by Ian McLeod
She spun to the side, gun rising to point at her assailant. The muzzle flashed once. Twice. The man slumped to the floor in a gurgle of blood and lay still. Still shaking, she stood, and looked around the room, gun pointing where she looked. All dead.
She took a few shaky steps forward as the sounds of footsteps on the stairs announced another intruder. Jumping to the side, she spun around, gun raising for another shot, only to stop when she heard a familiar knock combination on the staircase wall. Still unsteady, she fell to the ground and knocked the floor twice, gun falling to the floor.
Her husband entered the room, and quickly made his way to her side. "Are you hurt? Shot?" He held her closely, and she felt the gun fall from nerveless fingers as she leaned into his chest, drawing shuddering breaths as the terror finally began to work its way through her.
"What happened?" She raised her hands and pushed away from him. "Kou, who was responsible for this?"
Kou looked around, eyes hard. "I don't know. But it might be one of the rival families."
"But so openly?" The girl looked horrified.
Kou looked down at her and hesitated for a moment. After what had happened here today, he didn't want to tell her this, but as she looked up at him, he saw the steel underneath. The same cold rage she'd had once before was starting to burn inside her, and he knew he couldn't refuse her the truth.
"We got news only this morning."
"Grandfather..." She left it hanging, eyes growing moist.
Kou nodded. "Yes. I'm sorry, love. Your grandfather died last night." He held her close for a long moment, feeling her begin to shake again. "They must have moved when they heard the news. I found something on them."
His wife pulled back again and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Tears kept rolling down her face and Kou felt something in him reach out to her as he felt her pain. Despite everything that had happened, she'd been close to her grandfather. Maybe because of it. And the loss threatened to blind her to their immediate danger.
He held out a piece of paper and a wooden token. "They left this. I found it on their leader's body. I don't think they were supposed to survive the raid."
Reika Chang took the paper and opened it slowly. The token she already knew, a symbol belonging to a minor cadet line of the Chang family. Worked into it was the symbol of the ancient underground criminal Triad known as the Hou Bang. The Triad which until his death last night her grandfather had led with an iron fist.
The paper was an unremarkable piece. A letterhead, from a small biotech firm in Megatokyo. She knew it only vaguely. One of Linna's latest letters mentioned it in passing, that her grandfather had gotten involved somehow.
Scrawled in blood in neat Chinese letters was the word "Never" and the symbol for Death.
Reika stared at the letter for a long moment, feeling something happen in her. A slow rage building up inside her. A rage she hadn't felt since learning her sister had been killed by GENOM in Megatokyo all those years ago.
"They killed him," she whispered. "They killed him over this biotech thing."
Behind her Kou watched helplessly as Reika changed before his eyes from international rock star to vengeful killer. Again.
"They killed him. I'm not going to let them get away with that."
"We don't know enough about why this happened."
"There's only one place we can get the answers." She looked down at the paper, then slowly crumpled it into her fist, gripping it tightly. "Prepare the jet.
"We're going to Megatokyo."
Kou stared helplessly at the woman he loved as she stared out the window into the nighttime sky, eyes filled with a hate he'd prayed would never burn there again.
* * *
Monday, October 12, 2037, 1:30 PM Ladys 633 Building, Megatokyo
Lisa scrunched up her eyes and focused on the candle, trying hard to feel the energies inside her. Something inside seemed to catch, and suddenly the candle lit, a tiny yellow flame burning on the tip. Smiling, she relaxed and leaned back. "Done!" she caroled brightly.
"Now put it out."
Lisa sighed and bent forward. A long moment passed before the flame went out. Again. She'd been doing this exercise all day now.
Still, it didn't do to show boredom to the person teaching her magic. That person still wasn't sure she believed in it to begin with, and second, she was just as likely to abandon the project as continue it if Lisa gave her any backtalk.
And she needed this. Not six months ago, she'd suddenly found herself possessed of a truly awesome mage-gift. And with no-one on this world capable of teaching her, she'd been in a panic about what to do. So, naturally, she'd sought the help of the one person who always seemed to have the answers.
Sylia Stingray. Her teacher.
The severely dressed woman seated across from her had taken her in (again!) and had showed her a wealth of documents she'd had printed off. A legacy, she'd explained, of Doug's visit to Megatokyo. Instructions on magic use. Training techniques. Theory and laws. As if he'd known she'd need it.
As Lisa bent toward the candle and focused her mind again, she remembered a certain wind-swept rooftop only a year ago. A time when a goddess had confided something important to her, and sealed it with a kiss.
The candle lit again, and Lisa glanced up at Sylia, who nodded toward the candle. "Put it out again."
With a moment's thought, the candle went out. "How many more times do I have to do this?" Lisa asked. She knew she sounded petulant, but she couldn't help it. It had been hours!
Instead of being upset, Sylia actually cracked a smile. "Perhaps we can stop for a while," she allowed. "But the manuals are clear. In the absence of a trained instructor, you have to work yourself hard for the next few weeks. The books state quite clearly that until you have conscious control of your gift, you could accidentally hurt or kill people around you, whether you mean to or not." She tapped the open book on the table in front of her. "The only solution is to exhaust yourself mentally, so you can't hurt anyone while you recover." Her lips twitched again. "Besides, I don't want to have to carve you out of another ridiculous Senshi uniform if I don't have to."
Lisa winced. When her mage-gift had first activated, she'd been with Doug, learning about the strange reality he came from. They'd been ambushed by Boomers and he'd given her a simple defensive power for a few minutes. Just to keep her out of the way while he dealt with the threat. What he hadn't counted on was her latent magical ability.
Drawing on her favorite show, the mage-gift had reshaped her clothing into a passable Sailor Senshi outfit, and gifted her with abilities beyond what was possible with Doug's gift. But afterward, they'd discovered that her outfit, while soft as cloth, was the next best thing to indestructible. Doug had had to disintegrate it off her with a careful song (and a quick dash into the bathroom!)
On the night Doug left, she'd done it again, this time not quite believing what was happening. And once again, her clothing was well-nigh indestructible. Sylia hadn't been able to cut it without the help of an industrial power cutter. She'd eventually gone back to her house, wearing a borrowed outfit from the store below, and feeling about two centimeters tall. Sylia hadn't actually said anything the whole time, but the look on her face had spoken volumes.
Which was what brought her here, and why she was learning to light candles with her mind.
Lisa concentrated and the candle lit again. Sylia watched as the girl focused and made the flame go away for the umpteenth time. "Keep practicing," she said, rising to her feet. "I have to check in on the store below."
"Hai," Lisa groaned, focusing on the candle once again.
Sylia walked out of the room, and stepped into the elevator in the main foyer. Having her house right above the store had its advantages sometimes. As the elevator descended to the floor below however, Sylia's eyes narrowed as she considered what Lisa would do with this gift when it was fully trained.
Those thoughts weren't pleasant at all.
* * *
6:00 PM [Insert name of Japanese movie Theater]
Nene stormed over to where her date stood, ogling the pretty girls, and grabbed him by the arm. "Mou! Come on!" She hauled him away and over to the other side of the theater. "I thought you were taking me out tonight! Stop staring at the other girls!"
"Okay, okay!" Mackie looked down at the redhead, as she firmly gripped his arm in her own. She had a determined look on her face, as if daring anyone else to try getting between her and her meal-ticket.
No, that's unfair, he thought to himself. She's just possessive. A secretive smile played over his face for a moment, then instantly vanished as she glared up at him, replaced instead with a look of hurt innocence. "But Nene! I thought this wasn't supposed to be a date! Didn't you say it wasn't anything like that?"
Nene blushed crimson and looked away. "Anyway. We're going to be late if we don't hurry up!"
Mackie allowed himself to be towed into the movie theater by Nene as the lights began to dim. They found seats, and he held his peace while Nene grumbled softly beside him.
In the darkness, as the advertisements came up, Mackie took a moment to study Nene carefully. She'd started developing more in the last six months. He knew, for instance, that she'd lied on her AD Police application forms. She'd been 17, not 20 when she joined, despite what her ID said. That, coupled with a late maturation rate, she'd only recently begun to grow apace.
Sylia, he knew, was flatly refusing to allow Nene to fight at the moment. She seemed to have finally come into her last growth spurt, and keeping her in power armor was more than anyone could afford. So Nene was sitting assignments out while she finished topping out. Currently, the top her head was level with his nose. Never a tall girl, Nene would probably only grow another few centimeters before stopping, her almost eye-searing red hair growing down as she grew up. Nene was fond of long hair, and it was down to the small of her back at this point.
Mackie shook himself slightly as Nene shifted and looked up at him suspiciously. "What? You aren't thinking perverted things about me, are you?" She glared for a moment at him, and scrunched herself down in her chair. "I told you, this isn't a date."
"Then why are we here?"
"Because it's supposed to be a good movie, and I was bored. There's nothing to do, and Sylia won't let me test out the new stuff."
Mackie wisely let the matter drop. The 'new stuff' wasn't a recommended topic of conversation in the middle of a movie theater, so he just grunted something noncommittal, and she settled down again. Once again, he found his attention drifting over to her.
In the movie lights, her face took on an almost luminous beauty, and caused highlights to sparkle in her hair. He'd admitted to himself years ago that he felt something for this little spitfire, but he'd never expected anything to happen. He'd been too introverted, and she'd been anything but. But as the years rolled by, and they both matured, they'd never developed any other relationships.
Sylia thought it was cute, and teased him about it ruthlessly. Priss would just give him a knowing smile and slap him on the back, while Linna usually giggled and looked innocent. They probably all think we've gone farther than this, he thought resignedly.
Well, maybe not Sylia.
It wasn't that he didn't want to, truth be told. At just past 23, Nene was slender, perky, and beautiful. Soft red curls framed a heart-shaped face with the deepest blue eyes he'd ever seen. When she wanted to be, she could be absolutely adorable. She was even cute when she got angry, which wasn't often.
Well, not until recently. While Mackie was studying overseas, Megatokyo had played host to a very peculiar person. Colonel Douglas "Looney Toons" Sangnoir, a metahuman from another reality. Gifted with a powerful improbability field which caused events to turn out in his favor, he also possessed the strange ability to manifest real magical powers whenever he listened to songs he kept in a specially modified helmet. He'd come into town, shook it up a little, then left again, leaving a few changes in his wake.
Quincy was dead. The ancient mind behind GENOM's success and ruthless corporate greed was gone, killed by Doug somehow. Katherine Madigan, once his premier hatchetwoman, was now the Chairwoman, and led GENOM with an iron hand firmly on the tiller.
Boomers, once the cyberdroid slaves of mankind, were somehow 'waking up'. Every day, stories of self-aware Boomers committing crimes, or demanding recognition of their status filled the newspapers. Boomer crimes task forces were springing up all over the world now, following AD Police's example, and Boomers were becoming front page news again.
And something had happened to Nene. He'd never gotten the straight of it, but she'd been marked by Doug's actions. She seemed... darker. Less willing to laugh and forgive. He watched her as she studiously ignored him, concern written all over his face.
Tentatively, he reached around her shoulders and squeezed. Nene's eyes narrowed for a moment, then a slow blush crept across her face, and she let him pull her closer. I don't know what happened, Nene, he thought to himself as they watched the movie together. But I promise I'll help you laugh again.
* * *
9:00 PM, Osaka Prefecture
Jennifer squealed and ran pell-mell across the floor, just scant heartbeats ahead of her mother. "No! I don't wanna go to bed now!" Running into the living room, she threw herself at her father and hugged him tightly. "Don't wanna! Please?"
Priss put her hands on her hips and gave Jennifer the Look, Jennifer bit her lip and looked up pleadingly at Leon. "Please?"
Leon considered his firebrand rock star wife and cute daughter for a long moment, and sighed. "You have to go to bed, Jennifer." As she began to droop, he leaned close and whispered, "But I'll tell you a story if you're quick about it!"
Jennifer squealed again, and hugged him. "Promise?"
"'Kay!" She held her hands up to Priss, who gathered her in her arms, and carried her out of the room. Leon smiled for a long moment after, and leaned back in his chair. What to tell her. Hmmm. Largo? He shook his head. Nah, I've told her that one already. Besides, she sometimes sided with Largo, the much older woman occasionally peeking out from behind those guileless blue eyes.
Ah! I know. Still grinning he got up and considered it from several angles. The story about how he and Priss had first met would be funny, and would hopefully work its magic on Priss as well. As he turned out the living room lights, he thought once again of the one story he never told. The one about Megatokyo's short-lived resident vampire.
That still brought tears to Priss' eyes occasionally, usually when she thought Leon wasn't watching. They'd been close. Maybe more than close. He didn't know. But Sylvie's death had torn something up inside that hadn't healed until Colonel Sangnoir had blown into town.
Priss stepped into the room in time to see Leon frown. "What is it? Something wrong?"
Leon shook his head. "Just thinking about Sangnoir."
Priss shook her head. "He's gone. I told you that. Gone and not coming back."
Leon shrugged after a moment. "Well, he certainly made life interesting, that's for sure."
Priss snorted and slipped an arm around him. "You still going tomorrow?"
"Yeah. Australia is putting together its own version of AD Police, and they want me to be present during its inception." He snickered. "I tried telling them they were getting into trouble over the name they chose, but they wouldn't listen."
Priss grinned and laughed softly. "ABC Police?"
"Yep. The 'Advanced Boomer Crimes Police'." He chuckled. "I've heard a few other names for it in the wardroom lately. Apparently it's some kind of political move, and they're hiring more people who look good on camera than real cops."
Priss' eyes darkened. "They'll get slaughtered! Can't you do something about this? I mean, scare them into taking this seriously, maybe?" She gestured out the living room window. "In the last few months, we've had Boomer gangs running through the city! It's enough to make me wish I'd packed a spare suit of armor with me when we moved here."
Priss looked up at him curiously. "Why? You'd be okay with that?"
"Hell no!" Leon said explosively, his arms tightening around her. After a moment they loosened and he raised a hand to stroke her face gently. "But I know better than to get in my wife's way when she's in full ass-kicking mode."
Priss' lips curved slowly. "Damn straight. You been talking to Sylia?" At Leon's nod, she grinned a little more. "They can't be thinking of moving here."
"You're right, they're not. But Sylia made mention of some group in Sydney she's been talking to. She said something about the Knight Sabers not being the only group out there with power armor. Seems strange to me though. It's almost like she's franchising the Knights, or something."
Priss bit her lip and didn't say anything. After Colonel Sangnoir left, Sylia had received a packet of data with a vast amount of technical and magical information in it. Gleaned, so the attached message had read, from across the multiverse. A kind of apology for Colonel Sangnoir running roughshod over Megatokyo and the Knight Sabers during his stay.
Some of that stuff was incredibly advanced. Some of it frighteningly lethal. After careful analysis, Sylia had chosen bits and pieces she felt could be used in the here and now with relative safety, and had been upgrading their suits. Knight Sabers version 3.0 was just about ready. If Sylia was outfitting other organizations with their old armor designs, it wasn't a risk. Nothing they'd had could hold a candle to what the Knights would be playing with soon.
Leon watched his wife's face as thoughts chased themselves behind her eyes. She was hiding something, he knew that. But then again, he'd accepted she'd always be hiding things from him. That was the price he paid for being married to the Blue Saber. "Hey," he whispered, as she came to some kind of decision. "The plane doesn't leave until midafternoon tomorrow."
"Ah?" she replied, eyebrow rising as her lips curved in a knowing smile. "And why is that important, Leon- san?"
Leon felt a rush of warmth spread up as he held her closer. "You don't have anything special to do tomorrow either, right?"
"Hmm," she murmured as her hands drew meaningless patterns across his back. He shivered with pleasure as she stepped closer, molding her body to his. "And what do you plan to do with all that time, eh, Leon-san?" Her breath was hot and sweet as their lips moved closer together—
Both of them stepped back with a start of surprise, and Priss chuckled softly as Leon sighed. "She did that deliberately, didn't she?" Leon asked ruefully.
"Probably," Priss agreed, stepping away. "You have a story to tell, Daddy-dear." She snickered as he marched off to Jennifer's room. "Oh, by the way?"
Leon looked back, hand on the doorknob to his daughter's room. "Yeah?"
"Take your time in there," Priss commented idly. She turned slightly to give him a smoldering megavolt look. "But I'll expect you to tuck me in too!"
Leon took a deep breath as Priss slipped into their bedroom, and composed himself before going in to give his daughter a bedtime story.
* * *
10:30 PM, Raven's Garage, Megatokyo
Linna jumped and arced back as the glowing arm passed beneath her. Legs arcing up, she landed on her hands and immediately pushed up and back, springing into a pair of follow-up back handsprings. Landing on her feet, she faced the construct and set herself.
After a moment, the construct faded, and the lights in the room came on. Sylia stood in the doorway, smiling slightly. "Very well done. You haven't lost any of your agility in the time we've been upgrading the armor." She stepped back into the room and handed Linna a towel as the aerobics instructor stepped into the room. "I'm impressed."
Linna grinned and mopped sweat off her face. "Thanks. It's not hard though," she continued as Sylia turned back to the controls. "Once you get into a good routine, it's fun, and easy. Too bad I can't seem to convince Nene of that."
Sylia's eyes darted over in Linna's direction for a moment, a smile playing across her face. She also recalled the time Nene had botched a training exercise, only to have it revealed she'd been gaining weight. The power suits were custom crafted for their body type, and Nene had undergone strenuous physical workouts afterward to improve her physical shape and lose the extra weight. But she hadn't liked it.
"Still doing the stock trading, Linna?"
Linna paused in the act of putting on a light robe, and looked sheepish. "A little. I like the money that comes in when I'm doing well. I only part-time at it though." She belted the robe closed. "I found out that I liked being a dance instructor better. Friendlier hours, nicer people, and I feel better at the end of the day."
Sylia nodded and pulled up the schematic for Linna's new suit. Already the performance data was being used to model the kind of performance she'd enjoy in the new suit, and optional weapons systems switched out across the design. "Well, it's about that I wanted to talk to you tonight." She shut down the board and turned to Linna.
"Yes?" Linna tried not to look nervous. She knew Sylia had been unhappy with her short venture into stock marketing. She'd almost gotten so buried in her work that she'd forgotten to help her friends. It was only at the last minute that she'd quit that lifestyle and helped bail them out of one of their toughest spots. Linna liked money, but it had taken the plight of her friends to make her realize the price she was paying. Never again was more than just an empty promise to her now.
"I've been running into some trouble managing Loon Enterprises," she said calmly. "In specific, I find I have less and less time to manage the company now that these armor designs are finally becoming finished. The more I work on this, the less time I have for managing the company." She waved her hand in the rough direction of home. "I already have a staff managing the store full-time, and am rarely there. My other interests were arranged ages ago so they more or less took care of themselves, and Mackie's back, so he's helping keep the existing systems in the armory up and running while learning the new technologies."
"But couldn't Mackie run the company then?"
"Not really," Sylia said, shaking her head. "Mackie's been working on the second-generation AI designs. Now that boomers have discovered their individuality, his work is drawing critical attention. Not all of it positive." Her eyes darkened. "There's a powerful group gaining ground worldwide which espouses destroying all Boomer technology, and putting mankind first ahead of the 'abominations'. Mackie doesn't want to draw attention to what we're doing over at Loon by associating with it in any way."
Linna nodded. Loon Enterprises, founded less than six months ago by Sylia, was a co-venture with the Chang Group. Their considerable wealth and power, added to her own technological know-how and improved with the biotech left in her secret files, they'd created a new kind of biotech firm. One dedicated to producing 'miraculous' plantlife designed to cure the world of many, if not most, of the damage mankind had wrought over the last few centuries.
As for the name of the organization, it had just seemed appropriate.
"Mackie can't be associated with Loon," Sylia repeated. "But you could run the show there. You've had considerable management training, as well as a familiarity with that kind of work environment. And as the CEO, you would have considerable time to yourself as well," she continued over Linna's halfhearted objections. "You could still run your classes in the afternoons without interfering with your work at Loon."
Linna made a noncommittal noise in her throat, and swayed from side to side a little as she debated it. Finally, she gave Sylia a rueful grin and nodded. "Okay," she said, admitting defeat. "You knew I can't pass up the chance to make a little more money!"
"Of course," Sylia said, as if surprised. "You're quite the little mercenary when you want to be." The light tone and smile took the sting out what would otherwise have been less than complimentary. "Speaking of which," she said, becoming more serious, "I'm almost ready to deploy the new armor."
Linna grinned. "What about Nene?"
Sylia sighed. "She's mostly finished growing, I think. I've taken the liberty of preparing an interim suit that should do until she finishes growing. At this point, it's mostly leg length, so it shouldn't be too hard to modify as she gets taller."
Sylia paused for a long moment. "Priss is... probably unavailable. She has a family now," she continued. "And with her career finally earning her limited international notice, she may soon become ineligible for the Knight Sabers. We knew this kind of thing might happen, someday."
Linna nodded, and grinned slyly. "But you built her a suit anyway, didn't you?"
Sylia nodded and smiled. "Yes, I did. Just in case I'm wrong."
"So who replaces her day-to-day?"
"I'm not sure," Sylia replied, frowning. "Optimally, it would be someone who knows our secret already and can be trusted not to tell anyone. There's precious few of those around however, so finding someone will be difficult. Also, I'd prefer to keep it a woman, if possible. The Knight Sabers have a reputation to maintain, after all."
Linna nodded and followed Sylia out of the testing bay. "You know, after all that's happened, it's amazing so little has changed."
Sylia looked over at Linna, puzzled at the sudden change of topic. "What do you mean?"
"Well, after Doug left, Boomers became free, Quincy became dead, and magic got unleashed on the world,"
Sylia nodded at each point. "And?"
"Nothing's really changed." Linna stepped into the elevator and held it for her friend, then pushed the ground floor button. "GENOM's still the monolithic giant it always was, Boomers are still rampaging in the streets, and the corporations are still stabbing each other in the back. It's all just for different reasons now."
Sylia nodded as they stepped out of the elevator, and made their way to the changing room in the back. "Yes, I noticed that. Boomers may be free, but there is a disruptive element that seeks to dominate Earth, if it can, subjugating us weak humans or killing us outright if we get in their way."
Linna looked over at Sylia sharply as she opened her locker and began to change. "You're thinking of Largo again, aren't you?"
Sylia nodded slowly. "Yes, I am. At the end, Largo claimed we were alike. Both of us were more than human or Boomer, and were in fact some kind of fusion of the two. He, because he'd become a consciousness in a Boomer body, us because we wore specialized Boomer-suits in combat. And in a way, he was right." Sylia looked up into the night sky, visible through the one-way skylight for a long moment before continuing.
"Boomers are becoming what Largo envisioned. A race of beings with human intelligence and emotions benefitting from cyberdroid strength and speed. Us poor humans can't compete with that anymore." Her lips twitched in a sad smile. "Largo would be so pleased to be proven right."
"He's not." Linna shook her head as Sylia looked over in surprise. "Oh, he's right about humans and Boomers finding some kind of middle ground, but it's not because of our differences, it's because of our similarities. Remember Adama? All he wanted was to be a normal person, and he was so... ordinary he fit right in. That's what the future holds, Sylia. A future where it no longer matters whether we're flesh or alloy. It's scary, yes. but it doesn't have to be frightening."
Sylia pulled on her coat, and regarded Linna for a long minute. "I hope you're right, Linna." Turning to the door, she held it open as Linna grabbed up her tote bag, and shouldered her jacket into place. "Ready?"
The two girls left Raven's Garage, oblivious to the roar of the jet passing overhead. Such things were commonplace in a city like Megatokyo, after all.
In that jet, Reika Chang stared at the crumpled piece of paper sitting on the table in front of her, and tried to feel something other than hate and pain. She couldn't. Not now.
Maybe later, she promised herself. When I've tracked all you assholes down and made you pay for what you did to my grandfather!
She continued to glare at the paper as the landing lights came on, and the jet roared on to Megatokyo International Airport.
* * *
Wednesday October 14, 2037, 8:45 AM GENOM Tower, Megatokyo
The lavender-haired woman lunged forward, foil striking her target dead center. A beep sounded in the room, and her sparring partner relaxed, holding the fencing foil off to one side. "Nice touch, Miss Madigan. Your point."
Katherine Madigan, CEO of GENOM, and arguably the most powerful woman in the world raised the foil up and swung it down in a formal salute. "Thank you, Jason." She glanced up at the wall clock. "Unfortunately, I have work to attend to shortly so we will have to end here."
"Of course, Ms. Madigan." Gathering up his equipment, the young fencing master made his way out of the room after a quick bow.
Kate stripped off the gloves and carried the foil over to the case on the table nearby. She racked the weapon slowly, pausing as a prickling feeling seemed to settle between her shoulder blades. Although she knew it was pointless, she couldn't help it. She spun around, the foil whistling through the air to stop at partial extension.
There was nobody there.
With a disgusted sound, she re-racked the weapon, latching the case shut as her mind continued to seethe. He's dead! How can a man six months dead do this to me?
She knew the answer even as she stepped into the shower alcove and stripped to the skin. The former CEO of GENOM, and the man behind the rise of the corporate giant, had been a larger than life figure. So much so in fact, that when age began to strip him of physical ability, he'd had himself wired into the GENOM datanet, and used Boomer drones as physical stand-ins.
As hot water sluiced down, Kate wondered how long it would be before she stopped seeing Chairman Quincy in the shadows every time she turned around. Just waiting to leap out and drag her down. For her betrayal. And her secret.
In the last hour of Quincy's life, she'd turned on him, refusing to play the pawn in his game of one-upmanship with Colonel Sangnoir. At the end, she'd made the one choice she could live with: Absolute Good.
In so doing, she'd thrown away her life, her career, and her future. She'd done this knowing that no matter who won, the security records in the Tower would bear out that she'd quit her job, and was no longer protected from the corporate vultures who were almost certain to descend upon the one person they feared more than anyone save the Chairman.
But it hadn't turned out that way. When Colonel Sangnoir conjured up a hurricane, he'd drawn manmade lightning into the room time and again, frying every electronic device for entire floors in all directions. Security cameras had fried, backup data storage systems had melted, and her resignation had vanished with them. As far as GENOM was concerned, she was the only senior executive to survive that frightening night.
Kate paused, and held up her hand, seeing not the hot water dripping through her fingers, but blood. So much blood. The night she'd almost died, and survived through the whim of a man she'd betrayed a few short years later, only to inherit his position as her reward.
She clenched her hand into a fist slowly, watching it closely. The play of tendons under the skin. The water beading and running off. The shift of muscles in her arm as she slowly moved the hand around. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear it was real.
And that of course, was her secret. On the night Largo had used the USSD particle beam satellites to strike GENOM towers around the world, she'd almost died. Largo, seeking the almighty power of the Overmind Control System, had broken into GENOM, and in a gesture of disdain, had drawn a particle strike into the Chairman's room. Four Bu-55C Boomers had died in an instant, and Quincy - another stand-in - had been destroyed in the blast.
Only the huge desk she'd been on the other side of had saved her. But the damage had still been severe. Considerable medical expertise had been required to save her, and along the way, decisions had been made. Such as the decision to return her to such perfect, total health that not so much as a scar would be left of her experience. That had been possible in only one way.
Reaching through the spray, she pulled out a bottle of shampoo and began to wash herself. I don't have time for this, she thought deliberately. I have too much to do today.
Fifteen minutes later she stood in her private elevator, rising to her accustomed level at the top of the GENOM arcology in Megatokyo. Three months of reconstruction had repaired the worst of the damage caused by the hurricane. Three more months had allowed most to almost forget what had happened that strange and fateful night.
"Greetings, Ms Madigan," her secretary said pleasantly. The young girl bowed as Kate stepped past her, and followed the CEO into the office. "The Diet voted on the law last night, ma'am." The Chairwoman waved her to a chair, and she sank into it, opening her memo board and switching it on.
"They voted to strike it down, ma'am. As of today, the boomeroid law no longer exists."
Madigan allowed a small smile of victory to play around her lips. "So," she continued after a moment. "What news from Germany?"
"The German facility is still consolidating itself, ma'am. The new president reports that the splinter factions are being accounted for, and will be back under the GENOM banner by the end of the quarter."
Madigan nodded, and leaned back in the chair. "That's good. I can't very well have our international offices going rogue on me now, can I?"
"No, ma'am," the secretary replied promptly. She tapped another entry on her memo pad, and bit her lip. "The Firsters have managed to set fire to a factory in England, ma'am." She looked at the chairwoman as Madigan sat up quickly and turned to her in shock. "The damage is estimated in excess of five hundred million yen."
Madigan's eyes hardened as she considered the news. The "Humans First" movement, or Firsters as they were becoming known, believed machine sentience was a crime and offense against humanity. They'd been a relatively minor threat until now, not having the resources to take direct action. Apparently however, that was no longer the case. "Any of our people hurt?"
"Sixty people wounded, four dead." The young secretary looked down at her memo pad again. "The fire is believed to have been started with a military-grade explosive device, although they aren't sure due to the nature of the work performed in that particular factory. Our people are running an investigation, but the local police continue to maintain an active presence in the facility."
Madigan frowned, and nodded. "Forward me the details of the deceased. I'll take care of it. Also, arrange a flight to London for later this afternoon." Her lips pursed in dark amusement. "Have my security team notified of the changes, and on standby when I leave."
"Any news yet of that other matter I asked you to look into?"
"Yes, ma'am. Now?"
Madigan nodded. "Was it assassination?"
"It appears to have been. The assassins used a long-range sniper railgun with a very specialized bullet. As far as we can tell, it was some kind of fusion nanite based alloy. It would have had the properties of literally shaping itself into the perfect projectile while in flight, as well as manifesting aero-control surfaces to extend flight time. This would have significantly increased the rifle's effective maximum range." Hiroe swallowed hard and continued much more quietly. "Upon penetration, it dispersed throughout the body, making identification of the weapon impossible."
Madigan nodded slowly. "Impressive. Any chance we could get our hands on the weapon?"
The secretary shook her head. "Unknown at this time, ma'am. Also, on a related note, Miss Reika Chang, the rock star known as 'Vision', has flown into Megatokyo. She claims she's here visiting relatives." Hiroe looked up in surprise. "I didn't know Vision had relatives in Megatokyo, Ms. Madigan!"
"Just one, Hiroe. Just one."
* * *
12:30PM, Lisa's Apartment.
" So it's agreed then," Lisa said, finger idly twisting around the phone cord as she leaned back in the easy chair. "This latest story on corporate greed and embezzling for 250,000 yen, with an option to buy the next Knight Sabers piece I write."
"Hai," came the voice over the phone. "Is there any chance of an exclusive, Miss Vanette? You gave one a few months ago to the 16 Daily Times, and we're a much better-read paper than they are."
"Hmm," she said noncommitally. "I'm not sure. They paid to get that exclusive, and it was only for a couple of months. I really couldn't hand out an exclusive without some kind of retainer, you know." She grinned as the voice on the other end made spluttering noises.
"It's not like I'm holding a gun to your head," she said brightly. "I'm just saying that if you want Knight Saber articles from me to go straight to you for the next few months, you have to give me something for the consideration."
She smiled again as the voice took a deep breath. "I'll discuss it with the Editor, Miss Vanette. I'll have a reply for you by the end of the day."
"Thanks! Bai bai!"
Lisa hung up the phone and giggled like a schoolgirl. She couldn't help it. Ever since Doug had come to Megatokyo, something had happened where Knight Sabers' media was concerned. Maybe it was because Madigan wasn't leaning on the news media to print only negative stories. Maybe events during that time had grabbed public attention. Whatever the reason, there was a public upsurge in interest on the whole Knight Sabers topic.
Lisa spun around in the chair, and stopped it at her worktable. On it, a new story sat. Not one of hers, but something from Sydney, Australia. "STEEL ANGELS FOIL BATTLEMOVER PLOT". The photo showed a slightly grainy image of a pair of girls in power armor with stylized wings on the back firing railgun shots into what looked like a cross between a tank and a crab-mech. The story went on to describe the strange new defenders Australia had acquired, as they and an ABC Police computer hacker prevented the tank from breaking into a damaged USSD facility and calling a particle strike down on Sydney. The ABC Police were still investigating.
"Leon looks pretty good in that photo," Nene observed as she walked into the room. Her uniform was open at the collar, and she munched an egg salad sandwich as she leaned against the chair. "Not bad shots of these 'Angels' either."
"I could have done better," Lisa dismissed with a wave. Then she looked up in outrage. "Hey! That's my lunch you're pilfering!"
Nene grinned around a mouthful, and nodded back over her shoulder. "I made more. Thanks for letting me stop by. the cafeteria food's not bad, but it's getting expensive."
Lisa frowned in puzzlement as she walked into the kitchen and made herself a sandwich. "Now wait a minute. You girls work an average of every other month, right?"
"Mmmph," Nene agreed, still chewing.
"You make a minimum of ten million yen per mission, and that's just the deposit. You've often made over thirty, and sometimes, even fifty."
"Mmm-hmm." Nene reached for the pitcher and poured herself a drink.
"So how can you be starved for cash? You're making more than I do in a year each time!"
Nene washed the latest mouthful down and set the glass on the counter. "Simple. Most of that goes into armor repairs and so on." She began to tick items on her fingers. "First, you have to repair or replace what was used up in combat. Then, you have to take care of any medical bills as a result of someone not getting out of the way in time.
"After that," she continued, "You have to pay for reloads, and resupply. Most of this stuff has to come from a wide variety of places, so no-one figures out what's going on. Even with a nanofac at our disposal, most of the raw materials and common equipment is purchased rather than manufactured. It's faster that way, and often made to better standards than we would think of off the top of our heads."
Lisa sat back, stunned at the costs Nene was rattling off. They made sense, but she'd never thought about it. "So then you each get your share, right?"
The redhead snorted. "Not hardly. How easy do you think it is to fly an illegal stealth aircraft in Megatokyo without someone going hunting for it? Some of the rest goes to paying bribes so certain key officials in the right places ignore the presence of certain things on their radar screens we'd rather they didn't look into too closely. Then there's research and development. Even with that package Sylia got, she still has to research it if she's going to understand it. And that costs money."
"Then do you get your money?"
"Nope." Nene shook her head, perversely enjoying the look on Lisa's face. "We used to, of course. But we got into the habit of letting Sylia handle our investments, since she's better at that than we are. These days, we just plow it all straight into investments. My day to day stuff is covered out of my paycheck, just like you. When I want something really nice," she finished, helping herself to another sandwich, "I liquidate one of the smaller certificates, and buy what I want. Otherwise, it stays in investments, making us all more money."
Lisa shook her head slowly, awed by the sheer amount of work maintaining a power-armor unit required. "How does Sylia manage that? There's not enough hours in the day for that much work!"
Nene shrugged. "I don't know how she did it before we came along, but we all help out when we can. Linna's spent nearly as many hours on the Knight Wing as in her garage. I help with the computers, as does Mackie." She grinned evilly and chuckled. "Priss usually just stands around and moves stuff when she's told to. And complains," she added after a moment.
Lisa thought about what she'd heard and mentally backtracked. "Hold on a moment. Earlier, you said Sylia's gotten a package to work with. Is that where the new designs are coming from?"
"Getting into reporter mode, are you?"
The blonde blushed darkly, and shook her head. "Sorry, sorry! I can't help it. I can't just let things hang loosely like that. I have to dig it all out. Don't answer if you don't want to." She pressed her hand hands together and looked contritely over at Nene, an anxious look on her face. "I didn't mean to pry."
Nene snorted and refilled her drink. "Yes you did." She stared for a long moment at her friend, and shrugged. "Doesn't make any sense to me, so I might as well tell you. Sylia apparently got a huge data package in her computers one day. Apparently, it was never sent from anywhere. It never crossed through the firewalls, never passed through the virus checkers. It was just there, with no return address. And in it was a whole bunch of stuff, from advanced technology, to stuff on magic. What they're doing over at Loon came from that datafile, apparently."
Lisa grinned. "I bet she didn't like that a whole lot."
Nene laughed. "That's an understatement. After reverifying there were no viruses with every tool she could lay her hands on, she finally opened it on a standalone workstation with no communications ability. Boy was she paranoid for a while. These days, she's spending most of her time studying the technology, trying to find ways to add it to her own."
"Why? Why not simply build one of the designs they provided?"
"Well for one thing, Sylia's not as trusting as you or me." At Lisa's expression, Nene temporized. "Okay, she's not as trusting as Priss is. Anyway, she's studying the technology to make sure it can be manufactured with what we've got. And also so that nothing funky slips in without us knowing about it. That's what she says, anyway. Personally, I think it's a pride thing. Before this came along, she was inventing armor decades ahead of anyone else. Now suddenly, she's obsolete. She's determined not to abandon her own work, but is instead finding ways to incorporate the new ideas into her existing technology." Nene shrugged. "It's probably the right way to do it, but she's still got a huge chip on her shoulder over it."
Lisa nodded slowly, and heroically resisted the urge to look over at her bookshelf. The one with all the magic manuals Sylia had printed off for her. Some of that must have been these books, she thought quietly. "So... what happens next?"
"Don't know." Nene's watch beeped, and the redhead yelped and jumped to her feet. "Gotta go! I'm almost out of lunch break." She dashed to the door and began to get her jacket on.
Lisa walked over and fastened the top buttons on Nene's blouse. "Thanks for stopping by," she said mock-politely. Nene just growled something at her as she slipped her shoes on. "But next time, you bring lunch for both of us!"
"Deal!" Nene dashed out the door and down to her police car. "Later!"
Lisa closed the door and made her way back to the kitchen. As she tidied up, she thought again of the huge datafile Sylia had received. Doug had never had the opportunity to do that, especially since it had happened after Doug had left. So
The German weather goddess certainly had the power. But she still wasn't certain of the ethics of it, and was thinking hard as she returned to her study.
It made sense that realities didn't always interact with each other for perfectly logical and acceptable reasons. So when technology from one reality was suddenly dumped in another without their having to invent it on their own, what would be the result?
She was sure it depended on who had it. Sylia would probably sit on it forever, doling out small increases in technology which could be seamlessly added to what they already had without drawing too much attention to themselves. Any new weapons or inventions would look like a logical extension of what they already had. So perhaps it was safe leaving that kind of advancement in Sylia's hands.
But what if someone like Quincy had gotten that kind of advance? In her mind, Lisa could see mankind in deep space within the next century, colonizing worlds, Boomers of all kinds everywhere. And running it all would be an immortal Quincy, standing from the top of an Earth-sized GENOM arcology, with humans everywhere living, eating, sleeping, and breathing GENOM technology.
Only a god (or a goddess!) would have the ability to choose someone who wouldn't abuse that kind of edge, Lisa realized. So maybe it was a good thing that the Knight Sabers' benefactor had entrusted the technology to the most paranoid woman in Megatokyo.
Grinning impishly at the image she'd raised of a titanic Boomer Quincy duking it out in Megatokyo with a squinty- eyed armor-clad Sylia Stingray, Lisa turned back to her work, leaning on her elbow, and tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Now how do I make a shutdown in a teddy bear factory not sound funny...?
* * *
2:30PM Yokohama Cemetary
"I'm sorry, ne-san," Reika whispered softly. She knelt before the stone marking her sister's grave as tears rolled down her face. "They k-killed him." She swalled hard and closed her eyes.
The warm afternoon sun seemed almost a mockery of her grief, as she knelt in the graveyard. Alone of all her family, she was all that was left. Her parents had been killed a decade ago by Gulf and Bradley assassins. Her sister, by a GENOM assassin acting on Brian J. Mason's orders. Now, her grandfather was gone as well, killed by a high- tech bullet fired by an unknown assassin.
The Gulf and Bradley company had suffered in retaliation. Mason had died at his enemy's hands, and Quincy had lost millions and his prototype battlemover class Boomer. So much pain and death.
Reika's head snapped around at the feminine voice. Linna stood nearby, hand on the tree beside her. The leaves gave a multicolored shade to Irene's resting place as they slowly turned to autumn gold. "Hai," she said softly.
Her friend moved over and sank down beside her. Slowly, she pulled Reika over, holding her tightly when the rock star collapsed into her friend's arms and cried bitterly. Linna rocked her gently, stroking Reika's hair as the sun slowly sank in the distance, and her sobs finally subsided.
Reika had no idea how long she'd stayed like that. Finally she became aware of her own tears soaking into Linna's blouse, her friend's arms around her protectively, as Linna rocked her slowly. With a shuddering breath, Reika pushed herself up, and put a hand on Linna's shoulder. "Thank you. Again."
Linna smiled sadly. "Of course. Do you want to talk about it now?"
Reika swallowed several times, and scrubbed her eyes with her sleeve. She laughed weakly when Linna offered her a handkerchief, and spent a few moments cleaning up. "I... I don't know where to start."
Linna waited calmly while Reika sorted herself out. "It started I guess about four months ago, when grandfather got into a partnership with a Japanese biotech firm. Something called Loon Enterprises."
Linna gave a small start of surprise and bit her lip. "How so?"
Reika continued to look at her hands, not noticing her friend's reaction. "Well, some of what the Hou Bang do is advanced weapons technology. But some of it is also blue-sky research and development. Some of it's even in the same field Loon is in. That is, trying to undo the damage done to the environment."
"So someone in your family killed your grandfather to stop Loon?"
Reika shook her head. "Not... exactly. The cleanup industry is worth billions of dollars worldwide." She looked up at Linna. "Most of these project can't possibly work, and most of these people know that. But it's worth ever more money every year to keep trying. Or at least, to keep appearing to try."
Linna nodded slowly. "But a company that looked like it was on the right track would be a threat to the whole thing, wouldn't it?"
"Absolutely!" Reika looked over at the setting sun and clenched her fists around her knees. "Whether they're sincere or just pretending to be, they stand to lose billions. Maybe even trillions to this 'Loon Enterprises' if what they're doing actually works. The problem," she continued with a bitter grimace on her face, "is that even knowing that, we don't know who is responsible. There's simply too many possibilities worldwide. Where do we start? Who gave the order? And where will they strike next? For they will, you know," she confided, looking over at Linna. "Right now I wouldn't be the president of that company for all the money in all the world."
"Oh," Linna said softly. "Umm... Reika?"
Linna took her friend's hands in her own and swallowed again. "There's something you need to know."
Reika gave her a look and shook her head. "What?"
What she heard next shocked her speechless. The two of them stared at each other for long minutes as Kou stood in the distance, waiting.
* * *
The form snuck through the sewer tunnel with the ease of long familiarity. Hair hung in stringy tangles and crude clothing clung to her long-unwashed body as she made her way under the streets.
Reaching her destination, she paused momentarily, examining the signs in the world above. No-one was about.
Opening the manhole cover, she hoisted herself to the surface, and quickly dashed across to the loading dock door. A quick twist and the lock broke, yielding her a way in. She slipped inside and began to look around.
Minutes later, she slipped out, a makeshift backpack and several large bags containing exotic chemicals and equipment in her grasp. Swiftly, she made her way back to the sewer, and carefully lowered the supplies in.
The approaching engine noise warned her, and she looked at the motorist as she jumped down, the flare of the headlights briefly outlining her thin form. The car squealed and slid to a halt as the man inside jammed on the brakes. Shaking, he stepped out of his car. "Oh please don't let me have hit her. Oh God, please don't be dead..."
What he saw instead was an open manhole cover, and no girl. Retreating to his car, he reached for his phone, and called emergency. "Yes.. hello? I... there was this girl. She was standing in the middle of the road." He shook his head and tried to calm down. "No, I didn't hit her. She... well, she jumped into the sewers."
He paused for a moment, and nodded. "Yes, I'll wait here. No, I don't know where she went, or who she is. Okay, I'll just stay here. Thank you."
He leaned back in the car seat, as the approaching sirens grew louder. Meanwhile under the sewers, the girl waited for a long moment, listening to his frightened babble. With a sigh, she shouldered her plunder, swiftly darted into the stinking depths, and vanished.
End of Chapter One
Disclaimer: All characters and worlds present are copyrights of their original creators, and are not created by the writer (with the sole exception of the mysterious "One"). This is a work of fiction, and is intended as fan-created fiction for the purpose of entertainment under fair-use legislation. No attempt to infringe upon copyrighted material is intended.