Disclaimer: Marvel characters belong to Marvel, original characters belong to me. Use them at your peril. Doing so without my express permission will bring the wrath of the Ferret on Crack, yours truly, upon you. You have been warned.

Author's Note: WOW it's been a long time. Oh well, I made up for it with an extra long (and I do mean long) chapter, complete with HTML scripting! Now I can abuse italics! Wheeeee! :) Anyway, don't worry... the Phalanx thing ends. At LAST. Now I can move on to the fun stuff...{evil grin}

:Hmm, now where to begin?: Jason mused idly as he sat down in a leather armchair, which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. I was alert enough to catch Karen mumble something that sounded like: :Oh, sure, go right ahead and make yourself at home...: which, under the circumstances, was somewhat more polite than what I would have expected her to say. She sounded considerably less furious than before--perhaps because now she knew that she would, inevitably, get what she wanted.

:Hey, Dawn?: Derrick whispered as Jason seemed to lose himself in thought.


:You'll notice there was nothing in the bargain about me.:

I nodded. :You noticed that too? I guess this was more of a personal thing--although why the blazes he thought the only way to fix his relationship with his sister was to let himself be co-opted my an alien intelligence is beyond me. Sheesh.:

:Jase never was that overly rational when it came to Karen,: Derrick informed me with a sigh. :No one could ever really figure out if this was a good thing.:

:On the bright side, it did keep her from attacking us,: I pointed out. The slashes on my back and side were beginning to sting--this had not been a fun trip.

:True, but for how long..?:

:Okay, let's just start at the beginning,: Jason said abruptly, looking up at Karen. :You mind tactile sensations as well as audible and visual?:

I saw her body stiffen almost imperceptibly. :Not... all of it,: she said tightly, as if something in that statement had struck a rather sensitive nerve. I saw Jason wince apologetically.

:Sorry, forgot about that...:

:Just get this over with, will you?:

:Fine, fine, give me a second to get this organized...:

Admittedly, I was pretty new to the super hero thing, but even I knew this was pretty weird for a so-called "battle". Mostly the day had involved a lot of waiting around and arguing punctuated by brief spurts of pain. So much for the traditional "go in, make your speech, and beat the #*%$ out of the bad-guy" theme...

:Wanna play "I Spy"?: I murmured to Derrick as Jason concentrated on whatever memories he was intent on dredging up.

:Shut up,: Karen snapped immediately, her eyes still fixed on her twin. I shut up.

:Ready...: Jason sent softly...

...and then the world was lost in memory.

:This has got to be the worst security system I have ever seen,: Karen griped as she pulled the glittering silver wires back into her fingertips. :If this place is so easy to get into, why did our employer hire us? Any two-bit hacker could get in here!:

Jason chuckled under his breath as he steadied the flashlight he had been using to illuminate the master control panel for Karen. :Well, what he doesn't know can't hurt him,: Jason informed her as she flexed her fingers a little. :We're getting paid good for this one--let's just hope that none of the guards we put down will be back up in time to sound the alarm.:

:Not unless you've lost your touch,: she teased, brushing a strand of short silver hair behind her ear. She winked at him. :Besides, you'd know if anyone was coming. Now get a move on it--we've still got to find central processing and those files.:

With a curt nod Jason clicked off the flashlight and closed his eyes. :All right, experiment time. Which way should we go?:


Extending his somewhat meager precognitive abilities, Jason searched the immediate future carefully.

:No,: he said after a moment. :Not even close.:

:Right then?:

:Yep. Which corridor?:

:First on the left.:


:Second on the left.:


:First on the right.:

:...That's the one.:

Karen grinned. :Thank God for precognition,: she beamed as Jason flicked the flashlight back on. :We'd probably have had to wander around the complex for hours without it.:

:Or until you found a terminal you could hack into,: Jason put in as he and Karen began to walk, briskly but soundlessly, down the silent hallway. Well, not silent exactly--the low, steady thrum of machinery and odd reverberations of functioning electronics was testimony to the fact that only the lights and security system had been shut down. The complex smelled clean, almost antiseptic. It must have been only recently completed... which, when you took into consideration the ease with which the guards had been subdued, made all the more sense.

The security is horrible here, he thought as he and Karen padded quietly down the darkened hallway, their sneakers thudding almost inaudibly on the cold, grey tiles. Only six guards, a security system a child could crack... and no power dampeners. That's odd--I wouldn't've expected it from a place that specializes on mutant research--or whatever it is they do here...

Jason shrugged to himself and swept the weak beam of the flashlight across the darkness, searching for the corridor they wanted. Why argue with luck? It was easy money, and if anything was about to go wrong his precognition would inform him beforehand. They had nothing to worry about.

They rounded a corner and searched the hallway until the appropriate door came up, as indicated by Jason's sixth sense.

:Here it is,: he sent, sweeping the door in question. It was solid steel, probably reinforced by titanium. It alone had probably cost a small fortune. :Door's electronically sealed. Ladies first.:

:How gallant,: Karen thought dryly, but she extended several dozen wire-like filaments from the tips of her fingers nonetheless. Closing her eyes for greater focus, she skillfully tapped into the security lock and "convinced" it that admitting them would be just fine. Jason smiled at her.

:Is it just me, or are you getting faster?:

:That last one,: she smirked without a hint of modesty. :Practice makes perfect and all that.:

Jason nodded and slipped through the now open door, followed by his twin. :No alarms in here, either..?: he inquired as she headed for the huge terminal situated on the back wall of the small, equipment-stocked room

:Turned 'em off already,: Karens answered smugly. :Face it, Jase... we are good.:

:And oh-so-humble,: Jason snorted, rolling his eyes. :Well, if you don't mind, I'll be waiting outside. I've got the attention span of a fruit-fly, and if I don't keep myself occupied and scanning the facility I'll probably fall asleep.:

:Yeah, yeah, yeah...: Karen replied distantly, already immersed in the impossibly complicated computer system. Jason shook his head and made a discreet exit. As the door obediently swished closed behind him, he wondered how on earth Karen could be so blase about the whole affair. Yes, he knew they were good at what they did--but he still got butterflies in his stomach whenever they broke into a place, still felt his throat tighten whenever even the merest possibility of discovery arose. He supposed he was just being paranoid--but, as he had pointed out to Karen, many precogs were, especially if their powers weren't alpha-class. Being lower than an alpha always left a possibility of a mistake, increasing the ever-present sense of impending doom. The last was something Jason really could have lived without--not only was it usually a false alarm, it often lingered even after than danger had passed. Not only was it starting to strain his nerves, it bothered him even in a "safe" situation like this...

:I've got it,: Karen's thought cut in abruptly, startling him out of his reverie.

:So soon?: Jason sent with a mingling of admiration and surprise. He sensed Karen nodding her head.

:Yeah. This system is so user-friendly to hackers I could've done this without utilizing my technopathy! These Hellfire Club personnel are real idio--:

Then there was an explosion.

Jason sensed it just before he felt it. His mind shrieked with sympathetic agony as a searing heat screamed through the sealed room behind him, tearing through plastic, metal... and flesh. The door they had admired scant minutes before protected him from the shrapnel--but not all of the concussive force. Shared pain made his body shudder convulsively as he "felt" flames licking at his skin and white-hot, sharp barbs of metal ripping through his skin...

He barely retained enough presence of mind to drag himself out of the way scarce seconds before the door buckled and groaned on its hinges as it collapsed outwards, right across the position where he had fallen to the floor. He spared a moment to alternately praise and curse his precognition; it had saved his life for sure, but it had not informed him of the danger Karen had been in.

Karry, Karry... oh please, God, let her be alive..! he prayed, his stomach coiling into a hard, cold knot as he staggered to his feet, eyes and throat burning. He stared into the hypnotic flames that filled the room that had once possessed a computer terminal... and his twin. It seemed oddly surreal--the amber flames danced slowly, casting eerie shadows across the hallway as dark, soot-laden smoke stung his nostrils and clogged his throat. With a sharp, determined shake of his head he roused himself from his trance and, without hesitation, threw himself into the room with one arm held before his nose in mouth in a vain attempt to lessen the intake of smoke. The fire hadn't yet reached the threshold, nor was it as wide-spread as it had seemed from the hallway, but it was more than dangerous enough. Jason cast about desperately, trying to see through the orange haze and the intense heat that brought tears to his eyes and sweat from his brow, searching for Karen. He felt her pain in his mind, although not as sharply as before--she was unconscious, but not dead. For that he was sincerely grateful--he didn't want his sister to have to endure this.

After a few frantic seconds of searching, both visually and psychically, Jason finally found Karen's crumpled form near the east wall, half hidden behind a demolished consol. She was out ofthe way of the fire, and badly concussed on the wall from the looks of things, but her arms... her arms...

"Oh my God... oh my God, Karry, I'm so sorry... I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry..." Jason babbled, trying to figure out a way to touch her that wouldn't hurt her any more than she already had been. Her arms were a slick red ruin, scoured by shrapnel and seared by the heat. A trickle of blood was on her temple, glimmering wetly in the encroaching firelight. Jason suspected she had probably cracked her skull against the wall when the impact of the blast hurled her across the room.

A nearby consol caved in on itself and oozed inwards, melting from within. Jason decided that nothing he did now would equal the trauma of burning to death, and scooped his sister up in his arms. She was oddly heavy, although he didn't waste time thinking about it. All he was concerned about at the moment was getting the hell out of there with all his skin intact, and possibly avoiding third degree burns. He shifted Karen's weight until it was comfortable for him to carry and walked briskly towards the door, not yet concerned enough by the flames to risk jarring his twin by breaking into an uneasy sprint. Smoke scratched at his lungs, making drawing a decent breath almost impossible. His arms were aching already--he was not a strong man, and his mutancy did nothing to enhance his physique. He was on his own.

Finally, Jason managed to get past the threshold and out of the furnace. He stumbled down the hall a few steps before sagging against the opposite wall, panting. His knees buckled beneath him, and he slid down the slick surface to his knees, still cradling his twin's limp form.

Jason took a deep, shuddering breath and glanced down at Karen. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, her flesh damp and feverish against his. His dark clothing was soaked through with her blood, and all his exposed flesh was covered in the slick, sticky substance. His eyes flicked down to the source of that blood, her arms and torso...

He turned away, his gorge rising to his throat and eyes stinging with unshed tears. He swallowed his horror and staggered to his feet, cradling her as gently as he could--he had no time to curse himself and bemoan fate, he needed to get her to a hospital. He didn't know what he would tell them when he came in with his battered and bloody sister in his arms--and truthfully, he didn't care. He didn't even care if they got arrested as long as Karen was cared for. It would likely have happened anyway, sooner or later...

He ripped off his jacket and pressed it gently atop her arms and torso, hoping it would staunch a little of the blood. It wasn't as if he was going to need it now.

He didn't even remember leaving the complex, let alone making his way to his car. It seemed to him that he had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he had arrived.

I'm probably in shock, he thought as he juggled Karen's weight and fished around in his pocket for his keys. His eyes were dry, his thoughts permeated by a strange feeling of calm. It was definitely shock.

He managed to extract his keys and was about to insert them into the lock when the door swung open of its own accord. Wary now, although too emotionally drained to be startled, Jason slowly turned to look over his shoulder.

"Do you have the data?" inquired the smooth, cultured voice Jason had half-expected to hear. The precog narrowed his eyes ever so slightly.

"Yes..." Jason enunciated carefully, his voice containing not even the barest hint of a quaver now. "Right here."

Carefully, Jason set his sister on the grass and reached around until he felt Karen's belt pouch. Deftly releasing the clasp, he drew out the disks Karen had so painstakingly copied and hurled them at his employer. He was rather disappointed when the tall man caught them with little trouble.

"There," Jason said flatly. "There are your damn disks. Now get the hell away from us. I need to get to the hospital."

Their employer arched one pale, elegant eyebrow. Jason realized he had never even given them his name. "I am a doctor, you know," the man informed him, taking a few brisk paces foreword. Jason's heart gave a faint, hopeful little flip. "I will examine her if you like."

"Oh..." Jason said weakly, feeling slightly light-headed. "If you would..."

"It is merely professional courtesy," was all the man said, bending over Karen's unconscious form. Jason leaned foreword eagerly, hoping for some sign that it was not really as bad as it seemed...

When the stranger raised his head, nothing about his somber demeanor had changed. "She is in a coma," he stated, wearing no more expression than he would have if he had been observing the weather. "It is unlikely she will awaken any time soon."

Jason felt his heart sink to his boots. His knees suddenly buckled beneath him, causing him to make a wild grab for the car door lest he fall. His brain, although numb with shock, had already activated his telepathy to ascertain whether what the stranger told him was true. A few seconds of probing determined that it was--Karen's mind, usually vibrant and quicksilver, had slowed to dull, sluggish crawl.

There's got to be a way... to help... he thought weakly, his eyes frantically skimming her unconscious form. Her powers usually helped in circumstances like this, but the damage was so extensive...

"I see her technomorphic powers are working to close the wounds," his employer stated casually, as if answering his unspoken question. In the dim moonlight Jason could make out tiny metallic filaments crawling out of the wounds and expanding as rapidly as they could, merging to form plate-like structures over the prone flesh.

"Will that be enough?" Jason whispered, even as one of the largest clumps shuddered and suddenly withdrew itself back into the recesses of Karen's arm. The other man shook his head.

"There is too much damage," the other answered, rising to his feet and idly brushing off his immaculate charcoal suit. "Without special treatment, she will never recover."

The surge of hope Jason felt was stifled by his cautious nature. "Special treatment I presume you can provide," Jason said slowly, his thoughts shifting immediately from protective-brother-mode to wary-businessman-mode. Just because the job was falling apart didn't mean his common sense was doing the same.

"You presume correctly," the man agreed, again arching an elegant eyebrow in his direction. "Would you care to hear my proposition?"


"I had originally intended this to be a one-time job. However, I find your sister's mutation... fascinating. I will treat her, but I wish to use this time to study her as well."

Jason's jaw stiffened slightly. "You will not use her as a guinea pig," he said sharply. The elder man shrugged.

"That had not been my intention. I wished only to study her recuperative process in a controlled environment. I do not believe this is unreasonable."

Jason let out the breath he had been holding. "No, I suppose it isn't," he admitted. "I--"

"However," his employer interrupted calmly, "You may disapprove of the next condition. I have taken note of your precognitive abilities. They are somewhat inferior to what I would have wished, but I believe that complication may be rectified."

"Hold on," Jason said sharply, jerking to full attention. "Why would you need my talents as a precog?"

His employer regarded him cooly. "I am something of a scientist," he answered smoothly. "At times some of my... experiments... prove unnecessarily time-consuming, and yield little that would justify the inordinate amount of time and effort I invested in it. That is the risk factor involved in all things. I would like to reduce that risk factor--to see if a particular experiment is worth my time before I choose to undertake it. Does this not sound logical?"

Jason nodded slowly, even though a worm of doubt gnawed at the back of his mind. He attempted to ignore the doubt and asked, "And how long would I be working for you?"

His employer's eyes turned back to Karen--a quick, calculating glance that Jason did not neglect to note.

"I would estimate as long as it takes for your sister to fully recover," the man replied, returning his attention to Jason. "Is that a reasonable offer?"

By the look in the man's eyes, Jason could tell he was out on a limb. The man, whoever he was, was offering help for a price. Jason was not foolish enough to think he was in any position to bargain--he had something the man wanted, but if he was difficult the man could easily find that same commodity elsewhere, and with considerably less trouble. It was either all or nothing.

Jason glanced back at Karen's still form. The blood seemed to be clotting now, but much had been lost. In the soft, pale glow of the moonlight he could see tendon and bone glistening within her arms. Lacerated skin hung limply against the dark grass as a few drying rivulets of blood trickled down to mingle with the dew. What choice did he have?

"All right," Jason said at last, raising his head to meet the man's eyes. "I accept."

I staggered and nearly fell as the memory ended, my hand flying up to meet my aching temples. So that was what had happened to Karen's arms... and likely what had led to the implanting of that... thing... in Jason's brain.

Who was that guy, anyway..? He seemed... familiar, somehow...

I shook off the thought and glanced over at Jason and Karen, still riveted in each other's gaze.

:Remember that?: Jason inquired softly. :Remember that day, when you lost six years of your life, and I lost my soul?:

:Only too well,: she answered. Was it my imagination, or did that metallic tone sound... tight?

Jason rose from the "chair" he had created and walked over to face her, green eyes dark with anxiety. He touched her metal face gently--she didn't even flinch.

:I didn't leave you, Karry,: he whispered. :I was taken, just like you have been. This,: he tapped the side of his head, where the implant would have been, :is keeping me from coming back all the way. I'm trying... believe me, I'm trying... but it's been a fight all the way. Dawn helped, but...:

I sensed Derrick about to say something and set a gentle but insistent elbow to his ribs. Karen looked to be in a precarious position at the moment, and only Jason would be able to sway her one way or the other. Cousin or not, now was probably not a good time for Derrick to remind them of our presence.

:But I am of the Collective now,: Karen informed him, drawing back. I had been half-expecting her to say something to that effect, and so, judging from the rising murmur generated by the technorganic mesh in the background, had the Phalanx. Jason, however, was not about to accept that without a fight.

:You don't need to be, and you know it,: Jason said firmly, taking a strong but careful hold on her wrist. :You're powerful enough that you can be rid of them at any time. Why do they need you and Derrick?:

:I'm the... I'm the anchor,: she replied slowly, her eyes rising again to meet Jason's. :I'm the first mutant they have managed to assimilate. They need more subjects... more mutants susceptible to assimilation to acclimate themselves to until they can do so with ease. There are not many Phalanx yet... the Collective does not want to create more until they are sure that the threat caused by mutants has been neutralized.:

:Logical,: Jason nodded. :And Derrick..?:

:His powers and genetic coding are similar to mine. Assimilation should be swift, allowing for variables in the X factor to be found and dealt with. We shall work our way through the dissimilarities until assimilating mutants is as easy as assimilating humans.:

So that was their plan. They had to find a foothold among mutants first before their invasion... or assimilation... whatever... would commence. It made sense to start with technopaths--they were already susceptible to machines, and there were probably enough differences between Karen and Derrick's genetic code that they would be able to get a feel for the rest of mutant-kind. From what I had heard the last batch of Phalanx had never been able to assimilate mutants without their express permission. However, this batch had already succeeded on at least one occasion (even though it seemed to have taken them several months to do so)--if they managed to build up enough experience through absorbing mutants and eradicating the last few anomalies in their program for earth, well...

Bye-bye earth, hello technorganic invasion. Part two.

:Karen, listen to me,: Jason said carefully, resting a hand on her shoulder. :Do you really want to be a part of this? Is it because you really think this is what's best for everyone, or because you think the Phalanx is the only "family" you've got..?:

:You... left...:

:No!: Jason stared intently into Karen's blank eyes, his forehead creased with determination. :I'm here, Karen--I've always been here, even when I couldn't let you know. You saw the memory--you know what I gave up. I'm not going to try and make myself out to be some great self-sacrificing hero--I just couldn't think of any other way to save you. I did some horrible things, and I have no excuse for them, but I never, ever left you. And I never will.:

I saw Karen's jaw tightening, her fist clenching at her side. The murmur of the Phalanx swelled as she swallowed, looking uncertain.

Looks like Karen's not so sure about the Phalanx after all... I thought as she continued to stare into Jason's eyes. The bond here was close, very close--probably made no less so by the fact that Jason was a telepath. When dealing with Shrive, it seemed, the choice had been obvious for Karen. But now, with Jason in the driver's seat...

:You know what it was like,: Jason continued. :You feel my pain, just like I feel yours. Did the Phalanx block that out, too?:


:They did, didn't they?: Jason's expression became dark. :But... you remember it now, don't you?:

Karen was silent for a moment, then whispered, :I do.:

:And do you still want to hurt me?: Jason's tone was sad, almost expectant.

Karen let out a soft, almost subvocal noise between a sigh and a laugh. :I wouldn't ever,: she said sincerely, shocking me by raising her head enough to reveal her lips had curved in a slight smile. :Not... not on purpose. Not now.:

I heard Derrick gasp sharply beside me as my jaw hit the ground. Talk about your abrupt change of face.

:I think she just snapped out of it,: Derrick murmured, staring.

:Or just snapped,: I replied. :I'm new at this. Is this how it usually works?:

:You tell me. I'm just an electrician in training.:

Well, he did have a point. However, it did come as something as a shock to me when I realized I was probably the most experienced person in the field of heroics this little group had. I suppose it was just my brain trying to protect itself from surreality burnout or something.

In the mean time, Jason's face had flushed with delight and, above all, relief so strong it was nearly tangible, especially in the unstable world of the astral plane. He made a short, sharp, inarticulate noise of happiness and, quite unexpectedly (or perhaps not) grabbed his twin and hugged her tightly. The "background" noise swelled in an angry, bitter crescendo of protest--a protest Karen pointedly ignored as she returned Jason's spontaneous hug. When they released each other she turned to face Derrick and I, her eyes--for the first time since I had met her--now sparkling a cheerful, vivid emerald. She smiled and winked once, slowly, and then gently shoved herself away from Jason.

:I think...: she said quietly, her smile suddenly fading, :That I... have had enough... of this.:

:Er, Jason?: I sent with more than a touch of concern as the "ground" began to shake in a rather disconcerting manner, :I think you should probably back away now. Fast.:

Karen was putting out some rather dangerous vibes at the moment--something which indicated that what was to come would be Not A Good Thing for anyone standing too close.

:Noted,: Jason said hastily, stepping away. At the moment Karen was looking slightly ominous--she had raised a clenched fist of metal to her face and was narrowing icy eyes at the very landscape. Said landscape rather worried me. It was... flowing. Rather frighteningly so at that. It's a little disorienting to notice the ground you're standing on is beginning to develop a life of its own.

:All right,: Karen hissed, looking in the general direction of the agitated hum of the Phalanx as the ground started to buck. It was all Karen now, and I was glad to be out of her way.

She turned to the Phalanx. I couldn't see her face, but her back and stance were rigid. :I have had enough of your lies and mind-tricks,: she sent slowly and clearly. :And I know that's what they were, now. I can remember now. You've hidden the truth from me for the last time. And do you know what? I will not be your anchor in this invasion any longer. Effective immediatly.:

:I think you may want to find something secure to hold on to,: I advised Derrick and Jason as I instinctively "levitated" my astral form several inches off the quivering ground.

:Like what?: Derrick inquired, looking slightly panicked. :The whole ground is--yow!:

:"Bucking"?: Jason finished as he fell on the razor-like grass, wincing as it gouged his shoulder. I grimaced at my carelessness and "lifted" them both up. It wasn't incredibly difficult, and it certainly helped that I'd had plenty of past experience on the astral plane already. Maybe I was more used to this super-hero riff than I thought...

It doesn't even seem weird anymore, I thought absently. But then... when was it ever weird..? That was a good question. Why, once the initial shock had passed,had this always felt so... natural? Weird.

I turned my attention back to Karen, who was looking less than pleased. Her feet were still firmly planted on the ground despite the fact that it was acting like a jello-mold in the midst of an earthquake. It was kinda fun to watch, actually.

:I'm only going to say this once,: she grated, addressing, once again, the Phalanx. :Everyone out. Now.:

Then, striking a kind of pose that would otherwise have seemed utterly pompous and showy, she made a grandiose "flinging" gesture with her hands. A flood if brilliant white energy seemed to gush from her hands like water through floodgates, hitting the Phalanx point blank at full force.

:Electromagnetic pulse,: Jason explained distantly before I could even think to ask. :No good for manipulating objects, like Magneto or Polaris, but quite effective if you want to erase or destroy something. I imagine that's why Moira had so much trouble bringing up our personal files.:

:Wow,: was all I said, shielding my eyes from the light. It was all starting to fall together now--like the dream that hadn't been a dream. The one that I'd had when I first brought them to Muir, that had consisted of me being "chased" by that huge, unkillable thing... that must have been Karen's memory of being assimilated by the Phalanx! Of course! It all made sense now, even the strange energy blast "I" had used...

Well, that took you long enough, genius, I thought sardonically. Hope no one ever looks to me for reasoning skills...:

I watched in awe as Karen's power shrieked through the writhing mass of technorganic entities. She was doing it all by herself! How powerful was she? Was it only because she was the Phalanx "anchor," or did she just have that much power at her disposal?

:I think it would be a good idea to leave,: Derrick suggested, looking to Jason and me. Noting that Karen looked to be under a bit of strain, I nodded. Jason started to shake his head, but I sent him the "feeling" that it would probably be a good idea to get out of here while we still could. With a slight frown, he finally relented and slipped out, taking Derrick with him. I stayed only a moment longer, but just long enough to notice Jason had not completely "removed" himself from Karen's mind--or, in other words, that their mindlink was still wide open. That might not have been such a good idea if she was about to do what I suspected she would...

I blinked and found myself back in "reality," right beside Karen's tense form. Derrick and Jason were coming to as well, and I informed them (as well as Grace, Vance, and Verney) that it would probably be wise to give Karen a little room.

We backed off just as Karen lurched to her feet, shaking her head. Her silvery hair whipped around her face in a way that probably would have been painful had her skin still been organic. She looked a bit winded.

"Karen?" Jason ventured, taking a step foreword. She shook her head.

"Stay back... for a minute..." she instructed, staggering to her feet. She took a few labored breaths and held her hands out before her, palms facing up. Slowly, she drew them into fists, her breathing slow and even.

"Now... to get this crap... out of me..." she said, closing her eyes. Instinctively, I moved to take cover--and not a moment too soon.

I haven't a clue how she did it, but it looked pretty darn spectacular. It was probably sort of dangerous now that I think about it, too... but I suppose it was necessary. It's difficult to describe, but suffice to say it rather resembled what would happen if you stuffed a firecracker full of tinsel and ignited it. The technorganic material erupted in a shower of glittering shrapnel, prompting everyone to take cover. A few "strands" hit my arm; they felt slippery and warm, and altogether repulsive. I brushed the quivering things from my skin immediately, unable to suppress the urge to retch at the brief contact.

By the time this rather disgusting "rain" had ceased the foliage was covered with the gunk. From time to time there was a faint little "plop" as a chunk of it hit the ground, but not much else. Tentatively, I lifted my head to inspect the damage done to Karen...

Who was laying on the ground, unconscious.

But also, it should be noted, wholly human.

"The Phalanx are gone," Derrick reported, peeling a particularly tenacious chunk of TO mesh from his hand. Its metal sheen was beginning to dull, and the substance itself seemed to be... melting?

"You sure?" I inquired, picking bits of the gunk our of my hair. "I mean... is that all it took?"

"Well, yeah," Derrick said as Jason moved over to Karen, covering her with his jacket. "What did you expect?"

I scratched my head. "Well... it's just... a whole alien invasion, over in about two minutes... isn't that kinda weird?"

"Would you rather have had it go on for another three weeks?" Verney inquired, brushing TO junk out of his spikes.

"Good point," I admitted. "But... you know... this seems kind of weak. Isn't there supposed to be some kind of long drawn-out battle or a grand master plan or something?"

Verney cocked his head. "And you base this on..?"

"Um... the files?"

I couldn't see his face, but from the way his eyes crinkled I could tell he was wearing one of those small, satisfied and vaguely haughty smiles Monet usually displayed.

"Perhaps it's time to write new files?" he suggested. I grinned and shrugged.

"Maybe after I've got some sleep... and Mr. Cassidy and Ms. Frost finish punishing me for leaving campus without permission," I told him, trying to suppress a yawn. I was tired. It had been a long day, but at least something had been accomplished. I was fairly certain all anyone wanted was to go home and sleep.

Well, rather what was left of it...

"Um, Derrick?" I said hesitantly, glancing back to where he and Grace were sitting in a log. "About your house... you weren't too attached to it, were you?"

Derrick didn't even bother to groan.

Continue To Chapter Twenty-Five

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