OVERALL WARNINGS: Homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, asexuality, homophobia, heterophobia, swearing (lots, I warn you now), cynicism, science fiction setting, random sci-fi concepts with no backing, a sappy pun, etc.

Love forRansom

Chapter One

"Hey, is this room bugged? That vase over there looks awfully suspicious. Or maybe it's just ugly. Oh, well, it hardly matters anyway. Just, if it is, can I have a copy of the recording? For sentimental reasons, you know.

"All right, all right, stop with the prodding, Cadet. Let's see, so where to start?

"I hate my life—a tried and true opener to more than half of all angsty teenage tales. Functional, if a bit trite, but I'm afraid it's not quite accurate. I don't hate my life; it's my life that hates me. The bastard thing.

"It's all about a boy. This is true, very true. Actually, it's about ... four boys, myself included, and a girl, but dialogues beginning with this usually connote a love-sick, bubble-gum popping, daddy's girl's story about the handsome bad boy she fell for and the trials and tribulations they faced before meeting their happily-ever-after like a two-ton lead barrel loosed down a hill meets a rubber ducky. First of all, I am about as far away from my end of that stereotype as I can be. Secondly, he is not a ... well, never mind, that part fits. But lastly, and most importantly, rubber duckies offend me. Do not ever mention them in my presence again unless said rubber ducky is indeed 2.5 seconds away from kissing the bottom of that rolling lead barrel.

"Once upon a .. oh, fuck that one.

"Well, that's three perfectly good openers cast aside and a respectable amount of both of our lives wasted—not that yours is the one that matters—without me even beginning my tale. Oh, how about this one:

"Dear fuckers, you're not getting a word out of me, my boyfriend is gonna bust me outta this shithole, and could you please loosen these handcuffs a little?"

New Gibraltar: one of the galaxy's richest and poorest colonies all in one, neat little salute-with-your-middle-finger-sir package. Even more paradoxically, it produces an unusually high number of law-keepers—and a matching number of criminals. Ah, home sweet fucking home.

This colony was built primarily for a military function. With the frenzy of pushing farther and farther out into the universe, the military required officers fit to lead explorations. Young and intelligent officers were a desirable commodity, but with their youth often came a small set-back. They were having children—which, on one hand, was a very good thing, spreading the smart-genes and all that, but, on the other, was quite bad. After all, officers of the fleet, despite their desires to explore the unknown, were often at a loss towards what to do with their squealing bundles of drooling baby. Thus, New Gibraltar was founded, a pseudo military base where officers leave behind their wives, husbands, children, goldfish, bathroom towels, etcetera with a clean conscience and an assurance that they will be protected and cared for while the officers are on duty.

I am one of these children. Hello, Severn Hayes at your disposal. Please wash hands before use.

Of course, the whole colony isn't inhabited by the children of officers and such—in fact, only a small percentage of the population fits into that category. The rest of the populace is composed of completely average civilians who fill the other necessary jobs in the colony. They are the lower classes, possessing neither rank nor great wealth, and many don't even make it out of high school. It is generally accepted that the universities are reserved for the children of officers, those who can afford it; it is also understood that the highest paying and most prestigious jobs are also reserved for them, though many of them choose instead to enter the Fleet once they are of age like their parents. Only the very brightest of the lower class ever succeed, and even then the way is never easy and they hardly ever achieve real power.

It's sad, considering the greater percentage of assclowns among the ranks of the upper class as compared to the lower class.

The lower class has a name for the children of officers. They call us Cadets, intended in the most insulting way possible and always spoken behind our backs. Indeed, the term has become extremely derogatory. I suppose it's the equivalent of walking up to an elderly woman and calling her a heinous Nazi bitch … which, for the record, I made sure to do at least once a day to my landlady. Nevertheless, the term "Cadet" is quite wide-spread, especially among the outer slums of the colony. It's a popular opener for a bar fight, considered a crude challenge to one's honor and a very good excuse to display one's fighting prowess thirty seconds before passing out in a drunken stupor.

As a result, I make a point of calling anyone and everyone I meet "Cadet" for the sheer amusement value. I named my cat Cadet, but my landlady (heinous Nazi bitch) made me get rid of him. Turned out my building didn't allow such "dirty, filthy" animals. So, of course, I asked why she was allowed to live there and .. well, let's just say that she and I don't get along well. It worked out after all, though—the fur ball was draining my allowance with that pesky catnip addiction of his. Kitty crack, I swear.

Anyway, taking that into consideration, one can conclude that I'm not exactly a very well-loved fellow. I don't have a lot of friends, managing to offend both sides of the social order simply by existing. The lowers don't like me because I'm a Cadet, and the Cadets don't like me because I'm me. Then you figure in the fact that I'm gay, richer than ninety-eight percent of the population, Cadets included, and have a burning need to be unique, and I'm downright hated by most. That's okay; the feeling is quite mutual. The few friends I do have are nice enough; their best quality tends to be their infinite patience for my antics.

Now, about the whole gay thing. It's a well-known fact that homosexuality is accepted very well in the modern world. Actually, statistics of the universe's population say that the current percentage of bisexuals outnumbers the percentage of homosexuals and heterosexuals combined, if you believe that kind of crap. Nevertheless, the military has always been a bit behind on the whole fuzzy-love-and-tolerance deal. Homosexuality is accepted (on paper), but it sure doesn't earn you love and kisses, especially not among the spoiled, I'm-holier-than-Swiss-cheese Cadets.

My parents are their own special case. They don't seem to know I'm gay. It's not as if I hid my sexual orientation from them—the first time I told them, I made a big deal about it, ready for them to react in some severe way, but they just brushed me off. And by brushed me off, I mean completely ignored my existence. The encounter happened when I was about fourteen, in the apartment my parents keep for the few days of the year they returned planetside to visit me. It went something like this:

"Mother, father, I need to talk to you. This might be hard for you to understand at first, but I don't want it to change our relationship. I … I'm gay. I've known for a while now, but I was afraid to tell you. It's important to me that I have your support, even if you can't understand."

"Honey, will you pass the coffee and the atmospheric analysis for Reavun?"

"Of course, dear."

"Um ... father? Mother? Gay?"

"How many personnel do you need for a secondary analysis with the updated equipment, Cerelia?"

"Hello?! Your son is telling you he likes to sling it with other guys—"

"I'd like the usual team plus the two transfers from the UMT department. I request permission to do an additional three tests at intervals separated by at least three days to best judge average condition."


"Permission denied. It would be inefficient to remain circling Reavun for nine days when the secondary testing was only to be done in passing. We will do one additional test, and the second UMT transferee will be under other obligations during that period. You may take two personnel from Doctor Ackley's team instead."

"Yes, sir. Would you like some more pancakes, dear?"

"Oh, maybe just one more. They're very good, love."

"Thank you."

"… I'M GAAAAAYYY!!!!!"

"Oh, Severn, you're awake. Would you like some of your mother's delicious pancakes?"

"… yes, sir, thank you, sir."

Needless to say, this encounter peeved me a bit. And so, my greeting for them each time they visit has been, "Hello, mother, ma'am; hello, father, sir. I'm gay; I like guys. How are you?" I swear, I've done everything but run around the military spaceport with my boxers on fire and the phrase tattooed on my forehead in big rainbow letters. They still refuse to acknowledge this in any way whatsoever. Sometimes I wonder it's an active choice not to or if something is just malfunctioning up top.

Well, that was a pleasant tangent, but I'm afraid if I keep on that detour I'll run us off a nice little cliff.

Since this operation has been running smoothly for several generations, a Cadet's path is fairly planned out. After he is dumped by his parent, he lives with his other parent in a house paid for by the enlisted parent's military salary—or, in my case, both of my parents are in the Fleet, so things have been a bit different. My father is one of the highest ranking officers in the Fleet, heading one of the most important vessels … but I'll be damned if I ever bothered to learn his rank. Unlike most Cadets, I don't run around threatening others with my "Daddy's" rank—incidentally, it's a little hard to bash someone over the head with your father's rank, and I tend to prefer using things like baseball bats or hammers instead. As for my mother, she's a military scientist, very high in rank as well, and she accompanies my father to wherever the hell it is that their ship goes. They are madly, sickeningly in love with each other (and often weirdly shift between gushy lovey-dovey mode and super military mode), and they seem to view me as more of their duty towards the human race than anything else. As a result of this, I was raised in a "community home" with a House Mother and several other Cadet brats in similar states of abandon.

You'd think that these other children, whose conditions were so similar to my own, would have grown to be like siblings to me. I suppose that could be true, depending on how one thinks siblings should treat each other. If sending computer viruses every Valentine's Day and "By the way, I still hate your guts, BASTARD" notes on a regular basis constitute sibling behavior, then, yes, these children were so much like my brothers and sisters that we should have been born with our middle fingers fused to each other's so we could flick each other off even while we slept. I'm still not entirely sure what my guts have done to deserve their hatred—oh, wait, maybe it was the time I puked on Libia's Homecoming dress. That could have done it, yup. It wasn't really my fault, though. That sorry excuse for a dress was just so damn ugly, especially once she put it on, that I couldn't help it.

So I grew up with these other children in a mansion of a house with anything I could ever ask for, and I hated it. Preteen angst and all that lovely drama, I'm sure. On occasion, one of the children would leave, perhaps because their parents retired, and another kid would show up the next day. The community home I lived in was the best money and rank could buy, and there were always people on the waiting list. The Cadets that lived there were the worst kind—the richest and therefore the most spoiled. They thought they were the most universe's most important nonrenewable resource, and their arrogance was monumental even for young children. Having a bunch of these type of kids shoved into one home, even a place as big as ours, was not the brightest idea, to say the least. Each day seemed to have a quota of conflict to meet, and the home went through a dozen or so House Mothers in my time there.

I lived there from early toddlerhood until I was thirteen. After that, I was legally allowed to live on my own, even though I still had people watching me. It was just more covert, that's all. I hated the home when I was there, and I lost track of the number of times I tried to run away. It started out as a sort of crazy, desperate lunge for freedom and grew to a monthly ritual. Each month, whenever things got too heavy for me, I would pack a little bag and try to escape. Normally, the guards caught me before I even left the mansion, but I occasionally managed to get outside the gates, after which I lasted a few hours before getting caught. If I'd been smart, I would have just run away during school, but a part of me knew that even if I did escape, I had nowhere to go.

On my thirteenth birthday, I hauled ass out of the home faster than I'd done anything in my life. My parents visited me on occasion, and they picked my new place out for me, but I was so happy to leave the home that I didn't care where I was going to. And so I moved into the Towers, a blindingly expensive condominium complex that served more as dormitories to wealthy college and high school Cadets than anything else. I wasn't completely alone, but it was better than the home, and I dragged myself through high school living there. Most of the time, I didn't even go to school, and I still passed and was admitted into an upper scale university near the Towers—the wonders of being a Cadet, I tell you. I figured that there wasn't really any point in me putting any effort forth if it made no difference either way. I was going to be a success no matter how hard I tried not to be, apparently.

Still, that trapped feeling I always had in the home never went away, and it didn't take me long to figure out what was wrong. I didn't just want out of the home—I wanted out of this colony, out of this life. And so my vain attempts at escaping started again, and they were treated differently this time. The security team that maintained the Towers (and the agenda of Cadets' parents) always let me go. They let me run like a stupid rat towards the cheese, and then they'd pick me up just before I reached the spaceport. I couldn't leave, they told me. As a minor, it was illegal for me to do such a thing without parental consent. I was allowed to live by myself, sure, but you had to be eighteen before it was legally acceptable for you to leave the actual colony without parental approval.

I knew it was pointless and a waste of energy, but running away stayed a ritual for me. When everything started, I was seventeen, and I had known for the longest time that, on my eighteenth birthday, I was leaving this colony behind. I didn't know where I would go, but, goddammit, I was going.

If only I had known how right I would been—albeit right in a manner I had never even dreamt of.

My birthday was only a month and a half away when everything changed, and I wonder sometimes if maybe the security figured I was close enough to legal that they would just let me go. Oh, how things might have been different if they hadn't.

I was a freshman in college, and I almost never attended classes. I spent most of my days clubbing or hanging around or otherwise being lazy. Sleeping happened to be my number one hobby, and I was damn good at it.

Until, that is, the Evil One moved into the room above me.

I didn't know exactly when he moved in, and, to be honest, I didn't care. I didn't interact with most of my neighbors, and when I did it usually wasn't friendly contact. As far as I knew, he was another Cadet student like myself, and I had never seen him. Last Friday, though, when I got home from a short but tiring night of clubbing, I collapsed into bed around three o'clock. I hadn't even been ten minutes when, out of nowhere, extremely loud, pre-colony classical music started blaring. I fell out of bed, a mass of half-asleep nerves, and then slapped ineffectually at my alarm clock. It wasn't coming from my room, I soon realized, but rather from above.

Now, because these apartments are crazy expensive, they are not only large and fully furnished, but also are supposed to have essentially soundproof walls. I wasn't too asleep to wonder just how fucking loud that god-awful music must be so I could hear it. God, I hate pre-colony music.

Annoyed, but not yet really angry, I stumbled out of my apartment and woke my neighbor up to give me earplugs. Strangely, his apartment was silent. No bad music to be heard.

I slept fitfully, trying to ignore the way my shelves were shaking from the music, and the music eventually stopped around six in the morning. A few hours later, I was due at the only class I really had to attend to stay in university, and I was basically a walking zombie during it. Almost hit a poodle and a guy in a hotdog suit on the way over, too, although that might have been more of a subconscious wish to rid the universe of painfully stupid things than due to my lack of sleep.

This process repeated for two more days, and each night it was a different mix of classical music that always went on at exactly three sixteen in the morning. I tried banging on the ceiling and yelling for the fucker to turn down his music, but to no avail.

Intent on revenge, on the fourth night, Monday night, I cued my own music to start blaring at three a.m., and I was sure to pick a mix with as much screaming and dissonance as possible at as loud as my system would go. I wore heavy-duty earplugs, but when I woke up the next morning my ears were ringing. It had been useless, though, because the classical music started up again exactly on time the next night.

I couldn't take it anymore; I was going insane. I needed sleep. Determined, on Wednesday night I went up to the bastard's apartment at exactly three. I knocked on his door, but no one answered, so I tried the knob and was surprised to find it unlocked. Angry as I was, I didn't think twice about going inside, turning on the lights, and snooping about. There was no one there. I found the source of my troubles with far too much ease: a sleek, silver, asymmetrical box in one corner with several speakers and other miscellany surrounding it. I poked around at it, and my jaw nearly dropped when I found that there was a small hole drilled through the floor through which a tube disappeared. I glared at it and tried to pull it out, but it was somehow stuck in place.

Still tugging, I just about died when the clock struck three sixteen and the music started screaming in my ear, nearly deafening me. Hurriedly, I slapped at what I thought might be the off button on the setup.

"Please enter your password," a cheerful female voice requested over the din.

"Password? Password? You fucker!" I screamed back at the thing, gave it a kick, and then fled before my brain could start to ooze out my ears.

When I got back to my room, I looked for the hole in the ceiling, but I couldn't find it. The music still played loudly, and I eventually surrendered, put in my earplugs, and collapsed out of exhaustion. The next morning, not in my best mood, I accosted someone on his way to the pool and demanded if he knew anything about the guy in the room above mine.

"Uh, not much," he had answered, looking somewhat frightened of me. I had a bit of a reputation for being a sarcastic asshole, but I think it was more the wild-eyed look I had this morning from lack of sleep and the way I was fisting his swimming trunks like I would deprive him of reproductive abilities if he didn't tell me what I wanted. "He takes night classes, y'know, so we don't see him around here much."

Night classes?! And for what reason did he set his system to go off at three in the morning?!

So, that Thursday morning, I came to a solution. Tonight, I was going to pay that fucker a visit and have a nice chat with his hi-tech system and my baseball bat.

That being my past week, it was understandable that I was a bit less than attentive on the particular Thursday, that same day, when everything changed for me.

Sorry, fell into yet another tangent, so I think I'll shift paces to something happier before I start foaming at the mouth or something. No bitterness here. Really.

… that asshole.

Ahem. My parents allotted me a monthly allowance, which was enough for most things, but not for some, and its use was carefully monitored. They didn't trust me, which was probably wise. Given the opportunity, I would have had no qualms whatsoever hiring a crook from the slums to get me some spaceport tickets, change my DNA-ID, and get me off New Gibraltar under a fake name. Hell, I would have worn a dress, spoken in falsetto, and answered to the name Lola if I had thought it would work.

I didn't want money just for unscrupulous purposes, though. There were lots of things I wanted that my parents would not approve of me getting just because they were weird. Like, for instance, my car. I don't know what they thought I would do—run a drive-by drug and booze business or something—but they seemed set against me getting it. I had a stupid, fancy, respectable Aeneas, practically the most expensive car on the market—can you say "MUG ME" any louder?—but it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted a Mistral, which was just slightly less expensive, but a thousand times cooler than the Aeneas. Sleek, sexy, essentially custom built and easy to upgrade. Can you say "orgasm on wheels"?

And so I bugged my parents for money, which they grudgingly gave. It wasn't nearly enough for the car, though, and they suggested I earn the rest by working. Me? Work? Psh. I happen to be the world's laziest individual. Actually working was a horrifying idea to me. Unless I could get paid to sleep; that I would go for.

Unfortunately, the only jobs I could find related to sleep involved not sleeping. And then they plugged things into you, flashed subliminal messages in front of you for hours, and generally treated you like you had devolved several million years. That, and they paid jack for it all.

So I came up with a compromise. I liked to drive, although not as much as I liked to sleep, so after I got my license when I was fifteen I ran a sort of limo service out of my Aeneas for other Cadets at the Towers. Many of them just didn't want to bother with driving themselves and/or didn't want their chauffeur driving them, most likely because the chauffer might tell mommy and daddy that their precious child was going to strip clubs or whatever. I ran the business for a short while, and I did it well even if I earned the dislike of most of the Cadets I drove. After about a year, I had enough money (my rates for driving were as steep as a cliff), and I finally got to buy my Mistral.

I got him in Blue Lava, with chrome paint that shimmered between blue and silver, black leather seats, and new blue lava lamp wax-and-liquid stuff that ran through the interior (dashboard, door handles, steering wheel, etc) and the exterior (wheel rims, side-mirror backs, trimming). He was beautiful. I took to calling him Lover, mostly because it creeped people out.

I suppose it was kind of sad that the most meaningful and long-lasting relationship I ever had was with my car. But that's beside the point.

After the initial purchase, I only needed a small cash flow on top of what I was allowed to use of my regular allowance for maintenance and regular upgrades for Lover. I took a few customers, but since I could afford to be a picky (and offensive) bastard now, I only really had one regular customer. Her name was Emina, a pretty slip of a girl with a personality that often made me wonder if a few wires got crossed up top during assembly. She was a mid- to lower level Cadet who nevertheless lived in the Towers, a place normally reserved for the most important and richest Cadets. Her mother was in the Fleet, and her father worked off-colony, and they apparently lived above their means by having Emina live in the Towers. Probably concern with reputation or some shit like that that I've never cared about.

Anyway, deceptively sweet, she has introduced me to a few great hang-outs, and I therefore tried to be less of a cynical jerk around her. Still, I could only suppress my nature so much, and it was a wonder she stayed around me so long. Part of it had to do with being desperate, I know—the girl has to be the worst driver in the history of the universe. She failed her driver's test twelve times before giving up. I let her drive Lover once, thinking I would be the nice guy for once and try to teach her a little, and I hadn't been driving with her for five minutes before I was begging for her to just to kill us already and stop prolonging the inevitable. I'm not going to lie—once she parked, I staggered back into my apartment, curled up into a little ball, and cried. Believe me, a lesser man would have just committed suicide outright, that's how scary it had been.

Normally I just drove her between the Towers and her boyfriend's convenience store that was right on the edge between the middle class ring and the inner slums. (The main city of New Gibralter is organized like a huge, spread out circle, and the farther one goes out from the inner, elite center in any direction, the more destitute the surroundings become. Hence, the outer slums are far more dangerous than the inner slums, which I sometimes used to frequent.) It seemed pointless for a Cadet like her to work like this, even if she was a lesser one, but I had long since found out why she did. Her boyfriend (not a Cadet, if you'll believe it), ran some kind of illegal business through the store, and she helped him by selling whatever it was (drugs, gambling, prepubescent children, I have no idea) during her shift when the cameras were fixed to loop old, harmless clips. It hardly mattered to me what she did with her time and for money so long as she paid me, to be honest. I mean, I only knew this all because … well, let's just say she was the talkative kind of drunk. I ignored it as best I could.

On this particular night, the infamous Thursday I mentioned, I waited in the small parking lot outside the store. It was eleven-thirty at night, half an hour past the time her shift ended and when I was supposed to pick her up. Still, I had nothing better to do, so I waited for her. The parking lot emptied long ago—of course, because the store was technically closed and there didn't seem to be any illegal trades going on tonight—so I sat in the darkened parking lot under a streetlamp, waiting for her to come out. I had Lover on accessory mode with my stereo turned up loud enough to make any mere mortal's ear drums shatter. Did I mention the stereo system in the Mistral was enough to make an audio-junky salivate? The song changed, going randomly through my dis mix. Dis, short for dissonance or discord, no one really remembers which, is a style of music, and its name is fairly self-explanatory. Think lots of loud noises, screaming, and clashing. It's great, but listening to it for too long gives me a headache. Still, I'd rather blow my eardrums out with dis than listen to that dull pre-colony crap for an instant.

Despite the vociferous quality of my music, I was half-asleep and contemplating settling in for a short nap. The seats were incredibly comfortable, and I was curled up in mine, playing idly with the dozens of lava lamp bracelets that practically covered my forearms. I pulled down the sun visor and fussed with my hair a little in the mirror. It was bright purple-burgundy still, not having faded a bit since my deep-light treatment a year ago, and I yawned. I had planned on going out tonight—I had even dressed in my clubbing gear which was prominent in zippers, buckles, and Velcro in odd places—but I was feeling a bit too lethargic now. I hadn't been sleeping well the last few days, after all, due to my mortal enemy upstairs and his terrible, pre-colony music. Speaking of which, I still had that date with the bastard and a blunt object.

I didn't feel like dealing with a club anymore, especially since I had planned on going to one in the slums, which were always harder for me to get into. In the Cadet and middle class areas of the colony, being a Cadet made it easier to get into clubs, but, in the slums, trying to get into a club while blatantly being a Cadet was practically a death wish. It meant I had to either not talk much or try pitifully to imitate a slum accent—usually the former, since it was damn hard to talk like that. Still, slum clubs were usually more fun for me than Cadet clubs, so I usually found it worth the risks. Just not tonight, I decided.

Slapping the mirror back into place, I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and started drifting off. After I'm not sure how long, the passenger seat door opened, and I stirred into semi-consciousness.

"It's about time," I said and began to sit up with a yawn. I set my hand on the ignition, opened my eyes, and then jerked my hand left in surprise. The two back seat doors slammed open and shut loudly into the abrupt silence I had created when I turned the car off inadvertently, and I stared dumbly at the handsome, blonde young man sitting in my car next to me. Or, to be more specific, I stared dumbly at the gun he was aiming at me.

It's true what they say about swear words being some of the most ingrained things in your memory. Staring down the muzzle of a gun in utter shock, my mind completely blanked, and yet words spilled out of my mouth regardless, "Motherfu—!" The gun that suddenly filled my mouth rather made it difficult to continue, and the blonde man gave a small frown as he held the gun steady. I felt my eyes widen, and I thought that perhaps now was a good time to not do something stupid, but nothing really coherent ran through my head otherwise. I don't know about other people, but having a presumably loaded gun all but shoved down my throat seemed to call for a modicum of caution.

The blonde narrowed his eyes at me, and I tried not to breathe too offensively or anything. "Car?" he asked in a smooth voice, one of those voices that just sounded attractive, and I blinked in confusion before a voice from the backseat answered.

"Mistral." Instinctively, I tried to glance back at the second voice, but I only caught a glimpse of three figures dressed from head to toe in black before a hand grabbed my cheek and forced me to look back into the cold, gray eyes of the blonde man. I noticed that he was dressed in dark clothing with a high turtleneck, but it wasn't the same outfit as my unexpected guests in the back.

"Security?" he said, obviously still not speaking to me.

"Shit, in a Mistral? Might as well ask me to hotwire the fuckin' pyramids!" The second voice answered, muffled by fabric, but very distinctly male and also distinctly possessing a very strong slum accent. Very strong. Not inner slum strong, which was the farthest into the slums I had ever been, but outer slum strong. "I mean, DNA-ID and fingerprint check on the key, retinal scan, voice verification, password, you name it, this bitch's got it. We'd move quicker we got out an' pushed. It's not somethin' I can do."

The blonde looked displeased at this. Sure, he looked pretty scowling (which was highly inappropriate of me to think, I know), but that was probably not a good sign when he still had a gun shoved in my mouth.

"Dyre?" he said.

"Its security is an internal network in the car," a third voice, this one also male but very soft, practically whispered, "I don't have the equipment for an internal network, only the external one."

Someone cursed in the backseat, and it could have been the fourth person or the second, slum-accented one for all I could tell. Great. I had rather liked the fact that Lover was so well protected while I was in clubs in the slums, but now it seemed that I had just royally screwed myself over with what had previously been a fringe benefit. I was going to get killed all because I thought it was cool that my car spoke to me when I started it up. Fan-fucking-tastic.

The blonde seemed to be mentally debating something, and I rather hoped that it wasn't something along the lines of "Do I blow his head off or not?" At last, he withdrew the gun and said commandingly, "Start the car."

Aye aye, Cap'n. You know I work best under death threats! Just please don't blow my brains out—I know I don't use them that much, but they have sentimental value to me. I reached for the key again, my hands shaking, and turned it slowly to the right. I felt the little pinprick that meant it had taken my blood sample, and then the soothing, mechanical voice of my car asked for my password. I swallowed hard, feeling the weight of four pairs of eyes on me, and I squeaked out, "Cadet."

There was a pause, and when the car told me that voice verification had failed, I nearly died on the spot. The blonde's eyes were practically burning into the side of my head, so I cleared my throat and tried again. This time, the check passed, and the engine roared to life. At least I didn't need to worry about the retinal scan, since I had turned that option off.

"Thanks," the slum accent said from the back. I turned towards it only to catch a flash of movement from the passenger seat as the blonde man brought the gun down onto my head, knocking me out cold.


I woke up—and my first thought was that I wished I hadn't. My head hurt like I had been beating a ceremonial gong with it. Repeatedly and for some hours. By some amazing feat of control, though, I managed not to make any noise, and then I realized where I was and what had woken me up in the first place.

The car was stopped, and voices were talking. I kept my eyes closed and tried to feign unconsciousness as best I could.

"Fuck—ow—fuck! It's stuck, ow, shit!" the slum accent whined loudly and obnoxiously.

"Well, just whose bright idea was it to wear masks?" a new voice, also with a slum accent, snapped back. "Stop yankin' it, you'll rip your piercin' out!"

"But it's stuck!" The voice sounded slightly nasal now, "It's stuck on the eyebrow ring and the nose stud. Ow, shit, don't pull it! You said not to pull it—FUCKIN' OW!"

"There, dumbass. Take this and go bother Dyre or somethin'. I'm gonna take a nap."

There was the sound of mumbled cursing, and then the door slammed closed. I sat stiffly, listening to the last person lean against the window and start to breathe evenly.

I risked slitting open my eyes and was relieved to see that the driver's seat—for I was sitting in the passenger's seat, though who knew how I had gotten there—was empty. A big, advertisement-covered machine stood a few feet away from the car with little doors all over it, and I recognized it immediately. A charger. We were in a car station—the car must have run out of purified water or battery power or both, depending on how long we had been driving. It had been at least a six hours, because it was morning now. Maybe longer, though, since I felt decently rested (ignoring the splitting headache).

It was with major dissatisfaction and a roll of my eyes that I then discovered that my hands were tied in front of me and I was gagged. Maybe my breathing had offended them after all.

Speaking of breathing, the breathing in the backseat had gotten deeper, and I glanced in the rearview mirror. There was only one person back there, but I could only see part of him in the mirror. He probably wasn't asleep yet, but I didn't want to risk waiting any longer. The place seemed to be deserted, as there were no other cars, but I figured that there must be some personnel in the main building (which was really only a little shack where they sold cigarettes and such). Of course, we had to park at the service unit farthest away from the main building. At least I wasn't buckled in. Apparently my kidnappers didn't care if I went through the windshield while unconscious. Thanks, guys, I appreciate the concern.

Steeling myself, I slowly sat up and unlocked the door. Then, as quietly as I could, I gripped the lava lamp door handle and slowly eased it open. When it popped and the door came ajar, I didn't wait for the person in the backseat to react. I bolted from my seat, throwing the door open and setting off at a run. My sudden demand on my previously latent legs was met with defiant laziness by my muscles, and I stumbled awkwardly for a few steps before I was really able to take off.

I headed towards the building like it was the gates of heaven, eyes locked on it and running flat-out without a care that I must have looked like an insane asylum escapee, complete with garbled and muffled screaming.

My sanctuary was only a few steps away, and I pounded up the few concrete steps—and slammed headfirst into a solid body. I stumbled back, confused, and the guy with bright multicolored hair stared at me in surprise and nearly dropped his veritable armful of junk food.

"Hey, it's you!" he exclaimed, and I recognized his thick slum accent and pinpointed him as the voice that had been talking about hotwiring cars. He made a grab at me, dropping a few packages, and caught my arm.

Without thinking, I jammed my elbow into his stomach, causing him to cry out and let go. I leapt for the door, my hands, still joined, falling on the handle—and then the ominous click of a gun cocking sounded, and a voice stated coolly, "Don't move."

Listening to instinct, I looked towards the noise and froze. The same blonde man was there, holding the gun again and pointing it directly at my head. My eyes widened and I slowly lifted my hands from the door and turned my back to it as he indicated with a nod of his head. What the fuck did this guy think he was doing? Sure, the car station wasn't exactly milling with people, but this was a public place in broad daylight! Surely there was a cashier or someone inside! I mean, it was possible this was a computerized station, but … but ….

Nevertheless, the guy still had a gun pointed at my head like he did this every day and a calm expression on his face that said he wouldn't hesitate to shoot.

Maybe he was bluffing. Maybe I should just run and hope there was someone inside—and that the bullet missed, because he sure as hell didn't look like he was bluffing.

Abruptly, the decision was taken away from me when the door to the car station opened and a lanky arm seized me from behind. The blonde lowered his gun. The slender fingers held my bicep tightly, almost painfully, and I made a muffled sound of frustration and twisted halfheartedly as the new person began to lead me down the steps. I didn't bother to crane my head to look at my captor; I merely glanced to see the blonde gone. The multi-colored guy fell into step beside us as we headed towards the car. He was rubbing his stomach with one arm and carrying his snacks in the crook of the other.

"Man, you didn't have to do that, you know," he said to me, and I examined him. He had a rounded face, very strange if somewhat attractive, with a myriad of piercings and bizarre chartreuse eyes that smiled annoyingly at me. Contacts, no doubt, unless he had actually gotten surgery to change them to that creepy, neon green color. His hair, I thought, must have been naturally light orange, as that color seemed prominent in the streaks of other colors as well as was the color of his eyebrows. "Nearly ruined some perfectly good munchies, too," he added with a pout.

"That so-called food is disgusting," my captor spoke quietly from behind me, and I identified him as the soft voice in the car. I wondered if he could talk any louder than he was or if his voice was just naturally hushed and practically emotionless.

"Dyre, my man, you have yet to experience the wonders of a twinkie," the redhead said solemnly, but his eyes twinkled.

"… you're sure you didn't consume paint chips as a small child?"

"Nah, too expensive. I did snort pixy stix once, though—now that was interestin'."

My captor didn't respond. I sighed, slouching and dragging my heels childishly as I was all but herded towards the car and inevitable doom with the pack of lunatics that I had somehow been lucky enough to earn as my kidnappers. Whoop-de-fucking-do.