<< PreviousNext >>

Dead Bang

by Ian McLeod

Chapter 5

Thursday, October 22, 2037, 2:00 PM
GENOM Tower, Megatokyo

Kathryn Madigan walked across the room to the picture windows, holding the cell phone as the young girl on the other end continued to speak. "...and I know that although we've had various differences on a personal level before, this has no bearing on the work we could do professionally."

Kate smiled slightly. "All very true, Yamazaki-san, but I should point out that there is very little offered to us in return for the investment. In return for a substantial amount of cash you are offering us essentially nothing in return. In most circles they call that theft, do they not?"

The woman on the other end didn't rise to the bait. Her voice remained calm and level as she returned with, "In the circles we operate in, Madigan-san, this is simply good business. We are doing all the work, and in return for the generous donation, GENOM would sit high on our preferred clients list when it came time to license the mass manufacture of the ecological cleanup organics we are developing."

Kate's smile widened at the offer. -It essentially is meant to blunt that she's taking our money and making no commitments other than a vague 'thank you'. It's very brave, considering how she first got my attention.- Few people had her private cell number, after all, and she usually didn't expect to hear a business proposal coming in over that line. How she'd gotten it wasn't a guess, however.

Lisa.

Ms. Yamazaki had admitted it in the first few moments of shocked conversation as Kate's phone had pulled her back from reminiscing over that night in the sewer the day before yesterday. To a glow of white light and the blue energies which created a figure out of fantasy.

"Well, you do realize this is at best an opening examination? Our various legal departments would have to work out any resulting details, and I expect GENOM would not be satisfied without some kind of material commitment from your company, Yamazaki-san." There. That was the closest she could get to a friendly warning. Dealing with GENOM was like shaking hands with the Devil. If Lisa's friend wanted to dive into these waters, she had to be very careful what she offered the giant conglomerate, or Loon might risk getting swallowed up by it.

"I'm certain that if we met and discussed options, we could -"

"LINNA!!"

Kate jerked the handset back slightly as the young man's voice echoed through the handset. A moment later, the sharp sound of breaking glass, a dull thump followed by more breaking glass and a young man screaming in pain caused Kate's eyes to widen in shock. The phone clattered loudly as Ms. Yamazaki's handset fell to the ground, and the shocked CEO of GENOM listened intently as events played out over the phone.

Carefully, she cued up her boomeroid-enhanced hearing, and listened to the quiet conversation with Ms. Yamazaki's bodyguard. Her eyes narrowed as she heard the recital of injuries, and nodded slightly at the man's terse explanation about why the CEO of Loon couldn't follow young Mackie Stingray out of the building.

A loud rumble in the phone caused Kate to lower her hearing to human-normal, as a shaky woman's voice came in the other side. "Ah... Gomen, Madigan-san," Linna Yamazaki began slowly. "We appear to have had an... incident here at Loon. I'm afraid I really must be elsewhere to deal with this."

"Someone just tried to kill you, Yamazaki-san," Kate said bluntly, eyes beginning to show anger as she stared out the window in the approximate direction of Loon. "I'm very familiar with the situation. Under the circumstances, and given that this mystery assassin attempted the action while we were in negotiation, I would consider it rude at the very least if I did not assist in the investigation. GENOM protects its friends, Yamazaki-san, and from the tone our conversation was taking, I think we have the potential to be good friends."

There was a long pause on the other end. "Very well, Madigan-san. As soon as we have the time, I shall contact you to continue our conversation."

Madigan agreed and closed out the call. She turned to regard Jenny, who stood at the far side of the room, datapad lying forgotten on the table from where she'd been working. "Ma'am?"

Kate looked over at Jenny and took a breath. "Find out the hospital they're taking Mackie Stingray to and make arrangements for my limo. Helping in the investigation isn't enough from where I'm standing. GENOM has just been indirectly insulted by this assassination attempt, and a personal appearance with Ms. Yamazaki at this time is indicated."

Jenny smiled slightly and picked up the datapad. "And the real reason?"

Kate's official mask twitched, and a rueful smile appeared on her face briefly. "Jenny," she sighed. "I hate it when you do that. It's hard to stay on the official high ground when you deflate me so effortlessly."

Her secretary stepped around the desk and gathered a few more things before turning to Kate. "Ma'am, if I thought there wasn't a person in there, I wouldn't make the effort." She tried to keep a straight face as Kate laughed with delight at the sally. "You need people like me to keep you honest."

"Too true, too true." Kate watched as Jenny tidied up the chairwoman's notes and equipment, placing them either in the safe or the armored valise she carried with her. Shutting down Kate's console, she turned to the chairwoman, and nodded deferentially. "All ready here, Ma'am. I've alerted the bodyguard through the Tower's wireless network and the limo and escorts are being prepared. The city's traffic routing network informs us that the ambulance carrying Mr. Stingray is heading for Kawakita General Hospital. He is listed as being in serious but stable condition. Blood loss is minimal, he is on plasma, and is responding well to shock medication."

Kate nodded absently as she headed toward the main doors, and the security delegation beyond who would efficiently whisk her down to her private armored limo for the trip to the hospital. -Kawakita General,- Kate mused quietly. -They were one of the first hospitals to go public over thirty years ago.-

Kate looked at the vidscreen showing the Megatokyo skyline as she descended in a corporate elevator filled with boomer bodyguards. -I wonder how much of their stock Ms. Stingray holds?-

The elevator came to a rest in the private corporate garage used by the Chairwoman, and she followed her boomer contingent out to the four large vehicles waiting for her. Nodding absently to a young man who held the door for her, she stepped into her limo, followed by Jenny and another young bodyguard. The door closed, and after a moment while the others got sorted out, the convoy began to move.

"The other reason," Kate continued as if the conversation had never been interrupted, "has to do with the name of the organization, and the identity of who contacted me." She smiled a little as the bodyguard tried to look as unobtrusive as possible. He knew that he was the reason she was being cryptic, and he tried not to look embarassed as the chairwoman smiled over at him apologetically.

Jenny nodded slowly. "That person does seem to get around, even at this late date. So you mean to help them?"

Kate nodded thoughtfully. "As much as is advisable, certainly. But this assassination attempt changes things. I'm certain the former chairman would have seen it as an opportunity to wring further concessions out of a distracted potential acquisition, but I see it another way." She glanced briefly at the bodyguard and looked over at Jenny as he apparently continued to ignore the conversation. "It's an opportunity to make friends with a potentially large business ally. And despite the former chairman's intent, it is often better to cultivate business alliances with friendly corporations than it is to absorb them and lose productivity."

"And the best time to make friends with a powerful corporation is before it becomes that powerful. Or as the Americans are fond of saying, 'getting in on the ground floor'."

Kate nodded, pleased. "Exactly. We cultivate a limited alliance with them and in return as they begin to prosper, GENOM prospers along with them. We don't have to invest any of the startup capital or research personnel, and still have preferential relations with them when it comes time to market the product. They get needed financing and access to our massive market share when the time comes to produce their product. A win-win situation, if it can be balanced properly."

Jenny nodded, face composed. Kate leaned back in the car and pretended to study the flashing lights of the passing lampposts. The bodyguard, ignored again, continued to speak quietly into his microphone as the car sped along. -And you think I don't know who you work for,- Kate thought silently. -The members of the executive who are always waiting for a sign of weakness from me.-

Her eyes narrowed slightly as she considered the apparently totally devoted bodyguard sitting across from her. -Fool. I have a dozen more like you, all spies who report to other masters, all of whom tremble when I crack the whip. And like the others,- she continued after a moment's reflection, -You will tell them that I AM firmly in control of my company.-

She continued to reflect on the growing division inside herself as the car sped on toward Kawakita General Hospital.

* * *

Thursday, October 22, 2037, 2:30 PM
Somewhere in traffic, Megatokyo

Inspector Daley Wong drove silently, Roger sitting in the back seat and trying not to look concerned as he watched the redheaded girl in the passenger's seat. -She hasn't said a word in he last half hour,- he thought, concerned as Daley slowed and turned a corner, picking up speed as he drove toward the hospital.

They'd been discussing the recent Knight Saber activities with Fuko-san, who had drawn a half-dozen artworks of the new Red Saber based on the combat footage they'd pulled from the surviving memory cores. Some of the initial dark spots she'd tagged on the shoulders and wrists argued for a more expanded hardpoint attachment system than seen on the Blue Saber, she'd maintained, while Daley made disparaging comments about lighting, and Fuko idly sketched hentai art based on a particularly acrobatic landing the new Red Saber had executed in the fight, involving a lamp pole, and the pulse cannon extended forward.

That was when Nene's phone had rung. Stepping away from the laughing artist she'd made her way over to her phone and picked it up. The cyberneticist's face had very quickly gone from her usual animated perkiness to shock, and the way she'd gripped the cable had caught the others up mid-sentence.

-We were laughing over Fuko's rendition of the red saber's pole dancing artwork when Nene's world was crashing down,- Roger thought, eyes briefly squinting shut with remembered pain as the phone had slipped out of Nene's hand and the girl had stumbled back, eyes wide.

Daley had stepped over to the phone, and swiftly picked it up. "This is Chief Inspector Daley Wong. Who is this?" His tone had been harsh, and angry. The look in his eyes had softened quickly however, as he listened to the voice on the phone. They narrowed again after a moment, and he nodded a few times. "Hai," he finished, hanging up the phone, and turned to Nene.

"They're going to Kawakita. Come on, I'll drive."

Roger and Fuko had gotten out of the way as Nene slowly moved toward the door. Her eyes were still wide, and a look of horror had played across her features. Daley came up behind her and gently put an arm around her shoulders, guiding her out the door.

In the dayroom beyond, the usual chatter had slowly fallen silent as people took in the sight of their usually perky computer hacker slowly making her way across the floor, tears streaking her face as she slowly shook her head in denial. The sound of arguing in the Chief's office had tapered off as he realized there was no sound from the dayroom floor, and Roger had seen the Chief stand at his door, a look of anger on his face. -Not for Nene,- Roger realized absently. -But at whoever would do this to her.-

Halfway to the door, Nene had turned and buried her face in Daley's chest, her cries of pain finally given voice. Daley hadn't hesitated, swiftly picking her up and carrying her out the door and down to the parking garage.

The silence in the building had been deep.

-I didn't realize how much they all care about her,- Roger thought as the car sped through another intersection, Daley using the siren to run a red light. -She's always just there, always ready with a joke and a helping hand, and doesn't seem to have a care in the world.-

He thought to the look of sympathy and rage on the faces of the men in the motor pool. -They don't even know what happened. But if it has a name, and they're pointed in that direction, I pity the person who caused this. They'll tear the guy apart.-

The muffled sobs from the girl in the car with them was the only counterpoint to the engine as the cruiser sped toward the hospital.

* * *

Thursday, October 22, 2037, 2:45 PM
Kawakita General Hospital, Megatokyo

Sylia Stingray walked quickly down the corridor, the rest of the people around her a blur. She ignored offers of help and requests for information, following the floor map she'd pulled earlier, which told her which operating theatre Mackie had been taken into.

As she entered the emergency area waiting room, an attendant looked up and made his way over to her. "Ms. Stingray-san?" he began, attempting to break through her focused anger. "You need to wait here," he said as the woman continued to walk in the direction of the operating rooms. "You can't go any further, Ms. Stingray-san! The operating theatre must be kept sterile!"

He couldn't have said what prompted him to use that argument, but it seemed to have the desired effect. Sylia stopped cold, balancing for a long moment between a need to see her brother and the attendant's concerned voice. Then something seemed to pass out of her, and her eyes looked over at the nervous medical attendant. "You will tell me the minute the operation is completed." The statement was more of a command than a request, but the attendant merely bowed obsequiously and gestured to a side room.

"Of course, Ms. Stingray-san. Please, I have had a private room set aside for you and anyone else with you. Please wait in there. I will return with news as soon as we have any."

Sylia allowed herself to be maneuvered into the richer executive waiting area, usually reserved for corporate bigwigs and powerful stockholders. -But that's what I am,- she thought distractedly as the attendent closed the door behind her. She made her way over to the tinted window and stared out over the park behind the hospital as she crossed her arms and tried to keep her composure. -I'm a quietly rich tycoon with half a dozen businesses and a hospital in my back pocket.-

The thought filled her with both despair and anger as she considered it. -I've frittered away so much time I could have spent with Mackie.- She looked up at the neutral ceiling tiles as the soft whir of the air conditioning droned in the background. -I've been a rotten sister...-

The door opened, causing Sylia to turn in surprise, as Inspector Wong, his new partner, and Nene came into the room. The red-haired girl clearly needed the Inspector's help standing and he led her over to a chair, where she collapsed, curling up on herself and crying quietly.

With a pang of self-recrimination, Sylia quickly made her way to Nene's side, kneeling down and spreading her overcoat on the grieving girl. "Don't worry, Nene," she said softly, stroking the younger girl's hair. "Mackie will be fine."

Nene swallowed a few times, and looked up at her friend, face streaked with tear tracks. "Y-you sure?"

"Yes," Sylia said, putting as much conviction as she could into that one word. "I've spoken with Kou, and he says the shot wasn't life-threatening. He'll be in pain for a while," she continued, a slightly more upbeat tone in her voice, "But he'll be fine."

"He'll be in pain," Nene whispered, her normal mock growl a faint echo this time. "I'll make him suffer for putting me through this!"

Sylia smiled slightly and stroked the tangled mess of red hair gently. "We'll get through this Nene. We always do." She received a quiet noise from Nene she chose to interpret as positive. Leaving the girl with Roger, she stepped away and went back to the window, Daley following.

"So," Daley began. "since I doubt an investigation has opened yet-"

"Please, Inspector," Sylia interrupted, holding up her hand in denial. "No questions right now." She looked over at him and held his eyes for a long second. "We don't know a lot anyway. Linna was the target, they missed, and the bullet hit Mackie instead. The building has been closed and sealed, although there've been so many people walking around the showroom floor that I doubt you'll find anything useful."

"And the bullet?"

Sylia shook her head. "Kou looked for it afterward while security was arranging transport for Linna. Although he found where it lodged in the bottom of the nutrient trough, the bullet itself was gone. It hasn't turned up in the filters yet, but when it does, I'll pass it on to you."

Daley nodded and leaned back, eyes half-closed in thought. "So someone tried to kill your friend Ms. Yamazaki. The Loon company is only just recently started." He looked over at her. "Aside from where I think you got the name from, and how many people he's annoyed while he was here, who would have targeted such a new startup?"

Sylia looked over at Nene where Roger was trying - in a lame sort of way - to coax conversation out of the female officer. "Just about anyone in the business with flexible morals." She glanced over at Daley. "If the technology pans out the way I believe it will, Loon's ecological maintenance plant life stands to make hundreds of billions of yen each year, possibly indefinitely. There are a lot of companies which would line up for the chance to disrupt such an undertaking."

Daley whistled softly. "That's a... very persuasive argument. So, any ideas who it might be?"

"Not yet," Sylia said softly, an hit of anger in her voice. "But I will have some soon."

Daley's slow inrush of breath alerted Sylia that she was being perhaps a little too visible in her intentions. She looked over at Daley, and smiled tightly. "Of course, I'll make my findings available to you as well, Inspector."

Daley nodded, for once all business. "I'd appreciate it Ms. Stingray. And while I can appreciate your feelings in the matter considering what just happened, I'd encourage you not to try anything outside the law on your own. Leave the matter to the professionals, Ms. Stingray-san," he finished as she regarded him levelly, eyes full of dangerous speculation. "No matter what else," he finished in a low voice, "You're too close to this one."

She held his eyes for a long second, and nodded fractionally. "No promises, Inspector. But I'll think on what you've said." With that, she turned away and walked back to Nene, the image of total control.

Daley let out a quiet breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. -How did you do this?- Daley thought in Leon's direction, all the way over in Osaka. -I can't believe I just threatened the most dangerous mercenary in the city and got away with it.-

He opened the top two buttons on his pink silk shirt, and fanned himself with it absently as he considered his former partner. Suddenly, his eyes widened, and he stopped. -Oh, no. I'm pretty sure no one's told them.- He swallowed nervously as he considered what he was about to let loose on Megatokyo. -What he's gonna do is nothing compared to what his wife's gonna do to the scum that did this.-

Stepping away from the window, he made his way across the room, pulling his cell phone out, and flipping it open. Pausing only to let Linna Yamazaki and a quiet bodyguard past, he stepped out, reaching for the autodial.

-They're really not gonna like this.-

* * *

Linna stepped into the room as Kou held the door open for her, breezing past the distracted chief inspector. She made her way immediately to Nene, who sat curled up in a chair, one of Sylia's expensive light dress coats draped over the young cyber hacker.

"Nene, are you okay?"

The redhead slowly looked up at her, a shaky smile on her face. "Hi. I'll be o-okay, I think." She swallowed as another shaky sob drew more tears from her, trailing down her face to vanish into the coat. "Thanks."

Linna leaned forward and gathered the younger girl into her arms, holding her tight. "He'll be fine, Nene! And when he's better you can beat him up again for putting you through this!"

Nene's shaky laugh eased the tension inside her as Linna let the younger girl go and tried to straighten her hair. "You should find a comb, you know. This is a total mess."

Nene smiled weakly and curled back up in the chair, head resting on an arm. "I will. Thanks, Linna."

The young CEO stood and with another supportive smile, made her way over to where Sylia stood, pouring herself a cup of tea from what looked like a half dozen expensive carafes. "Sylia," she began softly. "I-"

Sylia looked around and held up her hand in a warding gesture. "No, Linna. It wasn't your fault. You didn't do anything wrong." She went back to the tea as Linna seemed to relax a little more. "What happened has no bearing on us, Linna," she continued quietly and after a moment, held out the cup to Linna. "We're practically family. And I'd like to keep it that way."

Linna took the cup, a small smile of pleasure on her face as she watched Sylia prepare another. "Thanks, Sylia. That... means a lot."

She watched as the older woman took a sip and sighed softly. "It will take a lot more than this to drive a wedge between us all," she said, as a dangerous light began to glitter in her eyes. "As the people who did this to us are about to discover."

"Do you know who it was?"

"I have a theory," Sylia began. "I think it may have been the same assassin who killed Reika's grandfather earlier this year. Loon Enterprises was his last great foray into speculative botany, and certain factions within the Hou Bang are currently trying to consolidate their position. Beginning with the assassination of her grandfather, more and more of Reika's family interests are losing their foundations, being bought out, or run out of business. I suspect a new family is about to take over the leadership. The 'Chang' group is about to have a new name and a new face."

"And they're destroying everything her grandfather had a hand in so Reika won't have any friends to turn to, right?"

"That's my guess, yes." Sylia looked over at the others as the door opened again, and an attractive young blonde in a business suit stepped in, took in the scene, and stood to the side as an unexpected guest turned up on their doorstep. "Interesting," Sylia said softly.

Linna looked embarrassed. "I was on the phone with her when it happened. I guess it makes sense."

"True," the older woman agreed. "And you're going to have to make the most of it. I just wish you didn't have to do this right now." She looked over at Linna. "The company is one of several I own, and I'm sure she knows that. If you'd like..."

Linna shook her head firmly. "No. Loon is mine. At least," she temporized, glancing over at Sylia with a look of embarrassment, "until you decide you don't want me there. I'll go deal with this." Setting her shoulders, she walked calmly across the room to where Kathryn Madigan was being interviewed by Inspector Dalton.

-You don't know it yet,- Sylia thought with pride as Linna stepped easily into the conversation, -But you're in no danger of that happening. If you can discuss the betterment of your company in the face of what happened today, you're ready for anything.-

She felt the familiar pang of regret at her earlier thought. -I might not be the best sister he could have had,- she thought quietly. -But I'll work on it going forward. I'll leave the business to other people,- she continued, watching Madigan and Linna figuratively dance around each other as they worked out their agreement. -And concentrate on my family.-

* * *

Kate watched as the CEO of Loon and her boss spoke on the far side of the room. Ms. Stingray was all cool professionalism, with what looked like brief moments of sisterly worry peeking through every now and then. Inspector Dalton had been a small thorn in her side since she'd walked into the room. She hadn't thought it through before she arrived, but she she stepped in and saw the young police hacker curled up under a tasteful day coat, she'd made the connections.

"So you don't know anything more than that, Ms. Madigan?"

Kate looked coolly at the inspector, and continued the conversation. "I'm afraid not, Inspector. One moment I was speaking with Ms. Yamazaki-san, and the next there was a burst of static, then the line went dead. I believe she dropped her phone, and given the excitement of the moment, it was quite understandable."

"And how did you know how to come here?"

Kate gave the inspector one of her icy stares. "Really, Inspector, try to be less obvious. I knew what was going on because we were in delicate negotiations, and Ms. Yamazaki-san called me back to confirm there had been an incident. Being the conscientious person I am, I immediately offered to help, and when that was proven not to be necessary, I felt compelled to appear in person, to offer my best wishes to Ms. Yamazaki-san and her friends."

Roger's eyes narrowed as he thought fast, trying to find a chink in the argument to dig deeper. As he began on his next line however, a second female voice cut across his own. "In point of fact, Inspector, I made certain Ms. Madigan-san knew exactly what had happened, since I didn't want the loss of communication to indicate haphazard or sloppy business practices by my own company. Millions of Yen have been lost in similar incidents in the past, and my own company was not going to add to that statistic."

Kate nodded courteously to Linna as the other CEO took up a position roughly opposite Roger. The police inspector, feeling a little like he was in the middle of a shooting match, decided to make a graceful exit. "Very well, Ms. Madigan," he finished, putting away his chip recorder. "If you remember anything else, please let us know right away." At Madigan's cool nod, he turned to Linna. "And I'd like to have a word with you later, to discuss the incident in greater detail."

"My secretary will of course be able to help you find a time to schedule an interview, Mr. Dalton," Linna replied coolly, much to Kate's secret delight. "Until then, please excuse us. This opportunity to conclude our initial conversation should not be missed, and for obvious confidentiality reasons, I'd appreciate it if you stepped out of the room."

Roger gave her a long look before nodding and stepping back. "Very well, Ms. Yamazaki. Please let me know when you can be available for the follow-up investigation."

Linna offered another cool nod as the police inspector left the room. As the door closed, Kate's smile turned a touch warmer, and she regarded the young CEO appraisingly. "Very nice. You definitely have the makings of a very successful company director."

Linna looked a little worried as the two of them stepped over to a far corner, Jenny and Kou a pair of professional bookends as they maintained a safe zone between the two CEO's and the rest of the room. "I just hope I didn't make him too angry. He's Nene's friend, after all."

Kate shrugged dismissively. "It goes with the job. One of the things you pick up fast is that most of the world really doesn't like people like us. We make decisions that affect far too many people's lives for them to be comfortable with us holding that much authority. They suspect cover-up and conspiracy at every turn. Of course," she continued, a sly smile working its way onto her face, "The fact that we just jointly conspired to not tell him what happened on the phone doesn't help."

Linna shrugged, leaning against a bookshelf with the appearance of casual relaxation. "It had no bearing on their work, and it's private, besides. They didn't need to know."

"Exactly. That's what I've been telling them for years, now."

"The difference," Linna pointed out, "is that usually that's not true where a certain megacorporation is concerned."

Kate chuckled and wagged her finger. "Now, now. Is that any way to treat the person you're hitting up for an indecent amount of money?"

"Depends on the person," Linna returned, grinning. She was beginning to enjoy this, the immediate trauma of her experience fading as her mind began to relax and stretch out to embrace this opportunity. "I mean, I wouldn't try this with Quincy, no. But Quincy didn't have a friend he spent Fridays with watching movies."

"And on that basis, you felt that it would be safe to dial the private cell number of said best friend's movie partner?"

Linna worked that line through for a long moment, before nodding. "Exactly. Besides," she continued in a more serious tone of voice, "Lisa told me that Doug was impressed with you. A lot. You stood up against Quincy when you had no reason to expect to walk away from it. That meant a lot to him." She looked down at a book binding, finger teasing the fraying edge. "I've come to believe in second chances lately," she confessed, as Kate listened carefully. "I've come to believe that people, places... even entire worlds can be given another chance if they want it badly enough."

She gestured out the window. "The people out there don't have it on the authority I do that Earth can't sustain itself anymore. You look at the carefully massaged numbers and the cheery politicians talking about world renewal efforts, and what you don't hear is that it's too little, and too late. Without what we're doing, we don't stand a chance, and I know it."

Kate's eyes widened slowly as Linna's impassioned speech caught at her. "Who's authority do you have that on, anyway?"

Linna looked Kate in the eye, and said in a very soft tone of voice, "You know exactly who. And what he expects of us who live here."

Kate looked away, eyes half closed in thought as her mind raced with tremendous speed. "GENOM is not like any other company you could do business with. We're going to need some kind of physical commitment to keep the board's teeth off of you. If they think I've got you where I want you, they'll ignore you for fear of drawing my attention. But they're going to need something."

Linna nodded. "So how about this? Loon is fronting all the development costs anyway, and we've got test samples already prepared. What we need is some way to fast-track the approval phase. We can't afford to waste fifty years getting it 'approved' only to have the world die on us in the meantime."

Kate nodded thoughtfully. "Do-able. But if we do, and an unexpected flaw shows up in the design?"

"Not likely. Not impossible, I agree, but the organics we're building have the benefit of a lot of prior work put into their genetic sequencing. They'll work on the first pass."

"And who provided the early work? While you may have corporate secrets and all that, I need to know what kind of potential legal issue you could be drawing GENOM into."

The younger CEO smiled and tilted her head. "Again, who do you think?"

That decided it for Kate, who nodded, and stared hard at a neutral point on the far wall. Absolute Good seemed to echo in her head once again.

"If the organics do behave the way you're saying, what are you offering to GENOM aside from preferential customer status?"

The younger girl smiled slightly as Kate made the assumed close. "Well, aside from that," the two girls nodded to each other slightly at the assumed guarantee, "What I'd offer GENOM is preferred status when it comes to licensing the production of these organics. They still get manufactured under our logo, and GENOM product packaging on any of our organics you make cannot make it appear that we are a subsidiary of your company. We also will insist it be a non-exclusive licensing agreement, so as not to preclude us doing business with other corporations or governments.

"In return, you get access to our product lines, the opportunity to work with us in future joint projects further developing the work, and the opportunity to market our products to your own customer base. Providing you pay the appropriate licensing fees and royalties on sales, of course."

Kate nodded at the points as they were mentioned, and smiled again at the final comment. "Absolutely, Ms. Yamazaki-san. We at GENOM are very keen on seeing to it that royalties and property rights are scrupulously observed. And as you would be the sole owner of the organic properties we're discussing, we'd be just as firm in protecting your rights to own the properties as we would our own. It's just good business sense."

Linna nodded and pulled out a small datapad. "In that case, I think we have a good starting point. We'll let our legal departments work out the physical details. Mind you," she said as Kate took the datapad and tucked it in her pocket, "I intend to go over each line of the revised documents personally, multiple times to ensure it reads the way it's supposed to."

Kate smiled again nodded. "I intend to do the same. Again, that's just good business." She held out her hand to Linna. "And please, call me Kate. It's the least I can do for someone who has my private cell number, after all."

Linna's lips twitched. -I'm guessing Lisa's going to be having a talk with her friend soon about giving that number away.- She took the hand and nodded with an equal smile on her face. "I'll do that, if you'll call me Linna as well."

"Done," Kate released the hand and leaned back against the wall. "I hope you succeed, by the way," she said quietly as Linna relaxed slightly. "Our shared friend would have wanted this, I think."

Linna nodded and relaxed into inconsequential small talk with Kate as inside, her mind reeled. -My first high-profile handshake-only agreement with a major megacorporation! And GENOM!- She tried to not show the battle of nerves taking place in her stomach as the aftereffects of the tense conversation began to work their way through her. -I was wrong. Sylia isn't the one about to have kittens. I am!-

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 10:30 AM
Kawakita General Hospital,Megatokyo

He awoke to the sound of soft chirps.

-Whaa?- he thought quietly, and his fuzzy mind tried to focus, to make this strange place make sense. -It's all white, and what's making those weird noises?-

Slowly, he moved his head over toward the chirping noise, and saw what looked like a bank of monitors. -Heart rate, EKG, blood pressure...- His mind trailed off as his memories started to come back to him.

-Oh yeah. I was shot.-

The thought wasn't particularly shocking. In fact, he felt rather proud that he immediately didn't lose it. -I saw the laser pointer,- he thought quietly, remembering the Garden. -I tried to warn Linna. There was a sound, and then everything got confusing...-

He turned in bed slightly, trying to make sense out of his jumbled memories. Doing this caused a mild spike of pain to ripple across his consciousness, but it seemed a distant thing, not entirely part of him. "Whaa?" he mumbled to himself.

"You're doped on half a dozen different things, kiddo," a throaty contralto answered him. "Don't try to move too much. You'll just embarrass yourself."

Mackie blinked a few times, and managed to get his eyes to focus on the girl sitting beside him. She was leaning with her elbows crossed on the bed, the curiously red-tinted eyes soft with suppressed mirth as she reached over and pulled his hair out of his eyes. "I see you're back with us," she said simply.

"Yeah," he mumbled quietly. "Kinda. I feel all..."

"Like you're wrapped up in cotton candy, and everything's painted in pastel shades?"

The young man's voice huffed in weak laughter. "Yeah. Kind of like that."

"Been there, done that." Priss leaned back and rested her hand feather-light on his right hip. "You'll get used to it. Especially now that you've taken my job, as the one who gets shot up on a regular basis."

Mackie laughed a bit more, ending in a sharp hiss as his hip protested again.

"Sorry."

"No," the young man said, shaking his head. "It's okay. It feels good to laugh."

Priss smiled again and pulled back. "Well, it's good to see you awake again. Don't scare us like that! Leon was as tense as I've ever seen him all the way back from Osaka." She leaned back, the tension in her frame slowly dissipating as she continued. "And Jennifer! Oh have you ever set yourself up for my daughter. She's been reading up on gunshot patients, and not only is she now the world's leading medical expert on rehabilitation, she's also got a stack of bedtime stories from here to the ceiling!"

Mackie smiled dutifully at the sally, and tried not to let his own feelings show. -That's herself she's talking about,- he realized distantly. -She's doing what she always does, letting others show her feelings for her.- He leaned back in the soft pillows and said nothing as Priss continued to fill the silence with her rich voice. As she spoke, a nurse entered, checked the monitors, and added a quick shot of some kind to the IV drip, then left.

"Mackie?"

The young man started and looked over at her. "Wha?? Oh, sorry Priss! I was just sort of..."

The young woman shook her head. "No worries. You'll be lucky to string two paragraphs together as long as they keep you on this stuff. I get it." She watched as Sylia's brother smiled and leaned back in the pillows again, eyes slightly unfocused. "Can I do anything for you while you're awake? Do you need anything?"

Mackie looked over at her again, as the playful smile on her face at her choice of words belied the serious tone or the concern in her eyes. "Sing for me, Priss? Please?"

Priss' smile became more genuine, as she brushed his hair back again. "You don't have to ask twice, kiddo. Rest now."

Mackie leaned back, eyes growing heavy as the singer's voice took him away from his pain, and to a place he couldn't have recalled by the time he finally fell asleep.

A glass show window, a crowd of taxis...
The noise of a neon street that never sleeps...
Jacket in hand, I dashed out into midnight,
my flushed body filled with uncontrollable energy.

In his mind, images jumbled together in a pastel kind of way. The MADOX armor and the fight against the boomer, strangely silent in his cotton-shrouded memory. The memory of Nene in the vehicle bay, vibrant and incredibly desirable in a moment when all he wanted to be was angry with her.

Even if I slip through the cracks, I'll get my way.
I don't want to be beaten now.
Knock down! Even though I stumble over
the fence of loneliness.

The incredible feeling of her pressed against him as they held each other for what seemed like hours, her hands tightening around his neck whenever he made to let her go, her face cradled against his chest as she held on to him tightly.

Chase the Dream
I always want to believe...

The talk with Sylia afterward, and her tentative agreement to let him use the Archive. Nene's advice afterward, and his heart-stopping moment of courage as he ducked in and kissed her. The feel of his lips brushing hers as time seemed to stop for a long moment, the redhead's eyes wide even as her lips parted, so incredibly soft...

Chase the Dream ...
in the strength that rests within me.

The cool trickle of the new chemicals in his bloodstream, carrying their own message to him, speaking of potential, and power, and possibilities, if he only decided what he wanted most.

Today's tears lead to joy.
Failure leads to success.
I'm sure it will always be that way.
I don't wanna say 'Give up.'

Mackie's consciousness faded the rest of the way into dream as the singer's voice lulled him deeper into dreams of Nene, power suits, and possibilities...

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 11:00 AM
IDEC Research Laboratory, Megatokyo

"So, what have we got so far?"

Tony flipped through a stack of printouts, pausing only to yawn as he fought his way to consciousness. Ilya was in better shape across the conference table, showing less strain from the thirty hour day they'd just put in. They'd spent all of Friday, and a good chunk of Saturday poring over video data, trying to come to grips with the returned Sailor girl.

"It's preliminary at best," Tony began, causing Ohara to gesture with a keep-going gesture. "The information is spotty, because so many boomers were destroyed by the Knight Sabers and the sailor girl. But a couple of things stood out.

"First, she's a lot more dangerous than the last video recordings we have of her. The police data doesn't have what came later, most of which we got from a ratbot our boomers scavenged yesterday in the sewers." He paused as Ohara winced, remembering that one. Sending in three of their leftover 55C capture boomers disguised as maintenance personnel had been risky. But the results had been worth it.

Operating on the assumption that any remaining ratbots would have behaved like normal rats after the fighting and gone to ground nearby, they'd sent in the boomers equipped with a low-frequency recall signal, based on the subcarrier attached to the telemetry they'd gotten from the police.

It had worked effortlessly. Three rats appeared out of nowhere, and waited patiently while the boomers retrieved them and returned to the lab. After downloading their memories, Ohara had built up a much more complete picture of the fight in the sewers, most of which they'd just finished watching.

"We still don't have a better visual of who the senshi girl is," Tony continued after a long sip of his cold coffee and a grimace. "We need better coffee," he griped absently, causing Ohara to look over at him in annoyance.

"When we're done, you can crash out in the dorms out back. Until then, could you stay focused on the sailor girl?"

"Uh, yeah." Tony adjusted the printouts, and looked up. "The thing is, we've got confirmed recordings, no matter how incomplete or fuzzy they are, of her doing four things which defy the laws of physics. And I mean defy them on a Visitor scale."

"Such as?" Daniel leaned forward as Tony began to tick items off on his fingers.

"First, there's the original police footage, where if we are to believe what we saw, she transformed from a presumably ordinary girl into a superhero in a sailor suit pretty much on the spot."

"And without special equipment," Ilya added.

Tony nodded. "Exactly. The second item is again from the police footage where she apparently motions with her hands, and the boomers' guns point at each other. Even allowing for it being some kind of telekinesis," he continued, as Ohara made to interject, "It's still something we can't do, and can't explain. So it still qualifies."

"Okay," Daniel allowed. "I'll buy that. What's the third?"

"Later in the fight," Tony continued, flipping through a few pages and stopping at a printout with several pictures on the page. "She rushes a second pair of boomers, and as far as I can tell, just makes the brief motions of slicing with a sword of some kind. That's all. There's no sword in her hand before, and none after, But as soon as she does this, she somehow cuts through the arm of a boomer, effectively taking its weapon away from it."

"More telekinesis," Ilya suggested, his deep voice rough from lack of sleep.

"Possibly. But while two out of the four attacks could be construed as variants on telekinesis, there's the fourth attack, which is like nothing I've ever seen! She actually grabbed an energy blast from the 12J, and held it! Then when the machine shot again, she just added it to the rest! Then if that wasn't enough, she compressed it down to a pellet, and fired it back at the boomer!" Tony looked up from his printouts, and tossed them on the table. "If she can do that, Daniel, I'm out of ideas. Frankly, I think we should be having as little to do with her as possible. Anyone who can pluck energy bolts out of the air and throw them back at me is someone I don't want to mess with. And neither should you!"

Ilya nodded slowly. "Is in agreement with Tony, Daniel. Girl is of unprecedented power, second only to Visitor in degree of strangeness." He looked down at his own mess of datapads and printouts spread around him. "Of secondary data there was almost none, as none of those machines were equipped to look for the things we are interested in."

"Almost none?"

The big Russian nodded slowly. "Da. There is one detail which was caught by a boomer which was only wrecked, not decapitated." He tapped a button, and the screen on the far side lit up, and played a section of video. "This, the boomer's memories just before destruction."

Daniel and Tony watched, eyes wide as the sailor girl cavorted effortlessly across the screen. Jumping from objects projecting up to fifty feet off the ground, she flipped, spun, and whirled across the battle zone with an easy grace that belied the seriousness of what she was doing. Every time she brought her hands together, a small sliver of blue energy would coalesce in between them, and either a boomer would be flung back (not always out of the fight, but certainly slowed down), or a chunk of masonry would explode as the machine got out of the way.

"Fighting against boomers-turned-mercenaries she is. Unfair their weaponry is, and yet, successful they are not. Not once do they even come close to hitting her. In fact," he continued as the girl executed a long arc across the zone to land on a gutted lamp tower, only to make a grabbing motion and throw to one side. Suddenly, for no reason they could see, the boomer whose eyes they were looking out from vaulted sideways at tremendous speed, and smashed into a wrecked building, causing the video to flicker, and go out. "Girl seems to possess additional telekinetic power, in addition to almost prescient ability to know where enemies are and where she should not be. Is impressive. Is also dangerous to hunt. I would encourage you to heed Tony, Daniel."

Daniel leaned back in his chair, and looked at his two tired experts. "Bottom line it for me. What do I tell Madigan?"

"First," Tony began, taking up the gauntlet, "You tell her that this woman is far more dangerous than the Visitor." At Ohara's raised eyebrow, Tony picked up the printout and waved it at him. "This girl has unexplainable telekinetic and possibly 'magical' powers, same as the Visitor." As Daniel nodded, Tony continued.

"The problem is that the Visitor was mostly a loner. And he didn't get along very well with the Knight Sabers." He looked over as Ilya took a deep breath in sudden understanding. "Exactly. This girl not only gets along well with the Knights, she clearly considers them allies. Possibly even friends.

"If we try to do anything about her, not only will we have her to deal with, but the Knights as well. And if we try to do something about the mercenaries first, there's a really good chance she'll take us on personally, and I for one am not volunteering to wind up like that boomer squad!"

Daniel bit his lip and nodded slowly. "All good points. What about peaceful contact? Is there any chance we can just walk up to her and hire her?"

"What chance?" Ilya leaned back and gestured at the monitor. "Until earlier this week, no indications had we that she was still here. What do we do? Take out ad in paper?"

Daniel leaned back, smiling. "Actually, that's not a bad idea, Ilya. You say the Knight Sabers treat her as an ally?" He looked over at Tony for confirmation who shrugged and gestured to his much-abused printout.

"Their behavior shows it, even if it's never said in as many words."

"Okay, then. The Knights have been getting job offers concealed in unremarkable-sounding newspaper advertisements for years now. I can cipher a message and run it through the want ads, that says we want to hire a friend of theirs."

"And if she says no?"

"In that case," Daniel said, looking over at Tony, "I'll have to come up with another way of arranging an interview."

Tony just shook his head and stepped away from the table. Daniel watched him and the other researcher take their leave, as thoughts began to chase themselves through his tired brain.

-Hiroe...-

* * *

"It's not healthy, you know."

"Da. But what you want to do? You want to tell him he's obsessing?"

"Not me." Ohara leaned against the elevator shaft and waited for the short trip to the floor to end. "She's gone, and he's better for it. This obsession of his is going to wind up with him in the hospital. Just you wait."

"Am not intending to wait."

Ohara looked sideways at his colleague. "Meaning?"

"Meaning we need to set him up. Nice companionship, good dinner. Will do him good."

The older administrator snorted and stumbled out toward the semi-detached dorms at the small corporate park the IDEC labs were located these days. "You want to get him a date, you do it. Me, I'm catching up on my nap time."

"Fine, fine! Enjoy the sleep!" Ilya rubbed his hands together as he headed into his own dorm. "Now, to work!"

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 12:00 PM
Lisa's Apartment, Megatokyo

"Mou!" Lisa darted across the room, and slapped her computer's answering service. "I'm here already. Stop flashing at me!"

The last few days had been hectic. She'd started with the highly embarrassing night in the basement of Sylia's business, practicing ways of reversing her transformation. She'd finally figured out a way. -Well, two or three, I think,- she temporized. She'd gotten frantic near the end, and had been doing a combination of calisthenics, crazy command phrases, and gymnastics. Somehow in the middle of it all, her fuku had reverted to her original outfit.

Problem was, she wasn't sure which technique had done it.

She'd also had a small crisis of sanity afterward. As she'd left the store a few hours after the others had left, she'd taken the gloves, boots and domino mask with her. -But all my clothing was restored,- she thought, eyes drifting sideways to the drawer where the other clothing was stored. -So where did all my clothing go when I changed, and why do I have it all back again even when some of the other stuff wasn't present when I changed back?-

Her thoughts paused for a deep breath, and she grinned at the mental imagery. -I even think too fast,- she thought with a small giggle.

After that, she'd gotten a call from a friend of hers out of the city about a small motorboat that had come ashore under mysterious circumstances. Feeling that a day trip out of the city was exactly what she needed to settle her nerves, she headed out of town, and out of contact range of her usual equipment.

-Well, except the watch,- Lisa amended again, -But that hasn't flashed in ages.-

The motorboat story had led her in some surprising directions, and it was with gigabytes worth of information she wanted to go over with Sylia that she had come bursting into her apartment. This was definitely worth being out of touch for a few days!

Pressing 'play' on the recorder, she went into the kitchen to sort out some groceries she'd picked up on the way back. Halfway through, she paused as a message sent a chill right through her.

"Lisa? Lisa can you hear me? It's Reika. You've got to get to Kawakita General as soon as you can. Mackie's been shot!"

Lisa turned to look at the recorder, and dashed back to it. -Two days- she thought angrily, reading the display. -This happened two days ago, and I didn't know!-

The recordings continued on. Yesterday's had been more of the same, again asking where she was. Finally a message earlier this morning. "Lisa? It's Nene! Call when you get in, okay? Mackie's in intensive care, and they say he's going to be fine, but it would really mean a lot if you could stop by, okay? Bye!"

Lisa fumbled with her cell phone as her thoughts chased around in her head. -Nene must be beside herself. She finally got to first base with Mackie, and now this!- Mentally she nodded as she considered the state of her friend. -She's probably blaming herself somehow, as if their new relationship is her fault, or something stupid like that.- She waited while the other phone rang.

"Hai."

"Nene?" Lisa's eyes widened at the almost lackluster response to the phone call. -She's hurting a lot more than she's letting on.- "I just got in. What's going on?"

"Lisa?" The voice on the other end began to pick up. "Lisa. where have you been? I've been trying to reach you all day!"

"I was out of town," the reporter admitted. "I didn't have my cell with me because I knew I'd be out of coverage. Who did this? Do we know?"

"Not yet," Nene said quietly. "Reika thinks it may be the Hou Bang, trying to strike at her bases of support. Loon is one of them, to hear her talk about it. I'm really not sure. Sylia and Linna are looking into all that."

"Linna?" Lisa privately kept her misgivings to herself. -Normally Nene would be all over this, and probably have the answers faster than anyone else. If she's abandoning her work, this must really be hurting her.-

"Yeah," Nene continued quietly. "Apparently she's been talking with Madigan, of all people! Apparently they're working together or something. I didn't get all of it."

Lisa bit her lip and recalled the earlier message she'd glossed over. It had been recorded the same night Kate had been rescued, and she'd been pretty sure the phone number hadn't been on the agenda. -It will be by now, though,- she thought, momentarily subdued. -I hope she isn't mad about that.-

"Where are you," she asked after a moment of awkward silence.

"At the hospital," Nene answered, none of her usual perkiness showing. "I'm just waiting for Jennifer to come back so we can go in and see him again."

"Jennifer? Priss is here?"

"Yeah, Leon showed up the other day with Priss and Jen. They've been keeping me company."

Lisa's eyes narrowed at that admission. -Has she even been home?- On the heels of that, another thought, which gave her a moment of quirky humor.

-Mackie is sooo sunk!-

"Okay, I'm on my way over now," Lisa promised. "Be there soon!"

"'Kay," Nene agreed, and hung up.

The reporter quickly dashed into her massive closet, sorting through clothes. -This... and this, but not this, and that goes here...- She quickly threw on her selection, and dashed out the door, pausing briefly only to retrieve her camera and a copy of the data she'd gathered for Sylia.

The trip to the hospital took forever. Unlike the other girls, Lisa still used the buses and trains for most of her getting-around. -I'll have to look at a car, I guess,- she mused as she waited for the train to reach her stop. -Or maybe a cycle. They fit in tighter places, and I can attach a couple panniers on the back to hold my stuff.-

Mentally, she considered the vidroms she'd seen of people experimenting with Doug's antigravity source data. So far, the number of "unauthorized aerial exhibits" had been minimal. The most entertaining she'd seen had looked like a large easy-chair with a sail on it. The guy who'd thrown it together had never taken it higher than about twenty feet however. He'd been too scared to go higher.

-But a bike equipped with that kind of stuff... I'd need a way to propel myself while airborne. It'd be cool though.-

Her mind flashed back to an urban legend still making rounds on the Net. Of a guy who'd supposedly strapped a military-grade missile onto a station wagon clear back at the turn of the century, and ignited it on a salt flat. Apparently, he'd failed to understand just how fast the car would go, or that the cliff up ahead wasn't getting out of his way. The car had made a very big mark on the cliff, as the story went.

-Even if it's just a tall tale, there's a lesson in that. I gotta make sure whatever I come up with won't fly out of control and smash into things just because I think it's cool to ride a flying cycle.-

The train stopped at her destination, and she quickly got off, heading in the direction of the hospital.

-I wonder if I could enchant it?-

Lisa got a really big grin on her face as she made her way toward the hospital, visions of mystical motorcycles driving along on invisible highways in mid-air floating through her head.

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 12:30 PM
Kawakita General Hospital,Megatokyo

Nene looked up from the magazine she'd been absently staring at. Jennifer snuggled a little deeper in her arms, causing the trim redhead to absently shift the way she was holding the younger girl, as Lisa jogged into the waiting room. Nene noted absently the close-fitting dark grey pants, equally dark dress, with a splash of dark maroon color in the scarf wrapped around her throat. The girl crossed quickly to Nene and softly sat down beside her, concern on her face.

"I'm okay," Nene whispered, as her friend pulled her into a long hug.

"When's the last time you got something to eat?" Lisa pulled back as she asked this, taking in the rumpled hair and dress shirt. Her uniform jacket could be seen peeking out behind her where it lay, a forgotten pillow for her or Jennifer.

"I'm okay," Nene repeated softly. "I just..." She paused, a look of misery on her face.

Lisa shook her head and pulled Nene closer. "You don't have to tell me. I get it." She laughed softly into her best friend's hair and pulled back to give the puzzled police girl a wry grin. "It's just not fair that they can do this to us when they fall down and hurt themselves, is it?"

Nene's muffled laugh brought a small grin of triumph to Lisa's face as the redhead continued to shake with quiet laughter as the tension eased out of her. "I must really look like a mess, huh?"

Lisa shrugged and reached down to stroke the sleeping girl's hair. "Kinda, yeah." She quirked another smile at the hacker's snort. "But I think you still have a couple changes of clothes over at my place from the Survivor Shot game we had last month. Tell you what." She looked up at Nene as Jennifer began to stir in her arms. "You take me in to see our resident klutz, and then I take you back to the apartment for a real meal, a shower, and maybe some sleep."

"Yes, Mom," Nene said meekly as Lisa swatted her playfully.

"They'll never find you over at my place, and I'll keep tabs on Mackie for you. Anything happens, I'll tell you. Okay?"

Nene nodded, a rueful look on her face. "Okay. I'll be nice." She looked over at the door down the hall where Lisa guessed Mackie was staying. "But if anything happens-"

"I'll call," Jennifer said quietly, eyes staring up at Nene with an uncharacteristically deep gravity. "Anything happens, I'll call right away."

Nene swallowed and hugged Jennifer tightly. "Thank you, Jennifer-chan."

The former sexaroid boomer hugged Nene back and swarmed off her lap and into a nearby chair. "Go on," she said, picking up a children's magazine. "I'm fine!"

Lisa laughed as Nene got up slowly and reached down to pick up Jennifer, who acquiesced after only a token resistance. "Uh huh, and Priss would have my hide if I left you alone in a waiting room. Come on, I'll take you in too."

Lisa followed Nene as she walked toward the private room door, pausing only to shake her hair free of Jennifer's helpful hands. The younger girl was trying to straighten Nene's hair into something resembling neatness, which was drawing another muffled laugh from the police girl. Jennifer, knowing she had a captive audience, continued to try tidying Nene's hair, despite the latter girl's attempts to move her head out of the way.

"Can you get the door for me?" Nene paused at the door and let Jennifer reach over for the doorknob with a small grin and a helpful nod. Halfway there, she stopped, and looked back at Nene with a reproachful look, drawing another laugh from the police girl. Lisa watched the byplay, a grin tugging her mouth as the door was opened and the trio entered the room.

In the small room, Mackie lay surrounded by medical monitors, several large vases of assorted flowers and plantlife decorating a side table. To the near side, a couple of discarded sketchbooks and artist's tools lay where Mackie had left them, and on a far table closer to the floor, a half-dozen story books better suited to a younger girl were stacked loosely.

The object of their interest was sketching in a notebook as they entered, and he looked up at them with a small smile, made a little less positive by the unfocused look in his eyes. -It's the drugs,- Lisa realized as Nene made a big show of settling Jennifer before turning to Mackie. -He's not entirely with us right now.-

"What are you working on?"

The young man smiled up at Nene, causing Lisa to catch her breath in wonder. The pure, open happiness that radiated from Mackie at Nene's presence was unmistakeable. The fact that it owed more to his lack of focus from all the drugs in his system didn't make it any less blinding in its intensity.

And Nene was acutely aware of it, of that Lisa was certain. The young engineer's response drew Nene into a distracted conversation, as the redhead found herself looking at his hands, the machines, and her own hands. Everywhere but into his eyes. She made the mistake of looking at them once, and what they'd been talking about had trailed away into silence for a long eternity.

Jennifer dropped a story book onto the table near Mackie's head, causing them all to jump slightly. "Sorry," she apologized as she hiked herself up onto a nearby stool. "But you promised me a story, and then you fell asleep again!" She fixed Mackie with a Look and screwed up her face into a pout any child would be proud of.

Mackie laughed softly and tousled her hair, getting a yipe of indignation from the little girl. "Yeah, I've been doing that a lot lately. So," he said, easing himself up into more of a sitting position. "What did you want me to read to you?"

Jennifer eagerly thrust her latest selection at the invalid and leaned close expectantly as Mackie began to open the book and read from the page Jennifer selected. As he did, Lisa watched as Nene leaned back, a troubled look on her face.

-Oh wow,- Lisa's only thought was as she absorbed the emotions in play in the last few minutes. Eyes narrowing, she stepped forward and put a hand on Nene's arm. "Mackie?"

Mackie paused where he'd been reading, Jennifer putting her finger on the page to mark the spot as he looked over at Lisa. "Yes, Lisa-chan?"

"I'm taking Nene back to my place to get some sleep and some dinner. If you need her for anything, give me a call and we'll see. Okay?"

Mackie's idiot grin returned as he ducked his head in embarassment for a moment. "Hai, Lisa-chan."

Nene looked bewildered as her friend packed up her stuff, and all but pulled her out of the room and out to the train station. She was silent all the way until they were on the train when she finally looked over at the somberly dressed reporter. "Thank you."

Lisa's eyes briefly tracked right to look at Nene and she grinned a little. "Sure. You looked like you needed it." Her grin widened a little more. "I haven't seen a girl look more like a deer in the headlights since Priss and Leon's wedding!"

Nene grumbled something which brought another chuckle from Lisa. "Did not."

"Did!"

"Did not!"

"Did, and you know it!"

Nene grumbled again and looked out the window. "See if I hack another computer for you," she groused as Lisa laughed.

* * *

"So how's the placement going?"

The feminine voice on the encrypted line was amused and surprised both. "We got a bit of luck, I think. It seems one of Megatokyo's favored sons had a bit of an accident and wound up in Kawakita. I made sure one of ours replaced some of his medication with the most promising of the compounds."

Baty paused, thoughtful. "If it works, aren't you just giving them another weapon for their arsenal?"

Ai shrugged and switched the phone to her other hand. "Possibly. But the whole point right now is visibility. No-one will be more visible than one of the people working on second-generation Boomer AI, especially if things turn out the way we want."

"True." Baty was silent for a long moment, then leaned back, the video pickup showing Ai's face alive with mischief and speculation.

"I wonder what he'll get?"

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 12:30 PM
Somewhere else entirely...

Somewhere else, three figures watched the unfolding drama and smiled.

"An awakening has begun for this place."

"True. There will be chaos however. Discord. Fear and uncertainty."

"They will emerge better for it," the youngest said with certainty. "Events set in motion are hardest to stop, and these events were set in motion a generation ago."

The sultry one of the trio paused thoughtfully. "And the One? Our tool interfered in their development. Introduced technology not of their own invention. What if he intervenes?"

The fairest of them shook her head after a moment. "Unlikely. He'll watch, and we'll advise. But he listens to Us, and will likely take Our advice. The human isn't taking advantage of them, has no plans to return, and the balance was necessary. I will tend to it."

"Very well then," the sultry voice acknowledged.

"Sure," the youngest agreed.

"So mote it be."

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 1:00 PM
Kawakita General Hospital, Megatokyo

Roger looked up as an unfamiliar form stopped in front of him. The officer, wearing what looked like a similar advanced tactical badge, sat down beside him and held out his hand. "Leon McNichol. I understand you're working with Daley now?"

The younger inspector took Leon's hand and gripped firmly for a moment, nodding. "Yes, I've just gotten started with him." He twitched his head in the rough direction of Mackie Stingray. "We're looking into what happened to him along with the other case we're handling."

Leon's eyes narrowed. "You think they're related?"

"Possibly." Roger flipped open his PDA cover and cued up the display. "Last week a medical sequencer was stolen along with a lot of apparently random medical supplies. A couple days later, the CEO of Genom is apparently kidnapped, although the corporation kept a pretty tight lid on that."

Leon nodded, leaning back, eyes tracking the ceiling tiles as he began to consider possbilities. "And?"

A click, and the display changed, bringing up more information. "According to the after-action report of what we found in the industrial park a few days ago, two boomer groups, the Knight Sabers, and possibly a fourth unidentified extra was involved in a fight which left the entire boomer assault group destroyed, and also destroyed an estimated thirty percent of the second assault group. No casualties or wounded from what we can tell among the Knights, however."

Leon looked over at Roger. "A fourth extra?"

The younger inspector cued up a video file, and passed it over to Leon. "We got this from a mercenary ratbot they were using to collect combat footage, presumably for later analysis. We can't make a lot out, but it seems to be the same kind of thing your friend from earlier this year was capable of."

The images played out on the screen as Leon nodded slowly. "Hai. This does seem to be the same kind of thing. But -"

"She's a girl, yes." Roger pulled out another sheaf of well-worn printouts. "We visited the IDEC labs the other day, and although their director tried to stonewall us, it was pretty clear he knew who that girl was when we played the video back. Daley's having us hold off for a day or two before we go back and shake them up, to see what they've learned."

Leon's eyes narrowed as he cued off the video replay. "I might just sit in on that one, if you don't mind. I'd like to have a long talk with Dr. Ohara."

"I think we can fit you in," a third voice drawled, causing Leon to look over with a half-grin on his face.

"You still don't know how to dress yourself, I see," Daley continued as Leon stood up and gripped an outstretched hand warmly. "Priss still choosing your clothes for you?"

"Not hardly, peacock," Leon countered as Daley took a step back and looked his friend over. "I'll have you know this jacket is genuine leather. Not some GENOM knock-off."

Daley pursed his lips as he ran a finger and thumb appraisingly up the leather jacket's front, a slight grin on his face as Leon's lips twitched. "So it is. I stand corrected. You do know how to put on a better show these days." Daley leaned close and threw an arm around his old partner's shoulders conspiratorially. "I approve. What do you say we nip out and spend some time getting together. Just for old time's sake?"

Leon rolled his eyes as Roger stifled laughter in the chair nearby. "Sorry, peacock, but I'm married now, you know. Which reminds me." Leon reached into his inner jacket pocket and pulled out a thick envelope, holding it teasingly up in Daley's face. "A certain someone asked me to pass this on to you."

Roger watched as his partner's face lit up in obvious pleasure as he took the package. Daley stopped midway through opening it, and looked suspiciously over at Leon. "So what does this have to do with your being married?"

Leon just winked at Daley and sauntered off down the hallway, motioning Roger to follow. The younger inspector got up and stepped around his now highly frustrated partner, shrugging apologetically as he followed Leon away. "Guess you'll just have to read it and find out," Leon called back.

A grumbling reply was the only answer as Daley pulled the first of four disks out and slid it into his PDA as the other two went into an unused meeting room.

As the door closed, Leon leaned back against the frame and laughed softly. "I've so wanted to do that to him for years now!" He looked over at Roger who lowered himself into a chair nearby, fighting to keep the grin under control as Leon walked over to another chair. "He kept twitting me about my relationships, and there really wasn't much I could do about it without it getting back to Priss. Revenge," he finished, as he eased himself down into his chair. "Is sweet."

Roger just shook his head in wonder as he pulled the PDA back out and thumbed the display up. "Now I know where he gets it from." Leon's amused grin drew another shake of the head out of the younger inspector.

"So where were we? You suggested the medical theft and the GENOM kidnapping were related, right?"

"I think so, yes." A couple taps, and the two crimes were highlighted on a small map of the industrial area. "The crimes occurred very close to each other, and we found a wrecked medical device in the after-battle mess whose serial numbers matched the stolen machine last week. We also found styrettes which appeared to have large quantities of artifical blood plasma in them. The kind boomeroids would use."

Leon nodded slowly. "You figure the rumors of Ms. Madigan are right, then?"

The younger inspector shrugged and leaned back. "We know she was in the room when this Largo character shot the tower with one of the orbital cannons. And we know there's not a scratch on her. And we know she was 'absent' for about half a year before she was seen again. It could be a very good regeneration job, but then again, we also know what kind of man Quincy was."

Leon nodded soberly, glancing reflexively out to where the shadow of the Tower could barely be made out in the skyline. "Yeah. Why wait for nature when the whole thing could be sped up with boomer parts." He leaned forward, arms crossed and pulled the PDA over to him, looking down at the screen. After a moment, his eyes grew flinty. "What's this about Yoshida getting out of jail?"

"It came through as an executive order from a subcommittee reporting directly to the Diet earlier that day. A couple people were heavily investigated but ultimately, no one got sacked over it. They claimed 'irregular legalities' regarding the way the evidence was collected. Apparently they claimed that since the Knight Sabers were all over the tower that night, and it was a known fact that one of them had hacked the video and computer system, there was no way to definitively prove what was Yoshida's and what was their doing."

"So they let him out."

"Yeah."

The chief inspector drew in a slow breath and mentally counted backward from ten before he trusted himself to speak again. "Where did he go?"

"We don't know. All we do know is a rental car picked him up at the entrance to the prison, and drove off with him. He hasn't been seen since."

Leon looked over at Roger and took another long breath. "He'll hit the tower again, you know. We barely escaped with the Knights' help last time. No matter what else he does, he'll hit the AD Police again."

"Hai," Roger said quietly. "We know. And we've been training against another tower infiltration for a while now. Given how psychotic he is, the Chief figures he'll try the exact same thing again, just to prove we can't defend against it."

"No..." Leon paused, considering the man from several angles. "He won't do the exact same thing. It'll be similar, but different enough that you won't see it coming. It'll have the same effect however, which is the whole point." He looked up at Roger as the younger man nodded slowly, absorbing the intelligence. "I hope you're ready for him."

"We'll manage. And if you're still here, we'll save some of him for you, too."

Leon snorted, leaning back in the chair. "I'll hold you to that. Now, where were we. And why's that in the datapad with this other stuff?"

"I'm collecting a lot of things that seem to have no bearing lately. I can't quite pin it down, but something about all this seems related." Roger shrugged. "Maybe it's just that it's all happening now instead of some point later on. But I have the strangest feeling it all ties in."

"Listen to that feeling," Leon encouraged, passing the PDA back. "Learn to hear it when it's whispering to you. It'll keep you alive in the tight spots, and you might just take a few people down in the process."

Roger smiled and cued up another report as the two bent over the display again.

* * *

Priss walked down the hospital corridor with Sylia. The two women were lost in their own thoughts, mostly to do with how much each of them had changed in the last half year. -She's gotten so much more in touch with herself,- Priss thought quietly. -With her feelings with...-

-Let's face it,- she thought, lips twisting slightly as the thought worked its way through her. -With her humanity. She's more aware of herself as a person these days. I like it.-

Sylia noticed the slight twitch on her friend's face, but didn't comment upon it. -She's quieter,- Sylia thought to herself. -More focussed, more intense. Like she's saving the energy she used to just throw around for when she can make it count.- Mentally she compared this woman to the hurt girl she'd enlisted at a crime scene the night her first boyfriend had been murdered.

-There's no comparison. And I'd never have imagined that emotionally scarred young girl would turn into this intense young woman.-

Sylia stopped at a door and looked up as Priss put a hand across the doorway. "Sylia," she said softly, "What's the matter? Mackie's fine, Jen's keeping an eye on him, and Nene's getting some sleep over at Lisa's. We're hurt but mending. So what's so important you had to drag me down here? And why are you so mopey all of a sudden?"

Sylia's lips twitched as she laughed. "Mopey? No, I'm not." She turned the door handle and pushed the door open slightly. "I just wanted you have some private time with the people in this room. I think you'd prefer it this way."

Priss' eyes were suddenly filled with speculation as the door swung open, revealing sunlight streaming in through a large window, falling upon two girls, one in the hospital bed, the other sitting beside her. Priss felt something catch inside her as the girl sitting beside the bed looked up at her, and she found herself looking into those impossibly golden eyes once again.

Sylia watched silently as powerful emotions chased themselves across Priss' face as she took in the impossible sight. "We found them in the battle scene the other day," she whispered quietly as tears began to track down the rock star's face. "We think it traced back to the Largo nuclear plant event when he resurrected all the boomers in the AD Police tower." She stopped as Priss took a few hesitant steps into the room, eyes drinking in the sight of two of her closest friends, alive and well when she'd last seen them dead at her feet.

"It doesn't matter," Sylia finished quietly, stepping back with a soft smile on her face. "We'll talk about it later."

The leader of their little mercenary group stepped back out into the corridor, easing the door shut as Priss made her way to the golden-eyed girl, the two collapsing in each other's arms as tears of joy and shared grief began to flow.

Sylia wiped her eyes, still smiling, as she took a seat nearby, giving her family time to share their happiness and pain in the privacy they deserved.

* * *

Saturday, October 24, 2037, 3:00 PM
Abandoned factory complex, Megatokyo

Dr. Yoshida winced as his much-abused brain complained yet again. The recovery time from the procedure they'd instituted was nowhere near as short as he'd imagined it might be, and it had been a good deal more painful. As it was, he wasn't nearly ready yet to employ all the advantages he'd become heir to, but some of them had started coming to him anyway, as he'd reviewed the daily news.

-The boomer and Knight Saber war in the industrial park, for instance,- he thought quietly. -They're more powerful than they used to be.-

The old Knights, he knew, favored stealth and speed, although a couple of them had been frontline combatants. -But taking on two groups, in the open, simultaneously.- He leaned back as his abused brain twinged again, causing him to reach up and absently rub the ache away.

-They also blew away a large chunk of the sewer system. That suggests boosted firepower and increased hardsuit performance values.-

That also made sense. He'd gathered a great deal of information on them before launching his assault on the AD Police tower a couple years ago. Yet when he'd done so, he'd been treated to the new Knight Sabers' hardsuits. It hadn't taken a genius to figure something was up when he'd seen the sleeker, more powerful looking suits. When they'd started ripping his boomers to shreds, he knew he'd been outguessed.

-I never would have understood before how Ms. White knew what I was doing. But in retrospect now, it makes perfect sense.- His eyes narrowed as he considered a media picture taken of the Knights in action last year. -Whoever she is, she's formidable. And enhanced.- His mind continued to race in circles as he considered all the people it could be. -Not my benefactors, not Stingray, that's too obvious. Although she may be helping them, she has reason enough.-

-Who IS she?-

Unknown to the newly-enhanced doctor, a concealed monitor carried the image of him shifting in the chair uncomfortably back to an undisclosed location, where two people watched the image closely.

"He can't figure it out?"

Baty shook his head. "Ie. It seems that even with the evidence right in front of him, he can't put it together. The program block works perfectly."

Ai shook her head. "Give it time. He's only been working with the enhancements for about a week or so. Life is different from machines after all. It evolves. He might work around the program block. And we want it to be perfect before we employ it."

"So how long do we wait?"

The girl shook her head again. "It doesn't matter. We're not using it on Sylia. The whole point is to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, and if it fails, we've just put a large laser pointer on our actions. I'd rather let others do that for us and draw the penalties if they fail. It's the grand scheme I'm looking to. Quincy," she continued, drawing a smile from Baty, "was a piker. He had his dreams of power, but didn't take them to their logical conclusions. And while Largo had the right idea, he thought machines were the answer. They aren't.

"Both of them had only half the answer. We have all of it, if we can make it work the way we want. But to do that, we need to get all the pieces on the board, and right now, they're not."

"So we let the whole Hou Bang thing play out without further interference?"

Ai nodded this time, leaning back against the man's side. "Hai. The rifle's design will be impossible to trace back to us. The evidence suggests it's a Chang development by a minor cadet branch of the house. They've followed our early advice and taken enough of Reika's family's businesses to support their bid for takeover. Whether they succeed or not is irrelevant. We know the rifle technology works, and that's all we really cared about. Starting the private war will let us field test some of our other developments."

"And by the time our opponents realize how they've been used, they'll be spent from fighting the wars we've set in motion," Baty finished, as he felt his sister's head nodding in agreement. "How do you figure it?"

"Not sure," Ai admitted quietly. "The Knights are favored to win their engagement, but Yoshida complicates their situation. The young Stingray may tip the equation in their favor again, but he may complicate it further. Then there's that strange girl I've been hearing things about from my informers. I'm not sure how she affects the results."

"Do we need to invest any more in the Hou Bang's efforts?"

"Indirectly, if at all. We can aid them if they can find ways to include our pawns in their efforts. Which come to think of it," she finished with a smile as she sat up again, "won't be so hard. I have the nastiest idea!"

Baty watched with an amused gleam in his eye as his sister laid out the plan, as Yoshida's image in the background struggled to put together pieces of a puzzle he was covertly prevented from understanding.

* * *

Sunday, October 25, 2037, 5:30 PM
GENOM Tower, Megatokyo

Lisa tried to keep her composure as the posh limo purred quietly into the private parking area clearly set aside for really important people. Swallowing a couple times, she kept her face bright and perky as the door was opened, and a pair of impeccably dressed business women/bodyguards effortlessly passed her into an executive elevator, following her in and standing off to one side as the elevator whisked upward into the heart of the GENOM tower.

Half-closing her eyes, Lisa concentrated for a moment, letting her sight slip into the altered state Sylia had been drumming into her head for the last few weeks. -Just a quick peek,- she thought to herself. -Just to make sure.-

She looked up at the boomers, and fought to keep her composure. One looked over at her curiously and after a moment went back to staring out at nothing.

-They're boomers,- Lisa thought to herself. -Okay, I expected that. But... What's... THAT?-

'That' was a faint luminescent swirl of energy that seemed to ripple across the faint white aura most machines generated. Lisa had by now gotten used to the flat white glow that typified a machine drawing and using electrical power to function. Boomers, with their artificial organics, tended to have brief flashes of color, usually reds or purples, but not much more than that.

These two had what looked like a complicated weave of color shifting like an aurora Borealis over the glittering white of a machine under power. The aurora shaded the white glow, giving it a deeper, more colorful hue, creating a breathtaking display of color which changed and shifted with every passing second they stood there.

Lisa stood, mesmerized by the display until the elevator stopped and opened into what looked like a private hallway. The two boomer guards stepped out, and waited while she advanced on the door at the end. -I bet Kate's mad about the phone thing. Not to mention the rest of it.-

She took a deep breath, and turned the handle. -Whatever it is, I can handle it.

-I hope.-

The young reporter walked nervously into the darkened room, feet soundless in the rich carpet she walked on. The person she'd come to meet was a vague shadow looking out over the skyline of Megatokyo in the darkened room. Off to one side, another woman sat, who to Lisa's adjusted sight read as similar to the other two. -Boomer bodyguard,- she thought, dazed. -But her aura's so much more beautiful! Does that mean she's been free longer?-

Lisa pulled her eyes away from the bodyguard and froze midstep as she finally got a good look at her friend with magesight. The play of a human's deep rich tones intermixed with the flat white of a machine under power caused a deep surge of compassion to well up inside her.

"What?"

Lisa's eyes jerked up at Kate as the CEO of GENOM looked over at her. "What are you staring at?"

"Umm..." Lisa shuffled her feet and looked down, embarrassed. "It's kinda hard to explain."

Kate sat in the semidarkness, staring at Lisa, who fidgeted. "Well, umm... It's kinda..." She stopped and looked over at Kate, who seemed to be convulsing, or something. "Umm. Kate?"

The first chuckles rolled across the room, taking the reporter by surprise. As she watched, the chuckles worked up to laughter as Kate leaned back in the chair laughing with delight as the emotions worked their way from shame to confusion, and finally to frustrated anger on Lisa's face. "You... You thought..." Kate wheezed, leaning on the chair arm for support as the reporter stomped over to Kate, making no noise in the thick carpet.

"Mou! That wasn't funny! I thought you were mad at me, or something!"

Kate managed to get herself under control, taking a couple deep breaths as she straightened herself in her chair. Across the room, Jenny watched the proceedings out of the corner of one eye as she sorted documents. "Well, I was, for a while. You gave someone my phone number without asking, you know." Lisa squirmed as Kate fixed her with a mock glare, a mere shadow of what people normally got and gestured toward the middle of the room. "You had that coming for giving the number away."

Lisa ducked her head and looked apologetic. "Gomen, Kate-san. But I really thought you and Linna could do some good if I could get you together. And I knew she'd never think of it herself, so-"

"So you did what you normally do," Kate finished, eyes glinting with mischief, "And jumped right in without thinking about it." She waved to a nearby chair and smiled as her movie partner settled herself. "Is that how you usually get into these scrapes? I'm betting it is."

Lisa's embarrassed glare answered the question, bringing another chuckle from Kate as she sat back in the chair. "As it happens, although we have had a few incidents the last few days, we did have the opportunity to talk things over. And I think if we can keep everything balanced, your friend's company will do very well."

"You're going to help them?"

Kate smiled at the eager happiness that seemed to radiate from the reporter. -Anguished repentance to happy-shiny in ten seconds or less. Whoever she finally chooses is going to have a roller-coaster of a relationship.- "Yes, Lisa, I'm planning on helping her. In fact, I'm hoping her company grows to the heights I think it may. Frankly," she continued, drawing another amused smile from Jenny across the room, "It'll be easier to relate to Loon as an equal when they're rolling in the money they'll make from this than the small company they are right now. The board sees large companies as ally material, but don't look at smaller ones the same way. So they're giving me funny looks right now."

Kate shook her head again and made a waving gesture. "never mind that right now. We've got more important things to talk about."

Lisa suddenly shifted nervously in her chair, and chirped brightly at Kate, all fake happiness. "Yes?"

"Don't 'Yes', me, Lisa," Kate mock-growled again, drawing another nervous smile from the reporter. "You transformed into a senshi last week! And you used magic!" The CEO leaned forward in her chair, a strange light in her eyes as Lisa bit her lip and looked nervous.

"Ye-es," Lisa drew out slowly. "And...?"

The strange look in Kate's eyes changed to one of almost childish wonder. "What's it like? And where do you come from?"

Lisa shook her head sharply, an earnest look on her face. "Ie, ie, Kate-san! I'm not from anywhere! This is just something I picked up earlier this year!"

A wondrous smile on Kate's face as she inched a little closer. "Doug?"

Lisa nodded, grinning slightly. "Although he didn't expect what I did with it. I think I scared him more than anyone else who's seen it."

Kate watched Lisa, the smile on her face not dimming in the slightest as the reporter squirmed in embarrassment. Finally, the grin on the CEO's face faded to mere pleasure as she leaned forward, resting her head on her crossed arms. "Tell!" She commanded, mock-imperiously.

"Hai, Kate-sama," Lisa caroled with a fake-schoolgirl voice, drawing another chuckle from the woman across the room.

Retelling the story again took over an hour, with occasional interruptions from Kate as she got details straightened out. Finally, at the end, the older woman sat back up, shaking her head in disbelief.

"That's just surreal! I mean, I know Doug could do things like that. But the idea that people here could do that." Her voice trailed off as she considered what she'd been told. After a few moments, she looked back at Lisa, a half-smile on her face. "Do you think, maybe I-"

Lisa bit her lip and dipped back into magesight. "I'm... not sure, Kate," she said quietly. "I mean, I can see your aura, and it's mixed up with the dull white of what I think is machinery. Did you-?"

Kate leaned back, eyes narrow with remembered pain. "Yes," she whispered quietly. "About five years ago, Largo hit this tower with a particle strike. Did you hear about that?" At Lisa's nod, she continued. "The blast, it was meant as a demonstration of Largo's power, and was supposed to kill the chairman. Largo didn't know he was a boomer double at the time.

"The explosion..." Lisa watched as the emotions played across her friend's face as she remembered the day she'd been hospitalized on the edge of death. "So much pain..."

"Kate," Lisa breathed softly. Across the room, Jenny watched steadily, a look of concern on her face.

"It's... It's okay," Kate breathed softly, closing her eyes for a moment and taking deep breath. "I got lucky. The chairman's desk shielded me from the worst of it. But it took me almost a year to really recover from it. But the result of that," she held up her right hand and flexed it slowly.

"Boomeroid?"

Kate nodded. "Yes. There's not a day I don't think about it, and what Quincy did to me to get me going faster. Just another tinker toy for him to play with." This last was said with sharp venom, drawing another surge of compassion from Lisa, who reached out and took Kate's hand in her own.

"No. You're not just some thing he messed up. You're whoever you want to be."

"Am I?" Kate looked down at the desk, seeing the younger girl's tanned skin contrasting her cool pale skin. "I'm only here because of what he did to me. And I rewarded him by betraying him."

"He put you in that position to begin with," Lisa countered, voice intense with feeling. "He must have known what Largo was going to do, or he had a good idea, and he filled the room full of boomers. You were the only human in the whole room, and he deliberately put you in a position where if it fell to combat, you were probably going to die. You don't owe him anything, Kate!"

"Maybe," Kate whispered softly, as she watched the play of artificial muscles in her right arm.

"And as for the rest of it," Lisa said softly. "I look over at your friend and even though I can plainly see she's a boomer, the aura she has is brighter and more colorfully vibrant than yours is." Jenny looked over at the young girl in shock even as Kate looked over at her secretary, eyes wide.

"But..."

Lisa shook her head. "I think the reason is because she's comfortable with who and what she is. She accepts it. And she moves forward. But your aura is like two sets of colors competing with each other because you haven't accepted it! Until you accept all that you are," the reporter finished, grasping Kate's hand in both of hers, "all you'll be is the least of your parts."

Kate bit her lip and was silent for a long moment, until she finally put her left hand over the reporter's clasped hands and squeezed gently. "I'll try, Lisa. But if I need help along the way...?"

Lisa smiled and nodded in a determined way. "Hai! Count on me!"

Kate squeezed the hands for a long moment again and pulled back, resettling herself in her chair. Across the room, Jenny settled herself, still slightly wild-eyed at Lisa's offhand pronouncement of her own aura.

"So what do you need?"

Lisa blinked twice in quick succession, "Ah, nane?"

"Well, it occurs to me that while the senshi anime shows girls who run around basically independently of support, there's no reason you should have to be without support. In fact," Kate continued, a slight smile on her face, "If some information I was fortunate enough to come across about how things are done in Doug's reality are any indication, his group usually operates with a strong support group of humans and AI personnel. We could do the same with boomers and similar people. You wouldn't have to do the whole senshi thing by yourself."

"I, ah... hadn't thought about it," Lisa finished lamely. "I haven't had any real trouble yet!"

Kate nodded and held up a finger. "True, but that's because you've had the help and support of certain mercenaries we're both familiar with. But! In the end, they work either for money, or their own personal interests. Which may not coincide with the things you feel you'll have to do in Megatokyo. So it's entirely likely you'll be going out without their backup on more than one occasion, isn't that right?"

"Umm..." was Lisa's informed response.

Kate continued to tick points off on her fingers. "And if you do go out on your own in the future, the odds are that without backup, you could wind up outmatched or outgunned. Even if you get out alive, you might be hurt, need medical help, or even additional military aid to get you out before things go sour. Not to mention that if you're trying to help someone, you'll need more help to succeed in your mission, or risk letting people get hurt or possibly killed because you couldn't save them, right?"

"Ah..."

"Add on top of that the advantage of having a base of operations, preferably one with taps into the city network, letting you monitor hospital and police chatter, news networks, city infrastructure and certain other independent organizations we may have worked with in the past, and the advantage of a support structure becomes apparent."

"But..."

"The organization need not have any direct ties to GENOM," Kate continued smoothly, the grin getting bigger as she laid out the idea she'd been working on all day before the bewildered reporter. "In fact, it would be best if it didn't. That way there's no chance of an industrious executive tracing your activities or figuring out where you are. This also means various organizations could keep supplying you with support clandestinely without it being apparent any of us were doing so. I'm sure that arrangement would be acceptable to certain other people we know as well."

"If..."

"True, there's always the possibility the site is compromised, and that you have to abandon it. I can teach you how to build backup sites and compartmentalize information flow, and I'm sure your friends could do the same as well, so that the loss of any one facility is no more than a minor inconvenience. That way you're covered no matter what happens. It's something I've had a fair amount of experience with in the past."

Lisa sat back, feeling slightly shocky as the whole proposal was laid out by Kate in what Lisa was fairly sure was her normal way of presenting proposals. "But... why?"

Kate leaned forward, that same strange light in her eyes that Lisa had seen before. "Because I want in. I want to be a part of this, as much as I can be." In the background, they heard Jenny's slow inrush of breath as she adjusted to that declaration, but neither of them looked over at her. "If I can't do what you do, I want to do what I can do instead."

The reporter's eyes softened as she finally realized what that strange light was. It felt humbling, knowing that someone saw her that way, knowing that this deeply vulnerable yet equally frighteningly competent corporate executive would follow her blindly wherever she led. -How can I do this?- she thought to herself as mentally she reached out in blind panic to her memories of Doug. -What do I do?-

As if in response, she felt a strange warmth within her, and a vague sensation of a... presence... which calmed her fears and made the panic fade away. It was gone so fast she wasn't sure if she'd imagined it or not.

-I lead by example,- she realized, looking up at Kathryn Madigan for possibly the first time, seeing her in all her complicated facets. Driven executive, cold-hearted disciplinarian, deeply vulnerable woman with fears about her own soul. All focused on a young girl who she clearly felt had more of life's answers than she did.

-I work every day to earn her trust, and I do everything in my power to keep it - and her - safe.-

"Hai," Lisa breathed softly, causing a smile of triumph to appear on Kate's face. "I will try. But you!" She looked up at Kate as the CEO's smile grew, as the overwhelmed reporter took a few more steadying breaths and charged in. "You have to think on what I said earlier. About being more than the least of your parts."

"I will, Lisa-chan," Kate promised sofly. "I will."

The long moment of silence which followed that was followed by the mechanical sound of a large object lowering from the ceiling. They looked over, surprised as Jenny fiddled with a large remote. "Ah," Lisa began brightly, "What's that?"

"That," Kate said mischievously as she sat back in her chair, "Is probably the biggest projection television you'll find in any single room in this city. I've got a small kitchenette on the far side. I figure some popcorn, a good vidrom, and we're set!"

Lisa grinned, the powerful emotions of the last hour or so dissipating as she turned to less weighty matters. "So... huge screen... popcorn... Movie?"

"Movie," Kate affirmed as the younger girl made her way across to the concealed kitchenette. "Jenny, you staying?"

Her secretary shook her head as she gathered her things. "Ie, Madigan-san. I have a few things I need to do tonight, and as the security is set, I'll let myself out now, with your permission?"

Kate nodded and Jenny bowed and walked out of the room, mind awhirl with strange new thoughts as she heard the two girls' conversation drift toward which movie they would put on and the relative hunky-ness of some of the live movie actors.

* * *

Sunday, October 25, 2037, 8:30 PM
City center, Megatokyo

The young man raced down the alley, heart thudding in his chest. Behind him, the coarse laugh of a mannequin boomer echoed after him. He chanced a look behind him, and tripped over some trash on the ground, sprawling to his knees.

Before he could get up, the mannequin boomer's hand gripped him by the shoulder and threw him into the far wall, raising a dented kettle in his other hand. "Now you'll get your coffee, mister," he growled, a darkly red light glimmering in his artificially pleasant face.

The man screamed as the pot came down, but a flash of light seemed to interpose itself between the arm and the man, separating the boomer from the human, and throwing the boomer twenty feet down the alley. "Don't worry," the deeply voxmodded man's voice echoed. "You'll be safe now."

The college student stared at the figure in slim grey armor as the form advanced on the boomer. "And as for you," the electronically distorted voice continued, "I'll consider sparing you if you surrender to the cops."

"Fuck you!" the boomer snarled, and hauled itself to its feet. "I'm gonna rip your tin arm off and beat that snot to death with it!" The mannequin boomer grinned nastily, deforming the pleasant texture of the fake face. "Got it?"

"Too bad," the man's modified voice replied. "You should have accepted the offer."

The boomer raced forward with a roar. The armored figure waited until the boomer was maybe ten feet away, then he moved. The grey form was barely a blur as it launched itself at the boomer, its fist crackling with energy. The blow landed mid-body, and with a thunderous explosion, the boomer was catapulted fifty feet down the alley, across the road beyond, and into a building wall, drawing screams of surprise and shock from pedestrians on the sidewalk beyond. The boomer in the distance twitched a few times, and remained still, propped up in the brick it was embedded in, a large hole in its chest cavity.

The college student looked back toward the armored figure and stopped in surprise. "Thank you! Thank -"

The figure was gone.

* * *

In the hospital, Jenny stroked Mackie's hair out of his eyes, and watched him fondly as he slept. Her mother was getting reacquainted with other freed sexaroids down the hall. Girls she probably knew at one time or another, and was looking forward to meeting again. As she waited, she looked down at Mackie's sketchbook as an errant breeze from the ventilation system made the pages flutter, showing pictures of his new power armor prototype. Grey armor, based on the MADOX concept but updated for the modern era. Smiling, she closed the book, and leaned back, watching Mackie sleep.

* * *

Sunday, October 25, 2037, 9:00 PM
Yoshida's Factory, Megatokyo

Dr. Yoshida held up a deceptive looking vial of liquid and addressed the monitor behind him without turning around. "And you liberated these samples from where?"

The darkened feminine figure answered him with an amused tone in her voice. "A little over six months ago, a special delivery was sent to a small office in GENOM operating under the confusing mouthful 'GENGenTech." She gestured idly to the vial in the doctor's hands. "This is a sample of their resulting work. Naturally, when we made our own exit from GENOM we acquired their work and as much of their facilities and personnel as we could convert to our cause."

Yoshida racked the vial beside a dozen others and turned to face his new partners. "So why the bait and switch? Why not simply offer this to volunteers?" He crossed his arms and leaned back against the lab table. "It seems to me you'd have people lining up for the opportunity."

The shadowed man shook his head. "No. For one thing, it would be detrimental to the plan for people to know the part we had in this. Instead, it is better if it's left to some strange plague or possibly contaminated antibiotics shipped to random hospitals and clinics worldwide. As well, we don't know how many injections will actually take."

Yosida nodded slowly. "So what are we looking at then?"

The woman picked up the explanation. "Five million ampules of the compound based on the genetic information GENGenTech has been working on have been prepared. We're willing to accept as low as two percent success for our plan to work. Perhaps one hundred thousand spread out all over the world will do wonders for our plans. With the right spin, many should flock to the Firster organization. They'll be lauded as heroes after all. The first real chance humans have to strike back in a measurable way against Boomers."

Yoshida looked back at the shadowy figures and crossed his arms. "So that suggests you're manipulating the Firsters. And that also suggests you're behind the Liberationists as well. But why?"

"You'll figure it out, I'm sure," the female voice said teasingly. "You're a very perceptive man, Yoshida-kun."

"Just don't lose sight of your assignment, Doctor," the man's voice warned. "We need all twenty-five of those boomers ready for shipment by the date specified. They'll be picked up and deployed, most probably within Megatokyo at most a week after that, so make sure they can't be traced back to you, or this facility. And assume they're as good as you are at piecing the clues together. No mistakes, Doctor. We have other tasks for you after this one."

"And the AD Police?"

The woman's voice was amused. "You still want to do that? What about the Knight Sabers?"

Yoshida's voice was chilling. "Removing the city's anti-boomer task force will cripple their response to what you want to do. And it lets me strike back at an organization that survived what I had in mind, not because they were better, but because they got lucky. And as for the Sabers, they have demonstrated their willingness to come to people at need before. All I need do is attack that one building, and I can focus all attention on it. And take my revenge at the same time."

The man after a moment, nodded agreement. "Very well, Doctor. How soon can you put that plan into action?"

Yoshida shrugged. "I'm ready now. The programming was the hard part, and that's become much easier lately, thanks to you. The custom boomers are ready to be deployed as soon as I can do so. Just tell me when I can launch my attack." Yoshida's face took on a predatory look as he glanced aside to the brightly lit city center in the distance.

"Soon, Doctor. Say, Hallowe'en. A most special trick and treat as the Americans would say, for our friends in Megatokyo."

Yoshida's feral grin was answer enough, as the screen closed down, and the room was bathed in darkness...

End of Chapter Five


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.

<< PreviousNext >>

This page was created on August 14, 2008.
Last modified April 05, 2019.