The Old-Fashioned Way

by Ulquiorra9000

"Good evening." The older man smiled as he stepped back in the doorway, making room for the younger man. Cold December air wafted into the large house's well-lit living room, and music and chatter wafted back out.

"Evening, Mr. Slowak."

"I didn't know you were coming."
"I hadn't made any plans, so I thought I'd get out more." The younger man forced a smile to hide his racing heart and tensed jaw. At least he didn't shiver under his beige trench coat, standing there on the old man's front porch.

"Wonderful. Nice night, isn't it?"

"Lovely. Sure." The younger man fought the urge to check over his shoulder. He knew that the idyllic neighborhood was calm out here. But in that house...

"Don't you just love it when the breeze holds the scent of honeysuckle?" Mr. Slowak motioned for the visitor to come in.

"In spring, you mean?" The younger man stepped in but kept his coat on as Mr. Slowak shut the door behind him.

Mr. Slowak winced good-naturedly. "Sorry. This is the first winter I've spent here in years! The life of a winterbird..."

"I understand," the younger man said. He stepped farther into the party, his dress shoes loud on the paneled wood floor. His gloved hands were clenched.

"Anyway..." Mr. Slowak rubbed his hands together. His eyes twinked behind his gold-framed glasses. "Janice will be glad to see you. Scott! You always seem to be out of town..."

"Not tonight," Scott Ingveld said with another forced smile. It made his face hurt. "I wouldn't miss your 40th anniversary party for anything." Except one.

"I can take your coat," Mr. Slowak offered, putting a hand on Scott's shoulder from behind.

"N-no." Scott jumped as though pricked, and he was sure that his eyes glowed gold for a second. The color must have faded when he turned around, though, because Mr. Slowak didn't make any reaction. "I'll keep it on a bit until I warm up."

Mr. Slowak nodded. "All right, son. Why don't you go over and say hello?"

Scott nodded tensely and joined the party of his much older neighbors, talking and laughing over champagne and expensive snacks. Where Scott came from, opulence like this would earn someone two centuries in an orbital prison.

Some people...

"Scott!" Janice Slowak beamed and offered to embrace him. She wore a dark blue pant suit and pearl necklace. "I hardly see you anymore. What a pleasant surprise. Was Boston exciting?"

Scott faked modesty. "It was, yeah." He felt a twinge on his ribs where one of them had slashed him, recalled the boom of a high-caliber particle disruptor pistol fired in response. But he kept all that off his face. "Place has a lot of history. Anyway, congrats on forty years!"

"Well, thank you. Please make yourself comfortable."

Small talk, Scott thought with revulsion. On his world, people kept to themselves properly. On the streets, at least. But after a long day at work, after slinking back to his apartment's 400th floor room, his Jenny waiting for him with open arms and a smile with cherry-red lips, the flare of floodlights on a police blimp through the window's shutters -

Scott ran a hand through his blond hair. Not now! She's got to be here.

She always tried to hide in the least likely spot.

One of the neighbors - Mr. Dunham, or something - tried to drag Scott into some chat over the local sports team, until Scott faked a need for the bathroom with a fake smile that he swore tore a facial muscle. A little hastier than he should have, he jogged up the carpeted stairs.

Finally, the chatter and classical music was muted enough to give Scott some breathing room. His face settling into a mask, he reached up and tapped his temple.

His vision went red and a thin black grid spread across it. He could see the gold glow of his irises on the dark walls, heard the clicks of nanomachines doing the tango with his biological nerves. A new dance to an old tune -

Find the prey. Goes back to caveman times, but now with new toys.

Every object in the hall was highlighted and tagged, their makeup and volume clearly displayed. Slowly, panther-like, Scott slunk through the dark halls, his shoes dead quiet on the maroon carpet. He reached his left hand into his coat's pocket and held on to it as he peeked into the first room, a guest bedroom.

Queen-sized bed, its pillows, the nightstand, the floor lamp, an old-fashioned desk, all were tagged. All came up negative, even when Scott ran his sensor-laden right glove over their mundane surfaces. His display showed molocules of the trace materials on each object. None mattered.

Not yet, huh?

Downstairs, the music changed tune, and Scott heard Mr. Slowak call over, "It's right upstairs! Be back in a jiff!"

What the cold hell's a jiff? Scott wondered. No time to waste; he heard the old man's buffalo-like steps up the stairs, heard the old man's breathing. His nose implants picked up a decent Chardonnay on the man's breath, his eyes showing the molecules. Now that really didn't matter. Wine was extinct on the other Earth.

Better hide.

Scott dove into the guest room's closet and shut it just as the old man passed. Couldn't be too careful. Old man might wander in here by mistake. Scott never had much regard for those over 50. Came with being a -

Scott waited until he heard Mr. Slowak go back downstairs before he emerged and continued the hunt. Bathroom, closet, even the master bedroom all came up negative. His implants seemed to shrug helplessly at him.

Outside Mr. Slowak's bedroom window, snow started to swirl on the cold wind, and the bare trees rattled, bone-like, exposed. A lone car, a gray Nissan, flooded the dark neighborhood with its headlights as it took a right turn. Gray and alone in the cold. Like how too many people lived over there, where -

Scott shook his head. Focus, you! He ran his right glove's sensors over the master bedroom's surfaces again out of rare frustration, saw the negative results, saw the molocules dancing in his vision, mocking him. Where was she? He gripped it tighter in his left pocket.

Then -

"Janice, dear? Where are you going?"

Mr. Slowak's voice drifted up, and Scott's ears perked up, a graph of the voice's audio on his vision. Not mild surprise; shock! Indignation!

Scott jogged back down the hall and took the last few steps quietly, slipping back into the party. It was suddenly cold; the front door was closing behind someone, Mr. Slowak staring at the door.

"What's up?" Scott asked. He didn't dare let go of it.

"Janice went out in the stark cold!" Mr. Slowak blurted. He made for the door and reached for the handle. "She hates the cold. Where would -"

"You know what, let me," Scott said much more gently than he felt, easing the old man back.

"But -"

"Pour yourself more champagne. Trust me." His face set, Scott wrenched open the door and stepped onto the porch. Snowflakes tickled his face.

Something hard crashed into his left and seized him. Scott fought a yell as Mrs. Slowak wrangled him off the porch and into her frozen bushes, her strength enough to keep Scott down, even though he was trained -

"Hunter's now the hunted, huh?" Mrs. Slowak hissed, her lined face in his. She grabbed onto his left wrist. "Oh no, don't you fire that at me, now -"

That was when the knife came up, a relic, but a sharp one. Scott bared his teeth as he swiped the blade across Mrs. Slowak's chest with his right hand, saw the red blood seep into her suit.

Mrs. Slowak's face flickered for a second, a digital blur, a glitch in the face of shock. That was what Scott was waiting for.

Scott's left hand whipped out of his pocket, his steel-blue pistol in hand, trained on Mrs. Slowak's (no, that wasn't her name) heart. "Two months. That's a record for me," he said, his voice puffing in the cold air. "Last one of you freaks lasted just a week before you were tossed into the -"

The old woman's face settled back to its old resolution, a feral snarl on the features. Her left fist drew back and rammed Scott's jaw, and his red-tinted vision snapped for a second, squealing against the pain. He felt a tooth come loose, and his particle disruptor lowered.

Now the old woman seized Scott's collar and tossed him across the lawn and onto the sidewalk, where his head cracked against the cold concrete. His vision flickered again, and his visual nanomachines retreated before they broke, his vision going mundane. He gasped aloud.

The old woman stalked over to him and put a knee on his chest and a hand around his throat. "Irony," she said. "You hunt so carefully, and fall for a trick like this! Thought I'd play into your hand?"

"P-poker," Scott wheezed as the hand tightened.

The old woman scowled. "What?"

"Some old card game," Scott choked out. "Probably still played around here. Cards i-in your hand. It's how the game works."

"So what if I know?" the old fugitive demanded.

"Thought I was the only one who knew back home," Scott said, purple spots morphing in his vision. The old fugitive's face loomed large. "But there's another a-aspect to the game."

"Just shut up, hunter bastard!"

Scott dug his particle disruptor's muzzle into the old fugitive's heart. "Ace in the hole."

He fired.

There was a red flash, the hiss of melting carbon-fiber ribs and the bright sputtering of a busted heart motherboard. The old fugitive seized, then rolled off Scott and onto Mr. Slowak's lawn.

The snow was falling harder now, starting to dust the fugitive's clothes and settle in her wound, only to melt. It only took a second for her brain to shut down, to uselessly gather up its files to try and save itself before forced to give up on its too-long life.

Mr. Slowak's front door swung open and the old man jogged over, his eyes wide with horror. "Janice! Oh no, dear, please -" He stopped and stared at Scott, the disruptor in the younger man's left hand. "You - you murdered my -"

"Not your wife," Scott said, shaking his head. Business-like, he slipped the pistol back and smoothed over his coat. "My grandmother. Glitching. Her brain's companion OS went rogue, like they all do after 65. Difference was, she didn't go in to surrender it like the other good old geezers."

Mr. Slowak fell to his knees, wringing his hands. "My wife -"

"Who, now?" Scott said dryly as the fugitive's facial program shut down. Her visage became enlarged, confused pixels until they gave up, showing the real face. Her nose, the color of her eyes, her dimples - all mirrored on Scott's own youthful face.

Mr. Slowak edged toward Scott's dead grandmother like a cautious deer. "Im-impossible. This is my wife! She -"

"The real Mrs. Slowak is either captive or dead somewhere, hidden either way," Scott said simply. "I dunno where, or when the switch was made. That's not my job. The Scouring Department's goons will be over in this dimension in an hour or so to take care of that. Either way, closure for you. Neat, huh?"

"But what about..." Mr. Slowak swallowed. "Are you who you say you are, Scott?" A bitter edge sharpened his voice.

Scott shrugged. "I moved here two months ago, remember? And it took two months to hunt this bitch down. Now I'll move out. Of this silly neighborhood and its parties, and back to my world. My dimension is pretty sterile compared to this one, but at least we don't put on airs." He started back to his house, longing for the warp door inside and to the left. Jessica was waiting for him, with her fresh scent of rare lavender, hair like extinct honey -

Scott wondered what bees had looked like. Never got a chance to see one here.

Mr. Slowak leaned his head back and groaned. "My wife... what do I do now?"

"Easy," Scott said over his shoulder. "Wait. SD will help out. Not my beeswax. Ha. Bees. They're still alive here."

He liked that old man, just a little. At least he aged the right way.

Nothing like old-fashioned.