Author's Note: Ahem—two years later: chapter two. Well, that's what I get for posting a story I was stuck on. Thank you, everyone, for your comments and encouragement. I doubt anyone is still reading, but I've finally sorted out the story I want to tell, and here it is.

Love for Ransom

Chapter Two

You know, the least my kidnappers could have done was remove my gag so I could swear properly when the multicolored freak jovially slammed my head into the car upon trying to get me into the passenger seat. As it was, my carefully crafted expression of dissatisfaction came out as, "Huking hew, bat hur, oo biff," as opposed to the far more intimidating version: Fucking hell, that hurt, you bitch. The implication that I would shove a tire jack down his throat was therefore lost in translation.

The culprit, still holding his junk food in the crook of one arm, waved me a cheerful, none too serious apology and nearly closed the door on my leg. The other guy, the one apparently called Dyre, had already gotten in the backseat of the car, and the redhead followed and closed that door as well. It made me twitch knowing he had gotten his fingerprints all over Lover's doors, and I almost wanted to bitch him out for it until it occurred to me that pointing out to a criminal that he was leaving his fingerprints behind was perhaps a stupid thing for me, the kidnapped one, to do. The last door to close was the driver's. The blonde guy, who had just gotten in, looked at me for a moment.

Damn, he was sexy.

NO—bad mind, bad. Must stop checking out badass boys who shove things in my mouth … aaand that came out really wrong. Screw you, Freud, and all your stupid notions of slippage.

Finally settling on an appropriate reaction, I glared at the blonde, finding this to be my first opportunity to since at all other times we had been face to face the guy had had a nice, shiny gun aimed at my head to dissuade me from even frowning at him. And, of course, I was at my most intimidating presently—bound, gagged, and probably with a bruise forming on my forehead courtesy of the retard in back. At least the bruise on my forehead would match the one on the back of my head, which currently hurt like a bitch. The blonde looked suitably cowed, and by that I mean not at all, reaching forward to grab my hands and swiftly undo the complicated knot in the cloth tie binding my wrists. I guessed that it was probably him who had tied it in the first place.

He was one of those freaky knot-tying people, wasn't he?

It took me about five seconds longer than it should have to realize what having my hands free meant, and then I pulled the gag from my mouth and let it hang around my neck. The blonde grabbed my hands immediately, looking at me as if I were a dog who had just pissed on his shoes. I wished I had.

"You hit me," I said accusingly. It wasn't like I expected an apology, but, really, what the hell else was I supposed to say?

"Next time you do that, I'll shoot you," he told me. I hoped he was referring to my trying to escape and not something less easy to avoid doing, like, oh, breathing.

"I just knew you were a friendly guy the moment you stuck a gun in my mouth—"

"I'm sorry," said someone from behind my seat, identifiable as the kidnapper who had been sleeping in the car. Something about the quality of the voice, aside from its heavy slum-accent, that is, caught my interest, and I tried to place what it was. "I should have been watching him, but I drove all night, so I was really tired—"

It hit me suddenly, and the person stopped talking in surprise when I whipped around to peer at them from the space between the door and my seat.

"You're a girl!" I blurted out without really considering my words and ignored the none-too-amused grip that the blonde guy had on my wrists. I hadn't noticed it at first, since her voice had been muffled by fabric before and wasn't high-pitched in the first place—in fact, it was kind of pleasant, if one ignored the accent—but she was most definitely female. She had dark skin and darker hair done in tight curls and pulled up into a ponytail, and she had piercings in her ears and one in her nose. She was beautiful, as far as women go, like one of those exotic dancers in movies. If only she had been a guy after all—she totally would have been my type. I had a bit of a thing for boys with dark skin and hair, especially if they had some old Asian and/or old African blood in them, too, though I couldn't have told you why.

Of course, I was soon to find out that her attractive appearance was by far overshadowed by her … well, let's call it "vaguely intimidating" personality and hair-trigger temper. Or you could call it her inclination to be a scary bitch, but then I'd suggest running as your follow-up action.

The three occupants in the back seat stared back at me, and then the man in the middle, who by process of elimination was the one called Dyre, dismissively looked back down at the electronic device he had in one palm. From what I could see, he was thin with a long face, a prominent nose, and pale skin. His short, black hair was curly, and his narrow eyes were obscured slightly by a pair of glasses. His expression was just as blank as his voice was. I decided that he was not especially remarkable or memorable—almost the polar opposite of the guy with a rainbow dyed into his reddish hair and more piercings than I even wanted to contemplate. The redheaded man, who sat behind the driver's seat, tilted his head at me, and the girl blinked several times.

The surprise faded from her expression quickly, and her lips twisted in a displeased manner. Then the scowl morphed into a parody of my expression, and the girl replied in a mockingly exaggerated tone of surprise, "And you're gay!"

My eyes widened as I jerked back. What kind of comeback was that? I wasn't embarrassed, just surprised. Was I that obvious? What, do I have the words, "Gay Boy—point and laugh" emblazoned on my forehead? (If I did, why hadn't my parents noticed already, dammit?) And so I stated with utmost intelligence, "Uh."

The redheaded man suddenly turned to me and eyed me suspiciously. "You're not straight, are ya?" he asked with an undertone of disgust, adding under his breath, "Fuckin' roosters."

Blinking, I began, "Uh, no—"

I was cut off as the girl suddenly let out a very loud, frustrated sound somewhere between a scream and a growl. My eyes widened and I winced back reflexively; simultaneously, the redheaded man on the left side burst into loud, unconcealed laughter. I wasn't sure how he could feel comfortable laughing. It wasn't hard at all to imagine the girl reaching over and ripping our throats out in her wrath. I decided I liked my esophagus right where it was, and so I remained silent. Secretly, though, I was hoping the girl would carry out my vengeance on the redhead for me. He left fingerprints on my car, after all.

Hey, I never said I wasn't petty.

"So it's true!" the redhead managed to get out between hysterical bouts, earning a baleful glare and a warning growl from the girl. It was like watching a bunny jab at a rabid, extremely pissed off wolf with a spork: vaguely amusing, but you knew the final result was gonna to be gruesome. "You're cursed, Jazzy! You're a queer magnet! Flock, flock, little queerlings—"

"Can it, wonder-boy," she hissed, cutting him off as she leaned over the guy in the middle to glare at the redhead menacingly.

The redhead only leaned closer, his laughter faded as he pulled his face into a mocking sneer and mimicked back in a taunting, slum-accented voice, "Can it, wonder-bitch."

"Oh, that's it! You die!" the girl all but snarled, springing forward with a murderous expression as her hands latched onto the guy's neck. I hoped I wasn't about to see a tonsillectomy first-hand; I was still feeling a bit nauseous after being tucked to sleep with a revolver to the head. Dyre, however, didn't so much as bat an eyelash as the girl sprawled across his lap and throttled the verbose man. The redhead was starting to turn a rather ashen color as he gasped for air and pried at the girl's clawed hands about his neck; the man in the middle disinterestedly pressed several buttons on his device.

I, of course, merely stared, and the blonde guy seemed oblivious to it all, as he had given up trying to persuade me to turn back around and was currently ransacking my glove compartment. Weren't they going to do anything? She was going to kill him if it went on much longer. I really didn't want bloodstains on Lover's seats—they were so damn hard to get out.

As if answering my unspoken question, Dyre calmly closed the cover of his device and set it on his lap. Without even a minor shift in his expression, he reached forward with both hands and persuaded (otherwise known as pried) the girl's hands away from the other guy's neck. Still not speaking, he maneuvered the girl back into her own seat, only to have the redhead spring up and, in a coughing, scratchy tone, declare, "Hey, isn't it 'bout time we got the bitch declawed—mmnhn?"

Blinking, the redhead considered the large blue lollipop Dyre had shoved into his mouth. He seemed to have completely forgotten the girl, who was currently sulking with her face pressed against the window. Dyre removed his hand from holding the stick of the candy, watching for a moment as the other man sucked contently on the lollipop. Turning away, he opened and returned to his device.

"Dyre, man, if you wanted me to suck somethin', all you gotta do is ask."

Not looking up, Dyre said in his very soft, monotone voice, "I'm not gay."

To which the candy-consuming one grinned and informed him in a cheerful tone, "Sure, man—you're about as straight as a fruit loop."

The two fell silent. The whole exchange almost sounded like something they said often.

Meanwhile, my self-worth just dropped several feet. I couldn't believe I had let myself be kidnapped by these morons.

"Here," the blonde man said abruptly from my side, startling me mostly because he had been silent for a while, but he wasn't talking to me. He was speaking to Dyre, who obediently caught what the blonde threw at him. I stared at it, taking a moment to realize that it was my cell phone that the black-haired man was currently slipping into his pocket.

Why, of course, Mr. Kidnapper—go ahead and take all my stuff while you're at it. Sure you don't want my firstborn child and a kidney or two to go along with your collection?

Mr. Blonde Badass was suddenly grasping my arm again, so I looked back at him just in time to see him snap one side of a pair of handcuffs over my right wrist. I startled, trying to jerk back, but he already had it on me and, in a moment, had attached the other side to the car door. I blinked, pulled at the restraint, and my wrist caught as the slack of the handcuffs ran out. It was bad enough being tied like before, but to be handcuffed to my own car, my baby—and, what the crap, the handcuffs were tie-dyed patterned metal? What kind of sick ….

Looking at the cuffs and then back at the one who had put them on me, I worked my lips several times before my usual sarcasm caught up with me. "This might be a bit kinky for me, Cadets," I said finally, pulled the cuffs another time, and then smiled thoughtfully, "Should we set a safe word?"

"No." I locked eyes with the man in the driver's seat who had answered me so severely, and my mouth just ran off by itself.

"Nah, it needs to be something else than no. Because when I say no, I really mean ohgodyesharder—"

"How about you shut up or I'll put the gag back," the blonde man suggested with a scowl.

"Right-o!" I agreed readily. I wasn't too keen on returning to the stage of muffled swearing. I liked my curses clear and well enunciated, thankyouverymuch. Still, I couldn't resist, despite how utterly stupid it was—I have a bad tendency to act like even more of a smartass when I'm scared. So, after a small pause, I added in a hushed voice, "You're pretty hardcore. Be gentle with me?"

He didn't look amused. And he certainly didn't look like he wanted to take me up on my half-joking offer.

… seriously, only I would be enough of a dumbass to get myself kidnapped and then all but offer my ass to my kidnapper. God, I love myself sometimes.

"Jasmine, I think you were wrong," the blonde said. He was looking at me, but he was speaking to the three in the back. I felt so appreciated.

"What?" said the girl.

"No, the guy's definitely gay; he's been starin' at my crotch for the last two minutes—"

I was not!

"Shut up, Ridley, he's talking about—"

"Yeah, Jazzy, I know. I don't think he's one of that rooster's guys, either," the redhead shrugged, sounding oddly serious as he spoke around his lollipop. "I mean, listen to him talk. He's squeaky-ass clean."

This was not, I assumed, meant to imply that my voice was squeaking as if I were once again riding puberty like a pink and turquoise paisley carousel pony.

There was a pause, and then the girl said simply, "Shit."

"Yeah, shit," the redhead man repeated. He turned to me and smiled, and I found a hand suddenly shoved in my face. "The name's Ridley Lowe. What're you? And, more important, are you one of Aric's buttmonkey-minions?" he said amiably.

"Wouldn't you like to know, Cadet," I snorted and ignored his hand. To be honest, I was still pissed at him for foiling my escape and then hitting my head into my baby. That, and I could hardly understand what he was saying; I wasn't used to accents quite so thick, and the feat of reducing multi-syllable words to half a syllable still baffled me. I didn't know it was even possible to speak in half a syllable, but he and that girl damn well did. The redhead's grin grew tighter, presumably at my form of address.

"ID," the blonde said at my side, finally turning his head away from me to look at the redhead, who started digging through something on the floor of my car. I swallowed hard, my throat feeling oddly sore. I tried to pretend I wasn't scared out of my mind. It almost worked.

A slim black box changed hands from "the name's Ridley Lowe" to the blonde, and the latter flipped open the box's screen and pressed a button. The device made a chirping sound, the screen lit up, and the guard, a piece of black plastic, slid away from a rounded groove with a tiny, innocent hole. I eyed the ID reader and its groove. "I thought those were only government issued."

Ridley grinned. It occurred to me that the guy's face was probably stuck in a perpetual grin. It made me want to run him over with my car. "It was—to a nice ol' offie who I borrowed it from without tellin' him."

Offie was slang for police officer, which I found rather obnoxious. It was hard for me to say the word with the right inflection when I went to the inner slums and had to imitate their accent so I wouldn't get my ass punted. I usually only got away with my terrible imitation because everyone was too drunk (or high, psyched, cooled, etcetera) to notice. I had no doubt that any venture into the outer slums, around drunken idiots or not, would get my throat slit in less time than it would take me to do the Macarena and the chicken dance in succession. And, trust me, I am the quick draw of all dances pelvic-thrusting or fowl related—but only the redone versions. Pre-colony recordings are trash.

I tried to raise my right hand, perhaps intending to shoot a finger at Ridley, but the metal band encircling my wrist stopped me short. I glanced down, then looked back with a brow raised. "And the cuffs?"

Ridley grinned lecherously, "No, those're mine."

Gross. Now I was going to have to amputate my arm.

"Nah, he just doesn't hit me as butt-whipped minion, Jazzy. Maybe we got the wrong guy?"

"Do you really think—"

"Give me your hand," the blonde ordered, distracting me from eavesdropping on Ridley and the girl's conversation and triggering my smartass reflex.

"In marriage?" I fluttered my eyelashes and feigned coyness. "Why, I don't know—I mean, it's just so sudden!"

Glaring, the blonde snatched my left, uncuffed hand roughly. He didn't seem to take my teasing well, which amused me. Yeah, I used to be one of those kids who threw stones at rottweilers chained to flimsy metal poles and secretly hoped that one day the pole would break and the dog would come shooting after me so I could punch it in the face and then brag about it afterwards. The closest I ever got was when one of the dogs' owners chased after me with a shotgun.

My "sister" Libia always told me I should donate my brain to science to prove that Darwin's theory of natural selection was bullshit. I told her she should donate her colossal ass to starving children.

I became aware that the others had stopped talking, and I felt vaguely annoyed that I had missed whatever they had been discussing. The blonde was trying to fit my hand into the groove of the ID reader, and, submitting to the inevitable, I cooperated by placing my middle finger in the groove. The blonde's hand felt warm around my wrist, an unnecessarily reminder to hold still. The hairs on my arms stood up against my will as I waited for the pinprick to come. The jab came suddenly, and I had snatched my hand away before I even felt the very faint prick of pain. I always hated those damned things.

The blonde, meanwhile, was holding the ID reader up, eyes scanning over the display screen.

"So, who's the unlucky guy?" Ridley apparently felt compelled to ask.

Despite the obvious tenseness in the car, the blonde guy seemed perfectly willing to make his companions wait until he had read through the material himself. His eyes ran over the screen once, then his lips pursed and he glanced up at me before he finally began to read, "Severn Edmonde Hayes, gender male, DOB 05/06, age 17—"

"Haha, he's just a baby! Jeez, Jazzy, Aric's really startin' to rob the cradle," Ridley laughed over the blonde's voice.

Jasmine frowned. "That's not young for this work and you know it."

"—height 172 centimeters, weight 58.5 kilograms, hair color 66023C tyrian purple, eye color 964B00 brown, primarily OE descent, BT AB negative. Licensed to operate class A vehicles, for limited class A substance use, for unsupervised on-colony habitation. Immunization record ... complete. Medical record ... mm … " he paused, frowned, and at last said, "Father Admiral Edmonde Hayes and mother Doctor Cerelia Hayes, both currently aboard the flagship Canterbury, no siblings."

The result was what one might term panic.

Ridley grabbed the headrest of the driver's seat in his hysteria and shook it, which the blonde didn't seem to appreciate. "Shit, man, forget about the Argo. We kidnapped the Cadet of an Admiral?! Isn'at one of the head honchos?"

Damned if I knew. I, wisely, remained silent for once in my life.

"No shit, Ridley! It means his daddy has a whole fleet of little ships he can bring n' shove up our collective ass i' we get caught!" the girl snapped.

"If we get caught," Dyre murmured almost inaudibly.

Ridley didn't appear pleased at being mocked by the girl, and so he turned to her with a sneer. "I don't seem to remember you helping the fuckin' situation any when you held tha' gun to the cashier chick's head, Jazzy!"

Emina? Were they talking about Emina?

"Well, Ridley, I wasn't the one who got the fuckin' getaway car towed!"

"I was hungry!"

"You're always hungry!"

A sudden, loud, and obnoxiously high-pitched blare sounded, surprising the two out of their squabbling. The girl—Jazzy?—and Ridley winced and turned a synergistic glare on Dyre, who pressed a button on the small device wrapped around his wrist and ended the blaring. I had one hell of a headache by then, and I was about ready to tell them all to go screw themselves, so long as they did it quietly.

"How will we deal with this?" Dyre was saying quietly to the blonde.

"We should kill him," the girl answered immediately.

No, no, don't listen to her.

"Let him go," Ridley said, and I felt minutely more gracious toward him until he added, "Just get rid of him. The bitch is trouble."

They all looked expectantly at the blonde man, who, I was surprised to notice, looked a little overwhelmed. The emotion passed quickly, swept under the rug by a customary frown. He considered me and then turned back to his companions. "No. We keep him."


"What? Ransom—"

I started. They were going to try to ransom me off? That was good on one hand—it meant they had incentive not to kill me—but bad on the other because … well, I wasn't sure my parents would pay them. Not that they wouldn't pay the money if they knew about the situation, just that they hardly noticed me even when they were planetside, so it seemed doubtful that they would even notice my kidnapping, much less an offer for ransom, while on duty. I could just imagine them getting the ransom note: my mother would smile, turn to my father, and say, "Look, dear. Severn is making friends!"

All right, so I was doomed. There were worse ways to die than being shot because your parents thought your kidnappers were just taking you out for a spot of tea and a thrilling romp around the neighborhood playground.

For instance, I could have died as an old geezer beating small children with my cane. Honestly, who really wants to live to a ripe old age? Much better being shot down in your prime, in utter ignominy, while half the universe hates you before you've even gotten a chance to really give it a reason to. And before you get a cane. Although that last part would be a bit of a shame, considering I had my heart set on buying a glow-in-the-dark lava lamp extendable pimp cane when I was old and smelly.

"It's too dangerous to let him go while we're still on colony—we don't know his connections for sure—and he's too important to kill offhand," the blonde man was saying. The girl looked ready to protest, but she bit her lip. "It'll be a good hostage if we need it."

It? I'm an "it" now?

"Wouldn't it just be best to get rid of him?" Ridley said.

The blonde man frowned thoughtfully and didn't reply.

Ridley turned to me. "Man, why did you have to mess everythin' up? We've got enough problems as it is."

"Gee, so sorry for letting you kidnap me. I thought I'd be nice and let you have a little fun, but no."

No one laughed, not that I expected them to, and my only reply was Dyre's incessant typing on the device in his palm. Out of sheer, frustrated nosiness, I wanted to know what he was doing.

There was an awkward, tense silence, and the girl broke it by shifting and asking, "Can I have my gun back yet?"

"No," said Ridley, earning a swat from her as the blonde reached back to hand her the gun which had been so intimate with my mouth the night before. Having only seen the gun in the dark or at a distance, I had assumed it to be black or silver. I saw now that it was actually a dark, shiny red—flashy and intimidating all in one.

"Sorry, Jasmine," he said, "I forgot."

The girl placed a kiss on the barrel of the gun (I neglected to remind her where that barrel had last been—ew, indirect kiss, ew) and cooed disturbingly at it, "Ah, I missed my baby."

Ridley was squirming off to her left and at last seemed as though he couldn't contain himself, blurting out as he chewed on the stick of his consumed lollypop, "That's one fuckin' ugly baby. Hey, kinda like her momma—"

"Shut up before I put a bullet up your ass," was the immediate retort.

"Yes'm." He paused and glanced up at me. "Y'know, just because he's a Cadet don't nec'sarily mean he's not one of them." He put his feet against the back of the driver's seat and I cringed, thinking about his grubby shoes on Lover's nice, clean interior. "Remember the cashier chick? She was a Cadet, and she was in with them. Besides, who says his ID isn't fake? It's not that hard. Yeah, Dyre?"

Hearing mention of this "cashier chick" twice apparently exhausted my supply of not-stupid.

"Emina? What happened to Emina?" I said before I could employ the rather foreign concept of logic, and it suddenly seemed like everyone was looking at me. Dyre and the blonde seemed to be just looking, but the other two, the redhead and the girl, were practically boring holes in my face.

Needless to say I was most surprised when Jasmine's hand shot out and she grabbed me by the front of my shirt, pulling me so I turned at the waist. I thought about saying something about sexual assault, but her expression scared me beyond words. I wasn't sure why I felt inclined to be snarky with the blonde man while he threatened me a minute ago and yet I felt like I was about to wet my pants when she so much as glared at me. Call me a sissy, but maybe it had something to do with a gun being waved around where I could see it. She and her gun were plenty menacing as she said, "I'm gonna to ask you this once. Are you or have you ever been affiliated in any way with the Argo?"

I don't know why I did it. Maybe I thought I had a better chance of survival if I did; maybe I knew it would get me off this colony. Maybe I was just being a dumbass who wanted his head blown off in the name of something I had never even heard of. Well, even with half a head I would probably still be amazing, so it was all right. Whatever the reason, my mouth opened and I said, "Yes." The girl and Ridley tensed immediately—which translated from the girl into a tightening of her hold on my shirt—and, almost as quickly, I hastened to add, "No."

"Which is it?" the girl said.

"Yes. No. Maybe?"

Ridley grinned tightly and said, "Better decide quick."

"Can I flip a coin?"

I startled as I found myself once again staring into the mouth of the girl's red gun. "Dammit, will you people stop doing that?" I snapped—and by snapped I mean squealed like a four year-old girl.

"Do you know who I am?" the girl's voice was deep as she spoke, and her eyes were narrow.

I hesitated, unsure what answer would allow me to keep my head. "Um, Jazzy?" I said, which apparently was a wrong—very, very wrong—answer.

Her jaw clenched tightly and I flinched as she had stopped herself last-minute from hitting me in the face with her gun.

"Don'thurtmeyourhairispretty," I whimpered.

"Do not ever call me that again."


"It's Jasmine to you, eggplant-boy," Ridley added helpfully. I nodded frantically, though I wasn't too keen on (or sure why I was) being addressed as an eggplant.

She took a breath and gave me back a tiny bit of space, but her voice and her gun were no less threatening when she said again, "I'll ask you once more. Do you know who I am within the Argo?"

I floundered and at last ended up with, "Should I?"

Jasmine glared at me for a moment, and I thought for sure that she would jerk the trigger and end my pathetic existence. Then something seemed to snap within her, like she had been held up by strings and someone had taken a pair of scissors to them. The gun fell into her lap as her arm dropped, and the safety clicked on. I breathed an inward sigh of relief but didn't dare let her hear, as she still looked extremely pissed off. "No," she said in a voice I could only classify as bitterly angry. "No, you wouldn't."

"Fuck him, Jazzy."


"Not you, Cadet," the redhead told me offhandedly. Jasmine looked up at him, anger still in her eyes.

"Shut up, Ridley."

"Bitch," Ridley smiled. "Bet that rooster will crow himself hoarse when he hears what we did to one of his operations."

"Stop callin' him that."

"'s true, though. And he calls me worse."

"What're you, five?" Jasmine rolled her eyes.

"You Cadets are morons."

I couldn't help it; it just slipped out. I really needed to work on my survival instinct.

Jasmine turned to glare at me, but before she could do worse Ridley picked up a bag near his feet and tossed it at her. He opened the door on his side and got out, and Jasmine hesitantly did the same.

"We're not the ones cuffed shotgun," Ridley said, slamming his door—I winced at the unnecessary force—and walking around Lover to stand next to Jasmine. "We're gonna go change. Back in a bit, boss." The blonde nodded. "Oh, and, eggplant? Stop callin' us fuckin' Cadets, Cadet, or I'm gonna bash your face in."

"Sure thing, Cadet."

"You're a gustsy bitch," he grinned and slammed the door. "I think I like him!" I heard him exclaim, muffled by the door, as he and the girl walked away.

With the two slum-accented morons gone, the car was eerily quiet. Dyre was doing his thing in back, and the blonde was busy with the ID machine, its screen tipped away from me. I fidgeted, digging my shoes into the floor mats and staring at the door where wax masses drifted around lazily in bright blue liquid, obscured only where the atrocious handcuffs were secured. It was hypnotic, but I lost interest quickly and instead turned to stare at the stubble on the blonde's chin. That wasn't terribly interesting, but I was running out of options.

"Um, so, what'll you do to me if I am part of the," I hesitated, unsure I would remember the word correctly, before saying, "the Argo?"

"Nothing," the blonde man said with a frown. He didn't seem to want to talk to me, but he closed the ID machine and handed it back to Dyre, who set it on the seat next to him. "It makes no difference to me."

"But she might castrate you," Dyre added from the back. I wasn't sure I liked the fact that he felt comfortable referring to the removal of my genitals in such a nonchalant manner. I was about to ask him how much he would like it if I decided to share the gift of eunuchism with him when he glanced up at me. My mouth snapped shut, and I was still stunned long after he had looked back to the device in his hands. Surely I had been imagining it—surely he hadn't been laughing at me with his eyes. I looked at him carefully as he tapped at his device, but all I could see was the blank, emotionless features he always seemed to have.

"It doesn't matter, since you're obviously not one of them." The blonde man seemed to have this thing for not looking at whoever he was speaking to. He currently addressed his words to me and his eyes to the dashboard of Lover. Stop raping my car with your eyes, you pervert.

"Why not?"

"You're not smart enough."

"But I'm hot enough."

He looked up at me then, and some small rather flaming part of me did a little dance and cheer at the fact that he was obviously checking me out. Not that I really wanted to sleep with him, but he was attractive (if not really my type) and I was not beneath wanting revenge on his ass for all he put me through. Don't ask how his finding me attractive would fit into my grand scheme for revenge and escape, but I certainly told myself that it did. Thus, I was a little surprised when, after contemplating me thoroughly, he pronounced, "Not really."


"Screw you, Cadet," I snarled, my vague attraction towards the bastard morphing into something akin to deep, burning, sour watermelon-flavored, everlasting hatred. I thought I heard a snort of laughter from the backseat, but when I looked back Dyre was sitting there quietly and obliviously with his blank face and busy fingers.

"Start the car," the blonde said suddenly, though he wasn't looking at me, and the cuffs clattered as I flinched. This whole situation had my nerves strung so tight I was pretty sure that, by the time I escaped, I was going to develop two ulcers, a nervous tick, and a habit of diving under cars for cover if a kitten mewed too close to me.

I'd be damned if I was going to make things easy for him, though.

"No," I said defiantly. I knew they would make me eventually, and I didn't intend to protest too much, but I wanted to piss the blonde off a little, at least. I expected to have my hand grabbed and forced onto the ignition, maybe, or perhaps a threatening glare or two. What I didn't expect was to hear my voice from the back seat squawk, "Cadet!"

Dyre pressed a button on his device, and the sound of me saying my car's voice recognition password came again. Cadet! I stared.


"All we need is your blood and your finger," said Dyre, and there was no hint of emotion, threatening or otherwise, in his tone or expression to tell me how I should take his words. He meant the fingerprint and tiny drop of blood necessary for the ID confirmation on the ignition key, one of the two safety mechanisms (the other being the voice recognition) on a Mistral that couldn't be disabled. I, of course, took the comment in context.

"Ah-huh. Well, that's about a ninety-eight point three on the Creepy Whatthefuck scale. Congrats on being the second sickest fuck I've ever had the displeasure of running across. Your rival in sickfuckness has a bit of a fetish for ransacking morgues, so don't feel bad for taking second place."

"Are you going to cooperate or not?" the blonde said, reaching to the back to accept something from Dyre.

Who did this asshole think he was? I wasn't so easily cowed—or so I tried to tell myself as I practically fell over myself to reach the ignition key, turn the car on, and speak the password. Lover, as much of a traitor as I was, turned on and began to purr, vibrating faintly under us.

The blonde's hand caught at my arm as I withdrew, and I growled a protest. It made no difference to him, though, as he passed a rounded black stick in front of my face and down my body. He paused when the thing gave a beep as it hovered over my left forearm.

"You're right," he said at me.

"I thought he might," Dyre responded. "It's common for upper-class children here."

"What? What is?"

They ignored me. Dyre's left hand was a flurry of fingers over the little keyboard of his device, and some inane part of me imagined what he could be typing: Hostage is sarcastic; not amusing. Will toy with his mind. Possibly make him believe he has a higher than average chance of spontaneously exploding. (Want twinkies now.)

"What? Come on, what's going on?"

"Be quiet." The blonde stared at the headrest of my seat. "Be sure to change the ID of the car, too."

"Already done. Check the hologram of the license." He paused. His typing stopped and he nodded slightly at the blonde. "You can freeze it now. This is going to hurt, Severn."

"Wha—OW! FUCK." I snatched my arm back, pressing my thumb just below the area on my forearm that felt like it was on fire. The blonde held the tubular device as if he hadn't just tried to use it to fry my arm off. "What the hell was that?!"

"Forceful deactivation of a tracking chip," Dyre explained.

"I'll say it was forceful." I cursed again and dug my short nails into my skin, hoping to distract myself from the real pain. A sharp sting set in, and I could feel my eyes watering. The burning area didn't look injured, and certainly not the black charred mess it felt like it should be, which perhaps added to my indignation when I thought to ask, "What do you mean, a tracker? From who?"

"Your parents, likely. Unless you really are part of the Argo, of course."

It didn't take long to put the pieces together, and it suddenly made sense how I'd always been caught so easily when I ran away as a child. I had had a god damn beacon attached to my arm. Anywhere I had been, anything I had done—they knew. I had never had privacy or independence. They had been playing with me the whole time.

I liked to think that I was fairly even tempered, but, at that moment, I was so flaming pissed off at my parents and everyone else who had kept me on a leash on this colony that I couldn't even speak.

Strangely, the other two filled the silence just fine without my assistance.

"I wiped the tracker's records of today and yesterday, and I have assigned him a new ID. The name is Jae Pierce."

"All right. Thanks, Dyre."

There was a lull in the conversation, and when Dyre spoke again it was in a … well, not hesitant, but there was a certain undertone to his words. "Are you sure about this? They may complicate matters."

"What I do is not your concern." Had someone said that to me, I would have treated it as being shot a verbal middle finger, but the blonde said it factually, and Dyre seemed to take no offence.
I had, by this point, calmed myself enough that I wasn't entertaining thoughts of mass homicide. The pain in my arm was beginning to fade, too, or at least the edge of it had. I was not, however, quite calm enough yet to resist sticking my head into the proverbial hornet's nest.

"What are you guys going to do with me?" I peered around the seat, looking at the two men in turn. "You're going to kill me, aren't you? I know your names."

"It hardly matters. You know too much already; our names are of no relative important." Dyre didn't sound too concerned, which was a bit disconcerting in and of itself.

"I know too much? Excuse me, but I'm pretty sure I know jack all about what's going on."

"You know what we look like."

"Oh. You could be wearing really realistic masks?" I paused. "Are you going to kill me, then?"

"It's not in the plan."

"Ridley is taking too long," the blonde said, and he sounded frustrated. He didn't seem interested in the conversation I was having with Dyre.

Then again, Dyre didn't seem interested in the conversation either, judging by the way he dismissively looked away and said, "Names and faces are easily lost in the vast identification system, if they were ever there at all. You'll find us untraceable, should you ever attempt the task."

... or they didn't care because they were planning on killing me, dumping my mutilated corpse in a ditch, and leaving me there to be discovered a year later by a crazy old woman with two-hundred and seven pet gerbils, all of which are named after her dead husband Bobbin.

"They're back," Dyre said softly.

And she would name me Francis and feed me applesauce every afternoon at three o'clock sharp. Then the neighbors would eventually complain about my smell, and the police would come, arrest her for murder, and find my body half-devoured by starving gerbils.

How pleasant. I had a strange feeling that I was going to be having nightmares about applesauce and rabid gerbils that night. That is, if I lived that long.

The car door opened, and Ridley threw himself down on the seat next to Dyre. He plucked the ID machine out from under him a moment later and shoved it in the bag he was carrying. "Whew! The woman kept tryin' to tear my clothes off!"

As if on cue, the opposite door opened. "Goddamit, Ridley, stop wearin' my stuff! You stretch that shirt, I'll rip your eyeballs out an shove'em up your nose!"

"I'm not gonna stretch it. It looks good on me, yeah, Dyre?"

"Not interested."

I turned around, too nosy not to see what the big fuss was. The two had changed out of their black attire, and the transformation, at least in the case of Ridley, was almost seizure inducing. The man was a bundle of clashing colors and patterns. His pants were green and tropical, torn and dirty and rolled up to his knees to expose two very mismatching socks, one purple striped and one argyle. The t-shirt was tight, burgundy, and had a motif of silver birds on the front. His hair had been bad enough, the rainbow spectrum of colors nearly clashing with itself, but this was ridiculous. When he shrugged on the bright yellow plaid jacket, I felt the beginnings of that inevitable nervous tick.

"Whatdya think, eggplant? It looks good, yeah?"

"I think I'm going to be sick."

I looked away quickly, and Jasmine met my eyes. Her hair was down now, a flow of curls only a little darker than her skin, and she was dressed in red and black.

"Don't think I forgot about you," she said, the threat clear.

The blonde frowned. "Jasmine, I don't think he's with the Argo, Vela or otherwise."

I froze. Vela? I'd heard that before, occasionally whispered—or shouted as a threat—in the bars in the inner slums. All I knew was that it was some gang, and I hadn't wanted to know beyond that. I was in the clubs to get drunk and rub up against people dancing, not to ask messy questions that could have messy answers.

"He could be," the girl said stubbornly. "They could have sent him to follow me, and we caught him instead."

"He's not. But that doesn't mean we're not being followed. We're still too close, and we've stayed too long."

Ridley stretched a little in his seat, settling closer to Dyre, who was, as far as I could tell, ignoring him. "Let's rip, then, boss."

There was one small problem with that.

"I have to piss," I announced. The blonde turned to stare hard at me. "What, you wanted me to wait until you started driving and then tell you?"

My kidnappers looked at each other in silent debate. They looked like they were one step away from touching their noses and shouting, "Not me!"

"I'll take him," Ridley grinned. "Can't g'rantee his virgin ass, though."
Jasmine coughed, Dyre typed, and I felt it would be inappropriate—not to mention none of his business—to inform Ridley that he was incorrect about the state of my ass. Finally, the blonde sighed and grabbed my hand. He was a bit grabby with my arms, I had determined, and it was becoming tiresome. "Fine," he said and materialized a little, brightly colored key.

I rubbed my wrist when he dropped the handcuffs onto the dashboard. The door slammed when he got out, and I wasn't quite prepared for being dragged to my feet. I stumbled after him, resenting the tight grip on my wrist that sent the would-be burn wound on my arm stabbing with pain.

"I'm not a baby," I said indignantly, "I can walk, talk, and take a piss all by myself."

"The second matter is annoying."


We walked along the side of the car station building, and I glanced vainly up at the windows. I knew there was no one there, and perhaps Dyre had done something to the security since he seemed so good at that (I had noticed the change to the license hologram on my car, and I felt like Lover had been violated) but I still hoped someone might come rescue me. When we reached the restroom door, the blonde pushed it open with his foot and followed me inside. There were two urinals and a stall, and, after glancing suspiciously at my guard, I shuffled up to a urinal. The blonde stood a few steps behind me, and I could feel him staring at my back. It was unnerving.

"Hurry up."

"I can't piss when you look at me like I'm gonna turn my dick into an uzi," I snapped. He made a displeased sound and was increasingly impatient while I finished up.

"Hurry up," he said again, and, frustrated, I glanced over my shoulder to glare at him—only to see that he had a goddamn gun pointed at my back.

"Shit! Will you stop doing that!" I stepped away a pace. "I'm not going to do anything! What's wrong with you people? Why'd you use her gun if you had that one, anyway?"

I really needed to learn to keep my mouth shut. Had I, I might have avoided having my head slammed back against the tiled wall next to the urinals as the blonde pressed his gun under my chin. I shivered, willing myself to keep my eyes open. His eyes, gray and narrowed—maybe some old Asian blood? some stupid, shocked part of me wondered—watched me unyieldingly, and his hand tightened around the roots of my hair, holding my head back. I breathed shallowly.

"Please don't kill me in a nasty public toilet," I sniveled. Well, it wasn't exactly a very glamorous place to die.

"Listen very carefully," he said quietly, "You will make it through this, uninjured, if you shut up, stop asking questions, and do what you're told." I tried to nod, but the gun barrel dug into me and his fingers pulled at my hair, so I stopped. "He was right—things are complicated enough, and, if you're going to ruin things, I will kill you. I don't have time to waste on a brat like you."

I swallowed heavily. "Um. Can I zip up my pants now?"

The door opened and Ridley stared at us. "Ransom, we gotta go," he said. "Dyre said offies are headed this way."

The blonde let me go, and I coughed and rubbed roughly at my scalp. When I looked up, Ridley was there, reaching out to take my elbow and lead me away. He let me give a cursory rinse to my hands and then held the door open for me. "What'd you do to him?" he asked me.

"The fuck?" I asked scratchily. "I didn't do anything to him."

"That's wacky. Ransom's usually pretty calm." Ridley paused, then added cheerfully, "Maybe he likes you."

"Somehow I don't think—ransom?"

Realization dawned on me, if slowly. They weren't talking about ransoming me—that was the blonde's name!

Oh, that was cute. Cute like a poodle that got run over by a lawnmower.

"Hey, man, y'know your fly's down? Want some help?"

"No. No, Ridley, I don't think I want your hand anywhere near my crotch, thank you."