"Well, well, well."
As Stefana stepped out of her car, she found that she was not the only one who had headed to sixth and west that morning. Uttering a curse, she wheeled on the speaker, casting him a glare as she did so.
"What in hell are you doing here, you jerk?" She demanded. "Will you get a clue and just leave me alone? I told you, Cynthia's told you - I don't know anything, so leave me alone! And dammit, quit following me! It's getting creepy."
"Perhaps it is to you." Darren leant up against his car door, offering her a smile. "But you know what the funny thing is, Stefana?"
"Do I look like I care?"
"You might do." Darren pursed his lips. "See, I was here before you. I didn't follow you here - I was here on a tip-off for a story I'm doing. Should I be surprised to see you? Or is it as I expected - that you were feeding me a pack of lies and that you're in this up to your pretty little neck?"
"Leave me alone." Stefana pushed him out of the way, but he grabbed her by the arm.
"Tell me what's going on and I'll leave your name out of the story." He suggested. Stefana glared at him again, shaking herself free of his grip.
"Don't you dare touch me again." She seethed. "You lowlife jerk, do you want me to get a restraining order on you?"
"I'm just curious to know why you're here."
"Well, I don't care why you are, and I think you should get lost now." Stefana folded her arms. "I'm here on an errand. It's nothing to do with you...but if you get involved, it might just get you killed. And you know, I wouldn't miss your ugly mug one bit, but the Tribune'd be a damn empty paper without it's workaholic newshound."
"Get me killed?" Darren's eyes widened. "Was that a threat?"
"Not from me." Stefana said grimly. "Look. This is none of your business. None of anyone's. It's not a news story, it's..."
She faltered, then hardened her resolve.
"It's money that's owed someone, someone who lives in this neighbourhood." She lied. "Money that I have to pay back and he's not the kind of guy who likes journos."
"Money?" Darren's eyes narrowed. "You're telling me by coincidence your loan shark lives in the same street as an old school that's been putting up some crazy power readings lately?"
"I don't care about power readings." Stefana snapped. "I care about you getting out of my business. Cynthia told you all she knew yesterday, because she hoped you'd leave me alone. Why can't you do that, huh?"
"Because I'm not sure I believe you." Darren shrugged. "Problem of mine, really. I don't generally believe anyone."
"Well, I have a deadline." Stefana snapped. "And if you have a story to investigate, that's all well and good. But I'd get your stupid head out of this street for a half hour or so. Then do whatever crazy stuff you wanna do. If this guy thinks you're after him, he will blow your brains out. He's not a nice guy, and he doesn't like press."
"So what are you doing mixed up with him?"
"Doesn't take a genius to work that out." Stefana bit her lip, and comprehension dawned in Darren's eyes. He laughed.
"Drugs." He said simply. "Brilliant. Is that what all this has been about, Stef? Covering up the fact you still have a drug problem?"
"Do you think that's even vaguely newsworthy?" Darren demanded. "There's something else. There has to be."
"Then come back and sniff around when I'm through meeting my contact." Stefana said darkly. "When he's gone, and I'm gone, this place is all yours. Would I say that if it was anything else?"
"I don't know." Darren looked thoughtful. "But I'm intrigued. All right, Stefana. We'll play it your way. I'll sit in my car and wait for you to do your spot of dodgy business. But when you're done, you come back to me here. You're going to come and investigate with me...is that understood?"
"Why should I do that?"
"Because if you don't, your drug drama is tomorrow's headline." Darren shrugged. "Sorry, but there has to be a headline. And you're it, if I don't find what I'm looking for."
"Fine." Stefana sighed. "Just let me go, okay? I'm already running late!"
Darren held up his hands.
"Go." He said. "I'll see you in a little while. Don't forget! You come back here to me, or you know what's going to be on the front page of the Tribune tomorrow!"
Stefana swore at him, then she turned on her heel, stomping off down the street. Heading away from the school to begin with, once sure she was out of Darren's sight range she slipped down a side-passage, darting between buildings as she doubled back on herself.
"Who woulda thought that it would ever come in handy, knowing this part of town." She muttered as she dodged her way between two derelict cars. "Would never have imagined meeting that shady drug dealer would ever have had it's positive side - but I guess it means I know my way better than Mr Tabloid Asshole. Who knows? Maybe Cynthia was right to pick me, after all."
She reached into her pocket, feeling the plastic wallet and carefully she pulled it out, glancing at it.
"Well, here goes nothing." She muttered, crossing the road and making her way in through the school's front entrance. "I hope that she's suitably distracted...otherwise it's not McMillan I need to be worrying about!"
* * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * *
"Well, there she is."
Stefana paused in the doorway of the main school hall, eying the mess with some distaste. "And ew, you can tell Techrat's been here, too. Bits of junk all over the shop. I wonder if he's about."
She glanced around her, then, finding the coast clear, she stepped gingerly over the piles of computer wreckage, heading towards the big blue and silver computer that stood by the far wall.
"Oh well, girl, this is it." She told herself wryly. "I sure hope Cynthia knew what she was doing when she made this disk. If she didn't, we're all in a whole lot of trouble."
"Perhaps, Stefana Ranieri, you should consider the possibility that you already are."
The voice made the hairs on the back of her neck prick up and, even as she turned to face the speaker, she heard the tracer in her pocket begin to emit a dull whine. At it's sound, Athena let out a snort of derision.
"So you track me down like an animal?" She demanded. "Why are you here at all? Don't you know that I can kill you? After your activity at Rebel Records, why should I not?"
"You tried to frame me for a man's murder, Athena." Stefana gathered her wits, facing her foe defiantly. "I thought we were on the same side. Why would you do that?"
"I am not on anyone's side but my own, and you are lying to me." Athena's eyes flashed with an angry blue fire. "Synergy was at Rebel Records and you are working for her."
"I don't work for anyone, least of all a crackpot bunch of wires and screws." Stefana pulled a face. "She's threatened to kill me enough times and she's pretended to be me, trying to screw up my friendships and my job. Why on earth would I help Synergy?"
"You were there. I saw you."
"You were there. I was rehearsing with my band." Stefana shook her head. "Hey, it looks like I got impersonated by two holographic computers at once this week, didn't I? Wonder what the odds are of that happening?"
Athena was silent for a moment, her projectors flickering as she considered Stefana's words.
"Then how did you know I took your form?"
"We have security cameras at Rebel Records. And I'm paranoid."
"Why should I believe you?"
"You don't have to." Stefana shrugged. "That's not why I'm here."
"Then why are you here, human?"
"To strike a deal with you, computer." Stefana's tone was rich with sarcasm, but it was lost on the hologram, who frowned.
"What sort of a deal?"
"This sort of a deal."
Carefully Stefana reached into the plastic wallet, pulling out the shiny silver disk. "This."
"That's a disk." Athena frowned. "What interest would I have in a disk?"
"Well, you were right about something." Stefana responded simply. "I do know something about Synergy. I've met her - and I've seen how she works. Maybe Techrat told you that. Bottom line is, you're both too powerful for me. But she's on the way out. Dying. And I'm not interested in fighting computer battles. So I figure I'd cut a deal with you. This disk, in return for my life."
"You still have not explained to me why I should be interested in your disk, Stefana Ranieri."
"Because it has everything on it you need to find Synergy." Stefana said simply. "Her location, her weaknesses, her programming and everything else. Techrat made it when he tried his hand at destroying her. He failed. He's a jerk. But he left this with me for safekeeping. And I figure, well, you're not a jerk. And if I scratch your back, you'll scratch mine."
"I do not understand your metaphor." Athena pursed her lips. "But I understand your mode of address. You wish to exchange Synergy's information for your life, correct?"
"That's about the size of it."
"And if Synergy is dying, what use will it be to me then?"
"If she's dying anyway, why are you so keen to track her down?" Stefana countered. Athena nodded.
"You are right. I do wish to find her." She admitted. "She may be dying, but it may be only another illusion. I must be sure."
She hesitated again, as if thinking it over, and Stefana's heart pounded in her chest as she waited.
Engrossed in their conversation, neither one had seen the reporter creep up to the doorway of the schoolroom, having followed Stefana's trail at a distance.
At length, Athena nodded.
"Very well, Stefana Ranieri. I will agree this deal." She said softly. "You give me the disk. I will give you your life."
"Done." Stefana hesitated, then held out the disk. "So I'm going to go now. And you're damn well going to leave me alone."
Athena glanced at the disk, setting it down on top of her unit. Then she cast Stefana an amused smile.
"Perhaps." She agreed vaguely. "But you forget that I am a computer, and the concept of making deals is wasted on us. You are no longer useful. Therefore you are surplus to requirement and will be terminated."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Fear leapt into Stefana's eyes. "So you're turning on me? After I did you a good deed?"
"Master created me." Athena said softly. She gestured across the room to the pile of ash and soot in the far corner. "That is all that is left of him now. Why should I treat you any differently?"
Stefana swore, then lunged for the disk, but Athena raised her arm, swiping the guitarist back with such force that she fell, banging her head as she tumbled to the floor and knocking herself clean out. Athena shook her head slowly, tut-tutting, then turned her attention to the disk.
"Leave her alone."
Darren stood in the doorway, his expression one of anger. "What is all this? Someone's junkyard? What do you want with Stefana - and who are you?"
"I neither know nor care who you are."
Athena cocked her laser at the intruder, sending out a beam of blue light that seared the doorframe just inches from where he stood. Despite himself, Darren paled.
"Are you...Synergy?" He whispered, and Athena let out a peal of amused laughter.
"Synergy is dead, human." She said mockingly. "I am Athena - and you and your friend are about to be terminated."
"Uh-uh. No you don't." Darren shook his head, taking another step towards the computer. "You're a computer, not judge and jury for the whole of America. Where's your friggin' off switch, huh? You need a serious reboot."
"If you wish to take another breath, you will remain exactly where you are." Athena's eyes flashed dangerously, and blue flares shot up from the corner of the room. "I am not interested in your babblings. You will wait until I am ready to deal with you, and then you shall be eliminated. Move, and I shall blow this whole building up."
"And destroy yourself too? That's crazy." Darren snorted.
"I am a computer." Athena said darkly. "Crazy is a human behaviour. I merely operate on logic. I exploit your weaknesses and I do not fear harm. You will remain where you are. I shall deal with you presently."
She flipped open her disk drive, picking up the silver disk and running a finger across it's surface. Then, with a little shrug, she slid the disk into the drive. With a slight whirr, the drive clicked shut.
Almost as soon as she had done so, Athena realised her mistake. She let out a shriek as, before Darren's bewildered and disbelieving gaze, her hologram flickered and glowed before exploding into bursts of blue light. One by one the projection units blew out their lasers, filling the room with wisps of black, acrid smoke. The mainframe gave one final whirr, then a thud and all was silent. Smoke curled from beneath the computer's keys as the monitor's activity faded to a single blip across the screen.
For a moment, Darren just stood there, speechless at what he'd seen. Then, as the smoke grew thicker, he registered Stefana lying prone on the floor beside the mainframe and, muttering a curse under his breath, he clambered down beside her, scooping her up in his arms.
"You have some major explaining to do to me, girl." He said, as he hauled her out of the school and onto the grass outside, reaching in his pocket for his mobile phone and dialling 911. "I'm damn well going to make sure you live through this to do it."
As he finished his call, he became aware of a car drawing up on the front and he glanced up, seeing Aaron hurrying towards them, Copper in tow.
"Stef!" Aaron exclaimed, then, "Is she...?"
"Out cold, but she's alive." Darren said briefly. "What is this, some kind of musicians of Los Angeles meeting I wasn't told about?"
"I got a call from her on my cell, asking me to meet her here." Aaron crossed and uncrossed his fingers behind his back, crouching at his friend's side. "What happened?"
"Something I'm not even sure I believe myself right now." Darren admitted. "I'm still processing it. I wouldn't go in there!"
As Aaron stood, heading towards the school. "Something electronic is blowing a gasket or two in there and it's full of smoke."
"I'll make sure noone else is inside." Aaron called back. "I hear the sirens - Copper, will you stay with her and Mr McMillan? In case she comes round?"
"I'll stay." Copper nodded her head. "Be careful, Aaron. If it's dangerous in there..."
"I promise." Aaron nodded. Then he was gone into the building and Copper settled herself down at Stefana's side as the dark haired girl's eyes flickered open. She blinked a couple of times, and as she brought Copper into focus, she smiled.
"She took it." She murmured. Then her eyes fluttered shut once more.
"What did she say?" Darren frowned. "Tool kit? Was that it?"
"I couldn't make it out." Copper lied, though she reached down and squeezed the girl's hand. "But here are the medics. They'll know what to do."
She eyed Darren with interest.
"How come you were here?"
"I've learnt that action follows Stefana Ranieri." Darren said simply. "And this time, I got more than I bargained for."
He glanced at the still girl, then,
"I think, so did she." He added. "But don't worry. I'll get sense out of her when she's feeling more herself. Right now I'm still trying to work out what I saw in there...and don't ask me to explain it to you. Trust me...you wouldn't believe me if I did!"
JACQUI'S LEGACY: PART THREE
The copyright for the original Jem characters featured in this and other stories by me belongs entirely to Hasbro and their interpretations to Christy Marx and the other writers of the Sunbow Jem series. Their future selves are based on concepts that are entirely my own and are not to be repeated elsewhere without due permission.
All other characters, including their likenesses, are copyrighted to myself as webmistress of Jewel's World from 2001 to the present day and are not to be reproduced elsewhere without permission.
The Teenangel Outsiders, Jesta, Flame, Ryan Montgomery and the future interpretations of Aja, Danse and certain of the other original characters are all or in part the concept of Gemma Dawn whose teenangel outsider fiction world is twinned with Jewel's World. You can visit her site at www.teenangeloutsiders.com!
All events in the stories on this site are based on original ideas and are not rooted in any existing Jem fiction nor in any real life event or person.