Pokemon is a copyright of Nintendo. Pokègirl and Pokèwoman come from the Pokewomon Forum at http://disc.server.com/Indices/169881.html.
"Wild Horses and Pokègirl" is the creation of Metroanime.

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      Waking up outside, flat on your back, is bad enough. Waking up outside, flat on your back, nearly naked, realizing the sun has all ready burnt you badly, and you can't think straight, is really bad. Add the angry cop tapping your sunburned hide with her foot, and you know the universe has decided you are the chewy-toy de jour. I stood, my throat feeling like I'd been gargling with broken glass and sand. She angrily yells at me, but a heat-induced tintinitus keeps me from hearing clearly enough to make out what she saying. I can read her gestures well enough, and know she is furious with me for some reason. The vehicle she points me towards is police blue, and she directs me towards the rear door, rather than the passenger compartment of the small panel van.

      Being under arrest is better than being left out in the sun to charbroil, I think as I climb inside, This looks more like a gardener's truck than a paddy wagon. Once she's prodded me inside with her nightstick, I find a fairly comfortable place to sit among the tools and bags of fertilizer and cement. The ride to wherever is made even more unpleasant by the erratic driving of my host and the impacts on my sunburned skin.

      I managed not to cry out during the entire trip, despite the impacts, so I decide, I'm going to play mute, either temporarily, or permanently. Saying absolutely nothing, while trying to be as cooperative as possible.

      Four pretty humanoids with guns are waiting when the driver-officer yanks the door open. She commands me to step out. I do, with my back to them, and my hands crossed behind my back at my waist so they can see them. As soon as I'm on solid ground, one of them handcuffs my wrists.

      "Done this before," one of them says.

      Not a question, I realize.

      I shrug, and let them do a quick pat down search. A thorough one that includes the crotch.

      "Done this before too," the same one says angrily, "Then you should know the rest of the process. We don't like your kind here."

      Career criminals, Pure-Strain Humans, or males? I wonder as the one human-looking and four furred or feathered female cops push me into the station, Don't say anything, I remind myself as I am fingerprinted, and dragged/directed to an interrogation room.

      The two females here look as different as could be. One looks like the Hulk's offspring. The other is all bows and looks like she'd break in half with a healthy sneeze.

      "Why did you kill those people?" Bows asks pointedly. When I don't produce an instant denial or confession, the Hulkette slaps me on the shoulder. I don't resist, letting the blow throw me to the floor. I make no attempt to move, until Hulkette orders me to stand. Likewise, I don't sit until directed.

      "His kind don't go Feral, do they?" Hulkette asks Bows, but gets no answer.

      "The Reverend Cruz and his Harem, what do you know about them?" Bows asks.

      I shake my head and shrug.

      "You're expected to talk," Hulkette slaps me again, and again I wind up on the floor.

      "Sergeant, you aren't helping," Bows says, then she grins, "If he doesn't want to talk, I'm sure there's a cell."

      That doesn't sound good, I think, but my throat still feels like I've been drinking wet cement, I couldn't talk even if I did try. I let Hulkette haul me off the floor and drag/carry me to the hall, and into the cellblocks.

      Some of the cells have more females in them, two have a pair or trio of very dangerous looking males, but we pass them. The door we pass through looks more like a bank vault. A bored looking female, nearly a clone of the first woman who'd brought me in, sits behind a desk. Hulkette set me on a pair of taped shoe outlines on the floor. My bare, sunburned feet completely covered the outlines, but I only noted it, as Hulkette removes the cuffs from one wrist and pulls my arm around. I offer my freed arm to her and she cuffs me again. With my hands in front, I smile and wave. She growls at the cop who giggles at the display.

      "You'll have lots of fun with Sammy," Hulkette growls, making the clone frown, but I just shrug.

      Once Hulkette is outside, and the door is resealed, the clone stands up. "Sorry, just stay away from her, and . . . maybe you'll make it."

      She opens the door, and pushes me through and letting me get a glimpse of the cell, before slamming it closed and dropping me in total darkness. Despite the darkness, the room is warm. Nothing is visible in the darkness. Then two red eyes appear. "Any reason I shouldn't set you on fire?" comes the growl, "Any reason I shouldn't eat your charred corpse?"

      With the brief light from outside, I saw that there's enough sawdust or dirt on the ground to let me write 'POISON' on the floor. The rattling of chains and rhythmic growls I hope is a chuckle is all I hear. Laying down within reach of whatever is attached to those eyes is a risk. I hold out one hand, like you would to a strange dog. Also typical of a dog, that's not where the nose goes. It's all I can do not to cry out. Then the chuckling becomes laugher and her body sprouts occasional, small flames, enough to illuminate and outline her.

      "You should see your face!" the absolutely sable black woman exclaims as she laughs, hugging herself as she does.

      All I can do is grimace, I think as I watch her laugh. She reaches over and snaps the chain between the cuffs, freeing my arms.

      "Are- aren't you gonna - punish me - for laughin' at you?" she asks, as she keeps laughing.

      I grin like a maniac and nod. She tries to stop laughing, but my fingers are faster. Soon she has another reason to laugh. Despite her chains, she happily flailed around, trying to defend too many spots with too few limbs. She finally manages to get her arms and legs around me to pin me to the ground. She's gasping for breath as she holds me. The feeling is surprisingly pleasant. She eases up a bit, changing the immobilizer hold to a desperate hug.

      Why doesn't it hurt? With my sunburn it should hurt, I wonder idly as she seems to go into a bit of torpor, which becomes sleep.

      I'm not strong enough to pick us up, and I don't know if there's a bed in this place, I think as I look around the dark cell, Heck I don't even know if there's a toilet. I'm glad I don't need one just yet.

      Morning. Despite the warm body still wrapped around me, I still feel cold, I think as I slip out of her grip to explore the total darkness of the room.

      "Sorry, the chains almost neutralize my powers."

      I return and nod, then write 'toilet' in the collected dust.

      "Over there on your left, I can see it, so I can guide you in. Just like I can see you writing in the dirt," she tells me, "More left. STOP! It's right in front of you, please lift the seat."

      I nod, lift the seat, take aim and hear the sound of liquid pouring into liquid. When I'm done, I lower the seat and return to her side. I write 'FOOD' in the dirt.

      "No, I'm not going to eat you, not all of you," she give a sultry purr.

      I point to her, then to me.

      "Oh, we get lunch, but that's it," she says bitterly, "They like giving me bloody raw meat. I'd almost prefer a salad."

      We're quiet for a while. "You don't talk much, do you?"

      I shake my head.

      "Can you talk?" she asks.

      I shrug. Her hands are around my throat. I freeze, but her hands seem to be seeking something other than my death.

      "It's not a wound, or physical damage .. . unless it happened a long time ago and has been healed," she tells me, "It wasn't the cops, was it?"

      I write 'DESERT' and leave it at that. The sound of the outer door being opened alerts both of us. Moments later the inner door opens. The light from outside is nearly blinding, and drives daggers of pain through my eyes.

      My new friend growls, giving me a task more important than not shouting in pain. I lay a hand on her shoulder, ending her growls. She rubs a cheek against my hand, before she pushes me towards the door and the clone who waits nervously.

      The officer says nothing until I'm standing back on the tape outlines, and the door closes. "Usually we have to charge in there and save the poor idiot who tried something. How did you survive?" she demands.

      I shake my head sadly and draw a finger across my throat.

      "You are not dead!" she insists.

      I stare at her incredulously, and shake my head sadly.

      "Fine, turn around," she orders, "I'll cuff you and you can talk to the detectives."

      I do as told. Then the outer door opens and Hulkette stares at me worriedly.

      "What did you do to her? Never mind come with me!" she demands and drags me out of the 'airlock' and down the center aisle of the cell block.

      I ignore all the catcall and wolf whistles, especially from the cat-types and canine-types, and simply follow the Hulkette to the interrogation room. Bows is there, again. I'm pushed down into the chair and the questions begin. None of which I answer. None of which I can answer. I simply sit there grinning like an idiot and staring at her. Occasionally I'll nod, or shake my head, but not a sound, even when Hulkette knocks me off the stool, again. This time however, I just lie there. And when Hulkette hauls me to my seat to listen to the same questions from Bows, I look past one of Bows' shoulders, then another, as if I have double vision. Bows finally gets exasperated and leaves. Hulkette knocks me off the chair again, and leaves me on the floor. I lie there, waiting.

      I awake up to a pair of heavy harness boots of well-polished but scuffed, brown leather. The blue bodysuit the woman wears under her khaki trenchcoat is more like a coat of paint than clothes. The trench coat hanging loose and open manages to act more like lingerie than diaphanous silk would on most women. You can't have muscle definition like that, and a butt and breasts like that, to get the muscles you'd burn off the fat, and to get the bust you'd have to have the fat, I tell myself after I give the woman a quick once over. She has straw-blonde hair in high pony tail, with two her bangs framing her face. Her china blue eyes show both a terrible intensity, and a desperate world weariness. She's reading from a paper in a file folder, and occasionally glancing at me. Her face is as beautiful as her body, but is also showing her disgust and amazement at the details she's finding on the page. Look her in the eyes, I tell myself, You'll still see the rest, and she'll be shocked by the abnormality.

      She keeps glancing between me and the paper, then closes the folder. As she kneels down, her expression betrays a melancholy with the world, and her current place in it. "What are you doing down there?" she asks as if she dreads the answer.

      I shrug, close my eyes and rest my head on the floor.

      She gives a weary laugh, as she lifts me back into the chair. "I should leave you there," she tells me, "You're the only schmuck in this station who knows what he's trying to do."

      She lets out a deep breath, which it interesting from both an esthetic and psychological viewpoint. "Let me guess, they found you at the scene of the murders, dragged you in here, and assumed you did it, right."

      I shrug. If I was suffering from severe dehydration, I wouldn't have had to go to the bathroom, but if the air was hot enough, it may have scorched something, I think, So somebody has been getting murdered, a serial killer, or they wouldn't have brought in an outside expert. Wouldn't have had time to bring in an outside expert. Or she was sent here to be punished.

      She sighs again and bows her head. "And they didn't notice you're practically burnt to a crisp, and that you're probably not talking because they haven't give you anything to drink," she says, "Or you just can't." Then something in the report catches her eye. "They stuck you in there with . . . her? And you're still alive?" She stares at me. "I never heard of a Jokette having human offspring before."

      I give her a sarcastic grin. She walks around behind and unlocks the cuffs. "I'm going to trust you to not do anything stupid." She steps around and lifts my chin so I look straight into her face. "Because if your stupidity doesn't kill you, I will."

      I shrug, then stand up and open the door for her. Giving her a grand sweeping bow.

      "Great, the only sane one is completely nuts."

      She makes sure I get something to drink before we go to the cell. It doesn't help. I now know I can't talk.

      The critters in the cell blocks are quiet this time. It's not fear in their eyes, I think as I look at then, It's awe. Or veneration. What have I gotten into?

      There a different clone at the desk, and she is extremely nervous about letting both of us into the cell. "Inspector, she's restrained, but we - "

      "Turn on a couple lights and send him in first," she says, quietly, "She thinks he's interesting to play with."

      The clone cop looks horrified, but flips a couple of switches. There's angry screaming through the door which doesn't bode well. The officer opens the door, and I heads through.

      The chained woman is black. Not of African or Caribbean stock, not with a waxy luster like coal, she's as black and non-reflective as charcoal. She looks suspiciously at me as I head to the pile of dust I've been writing in. 'CRIME?' I write and step clear so I'm within her reach, but not blocking her view. I note she has no shadow

      She snorts. "Maybe - destroying evidence. Not murder."

      "She was caught eating the corpses of the first victims we knew about," the Inspector says as she enters.

      My friend growls, but I lay a hand on her shoulder. She stares at me, searching for something. I get a flash of deja vu of others looking at me the same way, total strangers trusting me implicitly. It creeps me out now as much as it did in my flash of deja vu.

      I get the feeling that I never deserved the trust, but I did what I could to justify it, I think, Which is even creepier, or stupider.

      My friend grins. The flash of sharp, white teeth is more intimidating than violence would be. "Okay, Inspector. You and your new Tamer let me join -"

      She has to stop because the Inspector is coughing too hard to listen. I can see the tiny tap over the toilet, and the small plastic cup hung from it. I bring the Inspector some water. Then frown at my friend. She only grins more.

      "He - is - not - my - Tamer," the Inspector enunciates carefully through gritted teeth.

      "Oh, but what I was smelling . . . " my friend says sheepishly.

      If sheep had grins like that, wolves would have been extinct ages ago, and bears would run from lambs in terror, I think as the Inspector looks from me to my friend, I've heard of somebody being desperate for a hug, but I think if I try, I won't like the consequences. She gratefully accepts the water instead, and lets me lead her to pile of dust I use as a slate. 'ALLIES' I write, and nod to her and my friend.

      "Fine," the Inspector manages, "But I'm in charge."

      I shake my head and point at the message.

      "You've been arrested!" she protested.

      I wipe out the word, and replace it with 'PRESS', and grin at her.

      "You wouldn't . . . who am I kidding, you would," the Inspector admits.

      "Could be worse Goldie," my friend says sympathetically, "He can't talk."

      I give her a bilabial fricative.

      The lukewarm water cleaning off the dirt of the past feels marvelous. At least I'm not contesting her right to all the hot water, I think as she rubs the soapy washcloth over her body. No embarrassment over nudity, I note, and glance at the Inspector watching us closely, Then why's she so nervous? She pulls back the instant she senses I'm looking at her.

      I grin evilly as I head over to my friend. The bucket gives me an idea. I set it upside down and gesture for her to sit. When she sees the shampoo in my hand, she does so eagerly. I works the shampoo into her hair, and work it down, rubbing her scalp with my fingers.

      She starts sensuously moaning, completely out of proportion with what I'm doing. She leans her back against me and wiggles exquisitely. I snatch a glance behind, and catch the Inspector watching us. Of course she ducks back out of sight. When I look back, my friend has reached behind her head, closed on my hips and lifted me up and over her head, to set me in her lap. I am glad I can't cry out in alarm.

      "I want a Taming so bad right now!" she tells me, as she runs her hands on my back, then she sees my expression, "Don't - don't you like me?!" Her pout is almost cute.

      I hold up a sunburned arm, point at the reddened skin, and let out a silent scream.

      "Oh, yeah, that's gotta hurt," she admits, then she purrs as I lean in and give her a gentle hug.

      "Okay, lets get that seen to, and I'll take a raincheck." She sets me aside, and rinses the shampoo out of her hair. "Besides, I think a threesome with the Inspector would be fun, or just watching as you make her squeal like you made me."

      Again our tow-headed companion tries to disappear.

      There's got to be more men around here than me, I think idly, But the only ones I saw in the station were in the cells, and I'd only touch one of them if I were wearing a Hazmat suit and wielding a flamethrower. I didn't see anything of the town or the surroundings, so maybe there aren't any. That would make for an interesting dynamic. Again I'm struck by the fact I seem to know a lot, without knowing who I am or how/why I know all of it. If that's my only frustration, I can live with that.

      We're sitting in the commandant's office, and she's somewhere else complaining to the higher ups. The Chief of Police, the original occupant, was one of the earliest victims. Explains why the cops are up in arms, I think, When their chief, and most of the male officers got the axe, all of a sudden, and nearly all together.

      Inspector Millicent Grange, NOT Granger!, is explaining the situation. She'd been rather shocked by the tongue-lashing the local NurseJoy had delivered to the arresting officer for not turning me over to her immediately. The technical verbiage boils down to I somehow damaged my vocal cords which means that for a while I can't talk, nor can I lift heavy objects.

      Gonna have to look up why those are connected, I think as I feel the healing itch of the salve the medic, and my friend, rubbed on my burnt skin. Why do I get the idea that the therapy was more a seduction than medical treatment? I wonder about the smiles and sighs from the pair.

      "About a month ago, the police chief, and the mayor, as well as their families, went out to check out a report of a fresh water spring some old coot had reported. As you can guess from what little you've seen of this region, fresh water is rather important. While we get rains, we don't have the money to keep most of that water. Also, as you can guess, there's a fair amount of nepotism in the police department, and the city government. So the loss of the Mayor's and Chief's entire families cut out a lot of the leadership."

      "The next thing they knew," my friend says, "I'm eating the corpses." She glares at the Inspector. "So of course I must have killed them."

      I nod. The location of all the dead bodies are pinned on a map. They're all in one small valley called 'Typhonna's Slit' as much for the shape as the source of the odd, deep, straight trench dug in the mountainous rock. Of course, they had two halves of a perfectly good road, and no heavy equipment, they thought, so they just built switch-backs to the floor, and switchbacks to connect to the original road out, I think as I study a topo map provided, Not the best solution, but a quick one, and eventually they abandoned the idea of going around. I point to another trail that breaks off from the original road, then intersects it again near the point of the first murders. I tap the board to get the Inspector's attention.

      She walks up, and the only reason she doesn't press against me, is her hand on my shoulder, the rest of her is close enough I can smell the shampoo and soap she must have used recently. She doesn't make contact, except with one hand as she points out the trail. No unresolved tension there! I think as I decide not to 'back up' and bump into her, I still think she looks like a little girl who needs a hug from her daddy, not a beautiful woman who I'd like to Tame silly, although she is that too.

      "Are you listening?" she ask, staring into my eyes.

      I nod, carefully move her hand from the map, and tap the lowest point in the terrain, according to the map. It's near the edge of the blob of murder sites. I duck under her arm and head to the computer. Both girls seemed amazed I knew how to use one and with some proficiency. In a moment, I'm searching the local net for weather and the seismic stations, and the records of the wind conditions at the approximate time of the murders.

      My friend, who has no name and doesn't seem to want one, stands behind me, with the Inspector. The sooty black woman deliberately rests a breast on my shoulder, and even through the back of my head, I can feel the implied challenge offered to the Inspector. Who refuses to take it up. My friend snakes an arm around my neck and leans close.

      "Watcha got, lover?" she purrs.

      I don't think she realizes I can see her and the Inspector's faces in the anti-glare screen covering the monitor. I call up a text box and type, 'Don't torment the person who can set us free.' I then return to copy-pasting data into a spread sheet. Once done, I type the message. 'There were no winds at the time of most of the murders. Since there are high winds now, now is the time to go look.'

      "At what?" the Inspector asks.

      I type, 'If I'm right, your murderer.'

      The drive to the site has been uneventful, and eerily quiet, as neither of the two women are talking. The Inspector had stared out the window and at the maps. My friend, I've begun thinking of her as Manxo, because of Manco, the man with no name, and the tailless Manx cat. She certainly is cat-like, sensual, pliant, willing to cuddle and play, and a vicious ball of malice to her prey.

      "Where did you learn to drive?" the Inspector asked as we stop off the road at the edge of the crevice.

      I glance around, and consider. I just got behind the wheel and started driving, I think, It's even a stick shift, but I never ground the gears. All I can do is shrug. I open the door and slide out, to get a better look at the area. The two women get out the other side and quietly speak to each other.

      Do I want to know? I wonder, and then decide I don't. I get out the map, and check the topographic map and compare it to the map of the deaths. Be easier if this could be one map, I complain inwardly, There, it's near where the murders were, and it's high ground.

      I carry the maps to the two fiercely whispering women. I politely ignore their ashamed and worried looks, and simply tap the location on the map.

      "What do you expect to find there?" the Inspector asks.

      I pull the clipboard I snagged from an officer before we left. 'Mud volcano or fumerole. Source of Hydrogen Sulfide gas, periodically. Recent earthquake?'

      "Yeah, there was quite a shaker a few . . . I don't know how many, but soon before I was arrested," my friend says.

      "I guess we have to look," the Inspector accepts the keys, "How'd you know? How do you know all this stuff? The fingerprints we took haven't identified you. Maybe you're one of those dimensional travelers."

      I shrug and take the navigator's seat, and get out a set of binoculars to scan the area around us. She picks a course through the rocks and washed out areas of the trail. The silence between the two begins to worry me. I clap loudly as I see it.

      Among the lighter colored rocks and small scrub plants, is a dark pool like a wound on the ground, the color of long dried blood and the occasional bubble from below.

      "That's sort of anticlimactic," the Inspector says as she stops the truck, "One little bubble can kill people?"

      I try to mime a frothing profusion of bubbles. The pair understands.

      "Not one bubble, a lot," my friend says, "Like a few days after the earthquake, or during one of the little aftershocks. A few hours or minutes later, lots of gas. But wouldn't they smell it?"

      "It paraly . . . that's what happened to you!" the Inspector realizes, "You got enough to knock you down and paralyze your vocal cords, but not enough to kill you!"

      I shrug. I honestly don't know, I think, but climb out with the others, We're about 30 feet above. Not a lot of protection, but a little. I catch my friend's arm, so she can't go scrambling down into the low point. I shake my head and hope she understands.

      "With the wind blowing like this, I bet it's all gone," she retorts.

      I wave good bye.

      "No reason to test that though," she amends.

      "I was expecting a serial killer, some pack of Ferals, not something so simple," the Inspector admits.

      "You mean it could be?" my friend asks.

      "Happens to some Ferals who've wandered into the sewers in some of the big cities. They brave the rotten egg smell, and then the smell goes away. The poison gas is still killing them, but it's killed their sense of smell first. We fish a dozen or so out of the plumbing every year."

      "Seems a weird idea, but if you two agree, then I'm not going to argue. A pool of mud doesn't exactly scream 'mad killer' the way a pack of Vampires does," my friend says as she stares at it, "Do we head back, or camp out here to watch . . . I think that's proof!" She points to a small group of Ferals, all dead, and apparently killed while trying to kill each other. She sniffs the wind. "As long as the pool's quiet, and the wind's high, I'm getting food!" she shouts as she rushes down the slope. Both the Inspector and I take a step, then stop.

      "No smell of eggs!" my friend shouts, then bursts into flames as she races towards the small collection of corpses.

      "To answer her question," the Inspector says, "We stay here, it'll be dark before we're off the trail, and I won't risk a broken axle and a long walk at night, when I don't have to."

      I point to a large outcropping several hundred feet above us, not far off the trail.

      "I agree, let her haul that carrion up the slope," the Inspector says, "Teach her to go running off. Besides, I don't want those corpses in the truck, the stink will be impossible to get rid of."

      I pull the pad of paper and write 'charcoal' on it. The Inspector nods and decides to wait.

      My friend is putting out enough heat to keep us warm, although too much to get close to her to snuggle. The Inspector has shed her trenchcoat, and sits on it, near me, in the darkness.

      "Do you think I'm pretty," she asks out of the blue.

      'More beautiful than pretty, and not cute at all,' I write on the pad that I've already half consumed with notes on my thoughts.

      She smiles at that, as she hands the pad back. "Then why haven't you - tried anything?"

      I wrap my hands around my throat, bug my eyes out and cant my head at an uncomfortable angle.

      "I don't think I would have killed you for saying something," she says, and smiles, the first real smile I've seen from her.

      'When I first saw you, I thought you needed a hug. Not from a lover, but a friend, or father,' I write and hand it to her.

      She nods, and takes my arm to pull me closer. "Thank you for not hugging me. I would have - it's why I asked. Normally guys would be making fools of themselves, or throwing Pokèballs at me. You seemed to treat me as a cop first, and it made me wonder if you saw anything else."

      "You still haven't released us," my friend comments from her position as campfire, "So that's all you are."

      The Inspector frowns at that. "Until I saw the effects, I couldn't make a case to free either of you. I wish you'd left some evidence behind. It's going to be hard enough to prove with the bodies, without them . . . "

      "So we stay in your custody," she replies, "It's also the only way you can guarantee he'll have to stay close."

      The Inspector stammers and sputters. Then falls silent, her blush visible even in the darkness.

      "Aw, I can smell you, you're interested, and you're wondering if he is," my traitorous friend adds, "He is, although only mildly."

      "It's not like I don't have lots of offers," the Inspector grumbles, "Or that I'd have to settle."

      "They - want a trophy," my friend suggests, "I bet he hasn't figured out you're a Golden Elf."

      'Pointed ears, tall and spindly,' I write and hand it to her.

      She grimaces. "But just beautiful the way the light hits her hair, and her perfect figure - I've heard it all. As well as the calls of 'Milktit' and 'Oddtits' because I'm not properly spindly, and all the speculation about my ancestry. All with the terrible politeness of the Elven Court of course, where insult is a fine art, and responding with a beating is plebeian. It was just as hurtful, so I ran away, got my ears bobbed in the Legion, and put on some muscle, then went into police work after." She looks at me, searching. "Most guys were all hands and 'oops an accident'. But you wouldn't touch me."

      I point to the skin the balm has been healing and smile, then shrug.

      "Being on fire wouldn't have stopped most guys," the Inspector admits, "Thank you."

      I nod, then she pulls me closer. When she notices I've tensed up, she give a wry smile. "You don't have to Tame me, old man, a cuddle would be nice too."

      I smile, and pull her close, putting my arms around her shoulders and waist.

      "My, how chaste, I've heard about guys like you," she teases, "But I thought they were just made up stories."

      I frown at her and consider letting go, to get my pad and paper. It's not the chaste bit, but the 'old man' that I'm going to disabuse her of, I think and gently stroke her, just there.

      She squirms. "Stop that!"

      My friend damps her flames, and pounces, holding the Inspector's arms. "I won't bite, just nibble and lick," she whispers.

      The Inspector's eyes go wide as my friend nuzzles the Golden Elf's arm pits. While I attack other places and sections. We soon have her shrieking with laughter and pleas for mercy, and thrashing about like a mad-thing.

      The Inspector lies atop me, still trying to get her breath. "You are evil," she murmurs as she snuggles against me, "You could at least have let me take my clothes off."

      I snort in response. She chuckles.

      "I don't understand," she admits, "And I think now's not the right time for deep philosophy."

      I nod.

      "Okay, I guess I deserved that. I should be careful about teasing you, just because you act like a gentleman," she sighs, "You still know stuff."

      I listen as she fades into sleep. I reach out and put an hand on my friend's arm, and she seems to try to encircle my arm as she sleeps. Are they really in need of a human's love and approval? Even mine, I wonder as I stare at the stars, trying to place myself in this odd place I don't remember, And what happens next? I could probably live off the good will of a few of the people here. I could probably run for mayor and win. But who am I, and . . . honestly, what do I want? I don't know, except this isn't it, nor are any of the other opportunities I've seen since I woke up.

      Being shaken awake rouses the vicious ghosts of bad memories. I wake expecting pain. My friend and the Inspector both look horrified by the force and terror of my reaction.

      "The pool's bubbling," my friend tells me, her eyes full of worry and distress, "I thought you'd want to know."

      I nod, even while I shiver. Not from the cold, I think, I don't even know what I am afraid of. I just know that - that they were going to hurt me, again, and I couldn't stop them. But neither has hurt me, that I can remember. We ganged up on the Inspector, and my friend was always gentle. Like wrestling a crane, but she never even bruised me.

      There's no moon, and the starlight provides little help, but I can hear it. Like a warm soda shaken, multiplied by a hundred.

      "Are we high enough?" my friend asks worriedly.

      I nod. This high there are many other places for the gas to go. The Inspector has a camera out and is recording.

      How is she expecting to see anything? I want to ask, Unless it's got a built in starlight or IR scope. I hear a bawl of rage, louder than the bubbling pool. My friend shoves me down and crawls away from the edge. The Inspector has crept away from the edge, but holds the camera on target.

      "Dronza," my friend whispers, "I left some guts as bait, now she's here."

      The roar shakes the air. I stay where they have put me, and wait. My friend occasionally peers over the edge, and shuffles back. The Inspector just stares at the screen. After an interminable delay, she shakes her head.

      "I wouldn't have believed it," she whispers, and turns the camera so I can see the dead dragon-girl, "She only raged at the smell, but never after the smell died. And the gas killed her."

      I nod. She closes up the camera, almost fearfully.

      "I'd almost wanted a monster," the Inspector says, "That we could kill and close the case. Now what?"

      I point to the road, and the ridge line around us, just visible in the dawn.

      "They'll have to rebuild the road, or the town is cut off from normal travel." The Inspector shudders. "I drove through that, on my way here. I could easily have been another statistic."

      I gather her in my arms, and my friend snuggles against her. Together we wait out the Inspector's shivers, and watch the sunrise.

      Notes from Case #3456A, Southern Region. Reporting Officer: Senior Inspector Millicent Grange, Homicide Division. She typed as she awaited results of the fingerprints she'd sent on to higher authorities, when the preliminary scan was flagged.

      She described the mud pit, and the effect it had on the Dronza, and reports on the blood gasses from that body, and several of the other corpses that weren't too far gone in producing their own H2S internally. She appended the video, including a still shot of each of her two 'assistants'. She added the consequences of her hypothesis.

      And since they'd never trust a mere Pokègirl, she thought as she added a request for a team of vulcanologists and other experts to determine the real danger to the town and region. She appended the notes on the recommended road detour should the scientists confirm her hypothesis about the continuing danger.

      As if the string of dead bodies wasn't enough, she thought and waited, I told them to get a shower, and wait for me in the Taming Rooms. She glanced at the clock. They either started without me, fell asleep, or are ungodly patient, she thought as she watched the electronics transmit her report. Then a red banner came up and requested she secure the room and set her scrambler.

      A gesture locked the room and blanked the security cameras. She pulled the data key from the locked box and installed it. The thing gave her the creeps. It doesn't add encryption, but it does rip apart anyone foolish enough to try a VideoGirl 'live in the net' intercept of the data, she thought, Whatever is trapped in there, I hope it never gets loose.

      The screen flickered then stabilized. The gray-haired woman on the screen caused her heart to stop.

      "Good morning, Inspector, we have to talk. Hm, Golden Elf, a police officer, and yes, this is good too."

      The Inspector felt her heart sink as she realized she was going to be ordered to do what she desperately wanted to do, of her own free will.

      The Inspector walked into the Taming room, she looked at the half-empty water bottle and smiled, then that the Charred Hellcat curled up in the man's lap, and sighed. Why am I jealous, I have my orders, she thought as she approached, And why do I want the one guy who didn't instantly fall in love with me? It's not as if I . . . it is because I'll have to get it myself. That was the part of the court I hated, not knowing false friends from true, and doubting everyone every second. With him . . . with them, I'd have to earn it. And I doubt she plays the games very well, so I'd never have to wonder where I stood with her. I think he'd be a challenge, but I'd know if he was playing, or serious. If what I was told is true, he'd kill me in my sleep.

      She saw the concern in the Hellcat's eyes, then the inky Pokègirl waved her over. What are you thinking? she wondered as she let her instincts tell her what to do, Of course it's 'go to the powerful man.' Are we just robots, destined to never be more than warriors and pleasure units? She knelt next to him and the Hellcat let her wrap her arms around him as she leaned against him. Never really wanting to be?

      "He's asleep," she told Millicent, "Are you jealous? You shouldn't be so serious about your duty."

      "You aren't taking this serious enough," Millicent replied.

      The Hellcat growled angrily. "The long-term is what I'm concerned with," she spat at the Inspector, "We get him tangled with us, or we fail, it's that simple."

      "I haven't the faintest idea what to do now," the Inspector admits as she settled into his arms.

      The Hellcat chuckled. "Just look as disconsolate as you do right now. Frankly, waking my soporific friend and pinning him down for a Taming isn't a good idea, despite what his little friend has suggested."

      Millicent blushed, while the Hellcat laughed at her.

      "Just snuggle in and hold him and fall asleep. He won't take it as an insult," the Hellcat chided, "You'll get him, he prefers girls. Or ask him to supervise your Taming Cycle. He knows he'll have to Tame us eventually, but first he should trust us."

      The Golden Elf let herself relax, and drop into a doze.

      The Charred Hellcat walked into the Inspector's office. She frowned as the girl held her Pokèball, turning it over and over in her hands, as if it would eventually show her an answer in its shiny surface. "You're going to have to tell him eventually," she said, startling the Inspector, "He can sense that you're hiding something, and in the absence of any clue, the most destructive assumptions will have free rein." She took the ball from the other Pokègirl's hands and set it back on the desk. "We - cannot - allow -that," she scolded, "This is too important."

      "You think this is easy!" the Inspector shouted back as she stood to confront the Hellcat, at the sympathetic look from her antagonist, she bowed her head, "It was wonderful when it freed me from all the idiocies of the Elf-courts. Then I realized, despite how I looked, nobody wanted that, or me."

      The Charred Hellcat gently pushed her back into her chair, and sat on the edge of the desk. "Look, it works out perfectly, if you just tell him. He's not normal. If he were, we wouldn't be doing this. If you haven't figured that out, you're in the wrong business."

      "I . . . I can't," the Golden Elf replied, "I . . . I . . . I feel like I'm cheating."

      "You're old Tamer is dead. It's not your fault, and if you want to get on with your mission, getting him to accept you is the perfect way. You can use that to get what you desperately need," she said. She got up from the desk and started for the door. "Or you can continue to suffer."

      "The consequences - "

      "Consequences, shmonsequences!" the Hellcat erupted, "He's already got all that he needs to do for you. All you have to do is get him to trust you! Just because nobody else would, doesn't mean he won't. He's got all that you need to keep that thing alive. Now. Are you going to put it in him, or suffer."

      "What about the . . . side effects?"

      "You worry too much about the wrong things," the Hellcat told her as she left.

      Nuevo Tenochtitlàn?! he can't keep the shock from his face, Why should we go there? He looks from the eager expression on the Inspector's face, to the bored expression on the Charred Hellcat.

      The Golden Elf reads his expression. "We should go there, because it's the premier magical academy in the world. Vale has the reputation, but they're just a floating island that couldn't keep themselves from being shot down. And the New Avalon just . . . seems wrong. Besides, anyone and everything that sets foot in the Blue League, becomes that government's property. We have even lost diplomats who got off the well-traveled paths. One even had her anti-capture chip dug out, and she was Level 5'd."

      He shudders at that. Cross that League off my vacation plans, he thinks, She must be an alumni too, he realizes and shakes his head.

      "If you want to know 'why'? We'll be able to find a wizard to heal your injuries, and help you."

      Visions of Doctoral candidates and all the associated experiments flash through his head. He shakes his head again, and open the thesaurus program to the entry on psychiatrist, and points to the phrase 'head shrinker'.

      "I'm certain they don't allow that there," she replies.

      He types, 'You're hiding something. I don't know what, and you aren't mine, so I can't demand it and have no right to know. But it does raise questions about what else you' Careful, she may have reasons, he reminds himself, and resumes typing. 'Think I'll be better off not knowing.' He ignores her frown.

      The Hellcat looks over his shoulder, and snickers.

      "Yes, it's . . . very embarrassing, and it's what got me 'asked to leave' the Elf-court I was stuck in, which is one of the reasons I was so eager to accept . . . the change."

      " 'I'm not a Tamer, so I don't have a Pokèdex,'" the Hellcat reads the words he types, " 'I'm not a cop, so I can't go through your records. I'm not a snoop, so I won't spend hours either on the net ferreting out your secrets, or asking seeming innocuous, interlocking questions. But knowing I don't really know you, and not having any hold on you makes it dodgy to go running off to somewhere you have even a greater advantage over me than here.' Makes sense."

      "Are you always so suspicious?" she asks.

      He looks back and catches the Hellcat nodding. He stares at her until she looks away.

      'I don't know, but I suspect so,' he replies in print.

      "I'd really rather not tell you," she says, and ignores the snort from the Hellcat.

      'Because it diminishes you in my eyes, or focus my attention on your otherness, rather than on you?' he asks with his typing.

      "Both, probably," she admits, "I had a partner. Human. After he died . . . I was Tamed, but I was either a bauble to hang on his arm, or a thing to be thrown at problems. You've treated me as a person. I'd rather not lose that."

      " 'Fair enough, but I'm still not sure about walking into a den of wizards, especially with no resources or even an identity.' I can agree with that," the Hellcat says as she read his words, " 'If I were to try to leave, they could legitimately claim I didn't exist and had no rights.'"

      "They wouldn't - "

      "We'd protect you!" the Hellcat adds her voice to the Golden Elf's.

      He isn't impressed.

      'And when they use your Pokèballs on you? I'm not a Tamer. I don't know if I even want to be. So I can't claim either of you,' he reminds them, 'It's a neat trap, and I'd like to find a way out of this, before walking into the next one.'

      "Master, we need to go back out into the desert and find my cave," my friend tells them as she stands and walks around the Inspector's office.

      He looks at her, trying to say 'why' with just gestures and expression.

      "I have a bunch of stuff still there. It may be a Feral's junk hoard, but I'd like to at least get it and go through it," she replies.

      He jerks his thumb at the Inspector.

      "I thought you were in charge," she teases, "So, are you in, or out?" she asks the Inspector.

      The Golden Elf looks around. "Yeah, let's get out of here. We can check on the warning signs and make sure nobody has wandered into the exclusion zone."

      "Do you ever do something just for fun? Or is duty all you know?" the Hellcat complains, "Are you an Officer Jenny?"

      The Inspector growls. "Let's go!"

      The Hellcat grins, and he shakes a finger to scold her. She sticks her tongue out at him instead of being chastised.

      "What do you mean you can't find it?" the Inspector complains as she stares out the truck's windows.

      "I tracked by scent!" the Hellcat replies, "I have to pick up the scents, and find it that way, and no, I can't do it from inside the car."


      "What's the difference?!" the Hellcat shouts.

      I clap my hands, to get them to quit fighting.

      "It's your fault you know," the Hellcat accuses him, "If you'd Tamed us, we wouldn't be so testy!" She jumps out of the still moving vehicle and runs to a rock, sniffs, and runs to another.

      The Inspector fumes, but carefully drives the truck off-road to follow the seemingly random pattern of moves as she picks up scent trails to trace.

      "She didn't mean it," the Inspector mutters to him as she follows.

      Yes she did, he keeps to himself, And she'd be right, under other circumstances.

      They enter the small cave, the truck parked outside.

      "I don't know if this stuff is important or not," the Hellcat says, "Can you bring the light over here?"

      He does, and the collection of shiny bits catches his eye. Some of these are just pyrites, glass beads, and shiny rocks. But there are a few bits which might be evolution stones, or gold nuggets. Without a lab, I can't tell, he thinks then moves away to let the Inspector look, The Hellcat isn't happy about that. No, she isn't going to steal your treasures, he wants to tell her, But it wouldn't matter. They're your pretties, and letting another woman handle them doesn't go down easy, does it?

      The Inspector moves away, and looks out the cave opening. "I don't think we can make it back to the road before sundown, and I'd rather not try to drive back to town in the dark."

      "This place should have enough space," the Hellcat offers, and grins, "If we stay friendly."

      I saw that coming, he thinks as they head out the truck to unload the gear and prepare a camp site in the cave. We should be well above the gas, unless there's a severe earthquake . . . and if that happens, we have a more serious problem.

      The man accepted the drink. And apparently drank it. Before settling down in the arms of the girls. His mind clear of the noise of random thought.

      "Good boy, do as you're told," one of the observers commented, "I hope this works."

      "Time will tell," the older Pokèwoman said as she watched closely.

      Minutes crawled by, as the observers satisfied themselves that the reduction and quietude was in fact, drugged unconsciousness.

      "He seems to be accepting the program more willingly than previous reports would indicate," the Nurse Joy said as she monitored the readings of the trio closely, one set in particular, "Heart rate is up. Damn, we'll have to use a higher dose next time. He's still showing resistance."

      "Watch the readouts. You know the precursors to look for," the old Pokèwoman asked, "Is the containment team ready?"

      "Of course," the male tech said angrily, and muttered something too quietly to be heard.

      "With our system fully interactive, our hero's intellect can't penetrate the simulated environment. Previous attempts assumed that when presented with fantastic events, he and the others would retreat. When instead, they attacked with nearly suicidal zeal."

      "Current systems and projections indicate 100% assimilation within a short period. One month at the outside. By manipulating all information, we can control our targets and resources."

      He slipped out of the cave and away from the pair, into the darkness. I know it's here, he thought as he advanced boldly across the ground, In the light they might fool me, but at night, at a dead run . . .

      Slamming into the invisible wall told him he had achieved his first goal. He felt his way down the wall, seeking any anomaly. Found one, he thought happily as if fingers told him the shape of the object that his eyes told him wasn't there.

      He pried open the security box, and found only bare wall behind it, not the controls to the lights or a door. "What the -?!"

      The walls faded, and the real walls of the lab appeared. Only the training he'd mastered, but did not remember receiving, allowed him not to react, to either the deception or the fact that the two he'd trusted, had utterly betrayed him. "We're already there, at Nuevo Tenochtitlàn," he replied.

      A lighted path appeared and a hidden speaker told him, "You can follow the lights to the exit, and all will be explained."

      "Yeah, right. I'm just going to walk back into custody?" he muttered as he tried to pry the nearby doors open, before the awakening Hellcat and Golden Elf could reach him. He stepped back, and the doors vanished. Neither his eyes, nor his fingers could detect it now, only the blank, smooth stone or concrete wall.

      "Holograms and force fields," the speaker told him, "The lighted path is the only way out."

      He grumbled, but turned down the path. The shame-faced Golden Elf and Hellcat fell in behind him. Give them the benefit of the doubt, he thought.

      "Are you inmates, or the warders?" he asked.

      "If 'inmate' includes patients," the Golden Elf said ruefully, "Then I'm an inmate. You and she are part of my therapy. Like we're part of yours."

      "Me, I'm a warder," the Hellcat said happily, "You two need somebody to look after you, and no one else wanted the job. Gee, I wonder why?" She snorted in disgust.

      The doors opening cut off his reply. He stepped gingerly into a dimly lit corridor. The Hellcat sighed as the lights came up slowly, allowing their eyes to adjust to see what she had seen. The two routes of escape were blocked by a squad or more of armed and armored Pokègirls. These looked almost as hangdog as he himself felt.

      "How do we know we're out?" he asked pointedly.

      "You're out," came a voice like the one on the speakers, save that her frustration was obvious rather than hidden. The Pokèwoman in the lab coat was gray-haired and motherly, but thoroughly angry. Her eyes focused on him in a challenge. He saw the glittering of intelligence in those eyes.

      She's going to want to know how I figured it out, he thought and braced himself.

      "I'm going to say something, and I want your full attention," the Pokèwoman said.

      He glanced around, and saw she held all the advantages. "You have it."

      "President for Life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

      He blinked, and looked around at the frustrated faces of the guards. Then at the Pokèwoman. He hung his head. "CRAP! I messed up another one!" he cursed. He turned back to the pair. "I'm terribly sorry, I thought -"

      "What you thought the last - what is it? Sixteen times you saw through it and 'escaped'?" the Charred Hellcat grinned and laughed, "You should see your face. I've seen that 'Oh Crap!' expression, and you do it better than most. But showing it going from 'Grr! I won't go down without a fight', to 'I'm surrounded by friends' is just too ironic." The girl fell to the floor laughing. ------------------------------

      He shook his head. "I bet Murphy got it right, again?" he asked as he looked at the laughing Hellcat, and the annoyed to amused expressions on the Pokègirls around him. Names, faces, and data began their now too-familiar journey from eerie deja vu, to full recollection as the post-hypnotic suggestion faded away.

      "He did. You can't be part of the pool," the Pokèwoman told him.

      "Why? I wouldn't remember if I did," he replied. Chuckles from the others as they relaxed from their combat demeanor highlighted the change. "Am I really that formidable?" he asked, "I thought men were the squishy ones."

      "Considering that all our patients are government agents suffering various mental problems," the Pokèwoman said, "Including you, we don't take any chances during the transition. Especially with you!"

      "Yeah, if you get hurt, who else can play escape artist/systems analyst?" the Nurse Joy, Valerie, told him. Even he smiled at the jibe.

      "Okay, we'll debrief in an hour, get woke up, and some food. I think we have the questions that have to be asked memorized, but think of anything that hasn't been asked before," the Pokèwoman told the troops as they broke up, "I'm taking director's privilege Hellcat, go get cleaned up and have something to eat." She waited until the others had dispersed. She had to glare at Millicent and the Hellcat to achieve it. "Okay, what set you off?" she asked.

      "Everyone pushing the drinks on me. I got suspicious. I still think that you should let me have one good nightmare."

      "That's what we're trying to cure," the Pokèwoman cut him off.

      "I know, let me finish. Then have someone suggest I get something to help me sleep, and someone else bring up the placebo angle. That way I won't know if I'm off the drug or not."

      "It's risky," she replied.

      "Riskier than me breaking out before the treatment is done . . . again? I don't want to think about Millicent's regimen, and what this is doing to her."

      "She's fine, this isn't having a significant effect on her treatment," the Head said.

      "Shouldn't she be cured, if I could have stayed with the program?"

      "You have hysterical amnesia, probably due to mistreatment and an interrogation. It's not unreasonable to assume that you never left it."

      "Maybe we should include that, have them dump me in the desert, and then I could reasonably assume they were done."

      "Or at most, give some indication that they thought you were dead. Considering that your Hellcat did go get you, they might dump you there with the knowledge that the Hellcat would come and eat you."

      "It would be perfectly logical that she'd drag the near-corpse back to her lair for a quick Taming before lunch," he said, "Isn't the point to have a rational explanation of events as they unfold?"

      "I thought most people slept through my lectures," the Pokèwoman said.

      "My Hellcat can quote them," he replied, "Although she claims she did sleep through them, and they haunt her dreams."

      She laughed at that.

      She enjoyed walking and talking with him. He treated all the 'people' at the Center the same, as their character and competence deserved.

      "I'm glad we could talk privately," he said, "I'm sure Millicent would take this wrong."

      Oh boy, she thought as they walked, This is gonna be a doozy.

      "But what the Hell would a woman like that, see in me?"

      The doctor was thunderstruck. He's teasing. He's got to be teasing! she thought, You can't be that insightful, and so utterly clueless! She realized she was staring at him, and that he was staring at her staring at him.

      "What?" he asked, "I didn't say it was rational or reasonable. I said it was what kept bouncing me out of the process."

      She let out a breath.

      "I've gotten the lecture from my Hellcat about how I smell to most Pokègirls, I believe she said, 'If you stood upwind during Sadie Pokens, you'd rupture yourself carrying all the Pokèballs you'd come away with.' I don't believe it, but I accept that all of you do. But that is what kept bothering me. There was no logical reason for her interest, and it was . . . too immediate and intense."

      "So you have a plan . . . of course you do, you have a plan for Typhonna stopping by for tea," she said.

      I still sometimes think he was raised on another planet, she thought, He just seems not to notice all the girls practically throwing themselves at him, and is so shy around the few who have caught his fancy. The perfect gentleman, and considering the minimum requirements to even be here, probably as deadly as a Mantis.

      "Something wrong?" he asked, showing a concern for a mere Pokègirl that was at once complete in character for the man, and out of character for most members of his species.

      She felt her clinical detachment faltering. Another reason to get him cured and transferred to being a consultant and technical advisor, she thought.

      "I just have to wonder why someone would have tortured you, instead of seduced you."

      "Maybe I turn it back on them, or they were just misandrists who took all the positives you attribute to me as negatives." He shrugged. "That's the other part. I still think you should let me have at least one really bad nightmare."

      "That would set back your treatment," she insisted.

      "Worse than never completing the regimen?" he asked, "Just one. Then I go to the medics and get something to 'help me sleep', or some such. She can give it to me in a carrier, so when she's afraid of me overdosing, or building up a tolerance, she can switch over to a placebo. While still delivering the same carrier."

      "Plausible, I'm hesitant about adding another person to the scenario, rather than using a simulacrum," she replied as she considered.

      He grinned. "I didn't suggest using a person, or a Nurse Joy, and specifically not Valerie, but I know which direction you're headed."

      "She's crazy about you, and a better actor than Millicent."

      "And the cheese to keep me as a consultant when the project goes public?" he asked, and smirked at her half-hearted glower, "You and I both know that while they'll let a Pokègirl really run things, they'll prefer a human figurehead for any projects involving humans. And the Project Manager is not the people person you need."

      She smiled at that. "You also have to admit, we've made more progress from your breakouts and after-action analysis, than we were getting on our own."

      "You just didn't have a paranoid, ruthless bastard on the payroll," he said and beamed.

      We also didn't have a man, she thought, Just a couple of males.

      He walked into the room, the odd echos of not knowing it, yet vaguely remembering it, disturbed him. Figures she'd be curled up in her corner, he thought as the Hellcat slept in one of the two reasons the others had avoided the room. The small cube of area that always remained at over 1200 Rankin degrees, which the Hellcat had claimed as her berth. The other was the area of cold on one wall, that exactly balanced the energy output of the hot zone. He'd selected an easily moved bed so he could find a comfortable temperature across the temperature gradient of the room.

      "I ordered some food," she said, "And there's plenty of hot water for the shower. I'll go after you."

      "Thanks," he said as he removed the travel-stained clothes, "I know that sand is fake, but why does it feel like it's in everything?"

      "Not everything," she said, "But I want to get a shower too."

      He stepped into the bathroom, and again was amazed by all the things his mind told him he shouldn't recognize. I wonder what would happen if I asked her to join me in here? he pondered, I'd never get my report done, and I'd be asleep when the briefing started.

      Clean, shaved, slightly weary, but properly remembering what he actually knew, he looked around the cubicle as he entered. A couple bags of tea steeped in the mug, from the veritable bookcase full that had a tendency to appear. He smiled at the only thing besides the computer on his desk as he picked it up, and shook his head as he drank from the tea mug. The sweet, warm liquid helped him focus. I made it clear that anyone could have some, but it is the bold commando whoever takes me up on the offer, he thought, Whoever availed herself of my largess? I guess it's 'just his'.

      He looked at the collection of closed doors with faux brass placards on them, and smiled ruefully. I'd rather have an office bigger than theirs, even if I don't have as much privacy, he thought. He began writing what amounted to an 'after-action report' of his escape, actually his rejection of the reality presented him. He smirked at that and noted 'Can't accept Heaven' as the ersatz title. He noted the not constant, but frequent passage of the other office workers and lab techs, all Pokègirls and Pokèwomen, past his cubicle entrance. He didn't look up or glance around, because if he did, they'd scurry away.

      If they have something to say, they'll say it, he thought as he outlined the problem and diagramed a few solutions.

      The smell of hot food and a displaced presence brought him out of the world of theories and psychodrama.

      "You did it, again!" A Titmouse he'd started calling Caroline, stood at the entry to his cubicle. A tray of food from the cafeteria carefully placed on the table. "You get so tied up in your thoughts, you ignore the entire world."

      "Thank you for dinner," he told her, and noted nearly all of the hour had gone by. Then he smiled evilly as he stood from his desk chair, "Since you mentioned 'tied up' do you want me thinking of you?" He walked towards her.

      She gave a terrified squeal, and ran down the corridor. A few moments later 'my friend', the Hellcat, wandered in.

      "You really shouldn't set her off," she warned, "One day, she might just take you up on it. And an overexcited Titmouse isn't the perfect Starter."

      "Ha, ha," he said between bites of salad and bread.

      "Hmm. Green salad, bread, a little stew. I think they've realized that you'll eat whatever they put in front of you."

      "Some of us aren't fans of charcoal."

      "More for me," she replied happily. She sat down, but paused to stare at him. "What are you so nervous about?"

      "Am I that insecure that I'd automatically suspect anyone wanting to get close to me?"

      "I don't know. I'm used to people being leery of me. Even when you met me out in the desert, you half-expected I'd eat you. You still do. For me it's a turn on: you're afraid of me, and you still want me around."

      "Millicent was what set me off," he admitted in a whisper, "She should be beating suitors, let alone Tamers, with a stick and an infantry regiment. And the doc got the same look on her face when I mentioned it to her. Maybe I'm just hopelessly paranoid." He ate for a bit, letting her speak if she wished.

      "Considering this group is for agents, Legionaries and cops," he said, "I'd expect a fair degree of anxiety and suspicion is expected -"

      "Paranoia," she pointed out.

      "Is expected."

      "You, my soon-to-be Master, are overqualified," she said.

      "Anyway, I thought that since those are the real problems, and all of you insisting I take my medicine, I'd get that built into the plan."

      She got up and sat at the desk. "Your nightmares are not fun to be around," she said as she read what he had on the screen, "Getting Valerie involved is the right way to go . . . ah! Good!" She opened up another window in the word processor. "Once you have your nightmare, we gently convince you, or I either drag you to see her, or I threaten to fry and eat you, unless you go," she said as she typed, "That should take the ambiguity out of 'why?'" She looked over her shoulder at him, and frowned. "What? That I can type?"

      "Me being able to drive a stick shift was surprising to you. I find that you can type, better and faster than I can, a little jarring considering the 'should I fry you and eat you or bake you and eat you' attitude."

      "Since you've asked. I wasn't born a Hellcat. At 12 I was a solid 'A' honors student, active in the community and well on my way into a political career. At 13, I was sold to a ranch, and no one I grew up with, worked with, or corresponded with, knew me anymore. Later, the same year, I was sold, evolved, and the experimentation began. At 14, a Charred Hellcat escaped custody and began wandering the wilds. I was caught, moved in and out of a few Harems, usually after it was pretty clear I was smarter than my Tamer, and a better politician than the Alpha. That was five years ago. I can mentally spar with you, and the Inspector, but outsmarting you is usually a bad idea, because by the time I figure a better way to do what you're doing, you've already won what you were really after, bravely taken your lumps, and moved on."

      "Careful," he warned, "Flattery and a soul-baring confession will ruin your reputation as someone who only cares if you should be covered in barbeque sauce, or with a dab of wasabi horseradish."

      The attitude seemed to drop. "I don't want to be alone. I don't want to be traded among people who deserve it, but aren't worth the effort to burn to a crisp. I like it here. Maybe that's selfish, but I want to be with you, and her. Valerie would be a good addition, and there's a lot of other girls who like the idea you might catch them alone and in a mood. You don't have to do anything more than smile and be kind to them. Or don't be too flagrant about it."

      "Always have my best interests at heart," he said.

      She was suddenly standing in front of him, a look of relentless intensity boring into him, then she wrapped her arms around him in a surprisingly gentle hug. "You are a wonderful man. Don't doubt that if you whistled, you couldn't have any unattached Pokègirl, and most of the attached girls and the Pokèwomen in this complex. My Master."

      The conference room was packed with the usual staffers, his pair of partners, as well as Nurse Valerie. He was always disturbed by the intensity of the looks he got from the staff, and that the only other human in the room was the project manager. An intense little man who did the drudgery of the endless paperwork and the thankless job of herding dozens of cats into their respective places. He had a rather modest intellect, and an even more modest libido, so he'd been overjoyed for a 'big picture guy' to be added to the staff, even as an unpaid consultant.

      "As the resident escape artist. I realized the two failures of the last scenario, and a contributing factor in the previous failures -"

      "You're paranoid and self-martyring?" my friend asked so innocently.

      The smiles and giggles only made him frown, which spawned more smiles and giggles.

      "That's the cause, the cause within me being treated. The real problem was everyone tried to get me to drink something, usually right before bed. No comments please. The other was that the Inspector and I never really forged a bond before she started trusting me more than was appropriate. This should alleviate both problems. The scenario will be back to the second one, our Charred Hellcat's desert rescue -"

      "Yay me!"

      "But the Inspector's overturned truck will be there, and she'll have a concussion. So she'll have to stay awake, a good excuse to have her talk about herself, perhaps for several hours. I suggest you might want to talk about the events that drove you out into the desert in the first place." He noted her instant discomfort with that.

      "I think I'd better work into that," Millicent explained, "You and I - haven't really discussed that yet."

      "That's why we'll do it then. It's something you do need to talk about," he replied, "And under the influence of your injuries, it's a perfect time to. Remember, a lot of this is about giving you the 'excuse' to do the therapeutic actions that you'll need to do."

      "The posthypnotic suggestion can't force you to be or do anything you don't want to," the Project Manager said, "It only can adjust, not overwrite."

      "You'll be hurt and a little unguarded speech is appropriate. Then there's the problem of getting my anti-nightmare meds. I know it's been a taboo subject, but letting me have another nightmare would give my friend the Hellcat the justification to drag me to the medcenter to get help."

      He was about to point to Valerie, when Janet spoke up, "Of course, so I can prescribe the medication."

      He frowned at the Megami's interruption. "Actually, so Valerie can prescribe the medication, dissolved in a carrier, so she can adjust the dose, and invoke the placebo effect," he said.

      "I think Janet might be a better choice," the leader said, and even Valerie nodded her agreement. Although the Nurse Joy looked deeply hurt by the lack of support from her colleagues.

      Not the place for this battle, he thought.

      "The rest of the scenario plays out pretty much like scenario number two. I'll leave the mechanics to the therapists and technicians, better I don't know. The details are in the handouts and available as a slideshow on the team drive. Excuse me." He headed after Valerie, who'd excused herself and left. He stepped out of Janet's grasp and closed the door. Catching up with Valerie was easy. "I'd intended to have you - "

      "Thank you," she cut him off, "I guess I can't compete with Janet. Who can compete with a Megami?"

      He stepped in front of her and raised her chin so she was looking at him. She dropped her eyes again. "Anyone who applies themselves. The Megami aren't innovators, and not fast on their feet. I still would prefer you do this job. To deal with the unexpected."

      "Thank you."

      "A pretty, but ordinary," he said sarcastically, "Nurse Joy can also function as a confidant. A Megami always has the aura of manipulated choice around everything she does. Something especially good, or dreadfully bad happens around her, and there's always the suspicion that she had a hand in it."

      "You talk that way about someone in your own Harem?" Valerie asked.

      He was barely able to maintain his smile. "You've seen my psych reports. I may be paranoid enough to actually believe it."

      She smiled back shyly and leaned close. "They don't do those things." She flinched back, as if rethinking stealing a kiss. "I have to get back to my station. I'll have to lay out the dose and Millicent's symptoms so even a layman will realize she has a concussion. Overkill for you, but easy for her, or your Hellcat to spot. I . . . appreciate your confidence in me." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, and dashed off.

      You also don't feel so entitled to the attention, and you think about others, he thought as he headed back to his office.

      He was already in a bad mood. The Pokèball in the fancy holder sitting on his desk irked him further. If you had any class, you'd have on for each of the others, or one big one for the whole group, he thought as he sat down and prepared for events to unfold, And your name engraved on it. Gee, what a thoughtful gift, and not tacky, hurtful, self-indulgent or egocentric in any way.

      Janet walked in and wiggled her finger at him. "The way you took off after that Nurse Joy, Valerie, I should be jealous," she said as she dropped into the other chair in the cubicle. "I never understood why you settled for a cramped cubicle, when you could get an office. With a door." She began alphabetizing the boxes of tea in the bookcase.

      "That was FIFO for a reason. Tea goes bad in time," he told her, "The cubicle was always big enough before, and like the tea -"

      That you're man-handling.

      "- it was a thoughtful gift, from friends," he replied neutrally.

      "Friends who want just one thing?" she said peevishly.

      "And what do you want? From a room with a door?" he asked.

      She gave him the Megami smile. "I only want you to be happy," she said, and vanished into red light. He stared at the Pokèball. "Good. Because this will make me very happy," he said to the Pokèball.

      He walked into the Med Center. He hid a smile as Valerie hastily composed herself.

      "May I help you?" she asked. Her eyes were all red and puffy, clearly showing she'd been crying.

      He leaned over the counter and grinned mischievously. "Oh, in all kinds of ways," he said as he grinned wider.

      It makes it easier to do this, now that I've seen how Janet hurt her, he thought, while the nurse blushed and squirmed under his gaze.

      "Unfortunately, the guacamole will have to wait, and the kumquats are just too soft and squishy, so I'd have to just drizzle the juice onto your skin." He let her sputter and stammer before continuing, "I need you to call the head of security, and send this girl through a Level 4 Conditioning Cycle." He handed her the Pokèball.

      "I don't understand," she said after glancing at the Ball.

      He smiled. "You will, when we get the Head of security here."

      She scanned the ball when it entered the Taming machine. "This is Janet."

      "Yes. How'd you like to be the medic in the little psychodrama?"

      She brightened. "I'd love to, but . . . " Her smile faded and she looked downcast.

      He stepped over the short divider separating her office from the waiting room and walked over to her. He hugged her, as he punched the button to start the Level 4. "It'll all make sense. I just want the chief here before I explain it."

      "What did she do?" Valerie asked worriedly, then gasped, "Did she hurt you? She won't be able to function very well after a Level 4."

      "I know," he said has he pulled her close, "She didn't hurt me." He told her as he punched the call button to summon security. "She hurt you."

      The Tigress's arrival, in a foul mood, stifled anything happening. "If you two sat on the button while -"

      "Sorry, it's real," he told her.

      The chief sighed, and shook her head. "What's so damned important?"

      "Chief, who's Janet?" he asked, "Let her answer," he told Valerie.

      The chief glanced to Valerie before answering. "She's part of your Harem," the chief said, "If this is some lover's spat -"

      "You will please remain, and listen," he said quietly, "It will help both of you, in the long run."

      His calm tone unnerved both of them.

      "Valerie, what's my psych rating? The overall rating, I don't need the breakdowns."

      "I can't - "

      "It's JF7, isn't it?" he asked calmly, and smiled at the chief.

      "That is a very - interesting guess," Valerie said. She looked at the chief, who shook her head. "It indicates that you - the condition is not maladaptive. A person with that rating is paranoid, closed in, but still able to operate in society without being a danger to themselves or others."

      "And how long has Janet been part of my Harem, chief?"

      "Since I've known you," the Tigress replied suspiciously.

      "A JF7 rating isn't allowed to have Pokègirls. The reason that Millicent and I aren't closer, is our psych ratings. The Charred Hellcat threatened to fry and eat anyone who kept us apart. So she's keeping me, more than I'm keeping her." He ignored the giggle from Valerie.

      She snapped her fingers. "Yes," Valerie said, "That's right!" Confused racked her. "But how -?"

      "Don't force yourself, let me do the work," he told both of them as they struggled towards a conclusion.

      "So I can't have a Harem. I can't have Pokègirls, even a pet. So how have I had Janet 'forever'?" he asked, and grinned, "She's a spy. She used the Megami's ability to blend in, to appear here, and usurp Valerie's position, to gain my trust. Except I don't trust anyone, especially someone who derails my plans and hurts someone I care about."

      "How can you not trust someone you love?" the chief asked.

      He could practically hear Valerie blushing. "Because I'm insane. Paranoia is the chief characteristic of JF7. I can't even open up enough to for strong alpha-bonds, let alone anything stronger."

      The Tigress shook her head, then rubbed her hands together. "Okay, leave the explanations to the eggheads. Where's my spy?" she said dangerously.

      "In Nurse Valerie's Taming Machine, going through a Level 4 Conditioning cycle. When she finishes, put her through four more." He ignored the chief's blanch and continued, "Then let her out long enough to tell her we're on to her, then punch her through five more." He let the chief shudder a bit, then explained, "That should make her very suggestible and compliant, when you begin your interrogation."

      "What are you grinning at?" the chief asked Valerie. The nurse shrugged, but didn't lose her ferocious expression.

      "I'll leave her to your tender care, but call me as back up when you pop her out. I want to be there, in case she tries something." They nodded as he left.

      He walked idly through the corridors for a while. "I know you're back there, so close up," he told the Hellcat.

      "How did you spot me?"

      "I didn't. I just knew you'd be following me, and if I was wrong, then I would be talking to myself."

      The Hellcat growled unhappily. "I was wondering why you reacted to Ja - that Megami that way. The nose knows. And so I was following Janet. I have to admit, what you did shocked me, until I heard your explanation. Janet always was one for . . . if she just popped up, how can I know she was a self-centered attention whore, and pushy?"

      "That's part of their power, and one I intend to put a stop to. At least at this place. The last thing we need are more of these people suddenly getting a guardian angel at a time they need to recover their equilibrium," he told her, "Of course, if patient 58 got one . . . "

      "Remind me to never get on your bad side. You're vicious when attacked," she said as they walked.

      "Actually, I think I'm pretty easy-going about being attacked. When people attack someone I care about, then, I get really viscous. If you're going to try to be Alpha, keep that firmly in mind," he said, "Although I might not have an Alpha, for that very reason."

      The alarms are different, not that too many of the other test subjects escape. No, I'm the challenge, he thought while don his slacks and heavy boots.

      "Security alert, all personnel to stations." The message repeated.

      Funny, I don't have a 'station', he thought, So I can go where I'll do the most good. He put on the body armor that had been provided for other reasons. He noted the Hellcat was gone, and idly wondered where she'd be. She's normally so proprietary, that she'd be on me like a second-skin, he thought as he walked out into the corridor and adjusted the helmet's radio to the security frequency.

      He jogged towards where the spate of reports came from. They would crackle across the line, and then those people weren't heard from again. Something is going through the guards like a bullet through jello. Valerie came out of a cross corridor and nearly tackled him.

      "Please, don't hurt her," she pleaded with him as she buried her face in his chest and hugged him, "She's just confused, and frightened. I don't know what set her off, but she won't hurt you. Please don't let them hurt her."

      "The Megami?" he asked.

      "No," Valerie insisted, and stepped away, "I - I'll explain later. Did you change the sheets from when you came back?"

      "Yes, they're in the hamper," he told her, "Are you making a net?"

      "Sort of, and your night shirt, it's there too?"

      "Or on the bed, what do you need that for?" he asked.

      "Bait, I just realized something," she said as she ran back the way he'd come.

      I'd better get some answers from somebody, he thought as he resumed his advance, Or I'm going to take it out on someone.

      The Megami practically poured out of her Pokèball. She barely recognized the face of the man who had released her. "I should take advantage of your condition," he told her, "It would serve you right."

      Her vision swam as she tried to focus. "You would . . . " She couldn't focus enough to finish.

      "We had to create a diversion and we lost a deep-penetration agent to get you out," he told her, "I expect the boss will start at flaying you alive, and then get angry. Especially considering your target was the one who ratted you out." He didn't offer his hand. He simply stepped back and opened the door to let her out.

      She barely managed to clamber to her knees, but can go no farther. "For the best," she said as she began moving towards the door and her punishment.

      He arrived at the site of the first radio call. He saw the armored guards lying peaceful, on the walls and ceiling. Behind each girl was a thick, white sticky resin fastening them to the wall or ceiling. If it's male, I think I'm going to be very worried, he thought, then while checking for a pulse, he caught the two small welts on one soldier's neck, Okay, spider type. Webs and poison, and from what I can figure out, these guards were overwhelmed, by someone who wanted them to stay out of the way, but wouldn't hurt them to achieve that. I can live with that.

      He jogged along, the thoroughly marked trail. He would occasionally stop and check a soldier, to make sure the code against killing hadn't been discarded. The small barricade blocked his advance, as well as the trio of guard who seemed more interested in keeping people out, than their quarry in.

      "Sir, you can't go in there!" one of the guards stammered, "Didn't you see the others?!"

      "Yes, and all of them are alive, and essentially unhurt," he explained, "I'm going in. Nurse Valerie is bringing something to help, let her through, but keep keeping everyone else out. Our runner has been careful not to hurt someone, but if startled, that may change. You hold your position no matter what you hear."

      "Sir, I can't allow that."

      "Oh? How are you going to stop me without injuring me?" he asked innocently, "Be quite a lot of interest that all the miscreant's victims slept off their defeat, and I spent time in surgery after trying a rescue. Don't worry. If the chief asks, I'll say I hit you."

      Before they could react, he stepped over the barricade and none of the trio seemed willing to duplicate the act. This place is just used for storing packing material. And it's a dead end without ventilator shafts or other escape routes, one reason we don't want lots of people working down here. So unless she can walk through hundreds of feet of basaltic rock, she's trapped. Always good news.

      The lights were off, and he wasn't sure trying the switch was a good idea. She can probably hear me, he thought, But I don't know what a sudden bright light will do. He removed one of the chemical light sticks from the web vest he wore as part of the armor. A bend and shake, then he let the softly glowing stick roll across the floor. When nothing leapt out on it, or blew it to fragments, he advanced slowly.

      "Hello," he called, "I noticed you didn't hurt the guards, so I'm hoping you'll extend me the same courtesy."

      I think I'm talking to myself, he thought, until he heard the soft noise that could be growl or whimper, Okay, run away, or take the Milktit by the horns, and hope she isn't really a Minotaura.

      The sound repeated as he approached a stack of pallets topped with boxes of excelsior. "I hope you aren't a fire-type," he said calmly as he approached, "Or this is going to get rather ugly."

      The figure exploded out of the wood shaving and leapt down at him. Her head-to-toe black armor, and two hips, two shoulders despite having four arms and four legs, registered as his instincts took over. He tried to catch the girl around the waist to toss her aside. She passed through him, to land behind him. She grabbed his collar and kicked his legs out from under him. She made sure he didn't hit his head on the floor, but the rest of him landed harder than he had expected. He grabbed her wrist and pulled, toppling her onto him. He tried to catch any pair of limbs, but as soon as he got two, the other six would pry him loose. If finally managed to get her in a headlock, and still she was wrenching him sideway by jerking her head.

      She's chewing through the armor! he realized, Idiot! She's decided to use the venom. Oh crap! he added as she used her superior strength and number of limbs to pin him to the ground. He felt the last layer of armor give, and her teeth and fangs scrape against his skin. He tried not to move. That almost tickles, he thought as he fought the impulse to squirm, as instead of fangs puncturing his flesh, he felt a rough tongue licking at him.

      "Okay, I give up, you win," he said, "Best two out of three?" Now he did squirm. "I already had a bath today," he told her as he struggled in her grip.

      Her sudden snarl and the shove surprised him. The Pokègirl crouched on three legs and an arm as she took a position between himself and the door. The vague shadow in the darkness caught his eye.

      "I don't know who you are, but get out of here!" he shouted over the girl's snarls, "Nurse Valerie is the only one allowed in here. I had her quiescence until you showed up. If I need help, I'll call for it. Just wait outside until Nurse Valerie shows up."

      The shadow resolved itself as a Pokègirl in a shiny black bodysuit/suit of armor, she stepped back out the door, after flipping the light switch a couple times to see it didn't work. He pulled off his armor. Not that it would stop her in any case, he reasoned as he sat up. He put and arm around her waist and pulled her back on top of him. Rather than wrestling, she buried her face in his chest and nuzzled him. He hugged her, letting his fingers trace over her back and sides. Armor, and pretty heavy, so chitin, webs and fags, but her face is hidden like a fullface helmet, he thought, Interesting puzzle, as if I didn't have enough of those right now. They lay that way a bit, until Nurse Valerie arrived.

      The girl didn't react as she had for the other one. "I should have known!" The Nurse Joy grinned as she draped the shirt over the girl. "I always thought she reacted more strongly to smells."

      "That's why you wanted my bed clothes." He let her blush at that. "Neither of us hurt the other, and I checked all the guards. I'd bet it's a sleep venom."

      "Yes," she said, "But we'll have a Hild's own job getting them down without cutting them out of their uniforms and shaving them bald."

      "It may set a fashion." He suddenly realized, "Has she been checked for molting?"


      "Losing - "

      "Yes, thank you, I do know what molting means," the Nurse's angry tone made the girl press harder against him.

      "I don't think she likes it when we fight," he said quietly in a neutral tone, "And I apologize, I was not insulting your intelligence, I was trying to follow the thought. If she hasn't shed her shell, if may be the problem. Is she underaged, just legal, or a young adult?"

      She frowned as she considered.

      If I call her cute when she looks like that, she'll schedule a prostate exam for each visit, he thought, Or a colonoscopy.

      "On the 'just legal' side of young adult," Valerie said, "And I don't remember seeing her molt. Or finding a shell. So unless she ate it, she hasn't."

      "Spiders molt as they grow, and I'll bet she has kept growing, but the armor hasn't come off. Considering how she reacted to my armor, I bet she doesn't like hers very much."

      "Something to consider," Valerie said, "Are you going to carry her back? I don't think she's going to let go, and she's stronger than most of the soldiers we have."

      "She's light enough," he replied as he picked her up.

      "I'm afraid we lost the Megami," Valerie said as they walked out, "It seems someone set her off as a distraction. The chief is already looking for someone's head."

      "Considering she didn't hurt anyone," he replied, as the girl burrowed into his arms, "I'd look for whoever was missing. A spy or sleeper wouldn't hang around to be caught later. That's not our immediate concern."

      The barricade had a dozen troops behind it, including Millicent and the Hellcat. "The mother and the daughter? Kinky!" the Hellcat cheered, sending Valerie sputtering and making everyone else either giggle or blush. But the rest of the walk occurred in silence.

      In the office, he carefully set the girl down.

      "Heavier than she looks?" the Hellcat teased as she looked at the featureless face that stared back at her, "Millicent was just trying to help."

      The Inspector gawped and stammered at that.

      "So, you ready now?" the Hellcat asked, then turned to the others, "She promised to tell you when she was ready. I was wondering if she was ready to tell you -"

      "I'll tell him!" Millicent shouted. "I'll tell him," she said more quietly.

      "Tell me later," he said, "And another stunt like that, and I'll start calling you 'Manxo'. Let's get her on the scanner and see what we can see."

      "Shouldn't we be out helping the others?" Millicent asked.

      "If you want to risk me telling him, sure," the Hellcat said, "Manxo, tailless cat, not bad."

      While Valerie ran the scanner, Millicent and the Hellcat collected the stunned guards. They started by putting them in the infirmaries available beds. Then with all the beds filled, began sliding them under the beds, so they wouldn't be stepped on.

      "Isn't there a way to speed up their waking up?" she chief asked, the tigress paced the infirmary hall.

      "Not without hurting their efficiency," Millicent said, "That's the problem with sleep poisons. You're only awake, not really unpoisoned. Pick a couple, and we'll have Valerie and the others concentrate on them. The investigation really won't be advanced by any of these people."

      "The security patrols. Prisoner 58 has been making noises," the chief said ominously.

      The Pokègirls shuddered, remembering all the rumors they'd heard about '58'.

      The Hellcat drew the pair aside. "Don't give up the ship, I - ah - tricked your captive. Since I caught someone trying to - liberate her." She nodded to the Taming machine. "She's going through the rest of the cycles."

      "What?" the chief hissed.

      "I didn't trust her, so I kept an eye on her," the Hellcat said and grinned, showing her white teeth, "When someone moved, I intercepted him, and gave her a chance to incriminate her colleagues."

      "And made that evidence inadmissible in court," Millicent said.

      "Court?" she asked incredulously, "I'm going to let her spill her guts to you two, then I'm going to fry them up and eat them, with her watching," the Hellcat said, "I care about the boss. You, because you're valuable in keeping him healthy. Valerie, ditto, and the project because it gives him something to really sink his teeth into. Outside of that, I'll burn or eat anything that threatens us."

      "Or both, in that order," the chief said.

      "I'm glad we understand each other," the Hellcat said as she headed back to her soon-to-be Master.

      The Hellcat returned, all smiles. The chief and Millicent looked a little worried.

      "Who did she eat?" he asked as the girl clutched him close.

      The Hellcat looked at Valerie's scowl and tears. "Who do you want me to eat?"

      "There's four layers of this stuff," Valerie said angrily, "And it's too hard for my nanorod cutting tools. I've looked after her for almost a year . . . now I find out she's got only a few months to live . . . because of her shell."

      "If you can get it open, can we pry it loose? Or is it bonded to the layers beneath?" the Hellcat asked as she walked up and ran her hand over the girl's shoulders, "I take it she understands language, she just can't speak."

      "Yes, to both. What do you have in mind?" Valerie said.

      He grinned. "How tiny can you make a super hot spot?" he asked, and got an answering grin from the Hellcat. "Where are the places we can cut, so we put her in the least danger, both from the heat, and from the force to pry this stuff loose?"

      Valerie realized what they were suggesting, and smiled with them.

      "Wait, boss, I want something for this, from you and from her," the Hellcat said.

      "You'd put a price on her life!" Millicent said.

      "I want what's best for the boss," the Hellcat said, "And what's best for us, Valerie and her friend aren't us."

      "Name it," Valerie said.

      "I want it signed, witnessed and if necessary notarized, that once he can have Pokègirls, both of you join, along with me and the Inspector," the Hellcat said, "You and your charge."

      "I - I'd planned to ask anyway," Valerie said, "Yes, I agree," she added as she saw the Hellcat's intensity.

      "She's nodding," he said as the girl hugged him, "What did you want from me?"

      "I never want a name," she said, "Everyone who ever hurt me, gave me a name first."

      "How do we differentiate you from others?" Millicent asked.

      " 'Hellcat' is enough," she said, "We're rare enough. 'Charred' or 'charcoal' would be enough to separate me from any of them."

      "If that's what you want, you have it," he said, "Unless it threatens your life. I won't be held to promise that might kill you."

      "Agreed," the Hellcat said, "Valerie, you've got a job. And so do I. I can burn through anything, but not burn what's around it . . . that's going to take some doing."

      "I may have a few ideas about that," he said, "And we have the other layers of armor protecting her initially, you'll have a chance to better your technique as the need for precision increases. Sorry, I'm being callous, engineer thinking. I think we'd better get started, the rest of the folks are going to be slightly nuts for the next few days."

      "It's okay," Valerie said, "Docs and nurses sometimes think that way too."

      Janet nearly jumped out of her chair as the Hellcat entered. The Taming regimen and days of captivity had addled her, but she knew her enemy. "Stay away from me!" she squealed.

      "A condemned enemy, and you think you have the right to give orders?" the Hellcat asked. She walked over and sat on the table. The Megami scrabbled off the bolted-down chair to get out of reach. "Valerie is a good woman, she even tried to get me to promise not to hurt you," the Hellcat said, then smiled sadly, "Why did you have to hurt her? Couldn't you have asked to be her assistant, couldn't you have asked to take my place as the rescuer? I would have been miffed, but I could have accepted it more than she could have. I could have put it down to all Megami are Infernal-phobic, small-minded, queen-bee wannabes, and gotten on with my life. But you hurt the most noble of us. Why?"

      "I - I would have made it up to her."

      "That's a lie."

      "I cannot - "

      " 'I can't lie', is a lie. Anyone who says that has just proven they are a liar. A lie is an attempt to deceive, or convey false information or impressions. Just altering the stress on one portion of the information, you alter the perception of it. Specifically not providing a piece of information is also deception. Especially, if it engenders a false impression, and leads to incorrect conclusions," the Hellcat said quietly. Then grabbed the Megami's throat and lifted her to slam her down on the table, "I want there to be total truth between us, Janet, if that's even your name."

      "Brandy, I -"

      "Brandywine Kavanagh died the day she became a Youma," the Hellcat said with a dangerous whisper. She pulled the Megami's blouse up, exposing the perfect alabaster skin of her belly. " 'Lick'er', was burned to death in those filthy experiments to prove or disprove whether a Hellcat could be Charred. I have no name. You cannot exert your power over me that way. Would you like to see why they called me 'Lick'er', after I'd been trained?"

      Janet shook her head frantically.

      "It would make up for what else is going to happen to you today," the Hellcat said sympathetically. She grinned as the Megami squeaked in terror. "Do you know why they've been feeding you all those oranges, fresh peaches, cherries, and the berries of all kinds? Do you know why they fed you all that corn meal the day before?"

      Janet shook her head, and began crying as the Hellcat dragged her up on the table, then straddled her waist.

      The Hellcat began kneading the Megami's stomach with both hands. She smelled that the girl had shit herself. "It's to fill up your guts with a marvelous fruit cocktail." She ran a claw across Janet's belly, making the girl squeal in terror. "You slice out a section, and roast it up, it's like a fruit sausage. I can save you some," she leaned over the Megami and cooed as she rubbed her breasts on the Megami's, "It's so sweet and delicious. The juice and grease running down your chin." She realized the Megami's awareness had left her body behind.

      She smiled as she jumped off the table. She carefully lifted the Megami and gently set her face-first in the steaming turd the unconscious Pokègirl had voided onto the floor. She added a minor first-degree burn over the large intestine, the width and length of an office pen.

      "Funny, I bet Megami think their shit doesn't stink," the Hellcat said, "But you'll know better, won't you." She laughed as she knocked on the door to be let out. "She ought to be more cooperative in the next few days, and if she gets uppity again, switch her back to fruit cocktails and corn bread," she told the interrogating officers, "Now that the bad cop did her thing, you can go back to being good cops."

      "Thanks for the help," the officer said.

      "I'm not going to eat you!" the Hellcat said peevishly, "You aren't kosher."

      Millicent watched as the tech's office was cleared by SLIS and ONI agents, another tech was under arrest, and the Megami was in custody. "I can't believe that I agreed to let the Hellcat eat her when they are finished."

      "Not when they are finished," her would-be Master said, "She'll slice out a section in a month. Not enough to kill the Megami, but enough for her to feel it. The agents have agreed that when she's told them all she really knows, and can convince our Hellcat the same, they'll kill her and let the Hellcat cook and eat her. I know it's cruel, but as a non-uniformed combatant and saboteur, she's got no protection under the rules of war, or the civil statutes, that's always been true of terrorists."

      "I'm sorry I lied to you," Millicent said.

      "You didn't lie. I never asked. You just didn't tell me." He walked over and closed the door. "Now you promised the Hellcat to tell me. Now you're in danger of lying."

      Millicent smiled. "I'm a Symbiote," she said, "A Parasyte-bonded Golden Elf. It drove the Elf court I was stuck in absolutely nuts. Which was fun, until they threw me out. The Legion didn't care, neither did the SLIS. I found a cop who partnered and mentored me. When he died, I got passed around as . . . " She tried to center herself, before she continued, "That's why I was out in the desert. Maybe I was trying to die, or get my head straightened out."

      "You had more than an Alpha bond, didn't you?"

      "I - I was Delta-Bonded, maybe on the road to Recognition." She waited as she tried to steady herself. "I've been shot, and cut up, but nothing hurt worse than knowing he had died, and that I didn't really matter to any of the others."

      "But that wasn't the real problem, was it?" he asked.

      "No, I - I decided I wanted to protect him, and I knew if we were so close . . . that I could produce a Parasyte and bond him as a Symbiote. He died before I could finish. Now I've got the seed, and keeping it from finishing, is painful and nauseating, and getting worse. I want to be part of your Harem, but I also want to offer the seed to you."

      "I would -"

      The door burst open, Valerie marched in while the Hellcat and the spider-type sprawled on the floor. "You'll do nothing of the sort!" the Nurse Joy announced, "While I applaud your willingness to help your Pokègirls, I will not allow you to take such an unmitigated risk without full disclosure and understanding."

      "How - why - what -?" Millicent stammered.

      "What's the problem?" he asked, as the others pulled themselves off the carpet.

      "A Parasyte has two levels of binding to a target. The basic is the molecular bonding and infiltration into the host's body, if bonding with a male, 'it turns them into a female, in extremely rare occasions making them undergo threshold'. The second level occurs if they accept the Parasyte completely, then a human only 'sometimes become high-libidoed Pokègirls, although this occurs primarily in females, with males being very rare cases.' You aren't psychologically prepared to accept a Pokègirl completely, let alone a Symbiote, who will become part of you. The likelihood is you will become a female, and probably a Pokègirl. While I have no problem with Taming with a Pokègirl, I vastly prefer a human male, and I especially want a human male as my Tamer."

      "Uh, I thought - I wasn't intending to - what do we do now?" Millicent asked, "I can't keep doing what I've been doing."

      "We get him at least more able to accept us, and you specifically. A Delta-Bond would be useful, but just trusting you would be of more utility in the short-run," Valerie said.

      "What about the other one?" the Hellcat asked, "Have you told him you're carrying twins?"

      Millicent went white as she heard that.

      "It's not as big a problem," the Hellcat said, "At least it's not as big as you think. I think we've got someone who would benefit even more, and show our leader that the bonding is for the best."

      "I'm sorry," Valerie said, "I am not sure that I'd be a good candidate."

      "I was talking about your charge," the Hellcat said, "You've determined she can't talk because of a bad design, ditto the shell problem. Having another mind and alternate set of systems might help with that. Then she could at least tell us about something going wrong."

      "Sorry," Valerie admitted.

      "Perfectly all right," the Hellcat said loftily.

      "How would you tell if the bonding was 'complete' or not?" he asked.

      "That's easy," Valerie cheered up and said, "We test your strength before the bonding. If it doubles, then the Parasyte has bonded with you. If it goes to six times, then it's bonded with you completely. It's a simple test."

      "Wouldn't that make your charge weaker if she bonded completely? Her strength is more than seven times, so incomplete would make it roughly 14, and complete would only make it about 12 times."

      "When you see God, make sure you tell him that," Millicent said angrily, "I'm sure He'd appreciate the advice."

      "That's why I don't trust Celestials," the Hellcat said, "What a shoddy job, and no pride of workmanship, and no owner's manual. Who builds something this complicated and doesn't prepare an owner's manual?"

      "Now where would the quest for knowledge be if we could look it up?" he asked. ------------------------------

      "Dump him here," the two Samurai said as they carried the bound man to a ravine near the road. He was too groggy to fight back as they untied him and rolled him into the water-cut channel. "You can have fun waiting to see what gets you first. The sun, or the local wildlife."

      He didn't curse them. He was too tired, too hurt and too loopy to form the thoughts into words.

      "There's something out there that makes the vultures of legend look tame," one of the pair shouted down to him, "She'll burn you alive, and then tear off the seared bits, so you never bleed to death while she eats you."

      He heard their laughter as they returned to their ground car. There was a screeching of tires and a tremendous crash, as the ground car flew over the ravine, and a small panel truck came down at him, nose-first. Unable to scramble out of the way, he awaited the inevitable as the ravine walls, and the truck's roof kept collapsing as they moved closer and closer.

      I guess things do slow when you get into this situation, he thought as he realized why the truck hadn't hit him yet, and that he could make out the figure behind the shattered windshield of the cab. The truck slowed, and then sped up as time resumed its normal flow. The cab hung a few feet over the floor of the ravine. The figure in the cab fumbled with her restraints, then opened the door and tumbled to the ground. She didn't move quickly to her feet, and he couldn't. The pair lay where they had fallen for a while.

      Finally, she sat up, swaying alarmingly as she did. The bloody head wounded worried him, but combined with her discordination, it worried him more.

      Too far away to see her pupils, he thought, And if there's a subdural hematoma, there's nothing I can do. He searched for something to help, but his past was a blur. I think I can remember why I was tortured and dumped here, but not much beyond that.

      The woman tried to stand, but staggered so badly, she let herself fall. Instead, she moved towards him on all fours. Even then, she was unsteady.

      Pretty as she is, it would be sexy, he thought, But she's hurt as badly as I am, and that sort of makes seductive impossible.

      She got close enough for him to see one pupil was a pinpoint, while the other had nearly swallowed the entire iris. "You're in bad shape," she said as she looked him over, "Someone really worked you over."

      Takes one to know one, he thought as he analyzed her condition.

      She wiped her head with her hand, and stared at the blood on her hand. "That's going to be trouble," she said carefully, "Can you move?"

      He tried to sit up, and extensive part of him complained.

      "And you can't scream," she observed. "All right, listen closely," she sounded unsure whether she was speaking to him or to both of them, "I've got a concussion, among other things. I have to stay awake. If I fall to sleep, I might never awaken. Crap, a little head trauma and my speech regresses."

      Me thinks thee doth protest too much, he thought of her slip into an almost 'courtly' dialect.

      "I think I'd better explain . . . it shall - it'll help me me remain awake, and perhaps you shan't be so disturbed by events. Damn. I'm a Golden Elf. I grew up in an Elven Court, unlike in the Blue League, they don't get their territorial claims recognized by the League of Sunshine - Sunshine League! But they try to act independent and didn't want any of the queen's subjects to stray from their loving liege. I wanted out, for a whole host of reasons. So I chanced - took a chance, and got thrown out because of it," she said.

      The Hellcat had been sitting out of sight beyond the edge of the ravine. She listened to and smelled the conversation, she grinned at the progress of the latter part. I think I'll delay my appearance. Part of my mission is being fulfilled by just waiting, she thought, No need for me to drag words from her or act the sensual vamp for him, when her torrent is doing both jobs. I just hope I never meet her partner's colleagues. I may just decide on a buffet, and I think both of them would object. Why is it bad people get to use 'defensive' laws to hurt people, and never get punished for it? In a more just and less legalistic society, you drag someone like that from their bed at night, and have a quick barbeque.

      She listened and smelled, and smiled inwardly. Lest a scintillation of pearly teeth revealeth mine presence, what idiots teach their kids to talk that way?! she wondered, Ah, good! She's telling him about the Symbiote. This is going well. She sniffed again and caught the scents she wanted to smell. Very well indeed.

      She risked a glance over the side, and saw the Golden Elf, wrapped in her Parasyte partner, curled around their Master. He'd even managed to get one arm around her.

      Or our lovelorn Golden Elf rearranged them, she considered, Either is acceptable. She considered events. I wait, she decided, If the conversation lags, then I can show up with the 'Since you gave me those excellent flash fried Samurai, presliced even, I feel I should offer you some assistance.' I'm almost afraid it won't be necessary. And after spilling her guts like that, all I'd have to do is put the idea in his head that her loyalty is in hopes he'll keep her secrets. She shuddered at the idea of a Parasyte. Something in my mind that's that afraid of fire, she thought and shuddered again, Unthinkable. She shuddered again.

      The light illuminated them all, blinding them and erasing the terrain features. A female figure in radiant white stood in the center.

      "Behold!" her sweet voice thundered, "I am the archangel Gabriel! Sent by God to bring you glad tidings of great joy!"

      She noted that both of them were cowering behind him. So much for men being the squishy ones, she thought, as he forced himself to stand and face what had appeared.

      He tried three times to ask what the message was.

      Probably found his throat is all closed up, the Hellcat thought, He can't make a single noise. I guess it's up to me. She rose to her feet and prepared a doomed attack.

      "President for Life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt!"

      He blinked as the lights came down, revealing Valerie in surgical whites, nearly laughing herself sick.

      "What's going on!?"

      The room was familiar, one of the few places that was, without creating an overwhelming sense of deja vu. "I hate coming out of it," he complained, "Although in a clinical sense, it's good, because it clearly demarks the state change."

      "Only you could use a sentence like that in cold-blood," the Hellcat said.

      "It's only that, it's okay . . . not bad, not knowing, until I should know and I don't." He looked around, slowly remembering why he'd chosen the place and my friend the Hellcat had been so eager to move in. The Hellcat curled up on a large, flat stone in the corner. The hot spot that rested a few inches about the stone, now entered in the Hellcat's body, was the result of a mystical accident over a century ago. The opposite war was cold, so the energy delta of the room was zero, and the temperature gradient in the room allowed anyone from an Ice Queen to a Magmammarys to be comfortable. He moved the bed to a more comfortable position in the gradient. He caught the Hellcat staring at him, and ready to pounce.

      "The team was disappointed, but they don't blame you," the Hellcat said, "Just another chance for improvement. It seemed to be working flawlessly, this time."

      He didn't vent any of his anger at her. It's only true, if the others are improving, and some have been released, it only means I'm stuck.

      "So, I again serve, or service, the Center for PTSD Recovery," he said, "But Millicent and I are still stuck."

      The Hellcat got up and padded over to him. The hug and the heat radiating off her body seemed to ease the funk he was feeling. "Don't beat up my Master," she said, giving him a tender warning, "I don't like it, and I'll defend him, very aggressively."

      "Oh, you'll hurt me? Doesn't that wind up being the same thing?"

      She pushed him onto the bed. "Not exactly," she said as she laid down and wrapped herself around him. "You really should just take the test. Get that Megami, Janet, to do the scan. It would blow her little mind."

      "You just want an excuse to quit growling at everyone."

      "I can come up with other reasons to growl at people," she said. "I'd like to see you two together. She needs a lover, and she needs a friend/'daddy', and you'd be perfect at both. The old term was husband."

      "I can believe you want what's best. But altruism from an Infernal who worships Anarchy is unsettling."

      "I want what's best for people," she replied, "I'm not forcing you, I'm suggesting, and that's a critical difference."

      "Okay, why don't you get a snack?"

      "I can get one at the meeting," she replied, and purred.

      "Sometimes I'm sure you're joking. Other times I'm not sure," he said.


      "I still think you need to eat something."

      She pulled his pants down with her feet. "I thought you'd never ask."

      "So why does the Navy send a full Admiral as a courier?" he asked as the staff filed in.

      "Since they know who and what we have here," the head of the project said, "And we stopped being a joke project."

      "Ah, so it's his fault," the Hellcat said, and patted him on the head, "I'll tolerate him."

      "If you don't want him," Valerie told the Hellcat, "I'll take him."

      "Oh, I'll trade you for him," she replied.

      "Then you would still have him. If I was yours, and he was mine."

      "Yeah." The Hellcat nodded.

      Valerie leaned close, "I think the 'me gonna eats you' is an act."

      "You don't say!" he exclaimed.

      "Can't you two behave in front of company?" the Inspector asked.

      "Which two?" the Hellcat asked.

      "Doesn't matter," the Inspector replied.

      "If we don't, will you spank us?" Valerie asked.

      "If you don't . . . I'll make sure he never spanks you again," the Inspector threatened.

      Valerie pouted at him as a counter.

      "And you won't get to watch while I spank her," he said and nodded to the Inspector. Then to the Hellcat. "Or stuff ice cubes up her - "

      "Good morning everyone," the arrival admiral announced, "I'm Admiral Chandler, this is Commander Genek, my chief of staff."

      The Oni nodded.

      "We have a situation and not much time." He gestured, causing an image to appear. Instantly, the entire group recoiled at the image.

      Just the image of a Widow causes fear, he thought as they realized the image was a still-life despite its rotation, Except -

      "That is not a Widow, it's a Spinnenangst, while similar in appearance, just one is only an Alpha-class menace," the Admiral explained.

      "Never thought I'd hear 'only' and 'Alpha-class menace' used in the same sentence," the Hellcat whispered to him.

      "Except that unlike the Widow," the Admiral continued, "These travel in packs."

      "I thought they'd all been killed," he said.

      "Go on," the Admiral urged.

      "It's a production-line version, versus the lovingly crafted original." He let the groans and snickers died down before continuing, "Evidently. Someone got the bright idea to swarm something with Widows. Except real Widows will kill each other, in preference to all other targets. So someone, I hope someone else created the Spinnenangst, a less aggressive version. The reduced aggression means they can work in packs. It lacks the Invisibility and Phasing power that give the Widow her real edge. It especially lacks the Hypervenom that makes the Widow so deadly, and drives them insane."

      "But the evil genius, stop rotation. Right here." He pointed to the image, practically sticking his fingers down the monster's throat. "This organ is the killer, and nearly an equalizer. This organ in the back of their throat allows them to store six Hyperbeams for sequential firings," he said, "So instead of the extended charge times, it can fire them as fast as any other attack."

      "You seem to know a lot about these things," the Admiral said suspiciously.

      "I'll brief you later," the Head told the Admiral, "For the moment, consider where you are."

      "After those six firings, they have to recharge," he continued, "Typically the charge up before a fight, and take the weariness penalty then. That means they can fire six Hyperbeams during the fight, without penalty."

      "After six Hyperbeams, there'd be no one around to take advantage," the Hellcat said.

      "While they can't do the Widow Invisibly Phasing to sneak up and past a defense, they can jump a tremendous distance. But that organ is also their tremendous weakness. You hit one with a large caliber bullet, a fire or electrical attack, or even a solid enough projectile attack of ice, water or poison; while it is charged with even one or two beams, and it discharges into the monster. Of course you'll still have the shrapnel to contend with."

      "I'll take it, I'll take it!" the Hellcat said.

      The Admiral glanced up from his notes. "I think I can arrange for a couple of sniper/spotter teams. But the real problem is this." He nodded and the image changed to a map of the Magma Islands area. "There are 68 boats, with we don't know how many of those monsters aboard. Nuevo Tenochtitlàn is amassing its power to wipe them out, but it also means no evacuation by sea, and very few reinforcements. Any leakers will have to be dealt with by any local forces. You people."

      The murmurs from the staff were not happy. Some were afraid, others were angry. The Project lead dithered, not certain how to quell such an uprising. He looked at the other man to help.

      "I assume you and the Commander are stuck here as well?"

      "You assume correctly," the Admiral said, "I can order some small help, like the sniper teams, but the villages and towns are all screaming for help. Normally we could use shore parties and marines from the larger ships, but those had to clear out. We've only got a token force at the main base in the islands."

      "How many D.I.s with PG experience can we get?" he asked, "I don't care if they can walk, they just have to be able to teach. I think we can have some level-headed volunteers assigned, who'll be happy to run away if the situation gets too bad."

      " 'Just three fires'?" Commander Genek teased, "I think we can get a few."

      "All right, we knew those trenches were originally to hide in," the Head said, "Now we just turn around what we're finding from. We'll clear them. Get the outliers and the other transients corralled somewhere safe. How long have we got?"

      "Two days," the Admiral said, "But any help is better than 18 hours away."

      "I'll take the 30 hours," the Head said, "You have your jobs to do, clear those weeds and round up those people."

      "Outliers and transients?" the Commander asked.

      "Fishermen and a couple of Tamers who landed. We have already vetted them," the Head assured the Navy people, "And Cornelius, the vegetable seller. He's been here for years."

      "I'll defer to your judgement," the Admiral said.

      "Please stay," the Head caught his arm, "There are some things we need to discuss."

      "Millicent, you and the Hellcat concentrate on clearing those trenches. Leave those with diplomatic skills to rounding up the others."

      "She has diplomatic skills!" the Hellcat insisted, then grabbed Millicent's arm, "I won't stand here and have my friends insulted."

      He shook his head, and waited as the rest of the girls filed out. Valerie and her charge both kissed him before they left.

      "Quite a harem you're assembling," Genek said, "Considering you aren't supposed to have Pokègirls."

      "Remind me to introduce you to a Megami who angered me," he said, "After 10 consecutive Level 4's, we got nasty."

      The Commander stepped back beside the Admiral.

      The admiral looked around, then gestured. The doors closed and locked. The room darkened until only the four of them were illuminated. The air felt tight and charged.

      "Thank you for not blurting anything," the Admiral said.

      "He has a positive gift for seeing inconsistencies," the Head said, "It's negatively affected his treatment."

      "What do you think?" the Commander asked him pointedly.

      "You don't send a two-star admiral and a commander, both from Intelligence, to warn of a Menace attack. You send a regiment of Marines, and if you need the locals, some Special Forces trainers. Spinnenangst are too stupid to sail those ships. That's not an invasion. That's a minefield."

      He paused to look at the two stoic officers, then continued, "This question you don't have to answer for us, but you'd better have an answer. Why would who, or what, that minefield is supposed to drive off or sink, be so important that such an extraordinarily dangerous and expensive action be taken? Ships don't grow on trees, and handling those monsters is extraordinarily dangerous." He leaned back, trying to seem less threatening. "And considering the ability of this place to simulate any environment, and its isolation, I'd guess you don't want anyone to know. 'Just a few new patients, don't mind them.'" He glanced at the Head, who had adopted the Navy's utterly stoic demeanor. "Except somewhere along the line, someone pierced OpSec, and now you've got a mess. I don't mind helping you clean it up, but we do need to have some warning about the proper way to clean it up."

      The Admiral glanced at the Commander. "It's a diplomatic mission, and very sensitive," the Admiral admitted, "It is something that people on both sides want stopped . . . until it works, then they'll grab all the credit and say they supported it the whole way."

      They all nodded.

      "And since this is so isolated, and well protected, it seemed perfect." The Commander looked around, and fell silent.

      "Okay, what are the rules of engagement? Get your guests to safety, then kill any of the Spinnenangsts who follow, that's easy. What happens when your opposite number starts landing the support troops? Pokègirl solders who probably won't be as 'attack the strongest defense' stupid as the Spinnenangsts?"

      "You can kill them too," the Admiral said quietly.

      "So you don't trust your own forces?" he whispered loud enough to hear, "That's just wonderful. What do we do with enemies wearing our uniform?"

      "You're a history buff. What does the Geneva Convention say about spies and saboteurs?" the Admiral asked.

      "They get treated like Johto treats Pokègirls," he replied. He sighed. "I think I'm going to go figure out how to deal with the second wave. Enjoy yourselves."

      "That man worries me," the Commander said once he was out of the illumination.

      "You have no idea," the Head commented.

      Janet nearly crawled up the walls as he came in. She only relaxed when she saw that the Hellcat wasn't with him. She returned to terror when he yanked her blouse up and fingered her belly.

      "The wounds and loss of entrails hasn't hurt you too badly," he said as she jumped back and pulled her shirt down.

      "What do you want?" Janet demanded. A moment of glaring silence was all that was needed to shatter her bravado.

      "Not even a 'please'? I guess I shouldn't expect good manners from a Megami. After all, we're just worms in the dirt, only important if we put castings around your pretty flowers," he said and kept smiling, and staring.

      "We care about people," Janet retorted.

      "It must be terrible, not being able to think, to just be a vessel for answers," he replied, "You care about your agenda, and only that. Don't think that just because your agenda is to help people, that you actually care about people. You don't consider the second-order consequences of your actions, or if you do, you're pretty monstrous for discounting them. And you don't consider the fate of your tools once you've finished with them. Until you've won, and have the happy world you strive for, we're all grist for the mill. It's why you Megami find Seraphs so disturbing, because they actually do care about people, and not your agenda."

      The poor girl looked one step from crying.

      "Don't worry, you'll die soon enough," he said soothingly, "And then your problems with this world will be over."

      "Why are you so mean to me!?" she shouted.

      "Because you're the soulless pawn of monsters who desire the complete destruction of the Human race, all Pokègirls including your breed, and the end of all Humanity, the characteristic as well as the race," he told her calmly, "Now you're supposed to insist you aren't, and I point out your knowledge you aren't comes from the same source that set you on your mission, and thus are not a reliable source. Then you burst into tears knowing I'll feel pity for you."

      He looked at her tearing up and preparing for the 'please hold me' rush.

      "But let's skip all that as a waste of time," he said, "I want a reading. The standard Megami scan of a Tamer. I've been told that psychics who have tried it either go off in a corner and alternately laugh hysterically and cry inconsolably, or they become patients. Most steadfastly refuse to try again. So, since I don't care what happens to you, I thought I'd let you take a chance. Be of good cheer, it might just kill you."

      She was already whimpering, but he knew it was a programmed defense action like a chameleon's color change.

      "See, if you knew people, you'd know that will only get you a beating from me," he said cheerfully, "Now you don't want a beating do you?" He smiled wider as she stared at him in horror. "See, you control the waterworks, if it doesn't work, you shut it off. Now how about that reading. The sooner you're done, the sooner I leave."

      "They won't believe me," she offered, sniffling pitifully.

      "They don't have to. You see, you give me an accurate reading, or you lie to me about what you find. Of course I'll know either way, so either way, I win."

      She sniffled again to cue up the waterworks. He sidestepped her 'hold me' leap and chopped down on the back of her neck as hard as he could. She hit the edge of the table as she went down.

      "If you continue to misbehave this way, you will continue to be punished for it," he told her coldly, "You've already shown there is no room in your heart for anyone or anything but your mission. So please quit assuming I'll fall for your acting. It's an insult to my intelligence and it gives me an upset stomach."

      He stood up and left her sobbing on the floor. "I'll take that as a 'no'," he said as he left. Outside, he told the officers, "Keep an eye on her. It's probably a trick. I don't believe in coincidences."

      They nodded and let him go.

      "I really think we should wait on this, Valerie," the Hellcat said as they sat in the med center, Valerie's charge lying face down on the examination table.

      "You can cut through the first layer or two. Her armor is tough enough that yo won't penetrate the third layer accidentally," Valerie replied as she took a white marker to denote the cut lines her research had recommended.

      "I mean we should wait for him," the Hellcat replied, "I also think that on the eve of battle, reducing the thickness of her armor is not the wisest course of action. Put her in the thick of the action, and at the end, you'll just have bits and pieces to scrape off."

      "I think I'd rather give her a break from the headaches and binding up," Valerie said as she marked, "Besides, I thought you did your own thing."

      "Within limits," the Hellcat warned, "There's a Megami in a cell who knows what happens to people who mess with people he cares about."

      "I'm her advocate, and her guardian," Valerie said, "Besides, she understands enough language to disagree, perhaps violently, with what we're planning."

      The girl's nod did little to calm the hellcat. "I still wish we had his blessing on this," she said, "I suspect he's more a permission easier than forgiveness kind of guy."

      "Why are they moving all the welding tanks?" Millicent asked as some of the noncombat types carried the heavy cylinders past them.

      "One, to keep them from blowing up in the fight," he explained, "Two, I have a little idea about using them." He leaned close. "It also gives them an important job to do, while they're huddling in safety and we're out fighting," he whispered.

      He looked around. "Where's our other two?"

      "Valerie and the Hellcat took off," Millicent said, "I don't know where they went."

      "The infelicity of not officially being a Tamer," he said, "Okay, I'm going forward to check on the positioning of some fougasses. They may only be a distraction, but they'll be there."

      Millicent looked over the teams preparing the trenches around the actual buildings. "I wish we had a better idea of the forces we'll actually face," she muttered, "I bet the Special Forces trainers he asked for would make a huge difference."

      The Head ushered the two ONI officers into her office. She activated the anti-surveillance spells and devices, and relaxed slightly. "Admiral, I assume that you know a great deal about my history, and this institute?"

      The man nodded. "The ArchChancellor briefed me."

      "Then you know that Granny promised me, that after my escape, I'd never have to deal with Sanctuary again."

      "The situation has changed, and you still have the right to refuse," the Admiral said.

      She grimaced at that. "Nobody says 'no' to Granny. You only revise your price."

      The Admiral nodded. "Then you haven't heard?"

      "I avoid all rumors about Sanctuary," the Head replied.

      "Over the last several months, some astounding things have happened. The World Alliance has collapsed. But that's only the public face. They've requested help from the SLIS to root out Sanctuary's influence after their dealings with Capitol. All on the Q.T. and plausible deniability on both sides, but they've been ripping it out root and branch."

      "I hadn't heard the last," the Head quietly admitted.

      "Jenova has evidently disappeared of the map. Maybe Macavity has her chained to her bed, but add that dozens of the hierarchy among Sanctuary have been disappearing too, or turning up dead. Not the big four- and five-star names, but the worker one and two-stars. Lindi Valiant was supposedly assassinated, supposedly she was torn to pieces in the middle of their busiest street, in front of dozens of witnesses. And suddenly she's up and around all hale and hearty. They waited until one of our recon satellites was overhead, to evacuate not only Sanctuary itself, but their primary backup site as well. Giving us a map reference to both."

      "They always protected Sanctuary's location, even over the life of any S-Goth," the Head breathed, "It's impossible."

      "Then the diplomatic mission should come as a greater shock," Genek said, "There are factions within the Goths who are trying to reach an accommodation with the Leagues."

      "Why the Sunshine League? We hate them!" the Head exclaimed.

      "Only Nixon could go to China," the Admiral explained.

      "That turned out real well," she replied, "If the Chinese hadn't had all the advanced gear, they might not have been able to nearly wipe out the entire world. This is going to be the same."

      "I know, 'Let them die'," the Admiral said, "There's plenty of people who feel the same. Let them disappear like every other pack of dissidents. But I have orders that I happen to agree with," the Admiral admitted.

      "If you aren't 'one of them' then you don't speak for 'them'. These are no more than slaves and hangers on. While they don't have to be insincere in their desire, they have no power to bind the rest to any agreement reached here."

      "That I'll leave to the diplomats," the Admiral said, "My job is arranging the meeting."

      "I still think you're sticking our heads in a meat grinder."

      The ship that landed was serviceable, nothing to right home about. The crew seemed extremely nervous. The honor guard was composed of tall, gray skinned Pokègirls. They were made of sterner stuff, as were the people they were guarding.

      "Who commands?" the Ophanim asked. She stared at the Hellcat, the Golden Elf and their Master. "Are you in charge?" she asked.

      "No, but I am here to escort you to safety."

      "Safety?!" a Warrior Nun sneered, "Against what is coming, there is no safety."

      "Against what is arrayed against it, what is coming will be lucky to retain one in ten of their force," he replied calmly, "Please follow me."

      " 'Please'? They grow the men soft here," one of the gray-skinned women sneered.

      "They grow them polite," he replied, then he considered, "Seventh, no, the 14th. Two horses' heads facing, one red and one black. The 14th Guards' motto: 'Fight as one, heart and soul.'"

      "How do you know that?" the gray-skinned woman asked, a current of danger underlying the polite tone.

      "I have studied," he replied, and walked on unconcerned.

      The Ophanim sighed and held out her hand. "Come, Lady Daria."

      "I apologize for the sparseness of the quarters. We are still renovating this building," he said as he opened the doors.

      "Are we such weaklings that we must have cushions and wall hangings?" the young, pretty, little S-Goth sneered.

      "I was referring to our inability to fill the room floor to ceiling with expensive-looking breakable objects," he replied calmly, "So when you being throwing things, it will grant you maximum satisfaction."

      The girl stared at him bugeyed. Her handlers, save the ridiculously buxom Tomboy kept their expressions guardedly neutral. He nodded and headed down the corridor.

      "You haven't been dismissed," the girl commanded. Her aura beating against his resolve.

      He shook it off and turned to face her. The guards tensed. "You and your entourage dismissed me and this entire League when you arrived. I'm merely taking you up on your offer. As Ben Butler explained: 'One of the infelicities of her position that in so far at least she was taken at her word'," he said and stepped out before a thrown item could hit anything except the door.

      "Arrogant little - " Millicent began.

      "Yes they are, Inspector," he said, "But don't say they are. It will hurt the diplomats efforts."

      The Hellcat chuckled at that.

      The Ophanim came out of the room and marched after them. "I'm sorry. Things - I was ordered to chastize you, I don't see the need."

      "I don't see the purpose," he replied coldly, "Very likely all three of us will be dead day after tomorrow, protecting you from your fan club. Your Mistress will be ensconced with diplomats and functionaries, and I can go to my grave knowing I shan't face that Hell. Good day to you."

      "You are no diplomat," the Hellcat whispered as they moved on down the corridor.

      "I hope Valerie and her team had better luck with the rest of the group," Millicent said, "I think we should have gotten that group. Who ever heard of being - oh yeah, prejudice against Templates is so illogical."

      "Illogical, yes, unexpected, no, unfortunately," he said as they walked.

      "It's wonderful," one of the S-Goths gushed, "I had my p - partner get one after we bonded. The sex was incredible, and it was nice knowing someone was always looking out for him."

      Valerie could only grin and nod, feeling totally overwhelmed.

      "He had the softest skin, and he would pour chocolate on us both and we'd - "

      "Excuse me," she said abruptly, "I'm neglecting the other guests."

      She headed for the leader of the group, who was fascinated by the little witchlight that inhabited the room. The tiny flame burned in colors that fire didn't usually occur in. "I hope the room is satisfactory."

      "We aren't nobles," the girl said as she grinned, "You don't have to bow and scrape. We're more refugees than a negotiating team. We just decided since the 'Night of the Long Knives' we should find somewhere less hostile."

      "The Sunshine League?" Valerie asked, "The SLIS's flag is practically an S-Goth's severed head on a pike."

      "So they'd be watching us for any infraction, and they'd be protecting us," Meg, the Charred said, "That's better than you think. At least there'd never be the assumption we were more than intelligence assets. We were promised position and trust. As soon as we were impure that vanished, and we became objects of intense suspicious. As if our loyalty were somehow in question."

      Isn't it? Valerie didn't say.

      "But here, we know they won't trust a pack of traitors," Meg said, "So it's not as bad. Besides, men aren't half-bad, if you train them right. And less moody than a lot of our other choices. I sometimes think the collective noun for S-Goth is catfight. I think we take out our aggressions on others so we don't tear each other to pieces."

      "Do you think that's what's happened?" Valerie asked, "That someone finally started attacking Sanctuary? A Sanctuary Goth herself?"

      "It makes as much sense as some of the other weird rumors that a band of D.T.s came to wreak havoc on us - them."

      "It's hard going from an 'us' to a 'them'," Valerie said, "A pack sister of mine became a Nightnurse. I couldn't stand to be around her anymore. And we'd been good friends."

      "People change." Meg leaned forward. "What are we really expecting?"

      "After the attack? I don't know," Valerie admitted, "debriefing, negotiations, maybe drugs and some interrogation techniques. I'm not privy to that. Although if they use our methods, it will be painless and natural seeming."

      "I've heard of this technique," Meg admitted, "A researcher developed something like this. Then the Limbecs found out she might be using it on them. They never found her body."

      "That's awful," Valerie exclaimed.

      "Yes, it is."

      The large screen showed the feed from Nuevo Tenochtitlàn, and the huge squadron heading towards the Magma Islands. A huge flash of light coming through the shutter from outside made everyone blink. He had kept his eyes on the screen. From the 68 vessels, only six, and only four of those are headed are way.

      "That makes things a little less uneven," he said as he turned away, to return to preparing to welcome their other set of guests. "The two near Nuevo Tenochtitlàn are their problem. The four near us are ours," he said.

      He glanced at the Project manager, who nodded slightly. Poor guy looks like he's going to have an attack of apoplexy just thinking about our back up, he thought, and dismissed it, We've got no choice. He headed out to await the darkness, and the invasion.

      "Master," Valerie caught up with him, "There's something we need to check on, in the infirmary."

      "Like you going ahead with the 'peeling' of your charge?" he asked, "How did it go? I suspect those Spinnenangst would do the same, at no cost."

      "It went fine, we had a mass of fused hair we had to cut away, and we left the two inner layers. The outermost of those is hardening up to give her full protection. It's disposing of the other plates that concerns you."

      "It 'concerns' me?" he asked as he followed her to the med center. The rest of his not Harem fell in with them, even Valerie's charge. "We have to get you a name," he told the featureless face.

      "She can have mine," the Hellcat said.

      "I don't think you mean that," Millicent warned.

      "Okay what am I supposed to be concerned about?" he asked as he entered.

      Valerie pulled a coat rack from behind the door. "This."

      He looked at the odd jacket. "It's - nice. But what is it?"

      "Her plates, assembled into a suit of body armor," Valerie said proudly.

      "Oh, thank you. I thought body armor wasn't that effective," he said.

      "It won't keep you from being smeared into jam by an impact," the Hellcat said, "But any of the more precise attacks won't penetrate."

      "I take it this is also a warning to not go charging into battle," he said.

      "You could take it that way, Master," Valerie said as they closed in on him.

      "Okay, that's the second time you've called me 'Master', what else is happening?" he asked.

      "Janet cleared you for having Pokègirls," Millicent said, "And you passed the Tamer's test."

      "I have it on competent authority that the Head of the Center has forwarded her recommendation to the League with her endorsement," Valerie said.

      "I - I don't know what to say."

      "Good you talk too much anyway," the Hellcat said as she started pushing them towards the Taming rooms.

      "Oh, so you're one of the 'herding cats' we've all heard so much about," he said.


There were questions about the difference in the Symbiote and Parasyte entries of the Pokedex.  I decided to go the old No-Prize method where there was no error, and what appeared to be errors were explained away.

I also had wanted the Author Invasion stories to be used to alter Sanctuary, or at least the mass perception of Sanctuary.  Then they were declared AU, so be it, but there were so many good ideas, I wanted to put them in a canon story.  So the massive world-changing events are merely gossip and rumors here.