I don't own Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Marvel, unfortunately.
I'd like to thank CaBil for his help in making this story readable and whoever nominated 'Aesir of Sunnydale' for the CoA too. Also, a quick thanks to Dusel for his help finalizing this chapter. It's going to be the last for some time while I concentrate on the sequel to Aesir of Sunnydale. Chapter 4
Summers Industries, Sunnydale branch
Karen Cervasce forced down the stray butterfly that tried to escape her stomach as she walked into the SI-building. She could pull this off, she knew she could.
Karen had begun working at Wired without any special interest in technology or the Internet, but figured that a journalist could make their reputation by being able to write on either in an understandable way. That, and chance, had landed her this opportunity.
She was still a low woman on the totem pole, which was why she was the one answering the phones when the call from Summers Industries came more than a month after they unveiled their holocage to the world. Better journalists than her at far more prestigious media had sought interviews and all had been rebuffed. The company line was that they respected their employees privacy so nobody knew who there was responsible for this little breakthrough. With the absence of any human faces to put to the story, the media's attention quickly went back to more interesting topics such as whether or not the President had entertained company in the Oval Office.
So it had been quite the surprise when Summers Industries suddenly offered them an exclusive interview with the head of their R&D department. But the offer was for Karen, the one that took their call and her editor hadn't managed to convince them otherwise. The brunette shook her head. 'Their PR department's entire approach on this is weird, like how they were so coy with the identity of the interviewee even though they came to us for the interview.'
Cervasce had done her best to prepare with what she had gotten, but with just a last name she hadn't gotten very far. There were a few Summers' living in Sunnydale, but none of them seemed to have the right background or education to be an SI employee. Then again, the CEO of Summers Industries was a weird choice as well. A conservator at the British Museum turned high school librarian was an unlikely head of a company on the cutting edge of technology.
The doors slid open for Karen just like the gate had and she was finally confronted by her first living person on SI-property. A petite blonde in a stylish suit that showed off her figure, barely in her twenties if that, gave her a welcoming smile as she greeted Karen. “Hi, you're Karen Curvature, right?” the green-eyed girl bubbled in a Californian accent.
Karen refrained from rolling her eyes or looking towards the heavens to ask what she'd done to deserve this. 'Great, a Valley Girl. Probably hired for her looks than her secretarial skills. If she's even got any,' the journalist thought disparagingly. What she didn't hide was her annoyance. “It's Karen Cervasce,” she stressed. “I'm from Wired, here to interview Mr. Summers,” Karen supplied.
“Sorry about that, I'm terrible with names. Mine's Buffy, by the way. And yeah, I know about the interview so please follow me and I'll take you to the conference room. It's all set up for you.”
'Someone actually named their daughter Buffy?' Karen marveled. Then she had no more time to wonder about that because the ditz was already walking away so she quickly followed. 'Okay, just look on the bright side. She probably can't keep a secret to save her life. So don't laugh and start making nice.'
“Uh, been with the company long?” Karen started. 'Oh yeah, smooth Karen. Real smooth.'
“Yeah, I've worked here since day one. Of course, the company hasn't actually been around for very long so maybe I should've said no,” Buffy mused.
“First answers are you usually the best ones,” Karen suggested. She looked up and down the corridor. “I kind of noticed there's not a lot of people around.”
“Oh, there are. Just not in this part of the building. And here we are, Conference Room 2,” the blonde announced as she opened the door to usher Cervasce in. The room had a nice view on the woods behind the complex and contained a large table and several big office chairs. “Take a seat.”
Karen took Buffy up on that invitation and settled down to wait in the closest chair even as the blonde secretary followed suit and took the seat closest to her. Crossing her knees, Buffy looked expectantly at Karen. “Uhm... shouldn't you let Mr. Summers know I'm here?”
“Actually, Ms. Summers already knows,” Buffy told her with a smile that was not at all ditzy.
“You... you played me?” Karen couldn't help the accusing tone. You were supposed to get your subject to feel comfortable so they'd open up, but the brunette wanted to be taken seriously too. This wasn't a game.
“Sorry, I couldn't resist a little prank. After all, I'm not exactly what you expected, am I?” With those words Buffy leaned back as to invite a closer inspection.
“Uh, no, no. But why...” Karen stopped as she remembered that her recorder was still in her purse. Biting off a curse she put it on the table, turning it on as she did so. Taking a deep breath to focus, Karen started over. “Why pretend to be someone you're not?”
“Because for a long time, I was that girl. I'm sure you'll find out all about my background so I thought, let's be upfront about it.”
“So, what happened to change things?”
“I had... a crisis, I suppose you could call it. My parents got divorced, I fell out with the popular crowd and, well, I acted out. Got so bad I was kicked out of school. Then my Mom moved us here and I made different friends. I started hanging out with them in the library and their interests sort of rubbed off on me.”
Cervasce meanwhile was cursing her lack of preparedness. She'd known going in that she didn't know much, but she thought she'd had some good questions. Unfortunately, it turned out her assumptions hadn't been right and now she had to interview off the cuff. “I-I don't really see how you go from that to, uh, having a company with your name on it developing a breakthrough technology like the holocage right out of high school.”
“Oh, I haven't graduated yet,” Buffy replied matter-of-factly.
Karen felt very proud that she managed to contain her reaction to just a surprised look. The blonde shrugged. “But my friends have played a big part in it, they've been very supportive. As for how I ended up here, I discovered that I have a knack for approaching problems from ... unique directions. I made some money, but it quickly became clear I could only do so much in Mom's basement. So I invested in this place and Summers Industries was born.”
“But you're first products weren't really successful, commercially speaking. You've resorted to giving away your operating system for free, but your market share still hasn't grown much.”
“Rose is free to download,” Buffy corrected. “There is a cost if the customer wants it sent on a CD. But yeah, turns out, breaking into a market that already has a few big players isn't easy.”
“You don't have that problem with the holocage,” Karen supplied.
“Not a lot of competition there. Instead, we're our own worst enemy. We didn't think there would be that much demand for holocages so we're only now starting to ramp up production.”
“You didn't think there would be much interest in solid, realistic holograms?” Karen asked with a hint of incredulity.
“I think we were a lot more aware of its limitations,” the blonde ruefully explained. “And we were actually only shooting for realistic looking holograms. The illusion of resistance was just serendipity.”
“Speaking of that, there are a few scientists that maintain your holocage is a sham. That it can't possibly work because it goes against our understanding of physics. How do you respond to that?”
“They're not as bright as they think they are if they can't do the math. The principles behind the holocage are solid,” Buffy chuckled.
Karen smiled to show she got the pun. “But you didn't know that would happen when you started development,” she repeated back to Buffy. “So when did you realize what you had?”
“When we tried to stick a few sensors in a hologram to test how safe it was. We used a robot-arm and everything just in case there was more heat being generated than we thought. You can imagine our surprise when it collided with what we thought was going to be empty air.”
“Hmm hmm,” Karen hummed. “You keep saying we, but you're the only one who has come forward to take credit for this breakthrough. Why is that?”
“Actually, it's more like I was volunteered to do this. It's certainly pleasant to meet you, but we value our privacy here at Summers Industries and doing this interview kind of blows my cover of being a normal high school student.”
“Then why stick your name on the company?”
Buffy's smile got a little wider. “I'm not going to be in high school forever.”Sunnydale
“Is it up yet?” Buffy asked as she cruised over Sunnydale.
“No, Buffy, it isn't,” a by now exasperated Willow told her over the com.
“You answered pretty quickly, did you really check?”
“The interview was yesterday, Buffy. And it's Sunday,” the redhead pointed out reasonably.
“I know, I know. Its the nerves; Tonya might have done dozens of interviews, but this was my first.”
“Well, I don't think asking about it every other hour is going to help. I imagine it's going to take at least a week to edit and fact-check the interview.”
“A week?” Buffy asked incredulously.
“Maybe more,” Willow added far too cheerfully. “But why are you so worried anyway? It went well, right? Not like you accidentally let slip that your other job is vampire slaying.”
“Nah, I just... I worry. Sunnydale's been too quiet, everything is going smoothly with the company, so I can't help but wonder how big that other shoe, which is going to drop any moment now, will be.”
“No comment,” her friend responded. “I'm not going to jinx us.”
“Aw, come on. And you call yourself my friend,” Buffy shot back in a light tone. At that moment, Sunnydale's sleazy motel came into view erasing her light mood. More precisely, it was the group strutting out of the Motor Inn towards a limousine of all things. Hovering now, the Slayer observed the group as they dragged some girl along.
Local vampires had learned to stay under cover and not gather in large groups. But these were doing a hell of a lot more than that, displaying their victim like they owned this town. The one that looked to be in charge was huge, and... “Wills, I got a group of vamps here dragging a girl out of the Sunnydale Motor Inn. Their leader looks weird, he has these cloven, hooflike hands but his face looks vampy enough. I want you to contact Giles and see if he knows who this is.”
“Great, but you better hurry because I'm going in now.” Cutting power to her repulsors to near zero, Buffy aimed her feet at the limousine. That should get their attention.
“Gah!” The Slayer gasped as pain raced up her spine from her shins. “What?” Faith broke off then as she remembered. The next step hit her broken legs with the same force, but this time she didn't cry out. 'Don't cry, don't cry, don't you dare cry!' Faith chanted as they dragged her down the stairs. She'd tried to find Buffy at the places vampires usually went to get their victims, figuring Buffy would be there hunting the bloodsuckers in turn. Faith had only been searching for a day when Kakistos had caught up with her and now...
White-hot pain lanced through her, wiping out all thought. Somehow, she managed not to cry out. Faith didn't know if that was true for the next step. She didn't know anything.
Faith wasn't sure what roused her, she was nowhere one moment and the next she was back in Sunnydale. The hint of a cool breeze told the Slayer she was still outside, but she didn't really see the point in opening her eyes and seeing where she was. What did it matter? She was already dead, all that was left was the torture.
What did catch her attention was the sound of crumpling metal. It was night and her eyes refused to stay focused, but Faith thought she could see why everybody had stopped. A dark figure with a glowing something on its chest was standing on the now crumpled roof of Kakistos' limo. Faith strained her eyes to see better, then blinked and tried again when the image resolved into something impossible. But the figure stubbornly remained a dark-colored Iron Man.
It was only after the armored person stopped speaking that the brunette realized he'd done so at all. 'What did he say? Something about... his town? What else?' Iron Man wasn't stopping to let her catch up though. The air crackled as he suddenly held a whip made of lightning in his hand. One flick and it seemed to shear through the limo and then came towards Faith.
Panicked, Faith ducked as much as she could. All she managed though, was a bob of her head and it didn't matter anyway. The whip never came close as it passed over her head and then no one was holding her up. The street came rushing at her. That hurt, but not as much as the steel bands suddenly squeezing her chest. She gasped, or tried to, because her lungs wouldn't cooperate. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't stay....
Waking up was a lot less painful this time. Faith opened her eyes, then shut them right back when the light blinded her. Her hand reflexively came up to shield her face, but the move was awkward. 'Shouldn't this hurt?' Opening her eyes again Faith examined herself and found bandages.
A quick inspection done more by touch than sight told her someone had undressed her and wrapped her chest. Her legs were another story, they were immobilized but not in a cast. She still felt sore and didn't dare to breathe deeply, but she was alive and probably no longer in Kakistos' hands.
Squinting, Faith surveyed her surroundings. 'Doesn't look like a hospital, more like a set from the Six Million Dollar Man.' There were screens, computers and mechanical arm-things. She was lying on a cot and her legs were stuck in some kind of metal framework. 'Did that guy in the armor take me with him?
“Ma'am, our guest is awake,” a British voice announced. Looking over her shoulder, Faith at last caught sight of another person. It wasn't the source of the voice, that had been male and this was definitely a chick working on some kind of high-tech backpack.
The blonde was returning her look. “So I see. Good morning, how do you feel?”
“Uh, not so bad, I guess. Uhm... did you fix me up?”
“Yep,” the blonde confirmed as she stood up and walked over to study a screen close by. Faith didn't have a good view of it, but it looked like it was displaying her vitals. “You're healing fast, Miss Lehane.”
“How do you know my name?” Faith asked startled as she got up. Or tried to anyway, her body was starting to protest more and more each time she moved. It looked like she had a ways to go before she could do something like, say, escape.
“Boston PD's got your fingerprints on file, that made it easy. Also, Kissing Toast was kind of obsessed with you.”
“Kakistos,” Faith corrected her. “Wait, was? You mean he's dead, did your boss kill him?”
Now it was the girl's turn to be surprised. “Boss?”
“Yeah, the armored dude. I was kind of out of it, but his entrance was hard to forget.”
Her surprise turned to amusement. “Actually, that was me. I know the armor is not exactly flattering but I thought the voice would have given away that I am all woman underneath.”
Faith couldn't help but blush a little. “Ehm, sort of missed that. Like I said, they did a number on me so I wasn't exactly at my best.”
“Or conscious,” the girl added. “Almost took you to the hospital until Jarvis pointed out you were healing faster than a human. I don't think they'd be able to explain Slayer healing.”
Finally, it clicked for Faith. A blonde girl who knew about Vampire Slayers. “You're Buffy.” Why hadn't Diane told her the Council's perfect Slayer was flying around in powered armor? Shit, she could save the world twice before breakfast too if she had an ace like that.
“You know me?” she actually sounded surprised.
“Sure, my Watcher t-she told some stories about you.”
“I know she's dead,” Buffy told her in a soft voice. Faith didn't say anything. “It wasn't hard to figure out your legal guardian was your Watcher and... I'm sorry, police found her body. The autopsy report is... pretty graphic.”
“I don't want to talk about it,” Faith snarled as she looked away. She didn't want to think about it either. “Is Kakistos dead?” she asked again still not looking at Buffy.
“He's dust,” the blonde confirmed. “Jarvis, could you put up the footage of me kicking his ass?”
“Of course. Please direct your attention to the screen on your right, Ms. Lehane.”
“It's Faith, call me Faith,” the brunette corrected what she now realized was some kind of computer. And it shared the same name as the butler of the Avengers, weird. There was a story there, one that tied into the whole armor deal Buffy had going. She was sure of it, but right now she wanted to see Kakistos die so she said nothing as a screen started showing Kakistos' last moments.
It was pretty obvious that Faith was now seeing what Buffy had been seeing, the image rocking with the vampire's punches. Then he grabbed something just below the camera's viewpoint and started pushing Buffy back. “He wrecked my plasma-whips with that move,” Buffy commented. “The frame on the pack buckled when it hit the wall and... You're not interested in that.”
Faith really wasn't, because Kakistos was finally starting to take some punishment. She couldn't see everything, but somehow Buffy had managed to knock the hulking vampire around and then off his feet. She did get a good view of a handle popping out of her arm which then grew a blade that sliced into Kakistos' neck in the same move. Didn't go through more than halfway, however. Looked like it was caught on his spine.
Buffy reacted with a move she couldn't have done if she hadn't been wearing armored gloves. Taking a hold of the other end of the sword with her free hand, the blonde kneed Kakistos in his face and used that for leverage to yank the blade the rest of the way through the demon's neck. Faith watched as her nightmare collapsed into a pile of dust. “It's really over.”
She only realized she'd said it out loud a moment later. To cover it up, Faith turned to Buffy and asked a question she'd been meaning to ask anyway. “Okay, I need to know. What's the sitch here? Jarvis, the armor, it's all straight out of... comic books.” She couldn't show too much knowledge about comics, she had a rep to think of.
That made Buffy laugh for some reason. “Actually, that's exactly where it came from. Well, the know-how to make this stuff anyway.”
“That don't make sense,” Faith pointed out frowning.
“Last Halloween, this sorcerer turned everybody into their costumes. Long story short, I went as Tonya Stark and after the spell ended I still had her memories. I've been busy recreating her tech since, but it's slow going. I've barely scratched the surface so far.”
She'd never heard of a Tonya Stark, but the last name was enough. Buffy was frigging Iron Man now, or Iron Woman. “Looks pretty much finished from here.”
“Oh, you mean the Mark II?” The blonde shrugged. “I guess it does, but Tonya's armor was a lot more advanced than that.”
“If you say so,” Faith said sceptically. “When can I stretch my legs?” she asked indicating the frame around her legs.
“Uh, a day or two I guess. Not a doctor, but the scanner should tell me when the legs are healed enough. In the mean time, I better go find you something to eat. Don't go anywhere!”
“Like I could,” Faith scoffed as Buffy walked away. Then another urgent matter hit her. “Wait a sec, how do I get to the bathroom?”Summers Industries, Sunnydale branch
Giles was still worried for Faith when he entered his Slayer's work area. He'd just told the brunette of the Council's decision and received little reaction. The Watcher had thought Faith would have a stronger reaction to the whole thing, but she'd just heard him out as he conveyed his condolences.
Classic rock played loudly over the loudspeakers in the ceiling and he didn't think Buffy had noticed him. She seemed to be very involved with yet another invention. She was soldering something together, the light image hovering to her left illuminated what it was a part of. It looked more or less like an airplane to him, with the highlighted part to be the engine. Which meant it was most likely a model, but it didn't tell the librarian why his charge was constructing it.
He was about to draw her attention when Buffy looked up by chance. She turned the music off right away before greeting him. “Hey, how did she take the news?”
Taking a seat, Giles sighed. “I honestly can't say. She didn't seem to care one way or the other what the Council decided. She has not mentioned her Watcher at all either, which is worrisome.”
The blonde nodded. “I think part of it is that she can't walk on her own. I know I wouldn't like it and the wheelchair isn't much of an improvement.”
“Perhaps,” Giles allowed. He was certain there was more going on, though. Had Faith been there when her Watcher was tortured to death? Did she blame herself for what happened? These past few years he'd thought more than once that his training had been poor preparation, with this as another example. “But she is recovering quickly, she should be up and about by tomorrow.”
“I was thinking of releasing her today. Us Slayers heal quick.”
“I believe she would appreciate that,” Giles murmured as he glanced at Buffy's project. “She also expressed some interest in the suit you were building. But this doesn't look like it is a part of it.”
“The one-point-five? Yeah, we passed it during the tour. As for this,” she waved over at the wireframe, “it is a part of that, actually. I got thinking after what happened with the zombies and now Faith that I'm not using my smarts for patrolling.”
Frowning, Giles looked over at another part of the lab where robot-arms were working on a half-finished suit. “Yes, about the, ah, I believe Xander called it the Slay Machine?”
Buffy smiled. “Yeah, the sidekick to my Iron Slayer. What about it?”
“I distinctly remember you telling me I could reduce the research budget for the next three months, and you did so less than two months ago,” he finished with a pointed look.
Giving him an guileless look, his Slayer nodded. “And I've been good. The 1.5 mostly uses components from the Mark 2 so that will drive down maintenance costs for the both of them.”
“Then shouldn't it be the 2.1 or 3?”
“Nah, the Mark 3 is... a concept right now. So that one is already taken. And this isn't an improvement on my suit, but on the Mark 1. It's got the same steel alloy as that one, though I'm thinking of putting a carbon-composite armor on it for protection. It would help keep the weight down,” Buffy mused. “In any case, think of the “Slay Machine” as a T-Ford and my “Iron Slayer” as a Ferrari.”
She grimaced. “Honestly, I might have gone a little overboard with the Mark 2. She's stretching what we can do with our current tech-base, and she performs beautifully, but she's designed around, well, me. A normal person would have to go to the hospital after a fight in her. I'm making the Slay Machine so anybody can fight in it, and fight hard.”
Nodding that he understood, Giles attention drifted back to the hologram. “And how does this fit into this re-appraisal of your strategy?”
Buffy leaned back. “It's an extra pair of eyes. Well, more than one. Up until now, I've been using my suit to do patrols from the air like I used to patrol on foot. Now with Xander patrolling on his own we're covering more ground but there's still a lot of town for just the two of us.”
“Ah, I see now. It's an automated watchman... Hmmm, yes, that would be useful.”
His Slayer nodded enthusiastically. “Exactly. I'm designing the drone along the same lines as the suit with all the components coming from things we already use. The sensors and communication gear are the same as my Mark 2, with one exception. And for the engine I'm going with repulsor pistols. Four of them combined should give enough thrust to get it airborne.”
“You mentioned that the sensors and communication gear were spares, with one exception,” Giles prompted.
“I'm leaving a space for Willow's magic sensor. She thinks they're close to a breakthrough, but she doesn't think the early versions are going to be small enough to fit on the suits. That's another reason for the drone.”
Giles eyebrows rose up at the news, he hadn't heard about a breakthrough. Buffy noticed it too. “Ms. Calendar didn't mention it?”
“Ah, no. Uhm, I got the impression they were still investigating the project's feasibility. Then again, technology is not my strong suit. I may have misunderstood something she told me.”
“And magic is abracadabra to me,” his charge joked. “But getting back to Faith, there's still the little matter of where's she's going to sleep. That motel is right out and she strikes me as the type not to take what she thinks is charity so inviting her to stay with mom and me won't fly either.”
“I suppose my apartment might offer an acceptable alternative, but you have another idea?”
“I do, I was thinking she could have our guest room here in the complex. Not like Angel needs it anymore and it would be easy to hook up a TV. It's already got a bed, fridge, and is actually fit for human habitation unlike where's she's been staying.”
The Watcher gave his Slayer a searching look. “Is there some other reason you want her to stay in, ah, your former paramour's, uh, room?”
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Giles,” the blonde riposted with some mirth. Giles blinked, wondering what she was talking about. He was worried this was an attempt to erase any reminders of Angel, not anything else. Before he could ask what she meant, though, Buffy hastily returned to the original topic. “I thought it was a great way to talk her into accepting a spot on the company's payroll.”
“I don't know exactly as what yet,” Buffy told him defensively. “Security consultant or something, but that isn't important. I'm sure she won't want to stay here permanently, but when she does move out she'll have the money to get a nicer place. And it ties her more to us and less to the Council,” she finished darkly.
“Buffy,” Giles said in a long-suffering voice.
“Don't 'Buffy' me, Giles, I'm still working with the Council here but I have zero faith in them. Their heart might be in the right place, but their operation just sucks. The world's changing and I would be surprised if at least some of the demons aren't moving with the times, which means we can't afford to sit back and wax nostalgically about the British Empire.”
“Yes, because that's what we English are so fond of doing while enjoying our afternoon tea.”
“Don't forget the crumpets! Or was it scones? But you can see my point, right?”
“Having seen what your inventions can do... yes, I can. But the Council has been around for millenia for good reasons Buffy, so you are doing them a grave disservice by dismissing them. And, need I remind you that I am a Watcher as well?”
Buffy simply raised an eyebrow. “Which just proves my point. Does “dread machine” ring any bells?”
Coughing, Giles thought it best to change the subject. “So, you want to give Faith some financial security without the appearance of, well, the giving. I believe that can be arranged. Do you want to propose this arrangement to her or should I?”
“Nah, I'll do it. I need to stretch my legs anyway and get in some training,” Buffy said as she stood up and stretched. “I think I've been losing my edge. Kakistos shouldn't have given me that much trouble. The armor has spoiled me a little.” Shady Hill Cemetery
“Man, you got a lot of dead people,” Faith remarked shaking her head at hitting yet another graveyard on her Sunnydale tour. “What is this, the seventh? How many does this town have?”
“A cool dozen, but a lot of the graves are empty,” Buffy answered easily.
“And zombies, we had an outbreak of them a couple of months ago and they all vanished into thin air when I slayed the head zombie. But mostly vampires,” the Slayer added.
“Guess it never gets boring here in the 'Dale.”
“Only if you're lucky,” Buffy replied with a wry smile. “So, what do you think of the glasses?”
Taking them off, the night became darker and more mysterious. Faith twisted them around in her hands. “They're alright, but couldn't you have made them look less cheap?”
“I needed space to put all the doodads in.”
“I'm not complaining,” Faith clarified before pulling out the collapsible sword the blonde had given her and extending it. “The shades and this baby, all very James Bond.” Stopping, she tried to adjust that damn top again.
Buffy stopped as well. “Did I make a mistake with the measurements? You keep fidgeting and adjusting the body armor.”
“I don't know, it just feels a little odd. The pants are more stretchy than I'm used to and this top is way thicker. Covers more too.” It hugged her body as well, but that Faith was used to. Maybe she should have gone with the coat instead and worn her own clothes underneath like Buffy had done. “Ever caught some kids doing the diddy out here?”
“Uh, no. The smooch point is up at Kingman's Bluff.” Buffy nodded her head in that direction. “It's a lot safer, most vampires won't bother going all the way out there for a meal.”
“So we got the cemetery all to ourselves?” Faith made sure to wriggle her eyebrows to get her point across. She also took off her coat, but that was because it was just too warm for the Bostonian. Whatever this stuff was made from it did a great job keeping her warm.
A low, soft roar coming from above and behind them got louder then. Looking in that direction, Faith saw a small plane with long, narrow wings and a swallow's tail fly over before banking so it could circle above the two Slayers. “Xander,” Buffy said patiently while looking directly at the drone, “are you using the Seraph to eavesdrop on our private conversation?”
“What? NO!” Xander denied. They could both hear him thanks to the earpieces connected to a radio clipped to their belts. “I'm just testing it. You know, see how she handles at low altitudes. Look, I'm making tight turns which you really need when you got to fly through some deep valley, I mean narrow canyon.”
Faith snorted at the rattled off explanation, but Buffy kept a straight face. “Go test it somewhere else.” After that she turned back to the other Slayer and turned off her radio.
“Ya want to keep this private,” Faith concluded with a grin.
Buffy frowned. “How did you...?”
“Figure out you don't drive stick?” the brunette supplied. “I can tell when someone's hot for my form, of course it's usually a dude. I take it your friends don't know?”
“Willow does, Xander doesn't. And Giles... I can just picture it now. Him cleaning his glasses into nothing while I'm silently begging the ground to swallow me whole. But I didn't want the privacy for my sake, Faith,” the blonde stressed.
“What do you mean?”
“First things first, I have absolutely no intention of starting anything with you. You're jailbait, Faith, with the emphasis on jail and honestly, you don't strike me as the stable relationship-kind.” Faith rolled her shoulders uncomfortably, it had slipped her mind that Buffy knew she was fifteen. The blonde reared back in surprise too, for some reason. “Wow, didn't expect to be on this end of the conversation this soon.”
“Why, you've been on the other end recently?”
The blonde froze for a heartbeat, then started to smile ruefully. “Yeah... She was nice enough about it, but still... So, I know that it isn't exactly pleasant to have this conv-”
She broke off when she noticed Faith's raised hand. “Save it B, I think we're getting off of the wrong foot here. I'm not some simpering chick who wants to thank her rescuer. I'm just...” Now her cheeks did redden a little as she almost said something she had no intention of saying. Better end this quick. “Just looking for some fun. If you're not up for it, fine by me. Plenty of fish in the sea and all that.”
She started to walk again, but Buffy wasn't following. “You do realize,” she started as she caught up with the brunette, “that with Stark's memories rattling around in my brain I'm the more experienced one. I've done plenty of fishing, I just like to keep my fish... Okay, that sounded better in my head. I think this whole metaphor's gone as far as it can.”
“Whatever floats your boat B,” Faith said with a straight face. “Didn't mean to take the wind out of your sails.”
Narrowing her eyes at Faith, she seemed to mull something over. Finally, she gave up. “Dammit, I can't come up with a properly nautical counter. I blame your upbringing!” Faith's expression froze for a second as thoughts furiously tumbled through her head, but Buffy wasn't finished. “Probably had clam chowder at your tea parties every year.”
Breathing again, Faith forced herself to use a teasing voice. “I thought Sunnydale has a harbor too.”
“Spent most of my life in LA,” Buffy quickly pointed out.
“Hate to break it to you twinkie, but I'm pretty sure they're on the ocean too.”
“Oh, just rub it in why don't you.”
“Is that an invitation?” Summers Industries, Sunnydale branch
“He looks so depressed,” Willow observed sadly stealing another look at the monitor showing a wolfed-out Oz in his cell. “First his friend Jeff gets mauled, then Debbie gets killed and Pete vanishes with the cops saying he did it all.”
“Him knowing he didn't do it can't be more than a small comfort,” Miss Calendar agreed as she readied the final ingredients.
“No, and I can't do anything for him when he's all grrrr.” Sighing, the redhead turned her attention to the setup in front of her. The fruits of several experiments where there was more error than trial, Willow was sure that this time they'd get it right.
The locator spell they'd settled on was simple and didn't require any potions, herbs or other supplies. Just a long stick with several symbols carved into it, which had been replaced by a nail with a large head so the symbols would fit on it. When something magical was detected, the nail would point in the right direction, and with three nails in a triangular formation with some distance between them, it was easy for the computer to determine the exact location.
It sounded simple, but they hadn't had much success so far. At first, the problem was getting it to work at all. The original spell called for a wooden stick, but using that meant they wouldn't be able to miniaturize the sensor so they'd tried aluminum and steel nails instead, but neither worked. Luckily, Miss Calendar had suggested to use cold iron and that had done the trick.
That was not the end of their troubles though. Willow, remembering the whole Moloch-incident, had gone to the precaution of using a dedicated chip for the spell. It would repeat the two long verses in Sanskrit perfectly and repeatedly since the spell fizzled out after the needle pointed out something. But that had caused a new problem.
A single pointer worked, but only revealed the direction and not how far away the source of the magic was. That made it impossible to determine how powerful the spell was. Her reasoning was a stronger magical effect left a larger footprint so something detected further away should be more powerful. So Willow had tried using three independent pointers, each outfitted with their own chip. They didn't get far testing that setup, for as soon as she turned them on they pointed to each other.
While it hadn't taken a genius to figure out that they were sensing each other, the solution proved more elusive. She'd experimented over and over with synchronizing the chips so the spells would all go off simultaneously. An entire week wasted as she tried to set the chips' internal clocks to the exact same time down to the millisecond, toying with different configurations in an attempt to get the blasted thing to work. It was only when she added yet more complexity in the form of a central timer linked to each chip that Willow finally hit upon the idea now in front of her.
Instead of getting several spells to work simultaneously Willow had gone back to getting one spell to cover multiple needles. Sure, that came with its own set of problems like how the needles had to be equidistant from each other and the spellchip, but that was simple engineering. Getting the spell to cover three pointers instead of one was more difficult and it was only thanks to Miss Calendar that Willow had figured out how to tweak the spell to do so. Hopefully anyway, this was the first time they'd try all the components together.
“You can be there for him in the morning at least,” Jenny reminded her. “I'm ready at this end. You?”
“Uh, right, just give me a sec.” A few quick keystrokes later Willow nodded to herself and looked at the devices arrayed before her on a table. It didn't look impressive, a clutter of wires leading from a small box to three contraptions that reminded her of gumball-dispensers. Instead of gumballs there was just one needle suspended from the top with several sensors attached to its exterior. When those needles didn't point at any of the others, but after finishing a little dance came to rest, Willow finally looked over at Miss Calendar. “Ready.”
“Good, then come over here so you can perform the spell.”
“Me?” Willow flustered.
“Why not? You know the theory behind this spell and it's not like you need to keep an eye on the sensor while it does its thing.”
“Uh, yes, right, okay.” Nodding, the redhead walked around the table and towards Jenny. “So, conjuring fire out of ice. I can do that?”
“Only one way to find out,” Miss Calendar pointed out.Sunnydale, City Hall
Swaj let two of his bodyguards enter the room first, waiting outside while he took in his surroundings and only entering after they motioned that all seemed secure. He was followed by the final member of the triad serving him and who was carrying the item the client had requested.
Catching sight of the customer and his bodyguards Swaj made an effort to look pleased to see him. It was needed because his face was nearly expressionless, one of the disadvantages of looking like a shark. People might think he got some of the benefits, such as being a great swimmer or sniffing out a drop of blood from miles away but they would be disappointed. Swaj was in fact a poor swimmer, couldn't breathe underwater, and liked his meat cooked well-done thank you very much.
His bodyguards, though, did like their food rare or even fresher. Dressed in a coat and breaches made out of stitched together leather patches that only left their orange-skinned hands and heads uncovered, the Niph had served as the strong arm of the Iron Mongers for thousands of years. Blood for iron, was the ancient compact, though the contract had been renegotiated later to include a little gold. The Niph honored their contracts, but weren't stupid.
The iron they were wearing now with the mail shirts hidden by the leather. Their weapons weren't hidden in the least, each proudly carried three throwing knifes on their right shoulder, a Hunga Munga on their right thigh and a kukri across the small of their backs
They were the only ones who openly wore weapons and traditional demon apparel, everybody else was seemingly unarmed and wore business suits including the three vampires his client had brought to this meeting. But they weren't important, more of a show than actual security, Swaj was sure his client could handle that on his own.
“You are lucky you made that order when you did, Mayor Wilkins. Normally, ordering something like this on such short notice is impossible but I still had a few available. Take that box of Gavrok you ordered, for example. I finally found one, but transportation is an issue so it won't be delivered till January.”
The Mayor's pleasant smile lessened slightly. “I believe in keeping promises, Monger Swaj, that's what sets me apart from other politicians. And I expect the same thing from those with which I do business.”
“Not to worry, Mayor Wilkins, there won't be any more slippage in the schedule.” Taking a seat on the other side of the conference table he motioned his bodyguard to place the small chest containing the item on the table. “One Crest of Aranak as requested.” Taking that as his cue, the bodyguard opened the chest to present the item.
“I don't really understand why you'd want it, not like you could use it yourself and it doesn't enhance a demon's powers all that much. But it is a piece of fine craftsmanship still warm from their priests'... hands. It will last you a lifetime,” he added dutifully. But the question did bother him. The triangular crest might be traditional gear for Aranaki warriors, but there wasn't much demand for it outside of their people. It was rare thus expensive, and most demons could get something more powerful for what it cost. It was more effective with humans, but at the expense of their sanity and shortening the bearer's lifespan to about an hour. So what use was it to the sorcerer and how could he make more money off of it?
“Oh, my people have stumbled upon the perfect candidate. But let's talk payment. Here,” one of the vampires that was carrying a briefcase placed it on the table, “is the agreed upon amount. You can count it of course.” The undead assistant clicked the case open. “However, I have something else you and your associates might be very interested in.” Now the other vampire carrying a briefcase opened his and Wilkins removed a single folder from it. “In exchange for lowering the price by half, I will give you information about a unique new weapon and a chance to see it in action.”
Sawj chewed on that for a moment. “Interesting,” he allowed. “But I do have expenses to think of. Getting the Crest had its challenges and then there are my dues to the guild.” Of course, information could be more valuable than gold but it was harder to judge its value from what little Wilkins was telling.
“It involves the Slayer. She's been quite busy these last few months,” Wilkins informed him with that same affable expression. His associates showed more, getting nervous at the mentioning of the Vampire Slayer.
“The Slayer,” Swaj scoffed. “Isn't she below the notice of... people such as we?”
“Oh, this one is quite the firecracker and she's become something else recently.”
Again an allusion to a recent event. “Well, since it's you I suppose I could drop say, fifteen percent from the price.”
But the Mayor of Sunnydale simply shook his head and started to pick the folder up. “No, I think I'd rather pay full price then. My mother didn't raise a fool, Monger Swaj.”
“Thirty percent then.”
That stopped Wilkins. “Excellent, I knew we'd come to an understanding.” With those words he opened and slid the folder over to Swaj. There were some reports there beneath the photos, but it was those photos that first grabbed his attention. They were taken at night so it was dark, but the figure in them had some illumination of its own. It looked to be armored and... flying.Summers Industries, LA branch
Gwen probably wouldn't have hit this place if it wasn't for the client, or more precisely, what that client could pay with. It wasn't because the security was particularly tough or she had some problem with this type of job; she'd done corporate espionage before. If it had been up to Gwen, she'd much rather have gone after their R&D place. Much better odds for getting some nice goodies which would also net more with the buyers.
But the client had been very specific. They wanted to keep Summers Industries in the dark about the break-in, and besides a look at the inner workings of that holocage of theirs they also wanted her to install a backdoor into their mainframe. Why would she object when it made for a short and easy job?
And it had been easy, the electronic security systems had been easy to fool and the security guard here wasn't allowed to do floor checks. Smiling smugly, Gwen removed the panel on the console and after some searching she found a port on one of the circuit boards to plug the device her client had provided her with. She was so busy that she didn't notice the LED on the camera in the corner begin blinking.Sunnydale High Library
“I thought the weird things went away at the crack of dawn?” Cordelia remarked.
Buffy eyed her and wondered why she was even here, but didn't raise the point. She wasn't all too happy about having to meet this early either. “This happened last night. I already told Giles about it, but I thought I'd let you all get some sleep.” And get some herself. She nodded at the opened laptop. “Tell them what you told me, Jarvis.”
“Yes, Ma'am. Should I include the information I found since?” Her reply might have had a little too much biting sarcasm in it, but luckily the AI ignored that and started its briefing. “This morning at 1:09 AM I became aware that the security systems at the Los Angeles office had been disabled by unknown means. I tried to reinitialize the systems, but was unable to do anything more than briefly reactivate some of the cameras.”
A slide show appeared on the screen showing a woman in form-fitting clothing doing something with the console of the holocage. “The intruder copied all of the holocage's software and installed some sort of device into the office's connection to our mainframe before covering her tracks while exiting. Ironically, it is that last act which gave me the most information on her.” Now Buffy's ears perked up, she'd heard all this already. Now they were getting to the good stuff.
This image showed the intruder with her right glove removed and her bare hand hovering over a keypad. “The intruder either has a device or the biological ability to affect electrical fields. This made it quite easy for her to defeat all electronic security measures. Even I only managed to keep the cameras on for a short time and the images retrieved were garbled and needed to be reconstructed. Considering the proficiency shown here and her observed facial features I searched the FBI database for a thief matching those characteristics.”
A file appeared now with some text, but instead of a photograph of the woman there was a police sketch. “Gwen Raiden fits the profile, a suspect in several burglaries of not just companies but private homes owned by wealthy individuals. Note that the FBI also suspects her of several murders based on a witness that survived an encounter with her. They think she has a modified taser allowing her to induce a fatal heart-att-”
“Oh my God!” the cheerleader exclaimed drowning out what Jarvis was saying and drawing all eyes to her. She, however, only had eyes for the laptop. “I've seen her, I've talked to her. She knows where I live!”
“She's in Sunnydale?” Buffy asked.
That got Cordelia's attention. “What?”
“Is this Gwen living here,” Xander explained.
“No, of course not. Why'd you think that?”
“Because you said you talked to her?”
The brunette rolled her eyes at Xander. “I didn't say I met her here. It was during this summer, in Las Palmas. There was this party and she was there. She stood out 'cause it was pretty hot even at night but she was all covered up.”
“So she's a regular in LA's party circuit,” Buffy mused.
“We already discussed what we would do about this, have you changed your mind?” her Watcher inquired.
“Obvious question,” Oz interrupted. “We aren't calling the police?”
“Hey, he's right,” Xander chimed in from the other side of the table. “We're not dealing with our own Sunnydale PD here. I hear the police in other cities actually arrest criminals from time to time.”
“One problem with that, we don't have any evidence we can hand over to them and this Gwen was careful.”
“What do you mean? We've got the evidence right there,” he started to point at the screen and then stopped as another thought hit him. “Oh, right. AI's aren't supposed to exist. But we don't actually have to tell them about Jarvis.”
“Not without raising some questions on how exactly we got this footage. And then there is the way she got in, using either something supernatural or high-tech wizardry on the level of Ted. Both should be investigated by us,” Buffy concluded. “So we need to send someone to LA to do exactly that. And since you already seem to know this Gwen,” Buffy said looking at Cordelia, “you should go along too.”
“She?” Xander echoed as Buffy nodded. “She's the only one who has actually met this Gwen and is familiar with the social circles she's traveling in. And I wouldn't complain too much 'cause you're going with her.”
“It can't be me or Faith, we still got a Hellmouth here to keep an eye on. I need Giles here if something does go down and Willow is out because there's a good chance there will be a confrontation.”
“Hey, I can handle myself!” Willow objected.
“Didn't say you couldn't, but you're more fire-support rather than front-line gal,” Buffy assured her friend.
“That's nice, but I don't see why should I go,” Cordelia rejoined.
“I said why, you're our best bet at finding her.”
“Uhuh, that's why you want me to go. Why should I want to go? With him?” the cheerleader asked indicating Xander who gave an offended “Hey!” at the gesture.
“Because you get to spend the weekend at one of the finest hotels of LA and go shopping on the company's dime? After all, if you have to socialize to find our thief you both need to blend in.”
“And I get to keep any clothes afterward?”
“If the purchases are within reason and you turn in a receipt upon your return,” Giles hastily amended.
“But about finding the thief, what am I supposed to do when I do find her? I mean, I'm pretty sure she's already sold what she took and we already know about what she left behind,” a puzzled Xander pointed out.
“Actually, there are still a few things we might learn from the leak,” Giles informed him. “Tap,” Ms. Calendar whispered into his ear none too softly. “Ah, yes, uhm, an examination of the physical object might provide us with a few more leads so I suggest you make that your first order of business after settling in, of course. I'll be arranging the details while all of you attend your classes.”
“Not so fast, there's the little matter of my fee,” Cordelia objected.
“Fee?” the Watcher asked looking mystified.
“Yeah, we've agreed upon the expenses now we're talking about my pay.”Summers Industries, Sunnydale branch
Xander was starting to have some second thoughts about all of this as he stood there beside Cordelia while Buffy went over the equipment. It was mostly for Cordelia's benefit because he already knew most of this. “Okay, now here's your own Rebirth-suit with the same modifications as Xander's so whatever this Raiden does to disrupt electronics, it shouldn't work on the suits.”
“I thought I was only supposed to play guide, now you want me to fight too?”
Buffy simply shrugged. “This is more of a just in case thing, you never know,” she finished as she closed the suitcase. “Same reason you get the night vision sunglasses and the repulsor pistol. To be honest, I think you'll get more use out of the laptop, but this can get dangerous.”
“Why am I helping you again?”
“Shoes?” the blonde suggested. There was no sour note there, despite the fact that Cordelia had pretty much blackmailed them. But then, they all knew her financial situation and they knew the brunette would most likely need that money.
“Right,” Cordelia agreed nodding her head. “Okay, let's get this over with.”
“If you're sure. Now, you'll be staying at the Giltmore Hotel and not to worry, we booked two adjoining rooms. Giles alerted the SI's office manager to have everyone to work from home today. He's expecting you to check things out later today. Giles is also lending you his car.”
“Giles' car?” both Xander and Cordelia said. Neither sounded happy at the news.
“I can assure you it is perfectly serviceable,” the librarian huffed. Then he got a somewhat sheepish look. “Though not up to the journey to LA and back. So you'll be using the car I've been leasing for those trips.”
“I'm driving,” Xander quickly said. “I've seen how you drive,” he told Cordelia in an aside.
“Not my fault, Amy's mother cursed me remember. I couldn't see a thing.”
“I was talking about last week,” Xander shot back.
Narrowing her eyes, Cordelia countered, “Do you even have a license?”
“Yup, got it this summer.”
“Fine, I'll let you drive me if you load the luggage,” she consented.
“Oh gee, may I?”Los Angeles, Giltmore Hotel
Opening the door with one hand Cordelia barely looked at Xander except to signal him to stay quiet. “No, I'm not kidding,” she told the girl at the other end of the line. “I really snagged him and yes, he's handsome,” she lied through her teeth as she walked back to her bed. One that she didn't have to share, thank you very much. She'd been half-worried she'd end up in some cliche situation where there was only one room left. Thankfully, this was real life.
So while Xander had been away investigating the scene of the crime, Cordelia was doing her part trying to find out as much as she could about Gwen. Including getting an invite to a party she'd be attending tomorrow. Though it rankled a little that she'd had to use Xander to pry it out of Stacy here. Sure, all they knew about him was that he owned a share of Summers Industries and not the dork she'd known since kindergarten. A dork she would now have to be seen in public with, oh joy.
Saying her goodbyes the brunette turned to an increasingly impatient Xander. “Okay, you may now speak.”
“How gracious of you,” Xander retorted. Then his expression got glum. “I hope you got something 'cause we got nada. Buffy was surprised at how advanced that bugging device was, but we couldn't find a clue on who made it. I sent it overnight back to Sunnydale and hopefully they'll find something when they tear it apart. So I'm hoping-I can't believe I'm saying this-that you had better luck?”
Giving him a triumphant smile, Cordelia nodded. “I did one better. Not only did I get a last name for Gwen, I also got us an invite to the party she'll be at on Saturday. Which means I'll have to spend most of the day disguising you.”
“What do you mean, disguise me? Nobody here knows who I am!”
“No,” Cordelia corrected, “they know you're one of the newest dot-com kids that struck it big. What we need to hide is what a loser you are. I'm just glad that nobody back home is going to hear about this.”
“I know how to blend in, thank you very much. I brought a monkey suit and everything.”
Cordelia scoffed at that. “It's not that kind of a party, but thanks for making my point for me. And it's not just clothes, we need to change everything. Like your hair...”
One hand went to said hair, but Xander froze halfway there. “What the heck is wrong with my hair?”
“Please, like I'm actually going to spend the rest of the night explaining it to you. Now, I've got a lot of work ahead of me and I haven't even had dinner yet. Which you are paying for, by the way.”
“I am not taking you out on a date,” Xander said.
“I'm glad I didn't have to make that clear. But you're still paying for dinner.”Goleta
“Alright, it's time. Let's put it in place and toss the guy out before he wakes up,” their leader instructed looking down on the unconscious human on the floor of the van. None of the four vampires in the van felt any temptation to take a sip from the shirtless human. First and foremost, their boss had told them what he expected of them and disappointing him was suicide, plain and simple. And the boy's smell was off somehow.
Motioning for the other two to take a hold of the human, Gary pulled the triangular piece of metal out the bag. It was supposed to be magical and dangerous, so he kept it away from him as much as possible. One side had a multi-armed demon engraved on it, the other side was blank. There was also a small hole at each point for some kind of fastener, but the boss hadn't given anything of the sort.
“Alright, he said to put longest side on the left,” Gary thought out loud.
“Uh, our left or your left?”
Giving Bart a hard look, Gary hissed, “his left.” And with those words he pressed the metal piece onto the human's bare chest. He could've sworn the figure on the metal gave a silent roar just before a nail appeared in each hole which then drove home into the human's flesh and bone.
The boy screamed as his eyes flew open. “Shit, he's awake,” Arthur cursed.
Gary wasn't happy with this either, especially when the human started to vibrate as his skin flushed bright red. “Get him out!” he shouted before throwing the doors open. The night air was still warm from the sun and the streets pretty busy. Arthur and Bart were trying to work the boy out of the van, causing it to rock which drew quite a bit of attention.
They weren't having a lot of luck either. “This is taking too long!” Gary snarled. Wanting to get this over with, he tried to grab a hold of the boy's legs, but missed. The boy didn't. It felt like he'd got kicked by horse, the unneeded air exploding from his lungs as he was launched out of the van.Sunnydale
“Ma'am, there is a disturbance in Goleta,” Jarvis announced. “Multiple 911 calls about a large, red humanoid tearing apart a van with his bare hands on Shirrell Way.”
“What?” Buffy shouted as she came to a full stop over Sunnydale. Besides her, Faith took a little longer to arrest her momentum in the Mark 1. They were in the middle of a flying lesson when Jarvis' unexpected report had come in. It took her a moment to even place the name, because Buffy honestly couldn't recall anywhere in Sunnydale with that name. And that was because it wasn't in Sunnydale, as her HUD now showed, which made it even stranger. “Wills, could you check your sensor?”
It wasn't because she hadn't thought it possible that something supernatural would happen outside of Sunnydale, exactly, otherwise she wouldn't have instructed Jarvis to expand the range of his surveillance. But she hadn't expected it to happen in a public space. “Don't need to, whatever is happening is powerful enough to have already tripped Gargamel. Should I steer the Seraph there for confirmation?”
“No, I didn't build it with speed in mind. The drone would take ages to get there, best if I just go. Faith, you stay here and-”
“No way I'm letting you have all the fun, B!” the brunette objected.
“This isn't about fun, this is about playing it smart. We don't know what's going on, and the Mark 1 wasn't designed for combat. And just because things are going nuts in Gollygotta doesn't mean the vamps here are going to take the night off.” They didn't have time for this, but she didn't want Faith following her and leaving Sunnydale unprotected.
After a moment, the silver figure hovering a few yards away nodded. “Alright, I'll hold the fort down.”
“Great! Willow, get a hold of Giles. Tell him what's going on, I need him online by the time I get there.” Giving a little more gas Buffy ascended higher. Best to have some distance between her and any windows before she went supersonic.Goleta
Slowing down Buffy descended below the sparse cloud cover to get her first look at what was happening. Below her, there were no obvious signs that a demon was rampaging through the streets. No roars or sounds of crunching metal could reach her, and there was no pillar of smoke to guide her in. What drew her attention was the flashing lights of a police car.
Her helmet interface noticed her focus and brought up a window with a magnified image. Up close, it was clear the police car was being held up and shaken by something obscured by the car's body. Then the patrol car was slammed into the road and Buffy could see what was causing all the commotion. As could Giles and Willow back in Sunnydale, though only Willow could communicate with her. Giles would have to relay his info through her friend back at SI. “Buffy, you might want to get this over fast. According to Jarvis, there's a news chopper on the way and SWAT's been called in.”
“Got it,” Buffy responded as she took a moment to study the thing. The demon was a livid red color with prominent veins crisscrossing his skin. Every muscle looked to be on the verge of exploding, and his mouth seemed to be stuck in a permanent snarl. The thermal profile gave a new definition to hot-blooded. 'A hundred and eighty degrees?' Before her eyes, the demon reached down and tore off the front bumper to club the police lights. Apparently they were bothering him for some reason.
The car doors flew open and two officers half leapt, half staggered from the car. One rolled and just ran while the other went to one knee and drew his pistol. The demon noticed that and kicked the car out of the way to get a clear path to the brave officer. “Not gonna happen,” Buffy muttered as she angled her body down.
Opening up the throttle, the Slayer rocketed down to Earth aiming for a point between the demon and the police officer. The ground was getting awfully close. 'Got to time this right. Almost, alm- Now!' Twisting herself around to slow her descent just enough to make her landing safe, Buffy landed in a crouch on the asphalt. The road cracked under her feet as the shock traveled through her body. 'Okay, should have started stopping a liiiiittle bit sooner.'
It looked impressive though, and she had startled both of them. The red-skinned demon stopped with the bumper raised over his head and the police officer accidentally fired his gun, the bullet ricocheting off her helmet before hitting the demon. It didn't bounce off of his skin and the demon roared as a spurt of its hot blood hit Buffy's faceplate. It cut off quickly as the demon's muscles swelled, closing off the wound even before the skin grew back. He started to move again, but Buffy was ready. Coming up from her crouch she aimed both her palm-repulsors at his chest and let loose.
It was only then that the metal plate bolted to the creature's chest registered, one of the beams hitting it but didn't seem to do any damage. In fact, the overall effect was less than impressive as the demon was only forced to take a single step backwards as it dropped the bumper. At least it had gotten his attention away from the officer and onto Buffy. The demon lunged forward, launching a wild haymaker with his left.
This was where the Mark II was such an improvement over the prototype, its flexibility. Jumping up the armored Slayer vaulted over the arm to let it pass harmlessly underneath her. 'Guess I'll just have to kick his ass the old-fashioned way,” Buffy thought as she supported her jump with one hand on the demon's arm, further unbalancing him. That, however, backfired as the monster spun around and his flailing arm connected with the blonde while she was still off the ground.
It was graceless and didn't have the demon's full power behind it, but it was still enough to send Buffy flying for a solid ten yards before she bounced off the asphalt. It had happened too fast for her, she hadn't had time to brace for the impact or to soften it. Instead, all she could do was make the best of the aftermath as Buffy twisted to face the demon and stuck out her arms. Firing her stabilizers at full power to arrest her momentum, the Slayer landed on her feet and came to a dead stop.
There was no time to inspect the damage because the red-skinned monster was already charging for her, growling as his legs pumped under him. This time she aimed her repulsors for his face and used a wider beam. He cried out at the hit, blinded by the dispersed repulsor energy striking his eyes. But it didn't stop him and Buffy honestly hadn't counted on it. With an assist of her boot-repulsors she simply jumped over her giant opponent while he finished his charge straight into a wall.
“You,” she addressed the remaining police officer who looked to be in his thirties. “Back off, all you can do is make him madder.” The voice the patrolman heard didn't sound anything like Buffy's, or any woman for that matter. She was determined to maintain an actual secret identity this time so for occasions like these she used a synthesized voice. Looking back at where the demon was pulling himself out of what remained of the wall, the blonde couldn't help but shake her head. “Yikes, I'm getting Hulk-flashbacks,” she said to herself.
“Actually, that might not be such a bad analogy, Buffy,” Willow piped up just as the demon lunged at her.
“Not really the time to play twenty questions, Wills,” Buffy shot back as she evaded the swipe before returning the favor with a one-two punch. The demon obviously felt them, but was only stunned for a second before he attacked again. This time, Buffy didn't evade in time and got knocked clear over the patrol car.
“Sorry, Giles is still explaining and I'm trying to, like... Okay, here's the deal. That metal triangle on his chest is a Crest of Anankh and the source of the problem. It's supposed to enhance a demon's strength slightly.”
“It doesn't feel slightly to me,” the Slayer pointed out snapping off a few repulsor-blasts that kept the demon at a safe distance.
“That's because you're not fighting a demon, you're fighting a human.”
“A HUMAN? Willow, I told you-”
“And I was getting to it,” the redhead interrupted her in turn. “Giles says it enhances a human a lot, but it also makes them go berserk.”
“It can't be human, he's practically boiling and I can tell his blood pressure's through the roof from here so... He's dying,” Buffy whispered as she looked at the... berserker busy roaring at the sky. His muscles actually swelled as she looked, they had to be close to bursting like popped balloons. Then its blood-filled eyes locked on her again.
It picked up a car and heaved it above his head. Buffy wasn't going to wait to find out if he meant to throw it or simply use it to swat her like a bug. Bringing up her right arm, panels on her forearm slid away uncovering her sonic scrambler. Upping it to maximum volume and aiming straight for his head, the Slayer let loose. She could swear she actually saw the soundwaves enveloping the berserker's head.
It stopped the berserker. He roared again, but this time in pain, and let the car drop in favor of covering his head in a futile attempt to stop the noise. What it wasn't doing though, was knocking him unconscious like it should. 'Could be all that muscle mass, or maybe that Ana rock-thing altered his brain. No way to tell. Come on, go down, go down.' She tried to will him down, but her target kept standing. He did start to crouch, shaking his head as if to get rid of some annoying, buzzing insect.
“Buffy,” Willow called again. “I just did some checking, and I think I know who it is. It's Pete!”
“Yes! You know, Oz's friend. He disappeared a few days ago, the police are looking for him 'cause they think he killed Jeff and Debbie.”
“Oh, him.” Suspicions started to crawl around the blond's mind. Before she could pursue them, however, a screech of tortured metal called her attention back to the present. The berserker, Pete, had ripped off the hood from the car and was now holding it in front of him as as shield. It seemed to be working too.
Biting off a curse, the blonde switched arms and weapons. Electricity arced between her and the metal hood then flowing into Pete's arms. In theory, it shouldn't matter how mad Pete was or how strong he'd gotten, his body still worked according to certain principles. It should, anyway. 'And it looks like it still does,' Buffy concluded when the hood slipped from nerveless fingers and clanged to the ground followed swiftly by Pete's hulking form.
Keeping the blaster trained on Pete, Buffy hurried over to him. Given how much strain his body must be under she didn't want to zap him any more than necessary, but the plate had to come off and that wasn't going to happen while Pete could put up a fight. “Willow, Giles better have found a way for that Anasazi thing to come off!”
“He's been trying to find a way, but most people don't live long enough to try and it comes off on its own when the wearer dies.”
The Slayer sighed. “Guess I'll just have t-” She choked off that sentence when Pete suddenly moved just as Buffy entered within arm's reach of him. His hand grabbed the exposed parts of the blaster right before she could fire and his grip only tightened when the electricity caused his muscles to seize up. She could feel the weapon crack, but was still surprised when Pete managed to yank it off of her armor.
Her suit automatically cut off power to what remained of the electric blaster and closed the panels on her forearm. It was not a moment too soon because Pete got a hold of her arm again, but Buffy wasn't going to wait around and let him manhandle her. Her armored hand chopped at his wrist breaking his hold and the following backhanded strike rocked his head to the right.
Unfortunately, when he repeated the move with her leg it was a little harder to block him. Pete dragged her off her feet as he got up, he swung her around and her head collided with the car Pete had dropped. The car came off the worse from that encounter, but Pete wasn't finished yet. He spun in place as he swung her around and around like he was in an athletic event.
Buffy wanted to do something, but was worried he'd let go and send her flying into a building. Also, she was getting kinda dizzy. The matter became moot a heartbeat later when Pete simply let go launching her into the air. It became clear right away that Pete had a poor aim, since she wasn't making any holes in unsuspecting walls. It was a simple matter to flip around and open up her repulsors to take control of her flight.
Looking back, the blonde found the reason for Pete's bad throw. He was stumbling about, his head turned this way and that in an apparent effort to find her. “I'm getting my ass kicked by that?” Buffy marveled shaking her head.
From somewhere a small dog ran across the street, its owner must have lost her in the chaos. She'd almost passed Pete when the black and brown canine came to a sudden stop and turned to look at the berserker. From up above, Buffy saw the dog's ears go flat and her teeth bared.
A helpful screen on her HUD informed her that this particular breed was called a Manchester Terrier and provided her with some useless statistics. The Slayer ignored it in favor for the scene below, where the dog had started to bark ferociously ignoring the significant size difference.
At first, Pete looked puzzled but the expression quickly turned back into anger and he kicked the annoyance. It would have connected if the dog hadn't decided to bark at Pete from a different angle, she sprinted away just in time. “Oh no you don't, pick on someone your own size!” Buffy muttered.
She flew back at full throttle while keeping a careful eye on Pete's back who was still occupied with trying to squash the dog. Her repulsors ate up the distance, but this time Buffy didn't slow down in the final few yards before plowing into her opponent. Her arm wrapped around his throat as Pete collapsed to his knees from the impact, only just catching himself from eating asphalt.
The Slayer squeezed, hard, closing his windpipe but trying just as hard not to crush it. Buffy didn't want to kill Pete, just knock him out. Pete wasn't liking it one bit. With a single heave he was back up on his feet snarling like an animal, his hands already reaching for her arm in an attempt to get some relief. “Give it up Pete, I'm not going anywhere.” Pete didn't listen, though, and the blonde let out a grunt of surprise when her arm actually started to ease off.
She actually had to red-line her suit's actuators to counter-act Pete's strength. When prying the arm away didn't work, Pete got desperate. Shaking this way and that, he tried to get a hold of Buffy so he could yank her off. She only just managed to clamp her legs around Pete's waist to foil that move when Pete took a different tack.
He leapt backward squashing Buffy between himself and a convenient wall. The blonde didn't feel it, but she could hear the bricks crack and crumble underneath her as Pete used the wall like a scratch pole. “There goes my paintjob,” Buffy muttered still holding on. While she hadn't felt the wall, she noticed when Pete tried again using a metal lamppost.
But that was also the last thing Pete tried as his snarls and growls had gained a breathless quality by now. He sank to his knees trying to weakly pull her arm away with one hand while the other kept him from toppling over. It was all but over now and pretty soon Buffy was finally standing on her own two feet over the limp form of Pete.
Only a few yards away, the dog was looking at them proudly with its tongue hanging out like it was she who'd defeated the monster. This close, her suit could read the microchip her owner had tagged her with. 'Polly? Who names their dog after a parrot?' Shaking her head in bemusement, she activated her external speakers for a moment. “Alright, you helped. Now run along, Miss Vinelli must be sick with worry about you.”
Ignoring the dog, the blonde's attention returned to Pete. “Now I just have to find a way to pry...” Buffy's voice dropped off when she noticed Pete was shrinking. Muscles deflated like someone was letting the air out of them, veins were simply disappearing as his skin lost that fiery red color. But that skin wasn't fully returning to normal, because it went from being smooth to the consistency of a dried prune.
Turning him over, Buffy gasped barely noticing the copper plate still lying on the ground, Pete looked like he was past retirement-age. His chest, the ribs clearly visible, barely moved as he breathed. He needed a hospital right away. She couldn't carry him there, not in the state Pete was in. Looking around, Buffy tried to find a phone. If she called 911 with the armor, they'd trace it right back to the company but the blonde really couldn't see an alternative. 'Note to self: install an untraceable phone pronto!'
The police officer from earlier took just that moment to edge around the corner of a nearby alley, his gun out but pointed down. Seeing her standing over a shirtless man and with no big, red monster in sight he started to come towards Buffy. “Officer Leffer,” Buffy began reading the name off of the helpful window that had popped up as he entered her field of view, “just the man I was looking for.” He, of course, was startled at her knowing his name, but Buffy ignored it. “I need you to call an ambulance. Mister Clarner isn't doing so well.”
“How did you...?” Leffer started to ask as his eyes went to the body lying on the street. “Was he that thing?”
“Yes, he was. Just file it away as a drug-overdose or way too much gamma rays and call an ambulance.”
Shaking his head, Officer Leffer's hand finally went to his radio. Not paying too much attention to what he said, Buffy crouched and picked up the crest responsible for this whole mess. 'Best not to leave this lying around,' the inventor thought standing back up.
“That was on the guy,” Leffer remarked having finished his call to dispatch. “Leave it there, it's evidence.”
Meeting his gaze, Buffy corrected him. “It's dangerous. Now, I really need to go 'cause I don't want to appear on the eleven o'clock news.” Not giving him a chance to respond, the Slayer launched herself into the sky as the sound of helicopters grew.
Swaj and the camera-man he'd hired tracked the armored figure flying away, the clamshell in his hands showing what the camera was filming. His two guards did the same, the dice they'd been playing with earlier laid abandoned on the roof of the building they were all perched on.
The only one who wasn't paying attention to the flying Slayer was the shaman Swaj had hired for this little outing. His eyes were focused on a small collection of bones tied together with a snake's skin, muttering unintelligible words that kept the group hidden.
All too soon, the Slayer shrank into an insignificant dot and Swaj finally closed the clamshell. He stood there, looking at the device in his hands and pondered. Binoculars would have been easier and less expensive than hiring this setup. Unfortunately, the shape of his head made it nearly impossible to use them.
'But its all money well spent,' Swaj concluded as the fight he'd just seen played back in his mind. 'The Guild is definitely going to be interested in this, they'll lower my dues for this year enough to recover my expenses. Hell, they might even exempt me. If we can make a profit out of this information.'
And that was the stickler, wasn't it? They weren't in conflict with the Watchers, but several of their clients were. Those would pay for the intelligence, but that was peanuts. A one off deal that wouldn't net the Iron Mongers much. The real money would be in getting their hands on that suit, or the blueprints for it.
'It would be nice if we could produce them ourselves,' Swaj thought wistfully. But he held no illusions. He might specialize in magical commodities, but even he could tell that the armor was fiendishly complex. That also ruled out their demon clients, since most of them weren't even using gunpowder. Their human customers, though, they'd appreciate the product. They'd get the value of what such a suit offered. And pay accordingly or risk seeing a rival get their hands on it.
'But first, there's the small matter of getting our hands on it.' Not that Swaj was overly worried about that. Armed with the video, he'd get others enthusiastic enough to take on that risk.I am doing a rare dedication, this one to our family's dog who passed away in April after twelve years of faithful companionship. Something I wasn't always as appreciative of as I should have been.TO BE CONTINUED