Mornings in Cross World City are beautiful. The sunlight pours across the skyline, making all the buildings shine like jewels. Well, almost all the buildings. High above its surrounding towers, the headquarters of Ziktor Industries stands tall and black, absorbing the light in some strange way. No reflections sparkle from it, and passers-by hurry past quickly, as if to escape the feeling of utter cold radiating from it.
In a laboratory somewhere in the middle of the building, Karl Ziktor, also known as Grimlord, watched impassively as one of his most gifted inventor skugs unveiled his newest invention.
"And just what does this- pile of junk do that would interest me, Strictland?" Ziktor sneered.
"I-it's a Virtual Transmogrifier, Mr. Ziktor," the skug replied. Slightly insane-looking to begin with, the fiendish grin on his face only made the effect worse. "It can transform any virtual body standing on this plate," Strictland indicated a small metal square to his left, "into an exact duplicate of the body standing on this plate." He indicated the one to his right.
Ziktor raised an eyebrow. "Any virtual body? Even my own virtual form?"
Blinking, Strictland nodded. "Well- yes, of course! If you were to transform into Grimlord and stand on that plate, I could turn you into anyone you wanted."
A fiendish smile curved across Ziktor's face. "Good. Pack that up and take it to the warehouse test site. Call me and inform me when you're done." Turning away from Strictland, he looked out the window at the city below him. Almost to himself, he continued. "I have the perfect subject in mind."
"Ki-yah!" Three kicks struck three hanging bags with perfect precision. Tao nodded in approval.
"Very good. I can see that you all have been practicing very hard." He cocked his head, regarding one of his students. "Perhaps too hard in your case, JB. It appears that you have injured yourself."
JB Reese raised a hand to his cheek, where the last of a bruise was fading from his dark skin. "Oh, that? It's nothing, Tao. I got distracted by a girl and let a door hit me in the face." An eloquent shrug conveyed his embarrassment at being caught in such clumsiness.
Tao shook his head, smiling. "Ah, to be young again. If you will excuse me, I have a class to prepare for." Bowing, Tao left the three teens to finish their workout.
JB raised an eyebrow at his two friends. "Think he bought it?" he asked with a smile.
Kaitlin Star laughed. "Why would anyone make up a story that embarrassing? Yeah, I think he bought it."
"I don't know," the third member of the group replied. Ryan Steele looked thoughtful. "Do you guys ever get the feeling that Tao knows more about our 'situation' than he lets on?"
JB thought about that. "Well, I have noticed that he's stopped asking awkward questions, no matter what the problem is. Do you think he's figured it out?"
"I don't know," Kaitlin shrugged, "but it's not like we can just go ask him. If he knows, he knows. If not, he just trusts us. Either way, we win."
"Yeah, I guess. Okay, JB, ready to try those moves Tao was showing us?"
"Whenever you are, buddy."
Kaitlin watched as her two friends circled. They looked like a pair of photo negatives, something that never failed to amuse her. JB was tall, over six feet, with black eyes and hair, and chocolate skin. Ryan was shorter, a pale blond with blue-grey eyes. Despite their differences, however, the two of them were the best of friends.
Before Ryan and JB could get too deeply into their sparring, however, they were interrupted by three men in gis walking into the room. "Um, I'm sorry, guys, but this is a private workout session," Ryan explained.
JB nodded. "Yeah, maybe you could come back later?"
Without a word, the three men shimmered, becoming three of Grimlord's skugs. The gold-headed mutants instantly attacked the Troopers, who blocked the attack with ease. While Kaitlin blocked a series of lightning-fast jabs, JB was smoothly ducking a roundhouse kick.
Meanwhile, Ryan's opponent had managed to move him across the room, away from his two friends. Faster than thought, the skug grabbed his arm and sent a charge of electricity through him. Ryan passed out immediately, slumping bonelessly to the floor.
"RYAN!" Kaitlin cried, trying to reach him. Unfortunately, her own opponent blocked her path, forcing her to watch helplessly as the skug grabbed Ryan and disappeared.
Spurred on by Ryan's disappearance, JB and Kaitlin quickly disposed of their opponents, sending the two skugs crashing into each other. As the two mutants disintegrated, JB helped Kaitlin to her feet. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. "I'm fine, but- they took Ryan!"
"Come on, we'd better get to the lab." The two of them ran out the door, headed for JB's motorcycle.
Oh, man, what a headache. Ryan swam slowly to consciousness. Taking care to keep his breathing regular, he held himself still and cracked an eye. He was sitting up, in some sort of tube-shaped forcefield. From his surroundings, it was a good bet that he was in one of the thousands of warehouses in Cross World City. In front of him, he could see Grimlord and Strictland talking in low tones, standing in front of some type of machinery.
"Time to wake up, Steele," Grimlord rumbled. "I know you're awake; I can hear the changes in your breathing." His cover blown, Ryan opened his eyes and slowly got to his feet, taking a more in-depth look around.
"Nice place, Grimlord. A run-down warehouse is just your style."
"I'd like nothing more than to spend the day engaged in witty banter with you, Steele, but I have matters which require my attention."
Grimlord chuckled unpleasantly. "The destruction of the VR Troopers, of course. Strictland, explain to our 'guest' how your Virtual Transmogrifier works."
"I'll do better than that," the skug cackled. "I'll show him. We have Ryan Steel caged on the transmitter plate. Now, if you'll just step onto this plate, we can begin." Ryan watched warily as Grimlord stepped onto the metal square opposite him. Whatever this was, he knew he wasn't going to like it, and it was quite probably going to hurt. A lot.
"Now, I just pull this lever, and the resulting energy beam takes a reading of the subject." Inside his forcefield, Ryan was surrounded by crackling light. It seemed to penetrate every cell in his body, and he found himself unable to hold back a scream of pain. Fighting to keep conscious, he nevertheless was unable to stop himself from sinking to his knees. It went on for an eternity, and then it stopped, nearly causing Ryan to pass out at the sudden relief.
"Of course, the scanning process is quite painful, I'm afraid," Strictland chuckled. Ryan glared up at him, eyes burning a pure blue. "I'll have to work on that in later models. Now, I set the transferal grid, press this button, and presto!" White light, far less painful than that which Ryan had experienced, played over Grimlord's form. Ryan squinted, trying to see what was going on, but all he could see was a dark silhouette in the center of the glow. His jaw dropped. Was it his imagination, or was the shape- shrinking? Laboriously, he pulled himself to his feet. Then the light shut off, and he almost fell to the ground again. Grimlord had been transformed into a perfect copy of himself.
"Oh my God," Ryan whispered, seeing his own features smiling back at him. This was worse than the time he met up with his clone, because the expression was completely alien.
"Impressive, isn't it?" 'Ryan' chuckled. Even his voice was perfect, a light tenor instead of Grimlord's baritone rasp. Only the pure ice in the tone distinguished between the two. 'Ryan' turned towards Strictland, nodding in approval. "You've outdone yourself this time, Strictland."
"Thank you, sir."
'Ryan' jerked a thumb at the original. "So how long do we have to keep him alive?" The casual menace in the tone scared Ryan far more coming in his own voice than in Grimlord's, and he shivered slightly.
"Twenty-four hours. After that, we won't need him in the machine to maintain the form. Of course, if you transform out and want to resume it again, we'll need to use the machine."
'Ryan' shrugged. "I'll just have to take care of the Troopers on the first try, then."
Inside the tube, Ryan had now fought his way back to full consciousness, and he pounded a fist on the forcefield that held him. "You'll never get away with this, Grimlord," he growled. "Kaitlin and JB will never believe you're me!"
"Give me a break, Steele," 'Ryan' chuckled. "We've been butting heads for two years now. I know how you walk, how you talk, practically how you think. This will be child's play!" Reaching through the forcefield, he grabbed Ryan's virtualizer, yanking it from around his neck. "I'll take that," he chuckled. Then, in a perfect mimicry of Ryan's voice and tone, "See ya!" He turned to Strictland. "Tell Doommaster to proceed with Phase 2."
Holding the virtualizer aloft, 'Ryan' smiled wickedly. "I've been waiting a long time for this. Trooper Transform!" In a flash of light and electronics, 'Ryan' was gone.
Strictland giggled insanely. "Better make yourself comfortable, Steele. You're going to be here a while."
"Anything yet, Professor?" JB looked up after inputting what had to be his eighteenth command string.
"Scanning. Yes, I believe I found something." JB and Kaitlin were instantly on their feet as Professor Hart flashed the images he had found on one of the lab's many computer screens.
"Your time is up, Ryan Steele!" Doommaster sneered. Kaitlin and JB watched in horror as 'Ryan,' in his Trooper armor, went sword to sword with Grimlord's lieutenant.
"Don't count me out yet, Dumbmaster!" the Trooper shot back.
"We've got to go help him!" Kaitlin cried.
"Agreed, Troopers, but be careful. This might be one of Grimlord's traps."
JB nodded. "We will, Professor. Trooper Transform!"
"Mind if we join the party?" JB asked. He and Kaitlin, both in their virtual armor, landed in the virtual quarry. Flanking Doommaster, they drew their weapons, pointing them at the virtual mutant.
"I will be back, Troopers," Doommaster snarled. "Count on it." In a flash, he was gone. Kaitlin quickly crossed to 'Ryan,' who had begun to sag.
"Ryan, are you all right?" she asked, concern lacing her voice.
"I'm fine, Kaitlin," he assured her. "Just- real tired."
"Let's get back and have the Professor check you out," JB decided. "Then you've got one heck of a story to tell us."
"Okay, Ryan, what happened? That skug grabbed you and just disappeared," Kaitlin said worriedly.
'Ryan' shifted position uncomfortably. "Well, I woke up on the Dark Fortress. Apparently, Icebot had discovered what he thought was a surefire way to figure out how the virtualizers work."
Seeing the other was reluctant to continue, JB prodded him gently. "What was that?"
'Ryan' swallowed. "Full autopsy," he said quietly, not meeting their eyes.
"Oh, Ryan," Kaitlin whispered. JB could not say anything for a second.
"How did you get out?"
"Aw, Grimlord's goons got cocky, as usual. They were- securing me, and they didn't get one of my hands tight enough. I got loose, got a hand on my virtualizer, and transformed. After that, getting out of the fortress was pretty easy, but I'd hate to see Grimlord's repair bill. I kinda made my own door." 'Ryan' shrugged, as if the whole thing was just another adventure.
"Wow. I'd say you got pretty lucky, buddy," JB said seriously.
'Ryan' nodded. "You know it. But- I don't think I'm going to be able to teach my class today."
Kaitlin snorted. "I should say not. We'll go back to the dojo and tell Tao that you're sick. I'm sure he and JB can cover for you."
"Okay, let's go." The Troopers walked out of the lab, leaving a thoughtful Professor Hart behind.
Tao, of course, accepted 'Ryan's' excuse of illness without blinking. "If you are sick, then you certainly should not be teaching the class. Go home, and get some rest."
'Ryan' smiled. "Thanks, Tao." That's a relief, 'Ryan' thought to himself. I may have Steele's reflexes, but I certainly don't know how to teach a bunch of little brats karate. He was headed for the front door when a familiar voice stopped him in his tracks.
"Hi, guys," Tyler Steele grinned, walking in the door. "Surprised to see me?"
'Ryan's' jaw hit the floor. Frantically, he tried to calculate the odds that Ryan Steele had known about his father's arrival.
Seeing the expression on his 'son's' face, Tyler frowned. "What's the matter, Ryan? I know I should probably have called, but I wanted to surprise you."
"Yeah, I'm sorry, Dad," 'Ryan' replied. "I- was just shocked. I mean, I thought you were still in Norway."
Tyler shrugged. "Everybody needs a vacation once in a while."
"Ryan's- not feeling real well, Mr. Steele," JB broke in.
Kaitlin nodded. "Yeah, he seems to have come down with some sort of bug VIRTUALLY overnight," she added meaningfully. Tyler's frown grew deeper.
"I'm- really tired," 'Ryan' broke in. "I'm just gonna go home and rest, okay?"
"Sure," Tyler replied. "I'll catch up to you later."
The Steele family house, where Ryan and Tyler had lived before Tyler's disappearance, had been Ryan's home these past two years. Before that, he had lived with his grandparents on a farm outside of Cross World City. No one could say I haven't done myhomework, 'Ryan' reflected as he pulled 'his' motorcycle into the driveway. The house itself was a typical wooden California two-story dwelling, beachfront property with a deck onto the sand. Tyler and Mariah Steele had bought it twenty years ago, back when beachfront property wasn't quite as expensive as it was today. As he walked inside, 'Ryan' wondered idly why no one in the Steele family had ever sold it.
Inside, 'Ryan' decided to take a quick spin around the house. Even after two years, none of his skugs had ever been inside the Steele house, and it wouldn't do to be caught in his charade. Setting his motorcycle helmet down on a table in the hallway, he hung his jacket on the coat rack and went off to explore.
Some of the rooms had obviously not been lived in for years. There was only a minute layer of dust, attributable to Ryan's busy schedule, but the feeling of emptiness in them was staggering. Ryan's room was about what one would expect of a twenty year-old boy. There were karate trophies on the shelves and the dresser, clothes on the floor, and clippings of the VR Troopers taped to the walls. Pictures of Ryan, JB, and Kaitlin were all around, but 'Ryan' suddenly noticed that there were a great many more of Kaitlin than of anyone else. He pondered that as he moved on to the rest of the house.
The kitchen was in far better shape than one would imagine of a house belonging to an unmarried male. A quick look in the cabinets revealed the usual stash of junk food, but also spices and implements that looked like something off the Food Network. Good grief, he cooks, too? Of course he does, this is Cross World's Golden Boy we're talking about here. 'Ryan' was surprised that there was so much for him to learn about his constant adversary.
The last room that seemed 'lived in' was, appropriately enough, the living room. A curved, modular couch sat in front of a large TV and a fireplace. Arranged on the mantelpiece was a series of photos. Crossing the room, 'Ryan' picked one up. An eight year-old Ryan Steele smiled out at him, one arm around the neck of a Redbone Coonhound puppy, the other around his father's shoulders. All three of them looked extremely happy.
That couldn't have been more than a month before Tyler- 'disappeared,' 'Ryan' thought to himself. Not many pictures of the boy after that. The next photo on the mantel suddenly arrested 'Ryan's' attention. A beautiful blond woman in a white gown was laughing at something, while Tyler Steele stood next to her, wearing a tuxedo and a nervous smile. Giving Tyler bunny-ears was a shorter, stockier, sandy-blond man whom 'Ryan' vaguely identified as Tyler's brother, Matthew Steele. This, then, must be Tyler's wedding, and the blond woman must be Mariah Steele.
'Ryan' examined her closely. Ryan obviously got most of his looks from his mother. Her hair was the same shade of blond, and her skin was that fine-china white which on Ryan never seemed to tan. This woman, immortalized in a photograph, was the mother that Ryan had never had the chance to know.
Suddenly the emptiness of the house tapped at 'Ryan's' awareness. Two years of occupation couldn't make up for ten standing empty, especially when most of those two years were spent alone. For just a second, staring down at the photo of Tyler Steele and his bride, a flash of emotion tugged at 'Ryan's' withered heart. Just as quickly, however, it was gone. Setting the photograph down, he headed back up to 'his' room to lie down.
"Ryan?" Tyler asked carefully, tapping on the door. "Do you feel up to some dinner?"
"That depends," 'Ryan' replied, cocking one eyebrow. "Do I have to cook it?"
Tyler laughed. "No, I thought I'd make spaghetti. Sound good to you?"
"I'll call you when it's ready, okay?" Shutting the door to Ryan's room, Tyler headed back down the stairs, deep in thought. After Ryan had left the dojo, Kaitlin had said something to him about Ryan's acting strangely. JB had told him about the boy's close call with Grimlord, but Kaitlin had seemed to think that there was something severely out of the ordinary going on. This seemed to bear out her suspicions.
It wasn't that Tyler couldn't cook, but it was generally accepted that he was nowhere near as good as his son. Ryan loved to cook, and tended to make jokes about food poisoning if for some reason Tyler had to make supper. Perhaps Ryan was just reacting to the day's events, but Tyler couldn't help feeling it was more than that.
Dinner was a much quieter affair than usual. 'Ryan' picked at his spaghetti, wondering if he would be able to continue his charade until the rest of his plan fell into place.
Tyler finally broke the silence. "Ryan, JB and Kaitlin told me about what happened earlier, about your run-in with Grimlord. That must have been pretty scary for you. Do you want to talk about it?"
'Ryan' shrugged uncomfortably. "No, I'm fine, Dad. I mean, yeah, it was a little scary, but nothing I couldn't handle. I'll be fine."
"Look, Ryan, I know you have a tendency to try and pretend you're invulnerable, but there's nothing wrong with admitting that you're frightened. And frankly, if you weren't frightened by something like this, I'd be worried about you. Won't you please talk to me?"
"I said I'm fine," 'Ryan' growled, getting to his feet. "I'm tired, okay. I'm going to bed."
Tyler raised an eyebrow. "It's only seven thirty. It's not even dark out."
"I'm just tired," 'Ryan' repeated flatly. Standing up, he strode up the stairs without a backward glance, leaving a very concerned Tyler Steele behind.
Normally, basketball night in the Steele household was very much an "at-your-own-risk" activity, replete with flying pillows, full snack plates, and father and son yelling in unison as the Cross World Falcons lost yet another game. (Some things hadn't changed at all in the last ten years.) Tonight, however, Tyler was unable to concentrate. Kaitlin's suspicions kept popping up, right next to his own worries about Ryan. The boy's behavior was not out of character, exactly. Tyler would have expected him to try and suppress his natural delayed reaction to the morning's close call. But Ryan had NEVER snapped at him the way he did tonight. It was almost as if Ryan wasn't himself- but that was impossible, wasn't it?
A knock at the door roused him from his thoughts. Opening it, he saw Kaitlin and JB on the porch, the latter bouncing a basketball. "Hi," Kaitlin grinned. "We thought we'd come by and see if we could drag Ryan away from the Falcons' latest trouncing, get him to shoot some hoops with us."
Tyler shrugged. "Actually, he's gone to bed. Said he was tired."
"At eight at night?" JB was astounded. "The night of a Falcons game?"
"I don't understand it either, JB. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."
Kaitlin nodded, following Tyler as he stepped back into the house. "We'll do that, Mr. Steele, thanks."
The two young people made their way up the stairs to the door of Ryan's room. Knocking on the door, JB called, "Ryan?"
"What do you want?" the muffled response came.
"We thought you might want to shoot some hoops, take your mind of the Falcons," Kaitlin replied.
The door swung open, and Kaitlin took an involuntary step back. 'Ryan' was in his usual sleepwear, a T-shirt and shorts, but he didn't look as if he'd been sleeping. There was a glare in his eyes that was certainly not attributable to having just woken up. "No thanks," he replied coldly. "I'm really not feeling well, and I just want to get some sleep." Without giving them time to respond, he shut the door in their faces. Kaitlin and JB looked at each other in astonishment.
"Man, that fight today must really have done a number on him," JB mused.
Kaitlin pursed her lips. "I'm not so sure..."
Late the next morning, the Troopers were called to Professor Hart's lab to take care of yet another emergency. Meeting 'Ryan' by the gate, Kaitlin was relieved to see that he seemed to be his old self. The portal opened, and he walked right in, removing Kaitlin's fear that he might be another clone.
"What's up, Professor?" 'Ryan' asked as the Troopers entered. Jeb, sitting on the diagnostic table, suddenly hackled and began snarling at 'Ryan.'
"JEB!" Kaitlin cried. "What is your problem?"
"He smells funny!" the dog replied, in between barks and growls. "Virtual. Like Ryan, but like someone else, too, and I don't like it!"
'Ryan' cursed silently to himself. Of course the dog would be able to smell that he wasn't Ryan Steele. Luckily, he had an explanation at hand.
"That's probably just a side effect of being kidnapped by those skugs yesterday," he said reasonably. "I spent- way too long in Virtual Reality."
Jeb subsided, but did not look completely convinced. That settled, JB turned to the Professor. "So what's the emergency?"
"Observe." A picture appeared on the main screen, of a robot rampaging on the virtual grid. "This is Grimlord's Shockbot. He appears to be heading for a weak point in the reality barrier. With his ability to manipulate electric energy, he could rip a hole through, allowing Grimlord's minions into our world."
"That's not going to happen," Kaitlin declared. "JB and I will take on Shockbot."
"And I'll handle the Skybase," 'Ryan' finished. "Grimlord's sure to be sending air fighters."
"Right," JB agreed. Holding their virtualizers in the air, the three looked at each other for a moment.
"Trooper Transform!" With a flash of light and sound, the three became VR Troopers. 'Ryan' was transported to the Skybase, while Kaitlin and JB were facing Shockbot on the virtual plain.
"Aughh!" JB slammed into the ground once again, every nerve tingling from the shock he had just received. Next to him knelt Kaitlin 2, trying to help him get to his feet, while Kaitlin covered them both with her laser pistol.
"Ryan!" Kaitlin 2 called over her VR Transmitter. "We could use some help here!"
There was no answer. Frowning, she called up an outside view of the Skybase on her helmet screen. The base was being rocked by the fire from Grimlord's fighters, but was making no response.
"Guys, we've got a little problem here." Quickly, Kaitlin 2 explained the situation to her friends. Rising painfully to his feet, JB switched into broadcast mode.
"Ryan, damn it, we need you! Now either start shooting at those damn fighters, or get your rear DOWN here!" The channel remained silent, and JB was forced to turn his attention to the robot in front of him. Shockbot was damaged, but far from out of the fight.
"What's the matter, Trooper, afraid to fight me without backup?" the robot cackled.
JB growled. "I have had just about enough of you, Shockbot! Laser Lance Command, NOW!" Pulling his laser lance, he rammed it through his opponent with more force than strictly necessary. Shockbot dropped to the ground and exploded.
"Problem dealt with, Professor," Kaitlin transmitted. "We're coming back."
"And Ryan's got some serious explaining to do," JB muttered.
"What the hell happened out there?" JB growled at his best friend. 'Ryan' sitting on the diagnostic table, did not look up.
"They started shooting at me, and I froze. I just froze." 'Ryan' sounded completely defeated. "Maybe I should give my virtualizer to someone else."
JB's voice softened. "That's not the answer and you know it. No one could lead us the way you can. What you need to do is talk to your dad. You know he'll listen."
'Ryan' nodded. "Yeah. I guess I just- didn't want to give Grimlord the satisfaction of having beaten me in any way."
"And people wonder where he got his last name," Jeb interjected. That brought weak laughter from all concerned.
Looking up, 'Ryan' suddenly noticed Kaitlin watching him. She seemed concerned, but there was something else in her gaze as well, something that he couldn't identify.
"Guys, it just hit me that I've got about ten boxes of papers in my car, research for my latest story. You want to help me carry them up to my apartment?"
JB and 'Ryan' nodded. "Sure," 'Ryan' replied. "Always up for some heavy labor."
"JB, I'm afraid I need you to remain here. I have a project that I need your help with," Professor Hart broke in.
JB shrugged. "Well, duty calls. You two think you can handle this by yourself?"
"What am I, a damsel in distress?" Kaitlin cracked. "Yeah, we can handle it." The two of them walked out the door, leaving JB with the Professor.
"So what's the project, Professor?"
"I am greatly concerned about Ryan," Professor Hart replied. "His behavior is quite unlike him, and Jeb's comment about his altered scent makes me worry that perhaps he has been altered."
"What do you mean, altered?" JB asked suspiciously.
"I am picking up very odd readings. They look like Ryan's, but they aren't, exactly. They are more analogous with those of a virtual being."
JB frowned. "Well, we'd better get on it. If something's happened to Ryan, I want to know what."
"And that is the last one," Kaitlin declared, straightening up. Her second-floor apartment was now full of boxes, each containing sheaves of documents. 'Ryan' picked one up at random.
"Ziktor Industries: Profit and Loss?" he read. "What, you're going to try and nail Karl Ziktor for something else?"
"Yeah, I think he's illegally dumping again," she replied. "So, I'm going to get some research in. You might not want to stick around. This part of the job's going to be REAL boring."
He smiled, coming up beside her. "Well, I can think of much more entertaining ways to spend our time," he said quietly. She turned to him, raising an eyebrow.
"Like what?" she asked. If she didn't know better, she'd say he was coming on to her.
"Like this." Faster than she could react, he had slid his arms around her. Holding her securely, he dropped his lips to hers and kissed her roughly.
For a second, every thought in Kaitlin's brain stopped. All that was left was a feeling of pure shock. This was something she had fantasized about, but- it wasn't right. It wasn't RYAN. His grip was hurting her arms, and there was absolutely none of the gentleness he usually showed.
What did Grimlord DO to him? she thought, frantically trying to dislodge herself from his hold. Finally she managed to worm free. "Ryan, what is going on here?" she asked, backing away from him. He did not reply, just smiled in a way that made her blood run cold.
Turning, she ran for the door, only to find that it was locked. Closer examination showed her that the lock had been melted. She certainly wasn't getting out of the apartment that way. She turned to head for a window, only to be backhanded across the face by 'Ryan,' who had just caught up with her. She fell to the floor, where she looked up at 'Ryan' with pure fear in her eyes.
"Why?" she asked, her voice breaking. "Why are you DOING this?"
He chuckled, and his response chilled her even more. "Why not?"
Back in the warehouse, a small alarm began to beep. Strictland looked up from his machine and grinned. "Twenty-four hours is up," he giggled. "Time to dispose of the trash." Looking over at the tube where Ryan was being incarcerated, he noticed that the Trooper seemed to be asleep. Turning, he gestured peremptorily to the two skugs that had been left as guards. "Get him ready. I'll raise the field, and we can find a place to dump him."
The two skugs approached warily as the field shut off. However, Ryan just lay on the ground, motionless, so they shrugged and went over to lift him up.
They never laid a finger on him. Rolling up onto his shoulders, Ryan lashed out with a powerful two-footed kick, knocking the two skugs back into the wall where they promptly disintegrated. Using his momentum, he rolled himself to his feet. In a flash, he had Strictland lifted by the collar and pinned against the concrete wall.
"Where is he?" Ryan asked. His tone was like pure ice, and his eyes were clear blue flames, a sure sign of his anger.
"I- I don't know," the inventor stuttered, taken aback at the pure murder in Ryan's gaze. He cried out as he was slammed into the wall, hard.
"That's not good enough," Ryan growled. "Now you tell me where Grimlord is, or I'll find a lead pipe, start with your ankles, and work my way up. Do I make myself clear?" Strictland just stared back in wordless fear. "Don't think I won't do it, Strictland. I've had a very bad day."
"I don't know, I swear! But I can find him for you," the mutant stammered. "I just need to get to the tracking device on my machine."
Ryan regarded him silently for a minute, and then dragged him over to the machine. "Do it. But if you try anything-"
"I'm not stupid- or suicidal," Strictland replied, tapping on a few keys. A screen came up showing a map of Cross World. After a few zoom-ins, the screen stopped, a blinking light coming from one of the buildings. Ryan gasped.
"That's Kaitlin's apartment building!" He turned back to the inventor, a very unpleasant smile on his face. "Got a car?"
Not more than five minutes later, Ryan was roaring down the street on a skug-issue motorcycle. Like all of Grimlord's virtual constructs, it would evaporate in an hour, but at the speeds Ryan was going, that would not be a problem. Having "convinced" Strictland to use the self-destruct to turn Grimlord's machine into so much scrap metal, he knew that the laboratory would be gone by the time he got back to it, but at this point, he didn't really care. All his attention was focused on getting back to Kaitlin before Grimlord managed to hurt her. He could only pray he wasn't too late.
Pulling up outside Kaitlin's apartment, Ryan didn't even bother to park the bike, just dropped it by the curb. He hit the stairs at a dead run, taking them two at a time and barely touching the ground. Upon reaching Kaitlin's door, he didn't bother to knock, simply tried the handle. Finding it locked, he wound up and launched a powerful kick into the door.
The deadbolt was of extremely high quality, and the doorframe was created to withstand almost any attack known to man. However, Ryan Steele was the classic irresistible force at this point, and something had to give. It turned out to be the door itself. The deadbolt ripped out of the wood as if it were set in cheese. The door went flying off its hinges, with a crash that quite likely resounded through the entire building.
All activity within the apartment stopped. Ryan's eyes narrowed as he took in the sight before him. Kaitlin lay on the floor, a bruise beginning to darken the skin of her cheek. His double was on top of her, pinning her wrists to the floor. Both looked rather startled at his entrance.
"I'm sorry," he began, in a cold, deadly tone that said he was anything but. "Am I interrupting anything?"
Kaitlin took the moment of distraction to throw her assailant off of her. Looking from one man to the other, she backed away from both as 'Ryan' got to his feet.
"She's something else," 'Ryan' grinned. "I see why you like her so much. Puts up quite a fight, though."
"You son of a bitch." In that moment, fifteen years of training evaporated into mist. Ryan charged his duplicate, swinging a punch that had no skill behind it, nothing but pure rage. 'Ryan' ducked, but was unable to get away from the other. They slammed into each other and fell to the floor.
The fight that followed was brutal. The two men slammed each other into walls, furniture, and the floor with no regard for anything except causing each other injury. Kaitlin watched in silent horror as her apartment was thoroughly trashed. Slowly but surely, Ryan was getting the upper hand as his training began to break through his rage. Breaking away from his opponent, 'Ryan' grabbed a letter opener from Kaitlin's desk. Whirling, he lashed out with it, but Ryan saw him coming at the last minute and dodged. He was not quite quick enough, however, and the letter opener plunged into his shoulder, eliciting a scream. 'Ryan' followed up with a punch to the stomach, dropping the real Ryan to his knees. Satisfied that his opponent was out of the fight for a while, 'Ryan' turned back to Kaitlin with an evil smile.
"Now, where were we?" He never got an answer. Ryan, kneeling on the floor, launched himself at his duplicate in pure fury. The two of them went staggering back, and hit the window with more than enough force to break it. Kaitlin screamed as the two men went hurtling out the window, heading for the street below.
"Kaitlin!" a voice cried in her ear, shaking her out of her fugue. She looked up to see JB, transformed into a Trooper, standing there. "Are you all right?" he asked seriously, looking around. "Man, I hope you're insured."
"Ryan! He fell-"
"Yeah, I know. The Professor and I saw it all on the virtual computers. I just wish I could have gotten here sooner. Come on, we'd better go see if Ryan's all right."
The two of them headed down to the street, where the two Ryans lay side by side, unconscious. Kneeling next to the real Ryan, Kaitlin winced at the wound in his shoulder. "They must have hit pretty hard," she said anxiously.
"Yeah, but I think this guy was underneath," JB responded, nudging 'Ryan' with his toe. Suddenly the body began to flicker and then disappeared, much to the shock of the small crowd that had gathered.
"We got a call about World War III being fought in one of the apartments!" cried a policeman, who had just arrived on the scene. "What's going on here?"
JB was privately wondering that himself, but he quickly made up something. "The Virtual Army released a shape-shifting mutant to cause trouble and lure us out. It happened to attach itself to these two, and there was apparently a fight."
"I'll say," the policeman replied, examining the wound on Ryan's shoulder. "I think we'd better get this kid to a hospital."
"No, we have medical facilities," JB replied. "We need to check him and make sure the mutant didn't try anything else." Picking Ryan up, he teleported out, startling the police to no end.
"I hate it when they do that," one of them muttered, turning to Kaitlin. "Miss, I'm afraid we're going to need a statement."
Kaitlin looked up at him and sighed. This was going to be fun.
Much later, Kaitlin's car pulled up outside the lab and she ran in. "How is he?" she asked anxiously.
"He's still unconscious," Tyler Steele replied. "His duplicate broke his fall, but he still fell two stories onto a concrete sidewalk. If he hadn't been a VR Trooper, he might have been killed."
"Yeah, and if we'd let them take him to the hospital, we'd have had some REAL explaining to do, like why he's healing 50% faster than a normal human being," JB added.
Kaitlin pushed past them to where Ryan lay on the diagnostic bed, still unconscious. His shirt lay over the chair by the main workstation, as they had needed to remove it to dress his shoulder. She winced at the memory, and was thankful once again for the lab's medical programs. The wound had healed almost completely, with only a slight scar to mark it's passing.
"He'll be all right, won't he?" she asked Tyler anxiously. The physicist shrugged.
"It's really- too soon to tell," he informed her, worry obvious in his voice. "But I think he'll be just fine."
"Can I get a second opinion?" Everyone turned as Ryan sat up slowly, a hand on his head. "Oh, ouch. Accelerated healing or not, I KNOW I hit a concrete sidewalk."
"Ryan! You're all right!" JB cried. Ryan smiled weakly.
"Let's not stretch things, buddy. I'm sore, I'm tired, and I haven't eaten in twenty-four hours."
The others exchanged puzzled looks. "Ryan, what has been going on here?" JB asked finally.
"It's a looooong story," Ryan sighed. "It all started yesterday morning, when the skugs kidnapped me." Ryan's friends listened as he related his experience, shocked and a little appalled that Grimlord had been able to fool them so thoroughly. When JB mentioned this, Ryan shrugged.
"We've been fighting each other for two years. I'd be more surprised if he COULDN'T imitate me. Besides, it's not as if you didn't even think something was wrong. But it doesn't matter. It's over now, Grimlord's lost my shape, and I trashed his machine, so he won't be trying it again."
"Well we're all just really glad to have you back," Kaitlin told him, giving him a hug. He hugged her back, and the two of them suddenly blushed as they realized he had no shirt.
Clearing his throat, Tyler grinned. "Seeing how Ryan hasn't eaten since breakfast yesterday, I suggest we all go out for pizza- once he puts on a shirt."
"DAD!" The room broke up into laughter. The Professor quickly synthesized Ryan a shirt, and the four humans and one dog headed out for pizza, just grateful to be together.