The city tended to be rather quiet in the small hours of the morning, with only the background noises of traffic, wind, and the chirping of summer crickets to dispel the silence. Warm night, starry sky, full pale moon shedding silky radiance over the park that sat between the train station and a row of tenements.
Iron wheels scraped against steel rails in their familiar tooth-jarring screech that heralded the arrival of the 2:00 am express, which disgorged its few weary passengers onto the platform, where they dispersed along their own ways. Two people headed out across the grass; one was a college student who had stayed up late to help a classmate study for her exam, the other was a large man who had his mind on meeting with a business partner in one of the tenements.
The student knew nothing of this and probably wouldn't have cared. All he wanted was to grab a cup of hot tea and crawl into bed. Hell, forget the tea. Sleep was more important; he was so tired that his eyes were starting to play tricks on him. The shadows cast by the bushes and trees in the park seemed to take on a life of their own. For instance, one shrub held a striking resemblance to a squid on a pogo stick. A skinny cherry tree looked like his little sister's hair when one of her friends had accidentally dumped a pot of treacle on her head. And the stand of pines over there definitely looked as though something menacing was hiding in them -
A dark shape darted out of the pines with incredible speed, slamming into the other man like a runaway truck. With a screech of mad metallic laughter, it buried its fingers in the stricken man's shoulder. The sound of bones snapping like twigs carried clearly over the victim's agonized shrieks, and the thing kept up a steady chorus of insane giggles as it slowly tore the man apart.
The college student stood gaping in shock for the first few seconds, unable to believe what he was seeing. Then, with a courage he never knew he possessed, he rushed to aid the squealing victim. "Stop it! Get off of him!" He cried, throwing himself at the murderer.
The moment he touched the creature, he knew he had made an enormous mistake. It was like hitting a man-shaped steel framework padded with three or four inches of tough leather. Moonlight gleamed off of a helmet of polished black bone and the blood spattered liberally over thickly muscled arms. It turned its head to look at him, and he screamed in terror at what he didn't see there. With a smooth, almost contemptuously easy motion, the creature shrugged him off and straight-armed him across the chest with enough force to knock him into the grass several yards away, bones snapping under the impact.
For a solid quarter-hour he lay there aching and breathless, listening to crickets and screams and laughter and the horrible ripping and cracking sounds of messy dismemberment. At last, the monster rose from its kill and loped away, still chortling to itself. Not long after, he heard soft voices.
"Oh, damn," a rich bass voice muttered, "It's killed again, Van. Can't you keep a leash on that beast?"
"You know it only follows me around because it wants to, Piper." A lighter, utterly calm baritone replied. "I could almost swear that it's avoiding us on purpose."
"You know better than that." The one called Piper admonished as he stepped over to inspect the gory mess. He was an amazingly tall man, with red skin, black clothes, and dark glasses. "The damn thing doesn't have a brain. The only thing it can do on purpose is to kill whatever gets too close. And, man, did it ever do a number on this poor sod."
"At least we can be sure that he deserved every compound fracture. I wonder what this one was up to; the last three kills were nowhere near so, ah, elaborate." The one called Van was not as tall as his massive companion, but he was one-eyed and absolutely silver-pale in the moonlight. The only spot of color on him was the remaining eye, which burned bloodred in an impassive face. The pale man turned to look at the prone student, who was close to panic. "Whoops. Leftovers."
The unlikely pair moved forward to get a better look. "He ain't dead," Piper rumbled, "that's a new one."
"Hmm. Three cracked ribs, a broken shoulder and collarbone. He got off lightly." Van replied, pinning the young man's frightened gaze with his ruby stare. The eye had no pupil and seemed to be glowing... "Should we alert the authorities?"
"Why bother?" Piper asked as police sirens began to wail. "Someone already has. No doubt the screaming woke up the entire neighborhood. Let's go before people start asking annoying questions, eh?"
The two left just before a group of frightened and frustrated policemen and paramedics rushed in to see if there were any survivors.
"All right, who forgot to water the lilies?" Yohji demanded, fingering a wilted leaf.
"You did." Ken said, waving the morning paper at his teammate. "It was your turn to do the watering last night, remember? Only you came back at midnight last night, fell over on the couch downstairs, and passed out cold."
"You do the best impersonation of a canned ham I've ever seen, Yohji." Omi chuckled, handing him the hose.
Yohji harrumphed peevishly, but took the hose and sprayed the drooping plants. "So what's gone wrong with the world today?"
Ken unrolled the newspaper and scowled. "Let's see... There's been a couple of earthquakes in Honshu, one or two of the volcanoes are acting up, the prime minister was pelted with pies by protestors again, China is still upset by those Falun Gong people, and the killer's struck again."
"The killer?" Aya asked as he raised the steel blinds in the doors and windows. "How many this time?"
"Just one, and he tore the poor slob to bits. Oh, hey! There was a survivor this time, some college kid who actually saw the killer!"
"Really?" Omi asked.
"Yeah. He swore blind that the murderer isn't human. That it - get this - didn't have a face, and it ripped up that guy with its bare hands, laughing all the time."
"That's stupid." Yohji said. "How can it laugh if it doesn't have a face?"
"That's pretty much what the police said." Ken replied. "They think it's some guy going around in a mask using some sort of blunt object, like a crowbar or a hook or something of that nature."
"They're quite wrong, of course." A new voice broke in.
"Hi, Manx." Omi said pleasantly.
Medium-sized and pretty, with her vivid red hair and snappy beret, Manx stood in the doorway with a thick folder under her arm.
"And there you go, outshining all our poor flowers again, ma'am." Yohji said, bowing her into the shop.
"It might help if you watered them more often." Manx smiled. "Fun's over people; I'm here on business."
"A killer is loose in the streets of the city," Persia's familiar image informed them, "and it is a far more deadly one than usual."
The picture shifted, showing a menacing figure bespattered with gore, turning to glare at the camera with an eyeless stare that was more uncomfortable than any other they had ever seen. It was tall, very powerfully built, and mottled with dull greys and blacks that provided excellent night camouflage.
"This creature is indeed not human, for the agent who took this picture emptied his gun into the thing's head without any effect." Persia continued. "The agent is expected to survive, but he will never regain the use of his arm. Recently, a great deal of state-of-the-art laboratory and diagnostic equipment was stolen from a government lab, along with programs containing entire libraries of genetic research. It is presumed that the killer is an escaped experiment.
"In addition, these two men have been observed wherever the creature has made a kill."
The images showed two tall men, one skull-faced, red-skinned and dark-clad, and the other one was pale, single-eyed, and deadly calm.
"Find them. Destroy whoever is creating such monsters. Hunters of light, hunt the tomorrows of the dark beasts!"
"Funny thing he forgot to mention," Manx remarked as she unpacked the mission folders, "every single person that monster massacred was on the police's black list. Persia would have set you guys on their tails if you hadn't been so busy uprooting that drug ring. Are you all taking this mission?"
There were no objections from anyone.
"What about the others who were hurt?" Aya asked, opening his folder.
"Innocent as apricots, all of them. They were just in the way." Manx told him.
"Does Kritiker have any idea who stole the lab equipment?" Ken asked.
"Not a clue." Manx admitted grudgingly. "Whoever they are, they're very good at covering their tracks. Good luck catching these guys. I think you're going to need it."
The Wiess boys had cause to remember Manx's parting words; they searched the city for several days, but all they came up with was more mangled corpses. "Hey, calm down, Aya," Yohji said one evening when the tall redhead was beginning to growl at shadows, "our luck will change soon. The beast can't hide forever."
How right he was...
The eighth day of searching led them down obscure, badly-lit alleys in one of the shabbier districts of the city, where every street was claustrophobically crowded, and apparently built to confuse the enemy. Aya, whose mood hadn't improved at all over the past week, was sending off such a concentration of pissed-assassin vibes that the local muggers avoided their group totally. He was just dying for an excuse to take it out on something...
"Are you sure you brought a compass?" Yohji asked Ken, who was staring over Omi's shoulder at a street map that resembled multicolored spaghetti.
"Will you relax?" Ken retorted, longing for his motorcycle. "Yes, I did bring a compass, and no, we are not lost. Right, Omi?"
"Um." Omi said, trying to figure out whether he was holding the map right way up.
Aya was fast losing interest. Travelling in numbers may be the safer option, but it would have been so much easier to locate the wretched creature if they had let him scout alone! Allowing his teammate's argument roll past him, he concentrated on watching the alleys. They were being watched, of course. Eyes belonging to beggars, street-gangs, and the odd lone mugger or two gleamed at them from a safe distance, not daring to come forward - a shadow figure flickered at the corner of his eye; one that didn't move like a human, but more like a big hunting cat.
Yohji, Ken, and Omi were too wrapped up in their discussion to notice Aya slip away to investigate. "No, turn it the other way!" Ken insisted. "We came in on willow street from the south, didn't we, Aya. Aya? Hey, where'd he go?"
Yohji growled. "Damn stupid jerk's run off again. Does he really think he can fight that thing by himself?"
"Maybe." Omi said dubiously. "He's very proud of his skill with a sword."
Just then, a shockingly loud whoop of mirth split the night air, closely followed by the sound of running feet. A few seconds later, Aya pounded past them at a dead run, a look of angry concentration on his face. "Now that's weird." Ken said. "Aya doesn't run away from anything."
Right after he said that, the killer thundered past them like a steam locomotive, totally ignoring the fact that it had been stabbed by a professional.
"Except maybe that." Omi said, shaken by what he had seen. "His sword's stuck right through that thing's chest!"
"Aya's gonna need help. Come on!" Yohji shouted and took off after the killer, with Ken and Omi close behind.
The chase was a nightmare. Aya was absolutely determined not to let that horror get its hands on him. Inwardly, he cursed himself for a feckless idiot. He should have known that a creature capable of surviving eight point-blank gunshots to the head wouldn't even notice a blade. He darted around every corner he could find, trying to lose the shadow-fiend that giggled madly behind him while the path got progressively more crowded. He leaped dented trash cans like a deer, skidded through huddled groups of lean-tos, stumbled over heaps of crumbling brick as fast as he could go, but the crashing and screams behind him told him that the creature was far too close for comfort.
"Aya!" The shout caught his attention, and he steered toward it gladly. Boy, was it ever good to know that he wasn't alone in this mess. His thoughts were interrupted as a dark hand struck the wall by his ear as he ducked around a corner, powdering the brickwork with a chilling crack. He bolted down the passage as fast as his tiring legs could carry him, right into a dead end. The impact stunned him briefly and Aya's legs tried to buckle under him. Leaning heavily against the wall, he looked up to face his enemy. It had slowed its advance, approaching slowly, fingers like blunt tenterhooks flexing eagerly. It was huge, and it really didn't have a face, just a blank oval of grey-mottled skin with a few dips and hollows to show the suggestion of a skull, fiendishly lit by the anemic streetlight glowing far overhead. The hilt of his katana protruded like a ghastly ornament from its chest, and Aya didn't quite dare to come close enough to pull it out. Aya could almost taste the thing's hunger. Where the hell were his teammates?!
A strand of living gold hissed out of the shadows to tangle the monster up with the nearby lamppost. Three darts followed it, sticking firmly into the dark flesh, and Ken came out of the darkness right behind them, gauntlet ripping long furrows in its back and side. The weapons proved to be useless, however. The monster gave a bark of laughter as the darts popped back out again, and the slashes healed right up without a trace. Ken scrambled back frantically as it lunged at him, missing only because Yohji's cable held, the lamppost creaking in complaint. Annoyed by the holdup, the monster strained at the cable; with several sad pinging noises, the wire snapped, allowing the monster to dart behind them and cut off their only means of escape. It closed in on them, forcing them up against the wall, and then stopped short again. The remaining strands of Yohji's cable had tangled themselves around the hilt of Aya's sword, tethering it to the lamppost. Growling in annoyance, the creature yanked the sword out of its chest and then paused, staring at it as if trying to remember something. It giggled whimsically and tossed the blade away, focusing its eyeless gaze on Omi. Lunging forward, it wrapped its arms around him, snatching the shortest member of the team up into a huge bear hug, patted him on the head, and then put him back down and wandered off, chortling to itself.
Omi just stood there, too stunned even to fall over.
Ken blinked after the departing creature, then turned as Omi sank to the ground with a whimper. "Omi! Are you all right?"
"NO!" Omi cried, clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
"How many ribs did it crack?" Yohji asked.
"None!" Omi replied, "And that's what bothers me!"
"Weird." Yohji muttered. "Hey Aya, you okay?"
"Blunt!" Aya roared, clutching his sword.
"What?" Ken said.
"Blunt, blunt, blunt! Point, edge, all blunt! Even the flat is blunt, and that didn't have an edge to begin with!"
"Um, Aya?" Ken began.
"The damn thing couldn't cut butter unless I dropped a brick on it, and it certainly can't cut the mustard now! I want that thing's head on a plate!" With that, he stomped off in search of the car, never minding the fact that he didn't know where it was.
The others watched him go with some uneasiness.
Ken had a horrible thought. "Guys, who drove us here?"
"Aya." Omi said glumly.
"I am not sitting in the front seat." Yohji stated firmly, following their pissed-off leader.
"Me neither." Omi replied quickly.
"Or me." Ken said.
"Let's put Yohji in the front seat, he's expendable." Omi suggested.
"Oh, yeah?" Yohji retorted. "Like we need a dart-hurling shrimp?"
Omi took offense to this. "I happen to be the brains of this chicken outfit, and - "
"Help me find the damn car!" Aya snarled.
"Maybe we can strap Yohji to the hood." Ken suggested, prompting Yohji to bop him one.
Two figures watched them go from the rooftops. "Think they'll be trouble, Van?"
One red eye gleamed in the darkness as it focussed on the arguing assassins. "Perhaps. They are the local heroes, after all, and they're hunting the same thing we are."
"I just hope it doesn't start hunting them." Piper heaved a long sigh. "That redhead, though. He's got problems."
It took the Wiess boys a solid hour to locate Aya's car, which didn't improve Aya's temper at all. The fact that someone had decorated every inch of the vehicle with vividly spray-painted logos helped even less.
"I'm still not riding up front." Ken muttered to Yohji.
"Moot point anyway." Omi put in. "He's just strapped his sword into it like it was a little kid."
"Or his sister." Yohji agreed.
"C'mon, Omi, you can sit in Yohji's lap."
Omi recoiled in disgust. "No way! I don't know where it's been!"
"Now wait just a minute - " Yohji exploded.
"Get in the car." Aya didn't bother to raise his voice.
"Yessir." They chorused and piled in.
"Aya? I know that you're really upset about your sword," Ken said as Aya started up the car, "But could you try to contain your road rage and remember to drive responsibleeeeeeeeaaaaaaaarrrrghhh!!!!!!"
Aya was not about to control his temper. He punched the accelerator so hard that the car did a wheelie out of the parking space and took off down the road like a bat out of hell, managing to ignore the fact that his teammates were clutching the seats and screaming in terror. On the freeway he deliberately cut off three fully loaded semis and a pizza truck. By the time they got back to the flower shop, Ken, Yohji, and Omi had all acquired several grey hairs.
"Are we there yet?" Omi whimpered as the car dropped below mach 2.
"Yeah," Yohji panted, "Aya just has to parallel-park, is all."
A horrible notion. "Saigon bug-out!" Ken yelped.
"Chinese fire drill!" Yohji agreed.
"Chinese fire-drilling, sir!" Omi shouted and dove for the door handle.
Two seconds later, they stood on the sidewalk catching their breath. "We're getting better at these quick getaways," Yohji said breathlessly, "but you could have just opened the door, Ken."
"The window was already open." Ken muttered.
Amazingly, Aya managed to park the car without so much as scratching the new paint job. Muttering sourly with his sword clutched tightly in his fist, Aya stomped into the shop and up the stairs to his room. The others followed nervously. "Guys, whose turn was it to water the lilies?" Omi asked.
"I'll water them." Omi sighed.
Aya had several days to put the edge back on his blade. The fiendish beast whose breastbone had dulled it had vanished into thin air, leaving a lot of frantic media speculation in its wake. The entire city buzzed with apprehension, the papers were full of worried articles, the television hummed with people who claimed to have seen it, and the gossip flew thick between the girls who visited the flower shop. "What if it goes after students next? Oh, noooo!" They cried. Every single one of them had a friend who had a friend of a friend who had seen it, and their stories started out scary and just got worse. In addition, more large and peculiar thefts occurred: A number of brand-new Cray computers had disappeared from government storage, an entire shipment of lab equipment never arrived at its proper destination, and three tankers of classified chemicals vanished without a trace. Not even Omi could locate them, although he tried his best.
When the break finally came, it was a doozy. The mortal remains of a band of drug runners were found smeared thinly over the interior of a dockside warehouse, and the killer itself burst out of the shadows to fatally maul one of the investigators - right in front of a news camera team. The fact that the late investigator had been taking bribes from the Yakuza for years was lost in the hype.
The Weiss boys followed up on that case and on several others, sometimes arriving just minutes too late; and every time they arrived at the scene, they caught glimpses of two mysterious figures, one red, one white. Aya's temper got progressively stinkier every time they went out, and the others were starting to become more than a little grouchy themselves. They wouldn't even let Aya near his car except to let him clean it.
To their credit, they did catch up with the killer once in some old sewer tunnels near the docks. The wretched beast led them a merry chase through the badly-lit, foul-smelling labyrinth before making its escape through the lair of a former band of kidnappers. "Former", because it had finished dealing with the criminals before the Weiss boys arrived. Aya and the others burst into the lair and then skidded to a stop on the bloodsoaked carpet, halted by the frightened eyes of three dozen small children who'd had to watch a nightmare creature crack their captors open like eggs. In the end, they had to let Aya vent his temper on the furniture while Omi made an anonymous phone call to the police. "Feeling better, Aya?" Ken asked as they walked back to Yohji's dune buggy.
Aya glared at him, picking bits of desk out of his fist. "No."
Yohji sighed, gazing up at the stars. "I don't get it." He muttered half to himself. "We're the best team Kritiker's got. We've faced villains with every psychosis in the book, freaky mutants, psychobitches, mad scientists, freakier mutants, evil sorcerers, and zillions of cranky guys with guns. How come we're having such trouble with this thing?"
"Because all the other people we've fought were more or less human," Omi answered as they climbed into the car, "Y'know, things that Aya could stick his sword in with some hope that they'd actually die? I don't know what this thing is. I'm just glad that it didn't take all those kids apart, too."
"Yeah. I don't think I could've handled that." Ken said, and then stopped. "Guys. Look over there, across the street."
There they were again. Two tall figures, one white, one red, were mounting a pair of oddly-built motorcycles. With a snarl, Aya lunged for the wheel, nearly shoving Yohji over the side. Yohji barely had time to squeeze into the front passenger seat before Aya punched the accelerator, sending them straight towards the two cyclists on a collision course. The mysterious pair were not about to become roadkill, so they sped off down the street with the dune buggy roaring behind them. "Oh, God, please not another chase scene!" Ken wailed, clutching the seat for dear life. "Yohji, punch him out or something!"
"At this speed?! You're nuts!" Yohji gasped. "We'll crash!"
"We're gonna crash anyway!" Omi screamed.
Omi wasn't joking. The two cyclists had swerved into a dead-end alley, and the dead end loomed up above them like the end of the world. Astonishingly, they didn't crash. Lifting up their front wheels, they hit the wall as though it was an on-ramp and shot impossibly upwards, out of sight and out of reach. Aya wasn't so far gone in his rage that he thought he could do that, too. He hit the brakes just in time to prevent them from becoming a tacky wall mural. "Impossible! That's just not possible!!" He snarled.
Ken gave Yohji a significant look, which was passed on to Omi. Wordlessly, Omi dipped a dart into a vial of sedative and handed it up to Yohji, who then poked Aya with it. Aya slumped over the wheel, dead to the world. "Let's go home." Ken sighed. "I feel the need for a stiff drink."
"Likewise." Yohji grunted as he rearranged Aya.
"I just wish I was old enough." Omi said mournfully.
"I'll make you some cocoa." Ken replied.
"It's your turn to water the lilies, by the way." Omi said for no reason at all.
Aya was exceptionally put out when he woke up around noon the next day, but a big breakfast, a can of beer, and a bootlegged copy of "Tron" helped him out of it. Especially the part where the tank blew up the lightcycles.
"Another day, another dollar." Muttered Yohji, as he checked his garrote for kinks.
"Another thirty-five cents after taxes, you mean." Ken corrected him, running a whetstone over his bearclaws. "So, what did Manx have to say, Aya?"
Aya glowered at the phone. "She and the rest of Kritiker are getting a little frantic. Every time they get the least bit close to whoever is stealing all that laboratory and computer equipment, they lose track of agents and then find the bodies two days later in a series of small boxes. They're upset that we haven't been doing much better, either."
"Me, too." Grumbled Omi. "C'mon, let's get moving. Maybe we'll get lucky this time."
So saying, they piled into Yohji's car and took off for the last place where the monster had been spotted, a park on the north end of the city. Traffic wasn't too bad for once, so they were nearly there when they heard the first screams of mortal agony and terror. "It's here!" Ken shouted.
Yohji somehow managed to wedge the car into a parking space that was too small for it and they swarmed out almost before it was parked, running across the grass toward the horrible noises that emanated from a small grove of trees. They were exactly fifteen seconds too late. The monster was gone, and all that was left of the victim was a heap of dead meat. "Shit!" Snapped Aya, looking for the creature's trail and finding nothing as usual.
"Let's spread out and look around," Ken suggested, "It can't have gone far."
"Oh, godsdamnit, too late again." An unfamiliar voice rumbled from the trees.
"Thirty-eight seconds too late, to be exact." Another, slightly metallic voice agreed.
Aya and the others spun around to face the intruders. It was the same pair they'd been catching glimpses of ever since this crazy adventure began, standing only a few meters away. Aya suddenly saw red. Three and a half mortal weeks of frustration and fury suddenly welled up in his hindbrain and exploded behind his eyes. With an inarticulate shriek of rage, he drew his sword and threw himself at the red-skinned stranger, hell-bent on the sort of mayhem one finds in certain video games.
"Aya!" Omi shouted after him, and then, "Ken! Yohji!" As the other two leaped after him. "Am I the only one with any sense around here?!"
The red man only grinned as Aya bore down on him, reached behind his shoulders, and then drew two swords of his own and crossed them in one lightning fast movement. Aya's sword crashed down on this blocking maneuver and stuck, creaking ominously as the two swordsmen tried each other's strength. "Sooooo," the red man drawled pleasantly, "it's this game we play, is it?" His eyes were a dark gleam behind the sunglasses. "En garde!" And they were off, embroiled in a vicious slashing swordfight.
Ken, meanwhile, had engaged the other, bringing his bearclaws around for a killing stroke. The pale man raised an arm to block the blow, and three bright silver somethings shot out of the back of his hand with a sharp click. Ken found his weapon suddenly tangled up in three foot-long, gently curved blades. "They came out of his hand! His actual hand! He's not wearing a gauntlet or anything!" Ken thought frantically, staring at their fists.
His foe fixed his eyes with his single ruby one, and gave him a strange smile. "Bearclaws. A man after my own heart." His other wrist suddenly sprouted a second set of blades. "How fortunate that I feel the need to blow off some steam."
As Ken and Aya were trying to cope with these nasty surprises, Yohji danced around them, looking for a way to distract or tangle up their opponents without getting either himself or his teammates killed. Omi had drawn a trio of darts from his bandolier and hurled them at Van with a sharp grunt of effort. They struck the tall fighter squarely in the upper back and bounced off with sharp pinging noises. Their target didn't even notice. Omi goggled for a moment, gritted his teeth, and loaded his crossbow with his biggest dart, a bolt guaranteed to pierce the skull of an elephant. There was no way that white bastard could be wearing any armor under that T-shirt of his. Omi's elephant-killer dart launched off the bow with such force that it bruised Omi's breastbone, and bounced off of the back of the silver man's skull with a clang. The albino turned, irritated, to glare at Omi. "Do you mind?" He snapped.
Omi collapsed against a tree with a small groan, and began to bang his head against it.
Yohji, meanwhile, used this distraction as an opportunity to tangle his cable around Van's wrist just long enough for Ken to get in a lethal uppercut that should have sliced his adversary open from groin to chin. Instead, all he got was a horrible screech of steel scraping over steel and some badly blunted claws. The silver man stared down at his front. "Damn." He said peevishly. "That was my favorite shirt." He favored Yohji with a singularly unpleasant glare and then, wrapping his trapped hand even more thoroughly in the wire, hauled on it hard enough to lift Yohji off of his feet and hurl him right into Omi.
Ken backed away as that ruby stare burned into him again. A split second later, a pale hand that felt like an industrial clamp gripped his arm, swung him around, and sent him flying over to land on Yohji, knocking both of them cold. Omi continued to bang his head on the tree in the vague hope that he could jar the world back into reality this way. "You're going to get a migraine like that." Van informed him.
"Shut up!" Omi snarled.
Van shrugged and turned to his friend, who was still giving Aya the workout of a lifetime. "We've wasted enough time, Piper. Let's go before I lose the Hunter's trail entirely."
Piper bashed Aya's sword out of the way and essayed a slash that would have taken Aya's leg off at the knee if he'd been one fraction slower. "Oh, come on, Van," he panted, "I haven't had this much fun since we left the home system. This kid's almost as good as Bully."
Aya did not like anyone badmouthing his skill with his sword; Piper saw that right off.
"Even though Bully is only half his size. Faster too. This is a lovely little diversion, isn't it?"
"Piper, stop teasing him. It's not healthy for humans to froth at the mouth like that." Van admonished.
"That's okay." Piper replied dismissively. "It means that he'll drop his inhibitions and show me what he's really made of. Traditional sword techniques are so dull, don't you think?"
With a scream of rage, Aya threw caution to the winds and attempted to run Piper through. Bad move. Piper easily deflected the stroke and then seized Aya's wrists in a pair of hands that he didn't have a moment before. Aya stood stock still, staring in shock at Piper's new hands. They had eight fingers each.
"Look at it this way Piper," Van said wearily, "if you make me lose the trail again, I will personally drag you naked through a vat of carpet tacks and then dip you in rubbing alcohol. Got that?"
"Oh, all right." Piper groaned, sheathed one sword, punched Aya out, and then threw him over onto the pile.
"Oof!" Squeaked Omi from underneath Aya.
"Sorry. Oh, by the way, if you keep banging your head like that, you'll get a migraine."
The weird pair left without further comment, leaving Omi to calm down on his own. Eventually, the realization that he was the only member of the team still on his feet sank in. He would have to drive them home. Oh, no. Ken gave a miserable little moan. "Ken, are you all right?" Omi asked.
"Omi?" Ken slurred vaguely. "Wha' hoppen? 'S three of you, Omi."
"You've got to help me get the others to the car, Ken. See if you can grab Aya."
Ken stared owlishly at Aya, who was already sporting a handsome shiner. "Which one? 'S four of him." Ken attempted to grab Aya, but missed by several inches and collapsed on his nose. "Nope, 's not that one." He said rather indistinctly.
Omi managed to get the others into the car after a few false starts, whereupon Ken passed out again. Omi was having a bad case of nerves as he clambered into the driver's seat and stuck the key into the ignition. "Okay." He muttered to himself. I don't have my license yet, but I can drive a scooter anywhere. How much different can a car be?" He looked at the dashboard. "I wonder what all these dials are for."
Omi managed to get them home without playing chicken with anything, not even the little old granny-lady on the moped. Yohji came back to the land of the living just long enough to help Omi lug the others inside, where he spilled a bucket of water all over the lilies and himself before falling over on the couch.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, Crawford stalked the halls of the laboratory complex, composing his journal entry for the day in his mind. It was the first quiet moment to himself that he'd had all day. "Dear journal," he thought to himself, "how do I get myself into situations like this? And why is it always the Takatoris we wind up with? I'm being silly, of course. We only work for those rich and mad enough to hire us. The Takatori family is extremely rich, and madder than anyone else. (But who am I to talk, considering my teammates. Nagi's repressed, Schulldich is a nymphomaniacal jerk, and Farfie is, well, Farfie.) Well, maybe they're not as mad as Farfie. If that guy were any more totally bats than he already is, he'd be swinging around the city in a black cape and have a near-fatal attraction to searchlights. Heh. Maybe I should go back to California. It's warmer there, and nobody tries to take over the world.
"And that brings us to our current boss. Weird cousin Kaijin Takatori, mad geneticist extraordinare, who likes the idea of supersoldiers and total domination, but hates people. And then there's that horrible thing that's been wandering around the city lately. Kaijin wants us to believe that it's one of his, but I doubt it. We tried one of his creations out on Tot, but she just beat the stupid thing to death with her umbrella. How embarrassing.
"And that's another thing to complain about. Every time I hear the Japanese pronunciation of her name, I keep thinking of that dog in "Wizard of Oz". The only reason we keep her around is that Nagi gets upset if we even look at her funny. What does that kid see in her, anyway? I'd have done away with the girl long ago, just for her experimenting on Farfie. I wish she'd stop trying to find out how hyper he can get - "
"Crawford!" Schulldich's mental voice rattled around his brain, making Crawford wince.
"What now?" He asked acidly.
"We need some help in the conference room. Fast."
When Crawford arrived, the others were all staring up at Farfarello, who was swinging around in circles on the ceiling fan and whooping with glee. "All right," Crawford snarled, "Who's been feeding him sugar again?"
"SPWINGY!!!" Farfie shouted, losing his grip on the fan and landing on Schulldich. "Spwingy spwingy spwingy!!"
"Ooof!" Said Schulldich.
Crawford firmly resisted the impulse to go buy a one-way airline ticket to California and hauled Farfie off of the redhead. "Get a grip on yourself, would you?"
Farfie cackled madly and bounced off across the room, chanting "spwingy" under his breath. It seemed to be his new favorite word.
"At least he doesn't think he's a stingray anymore," Nagi said, coming up beside Crawford, who was thinking longingly of beach parties. "He almost drowned before we got him out of the fishtank. We really should think about getting him committed to an asylum sometime."
"I had a look into the future last night with that in mind." Crawford replied in a resigned tone. "I saw him escape, murder everyone inside but the canary, kick his way out through the basement door, and join a punk lesbian motorcycle gang. I think that keeping him around might just be preferable, in the long run."
"How?" Nagi said.
"I wish I knew."
Tot came in at that point, waving an empty paper bag in one hand and looking annoyed. "Okay," she piped, "who ate all my sugar candy? I had nearly three pounds!"
"Let me guess." Schulldich wheezed. "You left it out on the kitchen counter where anyone could have gotten at it again."
She blinked at him innocently. "Yes?"
"Spwingy!" Farfie caroled, cartwheeling past them to smack into a wall and crumple to the floor, where the sugar crash began to set in.
"You do that on purpose, don't you?" Schulldich accused.
Tot contrived to look even more cute and innocent. "Farfie's so funny when he goes spwingy, isn't he?"
"Land.... Shark...." Farfarello grated as his head came to pieces on the inside. He looked ready to share the misery around.
Nagi lifted them into the rafters as Farfie made vicious swipes at their ankles, growling and dribbling into the rug.
"Things have been ever so much more funny when Farfie goes spwingy, not like those ugly things that Mr. Kaijin has been cooking up. They aren't funny at all, and Mr. Rabbi hates them too."
Schulldich gave Nagi a disgusted look and shoved the girl off of the rafter. "What do you see in that twit, Nagi?"
Nagi merely lifted Tot back out of Farfie's reach and tipped Schulldich off instead. There was a double squawk from below as the telepath landed on Farfie. To make matters worse, Kaijin walked in just then. "What are you loonies doing in here?" He demanded. "You're supposed to be keeping an eye out for intruders! I demand an explanation!"
"Land.... Shark....." Farfie croaked from somewhere under a dazed Schulldich.
Crawford put his face in his hands and thought about tropical sunsets.
"Lemme get this straight," Ken said, nursing his bruises, "you drove us home last night?"
"I was the only one of us still conscious." Omi replied testily. "You guys were doing your canned-ham impressions at the time."
"At least you got us home without marrying us to a tree." Yohji muttered, trying to untangle the knots in his cable. "Just what did happen last night? I woke up very sore, and my shirt is damp."
"We ran into those two guys, I know that," Aya said, polishing nicks out of his sword blade, "after that it got sorta hazy."
Omi nodded morosely. Just thinking about the night before gave him a headache. "We fought those two all right, but we didn't get anywhere. I don't think they're any more human than our main target."
"How so?" Yohji asked.
Omi held up three darts and a crossbow bolt; the darts had bent points, and the bolt's point was snapped off at the base. "That white guy was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, Yohji. I hit him in the back and head. He's gotta be a robot or something."
Ken flinched. "That would explain the blades in his wrists. And the way my claws went dull trying to slash him. How 'bout the big red guy?"
Aya scowled, fingering his bruised cheekbone. "Excellent swordsman, and that double-sword technique... He's better than Reiji Takatori." Aya frowned again, remembering something. "And he's got a second set of arms."
"What?!" Ken and Yohji said in unison.
"Two sets of arms. He was holding his swords in one pair, and the other two hands were gripping my wrists. They had eight fingers and claws. Then he dropped a sword and punched me out. I want out of this case. I didn't sign up to fight demons."
"It's still our responsibility," Omi said, opening a can of soda.
"True." Yohji sighed. "Kritiker will insist on that. We're just going to have to grit our teeth and bring these bastards down. After all, if we don't, they may stop paying us. By the way, Omi, just why did I wake up with a damp shirt?"
"You watered the lilies."
"Oh. I think I need to work on my aim."
It was several days before they got close to their quarry again, and by the time they did, they were all surly from lack of sleep. It was quite by accident that they found it; Yohji, unfamiliar with the East side of the city, had gotten lost. What made it worse was that precious few gas stations are open at three 'o' clock in the morning, so directions, or at least a road map, were impossible to get. They were cruising around an abandoned-looking complex of warehouses and parking lots when they heard the scream. It wasn't from a victim this time, however. Only one thing made a sound like that, and it wasn't amused. Shrill, metallic, and topful of murderous rage, the monster was shrieking bloody murder on the other side of a crumbling warehouse, accompanied by what sounded like a Hell's Angels rally.
Our heroes didn't even hesitate. Parking the car in a shadowy spot, they crept carefully around the corner to see what was going on. It was bedlam. There had to be fifty or sixty hired thugs on motorcycles whizzing around the huge lot, all them swinging long lengths of heavy chain. In the center of all of this was the monster, already tangled up in several chains, but still screaming and doing its level best to get at its attackers. As the Weiss boys watched, it hauled three bikers off of their vehicles and would have killed them if it hadn't been yanked to a halt by five others.
"Guys, look," Omi whispered, "They're all trying to get it into that armored truck over there. Someone wants it bad."
"Whoever they are, we know who's helping them." Ken said, flicking a finger at five familiar figures standing at the edge of the brawl. "If they're wrapped up in this, we know who's causing us trouble."
"Schwartz." Aya hissed. "And that girl from Schrient."
There was a low growl from Omi. Death flashed in his eyes. "Tot." He snarled. "I hate that girl!" With that, he streaked out of concealment straight toward his enemy. "DIEEE!!!"
The others were a bit shocked at his attitude. "And he's supposed to be the sensible one?" Yohji asked as they followed.
The Schwartz team wasn't all that surprised to see them here. Crawford was in the habit of having a look at the future every morning and had seen this coming. Shouting at the bikers to get that monster into the van and away, he grinned and engaged Aya, leaving Schulldich, Nagi, and Farfarello to deal with Yohji and Ken. Omi was busy chasing Tot all over the place. "Die! Die! Die!" He shouted, hurling darts everywhere.
"No! No! No!" Tot replied, deflecting the darts with her parasol and aiming a kick at him.
It all went downhill from there, unfortunately. Aya had trouble dealing with Crawford at the best of times, Ken and Yohji were trying not to let Schulldich get into their heads or let Nagi turn their own weapons on them. Farfie made a dreadful nuisance of himself, and then there were all these bikers with chain whips zooming around, too.
Then, abruptly, the tide was turned. They heard the sound of steel clanging repeatedly on pavement, like someone was running in armored boots. There was a pause in the rhythm, and then a motorcycle and its rider sailed through the air in front of them to smash into three others. There was a startled squawk a moment later, and then Tot came hurtling through the air, landing on Crawford. Aya looked around and gaped in surprise at the tall pale figure that was currently smashing a Harley with a single, powerful kick.
"Heads up, Junior!" An all-too-familiar bass voice rumbled in his ear. Aya ducked as a long sword swept over his head, deflecting a length of chain that one of the bikers had swung at him. Piper grinned at him toothily, hauling the biker off of his vehicle. "Work now, gawp later."
Aya snarled and swung at Piper, who seized his wrist before he could finish the slash. "No, doofus!" Piper barked at him, turning him to face the enemy, "Fight them, not me. Believe it or not, we're on the same side in this one."
There was one last vengeful howl from the faceless killer on the other side of the lot as the hired thugs managed to manhandle it into the armored truck. The pale man, who had been fencing with Farfarello, looked up and cursed and then tried to charge the truck, slapping the maddened psycho out of the way. He might have caught the truck if Schulldich hadn't stepped out in front of him, blocking his path. "Not so fast, friend," Schulldich told him insolently, "We've gone to a lot of trouble to get that thing."
"Out of my way, telepath." Van said, anger coloring his tone.
"Naah. Out of my way, white boy." Schulldich replied, and then grabbed mentally for Van's mind.
Van staggered slightly, and then straightened up and smiled, opening his mind to the outside influence. Schulldich had a horrible moment as he realized that the awareness he'd just touched was far, far different from anything he'd ever seen before he crumpled to the ground with a sudden blinding headache.
Van looked up at the spot where the truck had been, but it was gone. Snarling a curse, he headed back over to Piper, who had just leveled Nagi. He wasn't the only one who had noticed the truck's departure; the bikers also realized that they didn't sign up to fight demons either and were heading for the hills. Crawford scraped himself up from the pavement, hauled Nagi over a shoulder, kicked Schulldich and Farfie until they got up, and then ran for it. Tot joined them a few moments later, looking rather put out as she pulled a dart out of her parasol. "Why didn't you warn us about this, Brad?" Schulldich groaned, clutching at his head.
"I didn't know this was going to happen!" Crawford panted. "I didn't see it this morning. I can't see the movements of those two strangers at all!"
"What?!" Schulldich asked, startled.
Crawford didn't bother to answer; Van was hot on their heels, his feet clanging on the pavement behind them.
Meanwhile, The Weiss boys stood catching their breath, watching Piper warily. Ken noticed that the huge man's sword was considerably longer and heavier than Aya's, and yet he handled the weapon like a toy. Piper was watching Van disappear into the shadows after the fleeing Schwartz team. With a sigh, he turned around to face Aya and the others, sliding his sword back into its scabbard. "I suppose you kids will be wanting an explanation about all this."
"Yes!" Ken burst out angrily, causing the others to stare at him. "Who the hell are you guys? What is that thing that's been killing all those people? Who's behind all those lab thefts? Don't tell me you don't know, 'cause I'll beat you up if you do!"
Piper actually looked a bit uncomfortable. "Actually, I know the answers to all of your questions except the last. Um. Where to start?" Ken glared at him. "Right. Do any of you guys read science fiction?"
Yohji gave Piper a suspicious look. "I saw 'Sex Kittens of Uranus' and 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' on late-night TV, but I fell asleep halfway through both of them. What does that have to do with anything?"
Piper stared pityingly at Yohji a moment before answering. "Quite a lot, since Van, Hunter, and I are from a different dimension. Oh, for Zwon's sake. Van!" He roared suddenly. "Get your chrome-plated ass back over here so you can help me explain things to these neophytes!"
Van came back out of the alley, holding something under one arm that struggled and squeaked like an outraged guinea pig. "You need something?"
Piper snorted. "Verbal help. Where've you been?"
"Gathering information." Van replied. His wriggling burden turned out to be Tot, who was belaboring his behind with her parasol. "Feisty little bunny-butt, isn't she?"
Omi's eyes gleamed evilly. "Can I kill her now?"
Van gave him a reproving glare. "Certainly not. We haven't even asked her any questions yet."
"Questions?" Yohji asked.
"Yup." Piper replied. "We haven't a clue where they've taken Hunter or who she's working for. She does."
"Shall we begin?" Van said. "Young lady, we would like to know who you work for, where his lair is, and what is he planning to do with Hunter - that's that nasty thing without a face, by the way."
Tot crossed her arms and pouted. "Not gonna tell."
"Really? I might let that young fellow with the darts torture you a bit."
"Oh, please," said Omi, testing the points.
"Don't care, not gonna tell."
"You're quite sure about this?"
"Not gonna tell."
Van eyed her with waning patience. "How 'bout a good hard spanking?"
That rattled Tot. "You wouldn't."
"Try me." Van turned to Piper. "Hey, Piper, what's that thing Enma does to his son when the kid gets too uppity?"
"The Hundred-Blow Spanking." Piper reminded him with a grin.
"Quite right. And a one - "
"I'll talk! I'll talk!" Tot squealed.
Omi gave a disappointed groan.
"Good choice." Van said, ignoring Omi's disgusted stare. "The name of your boss, please?"
"Kaijin Takatori." Tot muttered.
Yohji groaned in exasperation. "Not them again! Is insanity a family tradition or something? Gad, Omi, it must suck being the only surviving white sheep of that lot."
"You have no idea." Omi replied.
"What does this weirdo want with the Hunter?" Van continued.
"He wants to make more, so he can take over the whole world." Tot said, and made a face. "He says that he made that nasty thing, but it got loose."
Van had gone strangely still. In the faintly orange light of the streetlights, he looked more like a bronze statue than a living man. "So that's what it was..." Van whispered to himself, and then snarled a string of obscenities that sounded like someone sawing a manhole cover in half. "Where is that laboratory complex?"
"Dunno." Tot said flatly.
"You don't know the location of your own base?" Van stared at her as if she'd grown an extra head. "What were you doing all that time? Playing House with your stuffed toys?"
Tot sniffed primly. "I was discussing strategy with Mr. Rabbi."
"That's her stuffed toy bunny, by the way." Ken put in.
Van sighed. "I am a fully functional, rational sentient being." Van muttered to himself; it sounded like a mantra. "I will not kill other sapients for being unbelievably immature and inconceivably stupid. Sweet Motherboard, but it's tempting, though."
"Can I kill her now?" Omi pleaded.
Only an expert could have said whether or not Van's eye was bloodshot. "No." He said, putting Tot down. "You'll get plenty of opportunity later, believe me. As for you, bunny-butt, go away." He slapped her sharply on the rear to get her going.
Tot squeaked with outrage. "Bad man!" she said, whirling around, and stabbed Van in the gut with her parasol. With a sad little snap, the point broke off.
Van gave her a poisonous look. "Was that really necessary?"
Tot stared at him in horror, and then ran off screaming into the night.
"I still think you should have let me kill her." Omi complained.
"Shut up." Piper said, glancing at Van, who was standing stock-still and staring thoughtfully off into space. "Look, guys, do you know of anyplace where we can talk about this without any more distractions? Van's having some real trouble staying focussed."
The Weiss boys went into a huddle and muttered suspiciously at each other for a few minutes. Yeah, they were weird as hell and definitely on something, but they seemed to know more about what was going on than anyone else. Maybe if we took the really scenic route home... If we do this right, maybe Kritiker won't fire us. They turned back to the two strangers.
"The Koneko flower shop." Aya said shortly. "We won't be bothered there."
Piper blinked. "Assassins in a flower shop? What the heck, nobody would think to look there. Just give us a minute or two to get our bikes - "
"Um," Ken interrupted, "what's with your friend?"
Something very peculiar was happening to Van. He was very slowly growing taller, his skin and clothes were taking on a metallic sheen, and an extra joint had appeared in his legs below the knee. The Wiess boys stared in horror as his glowing red eye began to creep towards the center of his forehead.
Piper elbowed him sharply in the ribs. "Hsst! Van! Your slip's showing!"
Van came back from whatever planet he'd been orbiting. "What? Oops, quite right. Sorry." Abruptly, he was perfectly human again. "Are they going to let us explain this mess to them?"
"Yeah." Piper said. "Let's get the bikes before someone else does."
"Hey, Yohji," Omi whispered as the strange pair walked off. "You used to be a private investigator. Any idea of what they've been smoking?"
"I have not a clue." Yohji sighed. "Let's go get the car."
Aya motioned for them to wait a moment; Van and Piper were talking to each other, and their voices carried well on the still night air.
"Just what is up with you, Van?" They heard Piper ask. "I haven't seen you lose control this badly since the last time the Voldronai were rectified."
"It's the local temporospatial matrix." Van replied. "It holds up perfectly well under any psychosis you could care to name, but it doesn't support sorcery worth a damn."
"I'm not having any trouble."
"You're an organic life form, Piper. My steel-to-flesh qualifiers are playing merry hell with the leylines. Even back in the home system, certain things don't translate."
Yohji rubbed his eyes as the two disappeared around a corner. "Whatever they're on, I think I'd like to try some. Maybe then I'll be able to make some sense out of all this."
"Count us in." Ken said, and then headed off towards the car.
Van and Piper joined them a few minutes later, rolling up on a pair of motorcycles that made Ken perk right up. The riders may have been weirder than finding a six-inch-long live purple rhinoceros with wings nesting in one's underwear drawer, but their rigs were cool! In no time flat, he was running his fingers over the graceful framework of Van's bike and salivating. Van was not amused. "What the heck are you doing?"
Ken was entranced. "This is the coolest motorcycle I've ever seen! Where'd you get it? I want one!"
"My Mother made it. Now get back into the car so we can get down to business, okay?"
Ken wasn't listening. Instead, he was tickling the bike around the headlight and crooning. "Gootchie goo!"
The bike only made things worse by purring.
Piper leaned over to Van. "Your Mother makes weird bikes, and this kid is busy subverting it. Think fast, Van, or we'll be here all night watching him rub its belly."
"Humans!" Van exploded, scooped Ken up, and tossed him bodily into the back seat of Yohji's car. "Don't you pout at me, boy. I'll let you ride it later if you behave."
"Promise?" Ken growled.
"If you behave. Now, let's get going."
The ride back to the flower shop was fairly uneventful, even though they were tailed for several miles by a police cruiser who had deep suspicions about people like them. Four grumps in a dune buggy flanked by two Hell's Angels tend to look like an unnatural disaster looking for someone to happen to. On arrival, Aya showed their two guests down into the den and threw himself down on the couch. Ken, Omi, and Yohji came down a minute later, having stopped by the fridge for drinks. They had a feeling that they were going to need them. Omi popped the tab off his soda and gave Piper a stern glance. "So what is all this about?"
"Have you ever heard about dimensional travel?" Van asked.
Yohji groaned. "Oh, not that sci-fi stuff again. Just what have you guys been smoking?"
"Not science fiction, science fact. The Hunter, Van, and I are from a different dimension." Piper informed him. "One might say that we are aliens."
"Bah." Yohji scoffed, gulping at his beer. "Lemme guess. You're gonna go green and hairy and bite my head off any minute now, right?"
"No, Piper goes large and red and prefers that his lunch doesn't argue with him during meals." Van said.
"Just show him, Van." Piper said. "I don't think this world's ever been buzzed by so much as a saucer."
"Very well." Van dropped his disguise and Ken dropped his Pepsi. Standing in front of them was an eight-foot-tall bright silver robot with horselike legs and a security-camera-shaped head. "Do you really think that the human race is currently capable of building something like me?"
"Kritiker could do it," Aya said rather weakly.
"Really. Even this?" Van opened his chest panels to reveal a brilliantly blue gem the size of a baseball nestled in a Gordian Knot of silver hardware.
"They could do it." Aya replied stubbornly.
At that point, Van lost his patience. "Your turn, Piper."
His red friend glanced uneasily around the room. "It's a little cramped in here for that, Van."
"Van, I'm gonna smush-"
"Yeesh, okay, don't blow your diodes. Here goes..."
The room was suddenly a lot more crowded, and Ken and Yohji had disappeared. Aya and Omi stared up at an enormous red monster who was currently draped over the entire floor space and then some. Muffled panicky noises were coming from somewhere underneath.
"Happy now?" Piper asked sourly, pulling Yohji out from beneath his belly. "Am I missing anyone... Whups, sorry, Ken."
"Aaargh!" Ken replied, gasping for air. "You weigh a ton!"
"No, I don't. Now, I'd expect that you've run into your fair share of freaks and mutants," Piper said, seating them on his tail, "d'you see any resemblance?"
The Weiss boys thought hard about it, but had to concede defeat. "Nope." Ken sighed. "Ours have always been sort of bulletproof ape-lizard things with tentacles. I dunno what you are."
"A mature Dumekkan of the Roving Blade Creed, but that's not important right now." Van replied. "Are you four going to shut up and listen now?"
"Okay." Yohji said.
"In the beginning, there was the Word, and the word was "Ooops", but that's a stupid joke and I won't go into it." Van began, leaning against the sofa, which creaked ominously. "Anyway, that freak of nature that's been shredding the local criminal underworld is called the Hunter. You may have noticed by now that is almost totally unkillable."
Aya growled and clutched at his sword.
"The Hunter has no internal organs, no brains, and no conscience whatsoever. What it does have is a skeleton like a steel framework, a very tough hide, and total muscular control. It and its kind feed on death agonies, and the more pronounced, the better. They usually hunt in packs, and have been known to depopulate entire countries. This particular specimen is a tad unusual for its kind."
"How could it be any more unusual?!" Ken demanded. "Those things sound like something out of a stupid anime series!"
Piper snickered. "Funny you should mention that..."
"Oh, shut up." Ken grumped. "Keep going, Van."
"Our Hunter is peculiar in a significant number of ways;" Van continued without missing a beat. "The first and most unusual is that it has a particular liking for the taste of evil people; its kin don't care at all. The second is that it absolutely detests its own species. The last time I took it back to its homeworld, it spent three days dismantling twenty-nine other Hunters. The third is that it is willing to welcome non-Hunters as its packmates, Piper and me, for example, and the fourth is that it is capable of wandering between dimensions at will. What we've been doing is trying to catch the beast and take it back to its home system where it can't do quite as much damage, though I'll admit that this world desperately needs a cleaning out. It's been acting odd, though. Usually it would have obeyed my summons at once, but it's been downright elusive these past several weeks. What bothers me is that it let itself be captured by those men."
"Let itself?" Aya asked angrily. "It was trying to kill them."
Van shook his head. "Not by half. If it really wanted them dead, they would have been dead, and you too. There were enough moderately unpleasant people there to send it into a screaming blood-rage. They tend to be totally unstoppable when they go into one of those."
"So, what's got your hackles up?" Omi asked.
"From what I gleaned from that girl, there's a mad scientist of some sort out there who wants to create something like a Hunter, only controllable. Whoever he is, he will probably try to clone another one from a tissue sample or something, and that's very bad news. Hunters are parthenogenetic; their flesh likes being cloned. You've already faced one Hunter. Can you handle sixty? Or perhaps six hundred?"
"Gah!" Was all Yohji could say.
"Might not come to that." Piper rumbled. "It doesn't like its family much, remember? It may have just let them take it up for a massacre of epic proportions."
"You've got a point." Van mused. "Theoretically, we could just leave it to go amok all over this Takatori guy and his creations and come in afterwards to pick up the pieces. A temper tantrum like the Hunter's likely to throw would probably solve the problem of finding it; no doubt the aftermath will leave a mark on the landscape visible from space."
"Are you kidding?!" Yohji said angrily. "That kind of thing will put the entire city in a panic! The people are already jumpy enough with your pet monster wandering around."
"We can't just leave the case hanging open like that, anyway." Ken said. "If half a district explodes in gore and then the main culprit vanishes into thin air, well, let's just say that it makes our boss unhappy. They like the bad guys to be safely dead."
"Hmmm. Another good point." Van gazed reflectively at the ceiling. "We're going to have to do this quietly. Are any of you proficient with computers?"
Everybody pointed at Omi.
"Resident hacker." Omi said.
"May I suggest that I plug myself into your machine? I can run a serious search." Van told him.
"I've already run several." Omi said glumly. "I can't find anything."
"Omi, what am I? Not only do I have the brainpower of several supercomputers, but I'm intelligent. I can go through phone lines, radio waves, electric lines and top-secret military satellites without straining a transistor. You can tell me to do something without spending weeks on end writing a code to dodge the safeguards. I can also play a mean game of "Pong" while standing on my head. What do you say?"
Omi grinned evilly. "Shall we dance?"
As the robot and the hackerman left to get acquainted with a certain laptop, the others decided to sort out the other problem. "So," Aya said to Piper, "what do we do about you?"
Piper shrugged, an easy feat for someone with three sets of shoulders. "I dunno. I'm useless with anything more technical than a Playstation. I could go human again and we could fence a little. You do need some practice, kid, admit it. Other than that, well, do you need any help in the flower shop? Even with Van on the keyboard, finding the bad guys is gonna take a while."
Aya scowled at him for a moment, then smiled. "You get to water the lilies."
Piper gave him an odd look, then sorted out his legs and tried to stand up, banging his head on the ceiling. "Ow! Damn human construction! All built for short people!"
"Everyone's short compared to you." Yohji observed.
"You think I'm big?" Piper asked, reverting to human form. "You ought to see my girlfriend. Now, she's big."
"Handy on a basketball team, eh?" Ken asked.
Piper snorted. "Hardly. Issola's a dragon."
Crawford shifted himself into a more comfortable position on the rafter and unfolded his laptop. As he waited for it to boot up, he glowered down at the activity below. Twenty feet beneath him, a med team was in full cry, trying to save a lab assistant's arm. Served him right for getting too close to that faceless freak. The laptop beeped at him. Crawford pulled up his journal for his daily rant. This poor little machine was the only thing in this entire building that wouldn't get bored and walk away when he needed to complain. Well, it was better than griping at the bathroom mirror. The last time he did that, Schulldich had caught him at it and teased him about it for the rest of the week.
My job sucks. Am seriously considering going back to California and getting a job at a psychic hotline or something. We managed to drag that horrible creature back to the lab last week, but the armored truck and several hired henchguys will never be the same again. Kaijin was delighted, of course, enthusing about the power, the durability, and the bloodthirstiness of the thing, even as it tried to trip him up and stomp him to death. We did manage to get it sort of under control; Kaijin's got it in an observation chamber strapped down to a plinth with every restraint in the building, up to and including Farfie's collection. Even so, those lab guys have to keep out of its reach. The beast has just now managed to grab ahold of one assistant's arm and squeeze it off. It won't stop making those noises. Yech. I want out of this chicken outfit. I want to go home. I want to go surfing. I want to eat fresh fish that isn't raw. And even if it is raw, I want it to be a California Roll served on its own native sand, dammit!
Needless to say, this week has been awful.
Crawford paused as Schulldich sailed past him and out through an open skylight. He must've been needling Nagi about Tot again.
Let's begin the traditional rant against my teammates, shall we? Tot's been even more obnoxious than usual; she gave Farfie the idea that eating lots of sugar and acting silly hurts God, and now I've got a constantly wired psychopath bouncing off the walls, ceilings, toilets, furniture, plumbing, you name it, it's got his footprints on it. Schulldich has taken his usual course of action with this, i.e., trying to kill Tot without Nagi mangling him. He's tried to stuff her into the trash compactor twice (I never should have let him watch my copy of 'Star Wars') and Nagi's stuffed him in there in her place both times. Guess who gets to rescue him? I've talked to Nagi about that, but it doesn't help; he just hurls Schulldich into the monster's cell or out the windows instead.
Speaking of the monster, Kaijin's been trying all week to get a tissue sample off the thing, but its hide is so tough and the creature so intractable that all he's got so far is a headache and a lot of terrified assistants. Even that thing's toes are dangerous.
A drop of something cold and greenish plopped onto Crawford's hand. Looking up at the rafter above him, he saw a manically-grinning Farfie dangling upside down by his knees with a tub of drippy pistachio ice cream clutched in one fist. Farfie giggled madly. "Ice cream hurts God too, did you know that?" He said, and then he ripped off his T-shirt and began smearing the ice cream all over his bare chest.
At this rate, the only pain God was feeling was a ruptured gut from laughing too hard. With a sigh of disgust, Crawford climbed down from his perch to find a more private place to finish his entry. He was seriously considering buying some plane tickets again.
He managed to find a relatively secluded spot in one of the warehouses, so he flipped open his laptop to finish the entry. Goddamn interruptions always make me lose my place. @!#* pistachio-smeared psychopath. Where was I? Crawford wrote. Oh, yeah. Kaijin's not the only one whose brain hurts. There's those two guys that kept showing up - the Hell's Angel with the incredible sunburn and that guy who looks like a tall, sane version of Farfie. Kaijin isn't making any claims to those two. I wonder who built them? Nobody handles double-sword techniques like the red guy, and no human can kick a motorcycle to death, either. And I can't see them. It's like they aren't even part of this world, and that's absurd. I can see anyone's future, but I can't see theirs. Every time I try, my brain tries to turn itself inside out. Schulldich tried to get a grip on the white guy's mind and got a migraine. He won't talk about what he saw in there, but he refuses to go near the computers. One thing I have been able to see is our future if the monster gets loose. Urgh. I just hope that Kaijin finds some way of killing it. Soon.
There was a crash from above, and Schulldich landed heavily on Crawford's lap, nearly crushing the computer. "Oof!" Schulldich said. "Oh, hi, Brad!"
Crawford gave him a disgusted look. "You had better not have damaged my laptop." He wheezed.
"Oi!" Schulldich protested. "Nagi slings me halfway to Pakistan and all you can think about is your stupid computer?"
Crawford pitched the redhead off his lap. "This computer cost me a couple grand. You, I can get anytime for free."
"That does it! You're sleeping on the couch tonight."
"Fine with me. You might be joining me anyway, after seeing what Farfie did to your bedroom."
Morning came grudgingly to the Koneko Flower Shop. None of them wanted to get up that morning; the only reason that Yohji got up at all was that the shop's resident calico cat had started chewing on his toes, and only people in comas could sleep through that. Aya was up the earliest, as usual. It was his turn to cook breakfast. Miso was his specialty, made with fresh ingredients and in large quantities. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw their two guests looking curiously around the shop. Yohji was leaning against the banister near the stairs, reading the morning newspaper. Rough night or no, he'd better be quick on his toes since Ken would be stampeding down them any minute now. Right on cue, he heard a faint thump and a delighted squeal of "Miso!" from upstairs as Ken smelled breakfast. Aya began the ten-second countdown as more thumping from above told him that Ken was stuffing himself into whatever clothes were lying around. Aya just hoped that Ken wouldn't mix them up like last time, although it had made his entire day to see Ken half-fall down the stairs wearing his shorts on his head and a sweater knotted around his waist like a loincloth. An overhead squawk informed Aya that Ken had tripped over Omi on the way to the bathroom. Five... Four... Three...
Ken came barreling down the stairs (properly dressed, thankfully) trampling Yohji in the process. Too obsessed to care, the miso-munching maniac knocked Van to the floor with a clang, narrowly avoided Piper, who had the foresight to duck behind a plant table, grabbed a mixing bowl out of a cabinet, and held it up to Aya hopefully. "Miso?"
Aya sighed in exasperation and pushed the bowl away. "It's not ready yet. Sit down and wait, already."
"Hey, Van," Piper called from behind the orchids, "it looks like we've got a variation of the tea fiend here."
"I've noticed." Van replied dryly, checking for dents. "Are you all right, Yohji? Oh, dear, that's going to leave some bruises."
Yohji groaned and accepted Van's hand in helping him up. "I must be getting old or something. I can usually dodge that."
"This happens often?"
"Whenever Aya makes miso." Omi said, coming down the stairs. "Ken's addicted to it or something."
"Breakfast's ready." Aya called from the kitchen. As he ladled out soup for himself and his teammates, he looked over at Van and Piper, who were inspecting the plants. "Um, do you guys want any of this?"
"No, thank you." Van replied. "If I start feeling peckish, I'll just sit down at a wall outlet or something."
"Not our wall outlet." Yohji said, thinking of the amount of power needed to drive an eight-foot robot and the figure that would make on the electric bill.
"You don't need to worry. I recently recharged. I'm good for another fifty years or so."
"Cool." Yohji said. "How 'bout you, Piper?"
"Don't bother, I've just had a stray dog." Piper said, picking aphids off of a rose.
Omi swallowed hard. "A stray dog?"
"I'm a large carnivore, kid. I like to hunt my own meat."
Aya made a face. "Well, just so long as you don't go after humans."
"Humans?! Yech!" Piper spat. "Have you any idea how bad humans taste?"
"You mean, you've actually eaten someone?" Omi quavered, going pale.
"Just once, and believe you me, that was enough." Piper grimaced in disgust. "Oh, don't look at me like that, the twerp deserved it. Look, kid, I hadn't eaten in two weeks, and the guy was trying to kill me! I just... let things follow their natural course."
By now, Omi had gone quite green and he was staring in horror at Piper.
"If it's any consolation, he gave me terrible gas for days."
That was too much for Omi. With a howl, he leaped up from the table and dashed back upstairs, where he slammed the door to his room so hard that it shook the house. Ken, who'd been too busy inhaling his mixing bowl full of miso to notice anything else, grabbed Omi's bowl and snarfed that, too.
"Are you sure that he's an assassin?" Van asked. "Usually they aren't so squeamish."
"We don't eat who we kill." Yohji said, pushing his bowl over to Ken; for some reason, his appetite was gone, too.
"I generally don't either." Piper said. "I hate it when my lunch keeps begging for mercy. Puts me right off my feed."
Yohji leaned back and gazed reflectively at the ceiling. "I can't believe I'm going to ask this question." he murmured to himself. "Just out of morbid curiosity, what did he taste like?"
"Tainted pork." Piper told him shortly. "Where do you keep the watering cans?"
How's that for a non sequitur?
As usual, the shop became very busy around the time that the school hours ended; busier than usual, since the local girls had somehow found out about the two new guys in the Koneko flower shop, and that Omi absolutely refused to come out of his room. Being large, muscular, and intriguingly exotic-looking, Van and Piper drew a great deal of attention, a fact that really ticked Yohji off. At one point, he added to his bruises by elbowing Van in the ribs. "Stop that!" He hissed.
"Stop what?" Van asked. "You don't want this begonia repotted?"
"No! Stop attracting attention like that!"
Van blinked. "What are you talking about? I'm repotting begonias, not dancing on tables."
"The effect is the same." Yohji replied flatly. "Besides, I'm the babe-magnet around here, got that?"
"Is that all?" Van said, "You don't have to worry about that sort of thing, Yohji, I'm not compatible with human females. And neither is the Piper, for that matter."
Piper was across the room making matters worse by charmingly helping a young lady tuck a scarlet hibiscus blossom behind her ear. Yohji was not impressed. "That's not the impression they're getting." He growled.
Van shrugged and watered the begonia. "You just don't like having two unfamiliar males on your turf. By the way, Yohji, there's a group of quite attractive young females behind you trying to get up the courage to speak."
Yohji looked over his shoulder and saw that Van was right. He turned around and put on his most charming smile. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Yes," one girl said, "do you know where Omi-kun is? We were hoping to see him today."
Yohji's facial control was excellent. Only an expert could have made out the slightly sick cast to his expression. Yohji thought he heard Van chuckle softly behind him, but didn't trust himself to turn around. "Omi's not feeling very well today," Yohji told them, "It was probably something that someone else ate." He shot a nasty look at Piper, who was watering the lilies.
The girls gave him a puzzled look, but decided to ignore that last bit. "Can we go up and visit him? I'm sure we can make him feel better." Another girl said.
This is just not my day. "That won't be necessary, miss. How 'bout I go and ask him if he's feeling well enough to come down yet?"
"That would be fine!"
As Yohji headed towards the staircase, he heard one of the girls behind him chirp to the others: "Isn't he a nice man to go check up on our cute li'l Omi-kun!"
The words that Yohji muttered under his breath could have curdled milk at nine paces. "Hey, Omi!" he hollered up the staircase, "Are you going to come down or what?"
"No!" Omi shouted back. "I'm staying right here until the universe goes back to normal!"
"Omi, c'mon. You've got a job to do, same as us."
"Omi, I've got a bunch of girls down here who want to cuddle you to death. Don't make me send them up there."
"Hah!" Omi laughed. "What's the matter, Yohji? Too old for 'em? That's the first time I've seen you unable to handle a few schoolgirls!"
"Old?!" Yohji sputtered.
"Yohji's a dirty old man!" Omi caroled cheerfully.
"Why you little - Ken, gimmie that hose!"
Seizing the hose from his teammate, he bounded up the stairs in order to give Omi a good soaking, only to come face-to-face with a fully loaded and primed Supersoaker Mach 5, which Ken had given Omi for his birthday. Omi gave Yohji a horrible grin. "Think fast, geezerman!"
"YAIIIII!!" Yohji, having gotten a high-pressure blast of ice water right between the eyes, fell back down the stairs and landed flat on his back with a thud. "Itai!"
"Oh!" all the young ladies cried. "Poor Yohji-kun!"
Actually, Yohji wasn't hurt, but he was damned if he was going to pass up an opportunity like this. "Oh, the agony!!" He wailed, dramatically clutching his skull as the girls clustered around him.
"Ham." Muttered Aya.
"Shall we kiss it and make it better, Yohji-kun?"
"If you feel you really must..." Yohji moaned.
Aya retrieved the hose from the stairs and sprayed Yohji with it.
"Aaagh! How can you soak me while I'm down, Aya?" Yohji howled.
"You nasty man!" the girls chorused.
Aya passed the hose over to Ken with a small smile. "Thanks for letting me use this, Ken. I'll be in the back."
"Aya, you jerk!" Ken said as the redhead beat a hasty retreat, leaving him to face the angry girls. "Um... eep."
At that point, Piper walked over, carefully carrying a couple of loaded plant trays. Ken ducked out of sight behind him.
"What the - ?" Piper rumbled in surprise at the teenager lurking behind him, and then he saw the ranks of surly femininity amassed before him. Piper had been raised in a matriarchal society, and his upbringing forced him to be polite at all costs. "Uh... Would any of you ladies like some marigolds?"
Fortunately, being offered flowers by a nervous Hell's Angel type was just funny enough to defuse the situation. Nonetheless, about an hour later, Ken, Yohji, and Piper wreaked their vengeance on Aya. When Van came into the back room and found him sitting on the floor wrapped in a coil of spare hose, covered in potting soil, and wearing a bucket on his head, Van's only comment was: "Keep the bucket."
Aya's reply wasn't printable.
Crawford wasn't saying anything printable at the moment either; his laptop had gone missing, and so had Farfie. Although he was happy to see an absence of the little yellow-eyed maniac, that computer had indeed cost him a great deal of money and it had a lot of personal information on it, too. Plus, he still hadn't finished playing Journeyman 3 on it yet. Disturbing visions of weird biker gangs or no, he was seriously considering having Farfie locked in a padded cell somewhere, preferably at the center of the earth. However, that might not be necessary, given Farfie's latest hobby. For the past few days, he'd been found in the monster's cell no less than five times, attempting to gnaw its kneecaps off. The monster itself hadn't even been trying to do anything about it; Shulldich didn't usually like to read the thing's thoughts (such as they were), but he'd read some serious confusion coming from it at the time. At least Kaijin had finally gotten the genetic sample he wanted - he picked it out of Farfie's teeth. This hadn't made Crawford any happier. That one little bit of a sample, when placed in a nutrient mix, had promptly replicated itself into a hand that had climbed out of its dish, skittered all over the lab, and had come close to fatally throttling Tot. Only Nagi's timely interference had saved her life. Rather a strange picture that: Nagi holding a rudely-gesturing disembodied hand in midair while Tot draped herself all over him like a sex-crazed anaconda.
Dammit, where was that laptop? Hold it. Missing laptop. Missing Farfie. Farfie likes playing "Hangman" and "Minesweeper". He plays to lose, and that gets him excited, and then he breaks things. Oh, shit!!
It was way after hours in the Koneko Flower shop, and it was flat time. Everybody had sort of gravitated to the downstairs den, where the big TV was. Nothing seemed to be on except corny soap operas, so Yohji had picked the least nauseating of the lot and sprawled over half the couch. It sort of helped that all the characters were speaking in Korean. Aya and Ken had taken over the other half of the couch; Ken was currently sitting in it upside down - his back on the seat and his legs hanging over the headrest and balancing an empty soda bottle on his forehead while Aya sat quietly trying to ignore him and everything else in the room. Piper had spread himself out on the floor and fallen asleep, reverting to his natural form as he did so. Omi and Van were leaning against his haunches, bent over the laptop, fiercely storming the net as they had been doing for the last three days.
"I've got it!" Van said suddenly, snapping his fingers with a clang. "Found something, fellas!"
"It's Crawford's computer." Omi gloated. "We snuck in through the modem."
"Triply cool!" Ken said, nearly falling off the couch in his efforts to get back upright. Where are they?"
"Hard to say." Van said, tapping on Omi's keyboard. I think that little psycho of theirs has gotten hold of it somehow. That Crawford guy struck me as smart enough to actually win a game of "Hangman", and I doubt that he's the kind of person that would visit religious websites and rattle on about wanting to rip God's head off and piss down the hole. He's really giving the keyboard a pounding, too."
Yohji laughed. "That's Farfarello, all right. Any idea of where their secret lab is?"
"We're having trouble getting through Farfie's noise." Omi replied. "Everyone else in that chatroom is flaming him like there's no tomorrow."
"Knowing some religions, this may be the case." Van said dryly. "Whoops, I think Crawford just caught him. I'm downloading the hard drive."
"Goddammit, Farfarello," Crawford raged as he wrenched the rather battered laptop out of Farfie's hands, "if I ever find you messing with my computer again, I'll give you to Kaijin for a lab rat!!"
"But flaming zealots hurts God!" Farfie protested, making a grab for the laptop.
"Actually, you're wrong." Shulldich said, walking into the room. "Flaming 'em just makes them angry, which makes their faith stronger, which helps God. You screwed up there, Superloon."
Farfie stood there for a moment, staring at Shulldich in horror. Then, with a despairing wail, he ran out of the room at top speed.
"That was cruel." Crawford chided, then chortled. "I like it."
"Hey, what am I paid for?"
"So, did he ever write down the address?" Yohji asked.
"Shut up, man, I'm collating the data." Van replied. "Um. It must have been a new machine; it's not all full of clutter. He's got a few computer games... Ooo, Journeyman 3. Good game, that. A bunch of web software, some downloaded stuff, and a journal."
"Let's focus on that." Omi said as the others (with the exception of Piper, who was still asleep) crowded around for a look at the screen. "Good. Huh. This started a while ago, didn't it?"
"Yup." Van said, scrolling down a bit. "Several months ago. It seems that he doesn't like this particular job, though. A bit unprofessional of him."
"I see he never bothered to write down wherever their base is."
"He's not that unprofessional. After all, this information might fall into enemy hands."
"Like it did just now?" Ken said.
"Yeah." Omi chuckled. "He's homesick, too. I didn't know he was from California."
"I've always wanted to visit California," Yohji said wistfully, "it's supposed to be the babe central of America."
"Shut up, Yohji." Everyone chorused.
"What's in the latest entry?" Aya asked.
"More griping." Van told him. Crawford doesn't like Hunter at all. They've finally managed to get a sample from it, and are trying to mix its DNA with human DNA. They've also had a mishap with a cloned hand, but managed to get rid of it by torching it in a blast furnace. Crawford has broken down and picked up four plane tickets home."
"Only four?" Ken asked.
"Yeah. One for him, one for 'Shu-Shu Schnookums', whoever the hell that is, Nagi, and someone he refers to only as 'that Weiss kid'. Apparently, one of you is to be kidnapped and given to him to keep him occupied on the flight."
That got their attention. "One of us?" Aya said, incredulous. "Why?"
"Apparantly, Nagi's starting to get tired of Tot. He's been carrying around a picture of one of you, and has recently been seen mailing a large heart-shaped box of chocolates that he bought at a 'specialty' store."
"Specialty store?" Yohji asked.
"That's how he refers to it."
At that point, the sweet little granny-lady who owned the flower shop came down the stairs with a large box. "Omi," she said, "this came for you in the mail this morning, but I forgot to give it to you." She giggled. "You seem to have a secret admirer!"
Trying not to laugh, Yohji hopped up to take the box out of the old lady's hands. With a cheery wave, she ambled back upstairs as Yohji handed the box to Omi. Omi unwrapped it. Inside was another box. It was big. It was scarlet. It was full of strangely shaped chocolates. It had indeed, come from a "specialty" store. The map inside the lid looked like the index of the Kama Sutra. Ken squawked and toppled over backwards with a nosebleed of epic proportions. Aya, with phenomenal self-control, merely looked surprised. Omi blushed nearly as red as the box and tried to hide under his laptop.
"Holy shit." Yohji muttered reverently. "Hey, Omi, can I borrow a few of these?"
"NO!" Omi snapped, slammed the lid back on the box, and shoved it behind him.
Van had been watching this entire scene with some puzzlement. "What was that all about?" He asked Aya.
"Um..." Aya said with a faint blush. "I'll explain it later. Is there anything else of interest in those files?"
"I've been searching for clues. The way he describes the building suggests a very large, quite nondescript building with skylights. It's on or close to the ocean, since he gripes about ships smelling of dead fish, seagulls using his car for a restroom, and there's a tannery nearby, as well. Understandably, he doesn't go out much. There's a rather run-down McDonald's about a block away, too."
Omi, glad for the distraction, was tapping furiously on the keyboard. "Found it." He said. "It's an old warehouse complex on this island, on the northern coast. Just let me print out the directions to this place, and we're in business!"
The following evening, the Weiss boys made their preparations for a full-scale invasion. Aya honed his blade clean past mere sharpness. Yohji oiled up his new garrote. Omi tipped all his darts and bolts with poison, tucked a few bits of equipment into his pockets, and ran a bug-fix on his computer. Ken checked the inner workings of his bearclaws. Vanguard, who was already in peak condition, gave both cars, Ken's motorcycle, and the shop's scooter an overhaul out of boredom, and watered the lilies. Piper, after being kicked awake and told the situation, went through the closets until he found a clipboard, which he handed off to Van.
"Why a clipboard?" Yohji asked.
"Literary convention." Van replied with a shrug. "For some reason, nobody bothers you when you have a clipboard and a businesslike expression. Weird, but true."
"Van's better at businesslike expressions than I am." Piper said, fiddling with a few bits off an old vacuum cleaner. "I just can't get that 'mindless Nazi automaton' look - sorry, Van, but you're very good at that. Put Van here in a suit and you can't tell him from a Yakuza enforcer. I just look ridiculous."
Yohji had a horrible moment as an image of the enormous scarlet monster wearing a three-piece suit floated across his mind.
"What's his problem?" Piper asked as Yohji fled the room.
They decided to take Aya's car, as Yohji's dune buggy was far too recognizable for the kind of uproar that the upcoming battle was bound to cause. Policemen could be so pushy sometimes. Omi had managed to plot their course so that they would not get lost this time, and for good measure, Ken had superglued a compass to Aya's dashboard when he wasn't looking. Then, with Van and Piper riding escort on their motorcycles, off they went into the night. The trip was long and uneventful, except for that one part where a drunk driver nearly rammed them, but that was okay because it gave the nervous policeman that had been tailing them for the last fifteen miles something to do. It was nearly two in the morning when they finally arrived, sliding into a spot in the parking lot of the run-down McDonald's. "This the right place?" Ken said, exiting the car.
"Whoof! Yeah." Omi said, holding his nose.
Crawford did indeed have a right to gripe about the location of his base. Quite aside from the fried-rot reek of the drive-thru behind them, the air was full of the smell of ancient fish, garbage, and suspicious leathermaking chemicals.
"There it is." Aya said calmly, pointing at a large dark building a block away. "Let's go and make some trouble."
Most carefully they snuck up on the building. A high wall provided them with some concealment as Omi fired up his laptop and fitted a few extra sensors to it, while the others crowded around for a look at the screen. "Blast," he muttered after a few minutes of tapping, "the place is wired like a room full of espresso addicts."
"Focus in on the front door." Van suggested. "My sensors are picking up something weird about it."
Omi did so. "Hey! It's not rigged!"
"It isn't?" Yohji said, incredulous.
"There isn't even a motion sensor on it. Whoever's in there is either real stupid or has some major firepower."
"They have the Hunter, and those Schwartz guys." Piper said thoughtfully. "It should be okay, though. You've got Van and me."
"Lucky us." Aya muttered.
"Be nice." Van said. "Piper, where's that clipboard? Thank you. Shall we go?"
And off they went, up the short walk to the front door of the old warehouse complex. As they did so, large crowds of heavily-armed commandos failed to leap out of the shadows at them. Ken tried the doorknob, which turned easily. "The stupid thing isn't even locked!"
"Weapons ready, people." Yohji said.
They opened the door, and nothing happened. The long corridor contained nothing but an old hatrack and a few stray spiders. "Think they might have moved?" Ken asked as they made their way down the corridor.
"Nope." Van replied. "I'm getting a large number of lifesigns from the center of this building. Oh, and one sign from quite close by. Probably a guard having a quiet smoke or something."
"Don't bet on it." Omi sighed. "With our luck, it's probably Schuldich on lookout duty. Just how close is this guy?"
Van didn't have time to answer, but it wasn't Schulldich. It was Farfarello, who had drowned his sorrows in Tot's stash of Swizzle Stix. "SPWINGY!!!"
"Gah!" Said Yohji, jumping back.
Farfie was too hyper to care that his sworn enemies were right in front of him. "SPWINGY!" He hollered again, in case they hadn't heard him the first time, and then started jumping in circles around Aya, who didn't know whether to whack his head off or fall over laughing. "Spwingy spwingy spwingy spwingy!!!"
Having made his point clear, he cartwheeled down the rest of the hall and collided with the hatrack. "Spwingy!"
"Oh, my goodness," Piper said, walking over and picking up Farfie by the scruff of his neck, "I didn't think I'd ever see one of these in this world. A Sugar Eep, Van, a real Sugar Eep!"
"So it appears." Van said, politely eyeing the giggling maniac. "Put that down, Piper, you don't know where it's been. Besides, we've got another lifesign approaching fast."
The Weiss boys readied themselves to make mayhem on whatever came their way. It turned out to be Tot, who was looking for her missing candy. Omi reacted predictably. "DIEEEEE!!!"
So did Tot. "YOU FIRST!!!"
It was remarkable how much racket two teenagers and an inoffensive hatrack could make. As for Farfie, he had crawled off into an unoccupied doorway where he laughed his butt off watching the others trying to subdue Tot while she screamed the house down. Unfortunately for our heroes, the noise had already alerted the other Schwartz guys. Schulldich dashed in just in time to get beaned with the hatrack, which did not improve his temper. "Ow! Brad! Wiess alert in the front hall! Get reinforcements!"
Van nudged Piper in the ribs. "Be ready. My sensors report a lot of cranky guys with guns coming this way, and we're standing in a narrow hallway with no cover."
"Gotcha." Piper growled. "Tell the others to give me some room."
No sooner than he had done this, Crawford and Nagi arrived with a large team of hired mercenaries. Piper never gave them a chance. Shifting abruptly into his natural form, he charged the enemy. The mercenaries took one look at the scarlet monstrosity coming straight at them with fangs bared and decided that they weren't getting paid enough to deal with this. Unfortunately for them, they were a little too slow in making their decision, and Piper crashed into them like a runaway semi with a full load of cleavers. The fight dissolved into screaming mad chaos, with Piper doing his "whirling vortex of death" impression in the middle of it, the Schwartz guys trying to get at the Weiss guys, Omi attempting to throttle Tot, Farfie gnawing on the ankle of a panicking henchguy, Van buried under a heap of other henchmen, and everybody else spraying bullets everywhere. Eventually, they spilled out into the lab itself, which presented a lot of other interesting opportunities. Ken and Yohji staggered back against a cabinet full of peculiar chemicals in beakers. "What does this stuff do?" Gasped Ken, pulling out a jar of something red.
"Dunno. Let's find out." Yohji said, taking the jar and throwing it across the room. After the thunder had died away, Yohji turned to Ken with an odd smile. "It turns large walls into larger holes. Cool. Is there any more of that?"
"Lots." Ken grinned back, passing him another jar.
This made the fight a great deal more exciting for everybody. Most of the mercenaries who were still able to run did so, leaving the floor to the professionals. Nagi decided to get rid of the biggest problem by telekinetically grabbing Piper and bouncing him off the walls and ceiling, while Crawford dealt with Aya as usual and Schulldich kept Ken and Yohji busy by getting into Yohji's head.
"Van!" Piper bellowed, "A - oof! - little help - oof! - here!"
Van grabbed the nearest things to hand, namely Omi and Tot, and hurled them both straight into Nagi's face, and all three went down in a heap; so did Piper, right on top of Farfie, who squeaked like a stomped-on rubber ducky before he passed out. As for Omi and Tot, they had each grabbed one of Nagi's arms and were having an argument. "Mine!" Omi declared, pulling the startled telekinetic toward him.
"Mine!" Tot yelled, pulling him back.
"MINE! I saw him first!"
"MINE! You're poaching on my turf, you bunny-assed bitch!"
"Am not! You're just jealous!"
"Are too! I don't see him buying you fancy chocolates!"
"Um, guys?" Nagi quavered. "Help?"
Both Weiss and Schwartz, with the exception of Crawford, were staring at them incredulously; Crawford just looked embarassed. It was at this delicate moment that Kaijin Takatori decided to appear on a catwalk high above them in his bathrobe and bunny slippers. "What the hell's going on here?" He demanded petulantly. "I was having a great dream and - oh, hot damn! Invaders! Just the thing to try out my newest creations on!"
"Hey, doc?" Schulldich said as Kaijin pulled a large remote control device out of a pocket, "Can we leave before you set those things loose?"
"No, no, that would spoil the test." Kaijin replied pleasantly, pushing a button. "Here we go!"
A wide door in the far wall slid open and at least thirty half-human Hunter clones poured out, eager to kill.
One of them charged Crawford, who stepped aside, leaving Aya open. The creature really didn't care which human it went after, so it didn't bother to change direction. Aya swung his sword with desperate strength, remembering all too well what happened the last time he'd tried this... The clone's head flew off in a shower of purplish gore, leaving the body to stumble into a lab table and collapse on the floor and lie still. Aya's hands started to tremble, and a manic giggle rose in his throat. "It died!" He muttered. "These can be killed! WHOOPEEEEEE!!!!!!" With that, he began running around the room, butchering every clone in sight.
Crawford didn't know whether to be angry or relieved; generally, Aya was his opponent. Still, he'd never seen the tall redhead in such a rage as this, and wasn't particularly eager to fight him at the moment. Instead, he looked around for his teammates. Farfie had come to and was making a spirited crawl for the door. Tot was being beaten up by Omi, but who cared? Nagi was flat on the floor with Omi's foot square on his back. And Schulldich?
Somebody screamed in such utter terror that Crawford's hair stood on end. It turned out to be Schulldich, who had made the colossal error of prying into Piper's mind. Shrieking, he ran for the door, nearly trampling Farfie along the way.
"What was that all about?" Yohji asked.
Piper shrugged. "Got me. All I was thinking about was breakfast." He turned and eyed Crawford speculatively.
Crawford decided that discretion was the better part of valor and left.
That was pretty much it. Farfie, Schulldich, and Crawford had made their escape, and Omi was busily tying Tot upside down to a support pillar. Aya was propped in the corner, still giggling and clutching his dripping sword, clone corpses scattered in many pieces around him. "They can die!" He muttered gleefully to himself. "Are there any more?"
"No, Aya," Ken said soothingly, "They're all gone now 'cause you hacked them all to bits. No more Hunters. All gone."
"Phooey." Aya grumped. "I wanted some for later. Not even one left?"
"Just one!" Cackled Kaijin from above.
"Ah, damn," Yohji muttered. "we forgot about him."
"You've done well with the copies;" Kaijin continued, "let's see how you deal with the original!"
He hit another button on his remote, and another door slid open. Out of the darkness within strode the real thing, if anything larger, stronger, and meaner than before. Our heroes clenched themselves for a real fight. They didn't have to; the Hunter had other things on its mind. It sauntered calmly over to one of the support pillars and ripped it out as easily as one would pull out a weed. A part of the roof collapsed, scattering the Weiss guys and knocking Kaijin off of his perch, landing him in Hunter's arms. Hunter gave a horrible chuckle.
"In the other room, please, there's already a dreadful mess in here." Van said, gesturing towards a side door.
Surprisingly, the Hunter complied without complaint, even closing the door behind it.
"Is that all?" Yohji asked, rubbing wearily at his eyes.
"Except for Nagi, yeah." Ken replied.
"I'll take care of him!" Omi declared, and firmly dragged the feebly-protesting psychic into a nearby broom closet and slammed the door. A few seconds later, they heard the click of the lock.
Ken blinked. "He's going to beat Nagi up in the broom closet?"
Yohji sighed. "No, you dummy. Did you notice what Omi took out of his pocket just before he slammed the door?"
"No. What is he up to?"
"Ken, those were chocolates. The cherry creams, I believe."
Ken considered this information for a moment, and then his eyes went very wide. "Omi?!"
"But he's... I mean, he's just this little teddybear... Omi?"
"Yes, Ken, Omi. Sit down before you fall over."
"Might as well take five, since both parties aren't going to rush things." Piper said, sitting down.
Van opened a compartment in his thorax and pulled out three bottles. "It's just as well I visited Australia before we came here. Beer, anyone?"
Yohji gratefully grabbed one of the bottles, popped the cap off, and took a deep drink. "Wow, that's good stuff! What were you doing in Australia?"
"Reading the Bushmen's Dreamtime carvings. While doing so, I ran across some old guy and his still. He offered me some of his product as a goodwill gift to all little green aliens everywhere. I believe he was more than merely drunk at the time."
"How so?" Aya asked, sipping the contents of his bottle.
"When you've been constantly sloshed for the past fifty years, you are no longer 'merely' drunk."
"That's true." Ken said with a soldierly swig.
And so they sat there in companionable silence for the next hour, getting quietly drunk and trying to ignore the peculiar sounds that emanated from both doors. At last, they heard the click of the closet lock being undone, and Nagi and Omi came out wearing a couple of the biggest, most indecently happy grins that any of the others had ever seen. "Hi!" Omi chirped. "This is my prisoner and I'm gonna take him home and lock him up!"
"Oh, helpy help." Giggled Nagi. "Somebody save me."
The other Weiss guys were too drunk to care. Van stood up with a faint creak from his perch on a lab bench. "One of these days I'm going to have to ask my Motherboard to reiterate me into an organic body; then I might be able to understand the merits of alcohol and sex."
"Sex is nice," Piper said, "but the morning after a lot of alcohol sucks. Well, it sucks for most carbon-based lifeforms, anyway. I've never had that problem."
"Lucky bastard." Yohji muttered.
"I'm going to check up on our pet maniac." Van said, walked over to the door, opened it a crack, and peered through. "Urgh."
"Bad, is it?" Piper asked.
"You know how it gets in Akira's Nightmare every spring?" Van asked.
"That bad, huh? Is it finished?"
"Not as finished as Kaijin is, but close enough. I'm going in."
Van ventured into the room and came out holding a very limp and smeary Hunter by the scruff of its neck. It chortled vaguely and waved hello. "Stupid thing overate again. Okay, I'm going to put this beast where it can't do any more harm. Hang tight till I get back, okay?" And then Van wavered and disappeared along with the Hunter.
"Where's he gonna put that thing?" Yohji asked.
"Limbo, probably." Piper replied. "The hangover it'll get will probably keep it from wandering for a while. Now, more importantly, are any of you feeling sober enough to drive in a straight line?"
"Dude, I can't even walk in a straight line right now." Ken sputtered. "Neither can Aya or Yohji. And if Omi can even sit straight right now, I'll eat my shirt."
"That's okay." Van said, reappearing. "I can drive. You might as well ride my bike, Ken. It won't let you fall."
"Don't forget to grab Tot on your way out, guys." Nagi said. "Your boss is gonna want to get his hands on somebody who can explain this mess."
"We've got you." Aya pointed out.
"I've already got someone's hands all over me."
Aya didn't dignify that with an answer.
The rest of the night was a blur. The ride home with Ken whooping with joy to be riding an alien motorcycle, dragging Tot into the back room and tying her to a large crate of fertilizer, Omi dragging Nagi up to his room to "keep an eye on the prisoner", Yohji falling over on the living room rug and snoring like a congested vacuum cleaner because Ken had beaten him to the couch, all these events and more sort of ran together in Aya's mind until he gratefully flopped over his bed for some well-deserved rest.
The smell of steamed dumplings sang its siren song to six noses the next morning. As if drawn by invisible strings, Aya, Ken, Yohji, Omi, and Nagi converged hungrily on the kitchen, where they found Van making a huge stack of delicious-looking pork balls, with Piper, the shopowner, and her cat eagerly awaiting the feast. "Hi," Van said, pushing a laden platter towards them, "thought you guys might like some breakfast."
"Mrf." Ken said, with his mouth full. "These are good!"
"You can't hang around people for long without learning a few tricks." Van replied pleasantly.
"I thought you would have been gone by now." Aya said, too hungry for tact.
"Not quite." Piper chuckled. "Van insisted that he make his apologies for this mess in the form of a good breakfast. Who am I to argue? We'll be out of your hair directly afterwards, never fear."
"Will we ever see you again?" Omi asked.
"Highly unlikely." Van said.
Once the rolls had been devoured and the dishes washed, Van and Piper said their goodbyes and walked out the door; Piper, however paused a moment to finger the leaves of a dead plant. "Ah, drat, the lilies died. Looks like someone's been watering them too much."
It was too much. With a howl of exasperated rage, Ken started throwing gardening equipment at the two aliens.
"What did I say?" Piper yelped, disappearing.
"And stay gone!" Ken yelled at the empty air.
Two weeks later, they got a couple of letters in the mail. One of them, oddly enough, was from Crawford:
Dear Wiess guys,
How are you? I am fine here in California, but I hope you all stay in Japan and ROT! Both Schulldich and I have found some new hobbies to keep us busy; Schulldich teases blondes and collects loud Bermuda shorts, and I surf sharks and give palm-readings to people with too much money. I've got the tan I've always wanted and Schulldich doesn't, but he's freckled up so much that you can't really tell the difference without getting really close. Farfarello, of course, was committed to an asylum for the criminally deranged shortly after that crazy fight two weeks ago. Heard anything new about him? Not that I care, of course. Gotta go; Schulldich says that if I don't quit messing around in a stuffy room when we could be on the beach he's gonna shove my pen up my ass.
All the worst,
Everybody looked at the newspaper. Splashed all over the front page was a huge article about the manhunt currently under way in pursuit of an asylum escapee who had murdered every living thing in the asylum except the canary belonging to the chief medic. "Do you think..." Omi began.
"That's his style, all right." Nagi sighed. "Crawford saw this coming, you know. He wrote it down in his journal."
"So, what's the other letter?" Yohji asked.
"You won't believe this, but it's from Farfarello!" Ken exclaimed. "And his handwriting sucks."
Dear former enemies,
Betcha read the articles about me. Neat, huh? I've got a buncha new friends - a biker gang! They're all women and dress in leather and have tattoos and scary hair and piercings in places you would not BELIEVE and they think I'm cute. My best buddy is named Lilith and she says that the best way to hurt God is to believe in a bunch of Goddesses instead, that really pisses him off. I'm having lotsa fun and they are teaching me how to make really cool graffiti all over public buildings and cars and things. The baby's due in January.
Hail Amaterasu, Isis, Astarte, and Kali,
"Any notes from the robot or the monster?" Aya asked.
A month and a half later, on Ken's birthday, however, they got a very large package wrapped in silver paper and addressed to Ken. It was a motorcycle just like Van's. Ken spent the rest of the day driving the others nuts by riding it all over the neighborhood and refusing to let them try it out.