Bernie's story was still on his mind when Adric finally returned
to the 'Round, although admittedly, probably not in the way the
Zeon soldier had intended. In his mind he carefully turned it
over, examining it in relation to another, similar tale of cruel
ironies and lost chances. One he could recall all too well.

It was well past midnight and bordering on what some would call
the wee-hours of the morning. Not surprisingly, the main pub
area did have a few customers; equally not surprising, most of
them were unconscious and didn't much seem to be interested in
being anything but. Brooding, he scanned the room, looking for
either of two certain faces, but they were not present. 6Doc,
however, was present, snoring away at his usual corner bench.
Also present were a pair of Royal Military Policemen, busily
trying to stand Sgt. Benton and Cpl. Bell on their feet (without
much success). And at one table, a white-colored Dalek stood
silently, its protrusions drooping in powered-down mode and an
empty bottle of Dos Equis Amber Lager before it. All in all, it
was a fairly typical extremely early morning tableau at TTR.

Adric's gaze fell to the pub counter, and finally identified one
friendly face -- or rather, lump -- laying their head against the
counter, using their arm for a pillow. He smirked. Well, it
wasn't who he'd hoped to find, but at least she was a friendly
face. And somehow, he thought, he needed one of those right
about then. Perhaps she might be able to tell him what happened
after his, ahem, departure.

He walked to the bar and perched on the seat beside her, greeting
Chang Lee behind the counter as he did so. Lee merely waved at
him absent-mindedly as he approached, the boy's attention fixed
rather on guiding a scantily-clad police woman on the television
screen in the task of blowing away zombies.

"Yo! Ryoko! Wake up!" Adric prodded the sleeping space pirate

A soft, catlike mew arose from her lips. "Tenchi?" they asked,

"Uh, no, Ryoko... It's me, Ad..."

One of Ryoko's hands shot out and grabbed Adric's arm. "Oh,
Tenchi!" the girl mumbled, almost incoherently, her head still
cradled in the inside of her elbow. "I've wanted you for _so

"Um, Ryoko..."

"Oh, Tenchi!"

Adric turned to the bartender. "Um, Chang? Can you help me here
a bit? Conqueror's Choice, black?" Adric asked.

Chang Lee wordlessly nodded, paused the game, and put down the
control. "Sure thing." the Chinese boy confirmed, and
immediately began fishing for a clean stainless steel cup and a
pair of iron tongs.

Ryoko's grip, meanwhile, was strengthening. "Tenchi, lets go up
to my room..."

"Ryoko, I'm not..."

"I'm sure we can find _something_ to do up there..."

"Ryoko, you're dreaming..."

Ryoko giggled, which to anyone who didn't know her sounded
_deeply_ disturbed. "Of course, silly. You're all I dream

Adric tried frantically to break her grip. His arm was beginning
to turn purple.

"We can be all alone with no one else to bother us..."

That gave Adric an idea. With a clear, mock-surprised voice he
spoke up. "Oh, hello Ayeka! Fancy meeting you here..."

Adric would concede a few minutes later, about the time Ryoko
regained her full senses and realized that the object she was
repeatedly slamming into the counter was not the face of her
hated rival, that that particular idea hadn't been one of his

But, at the very least, it got the job done.


"So, they both disappeared afterwards, then?" Adric asked, using
a washcloth to dab away at the cuts on his face. His voice was

Ryoko nodded, and took a sip from her third cup of Sontaran java.
"Before your corpse was cold and your brains had been cleaned up
from the floor."

"Oh." Adric said, faintly disappointed.

"So," Ryoko asked, "why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Put yourself between them."

Adric shrugged. "I was barman on duty. It was my job to keep
order in here."

"Uh huh. Right. Two girls brandishing automatic weapons, and
you just had to step between them to keep the peace."

"Someone might have gotten hurt, Ryoko. I was trying to prevent

"Someone did get hurt, Adric. You didn't prevent that."

"Part of the job. Better me than a customer."

"Uh huh. Sure." Ryoko took another sip of caffeinated cardiac
soup. "From where I was sitting, it looked like Ember clearly
had the drop on her..."

"I didn't notice."

"...and would have pressed the advantage if you hadn't stepped

"The only pressing that happened was the muzzle to my head."

Ryoko nodded, conceding the point. "If it helps matters, I think
Ember was as stunned as anyone when it went off."

"She still ran away." Adric observed, dismally.

"Not initially. She looked more like in shock, at least for a
moment. _Then_ she ran away."

Adric considered that piece of information. "What about....?"

"Her? Well, she just took off out the door, before Ember. Didn't
say a thing, just got up off the floor and ran."

"And neither were seen the rest of the night?"


Adric sank in his chair. "All right, Ryoko. You're the girl.
You tell me what I should do now."

Ryoko finished her cup, and placed it back on the table. "Well,
of course you're going to have to find a way to apologize again."

Adric looked confused. "Even though it wasn't my fault?"

"_Especially_ because it wasn't your fault. Haven't you figured
that one out yet? Even when it's not the guy's fault, it's
_always_ the guy's fault."

"Oh. I just thought that was my normal state of affairs."

"This is different." Ryoko answered, but failed to elaborate. She
looked up at the pub clock. "Too late to do anything about it
tonight, though. I guess we'll just have to wait until morning
to come up with a plan." Ryoko smirked, as her eyes betrayed
something of her train of thoughts. "Wish we knew how to get a
hold of Ember, though. It would help matters greatly if we had a
reliable way to get in contact with her. Unless you've managed

Adric shook his head negatively. "I've tried, but she seems to
always side-step the issue. Never explains why, either. For
whatever reason, she doesn't want a way for any of us to contact
her." Adric frowned. "She did say once it probably wouldn't do
us any good, though. Whatever that means."

"She told me the same thing." Ryoko confirmed. "Most curious."

"Yeah. It is."

Ryoko looked him over, her eyes narrowing in thought, noting that
his attention seemed in part to be on something else. "You
okay?" she asked.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah, I am. Tired, I guess. Long day and a less
than stellar night." The Alzarian stretched his arms then, and
failed entirely to stifle a hearty yawn.

The space pirate watched as he did so. Then she levitated from
the bar, reached into her cleavage, and pulled a few coins to
toss onto the counter. "Well, none of this can be helped now."
she added, and turned to float towards the entrance of the
'Round. "We'll have to just leave it for the future."

"Yeah." Adric mumbled quietly. "The future. What there is of


Adric vacated his barstool. "Nothing. Nothing at all." he
grumbled, following her.

"Going to go back to your room in that funny-shaped blue box?"
Ryoko asked over her shoulder.

"The TARDIS?" Adric considered. "I guess I don't have much of a
choice tonight."

The two were passing the white Dalek at this point. Unnoticed by
them, the eye stalk had raised slightly, and was slowly tracking
them as they passed.

"Sure you do." Ryoko said. "You can come over to Tenchi's house
with me. We've always got an extra bedroll lying around for

Adric looked uneasy at the prospect. "Are you certain it would
be all right?"

"Sure, no problem." Ryoko assured him. "You won't be the first
out-of-town visitor to drop in, you know. Besides, mom says
she's got something that might help you and wants to try it out."

Adric chuckled. "'Mom'? You're calling her 'mom' now?" he

Ryoko put a single finger to her lips. "Shhhh. Don't tell her."

"Uh huh. What's it worth to you?"

"Well, lets see. I could tell everyone how you leapt to your
lady love's defense when she was about to be killed by an
Uzi-wielding..." Ryoko said this just as she passed (literally)
through the front door of the establishment.

Adric grabbed at the handle frantically and flung the door open.
"Hey! That's not what happened!" he said, desperately, taking
off after her.

"Looked that way from where I was sitting..." came the distant

Then the door slammed shut, and This Time Round was left back in
the hands of its snoring and inebriated customers.


Well, not quite.

One customer wasn't snoring, although they were led to understand
by others that they were quite gifted in that skill; nor were
they inebriated, although that was not for lack of interest. No,
this inhabitant was completely (if slightly hazily) awake, and
almost entirely (if reluctantly) sober.

Not to mention pissed-off as hell. With themself, mostly. At
the universe partly, but still mostly at themself.

Oh yes, and slightly confused. Mustn't forget the confusion.
Although at that point, it pretty much felt indistinguishable
from the anger, in a weird mixed-up sort of way.

Number One (male) lit up another cigarette, took a long drag, and
watched on the monitor as the door shut firmly behind... swamp
rat... and his floating friend. He briefly considered powering
up the rest of the white Dalek's systems and trundling along
after them, but just as soon dismissed the idea. He knew where
they were headed, after all, and since nothing else was likely to
be happening tonight, he'd rather take the few minutes and try
once more to make sense of the preceding few hours.

He massaged his legs, and found his muscles were yearning to be
flexed. He'd forgotten how cramped the Dalek unit could be,
especially with all of the enhancements he'd dumped into it. It
had, after all, been some time since last he'd used it --
embarrassingly, when he had gone to retrieve the unit from the
nearby self-storage it was locked in, it had taken him a few
minutes to even remember the combination on the padlock. He'd
eagerly climbed in then, and had been surprised that the unit
actually felt roomier than before, the smaller cursed body making
better use of the space and giving him more elbow room to work,
except for the fact that the tiny seat pushed on both sides
against his rounded butt in a very uncomfortable manner...

Well, actually, _her_ butt, he forcefully reminded himself. For
at the moment, he was beginning to think that it might be better
if he sometimes thought of... her... in that sense, namely as a
different person. No matter that they shared the same body,
memories, thoughts, experiences; she also was showing an
unnerving tendency to take actions and express opinions that
felt... different... from what he thought they normally should
be. Yes, it might be better overall if he started to draw that
distinction, Number One believed. Why, he wasn't sure, but the
idea did make him feel a little better.

The cigarette extinguished itself at the filter. Mechanically,
he dropped ashen rod and butt into the small receptacle reserved
for that purpose, pulled another from the ubiquitous pack, and

But anyway, he reminded himself, all of that was irrelevant. He'd
donned the spare dungarees he kept secreted in the locker area,
heated up some water with a coiled element kept handy for that
purpose (although, admittedly, intended originally for nothing
more than the occasional packet of Folgers), and come back here
to await the return of Adr... err, the enemy. Why? Because
things had finally reached a breaking point tonight, he decided,
and it was high time radical steps were taken to seize control of
the situation. And so he'd angrily done what he should have done
in the first place -- gone to the 'Round as Number One, dedicated
servant of her Gloriousness, the most Holy One. Not as Ember
Ashe, the... friend... of all that his faith held in contempt,
and most certainly not as he had done earlier in the evening in
that misplaced and disastrous attempt at... at... whatever it was
he'd been attempting.

_She'd_ been attempting.

He had to remind himself of that fact. Firmly. Repeatedly.

The cigarette went out again. Once again he reached over to the
pack, but this time found it empty. What the? he thought. He'd
just opened that pack.

He fished into the glove compartment, found another pack, removed
the cellophane, and extracted another blunt instrument upon the
cellular structure of his lungs.

Anyway, where was he? Oh yeah, he was Number One, and no
sniveling third rate hell demon or officious feline Human
Resources Director was going to tell him any different. They
could take their Operation Cupid's Arrow and shove it (point
first) where it would do the most damage. Slowly. With as many
serrated edges as possible. Twirling and twisting all the way
inside. They certainly had no idea what kind of fire they were
playing with, and by damn one of these days she was going to make

..._he_ was going to make certain...

Damn, Number One thought, how many hours _have_ I been up?

His brain took that as a signal that permission to yawn had been

"Gotta get some sleep." Number One mumbled to himself. "Not
thinking straight. Gotta be able to think straight. Been too
long of a day." He snorted. "Getting too confused, too much

He thought about what he had just overheard. Ryoko had hinted at
something in development, and considering the most likely
identity of who it might involve, it probably bore looking into
as a potential future problem. Ordinarily, he'd assign one of
those incompetent minions of his to stand around and just
observe, but for some reason this time he was suddenly filled
with the urge to take charge and do it himself. And so, as he
just as suddenly decided, that was what he would do -- take
charge of the operation, and once more do something
constructive. Yessir, go back to fighting the good fight in Her
Holiness' name.

Not like he'd done that evening, no sirree. No, nothing like
That he'd been guilty of that evening. He needed to firmly reset
his priorities, get back on the right track. Atone for the sins
he'd committed. Nearly committed.

He trembled at the memory.

It was bad enough that he'd recently prompted himself into a
sword fight with Her Holiness. But to think that last evening,
spurred on by nothing more than a few taunting words, she should,
in a flash of raw emotion, contemplate the unthinkable? The
unmentionable? And then, stopped only because The Dweeb had
stepped into the line of fire? It was unheard of! It was almost
too devastating to contemplate! He, Number One, one of the most
preeminent knights in Her eternal defense, had almost damned
himself eternally in that unforgivable crime of... deicide?

No, not him. Remember. _Her_. _She_ almost did all that. Not

Yes, remember. It's very important to remember that distinction.

If anything, this should make him more resolved than ever to
continue striving against The Demon Spawn from Alzarius, he
quickly asserted to himself. The spawn's baleful influence was
enough to test even the most pure of heart, so obviously the kid
must be countered at any and all cost. Yes, that was what he
told himself, the kid had to be neutralized, for the good of all
that was Most Holy. At any cost. Yessir.

He tried to puff on his cigarette, but tasted only cold, damp

Get some sleep, he thought eventually, and go out there tomorrow
on a recon. See what math nerd and his evil cabal are up to. If
we're lucky, it'll be enough to render Cupid's Arrow
superfluous. Then I can go in on the pretext, forget all this
subtlety, and just kick some good 'ole fashioned therapeutic
ass. Sounds like
a plan to me.

You'll have to tell Buck-o what you're doing, a part of him

Leave a note through the usual channels but be vague, another
part responded. That'll give you a little time.

Screw him, another suggested, which also prompted an involuntary
wince. This is your op. Don't let him muscle in.

Still gotta tell him. Them's the rules. You don't gotta like
'em, just gotta obey 'em.

Fine. But no Ember. She stays out.

Agreed. She is too... unreliable.

Number One chewed on his cigarette butt, not noticing that it was
starting to acquire a certain ground, fiber consistency.

Some time in the country, that's what he needed. To get things
back into perspective. Taking a hike out to the Masaki shrine in
the morning should do that. At the same time, he could also do
something constructive against his enemy, take some positive
steps toward salvation.

And make Ember disappear, for a time.

Yes, make Ember disappear.


There is a room in a certain office building. The building is
of the modern, nondescript, concrete-and-glass, utterly bland
variety. Only a prominently displayed address number sets it
apart from other buildings along the Virginia highway it is
buttressed against.

The room is on the second floor, and offers a spectacular view of
the building's parking lot. In actuality, however, that
particular attribute was the room's only drawback. Because the
curtains to the room were usually drawn shut, this wasn't a
particularly major drawback.

The room was painted a reflective white, and was also very well
lit. This last was mostly because the room's primary occupant
liked it to be bright. The walls themselves were sparsely
decorated, but what adornments there were were all tastefully
arranged and were of reasonably high quality. The most expensive
of these adornments was a Law Degree, which sat hanging amid a
cluster of other degrees and licenses to practice law in various
jurisdictions. This was noteworthy because the person whose
office this was currently held duties not normally associated
with those of a practicing attorney.

There were also other things about the office of some note. The
walls inside were strengthened with a steel wire mesh that was
constantly under power, rendering the entire room essentially one
big Faraday cage; the windows were of polarized, highly
reflective glass, nearly impervious to telephoto lens snooping,
casual or otherwise; the windows were triple-paned set with an
inch of space between glass sheets, the outer void of which was
supplemented by a small white noise generator, the inner void of
which was pure vacuum, all to prevent vibration-sensitive
monitoring; the monitors -- and there were quite a few -- were
all of the flat-panel gas-permeable LCD variety, an effective
counter to the VanEyk-phreak.

Underneath the desk were a button and, hanging from the underside
on an articulated arm, an automatic shotgun with most of the
barrel sawed away. The button was to summon a cadre of U.S.
Marshals at a moment's notice; the autogun was there in case the
office's occupant didn't have an extra moment. The shells were
loaded with a customized mixture of pellets: lead, gold, silver,
iron, hardwood and platinum, with the gaps in the mix filled with
tiny industrial diamonds. The man behind the desk had never
heard of anything that was specially vulnerable to platinum or
diamonds, but he figured it couldn't hurt. Liven up the Medical
Examiner's day, at any rate.

In one corner of the room was a dart board with the picture of a
sleazy-looking Martian Ice Warrior upon it, a number of darts
firmly imbedded in various sensitive parts of its otherwise
thick-skinned anatomy.

The room's primary occupant was, at that time, examining a report
on his display, making notes on a pad of yellow, legal paper
before him, and making under-breathed comments on the efficiency
of Japanese police departments and the subordinates who blunder
into them. As he continued his review, the phone at his elbow
rang. Reluctantly, he picked up the receiver, mostly because it
was the only way he knew how to get the damn thing to stop
ringing. "William Starr's office." the man said into the
mouthpiece, then: "No relation."

"Bill, this is Doug. We got orange?"

Starr smirked, put down his pen and glanced down at the phone.
Sure enough, the orange light on the handset was flashing. "Go
ahead, Doug. We're secure. Are you back on station?"

Starr heard some creaking noises from over the line, of what
sounded like a chair being leaned back upon and the framework
groaning in protest. "Yeah, I'm back. Got in from London late
last night, missed some more fireworks, then crashed. Spent the
morning getting the AAR's done; I'm uploading the latest reports
and data-files to you as we speak."

"Good, because State is still raising hell. Nerima didn't do us
any favors, you know. Now they're watching us like a hawk."

"Yeah, I figured."

"What about Alpha One? What's his status?"

Starr could feel the frustration in the other's voice. "Zilch.
After everything is said and done, we've still got a no-go out

Starr shook his head. "Damn, that's frustrating."

"Tell me about it."

"Want me to dispatch an IMF team in there to help out?"

"Tempting, but the only one I'd trust would be Hunt, and I
understand he's out on assignment now, right?"

"Doug, you know I can neither confirm nor deny that..." said
Starr, acknowledging the formula even though both knew the
question had, in fact, just been answered. "How are the
reinforcements we sent up working out?"

"Gamma's doing fine, though I would have preferred it if they'd
have spent more time at Quantico before being deployed. Can't be
helped, I suppose."

"What about Rainbow? They're in your zone, and probably could
help out."

"Nah, leave Clark where he's at. Manpower isn't a problem right
now. Susannah and Paul should be here the day after tomorrow,
and that will bring Alpha up to full. In fact, I think I've got
more people on the hammer end of things than I have uses for.
There's only so much running around in camo and carbines that you
can do without attracting too much attention. And we're
certainly attracting more than our fair share right now."

"Ain't that the truth. Ok, well... you're the man on the spot."

"Uh huh, and that's the way I like it." Starr heard a heavy sigh
from the other end. "The main reason I'm calling, Bill, besides
just checking in, is to see if you'd gotten anything on those
friends of ours. Especially the redneck."

Starr stuck the phone in the crook of his neck, and reached out
with that hand for a manila folder that had recently been plopped
on his desk. He opened it and glanced at the summary, even
though he pretty much already knew the details. "Sorry, but not
much. We got ID's on the four horse-asses of the apocalypse, but
nothing on your Alabama suspect. I'm having the report bundled
and sent to you, so you should have it by no later than

"Care to give me the highlights?"

"In short, everything is a negative. The four stooges look to be
nothing more than that -- really, really, cerebrally-challenged
fanboys. The most any of them have are speeding tickets and a
warning for expired tags. Other than that, they're clean. No
records, wants or warrants." Starr shuffled some paper, and
stopped at a xerox. "I got an incident report here, though. From
the hotel security at some Cleveland establishment. Seems they
were bothering some convention guest at the hotel, and were
ejected by security. That's about the worst."

"Any indication that they're too clean, that all of that is just
some kind of plant?"

"If they are, then they've been undercover for a hell of a long
time. Hell, we even managed to find one of their ex-girlfriends.
Everyone who knows them had just two words to describe them:
weird and pathetic."

The voice at the other end sighed. "Ok, what about our friend
Number One."

"Zilch. Nada. No evidence the person even exists. No driver's
licenses, no Class 3 firearm owner's ID, not even a goddamn high
school yearbook."

"What about the fingerprints I lifted from the beer glass?"

"Nothing. Ran 'em through FBI, CIA, NSA, 50 different DOMV's and
DOT's, and just about every ID database we know of, criminal or
otherwise. Not a single match. This person's a real enigma. You
sure that accent of his is real?"

"If it ain't, he's the first non-Alabaman I've ever met to master
it." A pause. "Whoever he is, then, he must have some pretty
good connections in order to cover his tracks like that."

"You mean this Brotherhood of his?"

"Possibly. No, scratch that, likely. I take it you're still
nada on that as well?"

"Uh huh."

A sigh. "Ok, send what you've got over. I'll have a look at it
when it comes in, see if I can make any more sense out of it. Oh,
by the way, that reminds me. In the Nerima after-action report,
I've noted someone by the name of Ember Ashe. I'd like a dossier
built up on her as well."

"How does she fit in?"

"No idea, but at this moment she looks to be a player. Her
presence has the potential to disrupt our plan, so I'd rather
have the information on hand rather than be blind-sided."

"Ok, fair enough." Starr closed the report. "Anything else?"

"CCD helmets."

"Dispatched. Should arrive tomorrow at Hereford."

"Product samples from PanTex."

"Still trying to get those released. Whitehall wasn't very
thrilled with the request."

"I'm not surprised." Another pause. "Better imaging. The
fabled weather around here is playing havoc with satellite


"I was hoping for something a little more sophisticated.
Heather's working on a specialized PLOT-hole detector, but says
she needs to be able to bounce the scan over a satellite to get a
decent spread."

"That's probably something a little more sophisticated than your
average spy satellite. I'm not sure we have anything that

"What about that movie mogul friend of yours?" Doug interrupted.
"Doesn't he, umm, have access to a particularly sophisticated

Starr leaned back in his chair. "Say, that's a thought." He
considered for a heart beat. "Yeah, I think I can work out
something with Ed.... Mind you, he's always looking for ways to
upgrade his capabilities..."

"Think he'd be interested?"

"He's usually willing to play ball, so long as you're willing to
trade something in return."

"Ok, then. See what you can do. In the meantime, find out what
you can about Ember Ashe. As for us, hopefully I'll be able to
report some movement within the next few days."

"I sincerely hope so. See 'ya, Doug."

"See 'ya, Bill."

The line went dead.

Starr thought for a moment, leaning back in his chair and staring
at the wall. He picked up the pen on the legal pad before him,
scribbled a few numbers, and started to tap on the pad with the
ink ball point, trying to weigh a decision. Then, he reached
across the desk to an old-fashioned rolodex. He flipped a few
cards until he found the one he wanted, dialed the number on the
card, and waited for international long distance to connect.

After a few tones, a pleasant voice came on the line.
"Harlington-Straker studios." the voice said cheerfully, "How may
I direct your call?"

William Starr smiled, gave the young woman the name of the
studio's head, and prepared to get down to some good ol'
fashioned horse trading.

Part One - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five - Part Six

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