by BKWillis

"So, you're doing it mainly for the challenge of it?"

Chris glanced at his reflection in the window, making sure of his
appearance before he answered. "Not _mainly_, but partly, yeah."
He smoothed out a couple of stray hairs and gave a practice
'come-hither' look. Hmm... maybe if he cocked his head just a

Fitz looked on with no little amusement as his friend and rival
for the title of 'Studliest Man in the Quasiverse' tried out various
disarming grins and charming expressions. He was acting pretty
weird, but then, this whole situation was weird. He'd never before
seen Chris so worked-up over a woman that he would wait outside
for her to show up, which was what they were doing now.

"So, if it's partly the challenge, what's the rest of it?" Fitz asked,
knocking back his gin-and-tonic.

"You'll know when you see her."


"Total hotness. Sex-on-a-stick."

"Must be, if she's worth all this trouble."

"It's for her sake, not mine." Chris straightened the last crease of
his tuxedo jacket and turned to Fitz, a serious expression on his
face. "It would be an absolute _crime_ to let a woman like that
end up with _him_..."


Meanwhile, inside This Time Round...

"...And what's so odd about the idea that a girl might like me?"

"Settle down, Adric," Wesley said. "We didn't mean it like that."

"That's right. We just meant that, erm, it's odd that this hasn't
happened sooner." Lucas Wolencak tried to look reassuring, and
didn't entirely succeed.

Adric merely 'hmphed' in reply and continued laying out the setup
for the evening's gaming session.

"So, what's she like?" Wes asked after a moment.

"You'll find out soon enough. She's supposed to be here in a few

Ryoko, Wes, and Lucas shared a look.

"What?" Adric querulously demanded.

"Well, uh," Wes stammered, "you're saying that you actually ar-
ranged to meet this girl tonight? You? Mr. Insecurity? Mr.
You actually managed to ask a girl to meet you?"

Adric tried a disarming grin of the sort he'd seen Chris use, but
he didn't quite have the look down yet. He actually looked rather
like he was trying to bite himself on the cheek, but it was a val-
iant effort just the same. "Sometimes you've got it, sometimes
you don't," he said. This was met with a fair degree of skepti-
cism on the parts of Wes and Lucas.

Ryoko was more than 'fairly' skeptical. "Hey, Francois!" she
called to the Ogron bartender. "You were in here last night,

Francois's massive shoulders shrugged like a pair of rhinos jock-
eying for position on a hill. "Of course," he rumbled. "Why cat-
eyes lady asking?"

"Did you see that girl Adric's been talking about?"

"Mean big-boob redhead girl? Francois see such girl. Dress so
short, Francois see quite a bit of such girl." Ryoko's eyebrows
shot up at this, while Wes and Lucas began to look on Adric with
considerable respect.

"Well, then," Ryoko continued, "just what did Adric say to the,
ah, 'big-boob redhead' to get her to come by tonight?"

"Dead boy say, 'Uh-huh'. Actually, was more like dead boy
squeak words than say words, but cat-eyes lady know what meant,

"He just said, 'Uh-huh'?" Ryoko asked, puzzled. "That was all
there was to it?"

"No, no. First dead boy and big-boob redhead girl talk for few
minutes, and girl do all except hold up sign saying 'flirt in pro-
gress', but dead boy not try anything or act like notice. Eventu-
ally, girl ask if come back and see tonight, and dead boy squeak

"'Sometimes you've got it,' huh?" Wes asked sarcastically, giving
Adric a scathing look.

"I don't see any girls flirting with _you_, Trek-boy!" Adric shot

"At least I'd notice if they did!"

"Best part of story," Francois continued, "was after girl walk out
door. That when dead boy's eyes roll back in head and boy pass


Sherriff Lucas Buck stood in front of the apartment door, block-
ing it. He glared hard at Number One and stuck out his hand.
"Give me the purse," he demanded, in a voice that brooked no

Number One argued anyway. "Now, Number Six, what would
you want with that?" she asked innocently.

"You've already been told, 'No weapons on this assignment'. If
Adric's little friends catch you with a gun, they'll get suspicious,
and we can't have that. Now give me your purse."

"But I'm _not_ armed!" Number One declared.

A look of pained annoyance crossed Lucas's face. "Number One,
for the ten years I've known you, you have been the most pig-
headed macho sexist testosterone-case I have ever known, and
the fact that you now occasionally possess ovaries has only made
you worse. And yet, here you are toting a purse. The same
person who thinks that the mere sound of a Broadway show tune
will make his wrist go spontaneously limp. So, either you've
decided to join the, ahem, 'Brothers of the Rainbow', or you've
got a gun in there. Which is it?"

With a wordless glare, the redhead handed him the purse. Lucas
opened it and removed a little Makarov automatic pistol. And a
switchblade. And a set of brass knuckles. After setting the
weapons on the dresser, he handed the purse back.

Scowling, Number One flung the empty purse across the room.
"Can I go _now_?" she hissed.

"Not yet, _Ember_," Lucas replied. "What about the dagger you
wear over your shoulder?"

Number One rolled her eyes in frustration, but handed him the
little throwing dagger and its sheath. He set it aside as well, and
she started for the door again.

"Uh-uh," Lucas chided. "Let's have the rest of it."

Number One drew herself up to her full unimpressive height
and let out an angry growl. "Fine," she hissed, and began to
completely disarm.

First came the stiletto from down inside her left boot. Then the
throwing stars from the hollow compartment in her right heel.
Then the garrotte stitched into her skirt hem. Then the scalpel
hidden up her right sleeve. And lastly...

"Turn your head," she huffed. When Lucas complied, she hiked
up her skirt and removed the two-shot derringer from the garter
on her thigh.

"_Now_ can I go, _Daddy_?" she asked, voice dripping with
scornful sarcasm.

"Yes, you may, _little girl_," Lucas replied, stepping away from
the door with a mockingly elaborate bow. "But, just remember
not to let him go too far with you, _dear_. A boy won't buy the
cow if you're giving him the milk for free."

"Why, you..." Lucas dodged easily to the side as the redhead's
punch slipped by his face. Without further words, Number One
stomped out the door to the waiting taxi.

Lucas chuckled to himself as he watched the car pull away. As
it turned the corner toward This Time Round, Catbert ambled
over next to him, casting a curious glance at the pile of weapons
on the dresser.

"What, may I ask, is _that_ stuff?" the cat asked.

"I think that's what they mean by 'feminine protection'..."


"That's her."

"Yow. Good call, Chris."

The two charter members of the This Time Round Stud Squad
watched with interest as the little redhead paid the cabdriver and
began walking in their direction. Fitz rated her at least a nine,
maybe a nine-and-a-quarter on the Kreiner Scale. Pretty face,
sexy shoulder-length red hair, nice legs, 'generous endowments'
in the chest... He might have rated her a ten, except that she was
rather short for his tastes. There was something else, too, that he
couldn't quite put his finger on. A sort of... awkwardness, maybe?
Fitz had the strangest feeling that there was something drastically
wrong about her, but he couldn't figure out what it was. He
shrugged it off as being not really his problem. This was Chris's
little chickadee. If he could get her.

"Excuse, me. You're Ember, right?" Chris slid smoothly into the
girl's path as she started to step up to the door.

"Yes, why?" the girl replied, eyes narrowing in suspicion.

"I saw you in here last night, and was wondering if you'd like to
do me... the honor of letting me take you out to dinner tonight,
that is?" Chris turned up his Aura of Extreme Smoothness, his
expression and body language practically screaming out, 'You
know you want me, baby!'

The girl called Ember frowned and made an odd motion toward
her shoulder, but seemed to catch herself and instead smiled
warmly up at the tux-clad Adjudicator. "Why, I'd _love_ to go
out with you, sir, but I'm afraid the weather just isn't right for
that yet," she said in a soft Southern drawl.

"The weather?" Chris asked, confused.

"Yes. I mean, it's not _nearly_ cold enough for Hell to freeze
over, yet." She smiled cutely as Chris's expression crumbled and
Fitz winced in sympathy. "If you'll excuse me," she said, nodding
to Fitz as she stepped around Chris and through the door.

"Ouch," whispered Chris as Fitz shook his head. "That'll leave a
mark on my ego."

"Shot out of the saddle like the bad guy in a John Wayne movie,"
Fitz agreed.


"The three of you are in a long hallway, about forty feet, with a
pair of large wooden doors at the far end. The walls are finished
stonework, and the only light comes from a hole in the ceiling."
Adric finished reading the description and looked at the others
expectantly, waiting for them to say what they'd do. Usually,
all three would already be arguing over marching order and
whether Wes's halfling thief would have to check the door for
traps. Oddly, though, they were all just staring just behind him,
Wes and Lucas slightly open-mouthed and Ryoko with a single
raised eyebrow. Hmm... could that mean...?

"Hey there, Adric sugar," said a soft voice from over his right

"Eeep! I mean, uh, hi!" he yelped. Frantically, he turned to face
the girl behind him, but she was a little closer than he anticipated.
This resulted in his eyes being about two inches from her bust,
and a prominent bust, at that. Adric snorted back a slight trickle
of blood that started to seep from his nose. "Nice to see you
again," he stammered, mentally smacking himself as soon as the
words left his mouth and forcibly yanking his gaze up to her

"I bet," she answered drily. "Care if I join y'all?"

"No! No! Have a seat!" It was strange, hearing Adric, Wes,
and Lucas say that in perfect unison. Ryoko just shook her head
at their antics, her feline eyes glittering.

"So, Adric," the space pirate said, "are you going to introduce us
to your friend, or not?"

"Huh? Oh, right. Everyone, this is Ember Ashe. Ember, that's
Wesley Crusher..."

"Charmed," the Starfleet wunderkind said.

"...that's Lucas Wolencak..."

"The pleasure's all mine," Lucas gushed.

"...and that's Ryoko."

"Pleased ta meetcha, kid," the pirate replied as the girl took a
seat between her and Adric. "So, pretty odd name you've got

"Ryoko!" Adric exclaimed. "Be nice!" followed Wes a moment

Much to the boys' relief, Ember smiled and waved the comment
off. "Uh, yeah, I guess it is, Miss Ryoko."

Ryoko, having about as much tact as a Black Angus bull with its
testicles in a bear trap, kept on that subject. "Was your Dad a
fireman, or something?"

"No. An arsonist."

"That would certainly explain it."

"What about you, Miss Ryoko?" With a smile, Ember gestured
at Ryoko's mane of spikey greenish-blue hair. "Pretty odd hair
you've got there..."

Ryoko shrugged. "No mystery there. I'm an alien space pirate
whose mother is a twenty-thousand-year-old mad scientist with
rather odd aesthetic ideas."

"That would certainly explain it."

Ryoko turned to face the rather apprehensive-looking boys. "Oh,
don't look like that," she chided. "This is just how us girls kind
of get a feel for each other when we first meet, right Ember?"

"Uh... yeah! Exactly. No problem." The redhead flashed a
dazzling smile around the table, and most particularly at Adric.
"So, what are y'all up to? I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

"No no no," Adric assured her. "We were just playing a little
Dungeons and Dragons. You can join in, if you like. I've, uh,
got an extra character already made up that I just happened to
have with me..." Of course, he just happened to have it because
he just happened to have written it up especially for her, and just
happened to have made it a female elf magic-user with rather
high ratings for charisma and beauty. Thus do nerds show affec-

"Sounds like fun," she said, taking the proferred sheet.

Adric blushed a little and fumbled with his charts and dice. "So,
right, where were we?"

"Wes's halfling was about to check the doors for traps," Ryoko

"I bloody well was not..."


"I feel the need to unwind a bit, Brother Catbert."

The cat's ears perked up. "In what manner, Brother Lucas?"

"I think a pleasant evening in one of these little pubs would just
about do the trick," the Sherriff drawled.

Catbert grinned, showing his fangs, as his tail began a languid
twitching. "I think that's a fine idea, my Brother. Do you have
any particular one in mind?"

"I do indeed. There are several of these establishments in the
area, but only one that offers the sort of entertainment that you
and I prefer."

"Shall we, then?"

"I think we shall..."


Interlude 1

"...I am a bioelectronics engineer, not a berserker. I am a polite,
dignified aristocrat, not a walking engine of destruction." Nyssa
recited the words mechanically, having said them so many times
in the past several hours that she knew them by heart.

"Go on," the Doctor prompted sternly. "Say the rest of it."

Nyssa rolled her eyes, but did as he asked. "I will not kill anyone
or cause property damage simply because I get bored. I will not
use homicide, or the threat thereof, as a form of diplomacy. I will
remain in-character, and will not give in to the temptation to make
things or individuals combust." She ground her teeth and the last
part came out as a hiss. "I will... be... nice."

"That a girl, Nyssa! Just see that you keep to that promise, and
all will go quite well." The Doctor clapped his hat onto his head
and gestured grandly at the door. "Now, ladies, let's see where
the fates have led us to."

Tegan, who'd been impatiently waiting by the console, worked
the door lever and the three made a cautious exit from the
TARDIS. The Doctor went first, followed by Tegan, with Nyssa
grumpily bringing up the rear.

Outside, they found themselves inside a large chamber stacked
high with boxes and crates of various sizes and shapes, none of
which were in any way marked.

"We're in a spaceship's hold," Tegan muttered.

"What makes you say that, Tegan?" the Doctor asked. "I was not
aware that you knew anything about spacecraft design."

Wordlessly, Tegan pointed at the floor. It was covered in a ridged
plastic coating, and every few feet the words 'Penda Starship Hold
Bedliner' were molded into it.

"Erm, yes. Okay..." the Doctor floundered a little, embarrassed.
"Uh, so I wonder what could be in these crates?"

Tegan responded with a slight rolling of eyes at this subject
change, but followed along. "Something dangerous, I'm sure,"
she answered. "When do we ever run into anything else?"

Nyssa had already unlatched a container and was peering inside.
"Tegan's right," she announced.


"I am?"

"This crate is full of rifles," the Traken said, her eyes alight like
a child's at Christmas. She held one of the weapons up for them
to examine, a short, heavy, wooden-stocked carbine of obviously
military design.

The Doctor gave it a critical looking-over. "I'd say it's definitely
a Terran design," he said at last.

"It's a Samozaryadni Karabin Simonova," Nyssa replied, hefting
it to her shoulder and expertly working the slide, "more commonly
known as the SKS-45. Developed in the Soviet Union at the end
of the Second World War. Semiautomatic, chambered for the
7.62 millimeter short round--"

"Nyssa..." the Doctor warned under his breath. "O. O. C."

"Huh? Oh, right." Nyssa set the weapon aside with some reluc-
tance. "I... read a book about them once. That's it." She sighed
and looked away as the Doctor gave her a long, frowning glare.

Tegan was thinking more about the situation at hand than the
other two, and what she was thinking wasn't adding up. She
looked at the rifle, then around the cargo hold, then back to the
rifle. No, it most definitely did not add up. "So," she said, "why
is a Thirtieth-Century spaceship carrying a bunch of World War
Two rifles?"

"Actually, these are the later SNK-56 variant, but I still commend
your scholarship." The three turned at the sound of the new voice,
a voice that managed to be both pleasantly light and coldly dan-
gerous at the same time. From experience, all three expected to
see a person pointing a weapon at them. This was pretty much
standard procedure, and they were not disappointed in their ex-
pectations. However...

None of them was expecting to see a nun. Especially not a
young, coldly beautiful nun wearing a miniskirt and a shoulder-
holster. All in all, the large plasma-pistol she was aiming at
them was the least surprising thing about her.

"This is new," Tegan mumbled.

"And disturbing," Nyssa added.

"I am Sister Roxanne," the nun announced in that same icily
cordial tone, "and if you poor sinners don't put your hands up,
I shall most certainly send you straight to the loving arms of

End Interlude


Ryoko found it mildly annoying that the boys were making such
idiots of themselves over Ember. They'd never acted that way
around _her_! The nerve! What was she, chopped liver? Every
time the girl said anything, it was met with a chorus of stammer-
ing and blushing and 'Let me get that for you'. It was downright
insulting to be passed-over as a sex object, not that she'd actually
_do_ anything what with Tenchi being her one and only, and all
that. Still, even a tiny bit of male fawning would be nice for the
old self-esteem.

On the other hand, Ember Ashe seemed slightly embarrassed by
the way they were acting, although she refrained from saying
anything about it. Really, her behavior toward Wes and Lucas --
and Ryoko, for that matter -- was completely polite and civil, if a
little shy-seeming. With Adric, though...

"I'll cast a 'Sleep' spell at the orcs while the other three get their
weapons ready. Does that sound like a good plan, Adric sugar?"

She was actually batting her eyes at him! And the way she was
leaning over the table, making sure her cleavage was pushed out!
Could she possibly be any more obvious? Just what was with this
girl? And what was that odd tingle about her aura that kept nag-
ging at Ryoko's senses?

Ryoko decided right then that she'd know the answers before the
evening was over.


"Excuse me, sir, but I'll have to see your credentials before I can
let you in." Polly drummed her fingers on her clipboard, waiting
for the handsome stranger to give his name.

"What? Don't you remember me, Polly?" The man smiled gently
and stared hard into her eyes.

For a single, brief moment, Polly felt an unaccountable panic
sieze her. Those eyes were going to devour her and swallow her
whole. She had to run away...

And then the feeling was gone, and suddenly Polly remembered
who he was. How could she have forgotten? Why, she'd known
him for ages, ever since... Well, the details were a bit fuzzy, but
she distinctly remembered... remembering him. Oh well, the
details weren't important. The facts were that she knew him and
that she should let him in, because he was... who he was...

Polly shook her head to clear it. She had other things to worry
about, and it wouldn't do to make customers stand around waiting
at the door. With a smile, she stood aside to let him and his little
orange cat find themselves a table.


"I didn't know you knew her," Catbert purred as he and Sherriff
Buck took their seats.

"Who? Polly? Never seen her before in my life."

The cat nodded sagely. "Ah, the Jedi Mind Trick."

"Something like that," Lucas Buck replied with an enigmatic
smile. "Ancient South Carolina secret."

"Right. So, where's our little Cinderella?"

Lucas jerked his head slightly. "Right over yonder, next to the
green-haired lady. Looks like she's enjoying herself."

Catbert's glasses gleamed evilly. "Let's remedy that."

"Yes, let's. I was thinking that the jukebox would be the way to

The cat stiffened, clearly alarmed. He fixed Lucas with a piercing
gaze. "You aren't thinking of playing _that_ song, are you?"

"Christ, no!" Lucas exclaimed. "I just want to piss Number One
off, not make her psychotic."

Catbert shuddered. "Remember what happened that time when
the former Number Fifteen started singing it as a joke after the

"Hell, yes. I thought _I_ was nasty in 'Strong Arm of the Law'
and 'Damned If You Don't', but that gave me nightmares for a

"I heard they had to do surgery to get his leg out of his lower

"That was just the one they could find." The two gave the red-
head an uneasy look.

"Anyway," Lucas said after a brief pause, "I have a little musical
tribute in mind that should really get our little refugee from 'The
Crying Game' in a tizzy..."


They were taking a break, and Adric was just about to offer to
buy Ember another drink when the jukebox, of its own accord,
started playing an Aerosmith song:

o/~ Yeah! Yeah! Dude looks like a lady!

Ember made a strangled noise and spat out the last gulp of her
wine cooler.

"Hey! Are you all right?" Wesley asked.

The girl recovered quickly and waved them off. "Fine, fine," she
gasped. "I just, uh, sucked when I meant to swallow." Instantly,
the three boys' faces turned stop-sign red.

"You look a little pale, kid," Ryoko said. "Are you sure you're
okay? You look like you could use a little fresh air." Ryoko had
finally figured out what that weird feeling she had was all about,
and if she could just get Ember alone for a few minutes, she
could get to the bottom of this whole deal. This looked like a
good chance.

"Really, I'm fine Miss Ryoko..."

"Well, step outside with me, anyway," Ryoko said, levitating
up out of her seat and grabbing the redhead's arm. "I need to
stretch and shoot off some energy, and Francois gets miffed if I
do it inside. We can have some 'girl talk' while the boys grab
some snacks, okay?" They were already halfway to the door,
Ember stumbling behind the lightly floating pirate.

Adric scratched his head as the door closed behind the two. "I
wonder what _that_ was all about?"


"Got her on the first try!" Catbert cheered. "This _is_ fun!"

Lucas Buck's smirk was so evil that you could've put a dodgy
beard on it and called it 'the Master'. "Of all life's pleasures," he
said with great satisfaction, "I think I like screwing with people's
minds the best."


"It's a pretty night, isn't it?" Ryoko asked the question lazily as
she formed a plasma ball between her hands and used it to blast
an unoffending trash can.

"Yes, it sure is," Ember replied, a little of the tension easing out
of her.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" The pirate flung another blast at
some pine saplings across the parking lot, turning them to instant

"Actually, I am." Oddly enough, this was not entirely a lie. Set-
ting aside the sickening necessity of flirting with Adric, which
would give Number One bad dreams for some time, the evening
was not half-bad. Back before Number One had become a sinister
nameless spreader of woe, he had enjoyed playing games like D
and D, and the evening had had its moments of pleasant nostal-
gia when she'd managed to lose herself for a moment in the

"Glad to hear it," answered Ryoko. She formed another glowing
plasma-ball, but instead of firing it off, she just held it in her
hands, looking at it thoughtfully. "So, Ember, are you going to
tell me the facts about your Curse, or what...?"


Interlude 2

"Well, what have we got here, Roxy?"

The Doctor and his companions glanced nervously around the
privateer's bridge, taking in the variously hateful, suspicious,
and/or lust-filled glares of the crew. Tegan in particular shifted
uneasily under the lecherously-appraising stare of a scar-faced
young woman at the gunnery console.

The Captain, a big, blocky man with an immense black beard
walked around them in a slow circle, considering, as the nun
gave a quick explanation of their apprehension in the cargo hold.

"They weren't armed?" he asked as Sister Roxanne completed
her explanation.

"No, Captain. They carried neither arms nor identification."

A huge, charming grin split the Captain's beard as he flung him-
self into the command chair and gave the three a lazy wave.
"Howdy, folks!" he genially announced. "I'm Raeford Marlowe,
Captain of the _Heartless Bastard_. Since you've taken it on
yourselves to board my ship and inspect my cargo, could I trouble
you for your names and what the Hell you're doing here?"

The Doctor ahemed and straightened himself, acutely conscious
of the nun's icy stare and pistol both aimed at his back. "We were
just passing by," he began, "and our ship happened to materialize
in your hold. I'm the Doctor, and my young friends are Nyssa and
Tegan. We uh, mean you no harm," he added as an afterthought.

"Well, that certainly is a relief," Marlowe said with an arch of his
shaggy eyebrows. "I'd hate to think that a man with a gun at his
back had bad intentions. So, you three are just innocent tourists,
then? Who just happened to board my ship by pure random co-

"Er... essentially, yes."

"Well, that sounds like an innocent enough story. Shame about
us not believing any of it. Hey, Loyal Crew! What do you all
think they are?"

"FBATF agents!" chorussed the scar-faced woman, the nun, two
men who were repairing circuits at the scanner console, and a
gigantic, ebony-skinned Venjari who snarled at them across his
four folded arms.

"Communists!" shouted the Draconian woman at the engineering
console and an Ogron in greasy coveralls.

"Communist FBATF agents!" added the helmsman.

"Sounds plausible enough to me," the Captain said with a shrug.

"We aren't FBATF agents! We don't even know what those are!"
Nyssa exclaimed.

"We aren't Communists, either!" Tegan added indignantly. "Al-
though, I _have_ voted Labour a couple of times..." The Loyal
Crew met this with angry growls.

"Chill out, everybody!" Captain Marlowe roared. "We'll soon
have the truth of it." He turned to the Draconian. "Ellie, perform
the tests." The reptile-woman nodded and promptly strode off
to the medical locker.

"What tests? What are you talking about?" the Doctor demanded.

"Simple. We're gonna test you to see if you're either Commies or
agents of the Federation Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire-
arms. If you're innocent, you got nothing to worry about."

The Draconian returned with a med-scanner and a needle. She
carefully pricked each of the three on the finger and let a single
drop of each person's blood fall into the scanner.

"What is this supposed to prove?" asked the Doctor archly.

"The agents of the Federation Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms," the Captain explained, scorn dripping from the title,
"are, without exception, a bunch of trigger-happy, chain-smoking
drunks... which I suppose makes sense. We're just testing your
blood for alcohol and nicotine content. If you're clean, fine. If
not, you're probably FBATF, in which case Roxy here will shoot
you many, many times and then throw your mangled bodies out
the airlock."

The trio paled at this, but before they could respond, Ellie the
Drac had finished her analysis. "No nicotine, Cap'n. The butch-
looking girl's had some booze recently, but the others are clean."

"Butch-looking!?" Tegan growled. "Who's butch-looking?!"

"You are, a bit," the nun answered, prodding Tegan lightly with
the pistol barrel. "Now be still, sinner."

The Captain clapped his hands together happily. "Good deal!
You're not F-Troop. Ellie, the second test!"

Ellie held a small video player up where the three travellers could
all see it. On the screen, an ugly man with a shaved head was
speaking and making various wild and disjointed gestures.

"Watch carefully," the Drac hissed. "Do you find this man amu-
sing at all?"

The Doctor watched nervously for a moment, then curled his lip
in disgust. "I should say not," he snapped, sounding offended.

"Not even remotely," chimed in Nyssa. "What is he, brain-

Tegan simply turned away with a grunt of disgusted negation.

Ellie switched the video off and put it away. Turning to the Cap-
tain, she announced, "They had normal reactions to the Alexei
Sayle video. They aren't dirty Commies either." She sounded
mildly disappointed.

"Maybe they're Cthulhu-cultists?" the helmsman offered.

The scar-faced woman sidled over from her post to stand next to
Tegan. "I'll frisk the butch one for tentacles," she husked. Tegan
hid behind the Doctor.

"Yes! A hetero woman at last!" One of the repairmen danced a
happy little jig, pumping a fist in the air. "About friggin' time!
Man, it sucks when the only chicks around are a nun, a dyke,
and a lizard!" He went down in a sudden heap as a thrown chair
crashed into him.

"Watch who you call 'lizard', Monkey-boy," the Draconian hissed.

As things gradually became more chaotic on the bridge, the Cap-
tain gave a heart-wrenching sigh and rubbed at his eyes. "Do you
see," he asked the Doctor rhetorically, "what I have to put up

A cool, soft, but oh-so-deadly voice cut through the noise as Sister
Roxanne swept her eyes across the room. "Your disorder is ann-
oying the Captain, heathens," she said simply. In a flash, everyone
was quietly back at their stations, some casting fearful glances at
the miniskirted nun, others merely cringeing in place. The Venjari
crewman just laughed and shook his head.

Sister Roxanne turned back to Captain Marlowe. "Now, then.
What shall we do with these three, Captain? Shall I execute them?"
By her tone, she might have been asking if the Captain wanted
sugar in his coffee.

"But, you saw for yourself that we aren't Communists!" Nyssa
protested. "Or FBATF agents!"

The nun turned her chilly gray-blue gaze on Nyssa, and the
Traken girl had to remind herself that it would be Out-of-Char-
acter for her to express her admiration of the woman's technique.
Sister Roxanne's stare was like an icy knife in the guts, an in-
humanly deadly look of pure, unemotional menace. It was much
like her own Look, but without the subtle rage. Although she'd
never admit it, it also made her very nervous. Unconsciously,
she found herself fingering the charm bracelet on her wrist.

"You are doubtless guilty of something, sinner," the nun said.
She gave the tiniest of shrugs. "And if not, then God will know
His own when you arrive at His throne."

"Now, now, Roxy," the Captain gently murmurred. "There's no
need to go getting ahead of ourselves here. If they really are just
innocent travellers, we'd be doing them a disservice by killing
them, eh? And besides, you never know when having hostages
might prove useful..."

End Interlude


"Aheh heh heh... I don't know what you're talking about, Miss

The pirate continued to toy with the plasma-ball. It seemed to
get just a bit bigger as she sighed and looked Ember in the eye.
"I wish you wouldn't lie to me, kid. I don't _like_ it when people
do that."

"Why... what makes you think I'm cursed?" the redhead asked,
nervously eyeing Ryoko's Ball-o'-Serious-Hurt.

"I can sense that kind of thing. It's just one of my talents. So,
what I'd really like is for you to tell me just what sort of curse
you're under and why you keep throwing yourself at Adric like

Number One's brain raced furiously. This was bad, but not totally
unsalvageable. She'd have to tell the woman _something_, and
quick. The truth was, naturally, not even an option. She consid-
ered what little she had been able to feel out about Ryoko's perso-
nality. The woman was clearly pretty sly, and didn't miss much.
On the other hand, there was a feeling that Ryoko had a pretty
deep romantic streak. If she could just combine the right sort of
lie with the right sort of act, she might be able to play on that.
What did chicks usually fall for? What was the best guaranteed

"I'm waiting, Miss Ashe," Ryoko said.

"Well... it's... it's... WAAAAAAAAHHH!!"

"Umm, hey. No need to cry about it..." Ryoko's plasma-ball
fizzled out as she blinked in puzzlement at the furiously sobbing
girl. "Hey, c'mon. It can't be _that_ bad, can it?"

"WAAAAHH!!" Sniffsniff. "WAAAAAAAHH!!"

"H-hey, kid. Come on, now..."

Sniff. "It's just so _awful_. WAAAAAHH!"

Ryoko put a comradely arm around Ember's shoulders and sat
her down on a bench. "There, there. Why don't you tell Auntie
Ryoko all about it?"

Sniff. "Well, you see, what happened was..."

Overhead, a large crow listened with un-crow-like interest to the
story the girl began to spin.


Lucas Buck struggled to swallow his Scotch as he was struck by
an attack of the giggles. Catbert raised an eyebrow in silent

"If only you could see this, Brother Catbert," Lucas snorted. "I
had no idea Number One had such 'Mad Acting Skeelz'. If she
gets out of this one without getting flambe'ed, she ought to get
an Oscar."


"I wonder what's keeping those two?"

Wesley shrugged. "It's just girl stuff, I guess. You know how
girls are."

"No, I don't," Adric replied, "and neither do you."



"Er, it'll be okay..."


"Please, Miss Ryoko, stop crying."

The space pirate wiped her eyes and sniffled for a moment. "But
it's so _sad_!" she exclaimed. "You poor baby! That's just horr-
ible! And it wasn't even your fault. How could that old witch do
that to you?"

"She hexed every woman in the family, like I said. She wanted
us to feel the same pain my Uncle caused her."

"That pig," Ryoko said with feeling. "Breaking a woman's heart
like that. Still, that's just too awful, being cursed so that any
man you love will come to hate you as much as you love him..."
Actually, Ryoko was thinking that a curse like that was too awful
for _most_ people, but that there was a certain Juraian Princess
that a curse like that would be just about perfect for. Maybe she
could get that witch's name and address later.

"Yes, but see, the curse says that 'no man _born in this world_'
will ever return my love," Ember said, while thinking that she
certainly _hoped_ no man would ever love her. Ick. "So, what
I'm thinking is--"

"You think that since Adric isn't from Earth, that the witch's
curse won't include him?"

"It's what I hope," Ember said, with a sad, quiet smile. Inwardly,
Number One was patting herself on the back over what an effec-
tive liar she'd become. A little more practice, and she'd be quali-
fied for a job as a Presidential Aide.

"How tragically romantic!" Eyes shining wetly, Ryoko gathered
the smaller girl into a fierce hug. The redhead squirmed uncom-
fortably, not because the feeling wasn't pleasant, but because it
was a little _too_ pleasant. Number One was still quite male on
the inside, and the way the pirate's... _endowments_ were pressed
against her was causing her to get distracted from the task at
hand, which was to lie like a dog. "Of course, what makes it even
more tragic is that Adric already has a girl."

Ah. A perfect opportunity to fish for information. One thing
that Number One had thus far been lacking information on was
the status of Adric's quest to win Her Ladyship over. That the
attempt was being made was known, but just how successful he'd
been was not. Number One gently disengaged herself from the
other girl and made her face a mask of worry.

"I didn't know that," she said quietly. Seeing a good chance to
put Ryoko off-balance, she added, "I thought the two of you were
just friends..."

Ryoko's feline eyes widened in surprise, and she made haste to
correct Ember's 'misunderstanding'. "Nonono! Not me! I've
already got a stud-muffin. Adric and I are just buddies, is all.
No, I meant that little Traken girl, Nyssa."

"Nyssa?" Number One feigned confusion. "I thought she hated
him. Isn't she constantly doing mean things to him?"

"Yeah, she brutally murders him every now-and-then, but I think
that's just her way of getting him to pay attention to her."

"That seems an odd way of going about it," Ember said carefully.

"Well, you have to bear in mind that Nyssa is a raving nutter. A
certifiable loony. A homicidal basket-case little psycho-bitch
from Hell..."

Number One ground her teeth at the slights against Her Holiness,
but forced herself to stay silent.

"...but I think she really does like him. And I think he really likes
her, too. I can tell."

What a revolting thought. Still, it was the information that
Number One was looking for. "But, they aren't actually
_involved_ then?"

"Not quite yet, but we've been working on it." The pirate gave
her a sly look. "However, speaking from experience, you can't
be put off by a little competition. What the gang and I want is
for Addy to be happy with someone. Right now, that someone
seems to be Nyssa. But, if it turned out that he liked someone


"What's the prognosis, Doctor Buck?" the cat asked. "Is our
little two-legged gender crisis going to survive?"

"See for yourself," Lucas Buck replied as Ryoko and Number
One made their way back inside together.

Catbert raised his glass in a toast. "Another success for 'Opera-
tion Cupid's Arrow'."

"Indeed. You know, you've just got to love an assignment where
we come out on top if our operative succeeds, but we also do just
fine if we get him killed..."


"What kept you two? You were out there forever."

"Never you mind, Wesleykins," Ryoko said as she took her seat.
"We were just having some girl-talk."

"Ah." The young Starfleet officer nodded sagely. "Something to
do with underwear." Wolencak drove an elbow into his ribs.

Adric shook his head and smiled a little apologetically at Ember,
then blushing when she winked back at him. He looked down to
check his maps and hide his red face, asking, "So, uh, where
were we, again?" There was a brief flash of deja-vu.

"Wesley's halfling was about to check the demonic altar for

"No I was not, Ryoko!"


"Well? Are you going to do another one?"

"Patience, Catbert. We'll give her a few more minutes to get
settled back down, then hit her with another one."


" the first chest, you find several hundred silver pieces and a
small ring, while--"

o/~ I met her in a club down in old SoHo
o/~ Where they drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola.
o/~ C-O-L-A cola...

"Uh, Ember, are you all right?"


Interlude 3

"Prepare to be blasted out of space!"

"How do I do that?" Captain Marlowe asked innocently.

The man on the viewscreen looked puzzled. "I dunno...," he said
after a short pause for thought. He blinked his bloodshot eyes
and took a long drag from his cigar. "I never really thought about

"Well, you just get back with us when you've figured that part
out." Marlowe grinned daffily at the man as his Loyal Crew made
frantic preparations for battle.

"Uhm, okay... Hey, wait!" The man on the viewscreen shook
his fist. "You can't fool me like that!"

Marlowe shrugged, never losing his goofy-looking grin. "Okey-
dokey. How should I fool you, then?"

"You shouldn't fool me at all! I am an officer of the Federation
Treasury Department, performing my sworn duty!"

"Oh! I thought you were a beekeeper!"

The scar-faced woman at the gunnery console, Kaye Donegan,
quietly muttered, "Forward batteries at seventy percent, Captain."

Marlowe nodded imperceptibly, never taking his eyes of the

"A beekeeper?!" The officer quivered with indignation, almost
spilling his glass of whiskey. "I am Major Ernesto Shaygwevahra,
commander of the FBATF Patrol Frigate _Iosif Dzhugashvili_!"

"Sorry! You look a bit like a beekeeper, is all. You don't have an
interest in entomology, do you? You seem like you'd be good at

Off to one side, Tegan gestured at the apparently-daft Captain
and made a twirling motion next to her head. The Doctor,
though, just shook his head and mouthed the word 'stalling'
to her. He pointed at the crew, who were all fastening their
safety harnesses, and motioned for Nyssa and Tegan to do the

"Entomology? What are you talking about? I'm an officer of the
Federation government, and I'm ordering you to halt your ship
so that we can destroy it!"

"...eighty percent..."

"Destroy my ship?!" Captain Marlowe made a show of being
shocked. "Why, whatever for?"

"Probably for all those guns we're smuggling to Delos, Captain,"
chirped crewman Johnson helpfully. He was the same one who'd
gotten hit with a chair earlier, but whether he was addled from
the concussion or just naturally stupid was open to debate at
this point.

"Thanks, Johnson, you shitbrain," groaned the Captain. Sister
Roxanne, meanwhile, calmly unstrapped her harness, calmly
walked over to Johnson, and calmly began to beat him within
an inch of his life.

"You're running guns?!" Shaygwevahra exclaimed. "Cool! We
were just going to kill you all out of boredom! I didn't think you
were actually _criminals_! This kicks ass!" The view of the
Major's bleary features flickered out as the communication sig-
nal was cut off.

"All right, Loyal Crew! Let's show these assholes what happens
when you mess with the _Heartless Bastard_!"

The Loyal Crew, minus the comatose Johnson and the stoic Sister
Roxanne, raised a moderately enthusiatic cheer and set about
bringing the ship into attack position. The Captain favored the
Doctor and company with a toothy, car-dealer smile. "You three
just relax and enjoy the show," he said, then added, "None of you
are squeamish about blood, are you?"

End Interlude


"So, that girl was back to see Adric again last night?"

"That's what Wolencak said," Diane answered as she, Doug, and
Vick3ie lounged against the side of the ADF Mobile Command
Post. "He said they played some D and D and watched her flirt
with him for a few hours."

"That sly dog!" Doug exclaimed. "I knew this would happen!
Get Psycho-Bitch away from him for a little while, and the
women start coming out of the woodwork to throw themselves
at his manliness!"

"Uh, yeah. If you say so." Diane didn't seem particularly con-
vinced, but Doug was too much in worshipful-fanboy mode to

"Hey, Doug." Charlie leaned out the back of the truck and
motioned to his commander. "Starr's on the phone. Says he
needs to get with you on some of these requisitions you've sent

"Be right there!" Doug slipped inside to iron out the details of
his request to 'borrow' a squadron of AAH-64 Apache Attack
Helicopters, closing the door behind him.

Diane turned to Vick3ie, a serious look on her face. "Tell me,
Vick, don't you find it a little odd that some sexy girl just all of a
sudden crops up with an obsession for Adric? I mean, we're
talking about _Adric_, here..."

"I find it perfectly understandable that a woman should desire
Adric with all her heart," Vick3ie replied firmly.

"Vick, Doug's not listening right now."

Vick3ie's expression softened and lost its cool formality. "Umm,
well, in that case, yeah. It's a little strange, I guess. But hey,
different strokes for different folks." She shrugged. "I mean, he
_is_ cute. Sort of. A little bit..."

Diane chewed at her lip a little, frowning. "You know, I'd like to
find out more about this little fangirl."

Doug popped back out of the truck, grinning like a mule eating
briars. "Starr says he might be able to get us that air support we
were wanting to have on standby. That'll teach that redneck
bastard a lesson! BWAHAHAHAHAOuch!" Doug threw back
his head for some maniacal laughter, but miscalculated a little
and bonked his skull on the side of the truck. The two girls pol-
itely pretended not to notice.

"Anyway," he went on. "I was just thinking about this Ashe girl.
It occurs to me that, if she's going to hang around with Adric, we
really need to find out if she can protect herself. In case the Bas-
tard or the WANKERs or somebody shows up..."


"Chris, I have to tell you, I really don't think she's interested."

"Fitz, Fitz, Fitz," the blond chided. "Don't you know anything
about women? When a girl says 'No', she really means 'Maybe'."

"So what about when she tells you something about Hell freezing

"That just means 'Not yet'."

"Riiiiight." Fitz had his own opinions on the issue, but saw no
point in cramping Cwej's style. If he could manage this one,
more power to him.

Chris wasn't worried, though. He had a plan this time. His last
effort to get a date with the little redheaded knockout had ob-
viously failed due to poor planning and misdirected effort. He'd
taken the wrong approach, and had, consequently, failed. This
time, though, he knew his target and adapted his tactics to fit
the situation.

"You know, that hat really isn't you, Chris."

"I did my research, Fitz. 'Know thy babe', and all that. I have to
use the hat."


Into the breach once more.

Number One sighed and centered herself emotionally for another
evening of girly simpering. It was _so_ hard, maintaining this
false identity and basically acting in a way that ran counter to
every detail of her personality. Being in the room with Adric
was taxing enough in and of itself. Acting like she (shudder)
_wanted_ him was almost more than she could take. And doing
this while abstaining from cigarettes was about to drive her in-

What she really needed was the chance to cut loose. It would be
so nice to turn back to male, smoke about a carton of Marlboros,
and go to a bar somewhere for a fine evening of country music,
leering at women, and beating the living shit out of somebody.
That would be perfect, but actually doing even just one of those
things would do wonders for her disposition. Especially the
beating part...


"There she is. Watch and learn, Fitz."

Fitz had the feeling that he'd most certainly be learning some-
thing, but not what Cwej had in mind.

Chris had no such doubts. He'd done his homework this time.
He'd managed to figure out from their brief conversation the day
before that Ember Ashe was apparently from the Southern United
States, based on her dialect. Obviously, then, it was the cultural
gap that was the problem. His approach would have certainly
been correct for any girl from Britain or a Commonwealth country,
but was totally wrong for a Southern girl. He knew this for an
absolute fact, because he had spent most of the previous night
doing 'cultural research'.

That is, he'd stayed up watching old TV episodes of 'The Dukes
of Hazzard' and 'BJ and the Bear', and every one of the 'Smokey
and the Bandit' movies.

As the girl walked up to the door, Chris adjusted his cowboy hat,
hooked his thumbs into the waist of his bluejeans, and sauntered
out to meet her.

"Hey thar, li'l filly," he drawled. "How are y'all doin' this fine

It was, Fitz reflected, like watching a train wreck. It was truly
horrible, but he found himself unable to look away.

"I'm... fine," Ember replied, looking Chris up and down, taking
in the cowboy hat, the Western-style shirt, the hubcap-sized belt
buckle. "Just what are you supposed to be?"

"Aww, shucks, li'l sweet thang. I'm just tryin' to be right neigh-
borly to y'all." He grinned charmingly .

The redhead looked around, confused. "Y'all? Who else are you
talking about? There's just me."

"That's what I mean, darlin'. Just you-all."

"Me-all. Uh-huh." She looked at him flatly. "Well, how about
you get out of my way, Suburban Cowboy? I got an appointment
to keep." She brushed by him, meaning to get inside and away
from this fool who was parodying her much-loved homeland.

"Don't be like that, li'l filly," Chris said, simultaneously swatting
her on the rear as she went by. "I just-- YEEEEAAAAGGHH!!"

It should be noted that the worst thing about being in a female
body for Number One was the feeling of weakness. Number One
despised weakness, and the fact that her female form was not
nearly as strong as her powerful real body was a constant source
of disgust. It was the feeling of vulnerability that came with being
physically small and weak that made being a girl so abhorrent,
even more than the actual fact of being the wrong sex. Thus,
while Number One was a violent, hair-trigger maniac normally,
as a girl her insecure defensiveness made her a ticking time

Add to this the fact that she _really_ didn't like the idea of being
touched by a man...

Add to this the fact that she _really_, _really_ didn't like the idea
of being touched on the _butt_ by a man...

Add to this the fact that she _really_ didn't like people doing bad
impressions of Southernness...

Add to this the fact that she was going through serious nicotine

Add to this the fact that she was just in the mood to injure some-


The girl called Ember absently wiped the blood off her fist as she
nodded to Fitz and made her way inside, suddenly feeling much
better. Maybe this body was a bit weak, but it still packed a
satisfying wallop...

"Umm... Chris? You okay, buddy?" Fitz asked.

"Dab it! Wherethsth bmy fwront teethsth?!"

"I, uh, think one of them went up your nose..."


Adric swiped lazily at the bar, feeling guilty, and feeling stupid
for feeling guilty.

For two days now, _she_ had been gone, and for two days he'd
had a fine old time. He'd had fun with his friends, found a new
friend, not been killed at all, managed to make some halfway-
decent tips tending bar, flirted with a pretty girl (been flirted _at_
was more like it), and generally enjoyed life.

And he felt guilty about it.

"My self-esteem must be _really_ squashed," he thought, "if I
can't even have fun without feeling bad about it. Heh. I sound
like that fellow in those movies that Peri's always on about.
Whatsisname... Glasses and neuroses... Allen. Wookie Allen..."

Even as he flailed himself with the mental image of himself star-
ring in 'Sleeper', the cool, analytical part of his mind surveyed
the varied angles of his guilt and rejected the self-esteem hypo-

"No," it said. "Self-esteem has taken some major damage, but
is still viable. In fact, Confidence is up a net four percent in the
past week. No, initial scans indicate that the Guilt Anomaly
appears to be connected in some way to a quantity called 'Nyssa'."

"No way."

"Way. The Guilt Anomaly only shows a measurable Wince Factor
response when the quantity 'Nyssa' is conceptually introduced."

Adric struggled with this idea for a moment. "So... I feel guilty
for having a good time while Nyssa is in danger?" That made a
certain sort of sense, he supposed.

"We can find out with a simple experiment. Replay your memo-
ries of the last 48 hours. Now, add some concentration on the
concept 'Nyssa', and we'll measure the Specific Wince Factor
generated by the Guilt Anomaly to each variable."

Adric did so, spending the next several seconds in silent contem-
plation. Fortunately, the pub was mostly empty, so his abrupt
quietude did not draw any attention.

"Okay," piped up the cool, analytical part of his mind. "We've
got the raw data processed. Here's how the Guilt Anomaly breaks
down, based on Wince Factor Response to the quantity 'Nyssa':

having fun with friends -- 3%
meeting new friend -- 19%
not being killed -- .0002%
making good tips -- 0%
flirting with pretty girl -- 77.9998%

"Based upon this data, the most likely hypothesis is that the Guilt
Anomaly arises from contact with the quantity called 'Ember' and
must, therefore, be caused by conflict between your emotional
reaction to such contact and your emotional orientation toward
the quantity 'Nyssa'..."


Interlude 4

In a decaying orbit above the planet Delos, two starships tumbled
slowly through the void, entangled together like two birds that
have just learned the hard way that mating is something that
should best be done on the ground.

The privateer _Heartless Bastard_ and the FBATF Patrol Frigate
_Hillary Rodham_ both looked like they had seen better days.
The privateer had a ragged gouge blasted into its cargo hold and
one of its engines had been blown completely off its strut, while
the rest of the hull was covered with small pock marks and burn
scars. The slightly smaller frigate looked even worse, having
much of its armor blasted away and a distinctly chewed look to
its superstructure. Here and there, small explosions and electrical
arcs went off as various systems failed and shorted themselves
into extinction.

Nearby, a few fragments of a third starship drifted peacefully
along. The FBATF Patrol Frigate _Friedrich Engels_ had taken
a hit to its torpedo bay early in the fight, and the resulting
explosion had reduced the warship to a large number of extreme-
ly small pieces.

Captain Raeford Marlowe surveyed the carnage on his bridge,
shaking his head. Conversationally, he said to the Doctor, "You
know, them trying to use boarding tactics was a pretty stupid

The Doctor went on bandaging the helmsman's arm as he replied,
"Well, I'm sure they didn't realize that you had an Ogron, a Venjari
warrior, and a nun of the Order of Saint Wanda-Sue on board. The
poor fools." He glanced sadly at the corpses of the FBATF boar-
ding party that littered the deck.

"Poor nothing!" Ellie the Drac snorted. "They'd've killed us all if
we'd let them. You and your friends, too, same as us." She spat
at the nearest body.

"There should have been some other way," the Doctor whispered.

Nyssa turned to Tegan and held out her hand. The Australian
grumpily gave her a five pound note, which was wordlessly
pocketed. Nyssa had wagered her that the Doctor would say
that at least once during the course of the story, and like a fool,
Tegan had taken her up on it.

"Boarding party's returning, Captain," Kaye announced. A mo-
ment later, the three crewmembers in question strode onto the
bridge, the Venjari bending almost double to get his nine-foot-
tall bulk through the door. He and the Ogron crewman were
both sweaty and spattered with their enemies' blood, while Sister
Roxanne remained as primly neat and poised as always. As the
other two began stripping off their weapons and armor, Sister
Roxanne pulled out a small Bible and rosary and knelt next to
one of the dead FBATF men, speaking quietly and making the
Sign of the Cross over his remains.

"Well, Tharon?" Marlowe asked.

"We got their grapples released," the Venjari replied. "Fought
our way to the bridge and did that first, then took care of the rest
of their crew."

"Any problems?"

"Not really. Feds are even worse warriors than the general run
of you humans. They made a stand in the engine room, and it
was so close in there that we had to go at it hand-to-hand, ten
against three. That took a couple of minutes. We'd have been
back sooner, but Sister had to give the dead their proper Christian

"Good," grunted the Captain. To the Loyal Crew in general, he
proclaimed, "All right, everybody take a few minutes to rest up,
then we need to clean up and make sure the ship can still make
a planetary landing without coming apart on us. I'm gonna go
make sure the cargo's intact. Roxy has the bridge in the mean-

As he made his way to the lift, the Doctor acidly remarked,
"Worried about your profits, are you? I guess it would be a
shame to have killed three shiploads of lawmen and have no
money to show for it. I hope your buyers give you a fair price."

Marlowe was silent for a moment, and when he finally answered,
his voice was uncharacteristically serious. "This run's not for
money, Doctor. This one's... personal."

"Amen," murmurred Sister Roxanne.

End Interlude


Adric Defense Force Trooper Third Class Jason was not a happy
individual. That isn't to say that he was a gloomy or angry sort
of person. Far from it. It's just that he wasn't happy right _then_.

"Permission to speak freely, sir?" he asked, his tone indicating
that he would probably do so regardless of the answer.

"Of course, Jason," Doug replied. "We're an informal bunch.
You can always speak your mind in this outfit. And don't call
me 'sir'."

"Yes, sir. Sir, I really don't feel right about this assignment."

"Oh, really?" Doug arched an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

"Sir, I enlisted to defend the honor of Adric and his followers
and fight the forces of Evil. I did not enlist to rough-up little

Doug waved that off. "It's just an act, Jason. We're not really
going to hurt her or anything. We just need to find out if she's
up for the hazards of being around Adric."

Jason nodded solemnly. "I know that, sir. But, surely there's
another way to do that."

"This is the best way of finding out how Ember Ashe responds to
dangerous situations, by simulating one. Better that we give her
a little scare now than to have the Cigarette-Smoking Bastard turn
up and do God-knows-what, right?"

Jason reluctantly nodded, rubbing at the bandage on his forehead,
a souvenir from his first and only run-in with that same Cigarette-
Smoking Bastard at the Battle of the Red Rock Restaurant. He
recalled the whine of Magnum slugs droning past his head and
the dull slam of the thrown coffee pot that had rendered him hors
de combat. No, he had to admit, he wouldn't want a poor, inno-
cent young lady to have to face that without being prepared.

"So, you can see that it's for the best, right, Jason?"

Sigh. "I guess..."

"Great. Now, here's your ski mask and rubber knife, just like the
ones Jimmy's got. What you do is..."


Adric looked up from his brooding just in time to see one of the
causes of it walking cheerfully through the door.

"Hey there, Adric sugar!" she called, giving him a cheery wave.

"H-Hi, Ember!" he returned. "I didn't expect to see you back so
soon." It occurred to him how that might have sounded, and he
hastily sought to amend it. "I mean, ah, not that that's a bad
thing. It's... I mean... you... I... uh... that is..."

"Why, Adric," she slyly said, "is that a speech impediment in
your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?" He turned four
shades of red, and she burst out laughing. A moment later, he
did, too, most of the worried tension slipping away from him.

As she took a seat at the bar, he said, "Seriously, though, what
brings you by here today?"

"No reason. I had some time to kill, and thought I'd drop by and
keep you company while you worked. You don't mind, do you?"


A short while later, a short distance away...

"You know, Chris, I have to admit that the missing teeth actually
go pretty well with the cowboy hat."

"Sthut ubp, Fitthz..."


"You ready, Jason?"

"Ready as I'll ever be. Remember our target's description: short;
redhead; hourglass figure."


The two ADF men stood flanking This Time Round's front door,
sweating under their concealing ski-masks. Jimmy, the smaller
of the two, fingered his rubber knife nervously. He looked down
for a moment to check his watch, and noticed something on the

"Hey. What's that?"

Jason looked to where his cohort was pointing. "Looks like a
puddle of blood," he said, biting at his lip. "With a snot-covered
tooth in the middle of it."

"Bad omen?" asked Jimmy.


The two regarded the congealing bad omen for a moment.

Finally, Jimmy broke the silence. "Well. If we're going to do
this, we'd better get moving before someone shows up."

Jason took a deep breath and centered himself. "Right. On three,
then. One. Two..."


Number One was finally having a halfway-decent day. Sure, she
was having to flirt with Adr-- er, Weasel-Boy, and maybe she
was having the most horrible craving for cigarettes, but at least
she'd finally gotten the chance to inflict grievous bodily harm on
someone. And, since Ad-- _Swamprat_ was the only one work-
ing the bar, he was giving her free drinks, which was awfully
good of-- ahem, _stupid_ of him. Quite worth a little phony int-
erest, really.

Yessiree, the kid was a prize patsy to fall for an act like this, being
all stupidly polite and attentive. What a sap. What a dupe. What

"A pretty nice guy, really," said a tiny, insignificant little voice
in the back of her mind. Number One hated that voice. Most of
the time, it had the good manners to sit back and shut up and not
draw attention to itself. But, every now and then, it would say
the most awful things. Things that served only to undermine
confidence and bring on feelings of vague unease. Number One
considered the little voice to be a traitor, and fervently wished
that the voice had some physical reality outside her own head,
so that she could shoot it and feel better.

Yes, it was insignificant, despised, weak, and usually ignored,
but Number One's conscience just wouldn't die.

"Shut up, voice," she growled mentally, "or so help me I'll... uh...
do something to you."

The voice made no answer, which was just fine. Now, if she could
just get those treasonous words out of her head...

("A pretty nice guy, really.")

Great. It was obvious that her day was about to start going down-
hill in a big way.

At that moment, the door was kicked open and two ski-masked
men came charging toward her, brandishing knives and scream-
ing, "DIE, WENCH!"

Sometimes, Number One hated being right.


"DIE, WENCH! YAAAH!" Jimmy yelled like a fiend as he
rushed at the only girl in the place, who fortunately matched
the description of their intended target. He slowed a little to
slip around some tables, noting the reactions of the pub's few
denizens. Adric stood behind the bar, a deer-in-the-headlights
look on his face. Turlough yelped and pressed himself tighter
into his booth. Jadi Morok slept the sleep of the totally-plowed.
Ember Ashe casually picked up a bottle from off the bar...

Eh? Her total lack of screaming and panicking registered with
him an instant before his hand reached her shoulder. In that
same instant, the bottle in her hand registered with the left side
of his head with a loud CRA-ACK.

ADF Trooper Third Class Jimmy went down in a boneless heap,
the side of his ski-mask soaked with cheap gin and a halo of
broken glass around his head.

Trooper Third Class Jason was a few steps behind his counterpart,
and came to a wary halt as Jimmy hit the ground. "Hey, now--" he
croaked, but got no further as the woman swept up a nearby chair
and hurled it into him. Turning his head and raising his hands to
block the impact, he deflected the chair but failed to see the ninety-
five pounds of red-haired feminine fury that came charging in
behind it to come down on him like the Descent of Man.

Jason fell backwards as the girl cannoned into him, one fist bury-
ing itself in his gut and the other slamming into his jaw. Every-
thing went black for a second as his head bounced off the floor.
The blackness was quickly driven off by the throbbing pain of
the two punches, the blow to the back of his head, and the weight
of the girl's knees on his chest. He felt the knife plucked from his
unresisting hand, and then the blackness won out again as uncon-
sciousness swept over him.


"Holy crap!" Diane shouted as she threw her binoculars aside.
"Vick! Charlie! We've got to get down there! Heather, get some
medics to the 'Round! Pronto!"

"What's wrong?" Vick3ie demanded as she joined Charlie and
Diane in sprinting for the pub door.

"Adric's fangirl just took out Jason and Jimmy!"


Running on pure reflex, Number One snatched the fallen man's
knife away as she pinned him to the floor. She used one hand to
wrench back his head, exposing his throat, and brought the
wobbling knife up in an arc that would descend cleanly across
his jugular and--

'Wobbling' knife?

She looked at the weapon, wiggling it in her hand and watching
the blade flex and twitch. A glance at the other showed it to look
exactly the same.

An attack with fake weapons. Just what in the Hell was going
on, here? Maybe when one of the two woke up, she could inter-
rogate him, or something.

She became conscious of someone staring at her.

"Uh, Ember...?"

Oh, Hellfire. Adric. She'd gone and got medieval on someone
right in front of the person she was supposed to convince of her
innocent femininity. An old saying suddenly occurred to her,
one her Grandpa had often used when he fouled something up.

"Well," she muttered. "Looks like I shit too close to the house
this time." She sighed and began thinking of how to put the best
possible face on this.


Interlude 5

"Shouldn't we be trying to stop them?"

The Doctor turned from watching the Loyal Crew load the crates
of guns and ammunition aboard the hoversled and regarded Tegan
with a mildly annoyed look.

"How?" he asked.

The two stood in the shade of the crash-landed privateer, while
around them the crew made preparations to deliver their load of
weapons, apparently to some group of malcontents or other. A
short distance away sat Nyssa, perched daintily on a piece of
wreckage and paging through a copy of _Fodor's Travel Guide to
the Worlds of Sector 6B-41_ that she'd found.

"I don't know. Can't you reverse the polarity of the neutron flow
on something-or-other?"

"The only piece of equipment they have that uses polarized
neutron flow technology is that little refrigerator they've set up..."

"Damn it!" Donegan began cursing and kicking at the little
machine. "All the friggin' beer is hot!"

"...and my sabotage there, while effective, isn't accomplishing

"Hey. Listen to this." Nyssa indicated the book she was holding
and began to read aloud. "The planet Delos is often held by
progressives in the Federation as being the epitome of a sound,
caring society existing in harmony with its environment. Since
the overthrow of the last High King, David the Annoyingly Pre-
tensious, an enlightened Socialist government led by the Revolu-
tionary Alliance of Delian Workers has managed in a mere ten
years to completely eliminate social inequality, narrow the eco-
nomic gap between the rich and poor, provide full employment
for life for all citizens, and reduce the incidence of death by
disease to near zero. The Delian government has also elected to
maintain the level of Delian technology at an ecologically-friendly
pre-Steam Era level, to the delight of Greens across the Federa-

"Sounds like a right Paradise, to me," Tegan commented.

The Doctor pursed his lips and scowled. "I suppose that does
confirm once and for all who the bad guys are. Since there's not
much we can do here, I suggest we slip away at first opportunity
and inform the authorities about this operation."

"Do we have to?" Nyssa looked disappointed. "I kind of like
these people, and that Sister Roxanne--"

"O. O. C.," hissed the Doctor.

End Interlude


"Ember, are you all right? What's going on?" Adric came out
from behind the bar, looking worried and confused.

Number One dropped the rubber knife and got up off of her un-
conscious attacker. "Oh, Adric sugar, I'm fine, but I was _so_
scared. I just panicked!" She gave him a shimmering-eyed look
of simple innocence.

"_That_ was panic?" Adric muttered. He shook his head a little.
"As long as you're okay. Who are these guys?"

"I honestly have no idea, sugar."

Adric knelt next to the fallen man, noting with puzzlement the
rubber knife. Lifting the man's head a little, he peeled off the
ski-mask to reveal--

"It's old Mr. Bumpers from the amusement park!"

Adric shot the inebriated Turlough an annoyed look. "This
_isn't_ 'Scooby Doo', Turlough," he said. Frowning, he regarded
the man's face for a moment. It seemed familiar. The frown
deepened as he remembered just where he'd seen him before. "I
know this guy. He's with the--"

"ADF!! Everybody stay calm! The ADF has the situation under

Diane and the Cavalry had arrived.


"What were you lot thinking? Someone could have been hurt!"
Adric shook his finger at the chagrinned ADF troopers.

"Someone _was_ hurt," Ember muttered, pointing at the two
casualties being wheeled out to the ambulance.

"Erm, yes! Someone did get hurt! What were you trying to

"It was Doug's idea," Vick3ie grumbled.

"I don't care," Adric sighed. "Whoever thought this up, it was
dangerous and irresponsible."

Heather quietly muttered, "They were just rubber knives. No one
was supposed to be hurt."

Diane gave Ember a hard stare, which was impassively returned.
"Anyway, _our_ guys didn't hurt anybody. _She_ did."

"I was just defending myself from two knife-weilding maniacs,"
the redhead stiffly retorted.

"Damn effectively, too." Diane looked the girl up and down.
"Just where did you learn to fight like that, anyway?"

Ember shrugged in a manner that Adric and the other males quite
enjoyed, answering, "You don't last long as an Adric fan without
being able to defend yourself." She smiled thinly, unable to resist
a little dig at the Adric Defense Force. "Or, perhaps your men
just can't fight worth squat."

Diane growled back, "You didn't answer my question. Where did
you learn those moves?"

"I told you. Geez, I just fended off what I thought were a couple
of psychos. I didn't expect some sort of ADF Inquisition."

As one, everyone in the pub turned to look at the door. Exactly
1.03 seconds later, Doug burst in, shouting, "_Nobody_ expects
the ADF Inquisition! Our chief weapons are surprise, fear, and
M-16 assault rifles!"

Vick3ie gave Ember a grateful look. "Thanks. He's been wanting
the chance to do that for years, now."

"I figured."

Doug strode purposefully over and grabbed the startled redhead
by the hand. "Miss Ashe," he began, "I apologize for any distress
we might have caused you. We just had to find out if you were
up to dealing with the hazards of being around Adric on a regular
basis. I must say, from what I've seen and heard, you passed our
test with flying colors. So, no hard feelings?"

"No skin off my back," she replied easily. "Sorry for damaging
your guys like that, but I didn't know. I'm curious, though. I
thought Nyssa was gone for a while, so what's the big danger
you're worried about?"

Doug peered intently into the distance out the nearest window,
lifting his chin to look noble and wise. A gust of wind toyed
slightly with his hair, making him look particularly heroic and
dramatic. (Since they were inside, this was accomplished by
a small battery-powered fan that Vick3ie carried for just such

"The Psycho-Bitch Hose-Beast may be gone for a bit," he intoned,
"but there is still a dark force abroad in this happy land. A force
with a black heart, and lungs to match. I speak of the Bastard."

Imperceptibly, Ember's left eyebrow twitched.

There was a brief moment of utter silence.

"Ahem. I said, I speak of the Bastard," Doug repeated. This
time, the other ADFers took their cue and let out a long, sibilant
hiss of anger.

"So, okay, who's that?" Ember asked, feigning puzzlement.

"A vile little man. He calls himself Number One, but we call him
the Cigarette-Smoking Bastard. He's a violent, sadistic nutjob
who has some kind of fanboy-obsession with Psycho-Bitch. Like
follows like, I guess. He's killed Adric a few times, attacked our
soldiers, and generally made life difficult for everybody involved

Ember widened her eyes. "Whoa. He sounds like one seriously
bad dude."

"Nah, not really. More like a dangerous annoyance--"

Ember's left eyebrow resumed its twitching.

"--but we can't be too careful. Coming after you would be just
the sort of thing a cowardly snake like him would get up to. Odd,
then, that we haven't heard anything out of him in the past two

Ember shifted uneasily. "So, tell me, what's this guy like? So I
can keep an eye out for him."

Doug chuckled. "Di calls him 'The Tasmanian Devil' sometimes,
because he's sort of built like Taz: short, broad, and with a big

"Too true," chimed in Diane. "Be on the lookout for a short guy
in his twenties or thirties. He's got dark hair, slightly Amerind
features, and has a tattoo of a flag right about there." She poked
Ember on the left sleeve.

"Sounds like a handsome devil," Ember joked.

"He's not," Diane replied instantly. "Zero sex appeal. He looks,
acts, and talks like a goon out of a 'Deliverance' sequel."

"I'll, ah, watch out for him." Ember's voice managed to betray
not a trace of the battered ego inside her.


Another day, another slow slide down the long spiral into mad-

"How's the strumpet game these days, Victor/Victoria?"

And there was one of the people who was giving him a push.

"And just what do you want this morning, Sherriff Loco?" Num-
ber One snarled across his breakfast.

Lucas Buck just grinned and propped himself on the opposite
side of the counter, casually plucking a slice of bacon from the
plate. "Just coming by to check on my favorite crossdresser,"
he smarmed. "How goes the operation so far?"

"You haven't been keeping up?" the shorter man asked archly.

"Of course I have. I just wanted to hear the report from you in

"You just wanted to come by and make my life a more complete
Hell, you mean."

"That too. So...?"

Number One sighed and pushed up his mirrorshades. With a
few quick sentences, he related the events of the previous two

"So," Lucas said when he had finished, "you think Adric's little
tin soldiers might be suspicious of you after that out-of-character
brawl in the 'Round?"

"Hey! It's not like I had a choice!" Number One snapped. "But,
yeah, maybe. Just in case, I've got a little side-plan I'm going to
get my Minions to carry out." He quickly sketched out the oper-
ation he had in mind.

"Not a bad idea, considering the source," Lucas sneered. "But
you should have cleared it with me or Catbert first. Don't forget
who's in charge here."

"I'm not likely to," Number One muttered darkly. "But this is a
minor operation that doesn't directly affect 'Cupid's Arrow'. It's
just between me and my Minions."

"Still," the Sherriff pressed, "your job isn't to take independent
action anymore. It's to do whatever Catbert and I tell you to do.
I'll let it slide just this once, I suppose." He grabbed the last
slice of toast off Number One's plate and began to eat it.

"How magnanimous of you." Number One regarded his 'boss'
for a moment, then smiled broadly and pulled something from
his pocket. It was a small piece of folded parchment, which he
held out to the other.

"What's that?" Lucas asked around the toast.

Number One faked a look of shock. "What? You mean there's
something the all-seeing Lucas Buck doesn't know about? It's
something I had Alexander Carter find for me. Open it up and
take a look. It'll blow your mind."

With a suspicious glare, the Sherriff took the profferred parch-
ment and unfolded it. The instant the writing became visible, a
strange thing began to happen. Lucas Buck's entire body went
rigid as an ironing board and small arcs of something that didn't
look entirely like electricity began flickering around his hands.
Number One watched with pleased interest as the man's clothes
began to smoke and his eyes rolled back in his head.

With what looked to be a supreme effort of will, Buck released
the parchment and began to gasp frantically for breath. The
parchment itself began to burn as soon as it left his hands and
was just a cloud of drifting ash by the time it reached the floor.

Number One laughed, long and loud, the first real laugh he'd had
in days. "Oh, man," he gasped. "I knew you'd get a 'charge' out
of that."

Lucas Buck gave him a murderous glare as he panted for breath.
"Y-y-you. Son. O-of a. Bitch. W-what. Was. That?"

"Nothing much," grinned Number One. "Just an old Gnostic ward
against demons. It's supposed to destroy any minor demon or
evil spirit that touches it and give the major ones a serious jolt
of whupass. It cost like sin, but it was worth it to see that show
just now. I wish I'd thought to bring a camera."

Buck's lips drew back in a strangely bestial snarl. "You bastard!"
he rasped. "I should kill you for that!" One hand went to the
holster under his long coat.

Number One carefully got up and walked around the counter to
face the demonic Sherriff from a distance of about five feet.
"Then you just come on ahead," he said calmly, his own hand
resting lightly near the butt of his own .357 Magnum. "Come
on, Lucas," he repeated. "There ain't nothing in between us
now but air and opportunity." He smirked. "And a little fear."

The murderous tableau held for a long moment, Buck's feral eyes
glaring into the impassive mirrorshades. At last, the Sherriff let
out a long breath and relaxed, dropping his hand away from his
weapon, although his hateful stare never faltered.

"That's what I thought," Number One said, not deigning to even
keep an eye on his opponent as he began putting away his dishes.

Sourly, Buck picked up a cup of cold tea and flung its contents at
Number One, changing him into woman on contact. "Just a rem-
inder," Buck hissed, "of why it is that we need you alive for this
operation, you sex-changing freak."

Number One arched one red eyebrow over her glasses lens. "'Freak',
is it? Heh. I'm more man than you'll ever be, and more woman
than you'll ever _have_..."


Interlude 6

The strangest thing was the terrible sameness all around them.
Every building, every object, and every person all seemed to be
in identical states of glum, gray dilapidation. One would think,
then, that a trio of colorfully-dressed, bright-eyed travellers being
marched through town under guard would attract attention, but
that didn't happen. Every person they encountered, whether the
work crews tearing down buildings or their own listless, musket-
carrying escort, gave them only a vacant, dull-eyed glance before
going back about their own business.

"Doctor, what's with these people? I thought this was supposed
to be some kind of Paradise."

"I don't know, Tegan, but I've a feeling we'll find out all too soon.

Not too far away, there was a quick rattle of musketry. No one
seemed to pay it any heed.

Without losing step, the Doctor turned to the nearest of the escort-
ing -- 'soldiers' wasn't the right word, they were too ragged and ill-
kempt -- men with guns and asked brightly, "I say there, Old Chap,
just where are we going, hmm?"

The man turned ponderously and regarded him with a grim exp-
ression. "Using reactionary forms of address is a Crime Against
the People, comrade."

"Uh, right. So, where are we going, _comrade_?"

"To the Council of Commissars," the man answered thickly.

"Ah, good," the Doctor smiled. "We just needed to tell them--"

The man continued, overriding him. "There, you will answer for
your Crimes Against the People."

"Crimes?" Nyssa demanded indignantly. "What crimes?"

"That is for the Council of Commissars to decide."

There was another volley of musketry, a little nearer than before.

End Interlude


ADF Team Gamma was having a run of bad luck. First Gamma
Three, poor Terry Wayne, had that nasty run-in with the Bastard
that left him a nervous, itching wreck with a severe phobia about
ants. Then Gamma Two and Gamma Four, Jason and Jimmy, had
gotten themselves taken out by Adric's new maybe-girlfriend.
Indeed, the only notable success they'd had, when they'd beaten
the Bastard at the Red Rock Restaurant, had been when they
were led by Diane from Alpha. All things considered, not a ster-
ling combat record.

Gamma One, better known as Trooper Second Class Michelle,
was hoping to change that. She was an idealistic young woman,
and devoted to her cause and her teammates, and she felt in her
heart that the job of redeeming the honor of Gamma team was on
her shoulders and hers alone.

Thus, it was with total commitment and total focus that she tailed
the four young men known as 'the WANKERs' as they drove off
in their rattletrap old car. She watched, carefully and unstintingly,
as the foursome made their way across town. When they stopped
for breakfast, she was there watching from across the dining room.
When they stopped at the video store to rent 'The Moon Stallion'
for the fifteenth time, she was watching from the next aisle over
(which turned out to be the anime aisle, so she picked up a copy
of 'Galaxy Fraulein Yuna' while she was there. Wai!). When they
stopped because the back window of their car fell out, she was
watching from down the block. And, when they finally arrived
at the abandoned Dapol factory that was apparently their destina-
tion, she was watching from the All-Concealing Shadows (tm).

Commitment. Absolute focus. Her whole concentration on doing
the task at hand and doing it perfectly. For the honor of Adric
and Gamma team.

That was why Michelle completely failed to notice the man in sun-
glasses until he was already putting the chloroform-soaked rag
over her face.


Darren, Eric, Tyson, and David all looked up from the slap-fight
they'd somehow gotten into to see Number One come striding
into the room with an unconscious blonde over his shoulder.

"All right! A chick!" shouted Eric as the four rushed over to see.

"Back off, hornballs," their boss growled. David, Eric, and Tyson
quickly complied, while Darren peered into the girl's face.

"Hi babe!" he gleefully chirped. "Come here often? What's your
sign? I've lost my phone number, can I borrow yoursOOF!" He
folded neatly as Number One gave him a short kidney-punch.

"I said, back off." Number One looked at the Gang of Four in
much the same way as a man might look at a chihuahua that has
just peed on his shoes. "This chick's ADF, and she followed y'all
here. She's a spy. Get it?"


Tyson scratched at his head. "So, like, what do we do with her?"

"Well," Number One answered, "I guess the normal thing to do
would be to just dump her here, since she's out cold, and then we
go ahead and discuss our plans so that she can wake up and pre-
tend to be unconscious while she listens and learns every last
detail, which she will then relate to her superiors at an inoppor-
tune moment when she escapes later." He paused for breath.
"But, since I've already seen that movie, I'm going to tie her up,
gag her, and put her in another room where she can't hear us.
I'll do something or other with her later."


Some miles away, Chris Cwej groaned and squirmed as the dentist
began his work.


"Now," said Number One as he locked the storeroom door behind
him, "I suppose y'all are wondering why I called you here..."

"Not really," said Darren. "I kind of figured you were just wanting
to work off the frustrations of the existential meaninglessness of
your condition by abusing and belittling those you perceive as
lesser beings." Everyone stared at him.

"Well, that too," Number One said after a momentary pause.
"But right now I have other things on my mind, too. First up,
the small matter of the car you purchased using my funds. I'd
like to see what I've bought, if you don't mind, as well as pick up
the paperwork on it."

"Yeah, sure! Lord Omega's right out here."

A short walk to the side door later, and Number One's jaw was
metaphorically on the floor.

"_That_ is the car you bought?! Christ on a crutch! I thought it
was an old junker somebody'd abandoned out here!"

"Hey!" Eric yelped indignantly. "Don't talk about Lord Omega
like that!"

"Yeah!" David agreed. "It wasn't easy finding a car this cool!"
He patted the plywood hood for emphasis, causing the driver's
side mirror to fall off and shatter.

"Dear Nyssa in Heaven," moaned the Bastard. "Tell me this is a
sick joke. Please tell me they didn't really blow a bundle of money
on this four-wheeled leper."

"We didn't," Darren insisted. "The amount you gave us was
plenty to cover it." He handed over the papers Greg McCaslin
had given them. "See?"

He did see. Number One scanned through the papers, noting the
fact that they'd given the entire $3500 for this-- this-- it wasn't a
car so much as a physical embodiment of the concept of 'crap'.
He read further, noting the way McCaslin had put the onus of the
buying decision squarely in the WANKERs' laps, something he
had specifically instructed him not to do.

He looked at the car.

He looked at the receipt for $3500.

He looked at the car.

He looked at Darren.

He looked at the car.

Behind the glasses, his left eye began to twitch. His right hand
began to spider up toward his shoulder-holster.

This was it. This was the moment he had always known would
eventually come. He had hoped it would never be necessary, that
the self-styled Knights would some day prove to have some sort
of value to his plans. But, this level of stupidity could not, would
not be tolerated.

For the sake of his plans, his dignity, and his sanity, he would
now have to kill the WANKERs.

It was going to be so very, very easy. The four were all clustered
around the broken mirror, arguing and not paying him a bit of
attention. It would be clean, and fast. The first two would die
belore they even knew anything was happening, and the other
two would have less than a second to react.

The pistol was out and the hammer back in less time than it takes
to tell it, aimed at the base of Eric's skull. As the throbbing in
Number One's head grew worse, he savored the feeling of know-
ing that the slightest pressure of his finger would improve the
average IQ of the world by several points. His knuckle began to
whiten on the trigger...


Interlude 7

"What is the evidence against this citizen, comrade?"

A musket-bearing guard pointed at the cowering, dishevelled man
next to him. "Comrade commissars," he said to the clutch of grim-
faced men, "he was found in possession of three goats." An angry
murmur went around the room in response.

The commissars conferred for a brief moment, then the one who
was acting as spokesman thrust an accusatory finger at the pris-
oner. "Goats belong to the People," he declared. "They are issued
to each according to his need. There can be no conceiveable need
for a man to have three goats, therefore you are guilty of misusing
the People's resources for your own ends. This is treason against
the People, and the sentence can only be death." He swept his
arm toward a door across the room, and the guards hustled the
man through it.

"Next case!"

A man was carried in on a stretcher, his face pale and drawn, his
breathing ragged and labored.

"What is the evidence against this citizen, comrade?"

"Comrade commissars, he has become ill and unable to work or
take care of himself."

Again, the commissars conferred. Again the spokesman pointed
at the prisoner. "The burdens of society are to be borne equally
by the People," he said. "From each according to his ability. All
must contribute for the benefit of the People. By becoming sick,
you have become unable to give according to your ability, there-
fore you are guilty of misusing the People's resources. This is
treason, and the sentence can only be death."

"I told you the gunrunners were the good guys," Nyssa whispered
to the horrified Doctor. They stood under guard a little ways down
the line of prisoners.

"Now is not the time for smugness, Nyssa."

She pouted cutely.

The 'trials', if they could be called that, went swiftly. Everyone
was declared guilty and sentenced to death for treason, although
the actual 'crimes' ranged from possession of aristocratic luxury
goods (a handkerchief) to advocating social inequity (for acting
smarter than his neighbors).

"I begin to see how they 'accomplished' so much," the Doctor
muttered. "They eliminate death by disease by killing anyone
who gets sick. They eliminate wealth disparity by making every-
one poor. They eliminate social inequity by killing anyone they
perceive to be of a higher class. It makes a perverted sort of

"We have to do something," Tegan hissed desperately.

Nyssa eyed the room with that peculiar light in her eye. "The
guards are lax and slovenly," she mumbled. "I could get a weapon
away from the nearest one and go through them like a scythe
through wheat. It wouldn't even be a challenge..."



"You heard me. Remember your promise. You're going to stay
in-character, even if it kills you. No berserker rages."


"No buts."


"No cursing, either."

At last, they were brought before the commissars. There was a
sharp intake of breath as that august group got a good look at the

"Comrades, there is no need to ask about the evidence against
these," the spokescommissar said in a voice that quivered with
righteous fury. "They display their crimes against the People for
all to see."

He came down and walked a slow circle around the three, hatred
seething from his dirty face. He roughly clutched at the Doctor's
coat, pointing at the material with his free hand. "See how they
misuse the People's resources to clothe themselves in finery that
could cover the backs of a dozen of their comrades! The clothes
of aristocrats! The workers and peasants sweat and bleed so that
they might dress themselves thus! See how they stand, so sure
of their superiority, too good, they think, to be our comrades!"

"And his two trollops!" the spokescommissar grunted, glaring at
Nyssa and Tegan. "See how they have primped and preened to
try and show themselves the betters of our humble peasant women.
They catch the eye of the sturdy worker, distracting him from his
labors on behalf of the People, turning his thoughts instead to
their sweet, pouting lips. Their firm, perky breasts..." The com-
missar began to drool a little.

"I will stay in-character," Nyssa was repeating mentally. "I wll
keep my word. I will stay in-character, no matter what..."

"...their long legs. Their pertly-formed buttocks." He reached
behind Nyssa and put a shaky hand to the body part in question.

Nyssa managed to keep her reaction reasonably in-character. She
merely slapped him. Admittedly, it was a rather hard slap, and
she managed to angle her hand in just such a way as to nearly
break his cheekbone, but it was a reasonably Nyssa-esque slap.

"You dare--!" began the spokescommissar, but he stopped, shock
clearly written on his repulsive features as something caught his
eye. He snatched Nyssa's wrist and stared at the jingling golden
charm bracelet that had slid out of her sleeve. "Gold," he wheezed.
With a look of sudden disgust, he shoved Nyssa away and turned
to his fellows.

"Comrades! Never before has this council witnessed such rank
and flagrant displays of social injustice as these three, and most
especially the small one, represent! They stand for all that the
Revolutionary Alliance of Delian Workers fought so hard against--"

"You mean cleanliness, intelligence, and civility?" Nyssa snapped,
temper beginning to get the best of her.

"You hear?!" shrieked the spokescommissar. "By their own
words, they show the scorn and contempt they hold for their

"I will remain in-character. I will remain in-character..."

"Comrades, I submit that even execution is too good for these
bourgeois strumpets!"

"I will remain in-character..."

"Let them be stripped, and bound, and beaten first!"

"I will remain in-character..."

"Let their deaths be slow and painful to show how we deal with

"I will remain in-character..."

"Aye!" shouted the commissars.

"I will remain in-charac-- What?! NO!!" Nyssa looked up as the
spokescommissar grabbed her bracelet and gave it a savage
wrench. It hurt, of course, but what prompted the shout was the
sight of the little chain snapping and dropping to the floor.

Nyssa turned to her companions, and in a growling voice that
they knew all too well, said, "I suggest the two of you turn your
heads, because I'm about to get post-modern on these scumbags."

The Doctor blanched at the homicidal light in her eyes, and knew
it was too late to worry about keeping her from switching into
psycho-mode. In a way, though, he was relieved. At least he
wouldn't have to keep trying to be the voice of reason amongst
all these loons.

"Post-modern?" Tegan asked nervously. "Don't you mean 'med-

Nyssa gave the nearest guard an open-handed chop to the Adam's
Apple (#14b in her book. She'd used it on Adric once when he'd
spilled her basket of pretzels.) as she replied, "Call it Neo-Bloody-
Romanesque if you want." She grabbed the man's musket as he
fell and used its bayonet to impale a second guard before he even
knew she was moving. "The point is..." She paused to slam the
rifle butt into a third man's face. "...I intend to litter this room
with corpses. Get it?"

As Tegan and the Doctor shrank against each other, the room
devolved into total chaos. People shrieked and surged into one
another in a blind panic as prisoners tried to flee, guards blun-
dered to the attack, and the commissars hid fearfully behind their
table. Amid the struggle of howling, writhing bodies, Nyssa of
Traken went into a full-blown berserking frenzy, only two thoughts
in her psychotic little mind:



"Target-rich environment! Yay!"

End Interlude


("Don't forget who's in charge, here...")

The memory of Number Six's words echoed in Number One's
mind, causing him to pause less than an ounce of finger-pressure
from blasting Eric's scant brains out. Why would that memory
surface just now?

("...your job isn't to take independent action anymore. It's to do
whatever Catbert and I tell you to do...")

What was this? There was some connection, he felt, between
those words and the sight of the WANKERs in front of him, but
what could it be? It was as if his subconscious was trying to
make him realize something. Without moving the pistol from its
point of aim or letting up the trigger pressure at all, he worked at
puzzling out the linkage between the two concepts. Gradually, a
mathematical formula came to appear in his head:

[0 = WANKERs < me < (Lucas Buck + Catbert)]

A wide, somewhat wicked, and possibly Taz-like smile stretched
across Number One's features as he experienced the equivalent of
the scales falling from Saul's eyes on the road to Damascus. It was
so clear, and so beautiful, he felt like hugging somebody, and
possibly would have if there had been anyone other than the
WANKERs on hand. In a trice, the pistol was back in its holster,
and the anger a mere memory.

It had suddenly occurred to him that Shit-for-brains and company
were no longer his problem. If Five and Six were in charge of
operations, now, that meant that the responsibility for managing
the Famous Four would be rightfully theirs as well.

And they deserved each other.

"Forty-nine years of bad luck, I'm telling you," Darren was telling
David as they poked at the fragments of the mirror.

"No, I think that's in dog years," said Tyson.

They definitely deserved each other.


Trooper Second Class Michelle awoke to find herself being tor-

She was lying on a cold, hard floor in a darkened room. Someone
had bound her hand and foot and put a gag in her mouth. Being
a highly-trained covert operative, she could deal with that sort of
thing, no problem.

What she couldn't deal with were the earphones her captor had
taped to her head, connected to a small CD player containing an
N'Sync album. On endless repeat.

Only the gag kept her from screaming.


Via judicious application of the pointy toes of his cowboy boots
to sensitive portions of WANKER anatomy, Number One at last
got the foursome back inside.

"Now, the main reason I called you here is that I need y'all's help
with a little operation this evening. Or, specifically, I need _one_
person's help."

"Which one of us?"

"That's what I'm getting to, Erskine."


"Whatever." Number One tossed each WANKER a small bundle
of clothing, which were caught with varying degrees of unskill-
fulness. "You see, boys, I'm going to be... indisposed for a little
while, and in the meantime... Well, just put on those outfits, and
I'll explain further." With that, he stepped outside for a quick
smoke, as watching those guys undress was at the very bottom of
his list of enjoyable activities, even below having a leech on his

When he judged that enough time had gone by that they should
all be largely covered with clothing, he went back inside to find
four copies of himself awaiting his return.

Okay, they weren't really copies, but they did look like him. A
bit. From a distance. In bad light. If you squinted. At least
they were dressed like him, anyway.

Tyson blundered forward, his pipestem arms outstretched from
the sleeveless shirt. "How does he _see_ in these darn glasses?"
he was asking, referring to the mirrored aviator's glasses that
were perched on his nose.

"Okay, let's have a look at y'all." Number One sighed as he
formed them into something resembling an inspection line. This
wasn't working quite as well as he'd hoped, but the die was cast,
and there was nothing to do now but see what number came up.

First to face inspection was Eric, fairly bursting out of the black
jeans and a sleeveless shirt that were far too small for him.
Number One shook his head. "Nope. You're nearly a foot too
tall, and even if you shave the beard, your hair color is still too
obviously wrong. Dismissed, Elwood." So grateful was Eric at
the prospect of getting back into some clothes that didn't constrict
so bad, that he didn't even correct him on the name as he fell out
of line.

Next was Tyson, looking frankly ridiculous wearing clothes that
were both too short and at the same time too loose for his scare-
crow-like body. "Well," Number One mused, "I can't say this
isn't amusing as all Hell, but you won't do, either. Fall out, Tony."


"Whatever." It was now Darren's turn. The clothes came fairly
close to fitting him, but his hair was too long and light-colored.
Maybe with a trim and some dye...? Maybe... He noted the young
man's vacuous expression. Or maybe not...

Last was, of course, poor David, straining to keep his chubby
frame inside the outfit. Pitiful, but... Number One backed up a
little and studied him critically for a moment. The hair color and
length were close to right, and the height was right on the money,
even if...

"Suck in that gut, Delbert," he barked.

"That's _David_," the kid corrected in a strained voice, "and I
_am_ sucking it in, sir."

"Hmph." Still, if it was from a decent distance... "Kid, do you
think you could imitate me?"

"I-I dunno." David shrugged nervously. "I could try, I guess."

"Well, do. I'm keen to see this."

"Umm, okay. If you say so." David looked at the floor for a

"Well, I'm a-waiting," Number One drawled.

"Don't give me that!" Number One started slightly as the kid
shot him a menacing scowl from behind his sunglasses. "I'll do
what I'm a-going to, when I'm damn good and ready. So y'all
just hold your damn taters, all right, morons?" This was delivered
in an angrily snarling twang that was actually a pretty decent im-
itation of a Deep South Highlands accent.

"Hey, that's pretty good!" Darren chirped. David rounded on
him instantly.

"And I don't need none of _your_ lip, either, Shit-for-brains."
David punctuated this statement with a shove that sent the
chief WANKER sprawling. "Good God, can't you bunch of los-
ers do _anything_ right? Get up from there, or so help me, I'll
put my foot right where it'll do the most good!"

"Okay. That'll be fine," Number One said, eyebrow twitching.

David was busily ranting at his fellow WANKERs, and didn't
hear. "Bunch of freakin' pussies. I don't know why I put up with
y'all! One of these days--"

"I said, that's enough!"

David turned, his normal sheepish expression on his face. In his
regular voice, he asked, "How was that, sir?"

"Perfect!" "It was just like him!" "Bang-on!"

"Shut up, dimwits," Number One snarled at Darren, Eric, and

"See what we mean?"

Sigh. "That was... fine, Denny."


"Yeah, yeah. Now, the rest of y'all go amuse yourselves for a few
minutes -- please don't tell me how -- while I have a little chat with
Lumpy, here..."


"Are you feeling all right, Adric?"

Adric looked up from the ice cream cone he was munching and
gave Wesley a puzzled look. "Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"

"That's what I'm asking. You don't seem like your normal self

Adric had to laugh at this. "Wes, given the fact that every script-
writer I ever had seemed to have a different idea of who I was
supposed to be, who can say what my normal self's like?"

"Point. But, I mean that you're not acting normal for _anybody_.
One second, you've got this big, goofy smile, then you look all
worried, then you look like you want to hit something."

"You wouldn't understand," Adric said with a hopeless sigh.

Wesley looked annoyed for a moment, but waved it off. "What-
ever you say. If I had to guess, though, I'd bet that it involves

"It does _not_... entirely."

"Oho!" Wesley pointed at him dramatically with his own ice
cream. "That must mean that the other part involves Ember!"

Adric flushed deeply, but made no response.

"You stud-monkey, you!" Wesley began to sing, very badly,
"Torn between two lovers..."

"Shut up, Wes," Adric said rather halfheartedly. "It's not like

"Isn't it? I'm betting that the reason you're so out of it is that you
feel like a two-timer, right?"

"You'd lose that bet," Adric grunted. "I'm not two-timing anyone,
because I'm not seeing anyone. I have no relationship with Nyssa
outside of her killing me, and Ember's just a friend, like Ryoko."

"She's a friend to you like Ryoko's a friend to Tenchi, you mean.
And Nyssa's your Aeka..."

Adric just glared at him.

"...although I still say that the Ranma analogy works best. You
and Nyssa are Ranma and Akane, and now you've got Ember to
be the Ukyou of your little love polygon."


"Okay, okay," said Wesley, not really giving up at all. "If that's
not it, what is it?"

"If you must know, I'm a bit worried about the adventure that the
Doctor, Tegan, and... her... have gone on."

"How sweet! You're afraid for Nyssa's safety."

"Not at all," Adric replied too quickly. "It's just that I'd hate for
Tegan or the Doctor to get hurt. And, if something bad happens
to Nyssa, who do you think she'll take it out on when she gets

"Oh. You, probably."

"Uh-huh. And anybody around me."

Wesley gave Adric a wide, shimmering-eyed look. "You mean,
you're worried about my safety? Oh, Adric!"

"Gaah! Not _you_!"

Wesley's look turned downcast as he tried to keep from laughing
at his friend's discomfiture. "So, you _don't_ care if I get hurt?"

"No! I mean, yes... I... Aaaarrgh! Don't confuse me any worse
than I already am!"

Wesley Crusher just laughed and went back to demolishing his
ice cream cone. "Whatever you say, stud-monkey..."


Michelle had given up on trying to get the headphones off of her
and was concentrating instead on trying to batter herself back into
unconsciousness when someone entered the room. She gave a
grateful sigh as they turned off the CD player, but soon realized
that it wasn't a rescuer come to free her.

"Well, now," the man drawled. "What shall we do with you, little
spy?" He blew a pensive cloud of smoke into the air.

That accent! Those sunglasses! It was _him_, the Cigarette-
Smoking Bastard. Michelle felt her spirits plummet, but was
determined to be defiant to the end.

"Mmmmmpph. Mmmph mmphmphmph," she said around the
gag, directing him to perform a biologically-impossible maneu-
ver. He just looked at her, smirking.

"Mmmmphph mm mmmph," she added.

He knelt next to her, chuckling slightly. "What's that, Lassie?"
he asked. "Little Timmy's trapped in a burning barn?"


"Heh heh heh... I like your spirit, Blondie. Regular little spitfire,
ain't you?" He moved easily aside as she writhed around to try
and kick at him and regarded her with some interest. "I only see
one thing to do to punish a spy-ette like you," he whispered, and
pulled something out of his shirt.

Michelle drew back as he leaned toward her, the dagger glinting
menacingly in his hand...


"Well, speak of the Devil!" Wesley waved at someone behind
Adric's back. "Over here!"

Adric turned around, a tentative smile on his face. This slipped
slightly when he saw who it was. "Hey, Ryoko."

"Hey yourselves," the curvaceous space pirate replied as she
sat down facing them. Since the two boys were sitting on a park
bench, she accomplished this by the simple expedient of hover-
ing about two feet off the ground, something that the locals had
eventually gotten used to seeing. The boys couldn't help but
notice that she looked slightly singed.

"I just had a little... earnest discussion, you might say... with
Princess Aeka a little while ago," she explained when they asked.
She casually swiped a few burn marks off her bodysuit in a man-
ner that did manage to get people's attention.

"In other words, you two got in a brawl over Tenchi, right?"
Wesley rather bluntly asked.

"I wouldn't call it a _brawl_," Ryoko protested. "When we brawl,
we tend to damage the landscape a fair bit. This was just more
of a tiff. Couple of trees uprooted, and only one _real_ crater
worth mentioning. Nothing serious."

Wes sighed. "You know, it just doesn't seem fair that I'm the
only one here not involved in some sort of love triangle..."

"Hey!" Adric kicked him lightly. "I told you, it's not like that!"

"What's not like what, Adric?" asked Ryoko.

"I am _not_ involved in a love triangle, or a love _anything_!
Ember's just a friend, and Nyssa's just somebody I liked once
upon a time."

Ryoko looked at Adric through slitted eyes, her chin propped on
her fist. "We've talked about the Nyssa situation enough that I'm
not going to repeat it now--"


"--but you know our theory on that. The Ranma/Akane theory, if
you will. So, let me ask you about the other one. You say Ember's
just a friend, right? Is that the way _you_ want it, or the way you
think _she_ wants it?"

"Wha... that... I... that's just how it is," Adric managed rather

"No, Adric. I'm asking how _you_ want it to be. Because I can
assure you that she'd like to be a lot more than that."

"She-she-she-she (gulp) would?"

"Good God, Adric!" Wesley threw up his hands. "How obtuse
can you get? She comes to see _you_. She flirts with _you_.
She calls _you_ 'sugar'. Come on, man! Even _I_ can see she's
got the major hots for you!"


"No buts, Adric," Ryoko purred. "She even told me, girl-to-girl
that she wants you. If there was any doubt at all, that should
take care of it. So, how about her?"

Adric's brain was still knocked off-track by what was to him (if
no one else) a revelation. She _liked_ him. _That_ way. This
was so far outside his experience, that it took a certain amount of
grappling-with. He just said the first thing that sprang to mind.
"What about Nyssa?"

"Why, Adric! You're all worried about two-timing her! How

"Didn't I already say that?" Wesley added smugly.

"No, no, no!" Adric backtracked. "I mean, I thought you lot
were all for hooking me up with that loony. Why the sudden

"No switch," Ryoko said. "We just want you to be happy with
someone. I still happen to think Nyssa's your one and only, but
Ember's a nice kid. You could do worse. So, what do you think
of her?"

Adric thought. "Well," he said carefully, "she's really sweet. And
she only gets violent _occasionally_. And she seems really bright.
And has a sense of humor..."

"And a killer bod," Wesley added helpfully, earning himself a
small plasma-ball from Ryoko.

Adric blushed a little. "And, yeah, I have to admit that she's
really pretty..."

"And stacked!" Wes ducked behind a trashcan just in time for it
to get blown apart.

"...but I don't really know her. We get along, but beyond that,
how do I know we'd be... compatible?" Adric gave Ryoko a lost-
puppydog look.

"I only know one way to find out," she replied, patting him on
the arm as she incinerated the shrubbery that Wes had crawled
into. "Ask her out on a date!"

Adric went into panic mode. "Ask? Date? Ember? Me?" His
brain seemed to be saying about thirty thousand things at once,
but those were the only concepts coherent enough to reach his

"Uh-huh. You. Ask. Ember. On a date. It'll be good practice,
if nothing else." She grinned slyly.

"Practice... for what?"

"For when you ask Nyssa out, silly! Go out with her now, then
ask Nyssa out when she gets back."

Adric mulled this over. Something about that seemed less-than-
right. "Isn't that a little... underhanded?"

"No, no. It's just the logical thing to do!"

Somehow, Adric had his doubts about that. "Well, what would
you do if you found out Tenchi was dating you and Aeka at the
same time?"

"This," she answered simply, blasting Wesley out of his last hid-
ing place. "But, we're not talking about me and Tenchi, here..."


"Last we heard from her, Gamma One was headed in this direc-
tion, tailing the WANKERs on standard recon duty. That was
four hours ago."

Doug fixed Gamma Six, Patrol Leader Landon, with a hard stare.
"You're just now getting after her?" Both men rocked slightly as
the mobile HQ took an especially sharp curve.

Landon shrugged helplessly. "We're at half-strength right now,
so it's hard to follow the checkup protocols. Besides, she was on
strict orders to avoid engagement. I'll take full responsibility, of

Doug relented a bit. Gamma team was still a bit green, but Landon
was a good kid, and his team was trying hard. "It'll be okay," he
said. "We'll find her."

"I think we just did," came Heather's grim voice from up front as
the truck screeched to a stop. Its four occupants were out in a

"Is... that _her_?" Walter asked, aghast.

Landon looked as if he were about to cry. "I... think so. I'd have
to look closer to be certain..."

"There was no excuse for this," Doug said grimly, jaw set.

"Oh... that poor girl. What kind of animal would do that to some-
one?" A single tear rolled down Heather's cheek.

They walked cautiously over to the still body at the side of the
road. Landon looked closely, took a deep breath, and whispered,
"It's Michelle."

The four gathered around, removing their hats and placing them
over their hearts.

At last, Michelle stirred from her sitting position to look up at
them with shell-shocked eyes. With a face full of tears, she held
out her hands, showing them the mangled mass that had once
been a part of her body.

"He cut off my _ponytail_!" she bawled suddenly before collapsing
in a sobbing heap.

"What kind of man gives a defenseless girl a haircut that ugly?!"
Landon wailed as Michelle hid her head under her arms.


Interlude 8

"Doctor, she's really got me scared this time."

"I know, I know," he replied irritably, adjusting the jeweller's
glass on his eye.

Tegan shivered at the sounds of carnage from out in the main
chamber, where Nyssa continued to fend off the half-hearted
assaults of the Delian soldiery. There was a particularly nasty
crunching noise, followed by a triumphant Trakenish scream and
the sound of men fleeing in panic. "Can't we do something?" she

The Doctor remained hunched over his tools, concentrating on
the task at hand. "I _am_, Tegan. Or would be, if you didn't
keep distracting me."

"I mean, can't we do something to shake her out of it? I don't
think I've ever seen her lose it like that before."

"That's what I _am_ doing. For some reason, it was this bracelet
being broken that set her off. So, maybe if I fix it--"

"--she'll come out of psycho-mode!" Tegan finished for him.


"Well, for God's sake get it fixed!"

The Doctor closed his eyes and mentally counted to ten. "Yes,
Tegan. I'll get right to it. Thank you for suggesting it."

Nyssa poked her head into the room a few minutes later, wearing
an expression that would have looked much more normal on a
Viking that had been smoking crack. She held a broken musket
in one hand and a short, notch-bladed cutlass in the other. "Ha!"
she shouted. "You should have seen the way they ran after I
broke that one fool's head!"

Tegan backed away slightly, a placatory, oh-that's-nice-dear smile
painted on her face. "Aheh heh. That's wonderful, Nys. How
many is that, now?"

Nyssa stopped to think for a moment, tapping the bloody sword
idly on her shoulder and looking for all the world just like a little
girl trying to remember where she left her mittens. Assuming
that the little girl had just spent an afternoon killing people before
realizing that her mittens were gone, of course.

"Let's see..." she mumbled half to herself. "There were those first
guards... then that nasty man that touched my butt... then his
friends... then the soldiers who broke in... and two more batches
of those... then this last bunch of cowards... Hmmm..." As she
pondered, there was a brief clatter of musketry from outside, and
the sound of a few ricochets spanging through the main chamber.
The three ignored this, as this was the same thing that the soldiers
had done after each of the three previous failed assaults. Finally,
Nyssa just shrugged helplessly. "I kind of lost count, but I think
I've gotten somewhere between forty and fifty of those dirtbags so

"I guess it's hard to keep track, huh?" Tegan asked, trying to keep
the conversation pleasant. She didn't like that look in Nyssa's
eyes at all.

The Doctor stepped over, holding out his hand. "I found this,

Nyssa took one look and dropped her weapons, snatching the
charm bracelet out of his hand.

"--thought I'd fix it for you. Oof!" He fought to get his breath
back as Nyssa squeezed it out of him with a sudden hug. A bit
awkwardly, he patted her on the head while Tegan looked on in
near-total confusion.

"Thanks so much, Doctor! Why, you can't even tell it was ever

"Wow," Tegan mumbled. "Talk about your mood swings." She
peered at the bracelet,trying to make out the various shapes hang-
ing from it. There was a scythe, and a snake, and... was that a
_heart_? "Where did you get that, anyway? It seems awfully
important to you."

"Oh, it was from--" Nyssa seemed to catch herself, suddenly,
and her joyful expression turned to carefully-maintained indiff-
erence. With a small shrug, she clipped it to her wrist and slid
it under her sleeve. "It's just something somebody gave me one
time. It isn't really important."

"Like Hell it isn't," Tegan didn't say, although she definitely
thought it. Any other musings, though, were suddenly cut off
by the jarring crash of cannonballs smashing into the building.

"They're bombarding us!" the Doctor cried.

"Sensible move," said Nyssa. "We're surrounded, but they can't
break in, so they blast us out. It's about time they showed some
tactical sense."

"We're doomed," moaned Tegan as she sank to her knees. "This
is really it. We're trapped and we're going to die."

The Doctor rolled his eyes. "Someone hasn't been studying the
Laws of Dramatic Timing," he said to no one in particular.

On cue, there came a sudden sound of gunfire, too fast to be
Delian muskets...

End Interlude


High on a wooded hill overlooking This Time Round, something
sinister was not going on.

Oh, it was _supposed_ to be going on, of course. There were all
the usual ingredients for hill-related sinister activity: the ominous
gray Pickup Truck of Doom; a man in a sleeveless shirt intently
watching through binoculars; a high-powered rifle. But, somehow,
sinister activity was _not_ occurring.

David adjusted the binoculars to bring the scene into better focus.
There it was! His pudgy cheeks flushed red as his vision suddenly
filled with the image of young Misses Jones and Maguire, who had
elected to use the roof of the pub for what could only be termed an
'affectionate private reunion'. Or, what should have been a private
reunion, what with there only being two ways anyone could see
them, those being to either climb the fire escape onto the roof, or
to look down from a convenient hilltop with high-powered field

This was terribly unfortunate, although not for Sam and Jacqueline,
who were quite happy, nor for David Ogden, who was getting
entertainment of the sort that he normally had to go to the Inter-
net for. It was, however, unfortunate for Number One, who had
placed David in this position for reasons that had nothing to do
with voyeurism.

This was a real pity, because they'd gone over the plan several
times, and David had understood his orders perfectly, if not the
reasons behind them. He had actually memorized all of his inst-
ructions verbatim, and could repeat them back promptly on
demand, a feat which made him practically unique among his
fellow WANKERs.

"I am to remain dressed like you," he recited to Number One, "and
am to take your truck up to the hill that overlooks This Time
Round's parking lot. Once there, I will take up a concealed posi-
tion from which I can observe the front of the building through a
pair of binoculars. I am to wait until I see Adric outside speaking
to a girl with red hair. At that point I am to take the rifle you will
provide and fire a single shot into the air, then immediately flee
in your truck to our usual meeting-place. If I am seen at any time
before this, I am to avoid contact and get away as fast as possible."
Repeating this spiel had earned him a "Way to go, Dagwood" and
a Hershey bar from Number One.

He really did have a good grasp of the plan, rather surprisingly,
and had performed the first parts quite creditably, aided some-
what by the fact that most of the ADF manpower in the area was
on the other side of town looking for their missing agent. All in
all, he would have done quite well, had he not suddenly gotten
an eyeful of rooftop sapphic hanky-panky that drove all other
thoughts from his tiny little WANKER mind.

Unseen, a crow watched from a nearby tree, shaking its head


Meanwhile, something else was not going on.

Number One settled her sunglasses on her nose, cheerfully noting
the absence of her usual reception committee out front of This
Time Round. It seemed that Cwej could take a hint after all, if it
were applied violently enough. She decided to take this as a good

Hopefully, this evening would see Operation Cupid's Arrow ad-
vanced several paces toward the ultimate goal that she so didn't
want to think about.

"It's all for the Cause," she reminded herself. "Whatever I have
to do, it's all for Her Ladyship and the Brethren who serve Her.
If I have to act like I like Adric-- I mean, Geek-boy, then so be it.
I'm loyal and I'll do my duty."

"Of course, it helps that he's basically such a nice kid," the traito-
rous voice of Number One's conscience whispered.

"Shut up," she growled. "Just shut up."


"Wow," said Wesley as they caught sight of Ember waiting in
front of the pub. "I wish I had something like that waiting for
_me_ to show up at work."

Ryoko clapped her hands and grinned, showing her fangs. "I
know! Why don't you ask her out right now, Adric?"

"Uh, wha--? No, I couldn't... I mean, she's... and I..." The Alza-
rian stammered for a reply, as usual when Ryoko brought up the

"Hmm... That's an intelligent argument you make, Addy, but
just look around you. It'll be just the two of you -- and us watch-
ing, of course -- on this pretty Springtime afternoon. The girl
waiting for you so pretty and eager. You all flushed with the
excitement of young love. You whispering a breathless question.
Her shy and blushing nod as the cherry blossoms swirl around
you, the sunset behind Mount Fuji at your backs..."

"This is pseudo-England, not Japan," Adric drily inserted. Ryoko
put him in a headlock.

"Same difference," she said, rapping him on the head with her
knuckles. "It's a romantic setting, Adric. Take advantage of it."

"Yeah, Adric," Wes agreed, bending down to look Adric in the
eye. "I mean, it's a perfect time for it. And, it's not like asking
Nyssa out. The very worst that could happen is that she says
no. It's not like you're risking getting shot or anything."


David was sweating profusely now, the binoculars trembling as
his attention remained raptly fixed on the rooftop. Was that girl's
hand where he thought it was? And what was Sam doing to her
earlobe? Unconsciously, the fingers of his free hand skimmed
along the rifle propped next to him in a motion that managed to
be simultaneously revolting and disquieting.

Without realizing it, he drooled.

Overhead, the crow sighed.


A short distance away, Lucas Buck sat alone in his car, eyes
closed and smiling his weasel-in-the-henhouse smile. Slowly,
his right hand clenched into a fist.

"I'll show you," he muttered. "You hermaphrodite freak, I'll
show you what happens when you cross me..."


"Hi, Ember!"

"Hey, Adric sugar!" Number One gave Adric a dazzling smile as
she inwardly prepared herself for the coming gunfire. Derwood,
or whatever his name was, should have them spotted just anytime
in the next few seconds, and should be firing his harmless shot
so that she could proceed with her cringing-and-clutching-for-
comfort routine. She'd do a little bit of the 'frightened female' bit
and maybe even throw in a tear or two.

"Um, Ember, uh... I was just wanted... I mean, I was wondering...
am I... that is, are you wanting... there's this place, and I... you...
cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji..." Adric seemed very interested
in the ways he could make his fingers knot around each other.

"Uh-huh?" she encouraged, listening with half an ear and waiting
for the gunshot.

"...umm, maybe I should start over..."

"O... kay," she said, nodding. Dammit, was Damien paying atten-
tion up there or not?


"Oh, man. That Sam is pretty dang limber." David absently
wiped away slobber and went on indulging in his moment of
voyeurism, binoculars locked on the rooftop. He'd have to do
this sort of work more often...

A sudden flurry of wings snapped him out of it, and he yelped as
a large crow plummeted into him. Panicked, he flailed blindly
about, one hand knocking over the rifle. As it fell, a single thin
branch snagged in the trigger guard.

David yelped again and nearly wet himself as the big .270 Rem-
ington went off. He didn't like guns, never had, and the sudden
blast of noise terrified him. He leapt to his feet and scrambled
for the truck in a wobbling pell-mell dash.

He would later swear that he heard what sounded like a crow
laughing as he drove away.


Adric straightened himself and took a deep breath. This was a
nice girl, he reminded himself. There was nothing to worry
about. All he had to do was ask a simple question.

"Ahem. Let me try this again," he said, a little more confidently.
She turned and dipped her head slightly to peer at him from over
the top of her mirrorshades. Lord, was she ever cute! "What I
meant to say is, would you like--"

And then she was gone, smashed to the ground as if by some
malign conjurer's trick. Half a heartbeat later came the echoing
crackle of a rifle shot.


Adric heard the screaming, and distantly realized that it was his
own voice. That was unimportant. His whole world was reduced
to the sight of the girl lying face-down at his feet, a thin streamer
of blood slithering from beneath the spray of coppery hair. With-
out a conscious thought of what he was doing, he knelt over her,
putting his body in the path of any further gunfire. It was then
the matter of a moment to flip her over and lift her in his arms, his
eyes flicking instantly and with practiced speed to the nearest
place of safety.

He held her close as he sprinted for the front door of the pub,
sheltering her as best he could. A part of him noted how small
she seemed, like a poor, broken doll. He felt her blood soak his
shirt where her head rested against his chest, and forced himself
to ignore it. First refuge, then worry.

He reached the door, but with his arms full of the wounded girl,
he couldn't work the latch and couldn't wait for someone else to
open it. A single kick, backed by the strength of desperation,
tore the latch free and sent the door slamming inwards.

Polly met him just inside, her curious expression changing to
horror as she saw what he carried. He pushed past her without a
glance as he staggered into the common room, trying to catch his
breath enough to yell for help. This proved unnecessary as Harry
met him about two steps into the room. The ex-Navy surgeon
took a single glance, then turned and used his arm to sweep the
nearest table clear.

"Put her down there," Harry ordered, falling immediately back
into his old military habits. "Polly, the first aid kit from under
the bar! Francois, get me some wet rags!" As Adric placed the
limp form on the table, Harry quickly felt for a pulse. "Pulse isn't
bad," he murmurred, "and she's breathing." He snatched up the
wet bar towels Francois brought and set about wiping the blood
from her head to get a look at the wound.

"What happened?" Polly asked as she ran up carrying a bag with
a red cross on it. Harry took it without looking up from his patient
as Adric choked out a reply.

"Shot," he gasped. "We were just talking and somebody shot

"No, they didn't."

Adric turned to gape at Harry. "They _did_! I was right there!
There was a gunshot and she fell down, b-bleeding!"

"I'm not doubting that," Harry said evenly as he began putting a
bandage on the girl's head. "But this girl does not have a gunshot
wound anywhere on her body."

"But-- but-- but--" At a loss, Adric pointed at the bandage.

"That's just a nasty cut caused by her hitting the pavement.
Messy, but far from dangerous."

"Well, why did she fall, if she wasn't shot?"

Polly spoke up. "She _was_ shot. Right there." She pointed at
Ember's left foot, where the heel of her boot had a large chunk
ripped out of it. "The bullet must have hit her boot and knocked
her feet out from under her."

Harry glanced at the bullet hole with a professional eye. "Prob-
ably so. She's a lucky girl, I'll tell you that. A bit higher, and it
would've taken her leg off. As it is, she might have a concussion,
at the very worst. We'll just have to wait and see."


Lucas Buck's black Ford Crown Victoria slid easily back into the
flow of traffic, headed back toward town.

"Note to self," the Sherriff mumbled. "Next time, remember to
factor in projectile drop when attempting a head shot at long


Number One squinted into the semidarkness of the empty Con-
clave Hall of the Brethren, trying to adjust his eyes to the loom-
ing shadows. Not for the first time, he wished that he wasn't too
cool to take off his sunglasses. But, he was, so he didn't, and
instead settled for a lot of squinting and fumbling in the half-light.

Scowling, he sat on the meeting table and lit up a cigarette, idly
blowing a few contemptuous smoke rings in the direction of
Numbers Five and Six's vacant seats. Not quite satisfied, he sent
a few obscene gestures in the same direction. Better. He let out
a long, put-upon sigh, which echoed faintly back from the mass-
ive stonework around him.

There was a slight rustle of heavy fabric.

Number One glanced toward the Throne of Shadows, already
preparing to make his obeisance to He-Who-Is-Never-Named,
but the Throne held only the shadows whose name it bore.
Number One's eyes narrowed slightly.

A single, soft footstep sounded in the darkness behind him.

Number One smirked and shook his head. "You know," he said
to no one in particular, "this hall was designed to maximize the
intimidation factor of this type of construction and to present as
ominous and dramatic an appearance as possible at all times.
But right now, I'm more irritated than intimidated. And trying
to screw with my head while I'm irritated is a sure-fire way for a
person to get hurt." Languidly, he pulled the Magnum from its
holster and turned, bringing it up to aim. "So, why don't you just
cut the--"

The roar and flash of a gunshot shattered the gloomy stillness.
Number One grunted in surprise as his right hand suddenly felt
as if he'd struck it with a large hammer. His gun clattered away
into the shadows.

"Nice shot," he hissed, rubbing at his aching hand. He shifted
on his feet a bit, easing slightly toward the ornate candlesticks
that clustered near the Throne. They were solid silver, each about
three feet long, and would make a handy bludgeon in a pinch.

From the darkness, there came another gunshot and a bullet
whined off the marble floor between him and the candlesticks.
He smiled sickly and went still. "Okay," he said to the shadows.
"Message received. I'll be a good boy and sit still. Heh heh..."
The shadows made no reply.

He waited, growing more angry by the second, as nothing at all
happened. "Well? Either shoot my ass or come out here and say
your piece. This scene's getting old fast."

With a steady, measured click-clock of bootheels, a figure slowly
emerged into the puddle of sickly light around the table. It was
dressed in one of the heavy brown velvet robes of a Brother, the
cowl pulled forward so that the face was hidden in its depths. A
large revolver was in the figure's right hand, pointed absently but
unerringly at Number One's abdomen. The figure spoke not a
word as it strode over to the table.

"Who are you?" Number One demanded. "You're too short to be
Six, and too tall to be Five. Are you Number Ten? Or are you
new here?" The figure made no reply, but seemed to regard him
intently for a moment. "Dammit, will you answer me?!"

The figure did not give any indication of having heard him. After
a silent moment facing one another, the mysterious Brother casu-
ally tossed his pistol away into the depths of the hall and raised
his fists.

"So, that's how you want it?" laughed Number One. "That's fine
by me!" With a scornful sneer, he charged forward, hands out-
stretched to wrench this fool's head off.

With easy, fluid grace, the mystery man slipped to the side and
punched Number One squarely in the mouth, stopping him in his
tracks. He spat once, tasting the hot iron tang of blood. Cursing,
he swung at his opponent to force him back, but instead of dodg-
ing, the man caught his arm and counterpunched him in the kidney.

With a desperate twist, Number One broke loose and backpedalled
frantically away. His attacker was just too fast. It was almost as if
the man was reading his moves before he made them. He spat out
more blood, half-bent from the pain of the kidney shot, and tried
to gain some time to think and plan.

Unfortunately, time was something his attacker had no intention
of giving him. The man came in rapidly, easily slipping around
the feeble left jab Number One sent at him, and caught him with
a single very hard blow to the stomach that sent all the air and
all the fight whooshing out of his body.

The next few moments were very painful ones for the Cigarette-
Smoking Bastard. Unable to resist beyond trying to curl up like
a fetus, Number One was kicked, slugged, and slung about like a
rat in a terrier's mouth. At last, he was flung across the table to
land in a heap at the foot of the Throne of Shadows.

He lay there, helpless to do more than watch the brown-robed
figure unhurriedly make his way to where he lay. "Who are you?"
he croaked. "Why are you doing this?"

The figure stopped and stood looking down at him for a long
moment, then slowly reached up and pulled back his hood, rev-
ealing a face that Number One knew as well as his own...

...because it was his own, or rather, _her_ own.

Number One gazed uncomprehendingly up into the face of his
own female body, his mouth working but no sound coming out.

The redhead stared back, her face full of sadness and pity, her
mouth twisted into a grimace of sorrow.

"Why?" Number One rasped.

The female-Number One knelt next to him and grabbed his collar
in her left fist, yanking him up as she drew back her other fist for
the knockout blow. Number One watched, fascinated, as a single
tear rolled down her cheek. She took a deep breath and whispered
softly, "You... are wrong."

Then her fist struck the side of his head, and the dimness turned
to black.


Consciousness returned to Number One the way employees re-
turn to an office after the New Year's holiday: slowly, with great
reluctance, and a lot of bitching and moaning.

The first sensation was of muted pain. Her head throbbed gently
from somewhere near her right temple, but it was counteracted
somewhat by a pleasant, damp coolness in that same region, so
that could hold for a while.

The next sensation was of something warm, soft, and quite plea-
sant from the area of her left hand. Her slightly-scrambled wits
were not up to figuring out just what this might be, but since it
felt okay, she could let that hold for a while, too.

Now some sounds became clear, as well. A few soft voices from
somewhere close, and a more distant drone as of a small crowd.

"...found his rifle, but he got away clean," a female voice was

"Nothing else?" a young male voice asked.

"Well, there was something _very_ interesting up on the roof that
I saw when I flew back, but nothing that has to do with this." Ah.
Flying. That would have to be Ryoko, then.

"Damn. Are you sure it was him?" Number One was now able to
tag the young male voice as Wesley Crusher's.

"Who else would it be? But, yeah, I caught just a glimpse of him
up there when he shot. Sunglasses and a sleeveless shirt. Unfor-
tunately, he was long gone by the time I got up there, or I'd have
brought him back in easy-to-carry chunks."

Number One's wits gradually started to reconstruct themselves,
and she had the beginnings of a hypothesis about what was going
on. She remembered waiting for Adric in front of the pub, and
planning for someone -- Dennis, was it? -- to cause a scene dis-
guised as him, to allay suspicions. She remembered Adric stam-
mering over something... was it about Mount Fuji, maybe? But
everything after that was a big blank. Oh, well. For now, it was
nice to just lay here with the cool, damp nice thing on her head
and the warm, soft nice thing on her hand. If she could just get a
little bit more comfortable...

"Urggh," she groaned as she tried to shift herself a little to the
left. The movement caused the cool, damp nice thing to slide off
her head, and she blearily opened her eyes to locate it, wincing
as the light stabbed into them.

Things swam into focus. She was lying on a cot in one of the
back rooms at This Time Round. Ryoko and Wesley were leaning
on opposite sides of the doorframe. Adric, meanwhile, was sitting
slouched over in a chair next to her, his hands clasped lightly
around her left hand. Ah. That would explain the warm, soft nice
thing, then...

Number One's mind promptly went to war with itself. Part of her
instinctively tried to get her to yank her hand away and smack the
kid a good couple of times. That was what she was supposed to
do, but another part of her insisted that the warm, soft nice thing
was too comfortable. Eventually, her memory caught up with the
conflict and reminded both parties that she was supposed to act
like she liked him anyway, so smacking was out of the question
at this time.

She regarded him for a moment through slitted eyes as her wits
came back up to one-hundred percent, or as close to one-hundred
percent as a semi-psycho like her ever got. The kid was shaking.
That just about figured. Whatever had happened had left him
terrified, and so now he was shivering and hanging onto her for
comfort. Typical spineless Alzarian. His weakness sickened her.

("You... are wrong.")

Adric must have felt her stirring, because he looked up at that
moment, and she could clearly see his face.

"He's not scared," Number One thought with sudden shock. "He's
in a Goddamned rage." Number One had seen enough of them,
experienced enough of them in her life to know one when she saw
it. "Jesus, he looks like he could tear somebody's guts out! He
ain't shivering in fear. He's shaking 'cause he wants to rip some-
body apart."

"That son-of-a-bitch," Adric was mumbling. "He can do what he
wants to me, but if he hurts my friends, I swear I'll--" Whatever
he would do remained a mystery as he suddenly caught sight of
Number One looking at him with wide, nervous eyes. Instantly,
the look of overwhelming fury left the boy's face and was replaced
by a completely opposite expression. "Ember!" he cried joyously.
"You're awake! You're okay! How many finger am I holding up?
Can you spell your name? What's the capital of Rwanda?"

"Three. E-M-B-E-R. And, uh, Kansas City?"

"Close enough! I'm so glad you're okay!"

"Urk. Me, too."

Adric seemed to suddenly realize that he was still holding her
hand, and he awkwardly let go, handing her the wet towel that
had evidently been on her head. "Um, here," he said hastily. "I'll
go tell Harry that you're up." With that, he beat a quick, embarr-
assed retreat from the room.

"How ya feeling, kid?"

"I've felt better, Miss Ryoko." Number One groaned and put the
wet towel back on her head. "What happened? Did somebody
park a truck on me?"

"You got shot... sort of."

"'Sort of?' How does a person get 'sort of' shot?"

"The bullet, uh, hit your boot and knocked you over," Wes ans-
wered. "Your head hit the pavement and kind of knocked you
out cold for a little while."

That explained that, then. Number One made a mental note to
fillet Donald, or whatever that WANKER's name was, at the first
possible opportunity. Remembering her role, she asked, "Some-
body... tried to kill me?"

"It's possible he was aiming at Adric," Wes said without much

"Bull patties," Ryoko snapped back. "We've all seen and heard
how that guy can shoot. If he shot her, it's because that's who he
intended to shoot. Damned coward," she added. "Shooting at
helpless girls..."

"This is doing wonders for my reputation," Number One thought
sarcastically. Aloud, she said, "So, I'm up to the part where I fell
down. What happened after that?"

Ryoko sniffled theatrically. "It was awful, but what happened
next was so beautiful! Adric braved the hail of bullets, putting
himself in the path of certain death to shield you as he carried
you to safety, tears in his eyes as he cradled your limp and bleed-
ing body in his arms!"

"'Hail of bullets?'" Wes asked, confused. "There was just that
one shot..." Ryoko drove her elbow into his ribs.

"Whatever," she said,waving him off. "The point is, Adric hero-
ically put himself in the path of certain death to protect his
precious lady fair!"

"What 'certain death?'" Wes asked again. "I thought you said the
guy was up and running right after he fired..." This time, Ryoko's
elbow sent the boy into the wall.

"Who's telling this, Crusher?" she growled. Turning back, she
continued. "Anyway, Adric got you inside and Harry checked
you and put a bandage on your head, then we brought you back
here. You've only been out for about forty-five minutes. And,
might I add that Adric hasn't left your side. Until just now, of

"Oh." Number One lay there for a few minutes, thinking about
that. Adric had saved her life. The geeky little swamprat had
saved her life. Was there maybe just the tiniest chance that the
kid wasn't quite the wimp he seemed? It was blasphemy to even
entertain the thought. Maybe it was just a fluke. Sunspots or a
full moon or something. After all, what was one little event set
against years of documented evidence?

("You... are wrong.")

She winced, but of course Ryoko and Wesley thought it was just
from the pain in her head.

Of course the boy was a wuss. You only had to look at him and
listen to him to tell that. Just a callow, whiny punk who folded
at the first sign of adversity...

("You... are wrong.")

That was all it was, just a one-in-a-million occurrence. Witness
the way he'd turned right back into a fumbling, gutless marsh-
mellow a few minutes ago.

"When he saw that I was okay," came the stray thought through
Number One's head. She began to feel a little sick.

"You know," Wesley said suddenly, "we should have expected
something like this. Doesn't something happen every time he
tries to ask a girl out on a date?"

"Too true," Ryoko nodded.

Number One cut her eyes at them. "He was going to ask me out?"

"Yup. I take it that he didn't get it out before, uh, everything

"Ryoko! Please!" Adric came back into the room, looking a little
downcast. "I'm sure she doesn't feel like getting into all that right
now." He walked over to the cot, looking like he felt about two
inches tall. "Harry says he'll check you again in a few minutes,
make sure you don't have a concussion or anything." He took a
deep breath, and straightened himself up a bit. "I just want to
say how sorry I am that I got you into all this--"

"I accept."

"-- mess with me and..." He brightened a little as he trailed off.
"You... accept my apology?"

Number One found herself staring at the spot of blood on the
front of Adric's shirt. Her blood. For whatever reason, it seemed
to make what she was about to say much easier. "No. I accept
your offer of a date."

"But, I didn't--"

"You were going to, weren't you?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"Then, I accept." Number One gave him a smile that was, oddly,
only ninety percent fake. She felt a prodding from the back of
her mind, and, with a bit more difficulty, added, "And, there's
nothing for you to feel sorry over. This was all... Number One's
fault. Right?" This time, the smile was entirely forced, but only
she knew that.

"That's... ah... I... are you sure?"

"I am," she said before her instincts could start fighting about it
again. "That is, if you still want to...?"

Ryoko and Wesley stopped their flag-waving and confetti-
throwing and grabbed Adric by the head. "You bet he does!"
they called, nodding his head for him. "He'd love to take you
on a date!"

"Uh, yes," Adric added a bit dazedly. "Yes, of course."

"Great," Number One said. Again, there was that prodding from
the back of her mind, that voice that she was just too tired, hurt,
and downright philosophically confused right now to argue with.
It was easier just to let it have its way, so she did. "And, Adric...
sugar," she said softly, her voice resisting a little at the heretical
utterance she was about to make, "...thank you."

And, lo, Number One's conscience did smile.

Part One - Part Two - Part Four - Part Five - Cut Scene - Notes

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