her senior, they had still left their mark... but the hard light in her eyes showed that the once-legendary fury of the Catwoman still burned brightly.

"You two," she hissed through bloody teeth. "You two and your stupid, macho vendetta and your Manichaean-balance bullshit. I've had it up to here with the pair of you. You want to go out in a blaze of glory? Fine. Let's all go together. I'll drive."

One stomp, then a second, and suddenly the section of walkway on which they all stood was falling, the three of them plunging into the roiling chemical inferno that was the Lazarus Pit.

"No!" Talia cried out. There had only been one other time anyone knew of where more than one person entered a Lazarus Pit... and no one had lived to record the results. She turned away from the acrid fumes as it began to bubble even more, the terrible powers of the Pit unpredictable. Her father's bodyguard, named Ubu as they all were, reached for her, moving her farther away and interposing himself. His logic was simple: If the Master was dead, she was the Master now, and had to be protected; if the Master was not dead, he would be most angry if anything happened to her.

There was a sudden geysering from the middle of the pool, the chemicals of the Pit spraying upwards, splashing back down; Talia cried out in reflexive alarm as the spray barely missed her and a wave of heat and stench engulfed the platform where she stood. An instant later the lights - in fact, all power in the cavern - went out, leaving only the dying glow of the Pit to illuminate the chamber.

Then, as so often before (yet hideously, arrestingly different this time), came the screaming...

"Hey! Are you going to sleep all month? We have to get out of here!"

Bruce Wayne started awake with the sensation of being kicked. Three things became obvious as he did so: First, he was smaller; second, he was in a shabby, unfamiliar hotel room which had unrealized delusions of opulence; third, there was a little girl in the room with him - in fact, she was standing on the bed, kicking him.

She was about eight, slim and topped with a short fringe of coal-black hair, dressed all in snug-fitting black, and she was scowling at him in a startlingly familiar way as she stood over him and gave him one more boot for good measure before declaring angrily,

"Dammit, Bruce, I'm going to have to go through puberty all OVER again because of you!"

Bruce sat up, rubbing at his face; then, ignoring her, he climbed out of bed and stood regarding himself in the full-length mirror standing next to one of the three doors out of the room.

The person looking back at him was a pajama-clad boy of about the same age as his angry awakener, with black hair and unusually solemn blue eyes - the face of Bruce Wayne on, more or less, the day all sense had left his life. Seven, maybe eight years old. On the way home from The Mark of Zorro at the Majestic. I'll take those pearls you're wearing, lady...

He turned away from the mirror, shaking his head, and buried the flashback by remarking to the girl, "Selina, right now I think we have bigger problems. Besides," he added dryly, "I recall it treated you kindly."

Selina sprang down from the bed and put her hands on her (not yet particularly existent) hips, scowling at him. "Yeah. Eventually. And problems like being stuck on a planet on the far end of the Outer Rim, and my ride getting stolen?"

Bruce nodded. "That and the fact that I won't pass any kind of biometric scan to get access to my money any more. However we get out of here, it won't be the easy way." He looked around. "Speaking of which, where is here?"

"My suite at the Hotel Metropole, near the spaceport," Selina told him. "Which I had to sneak into, for the same reasons you were just talking about. Dragging your comatose carcass." She grinned wryly, preening just a little, which looked simultaneously fetching and preposterous on her new face. "Good thing I'm still the galaxy's greatest burglar."

"What happened to Ra's?" Bruce asked.

"Do I look like I care?" Selina inquired archly. "I was too busy dragging you out a side passage before the lights came back on and the Ubu Patrol could get a chance to find us and skin us. Thanks for just going into a coma, by the way, instead of having a psychotic episode. Made you easier to drag." She went to the couch at the side of the room, dug around in a large shopping bag, and threw a bundle of dark fabric to him. "Get dressed. If your boyfriend's people trace me here - which they probably will - we don't want to be here when they arrive."

Bruce nodded, went into the bathroom, and dressed. He wondered where Selina had managed to acquire child-sized commando sweaters and combat pants way out here on such short notice, but decided not to ask. It would make her tetchy, and she was already tetchy enough - albeit for better reason than usual, he had to admit.

When he emerged, he found her finishing a sweep of the room, having eliminated any trace she could find of their having been here. He handed her the pajamas he'd been wearing; she stuffed them into a rucksack with the rest of the evidence, then made him carry it as they slipped into the ventilation system and out of the hotel.

It wasn't until they were on the roof of the parking garage across from the spaceport perimeter fence, mentally working out how they were going to get inside, that either of them spoke again.

"Selina," said Bruce.

"Mm," Selina replied, engrossed in watching the patrol pattern of the security guard who was walking the fence line down below.

"Why did you come?" Bruce asked. "How did you find us?"

Selina took a deep breath, let it out, and replied without turning to him. "When you disappeared, Helena called me," she said. "I don't think you realize how much she loves you, y'know. You took her in, you let her join the gang - let her be something she wants to be. She's wanted to do what she's doing now since she was... " She chuckled wryly. "... about my age."

Now she did finally turn to face him, continuing, "She asked me to find you, Bruce. She said, 'Find him, Mom, for all of us.' I couldn't refuse her. Not when she asked me like that. As to how... well, there's still some people who remember Catwoman. I still have contacts. And I was the greatest burglar of my generation. A little here, a little there, and then I got into that cave... " She shook her head. "And when I saw what it was all about, I just saw red. After all these years, that horseshit again." She cracked a self-deprecating little smile. "Getting run through wasn't actually part of my plan, but by the time it happened I was so pissed off that I just went with it."

"When Ra's stabbed you..." Bruce faltered. For the first time in a very long time, words failed him. He grappled with it for a few seconds, then - as she had in the cave - surrendered to the moment. "I'm sorry, Selina. I'm sorry for being a damn fool all those years ago."

Selina smiled a little sadly. "I know, Bruce. I love you too." She leaned and kissed him slowly, then turned back toward the spaceport, adding with a sly smile, "But anything more than that's going to have to wait until we get back to at least the ninth grade. Think you have room for a new Batgirl in your crew?" She grinned at him, gave him a wink.

"We've got one, but she's in New Avalon. We'll come up with something." Bruce smiled slightly. "Maybe Catgirl."

Selina rolled her eyes. "Yeah, maybe not. Anyway, I think I've got this clown's routine sussed out. You ready to do this?"

Bruce nodded. They got to work.

"A year and a half later, we finally made it back to something like civilization. Selina's back on Earth taking care of some things, but she's going to call Helena and make arrangements to move into the Manor once she's got them dealt with."

Bruce and Dick regarded each other again, and then Bruce looked solemnly towards the floor.

"I heard about the leg, and the regeneration, from Tim. And I'm... sorry I didn't do more for you."

Dick shook his head. "Bruce, you did more for me than anyone else could have, all those years ago. It took losing the leg for me to recognize it, and years more for me to be able to say it out loud by myself." He hesitated, then continued, "Bruce, you were my second father, and I love you for that."

Bruce kept looking at the floor for a moment, and then looked up at Dick. "You saved me in a lot of ways, Dick. You're my son, and I love you."

Again, a moment of awkwardness, and then it passed. "I have to get back to the streets," Dick said, putting his mask back on. "But if you feel like coming out with Barbara and me instead of the Titans some night... there's always room for Robin."

Bruce chuckled, glancing at the utility belt he'd inherited from Tim. "I'll keep that in - "

When he looked back, Batman was gone, and for the first time since he'd dragged himself from the Lazarus Pit, Bruce Wayne out-and-out laughed.

"Nice," he said, and went back to work. He'd need to keep all his supplies and equipment squared away at all times, after all... and there was going to be some old-time Batman and Robin time in New Avalon some night soon.

"Revive" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Geoff Depew
with Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, September 13, 2390
The Rack & Pinion Public House
Valhalla, Asgard

By the afternoon of the day after the Ragnarök, the keenest edge had worn off most people's appetite for partying, even in the Golden City. Not everyone had called it a day yet, but most of the gatherings that were still happening had wound down to quieter, more intimate affairs than the full-bore survivor carousing that had marked the night before.

This was particularly true at places like the Rack & Pinion, which was by custom one of the quieter pubs in Valhalla anyway. Small and unobtrusive on a little-traveled side street off the Street of the Eternal Heroes, it catered to a small core of regulars who prized it for its discreet frontage, its motoring-themed décor, and its air of relaxed gentility. Even today, on the afternoon after the most apocalyptic series of parties ever to rock the Halls of the Honored, it maintained that most prized of its attributes.

In the back of the tap room, near the doorway leading to the lounge, a party of einherjar spacers sat in their customary corner booth, doing what the warriors of Valhalla have always done when the fighting is over: telling war stories.

A bald-headed man dressed, as several of them were, in a Wedge Defense Force uniform dating to the 2280s held the floor, telling a story about the chaotic end of a long-ago shore layover at Deep Space K-7: "So the Klingon says, 'I strongly suggest you rephrase your remarks, human,' and the Commander looks at him for a second and then says, 'OK, you're stupid-looking too.'"

[ Senior Lieutenant Charles Pressly, WDF (dcd.)
Killed in action: WDF Normandy v. GMV Avenger, September 11, 2288

As a laugh went around the table, one of the listeners - a rugged-looking blond man wearing a different uniform - remarked, "I bet that didn't go over too well."

[ Captain Conrad Verner, Ph.D., United Earth Defense Force (dcd.)
KIA: Battle of Central Park, August 12, 2388

"Oh, it all kicked off then," Pressly confirmed with a broad grin. "Doc Chakwas was taping us back together for days after that one. Although, give us our due, that Klingon ship didn't have enough able-bodied men left to leave port for a week."

The dark-haired woman to Pressly's left sighed in a put-upon fashion, though she was smiling. "Press," she said, "have you got any stories that don't involve me being psychotically aggressive?"

[ Commander Sir Virginia E. Shepard CKE KCSS, WDF (dcd.)
KIA: Normandy v. Avenger, September 11, 2288

"Not really," Pressly replied innocently.

"Well, I have," put in a slim, redheaded woman. "Who remembers Hammerhead?"

[ Able Spaceman Kelly Chambers, D.Psy., WDF (dcd.)
KIA: Normandy v. Avenger, September 11, 2288

Shepard gave the put-upon sigh again. "Oh, here we go," she said, covering her smile by taking a drink of her Belhaven.

"I think everyone who was there remembers Hammerhead," remarked a wiry (and unhelmeted - what need was there of such things here?) quarian, "but you tell it better."

[ Admiral Kevirin'Zorah vas Archangel, QN (dcd.)
d. July 16, 2374

The man on Shepard's left grinned. "Yeah, go ahead, Kelly," he said. "I think Conrad will appreciate this one."

[ Lieutenant Colonel Kaidan Alenko, UEDF (dcd.)
KIA: Battle of Horizon, May 2, 2334

Kelly paused, glancing at the commander, but Shepard just flipped a hand in a be-my-guest fashion and got on with her drinking, so the yeoman smiled and said to Verner, "Well. We hit a Cerberus science outpost in... late '82, I think, or maybe early '83. It was a year or so before Operation Herakles. Anyway, it was supposed to be where Cerberus was concentrating a bunch of technical information they'd pirated from various companies and governments around the galaxy, and Command wanted us to see if we could get it back.

"So the Commander hit the main lab with... " She paused to consider. "... Garrus and Wrex, if memory serves."

Shepard nodded with a nostalgic smile. "My heavy boys," she said. "The Normandy riot squad. I always took them along when I knew we'd be up against Cerberus."

"And it was the usual complete rout this time," Kelly confirmed. "It took all of five minutes for them to breach the central vault and find what the Cerberus researchers were working on... only it wasn't any kind of information storage system we were expecting. It was an egg."

Conrad blinked. "An egg? What kind?"

Kelly shook her head. "Nobody knew! We were a special operations ship, not a science vessel. The only real science assets we had on board were Dr. Chakwas and Professor T'Soni, and this was way outside either of their fields. All we could tell was that it was big - about as big around as a car tire - and they were keeping it warm. We were taking it to rendezvous with the Wayward Son so they could try and figure out what it was... when it hatched."

"What was in it?" asked Conrad. Then, with a look of suspicion, he said, "Wait a second, was this the rachni queen? I've heard stories about that, but I wasn't sure even you guys... "

Kelly shook her head. "No, that was earlier, and it wasn't us that found that egg anyway. This was totally different. It was a neosaur."

Conrad looked puzzled. "A... genetically engineered replica of an extinct Earth animal?"

The yeoman nodded. "Yes. Only now that we knew what it was, it didn't take our little science team long to figure out that this was a very special one. A variant developed from the original WDF Life Sciences design by Cerberus's top geneticists for a particular mission. It had all their stolen data encrypted in the 'junk sequences' of its genetic material."

Conrad's eyes went wide with recognition. "You mean it was a - "

Kelly nodded triumphantly. "Yep. A steganosaurus."

Her shipmates groaned, as they always did at that point, but Conrad only said, "Wow. Like a datadog, only... awesomer."

"Mm-hmm," Kelly agreed. "Anyway, our little guy had information encoded in his DNA that could have jeopardized the national security of the Salusian Empire, United Earth, maybe even the whole UG, and we knew in pretty short order that Cerberus was hunting for him. If they could get him back from us, a lot of people were going to be in a lot of trouble." She looked sad. "The only logical thing to do was destroy him."

Conrad gaped at her. "You didn't."

Kelly managed to keep up the sad face for a couple of seconds, then beamed. "Of course not," she said. "That's the whole point of the story." She gestured to the woman at the other side of the table, who had gone faintly pink. "Commander Shepard not only wouldn't order it, she told Admiral Mihailovich from the UEDF 5th Fleet to go pound sand when he tried to order her to do it."

"For the record," put in Kaidan dryly, "this was not the first time she'd told that particular admiral to go pound sand."

"And technically, I think the phrase she used both times was 'I don't work for you, so take the asshole train to the end,'" Pressly added, "which nobody's even sure what that means, except it's clearly not complimentary."

"And then she raised him by hand," Kelly went on.

"Hammerhead, not Admiral Mihailovich," Kevirin noted helpfully.

"Which takes some doing when an adult stegosaur is 30 feet long," said Kelly, resolutely ignoring him. "By the end of it Hammy took up as much of the hangar deck as the Mako."

"Which didn't make Garrus any too happy," Kaidan remembered.

"Why was he called Hammerhead?" Conrad wondered.

"When he was little he used to greet people he liked by headbutting their knees," Shepard said. "Fortunately he stopped doing that before he reached five tons."

"Except with Wrex," Kevirin reminded her.

"Yeah, but Wrex liked it," said Kaidan.

"But what did you do about the data?" Conrad asked.

"Well, it was about a year later that the WDF and 3WA did a joint operation that shut Cerberus down across the board," Shepard told him, "after which everybody who knew how to get at it was either on the Normandy, in Takron-Galtos, or dead." She shrugged. "At that point we figured it was safe to give him a new home."

"It was really sad to say goodbye, though," Kelly said. "He was part of the family by then. Eating us out of ship and home, true, and seriously starting to outgrow even the hangar deck, but still." She leaned toward Conrad and told him confidentially, "After we left him on NatureWorld, she cried for an hour."

"I did not," Shepard said, but not with much force. Then she smirked slightly and went on, "No more than five minutes. I've told you a million times, Chambers, don't exaggerate." A little wistfully, she added, "Liara thought Cerberus might've left in the original LSD encode for longevity when they pirated his genome. He could still be alive. I wonder if he'd remember me."

"He ought to," Pressly said. "I'd remember anyone who'd hand-fed me upwards of 20 tons of kalatamara leaves."

"Anyway, there you go, Conrad," said Kelly, beaming again. "Positive - albeit anecdotal - evidence that Commander Virginia Shepard has a heart of gold to go along with her fists of steel."

"And quad of brass," Kevirin chipped in. "Can't forget that."

After the laugh that drew died down, Kaidan raised a glass to his commander and added, "And that is no bullshit."

With a sardonic smile, Shepard clinked her glass against his, but at almost the same instant, there came a crash of shattering glass from somewhere in the tap room, a faint cry, and a roar of much more raucous laughter than the Normandy crew had been producing.

"What the hell... ?" Shepard wondered. She frowned and got partway to her feet, looking over Conrad's head to see what was going on. At some point during Kelly's story, a band of what looked like ten ulfhednar - so-called "berserker" troops from the rough hill country of western Vanaheim - had come into the place, clearly pissed out of their skulls and still on the roll they'd started the previous night. The gods only knew how they'd stumbled across the Rack & Pinion on their drunken course; perhaps they were actually hitting every single drinking house in Asgard. Now that they were here, in any case, they were diligently lowering the tone.

Scowling, Shepard got the rest of the way up. "Watch my beer, kids," she said.

"Commander... " said Kelly with a sigh.

"Won't be a second," Shepard told her, then eased past Kaidan out of the booth and marched up the aisle, her gait giving little sign that she'd just left behind half of her ninth pint of Scottish stout.

Out of the booth, the source of the crash was clear. Minerva, one of the Rack's vættir barmaids, had lost control of a tray carrying a half-dozen full pint glasses, their contents now mingling on the floor with the broken glass in a slick of multi-tone brown and amber foam. The reason she'd lost the tray was plain as well: she'd been seized in an overly familiar manner by one of the ulfhednar, who was now holding her clean off the floor and growling lewd suggestions into her ear through his foam-streaked beard.

"Get off me, you imbecile," Minerva snarled, attempting without much success to either elbow him in the face or get a heel into a soft spot.

"Hey. Buddy," said Shepard, her voice cracking like a whip. Blinking boozily, the berserker looked up from his "work", then gave her a leer.

"Art thou addressing me, wench?" he said in a voice that blared like a car alarm.

"Put the girl down," Shepard told him, her voice flat and cool. When he didn't immediately move to comply, she added, "Now."

The ulfhedinn considered for a moment, then shifted his grip so that he had Minerva pinned against his chest with one arm, freeing the other hand to point a thick, black-nailed finger in Shepard's face.

"Wait thy turn, woman," he said, then grinned jaggedly through his beard and went on, "A morsel this small should only detain me for YAAAAAAGGGGHHHH!"

Without waiting for him to finish his remark, Shepard seized his would-be-threatening finger and bent it smartly in a direction not supported by the manufacturer. Then, with the smooth and unhesitating precision of a finely tuned machine, she stepped toward him, pivoted, and drove the heel of one of her combat boots into his kneecap. Cursing, he stumbled, dropping Minerva, who beat a hasty retreat.

The ulfhedinn's finger was already purple and swelling as, roaring with the barely-contained rage that was the hallmark of his corps, he crossdrew a combat knife with his off hand and lunged. Shepard all but ignored it, deflecting the wild thrust with a casual sideways slap of her right hand, grabbed a fistful of the berserker's simulated-wolfskin tunic in her left, and jerked him toward her, ramming her knee into his groin. Beery breath gushed out of him as he folded up. She boxed his ears, used them to propel his face into her still-upraised knee, then dealt him a left cross that audibly fractured his jaw. Job done, she stepped calmly aside as he plowed facefirst into the floor next to the fallen cargo of Minerva's tray.

"... and on the flip side, there's that," Kevirin observed quietly to the others.

The ulfhedinn's colleagues stared at Shepard in astonishment rapidly converting to fury. She smirked at them, her violet eyes twinkling, and said as her shipmates piled out of the booth behind her, "Are you guys going to be smart and get your buddy out of here, or are we going to need ten ambulances?"


As the tenth ambulance pulled away from the Rack & Pinion and sped off, its siren wailing, Virginia Shepard stood with her team at the door, her arms folded, and shook her head.

"This neighborhood's going to hell lately," she remarked sardonically to Conrad.

"And here I thought I might find you resting on your laurels, Commander," said a voice from the sidewalk. Shepard turned to see Skuld Ravenhair - the Norn of Tomorrow and, maybe more importantly, the Valkyrie who had brought her to Valhalla in the first place - grinning at her. "Got a minute?" Skuld went on. "I've got a proposition for you."

Shepard crooked an eyebrow, then smiled and gestured into the open pub door. "Step into my office," she said.

"War Stories" - a Twilight Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

When Gordon Freeman lost consciousness, he wasn't expecting to ever wake up again. Well, you wouldn't, if the last thing you saw before blacking out was a giant mutant brain hellbeast thing exploding in a giant corona of weird green alien light, would you?

It was therefore with mild surprise that he came to realize he was alive, sprawled face-down on what felt like some kind of nonskid flooring. He slowly raised his head to find that he was lying on the floor of what looked for all the world like a Black Mesa tram car, still wearing the dented and battered remains of his HEV suit. A quick check of his status indicators showed that all his weapons were gone.

This could be awkward, Freeman thought. He pulled himself slowly to his feet and looked around. Yup, a Black Mesa tram car, be it ever so industrial. Except... okay, that wasn't the Black Mesa Transit System outside the windows. In fact, it looked like nothing so much as a grand-scale version of the Windows "hyperspace" screen saver.

Okay. I was fighting a giant brain monster, it blew up, and now I'm on a Black Mesa tram that's flying through space at faster-than-light speeds, he thought. Let's face it, that's no weirder than anything else that's happened today.

"Ah. Mr. Freeman," said a voice. Gordon turned to see a tall, thin man in a blue suit standing at the other end of the car. With a shock of recognition, he realized that it was the same guy he'd seen over and over all day - on the tram that morning, in Kleiner's office, up on that catwalk. He'd kept turning up everywhere in Black Mesa over the course of the incident, always watching, always somewhere just out of reach. Blue suit, buzzcut, briefcase, like some kind of G-man from hell.

"Good work clearing up that... little mess in the borderworld," said the G-man. His voice was strange, the words perfectly ordinary but their inflections all wrong, as if he weren't a man at all, but some kind of machine that wasn't quite programmed correctly to emulate human speech. As he spoke, he regarded Gordon with cold, dead eyes.

"My... employers have recognized that you have considerable... potential, Mr. Freeman," he went on. "There have been some... delays in extending our offer of... employment... a member of a... rival firm was attempting to interfere in your recruitment." He gave a little smile that was just as forced and unnatural as his manner of speaking. "... But that's all been sorted out now. We'll have no further trouble from them. So I am free to make you... an offer."

Freeman eyed the G-man who was not a G-man with deep wariness. "What kind of offer?" he asked.

"A... simple one. You come and... work for us, placing your... unique... skills at our full disposal."

"Do you have any references?" Freeman replied. "I'm sure I don't have a job at Black Mesa any more, but that doesn't mean I'm open to just any offer that comes along. Who do you work for?"

"That is... not your concern," the G-man replied calmly. "But you always have... a choice. You can refuse our offer. Of course, in that case, we will have no alternative but to return you... to your previous location. There you will face a battle... of which you have no chance of surviving." Again he smiled his ghastly un-smile. "I will give you a moment... to collect your thoughts. Then I must have your answer." Turning away to gaze out the window, ostentatiously leaving Gordon to his deliberations, he added dryly, "Choose... wisely, Mr. Freeman."

Freeman's flesh crawled. He didn't know how he knew, but he was now absolutely convinced that this thing, whatever he was - he was surely not a human being - was the most dangerous and devious thing he'd encountered in this whole insane sequence of events. He had suspected for some time that this creature had engineered the Black Mesa incident. Now it suddenly dawned on him that it, or who- or whatever it represented, had done so just to force him to this moment. It and its "employers" had killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people, including almost all of Gordon Freeman's friends and peers, in order to forge him into some sort of... weapon. And then enslave him.

Why me? What the hell is special about me? he wondered, his mind racing. I survived as much by blind luck as anything else. Half the time I didn't even know what the hell I was doing! And now this... thing picks me out of spacetime and tells me I can work for its masters or die?

He looked around the tram car for anything he might use to change his situation - it had worked a number of times in Black Mesa - but there was nothing. It wasn't even really a tram car, he realized. He was unarmed, completely at this creature's mercy.


He hesitated, his survival instinct warring with his unwillingness to be anybody's puppet - and his fury at this man-shaped monster for all the misery it had caused in the course of this twisted experience. For a moment he considered just lunging at the G-man's back and trying to take him out with his bare hands, but he knew that wouldn't work. A couple of times back in Black Mesa, when it had become obvious to him that this sinister figure had had something to do with the incident, he'd taken shots at the G-man, but his bullets had had no effect. Surely his fists would do no better.

Just then, a glint of light caught his eye. He looked down and saw, lying on the floor at his feet, his crowbar. He could have sworn it hadn't been there when he awoke, but it was there now. Freeman felt better just seeing it there - there were times during the incident when it had felt like his only friend - but the lift was short-lived. Just as with his fists, if bullets hadn't fazed this creature, a crowbar wouldn't either.

... Wait. Was it... glowing?

"One minute left, Mr. Freeman," the G-man remarked without turning around. "Do make up... your mind, there's a good fellow."

Freeman bent down and picked up his crowbar. As his hand closed around it, he felt a shock of some indescribable vital energy race up his arm and suffuse his whole being. On the shaft of the crowbar, glowing runes appeared as if burning their way out from the inside:


Gordon didn't know what that meant, but he did know two things:

1) Just holding the crowbar, which was now visibly crackling with some unnameable energy, made him feel better, stronger, more on top of things, more alive than he had felt since the Resonance Cascade began; and

2) The taunting creature standing before him was definitely a monster.

"I've only got one thing to say to you," Freeman said.

The G-man turned his head, but still mockingly declined to face Freeman, as he replied, "Oh? And... what is that, Mr. Freeman?"

Freeman stepped into the blow with all the weight of his hazard-suited body behind it, swinging for the bleachers just like it was Little League, and just before the crowbar connected with the side of the G-man's head, he said,

"It's Doctor Freeman."

For the... what, he'd lost track now, third or fourth time that day, Gordon Freeman's world disintegrated in a blaze of unearthly light, and once again he wondered if this time was going to be the last one.

And then he was sitting up in what seemed to be a hospital bed. His HEV suit's familiar weight was gone; instead he appeared to be wearing a patient's johnny. Everything was blurry. He looked to his left and saw his glasses sitting folded on the endtable next to the bed, just like you would expect in a hospital - and next to it, rather less as you would expect in a hospital, his crowbar. He picked up the glasses and put them on just as a tall, beautiful woman with alabaster skin and long jet-black hair arrived smiling at his bedside.

"Welcome back, Dr. Freeman," she said. "You're safe now. I apologize for leaving you to deal with Muspelheim's agent by yourself, but there are certain protocols... " Her smile became a little sly. "... And I knew you'd be able to sort it yourself if I provided you with the right tool for the job."

Then she held out a hand, which, still blinking in bafflement, he shook.

"My name is Skuld Ravenhair," she said. "Welcome to the twenty-fifth century!"

"Whosoever Holds This Crowbar... " - a Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Based on
Half-Life by Valve Software
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2010 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, July 12, 2407
Quarian Union, Scandia-CN38 system
Kresge sector, United Federation of Planets

When the unknown aliens attacked the Rayya in Patrol Zone 374 - at the far edge of the Formation, near Scandia's termination shock - the crew at first thought they were batarian raiders. Border skirmishes with batarian ships were not uncommon in the Quarian Union, and since the raiders were always (officially) private operators, they never fielded consistent starship types, so the fact that the attacking vessels were of a completely unknown type was not, at first, particularly surprising.

That assumption lasted until the enemy grappled alongside (something the batarians hadn't managed to do to a quarian ship since 2268) and boarded (something they'd never accomplished against a warship). Expecting a force of batarian commandos, the Rayya's security personnel were utterly shocked by the spindly, chittering aliens who swarmed into the ship's after airlocks instead. Though well-equipped and finely drilled, the quarian security forces were no match for the attackers. Outgunned and woefully outnumbered, they had suffered heavy casualties and fallen back to Frame 340 amidships before any coherent report had even reached the bridge.

On that bridge, the Rayya's command staff struggled to respond to the new crisis. Their task was complicated by the fact that they were still dealing with the old one. Evidenly not caring that they had boarders aboard the quarian vessel, the two alien ships that weren't grappled on were still attacking, and with the admiral trying to rally the rest of the fleet to their defense and the captain busy fighting the ship, neither of the ranking officers present had much time or mental bandwidth to devote to anything else.

Admiral Rael'Zorah vas Rayya stood braced against the flag communications console abaft the captain's seat, having taken over for his harried flag lieutenant. On that console's main display was the visored face of one of his Admiralty Board colleagues, Admiral Han'Gerrel vas Neema.

"Hang in there, Rael," said Admiral Gerrel. "Help is on the way. ETA six minutes."

"I'm not sure we've got six minutes," Rael replied, but before Gerrel could respond to that, the channel broke up in a wash of jagged static.

A voice, high and plaintive, detached itself from the buzz of intercom traffic on the overhead: "What are these things?!"

A moment later, another - sounding less panicky but, if anything, even more urgent - broke in, "They've breached the engine room! All units, reinforce the - "

The second voice was drowned out by a burst of what sounded like automatic blasterfire, but of an unfamiliar pitch and rhythm, and the traffic settled back into an incoherent blur of shouts and violent sounds.

At the back of the bridge, Colonel Vedik'Zorah vas Archangel shared a moment's eye contact with his granddaughter Tali, then said wryly, "So much for our day off."

Tali was intent on her omni-tool and didn't answer him for a moment; then she finished whatever she'd been doing, looked up, and replied with equal wryness, "I didn't even want to come here today."

Vedik chuckled. "And I did?" Then, becoming businesslike, he went on, "Keep an eye on your father. I'm going down to see if I can do anything about the situation in Engineering."

"I'll come - " Tali began, but before she could go on, Vedik turned to the young marine officer standing next to them and said,

"Kal'Reegar, secure the bridge. DO NOT let Tali'Zorah follow me."

Reegar saluted. "Aye aye, Colonel."

"That is cheating," said Tali indignantly.

"An old man's prerogative," said Vedik fondly. "Stay safe, Tali."

"Be careful, Grandfather."

The colonel regarded his granddaughter for a moment, then said, "There are times for that. I fear this isn't one of them."

Then, placing a hand briefly on her shoulder, he nodded first to her, then to Reegar, and left the bridge.

Vedik found the ship's remaining security forces in disarray, trying to rally in the amidships lounge area but not quite able to get it together. It took him about four seconds to size up the situation as he emerged from the turbolift and see that this was the case. Some of the soldiers present were at least trying to square themselves away and get ready to attempt something, but even they didn't know what they were going to attempt, and others clearly were so stunned by the day's events that they had no idea where to start.

He zeroed in on the most together of the survivors, a young woman who was sitting in one of the corner couch booths methodically stripping her rifle. Striding toward her, he rezzed up his omni-tool and told her, "I need your tactical freq's crypto key."

She looked up, did a quick double-take, then put the half-dismantled weapon aside and stood to salute. Vedik waved it away. "We haven't got time for that," he said.

"Uh - r-right," said the trooper. She fumbled with her omni-tool for a moment before figuring out how to pass the encryption key along; once he had it in place, Vedik configured his own tool to broadcast to all stations on the Rayya's tactical band and declared in a ringing voice that brought all the chatter and clatter of the room to a sudden halt:

"Now hear this! This is Colonel Vedik'Zorah vas Archangel speaking. In the absence of Major Carand, I am assuming command of this operation."

Troopers around the compartment - and indeed, all throughout the still-semi-secured part of the ship - paused in what they were doing and gave each other incredulous looks. Vedik'Zorah? The Vedik'Zorah? What was he doing here? The Rayya was not only not his ship, it was the flagship of his estranged son, a man to avoid whom - so the story went around the fleet - he had once refused promotion to Commandant of the Marine Corps and the automatic seat on the Admiralty Board it entailed.

He didn't give them much time to ponder that now, though, as he went on, "Listen up, Marines. I know you're in shock. You're surprised, you're scared, some of you are hurt. We don't know what these things are, we're outnumbered and outgunned. Well, guess what, ladies and gentlemen? We're quarians! We're always outnumbered! Now pick yourselves up, recharge and reload, and get yourselves to the Level 12 midships common area on the double."

His voice dropping to a raspy growl, the colonel continued, "We're going back into that engine room, boys and girls, and if these creatures even know what fear is, we are going to make them experience it - because it's that or all our families are walking back to Scandia-1! Counterstrike commences in fifteen minutes - mark! That is all."

Then he closed the channel, turned to the soldier he'd acquired the comm key from, and said with faint amusement, "Carry on, Crewman."

She stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. He angled the ghosts of his eyes at her abandoned weapon. "Oh!" she said, almost startled, and sat back down to finish the job.

Vedik sat down opposite her, unlimbered his own weapon, and started checking it over. "What's your name, soldier?" he asked.

"Uh, L-Lyra, sir," she replied. "Lyra'Raan."

"You must be Shala'Raan vas Tonbay's niece," said Vedik conversationally. "It's a small fleet."

"Uh... y-yessir."

"Relax, Crewman," said Vedik lightly, stowing his rifle on his back again and starting on his sidearm. "I'm not your commanding officer. I shouldn't even be here. Anyway," he went on, not unkindly, "it's not me you're really frightened of, is it?"

Lyra glanced at him, then returned her attention to her weapon. Vedik had no way of knowing for sure, of course, but he was fairly certain from context and the rest of her body language that she was blushing furiously inside her helmet. "No, sir," she replied quietly.

"There's no shame in being scared, Lyra," Vedik told her, earning a look of blank shock. He sighted down the holographic tri-dots of his sidearm on the far bulkhead for a moment, then shut down the weapon and returned it to the magmount on his hip. "I don't know what they told you in Basic, but the truth of the matter is, being brave isn't about fearlessness." He stood up and turned to see the room starting to fill up with security troopers, yet becoming increasingly quieter as they arrived.

Six minutes later, they were massed in the main companionway outside the blast doors to Main Engineering in entry formation, Colonel Zorah at the front of the stack.

"Override codes initiated," said the tactical engineer opposite the stack, his omni-tool interfaced with the door's control panel. "Ready for entry in five."

"What is it about?" Lyra suddenly asked from where she stood behind the colonel, her rifle at the ready in her right hand, left hand on his right shoulder.

"Sorry?" he said, not looking away from the engineer.

"If bravery isn't about fearlessness, what is it about?"

"Override complete," the engineer reported, giving the colonel a thumbs-up across the now-unlocked but still closed blast doors. "Ready for entry on your mark, Colonel."

Vedik thumbed off his rifle's safety and announced on the tac band, "Weapons free. Everyone tag in."

Then, as the ready-to-go icons for everyone in his impromptu force began to flick on in his helmet's HUD one at a time, he looked back over his shoulder, met Lyra's eyes through their visors, and told her,

"It's about being scared as hell... and not letting it stop you."

Then, facing front again, he opened the comm channel again and announced, "OK, boys and girls, it's go time. Keelah se'lai!"

IPS Valiant (NX-06041)
Kresge sector

"Secure from warp," Captain Utena Tenjou ordered as the strobing lights of the Rayya's battle with her attackers filled the main viewer. "Klaang, what've we got?"

"That exact configuration isn't in the database," Sub-Commander Klaang reported, peering into his scanner. "However, the general configuration is about a 74% match for the alien vessels that attacked Vastru II last year."

Utena frowned. "Well, log all the sensor data, we'll pass it along to Intelligence when we have the time. Right now we've got other problems. Saionji, can you get me the Rayya?"

"Lot of interference in the area - I think the attackers are jamming," said Kyouichi Saionji at the comm station, "but let me see if I can get a laser lock... there. Channel's open."

"Rayya, this is IPS Valiant," Utena declared. "Apart from the obvious, what's your situation?"

If Admiral Zorah - who was not, Utena had to admit, her biggest fan in the galaxy - were surprised or perturbed that her ship had come to his aid (and reached him before elements of his own navy, which were burning serious neutrons inbound at high sublight), it wasn't apparent in his voice as he replied,

"Valiant, we have been boarded. Hostile aliens have occupied the engine room, but they seem unwilling or unable to tamper with our systems as yet. Our marines are mounting a counterattack. Recommend you concentrate your fire on the enemy's support vessels."

"Roger that, Admiral. We'll see what we can do to keep them off you. Be advised, Challenger is about three minutes behind us."

"Understood. Rayya out."

Utena turned a slightly impressed look to Corwin Ravenhair, who stood next to her conn with one hand braced on the top of the seatback. "He almost sounds pleased to see us."

"Well," said Corwin wryly, "I imagine he's got bigger things on his mind right now than... " He blinked suddenly, flinching almost as if struck, and trailed off in mid-sentence. Utena, watching him closely, saw his eyes unfocus, and before she could ask him what was wrong, he said in a low voice, "... oh no."

"Corwin, wha - "

He shook his head. "Damn. I have to go. I'll explain later."

Then, turning, he left the bridge.

"... Go where?" Utena asked the space he'd left behind as the Valiant plunged into combat with one of the alien ships.

QNV Rayya

Vedik climbed to his feet, thinking it was a little bit odd that he didn't remember getting knocked down.

Must have been a concussion blast, he thought, shaking his head. That would account for the fact that the sounds of the battle he could still see raging all around him were so strangely muted, hollow and distant - though it didn't account for how cold he felt. It was freezing in here, which, in the - hah - heat of the moment he hadn't noticed when they first entered the engine room. He wondered if the aliens had been screwing with the environmental controls. Also, everything looked vaguely blue, as if his optics filters had been knocked into some unfamiliar mode by the blow he'd taken.

Then, with another shake of his head, he told himself sternly to pull himself together and worry about that later. Right now he still had a job to do. Raising his rifle, he sighted it on the nearest of the aliens, pulled the trigger...

... and nothing happened.

His reaction was instant, automatic, honed by years of drill and even more of experience. Without even looking at the rifle, he cycled the energy system, cleared the charge buffer, repressurized the blast chamber, and tried again.


Assuming that the weapon had been damaged by the same blast that had knocked him down, Vedik discarded it and drew his sidearm. He had a second, maybe two, to stop that attacker before it got the drop on Lyra'Raan - she was facing the other way, laying down covering fire for the engineers as they tried to dislodge another group of aliens from the starboard companionway to the upper level of the engine room, and she wouldn't see him in time...

Suddenly, with a flicker of pseudomotion that reminded him of nothing so much as a ship emerging from hyperspace, a man in black armor appeared next to Lyra and - without pausing for more than a half-second to assess the situation - smashed the approaching alien to the deck with a whirling blow of a six-foot, metal-shod staff. The creature's vacsuit visor shattered on impact, and the rest of it tumbled backward and down the half-staircase to the lower level, its weapon flying from its hands.

Without hesitation - and without, apparently, being noticed by Lyra - the black-clad figured turned and stepped toward Vedik. As he did so, he seemed to come fully into focus, becoming the only thing in the colonel's field of view that wasn't slightly indistinct and bluish-tinted. The swirl of battle seemed to fade away around them as he approached, until, as he reached Vedik's side, it appeared eerily as though they were alone in the Rayya's cavernous engine room, only a small part of which could be made out through the chill blue haze.

"What the... " Vedik murmured.

The armored man - much too burly to be quarian - raised a five-fingered hand and touched a control at the throat of his armor. A moment later his helmet seemed to divide into sections and fold itself away into the suit's gorget, revealing the face and unruly black-and-silver hair of a human. A human, to Vedik's surprise, he knew.

"Corwin?" he blurted - and then, as long-ingrained instincts took control, "You know better than to crack a seal aboard a quarian ship!"

"Where you and I are right now, Vedik... it doesn't matter," Corwin replied.

"I don't - what?!" Vedik replied. Then, for no reason he could consciously name, he suddenly looked down...

... and saw himself sprawled at his feet, the plastron of his biosuit neatly holed dead-center.

"... oh," he said. He looked up from his fallen body at the grave face of his granddaughter's Avalonian friend and lifelong penpal, with whose help she'd saved the Rayya from an infectious outbreak two years before. "But what are you doing here?"

"This is a side of me I hoped you'd never have to see," Corwin told him.

/* Daft Punk
"Encom Part II"
TRON Legacy (2010) */

Then, drawing himself up as if on an official occasion, he spoke in a formal, slightly stilted tone: "Vedik'Zorah vas Archangel: I am Corwin the Raven-Haired of the Æsir, Watcher O'er the World-Engine, Chooser of the Slain... and I have chosen you."

Vedik absorbed this in the silence it deserved.

"You have lived a life of devoted service to your people," Corwin went on solemnly. "Now that life has ended with honor. You gave it that your countrymen might live. For a soldier as you have always been, there is no higher calling. For this reason you are called to Valhalla, Odin's golden hall, there to dwell in glory until the armies of good and evil meet in battle on the Final Day." He held out a gauntleted hand. "What say you?"

Vedik gazed back at him for a moment, what could be seen of his face through his visor completely blank.

Then, with just a hint of an edge in his voice, he replied, "I say you're crazy if you think I'm going anywhere while Tali'Zorah is still in danger."

Corwin regarded him for a moment, then gave him a slight smile. "She's safe," he said. "They never came close to the bridge. Your counterattack saw to that."

Vedik mused on that for a moment, looking around. Then he turned back to Corwin.

"She's going to be furious with me for leaving her behind," he said wryly.

Corwin's solemn front cracked outright as he let out a slightly guilty snort of laughter. "I expect so," he agreed.

"Do what you can for her, will you?" Vedik asked him, seriously now. "I know it meant a lot to her that you were there for her when her mother died."

Corwin nodded. "Count on it."

Vedik looked around again, watching the last vestiges of the Rayya's engine room melt away in the encompassing haze, and sighed.

"All right," he said, "I guess if I have to go anywhere that isn't home, this 'Valhalla' of yours is as good as any." He took Corwin's offered hand. "Are there other quarians there?"

"Lots," Corwin told him as the haze began, in turn, to dissipate in a blaze of white light.

"Well, that's something."

"Line of Duty" - a Future Imperfect/Symphony No. 3 mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, August 24, 2407
9:34 AM
Location unknown

Illyana Rasputinya tumbled to an abrupt halt, her head spinning, her demonic armor in full effect. Five seconds ago, she'd been on a deserted island in the South Pacific with the rest of the X-Men, making a desperate and probably losing last stand against the biggest army of Sentinels and random paramilitary wackos she'd ever seen. Then Magneto had shown up and tried to help them, and then (pardon the expression) all Hell had broken loose.

When the sky went orange and the bottom dropped out of reality, Illyana had summoned a stepping disc to take her away, knowing that something had gone terribly wrong... but her control was unpredictable, and sometimes in the past she'd thrown herself, or her teammates, through time and space. She looked around and shook her head, disgusted with herself - wherever she was, it was certainly NOT the front lawn of Xavier's in New York, and she hadn't managed to bring a single one of her teammates with her.

So... where -was- she, if not where she'd wanted to go?

This place felt like Limbo, the way station through which her teleports always took her, the sorcerous realm she ruled absolutely, but...

She gasped, and her Soulsword snapped into her hand. As far as the eye could see, the landscape was covered in machinery. Gleaming airships crossed the clear blue skies; the roads were busy with fantastic vehicles. The air was sweet, with a faint hint of coal and a tang of metallic steam.

She slammed the Soulsword point-down into the grass she'd landed in, summoning a familiar incantation to mind. She was displaced - in time, if not in space - and this had to be a future Limbo, one where someone had wrested control from her during her long absence. Perhaps S'ym, her demonic servitor, or his crony N'astirh; perhaps even the Technarch Magus, although this scene seemed too natural to be the doing of the transmoding horror she and the New Mutants had defeated years before.

No matter. She was the Mistress of Limbo; she'd prevailed against S'ym and a dozen like him, and she would again. The first step was the spell to regain physical control of the realm...

9:37 AM
Himemiya Botanical Garden
Tenjou Academy, Nihonia, Cephiro

Anthy Tenjou looked up from the rosebush she was pruning and cocked an ear to the wind; sighing, she pushed herself to her feet and clucked.

"Never a dull moment," she told the rosebush before raising both hands, enveloping herself in a violet glow, and flashing out of existence.

The others would follow her, she knew; Utena wouldn't want her in danger without backup, and Corwin was touchingly loyal to both of them. She figured she'd be done by the time they got there, though.

9:47 AM
Zantoku, Autozam, Cephiro

Corwin Ravenhair, Nall Silverclaw, and Utena Tenjou crashed through the window of the First Provincial Bank of Autozam and into the thick of a sorcerous duel that had already done considerable damage to a number of buildings on Broadway, to say nothing of the street itself. With her usual lack of hesitation, Utena drew the Thorn of the Rose and dove into the fray. Corwin held back for a moment and surveyed the chaos; so too did Nall, who rode on his shoulder.

Anthy seemed to be holding her own, and then some, against a stranger with blonde hair, a full suit of some sort of mystical armor, and a definite Anton LaVey fetish, judging by the faux-Satanic motifs in both that armor and the large magical blade she was wielding. The horns, goat legs, and tail only added to the effect; Corwin was fairly sure he'd've snarfed up his drink, if he'd had one, just looking at the ridiculous display.

On the other hand, the stranger was a competent swordsman, and Anthy's own skill with her draconic warstaff was holding her back but not really stopping her. The half-svartelven sorceress seemed to have the edge where actual spellcasting was concerned, though, and the balanced disparities meant that, for the moment, the combatants were at a kind of impasse.

The duel raged on until Utena's blade came down with a resounding crash against the stranger's own. The Prince of Cephiro's rose-tinted battle aura crackled and spat as she halted her lunge, then turned to face the intruder.

"What in the hell do you think you're doing?!" Utena said, the full force of her stature as Prince sheathing her voice in steel.

The stranger fell back for a moment, giving Corwin and Nall a chance to jog up to the scene of the battle.

"I could have parried that myself, dear," Anthy said in a mild voice.

"Never mind that right now," Utena said, glaring at the blonde. "Do you mind telling me what you're doing wrecking my WORLD here?"

"Your world?!" the stranger snarled. "This is Limbo! My will reigns supreme here!"

The Trinity of Cephiro exchanged politely baffled looks.

"...your will to trash the entire place?" Corwin said mildly, ruffling his hair with one hand. "There's about twenty million rektars in damage here," he added, gesturing to the ruined shops and shattered street. "It's going to take a couple weeks to clean up, even if I nice the job up to... "

He noticed that he seemed to be losing his audience, shook his head, and said, "Well, never mind. The important thing is that I dunno where you think you are, but the place you're in is called Cephiro, and if there's any will that reigns supreme here... " He shrugged with a self-deprecating smile. "I'm afraid it's kind of... mine. So. Who are you and what are you doing here?"

The stranger stared at him in uncomprehending disbelief for a moment; then her face darkened and she snarled, "Changing the place's name won't save you, usurper."

So saying, she raised her sword again; her helm closed over her face as though it were part of her skin. Her battle aura began to flare. Utena raised her sword...

... and the entire business was rendered quite moot as Nall Silverclaw opened his mouth and hosed the blonde sorceress down with a blast of freezing ice that pinioned her hands to her body and her body to the ground, knocking her unconscious in the process.

"Chick's got a worse attitude than Umi," he remarked. "I think we're gonna have to call an expert."

"On what?" Corwin inquired wryly. "Girls who think they're Aleister Crowley?"

There was a pause, and then Cephiro's Trinity shared one of those looks.

"Hellboy," they said in unison.

5:17 PM
Mignola Point, New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

Illyana came to slowly, only to find herself fundamentally unhurt, a little groggy, and somewhat chilly. She was sitting in a sort of ragged seiza on a plain stone floor; she pulled herself to her (back to regular human) feet, dusted off the long cobalt velvet broomstick skirt she was wearing, arranged her dark silk blouse a little more decorously, and looked around.

It was a sorcerer's sanctum, almost certainly; if the rows of grimoires and scrolls on the tall bookshelves hadn't tipped her off, the chalked pentacle with neat Solomonic symbols on the floor that was doing a more-than-adequate job of keeping her put and powerless would have told her that. She tried to summon a stepping disc and failed; her thoughts were still a little jumbled, and she was still inexplicably cold.

"Hello?" she called out tentatively.

No one answered for a moment; then, suddenly, a shape she'd thought was a statue moved at the far end of one of the long workbenches that dotted the room. She stifled a gasp; aside from the fact that it was brick-red, with peculiar flat spots on its head where its horns belonged, the demon was nearly a dead ringer for S'ym, her brutal and treacherous lieutenant in Limbo. She hissed and threw up a hand in warding, only to have the instinctive invocation fail.

The burly demon came to stand just outside the pentacle; it took care to keep the lines of chalk undisturbed. It eyed her warily, then produced an amazingly humanlike smile.

"Hiya, kid," it rumbled. "Feeling any better? Sorry about the accomodations."

Illyana blinked. "I..." she began. "It's cold. Or I'm cold."

"Oh!" the demon said, slapping its head with one giant hand; the other, Illyana noticed, appeared to be made of animate stone. "Stupid of me. Sorry about that."

Up close, she could see that it wasn't really as much like S'ym as she'd thought it was; for one thing, it was wearing a rather dapper trenchcoat, with a shoulder patch featuring the emblem of a fist closed about the grip of a sword and the letters "IPO BPRD". She'd never known S'ym to carry a gun, either, or wear cargo shorts.

"It's all right," Illyana said hastily. "I've been through much worse cold than this before."

The demon eyed her. "So an Alfheim Cat Dragon throwing an iceberg up around you isn't all that chilly," it said in a disturbing sort of deadpan. "Mm-hm, I'd better add that to my notes. Name's Hellboy, by the way," it added. "You?"

"Magik," Illyana said.

Hellboy snorted. "Spelled with a 'k', I bet," he said, and Illyana found herself reddening slightly and not wanting to make eye contact. "Name like that, get-up like you had going back in Cephiro, I can see why Corwin had a hard time takin' you too seriously," he replied. "No, seriously, what's your real name?"

"Illyana Nikolayevna Rasputinya," the young sorceress said, suddenly a little ashamed of her actions back in... Cephiro, they'd called it. Her naturally snarky personality overrode that, though, as she added pointedly, "While we're being judgmental, what kind of a name is 'Hellboy'?"

Hellboy regarded her skeptically. "Like I'm gonna tell a chick who thinks she's a demon sorceress my NAME name?" he said. "Right." Then he quirked one of his horn stumps - they seemed to work a bit like eyebrows - and exhaled suddenly. "Hang on. Rasputinya?" he said. "Like, uh... Piotr Rasputin?"

<<My brother!>> Illyana exclaimed, lapsing into Russian. <<Where is he? Do you know him?>>

<<Of course I know him, Little Snowflake,>> Hellboy replied, his Russian accentless and perfect. He switched back into Standard and added, "Pete draws my comic book. Talks about you all the time. Lemme talk to the Chief for a second..."

Illyana had been through a good many surreal experiences in her life, starting with being abducted by a demon wizard as a small child and raised as a sort of prisoner princess in a low-budget community theatre version of Hell. This had left her somewhat more inured to Weird Shit than even your average X-Man.

It might actually have been these high standards that left her feeling slightly uneasy with the choice of location for her meeting with the chief of the galactic police, or whoever she was supposed to be meeting. It offended her sensibilites on some level for such an encounter to happen at a food truck parked in front of an office building. That all seemed too... normal.

To be fair, the city which contained that office building made up somewhat for that, since it was quite the most stupendous urban area Illyana had ever seen. Hellboy had explained that the year was 2407 and that they were in outer space, which had led her to expect some sort of antiseptic chrome future utopia. What she found instead was more like a 20th-century American city turned up to 11, apart from the aliens. Somehow its very familiarity made the scale that much more spectacular. Illyana didn't impress easily, but by the time they arrived at the truck (denoted by a colorful banner reading "TOMODOG" in large, friendly letters), New Avalon had accomplished that job.

Then the burly man standing third in line at Tomodog turned around and saw her approaching, and she forgot about all that and just hugged her brother.

A few paces away, having already acquired their dogs, two men who could have been brothers themselves stood and watched the reunion with nearly identical little smiles.

"Well," said Gryphon thoughtfully, "she doesn't look too dangerous." He gave a wry smile. "I assume that means she's an immanent eschaton in human form."

Don Griffin nodded sagely. "Pretty much, yeah."

"Forgive me if I'm profiling, but that appears to be something of a theme with your people."

Don shrugged. "They say every generation has its specialty. Anyway, she's not bad, she's just drawn that way. She's good people as long as she's got adult supervision, and by 'adult' I mean 'Elder Sign-capable'."

Gryphon nodded. "Fair enough." They stood watching the joyous reunion for a bit longer, munching their dogs.

"We'll just give them a while, then, shall we," said Gryphon at length.

"Let's," agreed Don.

"Late Arrival" - a Lost and Found Mini-Story by Janice Collier
with Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
©2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

May 6, 2410
IPS Challenger
Somewhere near Rigel

"This is the perfect opportunity to test the new agent selection assistance VI," Vision said.

Gryphon frowned. "I told you, I don't trust those things. The 3WA has one and it's always screwing up."

"Oh, come on," Vision cajoled. "I programmed this one myself. It's way smarter than theirs. It'll save you time. You need that if you're going to keep doing both jobs until your replacement is ready to take over the Space Force."

With a sigh, the Chief leaned back behind the desk of his office off the bridge and said, "Fine, fine. Run it, let's see what we get."

Vision grinned and shunted herself to a small side window. "OK! I've got all the parameters for the mission entered into the matrix already, so I just run it through like so and... "

"Mission confirmed," another voice - slightly more synthetic than Vision's, with very faintly mechanical diction - announced. "Selection complete. Recommended personnel... "

The main display switched from a holographic flatscreen to a full 3D projection of a man in a white racing suit, standing next to an orthographic three-view of a sports car rendered in neon wireframe.

"The Stig," said the VI. "Top Gear tame racing driver. Immortal. Vehicle codename: Interceptor."

The Stig's holoimage remained for a moment, then switched to a projection of a different person, this one a dark-haired woman in green and yellow, and a three-view of a different car.

"Gloria Baker," the VI went on. "Diving instructor and racing driver. Black belt in kung fu. Vehicle codename: Shark."

Gryphon glanced at Vision's window. "I'm not seeing it do anything I couldn't have done myself," he observed.

"Wait for it," she told him.

Another moment, and then a third person's image replaced Gloria's. This one was... slightly different from the previous candidates, enough so to draw an involuntary snort of laughter out of the Chief.

"Wheeljack," said the VI remorselessly. "Autobot weapons engineer. Rallycross champion. Vehicle codename: Wheeljack."

The display then changed back to a flat panel, broken up into three horizontal windows, each displaying the file headshot and general stats of one of the candidates.

"Recommendations complete. Please make selection," the VI said.

"You wouldn't have thought of that, would you," Vision said triumphantly.

"Well... no, I have to admit I wouldn't," Gryphon replied. "Though mainly because we want the dam to still be there once the package is delivered," he added with a wry grin, selecting the middle window.

"Agent Selection" - a Future Imperfect Micro-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Saturday, June 17, 2410
New Gotham City, Kane's World

Fingers McCabe and her lookout Buddy weren't actually on the job tonight; having only arrived in town the day before, they were still getting a feel for the lay of the land, as it were. They were up on the rooftop of one of the buildings that overlooked the Midtown South branch of Gotham Trust just to have a look at the sightlines - it couldn't even properly be called casing the joint. Sort of pre-pre-casing it.

Fingers and Buddy had heard that New Gotham wasn't a place for enterprising criminals to jump in with both feet, as it were, anyway. Too many costumes around for that - though, having come from New Avalon, they were both used to that. That was one of the reasons they'd left Spheretown in the first place. When even a legendary security wizard like Boyd Kavanagh hung up his skeleton keys, the smarter regular operators like Fingers and Buddy knew the place was too hot for the likes of them. On the other hand, compared to the Titans, how tough could this place's costumes be? Most of them didn't even have superpowers, from what Fingers had heard.

"Do you hear that?" Buddy asked.

"No," Fingers replied, still engrossed in taking a close look at the facade of the bank across the street. "What?"

"Sounds like - " Buddy said, but before he could finish, a dark shape topped with a brilliant, fizzing red light loomed out of the night and zoomed past, flying just above rooftop level over the street.

"Heads up!" this bizarre figure - hunched back, leathery wings, a slender girl-shape above, all cast in weird, hellish relief by the sputtering red glow - called gaily to them, and then it was gone. A moment later another winged form, this one bigger and still more monstrous, swept past with a blast of slipstream and a wave of some oppressive, musty but unidentifiable smell. Buddy and Fingers coughed and staggered back from the edge of the roof, waving the miasma away with both hands.

There was a brief and startled silence while the two reflected on what they'd just seen.

"Buddy?" said Fingers.

"Yeh?" Buddy replied.

"Did you just see what I just saw?"

"I'm not sure. Did you just see a girl in a cape with a highway flare in her hand, ridin' on the back of a giant bat wearin' a tactical harness and combat boots, both of 'em bein' chased by a moth the size of a Buick? 'Cause that's what I just saw."

"... God Almighty, what do they put in the water in this town?"

Fingers McCabe and Buddy returned to New Avalon on the 11:45 Federated Galactic flight out of Thomas Wayne International that night.

"Welcome to Gotham" - a Future Imperfect Micro-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Wednesday, July 14, 2410
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

From a vantage point on one of the dockside buildings south of Puckett's Landing, Detective Inspector Dick Grayson of the New Avalon Police Department had an excellent view westward across the eastern harborside districts - particularly Salutown and the northeast corner of Claremont - with the bristling towers of the City Center as a backdrop. Away off behind those towers, the setting sun backlit the skyline, throwing the whole scene into the kind of red-tinted, silhouetted relief that wouldn't have looked out of place on a tourism commercial, or one of those motivational posters with a slogan like AMBITION: Without It Things Like This Don't Get Built. It was, he had to admit, a deeply cinematic sight.

That didn't stop him from turning a sardonically skeptical look to the taller, younger man - also dark-haired, also athletic, but very different in other respects - who stood next to him on the rooftop.

"You're crazy, McGinnis," he said.

Terry McGinnis, hands in his trouser pockets, grinned out at the cityscape. "Seriously, Dick," he said cajolingly. "Don't tell me you haven't looked at that skyline and thought, 'Yeah, I'd hit that.'"

Dick's look became even more skeptical. "You're going to a pretty weird area now, Terry."

"Come on, man!" Terry burst out, making a wide gesture that took in the whole panorama before them. "New Avalon's a perfect town for a Batman." He pointed to the nearest of the many airships plying the invisible streets of the city's upper reaches. "There are even blimps. How many cities have blimps these days? It'll be just like being back home, only the subway's cleaner."

"Technically they're zeppelins, and you've been hit in the head one too many times."

Terry put an arm around Dick's shoulders, gesturing to the sunset-red skyline again with the other, and said expansively, "Richard, my friend, every now and then you've gotta say, 'What the hell.'" Jogging his friend's shoulders a little with each subsequent point, he went on, "'What the hell' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future."

Before Dick could reply, a dark-cloaked shape sprang from one of the neighboring buildings to the top of the enclosure around the roof access door, then from there to the parapet next to the two men. When it stopped moving, this shape resolved itself into a young woman dressed in snug-fitting, lightly armored black and purple, her long blonde hair trailing decoratively (if a bit impractically) from under her cowl. She turned a grin to them, blue eyes twinkling merrily through the eyeholes of her half-mask.

"Hey, boss," she said. "I begin to understand why you lost your last two recruits to this town. This place is happening." She put a hand to the side of her cowl, over one ear, then said, "Tim says the Sky Raiders are hitting some biochem outfit downtown, you want a piece of that?"

"Nah," Terry replied. "Still in negotiations here. You kids have fun."

"Will do!" Batgirl replied, then fired her grapple gun at the building across the street and swept away with a trailing, "Woo-hoo!"

Dick watched her go, then turned to Terry and said dryly, in answer to the remark he'd made before she arrived, "Is that why you took Steph on as your sidekick?"

Terry didn't miss a beat picking up the thread. With a slight smirk, he shook his head and said, "Partner, Dick. We don't call them sidekicks any more." He shrugged. "Anyway, she works alone most of the time. She actually teams up with Kirk more than me."

Dick raised an eyebrow. "Batgirl and Man-Bat? That's just weird."

"I know, right?"

Dick looked out across the darkening city for a moment, then returned his gaze to Terry. "And what," he asked with dry, overdone formality, "do you suggest I do about this -" (rapping on the hard plastic casing of the cybernetic leg inside his right pants leg) " - in your grand franchising scheme, Terrance?"

"Well, Richard," Terry replied with equal formality, "I would suggest you go to our mutual close personal friend the Chief of the IPO and say," (and here he adopted an attitude of earnest schoolboy pleading) "'Please, Mr. Gryphon sir, I would like my leg back. Can you arrange that with the vast mad science resources at your command? I've been saving the money from my paper route ALL YEAR.'"

Dick eyed him. "Isn't that kind of cheating?"

Terry snorted. "Please. It's not like I suggested you ask him for that spare MJOLNIR Mk X combat body I know he's got stashed somewhere. Hell, Dick, it's the 25th century. They do limb regens in shopping malls nowadays. It's just that Gryph would do it for free if you asked nicely." He grinned. "Or you could go find another Laz - "

"NO," said Dick forcefully.

Unperturbed, Terry plowed remorselessly on, making the thumb-and-pinky "telephone" gesture next to his head with one hand and saying, "'Ra's? Dick Grayson. Listen, I got a little problem, hopin' you can help me out with it.' Even odds that would work for you. You can talk anybody into anything."

Dick sighed resignedly. "And I'm getting the idea now that this is what it feels like."

"And so the student has become the master," said Terry with a martial-arts bow. "Be careful if you do that, though. I mean, you go to al-Ghûl country, next thing you know Talia's getting ideas and the next generation of assassins has the Grayson eyes."

Dick facepalmed. "Jesus, don't even joke." He glanced at his wrist, not because he wanted to know what time it was, but because the comm unit in his watch had just vibrated for his attention. "Grayson."

"We have a 334 in progress at the ProtiGen Center," the voice of the NAPD evening dispatcher announced. "The Titans are handling, but we'll need CID down there when the punching stops."

Grayson chuckled. "OK, Rhonda, I'm on my way. Grayson out." He switched off the comm and turned back to Terry. "There are times," he admitted, "when I do miss the lack of procedure. It's been a long time, though. I don't know for sure that I've still got what it takes."

Terry grinned as the two men made for the door to the stairs. "Yeah, you do. Look, just think about it, yeah? You don't have to decide right now. It's just an idea I've been kicking around since Steph joined up - we've had people in both towns for years anyway, why not go all the way?"

Dick pondered in silence all the way to the street. Not until he was about to climb into his car did he pause, hand on window frame, and address Terry across the roof:

"OK, look... I'll talk to Gryph about the leg, and then... we'll see what happens. No promises. It's too early for that."

Terry nodded. "Fair enough." He reached across the roof and shook Dick's hand. "You know where to reach me."

"That I do. Oh - and Terry?"


Dick swung behind the wheel, ran down the passenger window, and leaned across the center console to remark with a grin, "If Barbara kills me for this, it's on you."

Terry laughed. "No worries, man. Time I'm done, I'll have her back in the saddle too." Terry thumped the car's roof as Grayson pulled away from the curb, then called after the departing car, "Good hunting, Inspector!"

Then, whistling a cheery little tune, he walked away and vanished into the gathering evening.

"Contract Negotiation" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins with Chris Pinard
title by Geoff Depew
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

I: Ridin'

Monday, August 23, 2410
01:47 AST
Titans Tower
Pérez Island, New Avalon

"Oh, man," Courtney Whitmore moaned, slumping onto the bench in front of her locker and resting her forehead against the cool metal of its door. "It is way past my bedtime."

"Seriously," Cyborg agreed, yawning hugely.

"It's not just the hour, it's the mileage," declared Wally from one of the shower cubicles, his voice echoing off the tiles. "We've been all over this town tonight. I saw neighborhoods I didn't even know were there."

"I hear that," said Robin heartily. He peeled off his mask, stuck it in the sleeve pocket of his unfastened uniform jacket, and started glumly taking stock of all the used-up supplies in his utility belt. "I haven't had a night this long since our first test patrol in your new car," he added with a glance at Batgirl.

Cassie Cain pushed her own mask back off her head, letting it hang behind her neck, and nodded. She knew exactly what time he was talking about.

"This is DJ Bigtime and you're listening to the All Night Hiphopathon on Power 106!"

Robin and Batgirl glanced at each other, then at the Batmobile's central console. Robin poked at a couple of the controls, but the display remained resolutely stuck on the message, MWM SIGNAL LOCKED.

"I guess Cy hasn't worked out all the bugs yet," said Batgirl.

"Maybe we should go back," Robin mused.

"We'd never hear the end of it."

"We may never hear the end of this," Robin countered, raising his voice to be heard. Outside the car, the Kitchen's corner boys were turning to look, their interest piqued not so much by the approach of the Batmobile as by the thunderous bass emitting from it. To Robin's surprise, a few of them actually waved as the long, low black car cruised past. Not knowing quite what else to do, and feeling slightly ridiculous, he waved back from the passenger window.

"Yo, Rob," one of them called. "Girlfriend got some kickin' cans in there, yo!"

Robin glanced at Batgirl. "I think he means the speakers."

"Thank you, I knew that."

Remembering the occasion well, Cassie nodded sagely.

"They see us rollin'," she said, "they hatin'."

The other Titans paused; even Wally leaned around the corner of the shower, his hair dripping, to stare at her.

"... What," she said.

II: Herding Cats

Sunday, May 1, 2411
11:23 AST
Titans Tower
Pérez Island, New Avalon

"Once Cyborg and I disable the security systems, Batgirl and Ravager will enter from the southwest. Supergirl, you'll engage the heavies at the east end of the complex while - " Robin halted, casting a penetrating glance at the far end of the table. "Wally," he said sharply. "Do you guys mind? I'm trying to run a serious briefing here."

Flash moved a couple of inches away from Zoom, his face the picture of innocent indignation. "Whatwewerenotinvisiblymakingoutatsuperspeed," he blurted.

The corner of Robin's mouth quirked in a barely-suppressed smirk. "Then how did Elise's shirt just suddenly become inside-out?"

Flash and Zoom looked at each other, went identically red, and then looked in opposite directions and slid their chairs another couple of inches apart. Between eyeblinks, the top of the latter's uniform righted itself. On either side of the table, Cyborg and the Ravager facepalmed almost in unison, making Supergirl giggle and Batgirl roll her eyes.

"You are aware," said Batgirl dryly, "that Kara can see you when you do that. Right?"

The two speedsters plainly hadn't thought of that; they went redder still and moved apart a further inch, looking anywhere but at any of their teammates. Supergirl giggled again, but offered no comment.

Robin let them stew in it for a second longer, then said, "... Right. Now, if there's no other new business, maybe we can get on with planning this operation."

"Professor Drake, I have a question," said the Ravager, putting up her hand as if in school.

Robin hesitated for a moment, then said reluctantly, "... Yes, Rose."

"Why don't we just call it a heist? I mean, that's what Daddy and Uncle Jay always call it when we break into someplace and steal stuff."

"She's got a point," Cyborg said, grinning.

Robin sighed wearily. "Fine. We can get on with planning this heist. Does that make you happy?"

Ravager beamed. "Carry on."

"I bet this never happens to Terry," Robin muttered, then turned back to the holomap. "Supergirl, you'll engage the heavies... "

III: Brand Awareness

Tuesday, November 8, 2411
14:34 AST
IPO Headquarters, New Avalon

Gryphon considered what he saw, then nodded thoughtfully.

"Well, the costume is a definite improvement," he said. "You're a lot less likely to be mistaken for Dr. Midnight, for a start."

Tim Drake sighed ruefully. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?"

"Probably not as long as you stay in this town," said the Chief with a smile. "Anyway, that works. I'm not sure about your new codename, though."

Drake raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong with it?"

"Well... you may not know it's the name of a chain of hamburger shops in the Centaurus sector."

"Really? I didn't know that."

Gryphon nodded. "Mm. And it's particularly popular on Cargg, which means that every time you get mentioned around here lately - "

Lu Durgo put her head in at the door. "Chief, that vampire girl is here to see you. Says it's urgent. Hey, Tim."

"Miss Durgo," said Drake.

"I'll be right with her, Lu," said Gryphon.

"OK, I'll tell her," Lu replied. Then, as she turned to go, both men could hear her singing, "Reeeeeed Robin! Yummmm."

Drake blinked at the Chief.

" - that happens," Gryphon finished without missing a beat. "I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess it wasn't the effect you were going for." He considered. "Though in fairness it does indicate that you might have a shot," he added.

"Hmm. Well," said Drake with a perfectly straight face, "I'll have to take that under advisement."

"Titan Snapshots" - a Micro-Story three-pack by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions Unlimited

Monday, November 1, 2410
Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense Headquarters
Avalon County, Zeta Cygni

Coraline Jones was eating lunch in her office on the third floor, re-reading the Spates Catalog of Nameless Horrors, when one of her Bureau colleagues poked her head around the door.

"Hey," said Annalise Fleming cheerfully. "Don't you ever take a break?"

"This is my break," Coraline replied. She marked her place, put the book down, and regarded the cover thoughtfully. "That's really a stupid title," she observed. "I mean, obviously it's not a catalog of nameless horrors, because that would be impossible. You can't catalog things that don't have names."

"Yeah, well, they can't all be Spengler's Guide to Madmen and Prophets," 'Lise remarked. She swung through the door, perched herself in the straight-backed chair next to Coraline's desk, and asked, "Did you hear about last night?"

"No," Coraline said, raising an eyebrow. "What about last night?"

"You know Raven from Strangefate Books?"

"Sure. What occultist in this town doesn't?"

"True that. Anyway, she went to Allard's last night."

"That's newsworthy? I mean, I know she's a witch, but they do eat like everybody else. For the most part."

"I haven't finished yet," 'Lise said. "She had a date with her. A Class II demon, no less."

"... Okay, that's unusual even for New Avalon," Coraline allowed. "Which one?"

"Etrigan, son of Belial."

Coraline whistled. "Wow. Going on a date with that's like using a keg of gunpowder for an ashtray stand. Especially on Halloween, I would imagine."

"Yeah, well, somebody else thought so, too. Bunch of wanna-be PIs crashed the place thinking they were rescuing her."

Coraline snorted. She knew Annalise meant "paranormal investigator" - nobody around the BPRD ever used the initials "PI" in any other context - and the thought of a group of them witless enough to try and capture a Class II demon in a built-up area without any prep was enough to make her want to drop her face into her palm and write a letter to the Daily Telegraph.

"I bet that didn't work out like they thought it would," she said.

"You can say that again," said 'Lise gleefully. "They damn near torched the place and got their asses handed to them. A couple of them hit Raven with a strobe stunner and dragged her off to their van to 'deprogram' her. When she came to? Not amused. Time it was all over, they had half the NAPD and somebody from SA11 down there trying to sort out the mess."

"Sweet," said Coraline. "I'm sorry I missed it."

"You and everybody else in the building," 'Lise told her. "Anyway, the cops dragged them off to jail - without their gadgets they're just regular schmoes - and the Chief'll probably just have them shipped back to wherever they came from. I hear tell he's really pissed off. Etrigan's got his approval to be in New Avalon."

Both of Coraline's eyebrows went up at that. "I thought Hellboy was the only demon in the Bureau."

"Etrigan's not with us," 'Lise told her. "He's got some kind of status with one of the SA branches. Not sure which one. Seven, probably."

"Well, I hope he's got good supervision. Hellboy was raised by humans, that's why he's such a stand-up guy. I bet the son of Belial's not quite so cuddly."

'Lise raised an eyebrow. "Did you seriously just call HB 'cuddly'?"

Coraline grinned. "Trust me, compared to any other pit fiend you might ever meet? He's J. Smilodon Hugglesworth. Usually the only Standard they know is You will perish in flames, subcreature."

Smirking a little, 'Lise got to her feet. "Okay, you and 'Yana," she said. "And people call me a weird chick. Anyway, I gotta head out. Nosferatu says I gotta go downtown and pick up the gear the cops took off those demon hunter bozos. The head shed's Tech Section is looking it over now, but Manning wants it in our vault when they're done with it."

"Does Count Orlock know you call him that?" Coraline giggled.

"Probably. With those ears, I've always assumed he heeeeaaaars evvvverythiiiing," 'Lise added, making spooky-voice quotes with her fingers. "See you later. We still on for Wednesday?"

"Wouldn't miss it," Coraline replied.

Annalise went down to the motor pool, checked out one of the generic black sedans ("MIBmobiles", in the Bureau's argot), and drove into the city. As usually happened when she visited the main IPO headquarters building on Allard, she didn't bother going from the parking structure up to the main lobby on the ground floor, instead opting to head straight down to the Tech Section warrens in the subbasements, and from there spent about ten minutes utterly lost before finally wandering into a lab where someone could point her toward her actual destination.

Memo to self: Dr. Banner is seriously cute, she thought as she left the Getter Ray lab, took a left, then a right, and found herself in what appeared to be a closet. In any case, a small white room, completely featureless apart from a security camera up in one corner.

'Lise was just about to turn around and try another door when a disembodied voice spoke from no apparent source.

"Oh 'ello! Welcome to the International Police Technical Section Computer-Assisted Enrichment Center," it said. "Please state your name and business."

"Uh... Annalise Fleming, BPRD equipment and artifact analysis," 'Lise said. "I'm here to see Dr. Ravenhair."

"Just a moment," said the voice. It was clearly synthetic; its metallic timbre and the occasional oddity of its cadence made that plain, even if it was speaking with a pronounced West Country accent. 'Lise was something of a computer specialist - something of a complete computer nerd, actually - but she'd never encountered an AI or expert system that spoke like that.

"All right, authorization confirmed," the voice said a moment later. "The portal will open in three. Two. One." On the white wall opposite the door, a glowing oval of blue energy sprang into existence with a soft "pop", then seemed to iris open until it was a blue-edged hole leading through into another, larger white room.

"Please proceed through the portal," the mechanical voice continued. "You'll find Herself in the room to the left. Thanks for visiting the Enrichment Center!"

'Lise stepped through the opening, then realized that the room she'd just entered didn't conform to what she knew of the hallways surrounding the one she'd just left. She turned around to look behind her, but the portal had closed, leaving behind only a blank wall.

"Well, that's different," she mused. Entering the room on the left, she found Skuld Ravenhair, lab-coated and goggled, blasting at a holographic target with what looked like some sort of hobbyist-built phaser rifle. It had a backpack power unit connected to a rifle-like wand with a heavy cable and was spewing a bright orange stream of energy that Skuld seemed to be having trouble controlling. In fact, she looked like she was wrestling a fire hose, and at the far end of the range, she was hitting everything but the target.

Seeing 'Lise enter, Skuld did something to shut off the flow of energy, causing the pack to wind down with a muted electronic warble. She pushed her goggles up on her forehead and grinned.

"Phew!" she said. "I'd forgotten what a workout that is." Seeing 'Lise regarding her with a blank expression, Skuld tilted her head curiously. "Annalise?"

'Lise blinked, seemed to shake herself from her reverie, and then pointed at the device Skuld was wearing. "I've seen that before," she said, "but I can't remember where."

"History book, most likely," said Skuld. She slotted the wand into a port provided for it on the right side of the pack, then unbuckled the belt and shrugged out of the straps. There was a metal storage rack, a bit like a giant toast rack, on a table next to her; she stood the pack in this, then flipped a switch on the back of it, causing the glowing lights and cryptic readouts that cluttered its surface to go out.

"That's not what I'm here to pick up, is it?" 'Lise asked.

"No," Skuld said. "It's something from my collection. I dug it out because the stuff you're here to get reminded me of it - which shouldn't be the case. Follow me." 'Lise followed her through a side door into another, larger room, this one dominated by a bit square table on which rested several pieces of equipment, still sporting their orange NAPD evidence control tags.

"This is the gear the team from Infernal Interventions, Inc. was using at Allard's last night," Skuld said. "Look familiar?"

'Lise nodded. There was a bunch of other random paramilitary-looking junk on the table, including a few pairs of what looked like cheap Novy Rosskiy night vision goggles and a couple of things that resembled electrician's multimeters, but the centerpiece of the collection was clearly the pile of four backpack-looking devices. At first glance, these did look like evolved versions of the thing Skuld had just been using - but only slightly evolved, with a little more attention paid to aesthetics in their casings and readouts.

"Why do you say that shouldn't be the case?" 'Lise asked.

"Because I had the only one of those left," Skuld said, angling a thumb back over her shoulder to indicate the device she'd left in the other room, "so there's no way these clowns should've been able to build knockoffs - and that's obviously what these things are. Which means somebody at III or their parent company has technical data they shouldn't have."

"What is that thing you were using?" 'Lise asked, then repeated, "I'm sure I've seen it before."

"Like I said, probably in a history book. That's a Spengler-Stantz protoncaster pack. The last one in the universe, or so I always thought."

"Spengler and Stantz?" 'Lise said. "The Spengler and Stantz?"

Skuld nodded. "Yeah. The 20th-century originators of the Spengler- Stantz Equations - the basis of all modern paraphysics. Though serious students of the history of paranormal investigation - and there aren't many of those - would know them better as - "

"The Ghostbusters," 'Lise filled in, her voice dropping into a register that conveyed something not far short of awe. Then, in a more normal voice, she added, "Or half of them, anyway."

"Yup. I'm actually a little surprised you're familiar with them. I mean, I know you're a PI, but they were a long way before your time. They're pre-Contact."

'Lise grinned. "My great-great-some-ridiculous-number-of-greats-grandmother was Dana Barrett, or so Dad always claims. The Ghostbusters' first case is kind of a family legend."

Skuld looked impressed. "Huh. Fancy that." She shrugged and gestured to the table-load of gear. "Well, this stuff's all yours, and welcome to it. I'll have a couple of the guys take it up to your car. I've learned all I need from it - now I need to have a little heart-to-heart with somebody over at Triple-I. They shouldn't be running around with knockoffs of Egon's inventions. It's obvious from the way this stuff is built that whoever made it doesn't even really know how it works. It's like cargo cult ghostbusting gear. If they've been using equipment like this in the field for any length of time, it's a wonder they haven't crossed the streams and blown themselves to Yith by now. I'm glad Tom's planning to lock it away somewhere - though personally I'd be happier if we just melted it."

So saying, Skuld left the Triple-I gear where it sat, turning her back on it with a finality that put 'Lise in mind of an offended artist shunning some hack colleague's commercial work, and went back through to the firing range where the BPRD agent had first found her. Her curiosity roused, 'Lise followed.

"Did you know them?" she asked.

Skuld put a hand on the old proton pack, a wistful smile playing on her face. "A little," she said. "Only from afar, though. They didn't know me. I was only a kid back then." She let her fingers trace the cooling fins and the multicolored ribbon cable on the back of the pack. "Egon really was a genius, though. I mean, look at this thing. It's ahead of its time now, and he built the originals in 1984. Nineteen eighty-four! I know it looks like a complete bodge job, but think about that. That was fifteen years before First Contact. Earth didn't even have working laser weapons then, let alone fusion-powered portable proton colliders."

'Lise grinned. "Was he one of yours?"

"Yes," Skuld said, returning the grin. "He didn't know it, of course. I never tried to make direct contact with him. He didn't believe in gods. Funny for the man who scientifically proved the existence of the supernatural, but there it is. I always figured I'd get to spring it on him whenever the day finally came to take him to Valhalla... " She trailed off, looking sad.

"What happened?" 'Lise asked.

"I... never got the chance."

'Lise wanted to ask further, but it was obvious that Skuld didn't want to talk about it, and 'Lise knew better than to push one of the gods, however friendly. They stood in silence for a few moments, 'Lise not sure what to say instead, Skuld looking gloomily pensive.

Then, brightening, the Norn turned to 'Lise and said, "Want to try it out?"

'Lise blinked. "Seriously?"

Skuld grinned. "Seriously."

"It must be priceless."

"Don't sweat that," Skuld said. "Egon built these things to last, and I've looked after it. Kind of my way of... keeping his memory alive." Her grin becoming only slightly sad, she added, "I don't think he'd mind if I let one of Dana's descendants have a go."

"Well... sure. Heck, I... wow, yeah," said 'Lise, her usual facility with words deserting her. She turned around and let Skuld help her on with the pack. It was as heavy as it looked, but the straps were nicely padded and the whole thing mounted on a well-designed frame; once the straps were adjusted and the belt fastened, it was a strangely comforting presence on her back. 'Lise wasn't the type of girl who was generally to be found in heavy combat gear, but something about this old piece of kit felt right to her. It was like getting a hug from an old friend you'd lost track of for years.

Then Skuld said, "Okay, switch on," and the lower part of the pack vibrated against the small of 'Lise's back as the collider powered up with a sound that was unlike anything else she'd ever heard. "Grab the wand," said Skuld. "It's safe, the front end is still powered down."

'Lise reached back and unracked the wand, cradling it like she'd been taught to hold a shotgun back in Basic Field Investigations at Miskatonic. The glowing display on top was surprisingly intuitive, and it took Skuld only a few seconds to confirm her impressions of how it was supposed to work. She flicked the thumb switch that energized the wand, producing a second iteration of that powering-up sound as the pack shifted from standby to full power, then held it in both hands and leveled it at the holotarget at the far end of the range.

"Okay," said Skuld from behind her, the smile plain in her voice. For all her momentary melancholy, she truly did love to share her toys. As a confirmed technophile herself, 'Lise could definitely relate, and she was grinning too as she braced herself for the fight she knew was coming as Skuld clapped her on the shoulder and said, "Throw it!"

'Lise squeezed the trigger and the beam raved out -

- and she was suddenly somewhere, somewhen, and someone else entirely.

"On your left! Winston, look out!"

"Shit! How many of these damn things are there anyway?"

"I got the door, I got the door. That oughtta hold the rest of 'em, anyway."

"Venkman, vent your pack, you're about four seconds from overheat."

"Hell, here comes that big one again!"

"Cover me!"

"I got you, I got you - "

"Not good, not good... "

"All right, I'm up, rock 'n roll!"

"Pin it down - "

"I got it - Egon!"

"'Lise? Hey! 'Lise! Come on back. There you are. You OK?"

'Lise took a few moments to catch up with herself, then refocused on Skuld's face and remembered who they both were. "Uh... hi. Yeah. I'm here."

"What was that?" Skuld asked. "You went totally blank. Still standing up, but completely unresponsive."

"How long?"

"Maybe 10 seconds."

"Hmm." 'Lise frowned thoughtfully at the proton wand she still held in her hands; Skuld had shut it off as a precaution. "I think I had a psychometric episode."

"Really!" said Skuld, sounding more interested than concerned now. "I didn't know you were prone to that kind of thing."

"Neither did I," 'Lise told her. "Never had one on my own, but I've tripped with psychometrists before. It was the same kind of thing." She returned the wand to its rack on the proton pack and stood while Skuld helped her off with it. "That was wild."

"What did you see?"

"I saw them," 'Lise said. "The Ghostbusters. I think I was one of them. It was all... confused." She shook her head. "I can't get it back now."

"Well, the amount of action these old packs saw, in close proximity to major psychokinetic events, I suppose that's not really surprising," Skuld said, patting the pack as she slotted it back into the storage rack. "Probably all kinds of psychic echoes rattling around inside there. If you get any more of the image later on, let me know? It's probably not going to happen, but it might... "

'Lise nodded. "Sure thing. In the meantime, I ought to get back to the Bureau. Thanks for letting me try out the pack... for a PI that's kind of like getting a chance to throw Captain America's shield."

Skuld smiled. "Not a problem." She gestured to the III equipment. "This stuff'll be waiting for you when you get back upstairs. When you get to the lobby, just tell Wheatley you want a portal to Main Reception. It might take him a couple of tries," she added ruefully, "but you'll get there eventually. Be patient with him... he's a prototype."

Back at the office, 'Lise spent the rest of the week obsessively researching the Ghostbusters. She had already known more about them than most people, even most paranormalists, of her generation, but by week's end she could probably have written a Ph.D. thesis on them and their equipment. Naturally - if you wanted to get technical, preternaturally - gifted with technology anyway, she took only hours to understand the working principles of the proton packs, ectoplasmic traps, and other hardware they had used in their fight against the supernatural in 20th-century New York, which gave her the rest of the time to study what information was available about the men themselves.

Most people in her field knew Egon Spengler's name, since, in addition to the fundamental mathematics of paranormal activity, he was the author of Spengler's Guide - still the definitive reference to the psychos, prophets, and psycho prophets of pre-Contact Earth, which was a topic that had retained surprising relevance into the Galactic Era. There, too, they knew Ray Stantz as the other half of the Spengler-Stantz Equations, Peter Venkman as the originator of Venkman's Law (an abstruse bit of psychophilosophy that basically proved the existence of karma), and Winston Zeddemore as the coiner of Zeddemore's Razor ("if someone asks you if you're a god, you say yes"). Beyond that, though, even relatively few PIs knew more than that.

What 'Lise discovered over the course of the week was that the Ghostbusters were more intimately connected with the foundations of her profession than most of its practitioners had ever dreamed. The three founders, in particular, were the Isaac Newton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Adam Smith of the paranormal, seminal establishing figures who deserved to loom like gods in the estimation of all those who followed them. Their primitive equipment was, acknowledged or not, the basis for much of what modern BRPD agents packed today as a matter of course, and the principles on which it operated were just as valid now as they ever were. If she were a field operative, she'd be glad to carry it into action tomorrow.

By the end of the working week, 'Lise felt she knew the Ghostbusters as well as anyone who had never actually met them could know them, and she could've built a basic, functional proton pack in a cave with a box of scraps if she had to. The time was as right as it ever was for her to move on to the next phase of her investigation - and go in search of the Ghostbusters themselves. They had disappeared in 1994 under mysterious circumstances, and it was high time someone found out where they had gone and why.

Friday, November 5, 2410
1274 Humboldt Street
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

The hardest part about arranging a hallucinogenic spirit voyage, 'Lise thought, was waiting for the mescaline to kick in. There was always that just-slightly-overlong delay while you sat in your circle, listening to your trance playlist tick by, trying not to fidget and thinking that your dealer must've ripped you off, even though you knew this always happened and you just had to wait for it...

... and then, as Hunter S. Thompson had so aptly put it, zang.

So it was with a familiar sense of relief that she felt the beat of the Professor Enigma theme subtly shift toward the ultraviolet and the constraints of the flesh begin to fall away. Now she'd get some answers.

Iä! Iä! My own id fhtagn, 'Lise thought wryly as she began the simultaneous journey both into and out of herself. Some people, she knew, could simply go to sleep to examine their inner truths in relation to the cosmic entirety. Such people tended to sneer at tripwalking as nothing but a chemically assisted form of dream diving, but what the hell - their loss. 'Lise valued the clarity she got from the precisely calibrated cocktail of pharmaceuticals she'd devised over the years. Dream divers had to contend with layers of metaphor and hidden meaning thrown into their paths by their own unconscious minds as well as the basic nature of the dreaming plane. She didn't have time for all that post-Freudian crap.

Since her strange experience on Monday, she'd dreamed fragmentary outlines of that same vision every night, which led her to believe that the rest of the story was in there somewhere; she just had to dig it out. The research that enabled her to feel confident in making the attempt had taken the rest of the week, but she'd have had to wait for the weekend anyway. Though the powers that be at the BPRD knew about and even encouraged her talent in the area of chemically assisted parapsychological exploration, they did prefer that she not stagger into work still grappling with the aftermath of a really serious trip.

Now she perceived the shadowy shape of the dream version, transparent and insubstantial like a movie projected onto glass, playing out around her as she plunged through the layers of her self toward the hard, glowing core that always remained constant. Her hand moved without her conscious involvement, prompted by a particular point in the music, and slipped a tab of chlorozaphrexadine under her tongue. The frex was essential at this point; without it to sharpen everything up, she'd probably just slide off the beam and have a nice, but completely unproductive, time with the mescaline.

In this setting, the Cortex Bomb acted like an usher in the theater of the mind, shutting off the house lights so she could see the picture better. Everything suddenly sprang into much sharper relief, losing the fuzzy, unreal dream-quality and becoming, as it had been in Skuld's laboratory, a fully waking, fully consistent hallucinatory experience. Asleep, it was just chaos - people running, shouting, flashes of light, sizzling electrical sounds, culminating in an almighty explosion that tended to catapult her straight out of bed. 'Lise couldn't work with that. This, on the other hand, she could ride all the way to the end of the line.

There are four men here, all wearing proton packs and grey jumpsuits. The right-angle flashlights attached to their pack straps illuminate only flashes and bobbing flickers of what looks like damp stonework, and only intermittently; most of the time, the dazzling glare of their proton streams, and 'Lise's own, blot out any visual trace of their surroundings. She has the undefinable impression - or maybe it's a memory from whatever persona she's inhabiting - that they're underground, deep underground. The place smells old and foul, a relic from some ancient past, buried and forgotten.

Maybe buried and forgotten on purpose.

It suddenly registers on 'Lise that there are four of them. She can see four Ghostbusters. But she is one... and there are only supposed to be four. She can't get any further into the problem than that right at the moment, though, because it's clear she's "arrived" within whoever her borrowed persona is just in time for the climax of a truly kinghell supernatural slugfest.

"On your left!" yells Ray Stantz, adjusting his PK goggles. "Winston, look out!"

The man he's warning is tall and handsome, with cocoa-colored skin and an Errol Flynn mustache. Even if Stantz hadn't called him by name, 'Lise would have known he's Winston Zeddemore. "Shit!" cries Zeddemore, ducking a screaming swoop by some kind of skeletal phantom. "How many of these damn things are there anyway?"

'Lise, half herself and half some unknown other, pivots and uses her proton stream to cut away a moldering old chain that was holding open what appears to be a steel fire door, then kicks the door shut and welds it to the frame, trimming the stream expertly to do so.

"I got the door, I got the door," she declares, not in her own voice - it's lower, mellower, bit of throatiness to it. Sexy, she thinks irrelevantly. Kind of voice she'd like to have. "That oughtta hold the rest of 'em."

"Venkman, vent your pack, you're about four seconds from overheat," Egon Spengler - also unmistakable with his glasses and that regrettable punk bleach job, like someone's math-teacher uncle trying to be cool - barks.

As Peter Venkman ceases fire and moves to comply, his eyes go wide. Pointing, he yells, "Hell, here comes that big one again!"

"Cover me!" Stantz cries.

'Lise opens up on the minivan-sized spectral... thing Venkman spotted, which is now charging, shrieking, out of some dark corner. "I got you, I got you - "

"Not good, not good... " says Zeddemore, aligning his fire with 'Lise's.

Venkman's pack comes back online. "All right, I'm up, rock 'n roll!"

"Pin it down - " Stantz calls.

'Lise adjusts her stream to keep it from crossing Venkman's. "I got it - Egon!"

Spengler braids his stream deftly with the others', the five of them dancing an intricate and dangerous dance to maximize their firepower without causing a crossrip. "Doubling up! Containment streams are holding, let's reel him in!"

"Ray!" Venkman takes a Mark V trap from his belt and throws it to Stantz, who, in the same motion, catches it, uncoils its cable, and kicks it across the floor, perfectly judging the kick so that it stops sliding immediately underneath where they've got the giant spectre penned in their streams.

"Trapping... now!" he cries, stamping on the actuator pedal.

The pyramid of white light shoots upward, bathing the whole room briefly in its brilliant glow and leaving 'Lise with the distinct impression that they're in a subway station. She feels a tug on her proton stream and shuts it down, knowing that means the trap cycle is committed. The monster howls with what sounds like rage as it's sucked down and away... and for a moment, all is silence.

As the Ghostbusters blink in the sudden darkness and accustom themselves to the idea that there's nothing else left to fight in here for the moment, Venkman ambles to the trap, crouches down, and checks its status panel, then straightens up. "Okay, guys, I got good news and I got bad news. The good news is, we bagged the Class VII."

"And the bad news is, that was our last trap?" says Stantz.

"Ooh, he's good, ladies and gentlemen. Dr. Ray Stantz, everybody."

'Lise - or whoever she is right now - leans against a wall, panting. Now that the fireworks have stopped, she has a chance to look around a little - not that there's much to see. It's still pretty dark in here, but now that the proton beams aren't dazzling her eyes she's starting to adjust, and it's clear that they are in a subway station. An old-timey one, like some of the stops on the Gold Line on the New Avalon N are designed to resemble. It's beautifully and intricately tiled, but looks as dusty and abandoned as it smells.

Winston Zeddemore walks toward her, limping slightly, and leans against the wall next to her. With a grin, he takes a pack of Marlboros out of his top pocket, shakes a couple out, puts one in his mouth and offers her the other one. 'Lise doesn't smoke - not many in the 25th century do - but it seems like the neighborly thing to do, so she takes it. Zeddemore lights it, then his own, and puts his lighter away.

"You picked a helluva week to join the Ghostbusters," he says wryly.

"Tell me about it," 'Lise replies. She wonders again who she "is"; she's never heard of a fifth Ghostbuster being brought onto the team.

She's casting around for a way to ask what's going on without giving away that she's just dreamriding the psychic echo of the incident - breaking the fourth wall like that tends to end the ride - when off in the distance, up the pitch-black abandoned train tunnel that empties into the station from their left, there's a muffled howl that makes the sound the trapped Class VII phantasm made seem like the mewing of a kitten by comparison. The Ghostbusters freeze, then eye each other warily.

"I think Daddy's home," says Venkman.

"You better get out of here," Zeddemore says.

"Winston's right," says Stantz. "If we're going down, we'd just as soon not take you with us."

"Hell with that," says 'Lise, because she feels like it's the kind of thing she would say, whoever she is. She takes a last drag on the cigarette Zeddemore gave her, flicks it away into the darkness, and points to the international no-ghosts symbol on her shoulder. "I bought the ticket, I'm takin' the ride."

Stantz and Venkman glance at each other.

"Kids these days," says Venkman with a shrug. "They never listen to their elders." Then he readies his proton pack and turns to face the oncoming noise. "Lady and gentlemen," he says, "it's been a pleasure."

Before anyone can say anything else, something indistinct but very like 'Lise's inner image of insanity itself comes hurtling into the station, the Ghostbusters open fire, and everything goes white. 'Lise feels herself as if in freefall; for a moment she thinks she's crashed out of the vision, and then she realizes it's just that her hallucinatory self has been knocked flying. A moment later she hits something solid but crumbly and punches right through it, comes down hard on her side, and skids a short distance before fetching up against something a lot sturdier than the first thing she hit.

'Lise wavers on the edge of blackout, the vision shutting down around her. Hands moving automatically again, she reaches to the side table and shotguns a hit of a popular OTC cold medicine that has the interesting side effect of sharpening immediate dream recall. Then she picks up a yellow legal pad and a fine-point Sharpie and starts writing everything down as the last 20 seconds or so of the vision rewind and play back in slow motion.

The entity, bigger by far than the one they had thought was the big one, sweeps into the station like Satan's private subway car. The Ghostbusters open fire. Shrieking, it rakes the platform with a spectral - claw? tail? - impossible to focus on, like one of those 3D puzzles that's not quite aligned correctly. 'Lise tries to dodge - too slow - an impact like getting hit by a car. (Which she knows because she did it once in high school; not recommended.) Up, up, back, crashing through what she now recognizes as a brick wall, sliding across a polished marble floor - upper station level? Not sure. Vaguely surprised to be alive, the mystery woman whose astral echo she's riding struggles to her feet. In the real world, 'Lise scribbles wildly on her legal pad, gives up on words and goes to rough, cartoony sketches, as if she's storyboarding the scene. Dark, shadowy room, but fresher-smelling than the dank abandoned subway below. It does in fact appear to be a ticket hall. Turnstiles, empty cashier booths, all in an archaic and ornate style.

'Lise shuffles forward - glint of reflected light off to the left - she turns and is shocked to see "herself", full-length, in the glass of one of the ticket booth windows. Elbow and knee pads, sturdy boots, equipment belt, proton pack. She's younger than the other Ghostbusters, not far out of her teens. Red hair in a wolf cut, held out of her eyes with a (now slightly skewed) headband, body that won't quit even in a baggy grey jumpsuit. She's familiar-looking, but it's all starting to get dark now: dark and fuzzy, like a video signal that's starting to detune. 'Lise hangs grimly on - this is important - who is this woman?

Just before she loses it completely she sees it. Her name tag. All the Ghostbusters have name tags, black nylon tape with bold red capital letters on the upper left chest of their coveralls. Obviously it shows up in the mirror backward, but 'Lise can read it plainly in the second or so of altered consciousness she has left.

The fifth Ghostbuster's name tape says MORGAN.

Saturday, November 6, 2410
1274 Humboldt Street
New Avalon

'Lise woke up in her bathtub at home with rainy daylight streaming in through the window, the AlphaCollider remix of Eine kleine Nachtmusik playing on the stereo out in the living room, and - to her surprise - no discernible hangover effects apart from an epic jones for bacon.

Bacon... and answers.

Well, no reason why I can't try to get both of those at once, she thought, climbing out of the tub and heading back to the living room. She took a couple of minutes to hunt up her phone (it had, as always, managed to end up under one of the couch cushions), then checked the time. 8:44 AM - good enough. Strangefate opened at nine, so it should be safe to call.

"Raven? Hey. 'Lise Fleming here. Listen, I need to have breakfast with the Chief and I haven't got time to arrange for it to happen the normal way... "

'Lise took a quick shower, threw on an AlphaCollider T-shirt (because they were uppermost in her mind when she opened the closet), black combat pants, and - since it was raining - her green wellies and flappy black coat. She managed to remember her keys on the way out for once, then headed down to the Interstellar House of Pancakes in White City to meet the Chief.

Once the waitress had brought their orders and left her alone with the Chief in the corner booth, 'Lise got straight down to brass tacks, because A) he was a busy guy and B) she'd heard he liked that kind of thing anyway:

"What happened when Kei was with the Ghostbusters? The fight in the abandoned subway. How did it end?"

Gryphon blinked, surprised both by her sudden mention of his missing wife and the context in which she'd been mentioned. It took him a couple of seconds to put his reply together:

"I... don't know."

"You don't? Nothing at all?"

He shook his head. "No. Well, I knew she'd worked with them, but not what happened. Abandoned subway?" She nodded. "See, I never heard anything about that."

"Well, let's back up," 'Lise said. "Why was she there?"

Gryphon sawed off a corner of his Belgian waffle and ate it before responding. "It was one of the Operation Hero missions," he said. "In the 1990s, before First Contact, the WDF wasn't welcome on Earth. Sometimes we would sneak back, insert small covert teams, and try to recruit people we thought could handle the ride."

That got a nod. "Right, I've read about that. Pretty eclectic guest list," 'Lise added with a little smile.

Gryphon shrugged. "We were 18, 19 when we started out. It seemed like the thing to do. And it usually worked out. In this case... Kei spent about a month with the Ghostbusters. She came back empty-handed, and... that was that, basically. I figured something had gone wrong - they were reported missing right after she got back - but she never wanted to talk about it, and the rest of us gave her space. It's not as if we were in a position to investigate."

'Lise frowned thoughtfully, looking down at her plate of bacon. "Hmm."

"My turn to ask a question," Gryphon said. "Why do you ask?"

She glanced up, met his eye, and considered her answer for a few seconds, then sighed. "OK, look, it's like this. Skuld has one of their protoncasters. I'm distantly descended from the Ghostbusters' first client, so she let me have a go with it, and when I put it on I had a... vision. Not much of one, just a flash, of the battle in the subway. Last night I went to see if I could find it again and I got a more complete read on it - enough to know that Kei was there."

She spread out her notes, including the storyboard-like scribbled cartoons of the last few minutes, and explained (between rashers of bacon) what she'd seen happening, to the extent that she understood it herself. Pointing to the sketch of the darkened ticket hall, she said, "I need to know what happened after that. I have... I have a feeling it's important somehow. I can't really explain it better than that."

Gryphon, having worked his way through his waffle and her notes at the same time, put down his fork and nodded.

"So do I," he agreed. "We should - " He hesitated, his eyes unfocusing slightly. "Hang on," he said; then, scowling, he came back and said, "Or I could spend the day on B6, averting interstellar war," he grumbled.

'Lise shrugged. "It's been 400-some years," she said, then added wryly, "It'll probably keep a few more days."

Gryphon stood up. "OK. I'll be back as quick as I can and we'll look into this."

"Sure," 'Lise said. "Thanks a lot for your time," she added, rising with him. "I know you've got a lot going on... "

He sighed ruefully. "Sometimes a little too much," he agreed. "I'll see you when I get back. In the meantime, don't do anything crazy."

"Sure," she repeated. "No worries. I'm not even a field operative."

When Gryphon said "don't do anything crazy," 'Lise figured that had probably covered actions like infiltrating the heart of the Earth Alliance. In fairness, she'd had no intention of doing any such thing when she'd assured him that she wouldn't. She'd have been perfectly content to wait for him to finish preventing interstellar war, then provide IT support while he did something crazy. That was her usual portfolio at the Bureau, after all. It was for the badass PIs, like Hellboy and Coraline, to go out there and slug it out with the Forces of Weirdness. 'Lise saw herself as more akin to a Network 23 News reporter's producer.

Except that she happened to have mentioned the matter to a couple of colleagues she was lunching with later on Saturday, having momentarily forgotten that they were much more adventurous than she was.

Given that Earth was Strictly Off-Limits to anyone from the Republic of Zeta Cygni these days, but particularly to members of the International Police Organization, 'Lise would've figured she'd be a little nervous, and in fact she was for the actual trip, but now that they were actually here? Not a twinge. Everything under control.

Part of that was because she had no reason to believe that the Earth Alliance had any information about her on file. She wasn't exactly a high-profile operative. So instead, the whole thing had a distinct and pleasant flavor of adventure about it. She was not just out from behind her desk, she was in New York. If that wasn't the dark heart of enemy territory these days, politically speaking, she was pretty sure she could see it from there. It was like being in a spy movie, which she'd always thought was something any right-thinking person should want to do once.

Maybe if I'm really lucky we'll rob a bank while we're here, she thought.

Admittedly, that wasn't too likely. In fact, she and her colleagues weren't even planning on going aboveground if they could help it. As such, bank robbery would definitely be too high-profile an activity for this trip.

They arrived in the abandoned ticket hall where 'Lise's vision had ended, because that was the place with which she had the strongest psychic tie. That was Illyana's doing, a weird form of teleportation involving a bounce through a parallel dimension, or possibly (based on the quick glimpse 'Lise got of it while they were there) a prog rock album cover. 'Yana was the one who had actually suggested that they come here and investigate in person, 'Lise presumed because it was obviously the least advisable thing to do.

Now the blonde Russian looked around at their surroundings and remarked dryly, "Swanky."

Coraline made a sound that might've been agreement or might've been a dusty-in-here cough, removed an ectometer from an inside pocket of her yellow slicker, and started sweeping the room.

"Well, nothing much happening in here, psychokinetically speaking," she said after a few moments. "Let's have a look down on the platform."

The escalators down were choked with debris and impassable; it looked like part of the platform level had collapsed. Instead, the trio went to the hole through which - if 'Lise's vision had been right - Kei Morgan had entered this room 400-odd years earlier. The space beyond was dark and silent, but as she leaned through and peered into the darkness, 'Lise felt her hackles rise. She sniffed at the air. It smelled as one might expect the air to smell in such a place, as it had smelled in her dream - musty, stale, but there was nothing unnatural about it.

Coraline opened the flap of her messenger bag and said, "Dexter, do we have a lumisphere, please?" A moment later the bag's disembodied hand emerged with the requested device; she took it, thanked the hand (which withdrew), then activated the lumisphere and tossed it through the hole. It levitated automatically to the ceiling and then powered up to full intensity, filling the room with cold bluish light.

It was, indeed, the curiously ornate brick-and-tile subway platform 'Lise had seen in the vision. The lumisphere's light revealed curving blast scars on the wall and debris - broken bricks and tile corners, mainly - scattered around the floor. The dust lay as heavy as the silence. There was no monster, no sign of recent activity, and no trace of the Ghostbusters... but still 'Lise felt uneasy.

She glanced at her colleagues and saw that they did too. All three women were experienced paranormalists, despite their youth - in fact, all three had been entangled in various supernatural matters, through more or less no fault of their own, since childhood. All three could tell now that there was something going on in this yawning, empty, ruined space that wasn't apparent to the naked eye.

They let themselves carefully down one by one from the hole and onto the platform. 'Lise had some trouble with this on account of the bulky, heavy backpack she was wearing, prompting Illyana to ask her,

"Why did you insist on bringing the demon hunting junk? Way I heard it, it's not even that effective."

"They weren't using it correctly," 'Lise said. "Anyway, it's well-built, even if the people who made it didn't really know what they were doing."

"But what do you even anticipate needing it for?" Illyana wanted to know as she helped 'Lise down to the platform level. "I'm reasonably sure there are no demons down here."

Coraline took out her ectometer again, consulting it only briefly before putting it away.

"I wouldn't be so sure," she said. "PK's off the scale, but the signature isn't spectral. Something is definitely happening down here. We just can't perceive it. It's probably been rotated a few degrees off the zorth axis."

Illyana smiled coldly. "The Many-Angled Ones. Excellent. This may turn out to be worth the trip after all."

Coraline eyed her sidelong. "You and I understand the word 'excellent' very differently."

Illyana walked a bit further into the chamber; as she did so, her normal (expensive, extravagantly stylish, but normal) clothing misted away, replaced by gleaming, intricately plated silver armor. She raised her hand above her head, and as a matching sword appeared in it she declared in a voice that rang to the corners of the room,

"Y'ai'ng'ngah Yog-Sothoth!"

'Lise and Coraline looked at each other. "OK, I'm sure that's not a good idea," said 'Lise.

Ignoring her, Illyana went on, "H'ee-l'geb f'ai throdog! UAAAH!"

As she completed the incantation, the room shook as if in an earthquake, mortar dust billowing down from between bricks.

"Yeah, called that," said 'Lise.

The lumisphere burst with a harsh crackle of overloaded repulsorlifts, but even as its light died the chamber filled with an new light, an icy, unearthly glow unlike anything 'Lise had ever encountered before.

And within that glow...

... the Ghostbusters, motionless, their forms slightly indistinct, like a lo-rez analog video image inefficiently paused. Two had been caught, frozen, in the process of throwing proton streams, their incandescent ribbons only partway extended toward their obvious target. Huge, wet and noisome, impossibly somehow gelid and sinewy at the same time, that target hulked in the center of what was once the station platform and lashed the space around it with a hundred dripping black tentacles, its thousand eyes glaring balefully around it as it shrieked silent madness from a thousand razor-edged beaks.

Oh, hello, Class-B Outer God Manifestation (Tentacular/Hostile), 'Lise thought with the one cluster of her neurons that weren't recoiling in horror from the sight of it.

An instant later, time resumed and everything got very much worse.

"I don't think this thing is a ghost!" Winston Zeddemore yelled as he ducked away from a tentacle.

"What was your first clue?" Peter Venkman inquired.

"This is not in my contract!" Zeddemore insisted.

Illyana, faced with a nameless horror from outside of time, didn't hesitate for a moment; this was, in fact, exactly what she had hoped would happen. With a fierce smile, she charged across the station, bounding up a rude staircase of different-sized rubble chunks, and cut off the last ten feet or so one of the entity's tentacles moments before it could finish encircling Ray Stantz. The entity recoiled, roaring, as the severed length of tentacle fell away and dissolved to nothingness.

"All right, Dr. Stantz?" she inquired.

"Thanks," Stantz replied. "That was close. Wait, where's Kei? Where did you come from?" He blinked as if he'd just noticed her armor. "... And what are you wearing?!"

"It's a long story," Illyana told him, and then she had to leave him and dart across to help Spengler.

Nearby, Coraline Jones shook off her shock, opened her bag, and said, "Dexter, the Saganizer, please." Dexter emerged a moment later holding a chunky pistol-shaped device that looked like it had been built out of equal parts impossibly-high-tech electronics and plumbing parts; Coraline thanked him, took it, then shifted the bag so that it was hanging behind her and moved to support Zeddemore.

Back by the hole in the wall, as far away as she could get without turning her back to climb out of here, 'Lise crouched behind a heap of broken bricks and hoped it wouldn't notice her. With the small fragment of her consciousness that could still think she thought, This is like an episode of Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold. Except I'm not a Lensman. Or brave.

/* Dropkick Murphys
"Cadence to Arms"
Do or Die (1998) */

She watched in terrified fascination for perhaps a minute - an eternity in a battle like this - as Illyana, Coraline, and the Ghostbusters tried to find a way of dealing with the monstrous entity... and failed repeatedly, narrowly avoiding a number of messy deaths in the process. Illyana's sword could cut the beast's eldritch flesh, but it seemed to have an infinite reserve of new tentacles, like a hydra's heads. Coraline's Sagan-Tesla Disjunction Ray Projector, a miniaturized version of a device developed to disrupt the corporeal forms of just such beings as this, was quite effective; but it could only disintegrate a little of the enormous entity at a time, so she had the same problem as 'Yana.

For their part, the Ghostbusters were a well-oiled machine, coordinating their fire, covering each others' pauses to vent their proton packs, and even managing to herd the creature into the corner of the room, but their weapons seemed like they could only annoy the beast, not really harm it. As soon as it figured that out - and it might at any moment - their containment strategy would collapse and the situation would get completely out of hand.

A thought flickered across 'Lise's mostly paralyzed mind. Almost unwillingly, she reached up behind her right shoulder and unracked the wand from the Triple-I proton pack she'd "borrowed". She stared at it for a couple of seconds, almost hypnotized by the blinking green LED that told her the pack was powered up and the wand in standby mode. Then, as if in a dream, she thumbed the rocker switch that energized the wand.

/* 0:53 */

The distinctive sound of the weapon coming online shattered the crystal dome of fear that had settled over her mind. With a hot surge of anger at this thing for reducing her to momentary animal cowardice, 'Lise lunged to her feet and ran toward the battle.

Pete Venkman recoiled from a lashing tentacle, stumbling on a piece of debris; his weary legs betrayed him and he fell, his proton stream skidding away from the entity's oily black hide and carving a glowing squiggle across the ceiling. He landed hard, jarring his back on the unyielding bulk of the pack, and cried out in pain and frustration. How long had they been doing this? Time had ceased to have any meaning long ago. It was almost as if they'd been in this dank chamber forever, locked in eternal, futile combat with this hideous, monstrous thing. Even the legendary Venkman sangfroid could only handle so much of this crap.

The tentacle he'd avoided curled back toward the main body of the beast, reared into the air, then poised to sweep down and crush him. His aching body still in disarray from the fall, Venkman tried to scramble back and bring his nearly-useless weapon to bear, but nothing seemed to work any more - there wasn't time -

A third stranger, this one a small, slender figure in black and green, darted past him. Uttering an inarticulate cry of challenge, she let fly with what looked like a newer-model protoncaster. Its beam was different - more red than orange - and its voice had a subetheric snarl to it that was absent from the normal operating mode. It had a definite effect on the creature, though. Where the others' beams slid over its semi-distinct surface or seemed to want to bend away from it, the red beam bit deep, twisting with an almost living avidity, and black ichor sprayed out as the liquescent flesh shriveled and burned with an acrid, stomach-churning stink. The creature's shrieking took on a new note of pain and fury as its whole substance recoiled in shock from this new and much more effective torment.

"On your feet, Dr. Venkman," his savior said, grabbing one of his pack straps with a tiny but surprisingly strong hand and dragging him upright.

"Wha - what'd you just do?" Venkman asked, slack-jawed.

"This entity is the corporeal manifestation of an Outer God," the stranger told him in a businesslike tone. As she spoke, she went around behind him, opened an access panel on his pack, and started doing something inside it. "I'm not sure which one and frankly I don't care - "

Overhearing her, Coraline shouted from somewhere off to the right, "It's Shub-Niggurath! See the horns?"

" - the point is," 'Lise went on doggedly, "its body is partially ectoplasmic, but only partially. Hold still - I'm adjusting your proton pack to compensate."

Venkman craned his neck to get a better look at her. "How do you know that?" he asked.

She finished making adjustments, closed the access panel, and then met his eye and gave him a smile. She was a pretty young thing in a slightly punky, slightly gothy kind of way, and even under these conditions, Venkman felt his radar lock on. He couldn't help it; he was just built that way.

"You'd think you'd never met a girl who'd read Lovecraft's Manual of the Planes before," she said.

"Good God, you're all women," Venkman replied as if he'd just noticed.

'Lise rolled her eyes slightly and said, "Contain yourself and lay down some covering fire, Dr. Venkman. I have to help the others."

/* Dropkick Murphys
"Do or Die"
Do Or Die (1998) */

Hitting on all cylinders now, she dashed from one Ghostbuster to the next, working her magic on each of their packs. Within minutes, she had the other Ghostbusters retuned and ready to roll. Her intimate familiarity with the workings of the proton packs and her innate rapport with technology made it the work of only a minute or so for her to remodulate them along the same lines as the III models. Once again that organization's engineers had done the Right Thing by accident; she made a mental note to look into that if she survived the day.

Once she had them all up to speed, with Illyana as roving cover against the more enerprising tentacles and Coraline providing pinpoint striking power with her smaller but much more precise weapon, the five arrayed themselves around Shub-Niggurath, making slashing feints and hemming it in much more effectively than before. Gradually, inexorably, the Ghostbusters and their unexpected BPRD backup began to gain the upper hand.

"I mean, I don't have a problem with it," Venkman carried on as if there hadn't been ten minutes of desperate battle against an Outer God in between the two statements, his voice raised over the shrieks of the creature and the roar of massed proton streams. "It's just that now I know it I can't stop looking at you. Is that weird?"

'Lise just shook her head with a faintly indulgent smile - he was just like the books all said - and didn't reply.

"I hate to be the one to ask," Stantz called across the formation, "but what do we do with it once we've caught it?"

"We'll have to figure out some way to disjoin it!" 'Lise yelled to him.

"Oh! That sounds - "

He didn't get to finish his sarcastic remark, because it was at that moment that the entity seemed to realize what they were doing. Screaming in what almost sounded like defiance, it drew back from all of them, concentrating itself in the center of their fields of fire -

- then lunged upward, shattering the vaulted ceiling above it. The Ghostbusters, Illyana, Coraline, and 'Lise ducked instinctively as bricks rained down all around. Cool night air flooded the chamber, starlight twinkled down... and the creature was gone. Moments later, they could hear the sounds of horns, screeching tires, and renewed Outer God howling from the street above.

"... Oh, that can't be good," Venkman said.

Actually, once they made their way hurriedly up half-collapsed and long-barricaded access tunnels and stairwells to the street, they saw that it went some way beyond not good. Shub-Niggurath - seeming even larger now that it was out in the open air - had emerged from its underground prison smack in the middle of Times Square, which it now appeared to be trying to either wreck or devour, or possibly both.

"So much for keeping a low profile," Coraline muttered.

Winston Zeddemore looked around him in mystified awe. This was Times Square, sure, it was unmistakable, but at the same time it was obviously not the Times Square he'd last seen what seemed like either hours or an eternity ago. Everything was different apart from a handful of the buildings. The style and flash and vibe of the place was the same, but the technology that gave it that vibe was all sleeker and stranger. The signs seemed to be in three dimensions, jumping out of their settings as though somehow painted in freestanding space with light.

A lot of the cars could fly.

"What the hell... " he murmured. Around him, his three colleagues gazed around in similar baffled astonishment.

"... Uh, OK, look, I would've preferred not to have to drop this on you guys in the middle of a fight with an Outer God, but hey, nothing else has gone according to plan today," 'Lise told them. "You've... been out of circulation for a while. Quite a while. Exactly how long isn't important right now."

"What is important is that the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young is about to eat Midtown," Coraline added.

/* Ray Parker, Jr.
Ghostbusters: Original Soundtrack Album (1984) */

Pete Venkman was the first to recover. Smirking at Coraline, he unracked his proton wand, energized it with a decisive flick of his thumb, and said,

"Not as long as the Ghostbusters are here."

"Yeah!" Stantz agreed.

"Hell yeah!" said Zeddemore.

Egon Spengler took off his glasses, cleaned them methodically, put them back on, and drew his own proton wand with a wry little smile.

"I couldn't have said it better," he said.

Venkman grinned. "Ladies and gentlemen... let's get to work."

Sunday, November 6, 2410
New York, New York, Earth

Dawn broke over a lower Manhattan strewn with rubble and the unmistakable signs of recently concluded chaos. At the south end of Broadway, four men in grey jumpsuits, a petite woman in black and green, another in a yellow rain slicker, and a blonde in what appeared to be medieval plate armor stood ankle-deep in slowly evaporating black sludge and congratulated each other on a job well done.

"... hundred years?" Winston Zeddemore demanded.

"And a bit," 'Lise confirmed, nodding. "I've got a book back at my place that'll explain the whole thing - "

"That might be a problem," said Coraline, gesturing. Now that the entity was down, the cops who had spent the night maintaining a perimeter (as best they could) around the highly mobile battle were now facing them, weapons drawn. A line of them advanced with a man wearing sergeant's stripes on point, their faces grim.

"Freeze!" the sergeant demanded as his group reached earshot.

Illyana's armor flickered and vanished, seamlessly replaced by her street clothes. Regarding the man and his gun without any noticeable concern, she asked him, "Have you got a towel?" Making a face, she added, "I'm sure I've got eldritch horror in my hair."

"You're all under arrest," the cop barked. "Put your hands on - "

Pete Venkman broke away from the rest of the group, ignoring the sergeant's drawn and leveled weapon, and put his arm over the man's shoulders, aiming him away from the others.

"My friend," he said amiably, "don't be a dick." He turned the sergeant around, facing him north, and gestured to the New York skyline. "See this town? This great, big, crazy, stupid, wonderful town which you are sworn to serve and protect? Well, it's still here and not roasting in the depths of the Sloar today because of, well, us." With that he turned the man back around and indicated his companions. "So what do you say we just... walk away... and you never got a good look at any of us."

The sergeant glanced at Venkman, then the others, then back at Venkman, and nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said. "That sounds good to me."

Venkman smiled and patted the cop graciously on the shoulder as he released him. "Thank you, Sergeant," he said. "You are an officer and a gentleman."

Then he walked back to the others, looking from one of his old colleagues to the next. Each of them nodded. With another little smile, he turned to Illyana and made a courtly by-all-means gesture. She returned the smile, concentrated, and a sudden rising disc of light swept the seven of them away.

"Who were those guys, Sarge?" one of the younger cops asked.

"Beats the hell outta me, Johnny," the sergeant said.

"The Other Side" - A Future Imperfect Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Dr. Venkman's reference consultant: Janice Collier
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, February 4, 2411
Dantius Towers
Nos Astra, Illium

Nobody in the security force knew why the Chief of the International Police had sent one of his top-level operatives to the Dantius Towers, but on the other hand, nobody could really be said to care, either. It was their job to prevent such people from harassing the building's owner, and that was an end of it as far as the men and women of the local Eclipse branch office were concerned.

"Sector 14," the asari Vanguard in command of that sector reported on the all-facility tactical band. "We've got her cornered. Request backup for elimination."

"Roger, en route," the building's security coordinator replied. "Be advised, we have reports of a second SPECTRE agent in the vicinity. No confirmation, no ID at this time."

"Great. Keep me posted. And tighten the cordon on Level 70, this one might just be a diversion."

"Use a Spectre as a diversion?" the salarian engineer running next to her remarked. "Who would do something that wasteful?"

"Maybe this one's not really who we thought she was," the asari replied. "I mean, running down a dead-end corridor isn't really in keeping with their image, is it?" she added with a smirk.

The salarian nodded, conceding the point. The black-armored woman was, indeed, fleeing down a hallway from which there was no exit. At its end there was only a floor-to-ceiling window, providing a spectacular view of downtown Nos Astra from 30 floors up but no exit route for anyone unable to fly. As he considered the point, though, he noticed something and grabbed at his asari colleague's arm.

"Dasava, she's not stopping!" he cried, pointing.

Dasava slowed in her headlong pursuit, gesturing her squad to do likewise, and watched. The Spectre was, indeed, not giving any indication that she planned to stop before reaching the window. In fact, as she approached it - still moving like a freight train in spite of her heavy armor, Dasava had to admit she was certainly in good shape - she drew her sidearm and opened fire. Armor-piercing rounds cratered the duracrys in a precisely calculated pattern.

Still running flat-out, the Spectre holstered her weapon, crossed her forearms in front of her face, and plowed straight into the window, which - weakened by her gunfire - shattered like ordinary glass. Her momentum was barely checked at all as she crashed through it and straight out into space, plummeting from sight in an instant.

"... Rodik, what did we just see?" Dasava wondered as she and the squad coasted to a halt a pace or so from the broken window.

The salarian keyed his com. "Level 1, do you have her? Uh, what's left of her?"

No reply came for a moment, and when it finally did, it consisted only of a high, panicky cry of, "My God! Run! Run!"

Rodik frowned. "Say again? Level 1, come in! What's going on down there?"

A second later Dasava caught his shoulder and shook him out of his focus on the com, gesturing with her blaster carbine toward the window.

Commander Virginia Shepard rose smoothly into view from below the window frame, unharmed and with a distinct smirk on her face, a dozen yards or so from the side of the building. For a moment Dasava wondered how she could have done that, then realized she must be standing on something that had been in position to catch her - a skycar, perhaps, maybe piloted by that second operative that was supposed to be around.

"Cute," she growled, popping out her carbine's collapsible shoulder stock. "But there's still only one of you, bitch. Take her d - "

Her bark of command was cut off by plain shock as the item Shepard was standing on rose into view beneath the Spectre's armored boots. It wasn't a skycar. It wasn't a machine of any kind. And suddenly the panicked transmission from the team on Level 1 made all the sense in the world.

Gojira Nakajima narrowed his huge eyes at the Eclipse squad, then opened his jaws and issued a deafening roar that nearly bowled some of the more lightly built members, such as Rodik, over. As Dasava reeled a half-step back, trying her best to cover her ears without losing her weapon, a glowing autotranslator caption suddenly sprang into view in her holographic HUD:


Well, so much for this job, she thought, and dropped her carbine.

"Spectres" - a Future Imperfect Micro-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, June 15, 2412
Beyond the Outer Rim Territories

Outer Rim Territories >>>>
Far Rim >>>
Perseus sector >>
Dholen system >

Haestrom, third planet of the Dholen system. If you're even in the Dholen system, hitchhiker, boy have you got problems; the star is unstable and the system itself is under the control of the geth. How did you even get here?

Regardless, if you're on Haestrom itself, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the occasional Federation probes that get in here have never reported any evidence that the geth are using the planet itself, so if you managed to get dirtside without the zillion or so of them who live elsewhere in the system detecting and annihilating you, you're probably OK in that regard. The bad news is that there's no one here, nothing to eat, no hope of rescue, and direct sunlight will kill you, but not before it's torched all your electronics, including, most likely, the Guide.

Information about the planet itself? Slightly academic at this point, we would have thought, but OK. We'll be optimistic and assume that you're reading this entry somewhere else for entertainment. Haestrom was a science outpost of the Rannoch Hegemony, originally founded in the 1800s to study the interesting instabilities inherent (see what we did there?) in Dholen, which quarian astronomers believed was just on the cusp of evolving from a G-class main sequence star into a red giant. As far as they knew, nobody had ever studied that phenomenon up close before.

The problem is, "on the cusp" in stellar evolution terms could mean within a few hours or a couple thousand years. Odds were the Dholen Observatory project was going to be something of a long-term one. The planet's one city, also called Haestrom, became known around the Rim for its unique architectural idiom, its subculture of creative indie video game designers, and the fact that nothing much ever happened there. Until 1896 SC, when the geth uprising brought down the Hegemony and most of the architects and indie programmers got wiped out.

Since then, as far as anybody knows, nothing whatsoever has happened on Haestrom. Dholen still hasn't turned into a red giant, though its stellar output has become markedly weirder and more energetic in recent years (hence the aforementioned killing-you thing). It's hard for Fed astronomers to tell much more than that from outside the Perseus Veil, and if we had to guess we'd say the geth aren't too bothered about the scientific opportunities. Federation probes indicate they're mining the system's second planet for gas and... that's basically it. Haestrom itself is just there. The city's still standing, and based on the probe returns, it looks to be more or less intact, apart from damage inflicted during the war. Night passes indicate that most of the streetlights are even still working... but nobody's home.

All that said, if you're actually on Haestrom, we have only one piece of advice. Our cover strapline notwithstanding, this would be an excellent time to panic.

This Guide entry was written by Peter Parker, OJK.

Tali'Shukra vas Venachar shut down her omni-tool's e-reader, got to her feet, and looked out through the vacant window frame at the city. This was a city that had been designed never to sleep, but it had been dead for more than five centuries. Its silence and stillness were doubly eerie when set against the cyclopean scale of it, the height of its towers, the broad and daring sweep of its intricately interconnected skyways. For all that time it had stood empty and unmaintained, and yet most of the skyways were still here. From where she stood now, near the pinnacle of one of the periphery's middling-tall buildings, Tali could see a significant part of the network, and there were very few major gaps despite the relentless march of centuries.

Master Parker is right, she mused to herself. The streetlights do still work... and this would be an excellent time to panic.

Instead, she tried to com the Venachar again, to no avail. Nighttime might mean a respite from the vicious, killing solar radiation that soaked the city's streets during the day, but Dholen's deranged magnetosphere still played havoc with comms, and she got nothing but flangey static when she tried to raise her ship. She wouldn't be reaching them with the equipment she carried on her; it would take a bigger antenna, a more powerful transmitter, than she could carry.

If they were even still up there. The alarm she'd raised on the surface had almost certainly spread to the extensive space assets the geth had in the vicinity of Haestrom's neighbor Charoum. For all she knew, her ship had been chased off or blown out of the sky by now, and she was the only living carbon-based creature in the Dholen system. That would, she joked grimly to herself, constitute quite a spectacular mission failure.

Well, she thought wryly, Rael always does enjoy a good excuse to tell the rest of the Admiralty Board, "I told you so."

Tali went back inside and sat down with her back against the wall, reviewing the day in her mind. They had all known that penetrating the Dholen system would be dangerous, but it was the only way to get a better read on what was happening to the star. Its recent behavior, as alluded to in the Guide entry, could not be accounted for by any natural phenomenon. If the geth were engaged in something as risky as stellar manipulation, some members of the Admiralty Board felt it behooved the quarian people to know about it.

The plan, as conceived by Admirals Han'Gerrel and Rael'Zorah, was bold, but simple - dash into the system, drop a technical commando team onto Haestrom, proceed to the great Dholen Observatory at the center of the city, and conduct as extensive an observation as possible, then get out and hope the science team back home could work out from the collected data just what was going on in there. Both admirals agreed that the simplest plan had the greatest chance of success - and expended the most bearable quantity of resources if it all went wrong.

Admiral Zorah had been against assigning the mission to the Explorer-rated ship commanded by his own mother, but not because he was worried about her safety. Rather, he insisted, he lacked confidence in her ability to deal with complications that might arise, since she had spent his entire life as a Halo researcher and come to exploration only recently. The others, knowing that her technical prowess exceeded that of any other Explorer captain in the Quarian Navy, overruled him.

It didn't offend Tali'Shukra that her son thought she was a soft-sided theoretician with little practical field experience. He wasn't to know that she'd spent the decade before his birth almost constantly on the move, having adventures that made most of his naval career seem like a cushy job at an insurance company. He'd never asked and she hadn't volunteered.

It did offend her, in a cosmic sort of way, that the day's events looked like proving him right. Since the moment she had arrived on Haestrom, things had been going wrong. The stealth modifications to the Venachar's landing craft were supposed to be proof against geth detection; they weren't. There wasn't supposed to be an actual geth presence on Haestrom itself; there was. The LC hadn't lasted a minute after touchdown. Her four-man landing party had outlived their ship by mere seconds. Only experience, quick reflexes, and blind luck had kept Tali herself alive, enabling her to escape to this refuge and wait for nightfall.

And now that it was here... what? Even if she reached the Observatory, she had no comms and no way of getting back to the Venachar, if indeed the ship was still there.

She regarded her Lens, glowing a gentle silvery-blue from its mount on the back of her right glove. It would be unaffected by Dholen's strange emissions. She considered calling for help with it. She had no doubt that if she called for him, Benjamin would find a way to get to her, but... no. She had nothing to show for coming here. No result at all to offset, in even the most inadequate way, those four lives. Tali's pride wouldn't let her call on anyone - not even him, perhaps especially not him - for rescue just to flee in defeat. All right, he might never forgive her for not asking for his help; but as things stood right now, she would never forgive herself if she did.

Tali wasn't sure how long she spent confronting that issue before her attention was claimed by a faint sound from somewhere deeper inside the building. Since the other members of her landing party were dead, she could only think of one thing that might be approaching her position. She rezzed up her omni-tool and ran a sensor sweep, looking for a very specific EM signature. Her scan range was, like her communications, badly damped by the magnetic anomalies in which Haestrom was constantly bathed, but this close, she found them easily - four levels below and on their way up.

The geth had found her.

Rising, she returned to the empty window and looked again at the dead cityscape. A glance back over her shoulder showed her the bobbing gleam of geth searchlamp beams ascending the stairs from below. She turned back to the city, looked past the foreground of eerily lighted skyways and towers, and saw her objective: the tallest of the city's buildings, its central spire jutting almost to the stratosphere, a dull red light warning aircraft that would never exist of its pinnacle.

The sight of it galvanized her. She might have failed in her mission; she might have gotten her landing party (and possibly the entire crew of her ship) killed; she might never be able to transmit her findings back to the Quarian Union... but before she met her end on this godsforsaken planet, by Keelah, she would know what the hell was going on.

With that thought in her mind and the sounds of the approaching geth in her ears, Tali removed a baton-like object from a magmount at her hip, held one end in each hand, took two running strides, and jumped out of the window.

Approximately 11 seconds after the first pattern-buffering transmat of the modern epoch came online, someone thought of using it to store a physical object as information, making large, heavy, or otherwise unwieldy items effectively weightless and easily portable. Everyone knew that the Transformers of Cybertron had used similar technologies to store weapons and facilitate certain aspects of their transformable ecology for millennia. It seemed a reasonable goal for organic technologists to strive for - but there were many hurdles, not all of them anticipated by the original thinkers, to be overcome.

In the end, the first viable system took just shy of 40 years to perfect, and it was a quarian engineering student who made it practical, reliable, and (relatively) affordable for any object more complicated than a hammer. Called Realized Virtual Machinery, it used a hard-light-holography "framework" to guide the materialization of complicated parts back into their proper relative positions. The technology was not yet widespread - the device in Tali'Shukra's hands was a prototype, handmade for her by RVM's inventor - but once it was, it had the potential to change the galaxy.

Right now, all Tali cared about was its potential to change her evening.

/* Journey
"Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)"
Frontiers (1983) */

She left the building a lone figure in a battle-rated encounter suit, her white-trimmed black armor throwing gentle reflections of the city-corpse's undead nightglow. As she reached the peak of her arc away from the tower's face, just before she started to fall toward the skyway two stories below, the baton in her hands divided into halves, linked together by a geometric web of blue-white light. In an instant this framework of glowing lines spread, growing schematically to surround her in fleeting hints of manufactured shapes and the workings of complex machinery.

She hit the skyway below her escape window at the controls of a fully realized, low-slung, black, wide-wheeled motorcycle - its inventor called it a "lightcycle" - its armored outer hull blending almost seamlessly with her own. Its hubless wheels and sleek trim lines glowed with a clean white light, as did the exposed fusion turbine in its belly. The howl of that turbine echoed in Haestrom's abandoned canyons, silent these many centuries, as Tali accelerated hard away from the tower.

The lightcycle's radar was largely useless in this environment, and Haestrom's global positioning satellite network had gone down long, long ago, so Tali was navigating on instinct, riding by the seat of her pants, as it were. She tried to keep the spire in front of her at all times, looking as far ahead as possible to make certain she wasn't about to ride off the end of a fractured skyway, and lost herself in the task of solving the 3D puzzle of this road network as efficiently as possible - until something glinted in her rearview scanner and she realized she was being pursued.

Since when did the geth have motorcycles? she asked herself indignantly, then took a closer look and realized that it wasn't so much that the geth had motorcycles as that the ones chasing her in this particular instance were motorcycles. She'd never seen geth shells built to take advantage of wheels before - even their tank-type units had legs - but she supposed in an environment like the skyways of Haestrom, such a configuration made sense, and the geth were nothing if not practical. Optimized for speed, they were catching up with her fast, their reverberating engine wail much higher-pitched and harsher than the lightcycle's mezzo howl. She couldn't tell how many of them were back there, not having the time or the luxury to take a precise count, but there had to be at least a dozen.

In spite of her situation, Tali smiled.

All right, you krif'tet machines, she thought. You want to play tag? I'll show you how we played it in Saladin Gulch.

The pylons supporting the skyway's surviving lights whipped past one after another, her speed making the sound of their passing into a staccato clatter. She avoided bits of rubble and fallen light pylons with an efficient economy born of long experience. Her mind flashed briefly back to the first time she'd ever ridden a motorcycle in anger, as it were, back on Halo, at the end of the Happy Time. She'd crashed then. She couldn't afford that now.

Another group of the geth cycle units joined the skyway at a junction just ahead of her, fanning out into a tight formation and trying to block her path. Smiling grimly inside her helmet, Tali reached back, underneath the armored fairing that her lightcycle had extended most of the way to her shoulders, and drew her Bryar scatter blaster from its magmount across the small of her back. This weapon, made from a heavy-duty blaster carbine vintage mid-24th-century, was considered an antique now, but it could still throw enough energy to blow an armored humanoid in half at twenty paces - or a geth cycle shell clean off its wheels at ten. She blasted a hole in the middle of the formation ahead of her, leaned hard on the throttle, and shot through the gap.

The geth regrouped, tightening their formation to make up for the loss, and increased speed. Tali was keeping ahead of them, but to stay in the lead required all her lightcycle's power, and at that speed she had precious little time to react to complications ahead. Twice she nearly lost it jinking around broken patches of road or bits of debris. The third time, she sideswiped one of her pursuers with the outer edge of her rear wheel's fairing, sending it crashing into the wall at the side of the road, but lost so much speed keeping herself from going down after it that the others caught up -

- and as it drew even with her on the left, one of them reconfigured, springing upright from a shape reminiscent of a riderless motorcycle to a robotic torso and pair of powerful clawed arms balanced atop a single wheel. Apart from its head, which was the typical monoptic-equipped turret, it looked unlike any geth Tali had ever seen, and she had never seen one change its shape like that before. She was so shocked, and the part of her mind that remained always an engineer was so intrigued, that she did not immediately realize that it was trying to grab her with one of its viselike metal claws.

When she did, she blasted it, which blew it most satisfactorily to pieces. Several of the others also transformed, converging, but their one-wheeled "robot" mode was apparently slower; when Tali accelerated away from them, they were forced back into their original shape to continue the pursuit.

What is going on here? Tali'Shukra wondered to herself. They were on a long, sweeping lefthand bend now, with another skyway joining the one they were on from below midway around. Reflected on the retaining wall at the top of the entrance ramp, she could see the lights of a vehicle coming up. Grinding her teeth, she tried to press herself even lower over her lightcycle's cowl and wring even more speed from the machine. There was little question who that would be.

This wasn't really like Saladin Gulch at all, she reflected ruefully. In Saladin Gulch she'd had backup. Out here...

She flashed past the end of the merging skyway before the approaching geth could reach it, caught the flash of their headlights in the corner of her eye as she passed, and glanced automatically in her rearview scanner -

- but what came hurtling onto the skyway was not more geth.

/* 2:45 */

It was another lightcycle, a different model than the one she rode: its fuselage completely enclosed by a sleek fairing, front wheel even broader than her own, rear wheel no wider than that of a normal motorcycle. Its whole superstructure, from the teardrop-shaped cowl of its massive front wheel clean back to the gleaming black mechanisms surrounding the rear, was a white so pure it almost seemed to glow in the bluish Haestrom streetlights, pierced only by the three long, narrow, ebony black panels of its windscreen. In its wake it left a ribbon of light, which drew a persistent glowing arc in the air as the cycle caught air at the top of the ramp, then seemed almost to adhere to the road as the machine's rear wheel touched down.

The white lightcycle slewed across nearly the full breadth of the skyway, drawing its trail of light across in its wake, and when the geth reached it, it was as though they had run into a duracrete wall. Explosions filled the night with orange brilliance as most of the pursuing formation, not realizing the light was a threat, raced into it at full speed.

Tali looked to her right as the white cycle drew even with her on that side; the lights overhead strobed rhythmically down the length of its black windscreen, giving her no inkling of who might be inside it. A moment later, the screen in the center of her own instrument cluster flickered and displayed the face of the man she'd just been thinking of.

"Hello!" said Gryphon cheerfully. "Your granddaughter is a huge damn genius. Did you know that?"

"Benjamin!" Tali cried. "What are you doing - how did you get here?" she asked, changing questions in midstream as she realized that the one she'd originally intended to ask was, under the circumstances, kind of a silly one.

"Hitched," Gryphon replied. He glanced at something else on his end, probably his own rearview display. "Uh-oh. We've got more company." Smiling a slightly dark smile, he added, "Just one question I might ask you, and it might sound like a disaster, but can you make that thing go faster?"

Tali smirked, though she imagined he couldn't make out her expression in that kind of detail from the other end of a grainy video link. "You bet your sweet ass I can," she replied.

Gryphon grinned fiercely. "Then game on, a chuisle, and let's run these clowns into our jetwalls."

Then his face vanished and the white cycle peeled off to the far side of the skyway, drawing another curve of that glowing light across part of the road again. The geth were aware of the threat it posed now, thanks to their networked consciousness, and the new pursuit groups that were converging from side junctions behind them knew to at least try to avoid it.

Tali pondered his remark for a moment, then glanced down, her eyes scanning the control board. Yes, in fact, there was a key down there, glowing softly white, labeled GAME. She'd wondered vaguely what it was for when she first received the machine, but Tali'Zorah hadn't been available for her to ask at the time, so she'd put it down as something to investigate later.

Now she pressed it, and was rewarded by the cycle's structure shifting beneath her. At full power, the vehicle's wheelbase actually lengthened by several inches to maximize stability - and then the rear wheel started throwing a light trail of its own. She wondered what it was. Some kind of tailored kinetic barrier field, probably, or a freestanding hard-light hologram. Glancing in the rearview, she couldn't see the far end of Gryphon's, though she supposed they weren't infinitely persistent.

My granddaughter is a huge damn genius, she thought with pride, and then bent to her work.

/* 3:43 */

She and Gryphon hadn't worked together, in this sense, for many, many years. Once, she had thought it would more or less be their life together, crashing from adventure to wild adventure with occasional pauses in between to catch their breath in the sort of sybaritic luxury only the galaxy's greatest heroes and most wanted criminals could enjoy with true panache. A naïve dream, maybe, but a nice one, all the same. It hadn't worked out, and instead they'd been forced to go their separate ways. She saw him in person only rarely, had been in combat alongside him only once in all the decades since then.

And yet, here on this ruined and deserted world, at the controls of machines that would have been considered the most abstract flights of fantasy in the days when they first met, they realigned almost instantly back into the complementary parts of the machine they had been when the chips were truly down in Goodyear. They couldn't cross each other's jetwalls, but they could use every inch of the road to create an almost impassable maze for the geth in their wake, leaving each other the smallest possible gaps through which to retake the lead or cut to the other side.

Tali would never know how long they'd had to play that deadly game, balanced always on the razor edge of total catastrophe, across the ruined skyline of Haestrom. She never wondered while they were about it - there was no time, only that one extended moment, terrifying and yet ecstatic, where the boundary line between intellect and instinct blurred into meaninglessness and the only two people on the planet put their lives unthinkingly in each other's hands. After the fact, she could have checked her lightcycle's chron, but by then she preferred not to know. It would have spoiled the magic somehow.

Eventually they found themselves racing up the final span of skyway - more than three miles of arrow-straight, very-slightly-uphill road, two lanes wide, leading straight into the side of the central spire about two-thirds of the way to the top. This had been the ultimate goal of Tali and her landing party. She wondered as they blazed onto the span and into line-of-sight with the doors whether the geth had changed the access code, powered up her omni-tool, and transmitted it.

A rectangle of light appeared at the far end, like the end of a tunnel, as the Observatory Tower's main entrance opened to receive them.

Tali glanced at the rearview. There was only one geth cycle near them now; the next group was more than a mile back, barely visible as they rounded the long lefthander, far below, which would eventually lead them up a switchback to the stretch they'd now reached. That one geth was the only one that could conceivably catch them before they attained the tower and its fortress-like walls - the only one that had a chance of entering the tower with them, which would be rather less than optimal.

It seemed to be, if such terms applied to geth runtimes operating motorcycle-like exo-chassis, particularly skilled. It had avoided several traps she and Gryphon had set for it, shooting the narrowest gaps they dared to leave. Even if they rode almost wheel-to-wheel, there was just enough space between the walls for a single geth to pass, and this one did, without a falter.

Looking ahead, Tali scanned the skyway between their position and the fast-approaching tower - and there was her answer.

"Benjamin," she said, her voice crisp.

"I see it," Gryphon replied.

/* 4:55 */

His bike was faster even than hers. He accelerated ahead now, two lengths, three, the white lightcycle's turbine screaming - then, pouring on even just a little more throttle, he brought the front wheel slightly off the ground and mounted the sloped face of a massive rubble slab, fallen from the facade of the wrecked building leaning over the skyway from the right.

With exquisite timing, he reached the top of this impromptu ramp and jumped over Tali's path just as she flashed by beneath, nearly scraping the block with her right footpeg. His jetwall bridged hers and the ramp, leaving the two glowing barriers and the jagged flank of the slab to form a funnel that led the geth cycle inescapably to a gap about three feet high by four inches wide.

"So long, sucker!" Gryphon cried as the fireball blossomed behind them, and then they were shutting down their jetwalls and flashing across the threshold into the giant skyway lobby of the Observatory. Airbrakes deployed from the fairings of both lightcycles as they skidded to a halt. The giant doors closed behind them, extinguishing the overhead lights as they did - and suddenly, from a world of speed and light and noise, all was still and dark and silent.

/* end */

After a couple of seconds, the lightcycles sizzled, flickered, and disappeared, drawn back into the digital un-space that was their home when they weren't in use. Gryphon and Tali stood, unspeaking, about twenty feet apart in the center of a cavernous dark room, visible to each other only as faint traces and shards of light where the dim glow of emergency lamps far above them reflected from the angles of the armor they both wore.

And then they were together, not caring (as they never had) about those angles as they embraced like two lost souls finding each other in Limbo.

"You're awfully good at getting into trouble," Gryphon observed after the first hug finally ran its course.

"Almost as good as you," Tali replied. "We're not out of danger yet, you know. If anything, we're in even more now that we're cornered." Then she drew him back in, resting her helmet against his plastron, and said, "But I'm glad you're here, anyway." Releasing him, she added wryly, "We do some of our best work when we're cornered."

"That we do," he agreed. He fumbled at his equipment belt in the dark for a second, then powered up a repulsorlift lumisphere in one hand and released it. It floated to the ceiling before coming to full power, illuminating the room with a harsh white light like a battlefield flare. Then, after satisfying himself that the room was empty apart from the two of them, he added,

"So. What's the plan?"

"The uppermost level of this tower is the Great Observatory where my ancestors studied the anomalous behavior of Dholen," Tali told him. "We need to get up there, see how much of the equipment is still working, and then... wait for sunrise. I need to know why the star seems suddenly to be accelerating in its decay toward red giant stage. Dholen was always unstable, but its instability was natural before. Now... " She shook her head. "Something's causing it. I'm here to find out what."

Gryphon nodded. "Sounds good," he said, recalling the lumisphere and switching on a shoulder lamp built into his IPO N7 Frame instead. "Lead on."

Tali had a schematic of the building on her omni-tool. She copied it to Gryphon's in case they got separated, then worked out a route from the public level they were on now - "This building was a showpiece once, or so I've read," she explained - up to what had been the scientific holy of holies.

As they climbed, Tali asked, "How did you know I was here?"

"I asked the Admiralty," Gryphon replied.

She looked back at him, her visor glinting in the beam of his shoulder lamp. "And they told you?"

"I asked very nicely," he said innocently.

"Uh... huh," Tali replied skeptically, resuming her climb.

"And then Vision asked their computer," Gryphon added after a moment's pause.

"That sounds more plausible," Tali said. "How did you know I'd run into trouble? Or were you just assuming that I would because it's me?"

He chuckled. "Well, that's why I wore armor, that and this system being forbidden territory and all. But no, actually, it's just a coincidence that I showed up just in time to pretend you needed rescuing. I was looking for you because I wanted to ask you something."

They reached the landing at the top of this particular stairwell; Tali turned to face him again, her head tilted quizzically. "Something that couldn't wait until I returned from my top-secret Admiralty mission?"

He nodded. "Something that couldn't wait any longer than it absolutely had to."

"Well, it's going to have to wait a little longer, because I'm right in the middle of something," she told him. "Though once I'm finished you may have plenty of time. When you came down here, did you have a plan for getting out?"

Gryphon smiled. "I always have a plan for getting out," he said. He rezzed up his omni-tool and checked the chron. "Sun must be just about up by now. C'mon," he added, becoming brisk. "Let's get your job done so I can ask you my question."

Tali nodded. "Right." She consulted the floorplan on her omni-tool again. "The next room was some kind of auditorium for scientific presentations. What used to be the secure stairs to the observatory itself should be on the other side - backstage, as it were." She leveled the tool at the door's ancient electronic lock; it bleated as if in protest at having its long sleep interrupted, then disengaged, and the door opened.

The room beyond may indeed have been an auditorium once, but now, Tali and Gryphon saw as they entered, it had become something quite different. The seats had been removed from the floor that sloped down toward the stage, and the stage itself was covered in strange bundles of cables and alien shapes they recognized as geth terminals. In the middle, at the room's obvious focal point, was a brilliant white light so intense that its glare obscured what stood beneath it.

"... Keelah," Tali murmured. "I've seen things like this before. In the WDF archives on the Geth Incursion of 2280. They build these in places they've overrun. No one's really sure what they're for, but... "

"It feels like a church," Gryphon said.

"Yes. Exactly. A temple to... whatever digital gods the geth revere." She shook her head. "There's so much we don't understand about them. But... this one is different." She moved closer, adjusting the polarization of her visor, and drew back in surprise. "Benjamin, can you see this? This is... this is wrong."

Gryphon moved up alongside her, trying to shade his eyes from the worst of the glare; then, with an annoyed grunt, he drew his sidearm and shot out the light, leaving the room illuminated only by the glowstrips by the doors. Tali glanced at him in a did-you-have-to? kind of way, then returned her attention to the object.

In the holos she'd seen before of these geth temples or whatever they were, the object in the center was a roughly pyramidal structure of the same strange cybernetic... stuff as their terminals and other constructions, surmounted by a similarly harsh light source. This one, though, was some kind of idol, an intricately machined metallic figure in a rough humanoid shape. It had what looked like skeletal bat wings, horns, and what appeared to be a beard, yet was unmistakably supposed to represent a being that was itself mechanical. It slouched arrogantly in the pose of a king on a throne, its face set in a malevolent glower, and its long, taloned fingers were curled over a pair of metallic spheres.

"Oh, wh - nonono," Gryphon murmured in disbelief. "Come on. What?"

"This is nothing like any geth I've ever seen," Tali said. "Look at the legs, the hands. It's humanoid."

"It's Unicron," said Gryphon.

Tali turned, noticed for the first time the blank look of utter shock on his face. "Who? Are you all right?"

"Unicron the Destroyer," Gryphon replied, not looking at her, his attention still riveted on the effigy. "Reaper of Worlds. Bringer of Oblivion. The All-Consuming. Cybertron's dark god of uncreation and despair. But he's dead. I saw him die."

"Cybertron has gods?" Tali asked, puzzled, but Gryphon wasn't listening; he'd already started making for the back of the room at full speed.

"Come on," he called back over his shoulder. "We have to get to the observatory."

"Why are the geth worshipping a dead Cybertronian god?" Tali wanted to know as she followed him past the idol to the rear stairs.

"I don't know," Gryphon told her. "I have a suspicion, but by all that's holy I hope I'm wrong."

They reached the observatory and found most of its instruments still functioning. In fact, there were signs that many of them had been used recently, though if the geth had been up here as well as down below, they were long gone now.

Since almost everything was powered up, it didn't take the two long to collect the readings Tali needed; analysis would have to wait. Then Gryphon worked out how to operate the high-resolution visual scanner and took a good hard look at the system's innermost planet.

Gotha was a sun-blasted rock, like Mercury back home, but that wasn't important to Gryphon. What was important to him was the significant metallic anomaly sharing its orbit around Dholen - and now, as it resolved in the observatory's massive central holotank, he felt his heart sink within him at the sight of it.

"That looks like a free-flight shipyard," Tali observed, then checked the scale reference and added in a tone of astonishment, "but it's gigantic. You could build a planet in a construction frame that big."

"A planet... or a god," Gryphon said softly, his voice full of dread.

"What do you mean?"

"You saw that icon of Unicron downstairs. Remember those spheres in his hands?" he asked. Tali nodded. "Those are meant to be moons," he told her. "Unicron is - was - a living machine the size of a planet. He lurked in the dark space beyond the Far Rim for millions of years. Perhaps once an epoch he would appear somewhere in the inner galaxy, destroying worlds and consuming them, and then disappear into the dark again. In 2005 he attacked Cybertron and was destroyed... barely."

"How do you know that?" she wondered.

Gryphon's eyes were haunted, the way they had sometimes been when she had known him during his century-long exile, by a memory that was ancient and yet still vivid and painful. For a long moment, he didn't respond; then he said quietly,

"I was there."

Then he concentrated on his Lens: Gin. I need an exit.

You got it, Chief, a woman's "voice" replied. We're coming in hot, ETA three minutes.

Gryphon turned to Tali. "Let's get to the roof."

IPS Normandy (SR2)
Outbound from Dholen system

Gryphon pulled off his Frame's helmet and crossed the Normandy's docking bay at such a brisk pace that Captain Virginia Shepard and Tali almost had to trot to keep up with him. Neither asked him any questions; they could see he was busy.

Instead, Shepard introduced herself quietly to Tali and said, "Your ship is safe, she's en route back to Scandia for repairs. You've got a dedicated crew there - they hung in until they absolutely couldn't stay in the system any longer, but the geth pickets ultimately chased them off. They got pretty banged up, but they're OK."

"Thank you," Tali told her. "I'm very glad to hear that. When it's safe for us to transmit, I'll need to get in touch with them and relay my report to the Admiralty."

"Of course."

Striding along beside them, his pace fast but mechanical, Gryphon was engrossed in another Lens communication.

... but it's empty. Whatever they were building isn't here now. We haven't had a chance to analyze any of the in-depth data we've gathered... but I have a real bad feeling.

The party at the other end of the link considered in silence for a moment, then replied, This is very disturbing news... particularly in light of some things that have happened here over the past few days. If you hadn't called me, I would have been reaching out to you before too much longer. I think it would be best if you came to Cybertron as soon as you can, old friend.

I'm already on my way, Prime. Gryphon out.

He came back from autopilot in the elevator, returning from wherever he'd gone inside himself, and turned to Shepard.

"I have to get to Cybertron," he said.

She didn't ask what for. She'd known him much too long for that. Instead, she led them into the CIC, up onto the commander's platform abaft the holographic starchart, keyed the intercom, and said, "Joker. Set course for Cybertron. Fast as she'll go."

"Aye aye, Captain," Joker replied, his voice serious - he'd picked up on the urgency in his captain's, and it tamped down the delight he always felt at those last four words. "From this far out, even the Normandy'll need at least 12 hours to get there," he added, sounding faintly apologetic.

"Very well," she replied, and clicked off. "He'll get us there in 10 or kill himself trying," she added to Gryphon with a wry half-smile.

Gryphon nodded. "Good enough. Have you got someplace I can lie down for a little while?"

"Sure, use my quarters. Back to the elevator, all the way up - well, you know where it is, you designed the ship," she said. "Get some sleep, I'll com you when we get there if you're not down by then."

He nodded. "Thanks."

"No problem." Shepard gave him a slightly more complete smile, one that combined solidarity and sympathy - they were very old friends, and she knew both what he'd gone to Haestrom to do and that, obviously, he hadn't had a chance to do it - and touched his arm before he turned and went aft to the elevator.

Not knowing quite what else to do, Tali went with him; they went up one more level and were deposited in a small "attic" deck at the very top of the pressure hull, one just large enough for the lift, a private fresher, and a comfortable office-cum-stateroom for the commanding officer. She followed him down the steps from the office and stood next to him for a moment, admiring Captain Shepard's aquarium of exotic alien fish.

"What did you want to ask me?" she wondered.

Gryphon blinked, turning to her as if he'd just realized she was there. "Oh. Uh... " He put the helmet down on the desk next to Shepard's bunk; dismantled the Frame and folded it up into storage mode just to buy himself a little time; then put his hands in the pockets of the blue Tac Div jumpsuit he wore underneath it and turned back to Tali, who stood watching him thoughtfully.

"During the Federation Civil War," he said slowly, choosing his words with care, "I realized something. I have... a lot of friends. Really, really good friends. People I can trust... without hesitation, or even really thinking about it. They're all around me, all the time, supporting me, backing me up, making possible all the things that the galaxy mistakenly gives me the sole credit - or blame - for. My crew, my kids, my posse back in New Avalon, the GFC... I wouldn't be anything, wouldn't get anything done, without them, and they've never let me down. I never have to face a mess like the last few months alone. Someone's always got my back.

"And yet... at the end of it all, when the shooting stops and the mess gets cleaned up and everything goes quiet... ultimately I am alone. In that sense, I've been alone for three years. The war made me realize how tired I am of that."

He paused again, looking down at the deckplates, then raised his eyes to meet the ghosts of hers and said simply, "So I decided I would find you and ask you to come and be not-alone with me."

Tali gazed at him for a few moments in silence.

Then she said: "I have responsibilities."

He nodded. "I know."

"You're asking me to give up my command. My ship. My people. To abandon my country in what is sure to be a storm of controversy and come live in what, for me, is an inimical alien environment where I'm likely to be the only one of my kind."

"I know."

She took a step closer. "Because you're lonely."


"That is terribly, amazingly, shockingly selfish of you," she said, taking another step.

"I know," Gryphon said for a third time.

They stood face to face, her head tilted slightly upward to compensate for his three-inch height advantage, and Tali regarded him, the shadow of her features unreadable behind her visor, while she considered her response.

Then she said, "I... I can't give you an answer right now. I have... many things to consider."

"Of course," Gryphon replied - at once, and with evident sincerity.

Tali stepped closer still, putting a hand flat against his chest, and went on, "For now, I'll come with you to Cybertron and help you deal with whatever is going on there. After that... we'll see."

Gryphon nodded. "Fair enough," he said. Then he smiled and added, "In the meantime, can I interest you in a nap?"

Tali gave a snort of laughter, resting her forehead against his chest next to her hand. "From any other man," she said, "that would be the cheesiest possible line."

"Yup," he agreed cheerfully, shutting off the lights. "Sure would."

"Holiday in the Sun" - a Cybertron Reloaded/New Frontier Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with the advice and consent of Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2011 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

"Hey, check it out. I've got a fan club."

"What? You're so full of crap."

"No, totally. Look. On New Japan. They've got a website and everything."

"... 'www.ilovefremzy.nj'. Who's Fremzy?"

"Shut up! You don't have a fan club."

"Yeah, pardon me while I go reserve 'iloverunble.nj'."

"Shut up!"

"Sibling Rivalry" - A Future Imperfect Micro-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Rei stood silently in the middle of the room for perhaps 30 seconds, looking down at the blank, bare floor beneath her feet with an expressionlessness that was remarkable even for her. When, at length, she spoke, her voice was low, flat, almost entirely without inflection.

"HK-47," she said. "Orders."

HK-47 snapped to attention. "Ready!"

Rei gestured slightly to the emptiness of the floor on which she stood. "Get it back."

HK-47 drew his blasters. "Query: special parameters?"

Rei shook her head. "None. I don't care what you have to do. Your contempt level for this assignment is ten."

If HK-47's faceplate had been equipped to do so, it would have broken into a huge grin. "Rapturous exclamation: Oh, Master! You have made a simple droid very happy."

Rei looked up from the floor, turning toward him. Her face remained as blank as ever, but for her eyes. They burned with an intensity of fury - of very personal and bloody hatred - HK-47 had seen in few humans in his long history, and only once or twice before in his present master.

Now her voice seethed with the same barely contained wrath as she hissed, almost inaudibly, "I want my rug back."

HK-47 nodded. "Observation: It did really tie the room together, Master."

"Contempt Level" - a Future Imperfect Micro-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2012 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

I: The Great Sky Bison Hijack of 2397

Monday, April 14, 2397
Corwin's Age: 5
13 Years Before His Wedding to Utena Tenjou

Air Temple Island, Republic City, Diqiu

Corwin Ravenhair loved the infrequent occasions when he and Nall got to visit the curious otherworld called Diqiu. Everything about going there was terrific as far as he was concerned. Visiting Saikyo, the bustling and cheerfully retro capital of Zipang, would've been a grand day out all on its own, but then there was a long ride on the luxurious, wonderfully old-fashioned sleeper train that ran across the Veil from Zipang to Diqiu, and thence across the vast and scenic expanse of the Earth Kingdom to Republic City. There was Republic City itself, Corwin's second or third favorite city depending on his mood when asked. There was the Air Temple, on whose precincts he and his boon companion had already made several firm friends in their two previous visits. And of course there was the Avatar, who was - just possibly - the awesomest grown-up in the history of ever.

Sure, his parents and Korra always seemed to have important stuff to do whenever the former came here, usually involving the vaguely scary old lady who seemed to run the Air Temple; but on the previous two occasions, there had been fun to have while they were otherwise engaged. If nothing else, watching Lhakpa pursue Nall around the island was always fun for Corwin, anyway. He wasn't sure about Nall.

This time, though, most of the Air Nomads appeared to be out... nomading? Was that a word? It was now, he decided. The only people around seemed to be Acolytes, and they were already firmly established in Corwin's mind as not very much fun. Too serious. Too busy doing incomprehensible things like sweeping rock gardens with brooms. Why would a person sweep gravel? To what conceivable purpose?

"This bites," Nall remarked from his shoulder as Corwin wandered the island, looking for something, anything, to do, and/or anyone to do it with.

"No kidding," Corwin agreed. "We should've asked Dad to bring Len or Kate along. Then we'd at least have enough people for - " He paused, tilting his head. "What was that?"

"Search me," Nall replied.

"It came from that cave," said Corwin, pointing. "Let's check it out."

"It looks dark in there," said Nall dubiously. "We might be eaten by a grue."

"Don't be dumb. They don't have grues on Air Temple Island," Corwin scoffed. As they entered the cave, their day-adjusted eyes (for it was a bright and sunny day in Yue Bay) momentarily saw nothing but darkness. Somewhere in the gloom, something snuffled, then growled.

"Oh, man, I told you there were grues," said Nall. "Let's get outta - "

Another growl, nearer this time, cut him off, and before Corwin could react further, a huge shape loomed out of the shadows, standing over him.

"Grormph," it said, and then licked him with an enormous tongue, knocking him to the ground.

"I don't think this is a grue," Corwin mused, wiping at his face with a sleeve. Getting to his feet, he backed toward the cave entrance and out into the daylight. The shape followed, and as it emerged from the cave, he and Nall saw that it was a sky bison, one of the giant flying animals the Air Nomads used for transportation.

"Oh hey," said Nall. "He's got his reins on and everything."

Corwin looked closer, and sure enough, the bison had a leather strap attached to his two horns, with enough slack in it for a rider sitting on the beast's head to use it as a set of reins. Corwin had seen it done on his last visit, when one of the fun old airbenders (as opposed to the scary one) had given them a ride on one - possibly this very one. Corwin wasn't sure about that. They all had the same markings, some brown stripes on cream fur and a big brown arrow on their heads like the tattoos the airbenders had, and he had so far not figured out any way of telling them apart.

"He seems like he wants something," Corwin said as the bison lumbered out of the cave toward him, whuffling amiably.

"Maybe he's as bored as we are and wants to go for a ride," said Nall.

Corwin glanced at him. "I think we'd probably get in trouble for that."

"Who's gonna know?" Nall wondered. "Everybody's either gone or talking to Scary Lady. We could just go for a couple of laps around the island and come right back."

"You can fly," Corwin said. "You could do that anytime you want."

"Sure, but you usually can't come with," Nall reasoned. "You get a chance to see the world from my point of view, I get to stretch my wings a little, our friend here gets out of the cave for a while... everybody wins!"

Corwin considered this. Nall had a point, and operating the bison had looked easy. All you had to do, as far as he could tell, was say the special word and steer like you were on a horse. The bison did the rest.

"... OK," he said. Approaching the bison with empty hands open at his sides, he said, "Are you cool with that? I mean, 'cause if you're not, you're huge and we don't have to go... "

"Hraaumph," the bison replied, licking him again.

"I guess I'll take that as a yes," Corwin said, climbing to his feet once more. He considered his route for a moment, then took hold of a handful of the bison's dense fur and began to climb. It made no attempt to discourage him from this course of action, so he made his way up to the spot on the back of its great head where Master Ikki had sat last time, took hold of the reins, gave them a little shake, and said,

"Uh... yip yip?"

"Ghromph," the bison replied, then took two or three loping six-legged strides and lunged into the air.

"Woo hoo!" Corwin cried as they cleared the island and soared out over the bay.

"Yeah!" said Nall. Springing from Corwin's shoulder, he unfurled his wings and leaned into the slipstream, keeping station alongside with lazy wingbeats. "Now that's what I'm talkin' about!"

Corwin tried an experimental turn, being very gentle with the reins; he had no idea how sensitive a sky bison's horns were. The answer turned out to be "not very", and only by leaning into it a bit could he apply enough pressure to interest their mount in changing course. Before long, he got the hang of it, he and the creature falling into a rapport, and they were describing leisurely figure eights above the bay, first heading upward to chase the fluffy springtime clouds, then cruising low over the wavetops.

This was easy, and it was also quite good fun. Good enough that Corwin rather lost track of time, and indeed everything else, until he suddenly caught motion out of the corner of his eye, turned his head, and saw Korra pacing them on one of those kite-like gliders the airbenders used.

"Hey, kiddo," she said pleasantly. "I see you guys found a way to kill some time."

"Uh we that is it was Nall's idea," Corwin blurted, his face incandescent.

"Oi!" Nall objected, then peeled off and headed back to base.

"You seem to have flying pretty well figured out," Korra went on, still smiling, "but Master Jinora asked me to tell you that she thinks the herd's had enough exercise for today."

Corwin blinked at her, confused. As much as she could without disrupting the delicate balance of her glider, Korra gestured back behind them with her head. Corwin looked, banking the bison slightly to the left in the process so that he could see back past its bulky shoulder - and saw, to his simultaneous horror and delight, that they were being pursued by a V of six smaller, riderless bison, all doggedly keeping formation through their various maneuvers.

"Aw jeez," he muttered, turning the bison for home.

On the ground, he found his parents and the two elderly airbender ladies - the scary one and the fun one - all waiting for him. He vaguely wondered if it was actually possible to die of getting caught doing something you should've known better than to do - not by being killed by the grown-ups, just spontaneously. If it was, he figured he was about to.

"I can't take you anywhere," Skuld remarked, arms folded.

"It's not my fault," Corwin protested as Korra landed next to his father, collapsing her glider staff with a whirling flourish that he would normally have found distractingly neat.

"How do you figure?" asked Gryphon, sounding actually curious rather than sarcastic.

"Well... if they don't want people to be able to do that," Corwin observed after a few moments' thought, "then 'yip yip' is unforgivably weak encryption."

All five adults stared at him for a second. Skuld was the first to crack, her severe expression fracturing along familiar faultlines as her eyes twinkled and she began failing to suppress giggles. Korra went next, leaning against Gryphon's shoulder and not bothering to suppress hers. Master Ikki burst out with a great rolling laugh that seemed like it should've come from a much younger, somewhat larger woman. Gryphon snorted, chuckled, then gave up and laughed, head back, one arm around Korra, the other Skuld. Even scary old Master Jinora produced a faint smile, the first Corwin had ever seen on her usually frowny face.

Then the bison came up behind him and knocked him down with a lick again, causing a fresh spasm of laughter from all the adults (even Jinora, a little).

"Magda, you shameless hussy," Ikki chided the bison, rubbing the middle of the creature's arrow briskly.

"Well, sport, looks like you've made a friend," said Skuld, offering a hand to help her son get to his feet. He had just enough time to get used to being back upright when he was promptly bowled over again, this time by one of the juvenile sky bison whom he'd unwittingly led on an aerial parade. "Or two," Skuld added.

Nall darted past, pursued by a couple of the island's flying lemurs. "Hellllllp!"

II: The Holiday Spirit

Saturday, December 29, 2401
Corwin's Age: 10
9 Years Before His Wedding

The South Pole, Diqiu

There was, Corwin reflected, no justice in the universe. If there was, there would be no way, no way at all, that he would spend the entire year in perfect, robust, even rude good health, log a terrific Christmas in Republic City, score an invitation to come back with Korra to her place at the South Pole (the South Pole!) for a few days thereafter... and come down with the Antarean death flu on the way down.

All right, it probably wasn't the Antarean death flu, it was most likely just the regular kind. And it wasn't even really that bad a case. He felt achey and run down, but the epic sore throat had lasted only for the first couple of hours and the cough wasn't bad at all. He didn't think he was sick enough that he'd even have stayed home from school, and between her ancestral mastery of the waterbender's healing arts and her mother's chickenshark soup recipe, Korra was confident that she'd be able to set him entirely right in a day or so.

That was still a day, an entire precious day - one out of only five available! - stuck inside when he should've been out exploring. He liked Korra's little house, which she'd inherited from her parents and which was the only home she claimed as her own, but not so much that he was pleased about being cooped up in it for a full 20 percent of his time at the South Pole. Who goes to a place like that and then stays indoors?

He'd tried not to whine about that out loud too much - he'd recently come to the conclusion that he was too old for such activities to be compatible with his dignity - but by Grand-dad, it was a trial at times like this.

Worse, now Korra was on the Lens with his father, conducting her end of the conversation out loud so that Corwin would know she was doing it, and she was promising Gryphon on her honor as the Avatar, a Lensman, and a member of the Grave Feminine Conspiracy that she would not allow his son to leave the building while he remained ill. There was no way he was going to talk her around a promise that carefully worded. Pointless to even try. Even Nall, the greatest rules lawyer in the world, wouldn't have tried the seams of that one, and besides, he was back in Alfheim doing the Family Obligations thing.

Corwin sighed, which turned into a cough, as Korra finished up her conversation with Gryphon, assuring him once more, "It's fine, really. Not a problem at all. We'll find something fun to do inside until he's well. Don't worry about a thing. OK. Yeah. You too. Later." Then she lowered her wrist (though it wasn't as if the Lens was a comlink you had to talk into), turned, and smiled at Corwin, ignoring his accusing expression.

"There. That's your dad placated," she said, then sat down on the edge of his bed (actually her bed, she only had the one), patted one of his hands atop the bedspread, and said cheerfully, "What do you say we get out of here and do something fun?"

Corwin raised an eyebrow at her. "You told Dad we wouldn't go outside."

Korra's smile became a little bit sly. "And we won't."

"Uh... " said Corwin.

"Sit up a little," she said, rising to arrange pillows behind him. He did as instructed, raising himself up so that he could fold his legs. Satisfied, Korra climbed up onto the foot end of the bed so she could sit facing him, then took his hands. "Close your eyes," she said. Puzzled, he did so. "Remember you told me about how Aeryn taught you to clear your mind?" He nodded. "Do that if you can. Just go blank... let what happens next happen."

Corwin did as instructed, to the best of his ability. The slightly spacey feeling caused by his mild fever actually helped, enabling him to detach his thoughts from anything that might normally have anchored them and let them subside to a low, semiconscious susurrus.

After a few moments, he became aware of new sensations. It had gotten cooler in the room, and there was a faint scent of... was that incense? Sandalwood, maybe? It was there and gone in an instant, so that he wasn't sure if he'd really smelled it, or just remembered it. He thought he heard something as well - strange, fleeting impressions of distant voices, as he often "heard" (and knew he was not really hearing) as he was falling asleep.

"OK," said Korra. "Have a look."

Corwin opened his eyes -

- and they weren't in Korra's snug little bedroom any more. It was colder because they were outside, sitting face-to-face in a snowbank. The sky above was a vivid Technicolor arch, the velvet blue-black of night almost completely obscured by the most spectacular aurora Corwin had ever seen; it even topped the nightly color shows in Valhalla. Corwin gasped, his breath forming a visible puff in the space between them.

"We're outside," he said. "How can we be outside? Where'd your house go?" His brow furrowed thoughtfully. "And how can it be nighttime? It's December. It's never nighttime at the South Pole in December."

Smiling, Korra got to her feet and used his hand to lever him upright as well. "The house is right where it's always been, and we're still in it. I promised your father we wouldn't go outside."

"But then - ... " Corwin's eyes went wide. "This is the Spirit World!"

Korra's smile became a grin. "Sure is. What do you think?"

Corwin looked around. They were in a snowy plain, not unlike the one just outside her ancestral village. There was even a cliff off to the... south? Who knew... that looked about the same; but everything was slightly different, slightly more vivid, as though this place were somehow realer than real. And the sky...

"Amazing," he murmured. Then he blinked as another new sensation registered on his consciousness. "I don't feel sick any more," he said.

"That's because your spirit isn't sick - only your body," Korra explained. She held out a hand, and he noticed that she was wearing furry outdoor clothes like the ones he'd seen her in several times in the real world, including those mittens that had separate index fingers. So, he realized as he took her hand, was he. Glancing down at himself, he saw that he was kitted out like a Water Tribe boy, parka and all.

"C'mon," said Korra, "there's someone I want you to meet."

They walked to, then around, the end of a chain of craggy hills that formed a natural wall around the plain where the village stood. Here the snowpacked land planed sharply away, down to a series of rolling hills and, eventually, to a seashore that was only visible as a hazy theoretical possibility on the horizon. Korra looked around, then let go of Corwin's hand to cup her own around her mouth and shout,

"Aang? Aang!"

For a moment there was no response other than the echo of her voice in the middle distance; then the snow nearby rustled and another figure sat up, blinking owlishly. He sprang to his feet, the snow sloughing away from him as if pushed by some invisible force, and shook the last vestiges of it from his clothes. He was a boy of about Corwin's age, maybe a little older, slim and nimble, dressed in the distinctive garb of an Air Nomad monk - and, Corwin saw, he sported the tattoos of a master airbender, despite his youth.

"You're supposed to look for me, not just yell," the boy monk chided Korra with a grin. "Is this him?"

Korra nodded. "It sure is," she said. "Corwin, I want you to meet an old friend of mine. This is Aang - he's the Avatar before me. Aang: Corwin Ravenhair of Asgard."

"Hi!" said Aang, putting fist against upraised hand and bowing. "Great to finally meet you."

Corwin gave the boy a puzzled look. "Why are you a kid?" he wondered.

Aang shrugged. "I liked being a kid. It's when I had most of my best adventures," he said. "Met my best friends; got a handle on what it really meant to be Avatar; saved the world. Sometimes I revisit those days. It's like putting on favorite clothes you haven't worn for a long time. When Korra said she wanted me to meet you, I figured, why not?" Then, grinning broadly, he said, "Hey, you wanna go penguin sledding with me?"

"Sure," said Corwin automatically, and then, "What's that?"

"Here," said Aang, tossing him a small fish. "You'll find out. Korra, you coming?"

Korra grinned. "You bet."

III: Welcome to Republic City

Wednesday, July 7, 2404
Corwin's age: 13
6 Years Before His Wedding

Republic City, Diqiu

Plus side: At large in Republic City.

Minus side: Least fun chaperone ever.

Those were the conclusions Corwin and Nall had reached by mid-afternoon. They'd done the Pro Bending Hall of Fame and the Republic Art Museum, there were still yuans enough for a good dinner rattling around in Corwin's pocket, and they weren't due back on Air Temple Island until the 7:45 ferry, so there was still time to put a suitable capstone on a great day out, if they could think of one - and if they could shake off their grumpy-faced shadow, because there seemed to be no good way of getting her on side.

His aunts and uncles knew Corwin had tried to make friends with her. She wasn't that much older than he was - no more than a year - and he suspected they'd have plenty of common interests if she'd just talk to him a little, but so far, no dice. She'd been assigned responsibility for his safety by the Avatar herself and that, as far as the youngest field-rated member of the Kyoshi Warriors was concerned, was that. She wouldn't even let him cross the street without she went ahead of him to stop traffic with her golden fans and her fierce painted-face glare, and she seemed to regard attempts at conversation as little more than unwelcome distractions.

"Well, look at it this way," Nall murmured in his ear. "She's not trying to harsh our mellow."

"No, but she's doing a good job of it anyway," Corwin grumbled. "I mean, how am I supposed to enjoy my day out with that hovering in the background? If she'd just talk to us."

"Yeah, it's a shame," Nall agreed. "She's cute. Or she would be if she wanted."

Corwin eyed him. "That wasn't my point, but whatever," he said.

Contrary to many of his friends' beliefs, Corwin was not ignorant of feminine beauty. He'd spent enough of his life surrounded by it that he could recognize it easily, and on some levels he suspected he appreciated it more than many of his contemporaries. It was just that - possibly for the same reason - he didn't find it distracting, or even particularly relevant a lot of the time. He judged girls as potential companions (as opposed to artworks) by the same criteria he applied to boys. Most importantly, they had to be fun. Korra was fun. Lhakpa was fun (even if Nall wasn't always sure he agreed). Heck, old Master Ikki was fun. So far, Maki of the Kyoshi Warriors wasn't, and Corwin didn't really give a damn if she was cute or not.

Suddenly, halfway across a footbridge spanning one of Republic City's main railway lines, Corwin halted as a realization struck him. It was so blindingly obvious he felt stupid for not thinking of it before. Turning, he regarded the green-clad figure, who had stopped as he did and now stood her usual pace or two away, regarding him with a blank expression rendered faintly hostile by her makeup. In the distance, a train whistle howled.

"You've never been to the city before," he said.

Maki blinked at him. "No," she replied before she could stop herself.

"And Nall and I have been dragging you all over it today," he said, "without even taking the time to show you any of it." He looked to his right, making eye contact with the little dragon, then back at her. "I'm sorry. That was unforgivably rude of us."

"You're not expected to entertain me," Maki said flatly. "I'm here to carry out the assignment the Avatar gave me, not enjoy myself."

The train they'd heard a few moments before started passing below them, its wheels clack-clacking rhythmically over a joint in the rails just beneath the bridge.

"That's just it, though," said Corwin. "If Nall and I had been thinking, you could've been doing both this whole time. But," he added cheerfully, "it's not too late. Follow me!"

"What - " Maki began, but then, to her unmitigated horror, the young man turned, put a hand on the stone handrail of the bridge, vaulted it, and dropped out of sight. With a cry, Maki rushed to the rail and looked down.

Grinning widely, Corwin gave her a jaunty salute from the roof of the boxcar just emerging from under the bridge.

"What," said Maki disbelievingly.

Don't let him out of your sight, the Avatar had told her.

So she didn't.

She hit the roof of the next boxcar back, rolling with the impact, and came nimbly to her feet, arms out for balance. Still grinning, Corwin made a "c'mon with me" gesture and ran forward, jumping the gap between the car he'd landed on and the previous one in the train.

Teeth gritted, Maki gave chase, leaping from car to car without regard for the hazards (which, in all honesty, were fairly minimal to someone with her training). She caught up with him three cars from the front, seized him by the shoulder that didn't have the dragon on it, spun him around, and shouted into his face,

"What in the name of all the spirits do you think you're doing?!"

"It's called train surfing," Corwin replied cheerfully. Then he faced front again, knees bent, constantly moving a little to counterbalance the motion of the train beneath him.

"This is insane!" Maki protested, her hand still on his shoulder.

Nall grinned, leaning forward into the slipstream with his eyes squeezed blissfully shut. "I think she's catching on!" he quipped.

"Republic City ordinance number 492 subsection 12 paragraph 3A mandates a minimum vertical clearance of 66 inches above standard car height for all surface rail lines," Corwin replied. "I'm five-foot-two and you're no taller. As long as we keep our wits about us, it's perfectly safe!"

"You'll get yourself killed!" Maki insisted. "And I only hope you manage to take me with you, because if my first act as a fully qualified Kyoshi Warrior is to fail so completely at a task given to me personally by the Avatar, I'll have disgraced my entire family!"

Seeing that she was genuinely distressed about this possibility - more so than about possibly getting killed herself - Corwin eased back a step so that he was next to her, reached out, and took her hand. She tugged at it, trying to get it away from him, but his grip was stronger than he looked like it ought to be, and she wouldn't have been able to dislodge him without resorting to maneuvers that would not be advisable on top of a speeding train. She glared at him, the expression exaggerated by her facepaint so that she looked faintly demonic in her fury.

"Relax, Maki," he said, smiling gently. "I'm not gonna let anything happen to you."

In that moment, looking into his ice-blue eyes, Maki felt something change. For no reason she could rationally identify, she believed him, on a level at which she wasn't sure she'd really believed anyone before. She was a strong young woman, a fully (if only newly) qualified warrior who had earned the green and black tactical uniform, the vivid facepaint, and the golden medallion she wore, and she was not accustomed to accepting or even desiring the protection of boys or men... but he wasn't talking about protecting her in that sense. He knew she could keep herself in one piece up here without his patronage. He was just telling her he wasn't going to let her fail in her mission.

This was a young man who would go anywhere, dare anything, to keep a promise. Maki had no idea how she could be so certain of that, but she was. And he'd just made her one. She felt herself relax, release her fear, and glide fully into the moment, enjoying the train's slipstream rushing through her hair, seeing the city unfold around them from a vantage point few ever enjoyed...

... And falling just-ever-so-slightly in love.

"Hey, welcome back, you three," said Korra as Corwin and Maki stepped off the ferry onto the Air Temple Island dock. "How'd your day go? Do anything fun?"

Corwin grinned. "Oh, y'know... just the usual stuff."

"Hall of Fame, Art Museum, noodles at Narook's," Nall put in.

Corwin tilted his head toward Maki. "Mostly we just showed the new girl around town."

"Oh yeah? What'd you think?" Korra asked Maki. "Are they good tour guides?"

Maki smiled slightly. "I couldn't have asked for better, Avatar," she replied.

"Three Views of Diqiu" - a Future Imperfect Mini-Trilogy by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to Mini-Story Omnibus Volume Six
© 2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories
Omnibus Edition Volume Six

Written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Janice Collier
Geoff Depew
Philip J. Moyer
Chris Pinard

With the gracious assistance of
Pearson Mui
and all the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects

Compilation and prettification
Benjamin D. Hutchins

E P U (colour) 2013