“Well, you ready or what?” Monique asked.
“Monique-san, I am only waiting for Kim-sama to say she is ready,” Yori replied calmly.
“Mmm-hmm,” Monique said. Yori was a little TOO calm, she thought. She probably looked this way sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office. “In case you hadn't noticed, Yori-SAN, there are three people sitting at the table.”
“But Kim-sama is the team leader,” Yori pointed out. “As team leader, Ron-san and Shego-san will defer to her.”
“I thought you did your homework on Shego,” Monique said dryly. “Defer isn't in her vocabulary. If she doesn't like you, she'll let it be known. And just between you and me? I'm thinking she's already started not liking you.”
Yori only smiled.
Monique had nothing more to add. She'd been called back to Team Possible's headquarters at seven that morning. At this point the building's facilities weren't yet top-notch, but its training and practice facilities were first-rate. Which was good, because Kim called the meeting to personally evaluate Yori's fighting abilities. And Monique was the test.
Kim, Ron, and Shego were set up, bizarrely enough, at a folding table. Kim even had a clipboard. As if this was the setting for a high school debate or a spelling bee, instead of a fight between two women who'd been told to hold nothing back.
Monique and Yori were wearing identical practice gear, tight black bodysuits that didn't really offer one's opponent any kind of grip. Monique's mask was off. Among the things Kim wanted to evaluate were how well Yori could read Monique's eyes and anticipate her moves.
No, that wasn't quite right, Monique admitted to herself. It was so Kim could evaluate how they BOTH read each other's eyes. Monique felt certain that this test was meant for her too. She'd been groomed for weeks for a mission like this. Shego had been teaching her personally for this reason. She wasn't just a small-time vigilante watching Middleton's streets, and she wasn't just Ron's sparring partner. The Oryx was a reserve member of Team Possible, which meant she had to meet the same standards that Kim or Ron themselves met. She had to protect the world's safety, not just that of a random pedestrian or two.
Shego looked bored, Monique thought, but she felt that would change once the first punch was thrown. Shego might not have a pencil or a checklist, but she would be mentally cataloguing every move Monique made.
Monique was a little surprised to realize how much she wanted to meet Shego's expectations, even exceed them. She'd learned to need Shego's approval in the arena of battle. And of course there was Kim, her friend for years. She didn't want Kim thinking that she'd allowed friendship to blind her to the reality that Monique was nothing special.
And then there was Ron, who looked ready to pass out. “Slacker,” she thought to herself, not meaning it in the slightest. Here was the onetime lab partner who told her she'd be doing all the work on their next project because he didn't care if he failed. And now she fought him most mornings with the knowledge that he'd managed to become a little bit better than her. His “Mystical Monkey Power”, Shego had explained to her recently. Shego also was of the opinion that this wasn't an excuse.
Monique agreed. She knew she could be as good as Ron. It drove her to practice that much harder. By now she could put the biggest thugs in Middleton down to stay with two hits, then show off her killer abs dancing at the Planetarium, and it didn't matter. She wanted Ron - she wanted him to respect her. Oh sure, Monique knew he did, but she wanted to earn it and go on earning it, the way he had.
“Don't you go falling asleep on me, Stoppable,” Monique said suddenly. “I'm not stopping in the middle of this because I have to come over there and smack you upside the head.”
“Ron,” Kim added.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. But he winked at Monique as he settled back in his chair.
For Kim's part, she couldn't help but flash back to a certain preteen with braces trying out for cheerleading. Only now she was in Bonnie's place, and this wasn't about the cheerleading squad. This was about determining whether Yori was someone she could trust in the serious life-and-death situation that was about to unfold in space.
She also wanted to see how Monique met the challenge of someone who was extremely highly touted by the Japanese government. But this wasn't a competition in the sense that only one of them could make “the team”. Monique was a part of Team Possible for two simple reasons.
One, both Shego and Ron had privately told her how deeply they respected her abilities and her growing potential. Two, Monique had appeared without warning during their showdown with the Acceptable Family, and she'd carried her weight that night. Frankly, now that Kim accepted Monique's double life as the Oryx, Kim would have her on the team for every mission if Monique wasn't already committed to her role as Middleton's protector.
Now, if YORI could meet MONIQUE'S challenge, then that said a lot about her.
“Are we going to get on with this?” Shego asked, then sighed. “I should be prepping Sappho for the mission.”
“Oh, right,” Kim said, starting. “Shego's right, we don't have a lot of time. Monique, Yori, I expect you to go all out, but I also expect you to be in fighting shape when the fight is over. If one of you ends up with a broken leg, Team Possible will be shorthanded for this mission, and I can't have that. So I'll trust that you can control your punches.”
“I believe I can refrain from inflicting such an injury on my opponent, Kim-sama,” Yori said.
“I don't think that's gonna be your decision,” Monique retorted.
“That's right, Monique,” Shego said casually. “You figure out how to get under that skin, I don't think she'll be the same fighter.”
“Looks like someone's already taking sides,” Ron murmured.
“You're not?” Kim asked just as quietly. “You can't tell me nothing happened between you and Yori in Japan.”
“Trust me, KP, she wasn't interested.”
“Says the boy who never realized Tara liked him until it was too late.”
“Eh-heh, eh-heh, yeah,” Ron said. He looked at Yori. Could she maybe…
Yori looked in his direction when she sensed his attention was upon her, and she gave him a little smile in return.
Nah, he wasn't picking up on anything.
“If you two are finished gossiping,” Shego grumbled.
“Begin,” Kim said.
“Dr. Porter, it appears you have an instant message,” Oliver said. “Would you like to read it, or shall I read it for you?”
Vivian Porter looked up from what she was working on. “Yes, thank you, Oliver,” she said. “You can just read it for me and decide if it's important.” This was one of the ways she was always testing his programming, forcing him to analyze messages meant for her and decide if she would consider them worth responding to.
“Of course, Dr. Porter… hm, that's interesting.”
“It appears to be a message from Dr. Freeman's SAFO. She wishes to have a few minutes of your time in the hangar. How shall I respond?”
Vivian thought about it for only a moment before she replied. “Tell 'Sappho' I'll be there in a few minutes,” she said. She'd had rare opportunities in the past to engage Dr. Freeman's creations in conversation. As a robotics expert who was always working to refine all aspects of her constructs' artificial intelligence, including social interaction, these conversations were enlightening.
“Yes, Dr. Porter.”
She did feel a bit guilty as she left her laboratory. She'd spoken to Holly after phoning Betty last night, and Holly had asked about her progress with Thomas Director's cybernetic implants. Vivian didn't have much to report, however. Maybe if she was working on THAT instead of engaging talking spacecraft in chitchat, she'd know more.
Still, it wouldn't take long, and Vivian was curious why Sappho had contacted her instead of Dr. Freeman.
“Good morning, Dr. Porter,” Sappho said as Vivian entered the hangar and approached the ship.
“Good morning, Sappho,” Vivian replied. “How can I help you?”
There was no answer for a moment. “Perhaps you'd like to step inside where it's more comfortable,” Sappho finally said, opening her hatch.
“All - right,” Vivian said, confused. She boarded the spaceship and heard the hatch close behind her. “Is this some sort of private matter?”
“Yes, doctor. You are the expert in robotics.”
“I need you to build me a Shego robot.”
Vivian coughed violently, blindsided by such a request. “I'm sorry, you need what?”
“A Shego robot. I am hoping that when it is completed, Dr. Freeman will give it a Shego personality.”
“I can't be hearing this correctly. You want - a robot that looks and talks like Shego? Kim Possible's friend?”
“Yes, Doctor Porter,” Sappho replied.
“Could you perhaps explain yourself?”
“Well, you see, I find myself liking Shego very much,” Sappho said. “But Kim Possible says I'm too - flirtatious. So I agreed to stop doing that. But now I don't know HOW to talk to her. I mean, it's not fair! It's not like I'm going to steal Shego from her. I'm just a machine!”
“And you think having a Shego of your own is the answer,” Vivian said. “One you can talk to in any manner you like.”
“Yes! You understand, Doctor Porter.”
Vivian understood, all right. She understood that this was a perfect example of how giving a computer “personality” created all sorts of complications that “artificial intelligence” did not.
She also understood that this was a disaster in the making if she didn't talk Sappho out of it. “Sappho,” Vivian said hesitantly, “you said you like her very much. The real Shego, I mean.”
“How do you think the real Shego will feel when she learns you have made a copy of her?”
Sappho didn't respond at first. “She - she might get mad?” she asked finally.
“It's possible,” Vivian said. “It's possible she'll think that there's something about her you don't like, and so you created a robotic double more to your liking.”
“But I would explain to her,” Sappho said.
“When?” Vivian asked. “Why would Shego want to talk to you? You'll have replaced her.”
“No!” Sappho burst out. “I still want Shego to be my friend. I just - “
“Sappho, for lack of a better word, I think you're in 'love' with Shego,” Vivian said gently.
“… That's silly. I'm just a computer inside a orbiting space vessel.”
“With a personality,” Vivian reminded her. “For better or worse, Dr. Freeman has programmed you with human emotions. That would include love.”
“I - I guess,” Sappho said. “But if that's so, what do I do? Shego is with Kim Possible and Shego will always be with Kim Possible. Maybe… maybe I need my personality chip removed after all.”
“Maybe you need to talk to Shego about this,” Vivian replied.
“Oh no, that would be too embarrassing!”
“And not having a personality any more would be better?”
“Well, no, not when you put it like that, Doctor Porter.” She made a disgusted noise. “I'd probably be gray for the rest of my depreciable life, and not even care.”
“Exactly,” Vivian said. “From what little I've seen of Shego, she likes things bold, forward, and daring. I take it she likes flying you?”
“It's a - mutually enjoyable experience, Dr. Porter,” Sappho replied, daring to purr a bit.
Vivian shook her head slightly. If Oliver ever started acting like THIS… “It sounds like she'd enjoy flying you less if you lost your personality. So you wouldn't be happy, and neither would she.”
Sappho sighed. Vivian could almost believe there was a human woman hiding inside the console speaking into a microphone. “That could be. In that case, my only remaining option WOULD be to speak with her.”
“Well, that's good,” Vivian said gingerly. “Er, do you need anything else?”
“Oh, no, Doctor. You can get back to your work. I apologize for - eep!”
The lights inside the ship suddenly went out.
“Shego's coming,” the ship hissed.
“Why are you whispering?”
“I - don't know. I just had a sudden urge to hide.”
Vivian chuckled. “Unless you can turn the hangar lights off too, I don't think plunging the cockpit into darkness will help.”
“Oh, right, right! Sorry!” The lights went back on and the hatch opened.
“Sappho?” Shego's voice floated up. “We've got a mission today.”
“Just a moment!” Sappho said nervously. “Dr. Porter and I were discussing reverse nanotechnological personality-driven neural re-inhibitors!”
“Reverse what?” Vivian asked.
“I find Shego stops listening to what she calls 'technobabble' after the third word, Dr. Porter.”
Vivian let herself out and found Shego lounging against the ship's exterior. “Well, well,” Shego said. “I guess you're Doctor Porter?”
“Yes,” Vivian said. “You must be Shego.”
“What's your profession, Doc?” Shego asked. “Sexual therapy?” She grinned wickedly. “Or plastic surgery?”
Vivian narrowed her eyes and scowled. “Robotics,” she said. “Be thankful I just turned down a sale.”
Shego looked puzzled as she watched Vivian go, then shrugged and went into the ship.
“Hello, Shego,” Sappho said. “… Isn't the weather nice today?”
“Have you even been outside yet?”
“Well, no, but you're not wet or dressed warmly, so I made an educated guess.”
Shego threw herself into the pilot's seat, one leg swinging lazily. “Nice enough,” she said. “Except for this insane troll who wants to rule the world from his private moon palace.”
“Oh dear. Has Dr. Drakken escaped?”
“Uh, no,” Shego said, snorting. “He's still in custody, I guess. Actually, we had this new girl Yori in headquarters today, giving her a test drive. People who should know better think we need to drag her along on this moon mission. So we sicced Monique on her.”
“And Monique did well?”
“Not so good at first,” Shego said. “First few minutes, she was being seriously outclassed by this Yori girl. Had me wondering if I was deluding myself about Monique's progress, rather than admit I'm not cut out to be anyone's 'sensei'.”
“I'm sure you make a great sensei.”
“Well, doy! Of course I do. I was getting to that.”
“Anyway, even Stoppable could see that Yori was holding herself back, letting Monique 'save face', even though Kim told her not to. Kimmie was about ready to pop her cork when…”
“… when I dodged that one kick,” Monique said to Ron at Bueno Nacho. “Out of sheer desperation, I think,” she added wryly.
“And then what happened?” Ron asked.
“Well, it was like this little voice in the back of my head suddenly said - “
“Kill them all?”
“Build it and they will come?”
“Ron!” Monique said, laughing.
“Help me out here, Monique, what else do voices in people's heads say?” Ron asked with a grin.
“They say, 'If that boy doesn't shut up and let me finish telling my story, kick his ass.' “
“Kick my ass? Now I know you're insane,” Ron said. “But go on.”
Monique rolled her eyes. “It said, 'That looked just like one of Ron's moves. Just a little faster.' “
“Hey, you think you're faster than her? You fight her and see. Anyway, it was like throwing a switch in my brain. Once I stopped paying attention to how goddamn fast she was, I realized that a lot of her moves weren't any different from yours, Ron. And once I saw that, the fight got a whole lot more interesting.”
“You're telling me. I was about to wake Ruby up when you finally turned up the heat,” Ron said.
“Ron, are you trying to vex me here?”
“I'm just trying to lighten the situation with some goofy Ron-style humor.”
“Lighten the situation?” Monique asked.
Ron took a gargantuan bite of his naco and somehow managed to work it down his esophagus. “You proved you're ready to come with us today, Mo. And because of that, there's a chance you could be dead tomorrow,” he said seriously.
“Wow,” Monique said. “Way to kill the mood, Ron.”
“Hey, I'm just saying - “
“I could be dead tomorrow if a mugger pulls a gun at the wrong time,” Monique pointed out, shrugging. “I've accepted that. You don't think I've accepted giving my life to save the world too?”
Ron nodded. “On Team Possible,” he replied, “you learn that risking your OWN life is a lot easier than watching your closest friends risk theirs.” He took a drink. “Worrying you won't be able to protect them is hardest of all.”
“Okay, NOW you've killed the mood,” Monique said. Then she took a drink from her own soda. “But I hear you, Ron. I'm going to have Kim's back, just like you.”
Ron chuckled. “I said protect 'them', not 'her'. You think I'm not worried about you too?”
“You…” Monique stopped and smiled. “That's just about the sweetest thing you've ever said to me.” She followed the direction his eyes were looking in. “But you're still not getting my naco.”
“Aww,” Rufus whined.
“Yori, you and I need to discuss a couple things,” Kim said as the Japanese woman left the changing rooms.
Yori stopped. “Kim-sama,” she said deferentially. “You were not happy with my fighting skills? You - do not wish me to join you on your mission?” She said these last words with a trace of anxiety, letting more emotion slip than she had since her arrival.
“No, it's not that,” Kim assured her. “For starters, try not to take such long showers. The pipes in this building still need an overhaul,” she joked, trying to put Yori at ease.
“My government has assigned me this grave responsibility,” Yori continued, evidently not reassured. “My honor as well as my nation's safety is at stake. Please, if my performance this morning was unsatisfactory, allow me another - “
“Whoa, whoa,” Kim said, raising her hands. “I told you, I'm not kicking you off the team. You looked great out there today. There's just some things we need to review if you're going to join us.”
“Ah,” Yori said, seemingly embarrassed by her 'outburst'. “Please continue, Kim-sama.”
“Well, first of all, I told you to hold nothing back today. But I could you see you were laying off Monique earlier. You practically held the door open for her to get back into the match, which is exactly what she did,” Kim said.
“I did not wish to shame her, Kim-sama. You all speak highly of her, especially Ron.”
“I'm not surprised,” Kim said. “Ron tried to deny it, but I'm almost positive they're dating. Which isn't to say she hasn't earned her place here.”
“Monique is Ron's - girlfriend?”
“Yeah, that was my reaction at first, but I've really gotten used to the idea,” Kim said casually. “But anyway, you can't worry about shaming your enemies on a mission. It's a common weakness among my enemies that they don't seize victory when it's within their reach. They relax, they taunt you, they get lazy, and suddenly it's too late and I've destroyed the doomsday machine. That is NOT a weakness I want anybody on my team emulating.”
“I understand, Kim-sama,” Yori said.
“The other thing is…” Kim hesitated. “If you don't mind me asking, Yori, you're a secret agent. Have you ever - killed anyone in the line of duty?”
Yori didn't answer at first. “Twice,” she eventually said. “I felt I had no choice. It was that or be killed… will this be a problem? Working with someone who kills?”
Kim sighed. “No,” she said. “Why? Will it be a problem for you?”
“I am quite well aware of Shego's reputation. Her past actions do not - “
“Not Shego,” Kim interrupted, suppressing a flash of irritation at Yori's assumption. “Me.”
“Oh,” Yori said. “I was not told of this.”
“I felt like I had to,” Kim said. “And I have to live with that. But I choose to believe that it happened for a reason. Because I know what taking a human life can do to a person, I'm determined to see that Ron, Shego, and Monique never have to experience that. Team Possible does not kill, Yori. Not again.”
“I see,” Yori said. “Still, you must realize that we are going on a mission where there may be no alternative.”
“Then you find one,” Kim told her.
“But - “
“It's not open for discussion, Yori. I've made my decision. Got it?”
Yori stiffened, then bowed. “I understand, Kim-sama.”
“Good.” Kim flipped open her Kimmunicator. “Shego, where are you with Sappho?”
Shego's face appeared on the screen. “The Space Center, why?” she asked innocently.
“Ha ha,” Kim said. “I mean is she prepped?”
“Not yet, but we're working on it.”
“Well, try to be finished soon. I want to be in space long before sunset.” She looked at Yori. “By tomorrow, the only Gemini in space should be the one in the stars.”
To be continued…