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The next chunk of Red Roses, Old Record Players (the Mac Dies story).  The shift is over, one for the ages, but work has a tendency to follow you.  Grey and Bob eat Italian, but relaxing is out of the question.

 

When he found a parking space and the car was safely stopped, I asked a minor question he’d be sure to answer: "What level is his clearance?"

"First."

I shook my head, as much from disgust for the boys upstairs as pity for the specialists. First and second levels—high muckety-mucks only—were corrupt politicians or double agents for various agencies. You sent the briefcase brigade after them. Seeing its mêlée approach and the specialist call, Serious Putty should’ve been third level, at most. First levels were dangerous because they knew things. Third levels were dangerous because they killed things.

"The hell made them do that?"

"Classified."

I sighed, disappointed but unsurprised. "Don’t make me hack your computer, Grey; you use dial-up; it’ll be a headache. I don’t plan to spread the information, and my clearance level is high as yours in all but name."

Grey’s lips thinned, but he turned off the engine and slumped back in his seat. To my surprise, he didn’t recite protocol at me or put up any more of a fight. That must’ve been one hell of a shift.

"Fugitive from the Jaunter’s League base in Deten." That explained the clearance; the Jaunter’s League hated to open their databases to anyone, even in emergencies, and they had no love for us. Likely the briefcase brigade was still arguing with them about opening this case up. "Fourteen counts of homicide and twenty-three aggravated assault, not including local charges. A 107."

"So for all their stonewalling, the Jaunter’s League isn’t going to gripe about jurisdiction." The newest trainee in the PIN knew to pray not to run into a 107. They were odds-breakers created and brought into wars to beat the shit out of anything they saw, and they did it with gusto. The Jaunter’s League didn’t care who detained them, as long as it happened. "It isn’t trading season for Deten, and it’s far off; how’d it get here?"

"Hijacked a transport ship and killed the crew. It was small; ten Detekens."

"Christ." I breathed. Travelers weren’t mercenaries, but Detekens were built like polar bears and no slouches in a fight. "They have weaponry?"

"No, cargo ship. Low on fuel, so ran here. Other reason databases weren’t open; League thought ship wouldn’t make it past outposts." Grey continued. "We caught it by surprise, and it only wanted escape, but it holds a focus. Eight targets survivors from earlier hits, shot at it before it could kill Dean. On leave."

I took a deep breath. "You mean they kicked you out of all PIN facilities until the danger period’s over. Why am I not surprised? God forbid they give you some protection after twenty-five years."

"No."

"Don’t defend them."

"Larkin ordered it."

"Ebony Larkin?" That was a surprise; she wasn’t vitriolic, and specialists didn’t just put their senior member on leave. He’d slipped up telling me that. "Why’d she do that?" And how had he let her?

"Procedure." He replied, as though that ended the discussion.

I sighed. "So why’d you choose to humor me, rather than skulk around your apartment or the gym?"

"Nothing to do. Don’t want to be alone." He replied, and before I could respond to the uncharacteristic expression of the word ‘want,’ he leaned over into the backseat and started to rummage around. I didn’t realize why until I heard a metallic clunk and remembered his security blanket.

"No." I said, biting back a groan. "You’re not bringing your gear in there; people will think you’re a terrorist." This was a common argument with him.

"No." For a moment, I had hope. Then he began to twist back to the front seat and I realized what he’d denied was that people would think he was a terrorist.

After that shift, I was in no mood to tolerate heavy artillery at dinner. Before he could put the cannon in his lap and grab ammo for it, I caught his arm.

"No! No pulse rifles! I know you’ve got brains in you; I just got you to recite Serious Putty’s case profile. Why can’t you use them for people who aren’t trying to kill you and a shipload of Detekens?" I threw my weight against his forearm, but he didn’t seem to notice.

"Licensed."

"Yes, and if you were in Iran, they wouldn’t mind, but this is a civilian evening, and there are limits to the second amendment. You know that."

He kept eye contact through what I said but didn’t seem to be paying attention to my words. He glanced at the gun, then at his arm where I was still trying to lower it. I didn’t need expression or speech.

As an adult, I can admit that I look like the love child of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and a pear. My mirror reminds me every day, and unless I grow some masochism or self-restraint, depending on your mindset, my physique won’t change. I’ve accepted that, but I don’t like being lectured about it, especially by a man like Grey who spends what free time he has making his body into concrete. At times I envy him for still being mostly eye candy from the neck down, but normally the benefits of it outweigh the liabilities. "I’ll mention your social life." I warned.

Since Grey couldn’t win verbally, he settled on retorting physically, which was the only way he could reclaim an argument without endangering his reputation as humorless dumbass. It worked: when he hauled the cannon up front, I was dragged along with it. Within a couple seconds, I had the parking brake digging into my flesh, my face planted in his solar plexus, and the rest of my body half-sprawled across the seats. This did nothing for my mood. At least his car had tinted windows.

"Damn it, Grey…" I mumbled into his sweater.

"Supposed to let go."

"Oh, so this is my fault."

"Let go of my gun." That he ordered me deadpan, as though we didn’t look like what bad porn stars had to watch in Hell, only annoyed me further.

"In hell I will! Let go of your cannon so I can win this argument and get up; you smell like my grandmother’s Victrola, and my back doesn’t bend this way anymore. Fighting with you today, I feel damn petty…"

His voice sounded strained. "That hurts."

That didn’t make sense until I remembered that Serious Putty had lambasted him, and Ebony Larkin had said he’d be sore. Of course, being a specialist, she’d understated; it took more than sore to make Grey sound like that. I gave up the gun so I could shift into a position where I wouldn’t be touching him. It only made the parking brake more uncomfortable, but as soon as I backed off, the lines in Grey’s face lessened, though he still absently rubbed his chest with one hand.

"All right there?" I asked.

In answer, he checked the magazine, and I didn’t stop him. "College kids."

"The PIN has enough mature people like you working for it; I see it as karmic balance." I looked at the cannon and sighed. "Compromise?"

He popped the magazine back into the gun with a clack.

"It’s been a bad day." I said, shifting back into my seat before the parking brake did something irreversible. When I straightened, my back cracked loud enough for Grey to look up, and I took advantage of the pause. "But you know you can’t bring something like that in, even if you are licensed. If you’re going to get paranoid, at least bring something small and unobtrusive. And for god’s sake, hide them."

A .45 and a short-range tranq-gun later, we entered the Opera House for something to eat. Ignoring the waitress’s frazzled attempts to lead us to a booth, Grey strode to a table at the corner of the restaurant and took the seat that allowed him the maximum view of the interior. I sighed and resigned myself to an evening with a paranoiac.

For those of you who’ve never suffered a night at the Opera House, let me sketch it for you. Imagine a nice Italian restaurant with good acoustics where people dress semi-formal and drink good wine. Classy place. Now imagine everyone—waiters, chefs, customers—singing opera. A soundtrack loops through the speakers, but it’s hardly necessary, since the place attracts the kind of people who burst into song at the drop of a hat and think life is a Broadway musical.

Grey loves opera. I loathe it. The only reason I tolerated the place was that the atmosphere sometimes loosened him up, as much as he could be. Unfortunately, if his habits in table choice were any indication, this wouldn’t be one of those times. I couldn’t blame him; the exuberance in the room felt stale, and I wanted to take the edge off.

"You going to drink anything?" I asked, glancing over at the wines.

"Water."

"Wild man, you are." Grey didn’t drink, partly because he held liquor like a rusty cheese grater due to lack of practice. "Any chance your partner can talk sense into you?" I asked.

"No. Remember last time you said ‘partner.’"

I grimaced. "Don’t mention that; it’s too ridiculous for today." During our last visit to the Opera House, some smashed liberal couple had overheard me and attempted to toast our future civil union. It had become such a fiasco that Grey ended up the only one who’d kept a straight face and calm voice by the end of the night. I had insisted on alcohol then, but tonight, I left him alone. Under second thought, wine seemed too celebratory.

Unfortunately, the Opera House could be nothing but celebratory. It was a small place, not too crowded, but there were still a few happy couples praising Hallmark Day in the most romantic, musical fashion they could conceive. As the waiter came with my manicotti, an engaged and slightly tipsy couple wrapped their arms around each other and began to croon in over-the-top lovesick voices, and the waiters quickly joined in. It was a drinking song—worse, a romantic drinking song, full of toasts for eyes bright as stars and lips red and sweet, and its maudlin exuberance only made it hurt. The melody rang a bell, though I couldn’t remember the title, but seeing the damned cheerful tone, I wouldn’t have been surprised if MacIntire had hummed it at some point. For all I knew about him, he may well have been an opera aficionado.

Damn it all. God had a morbid sense of humor killing him on this holiday.

Planning to demand some wine, I turned to Grey only to find he was watching them, more intently than usual, and as the chorus came in, I realized that I hadn’t heard it from MacIntire. The song ended with an enthusiastic, "Drink! Drink! Drink! Let every true lover salute his sweetheart! Let’s drink!" and a toast broke out. Feeling ironic, I raised my glass, but Grey only subsided to his ritual linguini with marinara.

"I remember that song." I remarked. "The last one sang it sadder than they did. Two years ago, wasn’t it?"

He shifted uncomfortably without speaking. Of course he remembered that New Year’s party I’d dragged him to two years ago; some joker had spiked his Caffeine-free Diet Coke when he wasn’t looking, and after the can, he couldn’t have walked a hallway without bumper rails. Like I said, holds his liquor like a rusty cheese grater. Even today, it was an amusing, good-hearted enough memory to work through the haze.

"What is it?" I asked. "Wagner?"

A faint wince quirked his mouth. "Romberg. Student Prince."

I shrugged. "You know all the songs; you ought to join them sometime. You could do it." Now that I finally wanted it, I took a bite of my dinner.

"Did, once or twice," Grey said, "back in training."

I gagged on my manicotti and grabbed for my napkin. "Of all the days to get a sense of humor, Grey…"

He shrugged. "Exhibitionism."

Despite my own inability to carry a tune, I’d known my partner could sing. You’d never guess it when you met him, and he’d never tell you, but he had a fair bass. I’d known him for years, and the only time I’d seen him use it (shouting at civilians to get out of his way notwithstanding) was that New Year’s. After a search, I’d found him belting out a drunken but astoundingly coherent selection of what I now knew to be Romberg to the otherwise vacant break room. I’d had no idea that he might have ever sung anything in public, though.

"Exhibitionism? You must’ve been smashed off your ass." I said.

He said nothing, which meant that he probably had.

"Go." I ordered. "Do it."

"No."

Nothing was more mundane and steadying than nagging Grey to do something that didn’t involve work, and I was relieved that I didn’t find everything morbid today. "Go. Half the people in this funny farm sing worse than you do, and you must sing better sober anyway."

"No."

"These people will never see you again, and you’ve shouted at ten times this many people without stage fright."

"No."

I gave up. Wearing him down when he only repeated himself would take too much energy, and I’d gotten what I wanted out of it. "Fine, be stubborn, but I think they’d appreciate your voice more than the break room or your showerhead."

Against all expectations, he smiled. I might’ve hated this place, but I couldn’t argue with results. "You."

"Yes, but I have no taste; I saw that face you made when I said Wagner." I pointed out and was rewarded with a repeat of the wince. "If it’s not in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit, I couldn’t care less, remember?"

"Good." He replied, and resumed eating his linguini and marinara.

I rolled my eyes. It was the food. No skinny people believe that food can do anything beneficial, but evolution’s on my side: food works as a mood stabilizer. "Exhibitionist, my fat ass."

I’d met boa constrictors that ate faster than Grey did, so naturally I finished first, and the waiter laid the bill on our table without missing a beat. I began to reach for it, but Grey got it first.

"How much?" I asked as he held it up.

Brow furrowing as though he were laboring over Vedic script, he leaned closer to the slip of paper and squinted, then reversed the process and held it out at arm’s length, still squinting. Somehow amused, I reached out and snapped my fingers for the bill, but he waved me off and continued pondering over the print.

With a sigh, I removed my bifocals and held them out. After a moment, he looked over. Developing a slightly rueful look, he laid the bill on the table, took the bifocals from my hand, and held them over the paper like a magnifying glass.

"You’re getting old." I told him.

"Nineteen eighty-three." He replied, and handed my glasses back to me.

"Almost ready?" I asked.

"Alm—" His phone started playing Fuck Her Gently.

I sighed. "Sounds like the boys upstairs want you." I had set that ring tone for them a year or so ago, because God knows they needed that lesson. Grey hadn’t learned any more technology than necessary after 1985, so he couldn’t change it and wouldn’t ask me. He now treated the lyrics as any other call to duty, and ignoring the looks of the customers around him, he dug the phone from his pocket.

"Double-checking your leave?" I asked, and he nodded.

That wouldn’t take long, so I decided to hit the can before I was subjected to more of his driving. The evening hadn’t turned out as awful as I’d feared; I was almost sure that Grey might get some sleep tonight, and I’d almost pushed away the picture of Jenny weeping (not sobbing, just weeping) at her desk.

Halfway through my business, the placid opera soundtrack of the bathroom was interrupted by a loud, distant CRASH from the restaurant’s interior. I paused and turned my head to peer at the bathroom door. Was that a noise I should worry about, or a drunken opera enthusiast who’d toppled off his barstool?

Then I noticed something else, something more worrying than the crash. The singing had stopped.

I was weighing whether I should finish what I was doing first or check it out immediately when I heard a gunshot. Then my blood froze. That had to be Grey; two armed maniacs in this place strained belief. I stopped what I was doing, zipped my pants, and dashed to the door. At the last minute, I remembered not to crash through it, and nudged it open a crack instead.

All I could see was the wall, but I could hear what was happening clearly. Or rather, what wasn’t happening. The place was dead silent. Nobody had screamed or panicked. Not surprising. When something unreal happens to normal people, they don’t know what to do but blink and give their brains time to work out some new programming. But any minute now, someone sober was going to—

"Dude, what the hell—" The thwack made me flinch; I’d never heard bone bruise. There was a scream from someone else, hastily stifled, and then a dull thump as someone fell to the floor. The room was silent again.

I slipped the bathroom door shut again and leaned against it, taking a deep breath. Despite the sudden adrenaline and sound of my pulse in my ears, I felt eerily calm; my internal processor was too preoccupied with crunching logic to give me the full impact of the situation. Thank goodness Grey had refused to give up all his hardware. Though I wouldn’t admit it to him after this was over, his paranoia had been warranted; Serious Putty had decided to tie up loose ends and now a restaurant full of annoying singing civilians was tossed in.

Any other day, I would’ve let Grey deal with it. It was his job, and he was the one who’d been trained to detain these guys, while I had no illusions about my own abilities in that respect. This time was different; on his shakiest day, Grey had protocol drilled into him so deep that he wouldn’t pull out a gun and risk a panic unless something worse would happen if he didn’t. That thing had killed MacIntire, and my specialist was already injured enough that it showed. No matter how hard he tried, he was still only human.

Jenny had wept at her desk—

I shoved the image out of my mind to make more space for planning. I wasn’t going to join her, not today, not on a holiday like this. They hired me to be fast, to know things. Time to earn my pay.

First idea: follow protocol, grab my cell-phone, and call for help. Unfortunately, I’d left it on the table with Grey for some damn fool reason that I didn’t waste time remembering.

Next idea: Grey’s car. Every specialist’s car had a police radio in it; I knew how to use it, and I could call other specialists, or at least the cops.

Calculate the odds of a Vaygan police force against an intergalactic killing machine later. Time was the prime value; I needed a plan now, so to hell with details and variables.

Next problem: how to get to the car. The bar separated the dining area from the kitchen, which held the service entrance. The bathroom was hidden in an aisle that bent from the corner of the dining area and twisted at an angle behind the kitchen; unless Serious Putty was standing directly facing the hallway to the restrooms (unlikely), I had a few steps before it saw me. But I still had to enter the dining area if I wanted to get to the kitchen and the back door. Maybe—no, I couldn’t make that run without being noticed. The back exit was closer, but not that close.

No choice: I had to gamble on Grey and his focus. I’d done this before, but usually with nothing more than forty dollars on the line. Stupid bastard—but it didn’t matter. If I could trust him with my money, I could trust him with my life; he’d never failed me.

Time was paramount; I couldn’t waste it with doubt. I gripped the doorknob, turned it, and nudged the door open again. Thankfully, the damn thing didn’t squeak and ruin everything.

Understand that I work with the PIN; I’m not a brave man. I’m a comboy. My alien violence was pulverizing Blanka in a Street Fighter tournament. Everything else was sitting at a desk with a receiver in my ear and a monitor in front of me. I don’t cope well with the possibility of getting the shit beat out of me. So I wasn’t; my mind filled itself with the situation, forcing the panic into the back rooms with space to remember MacIntire and Jenny and valentine roses.

I slipped to the edge of visibility and took the glance I could afford.

The patrons were against the walls, trying to be invisible. The crash had been Grey overturning a table to barricade himself into a corner. I remembered his insistence on the location and was glad I’d let him have his way. Serious Putty was standing at the front door.

I only looked long enough to see it was facing away from me and get an impression of a scrawny off-white body and ribbon-like limbs, and then I leaned halfway into view and focused on Grey.

I was hard to his left, but he saw me and knew what I needed. Playing distraction to the hilt, he sent a few shots over in Serious Putty’s direction, and I made for the kitchen, trying to ignore the shriek Serious Putty let out, a ghastly piano-wire screech at a pitch no human could have pulled off. In a past life, I must’ve saved a truckload of orphans from death, because my karma was good and the door to the kitchen was open. I dived behind the counter and crouched there for a moment, panting and feeling the sweat trickle down the back of my neck. I heard a bottle smash against the wall, but nothing that showed a sign that Serious Putty had noticed me. The other patrons were either smart enough to stay silent, or more likely, too terrified about their own circumstances to say anything at all. I crawled as fast as I could out the back of the kitchen and through the service exit. The chefs, the geniuses, had already made a break for it.

On Hallmark Day evening, the average street would’ve been crowded, but the Opera House was in a suburb area where there was little trouble. The cops, to my frustration, were elsewhere, probably busy busting parking violators and kids selling pot.

Keeping the anxiety at the back of my mind, I dashed and panted to the parking lot to where Grey’s car was parked and hauled at the car door handle with the hand that wasn’t clutching my side. Then I realized my mistake. Grey, being the security-conscious anal retentive he is, had locked the car, and I didn’t carry a key.

"Goddamn it!" I kicked the door out of panic and frustration, and that’s when I got another idea. Not as elegant as the others, and my partner would be short a car at the end, but at this point he’d forgive me anything.

Like all specialists, Grey kept a crowbar lashed to the bottom of his car to force his trunk open after his car took a beating from another alien he’d pissed off. I wasn’t strong enough to do that, but I could still smash through a window, unlock the door, and grab the radio.

A couple greasy gritty seconds later, I found the crowbar and got up with it in my hand. Then I swung it at the first window I saw.

The idea backfired. The crowbar bounced off like I’d attacked a safe, leaving nothing but a spider-web of cracks, and the goddamn car alarm went off with a siren. I heard a low thunk and realized the locks had shut down. Now I was going to bring Serious Putty down on my head wondering what the hell was making that racket.

On the heels of that thought was: no, it wouldn’t; it’d be busy beating the shit out of Grey.

I started moving again. My physique wouldn’t allow prying off doors or crawling through windows, so reaching the radio was out. By this point, I wasn’t sure if someone would make it here fast enough anyway. However, I could reach all that crap I’d made Grey leave behind.

At that, I changed windows and began smashing at the back one, ignoring the wailing of the car alarm and trying not to keep track of seconds. It took me a while, but I finally shattered whatever the hell Science used instead of glass. Didn’t have the time or the strength to pull the massive bag of gear out, so I leaned in as far as I could and dug around.

Specialist gear wasn’t something I focused on—after all, when would I need to know that? Unfortunately, now I did, and I didn’t know what half the stuff was, forcing me to operate on the basic assumption that if it looked big and deadly, it likely was. I chose the most lethal-looking cannon of the bunch within reach that would fit through the window and a silvery ball about the size of my fist because it was the closest to hand. My memory was failing on whether it exploded or released sleeping gas, but I did remember how to prime it, and after a quick couple button taps, I shoved it in my pocket nonetheless. Whichever it did, it’d allow me an endgame if things went sour. Besides, any sharp force would set it off now; I could hit hard enough for that.

Armed, I sprinted back to the Opera House. The crap weighed more than I’d anticipated. I don’t know how the hell Grey toted it everywhere, but I made it back to the kitchen without breaking stride, though panic didn’t keep me from feeling the stitch in my side and the wheeze in my lungs. I crouched down and crawled to the front of the kitchen, still considering the situation itself, rather than how unsuited I was for it.

The relative calm that had hung over the room earlier had been shattered. People were screaming, a fight was ending, and I heard a crash of breaking glass and overturned furniture, then a thwack and another one of those rusty-claw-on-chalkboard shrieks before things went silent again. My mind was too busy to focus on what the noises meant; I paused only to check the shots in the cannon. Only then had it occurred to me that after fighting with Grey’s car, I didn’t want to end up with something unloaded. It was full, of course; he reloaded after every shift.

Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I arranged my glasses and rose to a kneel. I knew little about guns except an ill-fated attempt with Grey at the shooting range, but accuracy was crucial. Now was the time to learn.

As I aimed, I realized that the fight I’d heard hadn’t directly involved the panicking patrons. No, the noise had been Serious Putty and Grey, and the whip-thin 107, a hundred pounds at most with its flimsy streamer limbs, had come out on top. My specialist must have grazed it at some point, because a small amount of smoky blood at its ribs was evaporating into smog. One of its flexible handless limbs was gripping Grey’s shirtfront, but it was too slight to handle the weight, forcing it to twist forward and peer down at him. Because of my position, I couldn’t make out what had been done to him, but a couple of its other limbs gripped a dented wok and a dripping cheese knife.

The vision should have frozen me; it did the opposite. Testosterone kicked in for me, and I decided that I wanted the bastard dead. Thinking of all the wonderful things it could be reincarnated as, I aimed carefully and fired.

The kickback nearly made me fall over, and a glob of flaming something flew wide. Serious Putty’s head whipped a hundred degrees on its rubbery spine to see who was idiot enough to shoot at it. Before my shot had hit the table, it’d let go of Grey, and then it was in front of the counter. My brain couldn’t tell me how it’d gotten there, only give me an impression of smoke and flying ribbons. I realized that I was fucked: scrawny or not, that thing was goddamned fast.

My mind had gotten to the word ‘fucked’ when Serious Putty whipped back and snapped two of its limbs at me. Resembling frog tongues, one wrapped around the gun, while the other swung into my stomach. The thing packed more force than its flexibility implied, and I doubled over with a gasp. Before I finished the action, a limb that acted as a leg whipped forward, cracking across my jaw and correcting my angle. By the time I hit the floor, three ribbons were wrapped around my neck and upper arms to hold me there. Somewhere during the process, the gun was wrenched out of my hands. Description implies duration, but it lasted maybe two seconds. My mind couldn’t even sort out events until I was down and realized my lip was bleeding.

When I looked up, the muzzle of the cannon was in front of my face, steaming quietly. Despite its lack of hands and fingers, Serious Putty aimed steadily. One of its limbs was finishing the process of wrapping around the gun in a haphazard streamer tangle, and somewhere in that mess, it gripped the trigger. It stood there, head cocked at me as though perplexed, or maybe amused. It didn’t have a face, only a tiny slit of a mouth and across where the cheeks would be on a human, there were two gills gaping wide and oozing something pearly. On the whole, it wasn’t fearsome, except that it’d decked me before I saw it happening. I didn’t even have time to panic about impending death, never mind close my eyes; hell, it’d probably shot me already.

The gunshot was more deafening than I remembered and oddly high-pitched, and I didn’t realize that it’d come from a different gun until Serious Putty's tiny mouth wrenched open to bare fangs and let out that same glass-shattering screech. With liquid speed, it spun, caught the cannon as it fell from its punctured, useless limb, and aimed.

As frighteningly fast as it was, the 107 couldn’t make up for a weapon that was made for a species with fingers and an opposable thumb. It took it a couple seconds to wrap its new limb around the gun properly, and my brain finally kept pace. It still held my shoulders and arms in place, so I slammed my heel into its leg. There was less resistance than I expected, but it was as effective as trying to kick a sheet of rubber; the leg simply stretched before rebounding back.

The 107 didn’t stagger, and it only flung me out of the way, but I was too heavy to go far, and the distraction did its job. There was another gunshot that sent a stream of black smoke up from its torso, making it scream again. In a greasy blur of sinuous movement, it fled, and Grey scrambled over the counter. He hit the floor with a graceless thud, as though his body was too stiff to catch itself, and one of his arms hung at an awkward angle. He was bleeding and also on fire.

"Who’s coming?" He demanded, tearing his sweater off. The flames went with it.

"No one." I admitted, caught between delight and terror that we were both still alive. "Your car’s locked."

"Damn." Through the pain on his face, he looked put out.

A blast of green slime missed my leg by about a foot and set the floor burning.

"The plasmotherma." I couldn’t tell if he was pissed off or on the verge of passing out. The amount of blood on his shirt, it could’ve been either. "You gave him the plasmotherma."

"Is that what that thing is?" Another blast made me duck lower against the counter.

Pulling out his own gun, which was worthless at this distance, he took a wild shot over his shoulder without standing up. If his glassy look meant anything, his aim was cracked anyway, and even that movement seemed to hurt.

"Don’t pass out on me, Eric," I begged, "you’re the only one here with an idea what you’re doing!"

"Grab anything else?" He demanded with a grimace of agony.

"Y—"

"Use it. I’m sorry." His voice was faint, and he began to list forward. As his gun dropped from his hand, I caught him by the shoulders before he collapsed, smearing blood across my hands, and in the corner of my eye I caught the liquid ripple of Serious Putty leaping up over the counter behind me. Grey’s tranqs had slowed it down to an almost human speed, but it hadn’t succumbed.

It didn’t occur to me to think what would happen if I activated that silver ball in my pocket, only that it wouldn’t involve me getting my arms ripped out of their sockets and Grey becoming nasty stuff. The 107 was already in front of us, so I skipped the logic and the philosophical debate on the purpose of my life and smacked the ball as hard as I could.

Nothing happened, and my heart damn near stopped: I’d grabbed the one thing in Grey’s gear that didn’t work. It was so implausible that it made sense in my mind, which was finally caving to panic. As Serious Putty aimed the smoking plasmotherma at me, I had a moment to resolve to get on Grey’s case for not maintaining his crap and then closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see what happened.

Then a voice chimed into my ear. "Hiiiii! How you doing? Don’t worry about the aftereffects; they’ll pass in a few minutes."

"Wha?" I discovered that my mouth tasted like shit and that my tongue had grown fur. The situation didn’t make sense; I believed in reincarnation, damn it, so why was I in Hell, and hungover? "Erlech."

"Or maybe not. Welcome back to the land of the sober and standing, chum. Sucks hitting one of those silver balls, huh?"

"Grah."

"Happy Valentine’s Day to you too, Papa Bear."

The voice was too cheerful and damn annoying, but it was human. Though I felt groggy, ill, and badly confused, I was alive, and free of pain, excepting my lip. Thus reassured, I opened my eyes to find myself on the Opera House floor, glasses miraculously unbroken. A woman loomed over me, grinning. Her blue jumpsuit was PIN, but the cut wasn’t doc; the metal box under her arm, which was roughly the size and shape of an outmoded computer monitor, proved her one of the Metaphysics branch—‘fizzies’ to you and me. Some delusional higher-up in the sixties brought the sect to life, planning for them to handle diplomatic communication. As time progressed, however, they’d been relegated to doing mental cleanup after the specialists, scrubbing away bystanders’ traumatic experiences and aggravating fellow workers. All of them were equipped with a clunky, painfully user unfriendly device that could read and alter humans’ brain chemistry in the short term. But for all their gifts with the mind, fizzies were bonkers: for taking the job, for liking the job, and for having that box plugged into their brain.

"Yup," she said, pulling me to my feet and shaking my hand, "we got here first. Lucky y—argh!" She recoiled and scrubbed her hand against the leg of her jumpsuit.

I didn’t pay attention, only stared at the dried blood crusted across my palm—the reason she had recoiled.

The fizzy clapped a hand to the plug at the side of her head as though it hurt. "Take it easy, man, he’s fine. Go wash your hands."

Though the bewilderment was passing, I was too confused to protest and went to the kitchen sink, looking for Grey on the way. There was blood spattered on the floor and cooking implements strewn everywhere, but no partner and no 107. As I put rust flecks into the sink water, the fizzy proceeded to fill me in. "You’ve been out for about twenty minutes. Everyone was, except your partner; he pitched it off fast." I nodded and thrust my face into the stream of cold water, which shed the cobwebs from my mind. I knew the training regimen specialists went under; if they could adjust to the drugs, they did. "Serious Putty was still out cold, and he followed procedure."

Following procedure in this case meant a game of specialist D&D: decapitation and disembowelment. After a specialist tried to dispose of the body of a Jinikai, only for it to regrow a lung and two tentacles and damn near strangle him to death, we’d stopped taking chances in emergencies. The fizzy shuddered, but I only felt dark pleasure. To hell with brutality: though it insured Grey would be an insomniac tonight, I was glad Serious Putty had been taken apart.

"So he dug his phone out of the rubble, called us up and here we came—yup, serious. Amazing, right?"

Strange, more like. Grey hated fizzies. He didn’t have to say so: his jaws would weld themselves shut, the stick up his ass grew a foot, and he circled around them as though they were contagious. I couldn’t think why he’d called them. Still, it wasn’t what I was interested in knowing right then.

"Right. Sorry. Well, he’s in no shape to go anywhere on his own and he’s practically the walking dead. But don’t worry, he’ll be fine." I bit my tongue, and she added, "Look, buddy, I ain’t a doc. Just because I read minds doesn’t mean I know everything. One of our receiver mimics did the trauma work—one of our unconscious civvies was an off-duty nurse, lucky us—but that’s no substitute, and the docs are on their way. I know you’re worried and want to make sure he won’t die, but work out a story first, OK? The docs will be here any minute now."

I frowned. The department frowned on comboys and specialists meeting each other on their own time, but it wasn’t difficult, and the policy was impossible to strictly enforce. For Grey to worry about it now seemed extreme; even on Hallmark Day at an operatic Italian restaurant, I’d figured the docs might’ve snorted and snarked, but little else. Then again, I rarely was on this side of the policy. Hell, maybe I was wrong and the docs would have a field day, but fizzies wouldn’t; if their department tended to nosiness, the whole lot of them would’ve been fired for possession. They’d say nothing.

"Of course not—it’s an idiot policy." The fizzy told me. "Besides, you haven’t got any—"

I looked at her, and she cringed and put both hands to her head.

"Aagh! Do not want! Uh… yeah. He’s over there." She said, pointing towards the restroom without as much bounce. Since she could read it off her box anyway, I let myself smirk. Grey thinks a fizzy can’t be cowed, but he doesn’t do it properly. Even if they aren’t intimidated by his blank stares and hulking size, they can be silenced.

"Thanks." Before I headed in, I tugged at my jacket, replaced my glasses, and smoothed my hair. It was damp, but it could pass. "Do I look like I’ve been through an ordeal?"

"Ditch the jacket." She said without looking up.

She was right; though it’d somehow escaped bloodying, it had road grease smeared on it from my searching under Grey’s car. I pulled it off and folded it over my arm, hiding the stain.

"There. You look fine now."

"Good." I would’ve had to leave otherwise. "Anyone asks, you guys took me here to drive him home."

"Plausible; he can barely walk right now. The car?"

"Grey’s fault. Not mine." A carjacker wouldn’t smash a window and not take anything, and it would be possible that in his rush to grab weaponry, he forgot his keys and smashed open the window instead. Not plausible, but possible, and in such a disaster, the docs would assume anything.

Still surprised at the precautions, I headed towards the restroom, where Grey lay flat on his back, arms out to the sides and legs propped up against the wall, while one of the fizzies applied pressure at relevant points of bleeding. He’d been stripped to the waist and temporarily bandaged, his bloodied shirt tossed to the side, but he clutched a wicked-looking butcher knife that didn’t hold a shine.

"Hey, Eric." I said. "How’re you feeling?"

By his standards, his expression was dismal. "They put me on health leave."

If his blood wasn’t sticking to my shoes, I would’ve laughed from disbelief. The fizzy with the bandages rolled his eyes at me, as though to say that he’d been putting up with thoughts like this all evening.

"Is he delirious?" I asked.

"Can’t tell." The fizzy replied bitterly. "He’s lost enough blood to make a case for it, though." He waggled a bloodstained chunk of gauze at me.

"A week." Grey continued. Like some kid missing senior prom.

The fizzy rolled his eyes again, more dramatically this time.

"A week?" I repeated incredulously. "When the docs are through stitching you, you’ll beat out Frankenstein’s monster for yardage. I respect you, Eric, but don’t shit me into thinking you’ll be back to your old self in a week." I squatted on the floor next to him. "You can’t impress aliens right now."

"Not me." The fizzy told me. "I prefer them androgynous."

"What?" Grey frowned and lifted his head.

"Don’t move; you’ve bled enough today." I interjected. "We’ve already come up with a story for the docs."

He lay back down, his eyes closed. "We’re lying to the department."

"Yes, damn it, we’re lying to the department, and you came up with the idea, so get that look of woe off your face."

"Quickly." The fizzy added, and held up fingers. Four… three… two…

Grey’s face made the millimeter shift back to blank, and the first doc charged through the door, still in an evening suit. Giving us a smug look, the fizzy looked to the doc and opened his mouth.

"I know, Harmonius!" The doc snapped, and the fizzy closed his mouth with an imperturbable Buddha smile.

The doc focused on me. "You’re his comboy, right?"

I nodded, and he waved in a couple more docs who had a gurney. "You’re coming with us."


 
(deleted comment)

Date: 2007-10-07 05:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lb-lee.livejournal.com
*bows* Excellent! Glad to have entertained with both drama and action; Bob and Grey grew on us. I'll admit, Serious Putty took a few incarnations before getting down right, but it was full worth it.

Thanks for the compliments; the ego, she sings.
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