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Dead Bang

by Ian McLeod

Chapter 6

Monday, October 26, 2037, 6:00 PM
Tinsel City alleyway, Megatokyo

The cooling season brought greater quiet to the mostly abandoned alleyway. People had little reason to loiter in such a cold and desolate spot, a large alley filled with the castoff waste of years of neglect, capped by the devastation of the Kanto quake, so many years earlier. A lonely little place people might have visited more often if they'd understood its significance.

A wind seemed to rise up out of nowhere, sending papers flying. Small lightnings crackled in the alley as light began to fill the abandoned city section from a location no one would have understood. The wind picked up, becoming a howl as a brilliant point of light began to form within.

* * *

In a quiet room, all but forgotten in the days following the disappearance of the Visitor, a computer system switched on, and a quiet beeping sound could be heard. A printer nearby began to spool out long ribbons of paper covered with strange, jagged lines. And in the corner, a half-wrecked machine adorned with charred crystal components flickered feebly a couple of times before finally going dark once again.

The sounds of the machine were the only accompaniment in the room for long moments, before a door was wrenched open, letting in the cold artificial light of the IDEC research wing. Tony stared at the machine for long moments, before launching himself across the room to start recording numbers.

"Aw hell! I should have seen this coming!"

* * *

In the alleyway, the point of light briefly flared to rainbow brilliance before being replaced by a giant hole in space. A black disk roughly two metres across in which nothing could be seen. A window into Eternity, through which anything could fall into.

Or out of.

The figure flew through the hole as if propelled by tremendous force. She landed sideways, heels causing a pair of dusty roostertails to spray up behind her as she slid to a stop.

The black hole into Eternity remained open for a few brief moments, then suddenly vanished, allowing reality to resume its normal form. The electrical arcs sparked across the alley for a few moments before they too faded away.

The girl checked her shoulder pack, and pulled out a sheet of paper. "Hiroe said she pays up for a year. So first thing I do is move in, pick up some groceries, and start looking around."

The brunette looked up at the skyline, so different from her own home, yet eerily familiar. The soft white disk of the moon dominated the early fall sky, bringing a familiar pang of remembered memories. "It's been so long since it's been like this for me. Since I've been a nobody in the world." She whispered the comment to the heavens even as she unerringly looked in another direction. To where she could feel the steady pull of her world calling to her. Filling her with power, and purpose.

"Right," she said firmly. "Time to get settled in."

The brunette strode off down the alleyway, already planning what she would pick up for dinner.

* * *

Tony looked up in confusion as the beeping stopped. "They're here," Daniel whispered to himself, causing Tony to look over in surprise at the unexpected arrival of his colleague. before shaking the almost atavistic dread off.

"Of course they're here, the pinhole projector doesn't lie."

"Who do you think it is?"

Tony bit his lip. "No clue," he answered honestly. "It's not like we've had a lot of chance to study people coming and going, you know. Just the Visitor a couple of times, and now this. It could be anyone, from anywhere. For all we know our Senshi went home again."

Daniel shook his head, and held up a section of tape, as the large Russian scientist let himself into the room with a cup of coffee in hand. "No. Look at the results! The pinhole might not be able to tell where they came from yet, but it clearly shows we had an arrival! The Senshi didn't leave, we just had someone new show up!"

"Know what I think?" Tony asked quietly.

"What?"

"You notice how a lot of our recorded Events occur in a particular section of the Tinsel City area?"

Ilya nodded slowly. "Da. You think natural condition this is? As if natural softspace phenomenon exists in that portion of city, yes?"

Tony nodded once, eyes narrow. "That's it exactly." He looked over at Daniel. "We know Madigan's going to want to know what happened, and what it means. We also know we don't have any more answers than what's in front of us right now, and probably won't for a while anyway. But she's still going to want a suggested plan of action." Ilya and Daniel nodded at each of the points Tony raised.

"So what I suggest then is we go ahead and give her a recommendation. IDEC needs to buy a section of Tinsel City and set up a research center there." Tony pulled up a map of Megatokyo, and superimposed the previous pinhole readings over top of it. Most of them converged on an abandoned alley in a dilapidated section of town.

"Right here, in fact. We need to build a large laboratory right there."

"Major investment this will be, you know," the Russian's voice rumbled in the semidarkness of the Pinhole Detector room.

"So what? GENOM wants answers, this is mine. We won't have any more than half-answers until we have the right kind of facility." Tony waved at the computer screen, still collating information from the latest event. "We've identified a natural location in Megatokyo where Penetrations happen more often. So we build a lab there and study it. Who knows? Maybe we can get more than just Pinholes open there."

Daniel nodded, mind racing with how he was going to present this to the CEO of GENOM. "Right. You two come up with the design, would you? I'm going to run the basic proposal past her tonight."

Ilya looked over, eyebrow raised. "Now? And what if interested she is not? She has not been pushing us to succeed lately, you know."

"Yes..." Daniel said slowly, "But we haven't really had anything concrete to show either. Now we do. Besides," he continued more brightly, "if we present this solution and GENOM pans it, we won't have to do any more than we're doing now. That will free us up to keep looking into the Senshi issue."

"'Oh Hooray'..." Tony muttered sarcastically in English as Daniel retreated from the Detector room.

* * *

Monday, October 26, 2037, 8:00 PM
Ladys633 Tower, Megatokyo

A muffled exclamation of pain was his only complaint as the girls moved him into his room. Nene's eyes tracked over briefly before returning to her corner of the stretcher they were using.

"Hey! C'mon... I can make it to bed on my own! They gave me crutches and everything!" Mackie waved a crutch by way of example.

A small teasing smile was Sylia's only answer as she, Nene and Linna arranged him on his bed. To one side, Kou leaned against the doorframe, taking in the odd decor that more than anything said 'A man lives here.' A couple tons of assorted junk, some old Priss and the Replicants posters, a couple photos of Nene from dubious sources clipped in the mirror... And a display stand with a scale-model replica of the SDF Macross.

Definitely not a girl's room.

Mackie sat in the bed, frustrated as the girls arranged things to their satisfaction. The crutches went across the room ("You won't need these for a few days," Sylia said with a complacent smile), Linna clearing the old design notes for the restored MADOX suit and plunking his recent sketches on the artist's desk, and the other girls in the hallway beyond stifling snickers as his sister reorganized his room into something she could work in more easily.

Finally they stopped moving things around. Linna giggled a little as she walked out of the room. Sylia leaned down and brushed a few errant locks of hair out of the way. "Just concentrate on getting better. You're all I have left, Mackie," she whispered much more quietly. "I'm not losing you. I won't compromise on that."

Mackie felt his throat constrict as powerful emotions chased themselves behind their eyes. "I'm not going anywhere, Sis. Promise."

Sylia held his gaze for a long moment, then smiled and nodded. "I'm holding you to that, Mackie." Standing up again, she made her way out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Leaving him alone in his room. Well, alone, unless you counted a very nervous redhead sitting at the artist's desk, fiddling with a pencil.

Mackie gently cleared his throat. "Nene? I... uh..."

He genuinely didn't know what he wanted to say. But it turned out it wasn't that important anyway. The next thing he knew, she'd moved the chair beside his bed, and leaned over, brushing her fingers gently across his hairline. Mackie swallowed. Several times.

"Nene..."

"Hush."

* * *

"So...?"

"Can't tell. It's gotten really quiet in there."

A muffled giggle could be heard in the corridor. "I think it's sweet. Hey! Do we have any fiber-optics? I'm sure there's some around here somewhere..."

A couple more giggles filled the corridor, ending in a muffled yelp of surprise as Sylia pulled one of them out of the corridor and into the main living area beyond. "Come on now, ladies. Let's give them some privacy, shall we?"

The girls good-naturedly clumped into the living area, and settled themselves around the room. Linna settled herself beside Lisa and helped herself to a cookie. "You know your problem, Sylia? You're just no fun."

"Hmm," Sylia smiled noncommittally while pouring tea. "Well, while I may or may not be a fun person, I do have a fresh lead on the person behind the attempt last week. And we have another issue to deal with as well." She set the teapot down, and looked over at the other girls, who were suddenly all business.

"The power armor guy last weekend?"

"That's right," Sylia agreed. She began passing out teacups as she marshaled her thoughts. "At the moment, he's much less important to us given the seriousness of the Hou Bang incident. But he may be an issue later. For all we know, he may be working with the Hou Bang. At this point, what we know is much less than what we don't."

"What we do know is that this man apparently uses power armor somewhere near, or on par with our own. The one encounter in an alleyway by the customer he saved clearly stated that the man in armor was agile, powerful, and well trained. Certainly the crater the boomer left in the wall across the street attests to his power and combat strength."

Lisa looked up from her tea at Sylia. "Any chance it's a Leon-A boomer? Or something that got loose from Genom?"

Sylia shrugged slightly. "It's possible. In fact, I'm leaning more toward it being a Leon-A boomer with a sense for the dramatic than a person in power armor. If so, we may need to assess his possible threat to us and our operations. On the other hand," she continued, after taking a sip, "He would have considered what operating in Megatokyo would mean. To wit, we'd eventually contact him and determine his intentions. If he's thought this through, he may be able to answer our questions directly."

"So we wait for him to show up sometime when we're out as well, and make contact?"

Sylia nodded. "Unless he does something that forces our hand, I see no reason to step up attempts to contact him. But I'll have a few contingencies ready, just in case."

Lisa nodded as Reika looked over at her. "That reminds me. What are you going to do now that you can more or less control the transformation? I mean," she continued as Lisa looked over in confusion. "Eventually someone's going to photograph you. You wouldn't pass up the opportunity, and I'm sure there's someone out there as determined as you are to get a picture," Lisa squirmed as the others laughed at Reika's sally.

"Ah, actually, I'm not concerned." Lisa stood up, biting her lip. "You really have to see to understand. You okay with this?" She looked over at Sylia who just raised an eyebrow and nodded slightly.

"Just make sure you can reverse it afterward. We've just gotten comfortable, and I don't want to have to troop everyone downstairs while we adjust your wardrobe."

Lisa grinned and ducked her head in embarassment. "Ah, I think I have a handle on it. It just took a few tries at home this week." With the others watching, Lisa took a few steadying breaths, and repeated the ancient phrase gleaned from her favorite anime.

"Sailor power, MAKE-UP!"

Reika watched, fascinated as white light blazed into existence around the tanned reporter girl. She could see several of the other girls leaning forward slightly as they tried to make sense of what they were seeing. Sylia sat composed in her chair, the very image of casual calm.

Inside the white halo, a figure in blue and white appeared. Moments later, the white light vanished, revealing Lisa in her Sailor fuku and abbreviated skirt. Reika's lips pursed in amusement as she considered exactly how much leg Lisa was showing in that outfit. -It's not as tasteless as some of my showpieces, but it's close.-

Lisa looked over at the other girls. "So. Do you see why I'm not worried about cameras?"

Reika started and leaned back in surprise. Lisa's voice sounded... deeper. Also a little fuzzier, more like the way Priss talked. But until Lisa drew attention to it, Reika had just glossed over it. Across the room, Reika could see Priss leaning forward, a speculative smile on her face.

"Lisa," her voice purred. "Have you tried singing in that form? I'd really like to hear how you sound sometime." Priss lounged back in her seat as Lisa looked over in confusion. "If you sound the way I think you would, I could definitely use a female backup singer like you in the Replicants."

"Ah..." Lisa tried to collect her whirling thoughts as Priss' comment disrupted what she was doing. She settled for giving the singer a reproving glare as she looked back over at Linna. Priss merely looked innocent as Kou smiled in the background, enjoying they byplay.

"Get out your cell and take a picture."

Linna pulled out her phone, adjusted the microcamera, and pressed the button. The electronic 'snik' sound could be heard in the room, followed moments later by a shift in light playing against Linna's face as the picture displayed itself. Linna inhaled softly, and started to nod.

"I didn't understand it myself when I took a few test shots earlier this week. I thought something was wrong with my camera." Lisa walked over to Linna and sat down beside her. "Turns out there's nothing wrong with my camera. It's just... cameras just don't really seem to record me properly. I can't explain it."

Linna nodded, passing the cell phone around the room. When Reika got it, she looked at it and compared it to the girl sitting beside Linna. On the cell, she looked several centimetres taller, somewhat more muscular, and the tan was less pronounced. She even had a lighter, more platinum blonde look in her hair. Shaking her head, she passed it on to Sylia, who glanced at it, and passed it on, nodding.

Priss gave her former leader a long stare. "Okay, Sylia. You didn't look at all surprised by what you saw. Care to let us in on the secret?"

Sylia's lip twitched slightly as she set down her teacup. "It's not that much of a secret, Priss. The documentation we've been given clearly states that magical powerfields tend to disrupt and interfere with communications devices. We know that when she does... that... she taps into a model likely developed somewhere else. Not only does it create cloth on command, but it also creates minor jewelry and metals as well. And although I know she's damaged the costume on a few occasions, it always looks pristine when resummoned."

Lisa looked down at the costume, and ran her hands down the front in a smoothing gesture. "I've never really thought about it, but yeah. After the fight in the sewer, there were some pretty deep gashes in the outfit." She stood up and walked over to a side mirror, examining herself from several angles. "I never fixed anything, but there's no sign of them now." She looked over at Sylia. "How much of all this is magic, and how much is TK?"

"Hard to say for certain. But offhand, I'd say most of your active powers are telekinesis, or based on telekinesis. That said, you should be able to duplicate them whether you are transformed or not. But unless the outfit is a psychosomatic creation developed by accident, you may well have abilities that are only available in that state. It would be fairly safe to say those abilities would be purely magical. The interference effect you have on recording devices may be one of them."

"But you don't want me to assume any of that, right?"

Sylia gave her one of her 'dangerous smiles'. "Correct, young student. And on that note, while we're preparing dinner, and since you're already transformed, I recommend you go downstairs to the firing range and practice each attack you have developed to date. Concentrate on what they are," she continued as Lisa visibly deflated, much to the other girls' hilarity. "See if you can separate each attack into specific attack types. Then transform back and see if you can duplicate them normally."

"Hai," Lisa said resignedly. Picking herself up, she walked out of the room as if to an execution. Pausing at the doorframe, she looked back at Sylia. "Do you mind if I have a look at the antigravity printouts? I have an idea for a new kind of motorcycle," she explained, pretending not to notice Priss' sudden interest.

"Of course," Sylia agreed. "Just don't leave with them. They've got a lot of additional material in the liner notes."

"Hai!"

Lisa walked into the elevator with a noticeably springier step as the door closed behind her.

"New kind of motorcycle," Priss began, stopping only to glare across the room at Linna as the other girl began to laugh. "What? So I like motorcycles!"

Linna smothered the storm of giggles that threatened to bubble out of her, and waved at Priss. "No, no, it's not that. Well," she temporized as Priss gave her a Look. "Maybe it is that a little. But still! She's not even drawn her idea out on paper and already you're ready to drive it out of the garage!"

Priss grumbled and leaned back. "Still don't get no respect around here..." She looked over at Sylia. "So. What's the rest of the stuff you were talking about earlier? You know who did it?"

Sylia took a deeper breath and leaned forward as the others paid closer attention. "Not the person, no. But I do know what was used in the attempt."

Pulling out a remote, she thumbed a button. Instantly the lights in the room darkened, and a large wallscreen across the room lit up, showing what looked like a heavy recoilless rifle. "This device is a prototype in guided weapons technology. It utilizes the first projectile of its type seen anywhere in the world." A second click, and a large bullet appeared below the rifle. The projectile looked almost a quarter foot long, and was much larger than standard bullets.

"That can't be right," Linna protested. "Something that big would need a much larger gun, or a lot more..." she trailed off as she started noticing things about the design of the weapon. "That's a grav gun!"

"Yes," Sylia agreed. Pressing another button brought up several schematics, showing the internal layout of the weapon. "The first lethal application of the Open Source Antigravity technology. This weapon uses a lot of the easily-applied miniaturized technology used to control and reflect gravity. Essentially, it allows the rifle to fire anything large enough to fit inside the breech, without the need for propellants of any kind.

"The lack of explosive force used to propel the projectile gives the assassin a much wider range of available weapon types. No longer does he have to restrict himself to a projectile which won't react violently to being inside an explosive pressure chamber. Which is what makes the projectile so dangerous." So saying, Sylia pressed another button on her remote.

On screen, the bullet became almost liquid, extruding fins and small control surfaces. "The bullet is essentially a special-purpose fusion boomer with a very specific control component. The small size means it has no real intelligence capability other than strictly mechanical, but it is still sufficient to the task at hand. The AI onboard is capable of analyzing flight performance, distance to target, and a host of other factors. This lets it not only adjust the control surfaces to increase flight time, but it can also adjust the shape and surface area of the projectile as it flies through the atmosphere, until it reaches its target."

On screen, the bullet retracted the membranes, and sharpened the head, becoming a vicious looking spike. "Upon arriving at its target, it reshapes itself into the most effective armor-piercing variant available. At that point, it penetrates the target. Depending on its programming, it either instantly launches tendrils in all directions, effectively acting like a glazer round, and spreading the impact shock damage across most of the target's organs and internal structure, or it disperses itself through the target's bloodstream, causing a heart attack."

On the screen, the bullet penetrated a human silhouette. On screen, the bullet immediately deployed long tendrils, effectively increasing its impact surface area by many orders of magnitude. Similar to the 'glazer' round, which worked by fragmenting on impact, so that the force of impact was spread across as much of the internals as possible, effectively turning large amounts of internal muscle and organs to jelly in moments. The bullet then disintegrated in the target's body, vanishing without a trace.

"The second purpose of the disintegration effect is to hide the murder weapon. Without a bullet, the police services will find it much harder to identify the source of the attack, and even if they know what it was, won't be able to identify the weapon it was fired from. Standard ballistics tests under those circumstances are pointless. Even capturing a man with such a rifle wouldn't prove that person actually shot the projectile, making prosecution more difficult."

Linna shook her head in slow horror. "So... what happened? I mean, he got a clean shot at me!"

"Yes, and no. The projectile suffers from a simple design flaw. Essentially, it has no rigid internal structure. It's a semi-liquid weapon capable of maintaining its structure in flight. Against a regular target, that doesn't make much of a difference. But against someone in armor, the bullet will still fail to penetrate." Sylia clicked the remote, causing the images to fade and the room to brighten up again.

"Essentially, this weapon is a prototype, and the bullet cannot achieve everything the designers intended it to be. As a result, the armor you were wearing was sufficient to deflect the bullet. If it had been a solid shot, you would have been knocked halfway across the room, and the bullet would have pancaked against your armor. As it was, its essentially liquid nature caused it to reshape itself involuntarily in flight, and travel in a different direction."

Linna held her hand up to her mouth in shock, and looked over at Sylia, blood draining from her face. "Oh, no! Sylia! I didn't -"

"We've been over this," Sylia said firmly. "It's not anything you did, and Mackie is going to recover. If anything," she continued, walking over to sit by Linna, "This event has convinced me to increase my efforts to build this clothing line for all of us." She took Linna's hands and held them firmly. "It's NOT your fault!"

Linna looked down at the ground, then nodded slowly. "Hai, Sylia. But..."

"I know. And thank you." Sylia squeezed one more time and let go, reaching up to tilt Linna's head up to look at her. "And when we do find out who's behind this..."

Linna's almost feral intensity would have been frightening to anyone but the people in that room. "Just try to keep me out of it."

"Never happen."

Linna nodded again, and seemed to pull in on herself, banking the anger. It was still there, Sylia knew. Just held in check for the day it had the right person to vent on. She knew. She could feel the same anger deep inside her, whenever she remembered that horrible day in the hospital earlier that week.

"So," came the slow drawl across the room. "How did you find out what kind of weapon it was, anyway?"

Sylia looked over at Priss and nodded toward the blank wall. "The bullet, actually. It's the only one of its kind at the moment in the world. And the prototype organics we're developing at Loon are very good at sifting through metallic waste and separating them into seedpod-like structures for eventual recycling.

"One of the seedpods looked very different from all the others, so I had a closer look at it. Although Kou found the impact point in the bottom of one of the feeder beds," Kou inclined his head as Priss glanced over at him, "we didn't find the bullet itself. We thought it had washed loose and would turn up in a filter downstream. Apparently, it was sorted and stored by one of the seed pods instead.

"As a result, I have the complete bullet to examine, even if it is in its disintegrated state. In this state, it is essentially a pool of fusion-capable nanite technology. However, this particular pool of boomer technology still carries within it the instruction set for the gun that fired it. While I'm still trying to arrange it in a fashion that lets me access the computer program, it's only a matter of time."

"If we can identify the control programs that drive it," Kou interjected quietly, "We should see if this control code could be broadcast over a wide area. The ability to melt our opponent's ammunition before he can use it would be of tremendous advantage. Especially if we're about to do something about him more directly."

Sylia paused as she sifted through that idea. "I like it," she said simply. "It will take time to develop, but when I have the control program, I'll see if I can add something like that to Nene's combat electronics. If we can remove the weapon entirely, that would be the best result."

"Speaking of which," Linna said after another moment, "I haven't heard a single piece of furniture hitting the walls in there. Think we should take a peek?" She looked totally innocent as Sylia raised an eyebrow in her direction. "Purely for safety reasons! We need to know that they're okay!"

Sylia's lip twitched again. After a moment, she looked almost embarassed, before raising the remote and pressing a combination of buttons. The lights dimmed again, and the wall screen lit up, showing a high angle on Mackie's room.

Inside, Mackie was clearly asleep, lying propped up in the large bed. Asleep beside him was Nene, one hand lying lightly on his chest, the other curled tightly against her body.

Sylia looked almost defensive as the other girls smiled at the cute picture they made. "As you say, I had to make sure."

Linna waved her hand dismissively as the grin got bigger. "No complaints here, Sylia! Hey!" she looked over at the flustered woman with an evil glint in her eyes. "Does this thing take pictures?"

A really evil grin was the only answer, leaving Kou to quietly hope he never had to recover from anything in this place. One look at Reika, scooting over to the other girls to get a closer look quashed that hope however. -Ah well. At least it won't be boring.-

* * *

Tuesday, October 27, 2037, 9:00 AM
AD Police Tower, Megatokyo

Roger looked up as the tone in the dayroom changed. The usual chatter had dampened, and there was a quieter intensity than usual outside the office he shared with Daley. Getting up, he poked his head outside, to see what looked like Nene surrounded by most of the dayroom staff.

"What is it?" Daley moved over to where Roger stood. The newer detective obligingly stepped into the dayroom, letting the chief inspector get a look at the proceedings.

"Ah," Daley said softly, as Nene collected a few hugs and words of encouragement from other girls in the dayroom. She drifted across to where Daley and Roger stood, and gave them an embarassed grin.

"Ah... Sorry about the other day. I... umm..."

"Don't know what you mean, Nene," Daley said airily as he reached out and touseled her hair, getting a yelp of indignation from the cute redhead. "Just part of the friendly service!"

"Mou," she complained as Nene tried to adjust her hair. She pulled out a pocket mirror, then glared at the innocent-looking inspector. "I'll get you for that, Daley-chan!"

Daley just sauntered back into his office, waving over his shoulder. "I'll be waiting for it with bated breath, Nene-chan!"

Nene mock growled something unintelligible. After a moment, a small grin threatened to show against the glare, and Nene tossed her hair dismissively, walking past Roger as if she owned the floor.

Roger shook his head and turned to go back into the room. A tiny hand on his arm stopped him, and he turned to look at the redhead, now out of sight of Daley's office doorway. "Hai?"

"Arigato, Roger-san," she said simply, before walking to her own office, head held high.

* * *

10:30 AM, Hiroe's Apartment, Megatokyo

Makoto arranged the plants in the windowsill a little differently from the last attempt, and stood back to consider the result.

-Not bad,- she decided finally. -It will do for now anyway. And it really brightens up this place.-

Getting to Hiroe's apartment wasn't too hard. The directions had been meticulous, as had been the instructions for handling the security system, and accessing her bank accounts. Makoto hadn't wanted to be any more of a burden to Hiroe's assets than she had to be, even if Hiroe likely wasn't coming back. So she'd pulled just enough out to set up her own account, and start looking for some kind of light work she could do while keeping her eyes open.

The young-looking immortal girl stepped back and considered the other item in the room. It was a large double-crate, containing a powerful computer console, and a high-gain telescope on a high speed gimbal. Just the thing for tracking soccer games, tennis matches, and Senshi darting from rooftop to rooftop.

-Now I just have to set it up on the roof, get the feed into the wall screen, and then I wait.-

She was tempted to transform herself. If this girl had any of the same kind of power, she'd almost have to pick it up. The girls had always used that sixth sense to show up whenever Usagi got in over her head. It got to the point where it was instinct. Whenever any of them transformed, they just knew.

-But I don't want to do that yet. I still want to see what I have to work with before I let her know I'm here. Besides,- she thought to herself darkly, -she might be totally unsuitable.-

She really didn't know one way or another, really. Hiroe had seen several badly degraded Boomer videos of a young tanned blonde ripping a pair of Boomers apart with her bare hands, firing bolts of energy at them, and literally tearing one into little pieces with no more than what looked like telekinetic rage.

-The problem,- she thought to herself as she went looking for a crowbar, -is that the whole situation she described would not be out of character for one of the Yoma. Heck, every one of Beryl's generals could have pulled that off, and some of them would have enjoyed it.-

So the first step, was to identify the mysterious local Sailor girl, then study her.

"Correction," she grunted as she levered the top off the computer box. "First step, set up this bloody huge thing and set up the search program." She put the top to one side and worked on a side panel, exposing more of the computer control panel. "Second, scope out that gaudy GENOM place."

That place really bothered her. If the Dark Kingdom had succeeded, she was willing to bet Tokyo would look a lot like this place. -And the fact that this world's version of Queen Beryl succeeded to the throne over the warm corpse of the previous tyrant makes me less inclined to trust anything that comes out of that place.-

Which was a bit of a problem, she reflected, as she ran a thumb disapprovingly over the GENOM logo stenciled on the side of the control panel. Whatever else the megacorporation was, it was also everywhere.

It was odd however, to see what was counterbalancing them. In a world without obvious magic, and without Senshi to protect them, a different kind of heroine had risen to the call. Girls in powered armor, very advanced, very dangerous.

The Knight Sabers.

Makoto leaned back as she stared at the console, not really seeing it as she drifted back to the news video she'd seen recorded several years ago. The Knight Sabers, in what was generally accorded to be their first generation suits, taking on dopplegangers dressed in what looked like their armor. News cameras had been treated to a front-row seat as the real Knights showed up, and revealed the Boomer task force for what they really were.

In any sensible world, the revelation on national TV that a Boomer task force was assaulting the AD Police disguised as the Knight Sabers would have launched an investigation that should have at the very least sunk half the GENOM board of directors, starting with their enigmatic leader, Quincy. Instead, nothing had happened. Nothing at all. The whole thing vanished off the mainstream media faster than you could say "coverup."

-And while the media seems to have recovered from the general gag order where these Sabers are concerned, I'm not convinced Queen Madigan is doing this for anything other than totally selfish reasons.-

Makoto stepped over to the console, and began to move it across the room to the place she'd chosen to put it. "Hff..... This would be so much easier if I just transformed," she griped to herself, as she moved the console into position.

* * *

12:00pm, AD Police Tower, Megatokyo

The boomer in the sewers was very annoyed at the cramped quarters it had to work with.

But its orders had been specific: Do nothing to draw attention to itself. Fuse with part of the underlying roadway, and allow small amounts of material to be picked up by any vehicle making to enter the AD Police garage. It had to empty the reservoirs it had brought with it, if possible, within the next three days. Then it was to return to base, undetected.

An almost feral grin split its face as it considered what would happen then. "Finally, I take my revenge against those interfering Knight Sabers! And then I finish my grand plan by sinking the AD Police tower and all inside! My grand finish to the symphony they marred last time."

The boomer shifted slightly, and eased a little more fusion material into the roadway surface as a returning police car drove over it on the way back to the garage.

Elsewhere, another boomer watched the tower through a public-access binocular mount on the side of a city building. She knew where the other boomer was, and could estimate how much material had been moved into the building recently. Not enough yet. But soon...

And in yet a third location, a thin tendril snaked up from a toilet stall, bending at the tip to reveal what looked like a fiber-optic camera head. The tendril swiveled several times before finally allowing the main unit to climb out of the toilet drain and into the bathroom. The tiny machine then skittered to a service panel, opened it, and vanished inside the tower's internal structure.

"Not enough material yet to work with," the miniature boomer thought to itself with annoyance. "But soon, there will be. And then I'm going to take my revenge on these interfering peons!"

All three boomers, each with an imprint of Miriam Yoshida's mind, and his total devotion to his personal obsession, went about their assigned tasks, waiting for the moment Yoshida had chosen. They didn't need to communicate, either with each other or Yoshida. They had his mind, they knew the plan, could decide when to implement it, and could adjust it on the fly if they had to.

They were, in a word, perfect.

In a corner of the mostly abandoned waterfront building, Miriam Yoshida grinned, steepling his fingers in front of him as he contemplated the doom that was about to befall his enemies...

* * *

"So, he's already put it in motion?"

"Hai, Baty-chan!"

"Ai," Baty growled tiredly. The girl on the other end of the line just giggled softly. "What did he do exactly? I've got my hands full with those idiot Boomers. Most call themselves liberated, but haven't the faintest idea what to do with it!"

"Ah, yes, that is a pain, isn't it." Ai's voice was uncharacteristically emotional as she reacted to Baty's obvious fatigue. "But don't worry. The humans aren't being particularly intelligent either. Just because they can think of an original idea now and then doesn't mean they're any better at knowing what to do with it."

Baty grinned slightly. "That restores my faith in a rational universe, then, Ai-chan. So. What did he do with those Boomers?"

"Apparently, he used his own mind as a template for their construction."

"He what?"

"Think about it," Ai went on, voice becoming more animated over the connection. "Every Boomer ever built is based on a single mental pattern. An amalgamation of Sylia and Mackie Stingray, based on applied research carried out by their father, Katsuhito Stingray. The same technology which was used on us, lest you forget, to amplify our intelligence."

"Not likely," Baty growled, more angrily. He doubted he'd ever forget the day he went from being a nobody child into a totally forgotten nobody genius. One who could never reveal his existence, and lived entirely at the sufference of a megalomaniacal old man.

"Well," Ai continued after a moment's pause, "Yoshida seems to be of the opinion that the reasons his Boomers keep failing him is that they aren't capable of understanding his greatness." Ai's voice dripped contempt as she continued. "He feels the only way a Boomer can live up to his exalted expectations is if he uses his own mind, and a copy of his own neural patterns, as the basis for the brains in those Boomers. Essentially, he's duplicating himself several times over."

"Pulling a Largo?"

"Not exactly. Yoshida sees these Boomers as still fundamentally inferior to himself. And they're programmed to feel the same way themselves. Which makes me wonder what's going to happen if they ever break that programmed inhibition. Their brain architecture is totally new, so there's no feeds for the OMS system, active or not. So it's all software running the program blocks. And if that goes down..."

Baty shrugged. "That really doesn't concern me. If they get slaughtered by the AD Police or the Knight Sabers, it still has the same effect. Yoshida loses his balance, and will want to throw himself into his work in an effort to understand where he went wrong. He'll be easy to control, and his work will be easier to direct. By the time he realizes how he's being used, it won't matter."

Ai nodded after a moment. "So, we prime the Boomer 'freedom fighters' with stories designed to make them side emotionally with Yoshida's Boomers."

"Hai. And when they're destroyed out of hand by the various forces of human order, it will fan the flames of anti-human rhetoric amongst these same 'freedom fighters.' That will make it easy to push the Liberationists over to the point where they will embrace the call for active and violent resistance."

Ai nodded slowly. "The humans will be desperate as both individuals and groups for some kind of protection from the out of control mechanicals, which is roughly when the people we've injected with Sangnoir Alpha through Iota will start to appear on the world stage. They'll find ready followers and supporters with the Firsters."

"And the world will find itself teetering on the brink of the first true world-wide Race War it's ever had," Baty finished. "And that's when we intervene with our solution, and implement the Final Phase."

Ai made a happy sound over the phone. "It's all coming along so well! Even Sylia's forces in Megatokyo haven't the faintest idea what tune they're dancing to!"

Baty smiled. "Hai. For now, go prepare the Firsters to respond appropriately when the Boomers go on rampage. We need them scared but unwilling to act without strong active leadership."

"Hai, Onii-san."

* * *

2:00pm, Ladys633, Megatokyo

Mackie sat in bed, drawing his latest model on paper. -The armor needs to be a little more fluid,- he decided. -I think the hard angles on the hips will dig into the legs a little in long jumps, especially if I have to do something major, like jumping up onto a rooftop.-

He paused, and set the pencil down. "Now where did that thought come from?" He looked down at his prototype Sabers-style armor, emphasizing speed and agility. Aside from the necessary alterations in basic style that a man's suit had to have, it would be dark gray, with red highlights, keeping the color scheme of the original MADOX power armor.

On the paper, Knuckle Bombers on both arms, a pair of heavy cannon mounting points over the shoulders, and a heavy set of belt hardpoints completed the design. Another half drawn sketch showed the form holding what looked like the mother of all assault cannons, with a feed line running into a huge backpack.

Below it was a half-sketched design for a modified forearm mount. A rotary gatling gun went around the outside of the forearm, the central feed mechanism running in from underneath. He had several possible designs, either a single firing point over the forearm, or four firing points, at the cardinal directions. Another image showed what looked like a wicked pair of large-ish punch daggers clipped to the waist, which used a monomolecular ribbon system to deploy a sword-like extension, which was then energized, giving it tremendous cutting capability.

His unfinished sketch involved a beefier jump assembly in the legs and lower back, which included components of the antigravity equipment. Added to the rest of the setup, it would give his armor a degree of damage-dealing potential he was pretty sure none of the other Knights could duplicate.

Well, maybe Priss.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. "Hai?"

Sylia entered the room, carrying a mid-day snack with her. "Just thought you could use something to keep you going."

Mackie made an embarassed sound in his throat as Sylia arranged the tray to one side. "Sis, I'm fine! Really! You don't have to keep hovering over me all the time!"

"I know," Sylia said with a mischievous smile. "But I realized last week that I haven't done this enough in my life. So I'm making up for lost time now."

"When I can't run away."

"Hai!" Sylia gave a look of mock determination, which was somewhat spoiled by the grin that kept tugging at the corner of her lips. "So, what have you come up with for us today?" She looked down at the drawings in his lap as he shifted slightly, grateful for the change in topic.

"Just some designs for the armor I'm going to build. The prosthetic rotary cannon design I found was a little strange. I think the people who built it had a deeper understanding of mystic energies than we do. But I can adapt the basic concept to work with the new suit."

Sylia sat beside Mackie, and listened calmly as he began to rattle on about the ideas he had. ("No, seriously! I can make that cannon work! All we need to really do is grab an assembly off of a surplused FireBee. I can get parts pretty cheap out of a contact in Prussia I know of." Sylia just looked on dubiously as he quickly sketched his idea out.)

Mackie eventually realized Sylia was uncharacteristically silent, offering fewer observations than usual. He glanced over at one point, and was amazed to see her simply leaning back, eyes half closed as he explained his latest idea, a small smile on her face. He looked back just before she glanced over at him, and began to sketch a modification for the Madox's internal structure. "And I figure we can modify the internals so I can connect directly with it while in the new armor."

"Mackie," Sylia sighed dramatically. "Haven't you learned yet? Or do you need Nene to kick somewhere more sensitive to get the point across?"

Mackie gave her a reproachful look as he shook his head. "No, seriously. I mean, you girls all have Motoroids to handle your heavy firepower. MADOX's biggest problem is that it's simply been too massive to compete in anything but the heaviest weight class. It just can't move the mass out of the way fast enough."

"And the solution is?"

"Reflected gravity. That," Mackie continued, "And another total rebuild, this time using the lightest but strongest materials I can swap out, starting from the frame and working out. I figure I can cut the weight by half if I use modern internal structure and armor, replace the antiquated computer hardware with some of the new stuff.

"The big savings will be the flight system. MADOX used a huge hover thruster and two huge turbojets mounted behind it, plus all the equipment connecting it all together, an onboard fuel tank, thrust assembly, and cooling equipment. Get rid of all of that, and I have a much more nimble unit." Mackie gave her a teasing grin. "And it'll still be massive enough to slam through a building wall without slowing down."

"Sounds more like a total replacement," Sylia said after a moment. "Why bother rebuilding the MADOX if you're essentially building all over? Start fresh. That way you won't be tempted to keep legacy systems in and only do half a job."

Mackie nodded after a moment. "Makes sense. What about you? What are you planning on adding next?"

Sylia looked surprised. "Me? The suits are all finished."

A snort was his only answer. Sylia shook her head, smiling. "All right, I do have a few ideas I'm looking at. But at the moment, there doesn't seem to be any reason to introduce a new version. The armors in their current form have only seen one engagement, and the enemies were almost totally destroyed."

"Almost, sis. That merc unit got away. If they're mad enough, they'll be back."

Sylia tilted her head to one side. "So what do you think I should add to the suits? Is there anything I could swap in quickly that would make any added difference?"

Mackie thought about that for a long moment, then nodded slowly. "I can think of one angle you haven't tried yet." He looked over at her, and took a deep breath before taking the plunge. "You could ask them."

Sylia started to say something, then stopped. Her eyes half-closed as she considered his idea. "We'll see," she temporized, pretending not to see his exaggerated sigh of relief. "The suits don't have true AI, for the simple reason that I couldn't justify putting a self-aware battle suit on the front lines, since we might have to ditch them in an emergency. But I'll see what I can come up with."

Mackie nodded, relieved as Sylia got up, and walked out of the room with only a single brief touch on his shoulder.

* * *

6:30pm, GENOM Tower, Megatokyo

Chairwoman Madigan quickly reviewed the latest sixteen megabyte proposal a senior executive had floated past her desk. She rethought a few of her earlier decisions, then finally paged down to the bottom, and ran her electronic signature across it. Approved, she sent the modified document back to her copious staff to sort it out and arrange the modified proposal to be sent back to the executive for review.

"And they think GENOM doesn't run on paperwork," she said with quiet satisfaction.

"Is there anything else you would like to discuss with the maintenance department, Madame Chairwoman?"

Kate glanced over at Jenny, who stood to one side her desk, the perfect image of the subservient corporate drone. She glanced to one side, at the two corporate flunkies who had presented the results of the surveys she'd ordered a couple weeks ago. They pretty much dovetailed with what she'd thought, and after a moment's thought, she waved the two off.

"You two can go. Consider what I said earlier about expanding our market, and make sure your departments are up to speed with the direction we're taking the consumer maintenance department in."

"Hai, Madame Chairwoman," they said in unison, and quickly bowed themselves out of the office. Once they were gone, Kate leaned back in the chair and stretched in the early evening light with a rare sigh of pleasure.

"That was much easier than I thought it would be. They didn't complain nearly as much as I thought they would." Leaning over, she tabbed the display to something she'd had in the background all day, and typed another small notation in.

"Well, it's not surprising they'd resist," Jenny began, as she tidied up her own desk. "They're not used to thinking of Boomers as a customer base they can sell to."

"Maybe," Kate conceded, a grin fighting its way onto her face. "But oh, how they turned around when I showed them the projected sales figures for a single quarter alone, once they realized the amount of disposable income an emancipated race is capable of generating."

"You, Madame Chairwoman, are incorrigible."

"True," Kate agreed with a lazy smile and another long stretch. "Too true." She turned to look at the display now dominating her monitor, and thought about it for a long moment, before pressing the 'save' button. "Can you think of anything else I should add at this point?"

Jenny walked over to the main desk, and considered the entries on the screen, as well as the proposed structural design. "It seems a little on the small side," she began. She paused, frowned, and leaned a little closer. "Hot tub with Massage function?" She looked down at arguably the most powerful woman in Megatokyo with what could only be described as a very old-school look. "I think the Chairwoman has other things on her mind right now."

Kate smiled and shrugged. "Soon enough, I think. But the small size was her idea. She doesn't want to become attached to places, so that if she has to abandon it, she's not leaving anything important behind. Frankly, I agree with her. This setup can be made operational in a few days, in any medium-sized two-bedroom apartment or better. She can have a dozen of these scattered all over Megatokyo and no one will ever know."

Jenny traced data flow paths back to a prominant computer storage node. "And the purpose of this node, if I may inquire?"

"You certainly may," Kate answered, then tapped a button. An image of a portable memory solid appeared. "She wants to set it up so that everything that matters is saved on a single crystal. That way, she has only to pull that when she leaves the room, and it doesn't matter if it's compromised while she's away. Nothing important is lost. As an additional feature, I came up with a lock-out that prevents the security system from fully engaging until she removes the crystal. It can be overridden, of course," she finished with a thoughtful frown, "if it should be necessary to enable security with the data core in place."

"What happens to the core when she's not in the building?"

Kate gave her bodyguard secretary an exasperated look. "I think she plans to use it as a music storage device, and carry it around with her when she's patrolling. I've caught references to music lists and some kind of reference program she's apparently seen in the recent past." She shrugged as if totally clueless, but she knew Jenny probably filled in what she hadn't said.

"Is there a memory solid small enough for what she obviously wishes to do with it?"

Kate nodded. "Oh, they exist. Problem is, they can only be manufactured in space, in a zero-G environment. This makes them very expensive. More so than a reporter should be able to afford. It could be a very expensive mistake that leads people in directions she doesn't want them going, and I can't seem to make her see it." She looked frustrated as she considered the sanctum design.

"You could make it a gift to her. By now there has to be people who know she's good friends with the Chairwoman of GENOM."

"That's not the point. Certainly I could give her one. But that marks it even more. If they ever take it from her, they would identify the core, and realize where it came from. That ties her back to GENOM, which she really shouldn't do."

Jenny thought about it for a long moment, then looked over at her boss again. "What kinds of devices will this solid fit into?"

"It's too big for conventional cameras, if that's what you're thinking." Kate looked over at her with a smile. "It's the first thing I thought of too."

"What about a hip pack? Some cameramen use portable memory packs attached to support harnesses to vastly increase their storage capacity. Could she carry it on a hip pack?"

"Possibly, but that means convincing her to wear a heavy belt and hip harness. I don't think she'll do it. That skirt's pretty skimpy, but she's wearing it for ease of movement. She'll be sacrificing a lot of it for that kind of support harness."

"Most Senshi in the anime wear long gloves, correct Madigan-san?"

"Ye-es..."

"So how about a forearm-mounted computer system? The core could be a type twenty-three memory solid, which would be ratcheted into an armored bracer on her forearm. Add an interface screen, and she has a useful device in addition to a powerful computer at her disposal."

Kate nodded slowly as the image took shape in her mind. "Yes, I think that might do it." She looked over at the computer screen, and tapped a few comments into the display. "There. I'll refine it a bit more over the next few days. I'm sure she'll want to stop by sometime soon for some reason or another," she said with a sigh as she rested her fingertips on Ohara's report.

"She's been remarkably restrained when it comes to her other sources of information. Do you really think she'll refer to it?"

"It's possible," Kate said slowly. "While she's never exactly come out and admitted she's on the Knights' payroll, it's pretty obvious they consider her more than just a friendly acquaintance. That said, I'm also sure Ms. Stingray has her own sources of information." She looked up at Jenny as she leaned back in the chair.

"Once Stingray discovers the arrival of another Visitor, she'll want to learn what GENOM knows about it. Not to mention what my reaction will be." She looked up at the ceiling, an unfocused expression briefly crossing her face.

"If she's serious about finding out all she can, she'll try to take advantage of Lisa's friendship to learn what I know, and what I plan to do. No matter how much more open the Knights' leader seems to be toward me as a person, she's still a very focused and driven leader. And that means she's going to take advantage of every edge she has."

Jenny walked around the Chairwoman's desk, and tidied up paperwork, placing finished reports in the vault to the side. "So what happens when Lisa asks? She'll know if you're holding back on her."

Kate frowned slightly and looked across the room at something that wasn't there. "I never realized when I helped Doug how hard it would be to keep doing the right thing. It just seemed so much easier when I was opposing Quincy that night. Now... It's like what was once so clear-cut is vanishing into gray fog sometimes."

Jenny paused and looked back at Kate. "Kathryn-san," she said quietly, drawing Kate's immediate attention at the use of the more personal address. "What do you think the girl with the blue domino mask would want you to do?"

Kate blinked several times as the question seemed to echo inside her. She looked down at her right arm, flexed the hand a few times, and then smiled slightly. "Right."

She looked up at Jenny. "Thank you, Jenny. That helped, a lot."

Jenny bowed to Kate. "Arigato, Madigan-san."

"Call me Kate, would you? At least in private."

Jenny smiled in pleasure, and bowed again. "Very well... Kate-san."

* * *

10:30pm, Almond Coffee Shop, Shinjuku, Megatokyo

The crowd of young men and women gathered outside the popular meeting place. It ebbed and flowed with a life of its own, chattering, laughing and occasionally pausing to drink from whatever was handy.

Eventually they drifted into the coffee shop, or wandered down the Shinjuku streets, small groups looking for whatever party atmosphere suited their fancy.

A single person detached himself from a group of friends and waved to them regretfully as they tried to entice him into one of the nearby bars. "Gomen! I have a very early day tomorrow. Maybe Wednesday," he continued as the girls gave him reproachful looks. "I can be available Wednesday!"

"We're holding you to that, Sosuke-san!" they carolled, laughing. Shaking his head in regret, Sosuke wandered off down the street toward home.

In the shadows, a large figure watched as the young salariman decided to cut through a side alley, presumably to save time. A nasty grin began to grow on the large figure's face as it moved into position. The dim light in the alley glinted off its body in blue highlights. The Boomer didn't notice the solitary figure in the skyline above, watching it from the rooftop behind.

Sosuke wandered down the alley, hands in his pockets. -Damn! They're really looking fine tonight, and here I am, going home so I can go to work at a really stupid hour tomorrow! Do I really need the money that badly?-

He already knew the answer to that, so he kept on walking.

The figure nearby reached a decision, and began to rush the distracted young man. Sosuke had only a moment or two of shocked understanding before what looked like an old-model combat boomer rushed him.

It never reached him however. A gray blur slammed down on top of the boomer, crushing it into the pavement. Sosuke stumbled back as the combat machine growled in rage, and violently flipped itself over, tossing the armored figure off. "That hurt, you bastard! Now I'm going to take it out on you." The boomer got to its feet, and flexed its huge hands. "This is gonna be fun."

The gray-armored figure had executed an effortless backflip to land in a combat pose facing the machine. "I don't think so," the voxmodded voice said confidently. "I strongly suggest you surrender. You won't like the alternative."

In the background, Sosuke crouched behind a trash bin, cell phone held up, the tiny camera recording everything.

The boomer laughed confidently and began to rush the armored figure. "I heard a few stories about you, yeah," it called out as it raced toward the enemy. "But trashing a coffee boomer isn't going to earn my respect, tiny!"

"Then try this!" The gray figure executed a leap-flip, letting the boomer charge under his position. As he landed behind the charging combat machine, he spun around, and raised his right arm. Eight barrels extended from the forearm, and began to rotate around the arm at high speeds, spitting armor-piercing death at the combat monster.

The boomer staggered back against the wall even as it was turning around, raising an arm to protect its eyes as the enemy armor fired the repeating cannon at it. It growled in frustration, and began to run away, down the alley. "I don't have time for this!" The boomer raced down several more alleys, turning in random directions, trying to put some distance between it and its pursuer. "This is getting bloody expensive," it rasped.

The dark gray figure dropped to the ground twenty feet in front of him. "It's about to get a lot more expensive," the voice said, as it rushed toward him. The boomer growled and opened its mouth, laser cannon extending to the firing position.

Even as the cannon began to charge however, the figure attacked. Pulling what looked like a small weapon from its belt, it pressed a button, causing a thin whip of monomolecular metal to snap forward, impaling the boomer. Another click, and the metal electrified, causing intense pain and the snapping sound of fried circuits to fill the boomer's consciousness. The head snapped back and the boomer roared in pain as the mouth cannon fired, briefly illuminating the alleyway in red light as the beam fired up into the skyline above.

The crackling sound continued for a few long moments, then stopped. By the time AD Police had arrived on the scene with a couple armored units, all they found was a badly wrecked old model combat boomer, and a very scared young salariman.

Sosuke was very happy to give the AD Police a copy of his video footage. But he wasn't an idiot. He'd saved a copy to his home computer, so he could sell it later. People would pay good money for this, he knew.

* * *

Tuesday, October 27, 2037, 9:30 AM
AD Police, Megatokyo

"So, what have we got?"

Daley watched with a kind of sick fascination as the Boomer technician pulled back the antistatic blanket to reveal the shredded remains of the combat boomer.

"Hard to say exactly, Detective," the technician began as the elevator door opened into the Boomer morgue behind him. The light clicking sound of high heels on the floor told him who was coming even before she stepped around into his field of view. Nene's arrival was no surprise. Ostensibly, as the chief cyberneticist in the AD Police these days, she had a genuine responsibility to keep up to date on unusual Boomer crimes.

And as the electronics warfare expert in the Knight Sabers, it was also a matter of personal survival.

Roger's arrival was unexpected, but only because the new detective seemed to prefer soft-soled Dockers, and thus was really hard to hear walking around. Daley just nodded in the direction of the Boomer tech, and they all took up positions around the wrecked combat machine.

"So, you were saying, Nogami-san?"

The Boomer tech clicked a few notes on his PDA, and ran his fingertip lightly over the slice cut into the midsection. "Primary cause of death was this incision, which penetrated approximately eight centimetres. The assailant targeted the main power distribution system from the looks of it, but it looks like they hit a little high, striking one of the main power conduits instead.

"As a result, instead of instantly frying the Boomer's main power systems, it was effectively electrocuted by the high-wattage electrical jolt the assailant then passed into it."

Roger raised an eyebrow. "Death? We're treating this as a homicide?" He pretended not to notice Nene's glare as she looked over at him. "All I'm saying," he continued, addressing the empty air in front of him, "is that the victim's cell camera clearly shows this guy was was the hostile. That makes it a Boomer crime, not a murder investigation."

"Unfortunately, it's not that clear-cut anymore," Daly continued slowly. "With GENOM stepping back, so to speak, from the gag-order mentality we had to deal with a couple years ago, we have a lot more leeway in how we handle boomer crimes. And while this boomer was clearly the assailant, he's also dead. We were able to determine he was a Leon-A boomer," he paused as the tech nodded agreement, "so that makes it the same as a vigilante killing a human mugger in an alleyway. And that's what makes it a homicide."

"So..." Roger looked down the length of the morgue. "What makes say, the combat boomer rampage the Knight Sabers dealt with last week any different?"

"In theory, if we'd been there, nothing. Same as it's always technically been no difference if we ever run into them."

"But..."

"But! There's official policy, and then there's how the politicians really want things handled. And as I said, GENOM may be easing off, but they haven't gone away. They still pull the strings occasionally, although I think the Chief is a little shocked at some of the things they've been pulling strings over, lately."

Roger frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well," Daley leaned back against the trolley as the technician began to pack the boomer corpse into the large fireproof containment bag. Nene looked on, intrigued. "The Chairwoman's presumed kidnapping and recovery left a large chunk of the industrial sector a mess, and left eight top of the line military boomers in little pieces. The Knights were clearly involved, and usually what happens here is GENOM stops us from investigating their involvement, but won't stop us from making the Knights' lives as difficult as possible."

"And this time is different?"

"I'd say so, yes. Barely a day into the investigation, and Chief Tohdo is getting 'hints' that investigating everyone's involvement in the whole affair could cause embarassment for everyone involved, and thus, isn't a direction our illustrious civilian superiors are willing to go in." The chief inspector looked over at Roger. "Put another way, GENOM just told AD Police to leave the Knight Sabers alone this time. Which you have to admit, is pretty atypical of them."

"All that really suggests," Roger said slowly, "Is that the rumors of the Chairwoman's kidnapping were probably genuine, and they paid the Knights to rescue her."

"Yeah, but it's what that might suggest in the future that worries me."

Nene tilted her head to the side. "How so?"

Daley thought about it for a long moment, and pushed off from the gurney, heading toward the elevator. "Thanks for the head's up, Hideoshi-san!"

The tech waved absently in Daley's direction as the others stepped into the elevator. Doing little favors for Inspector Wong might make his workday more difficult, but getting to be a fly on the wall sometimes more than made up for it. He smiled as he trundled the would-be boomer killer into a morgue cabinet and walked off, oblivious to the small rivulet of what looked like liquid mercury that eased its way through the seals and into the drawer.

In the elevator, Daley punched the button for the top floor's helicopter deck, and leaned back against the wall as the car began the longest trip it could make in the building. "What worries me," he began with quiet intensity, "is the latest softening we've been seeing of the traditional relationship between GENOM and the Knight Sabers."

Nene looked thoughtful as Roger watched him with a confused frown. "Think about it," Daley continued. "In the past, GENOM has been the Knights' most implacable enemy. If Quincy had been kidnapped, the Knight Sabers not only wouldn't have taken a contract to rescue him, no matter how much money they threw at the Knights, the mercenaries would have thrown a party to celebrate the end of their most hated enemy.

"But last week, the Knights took a contract by GENOM to rescue a disappeared Chairwoman. This tells me the Knights aren't necessarily GENOM's enemies, depending on the situation. And that tells me that they might be either conned into supporting GENOM in the future, or may let their guard down at the wrong moment, and get killed by another Brian Mason."

Nene nodded slightly as the points were raised. "But what would you do differently, Daley-chan? It looks like Madigan is trying to present a more moderate front. Maybe they're playing the long odds, trying to encourage the new Chairwoman to become the person she seems to be."

Daley nodded as the elevator began to slow down. "Hai. They may. But even if that's true, Kathryn Madigan is only one person. And as strange as it may be to say in these days, CEO's of GENOM aren't invincible. They die. They get replaced. Becoming complacent where GENOM is concerned is just too much of a risk.

"There may come a day when Madigan is either forced to a course of action that would be more in line with Quincy, or is no longer controlling the future of GENOM." He turned to look at the redhead as Roger's face took on the same concerned expression that Daley's had shown. "What do you think the Knights will do if that happens?"

Nene's expression showed she didn't know, but was thinking about it. Daley nodded to the other two as he stepped out onto the roof helicopter deck. "I'm going to go rattle a few cages. It's been while since anyone's run a surprise inspection up here, and I have an hour or so to kill."

Nene smothered a giggle as Roger stepped out as well. "This, I've gotta see." He looked back at the cyberneticist. "Coming, Nene?"

"Iie," she answered with a shake of her head. "I need to go over those programs you salvaged from that mercenary PDA. Some of them look pretty sophisticated. I think a few of them were obtained through the black market, and may actually be tweaked versions of other countries' military electronic warfare software. If I can combine that with what we already have -"

"Enough!" Roger said, holding up his hands in mock surrender as Daley chuckled behind him. "I'm sorry I asked! We'll see you at lunch, yes?"

"Hai! Count on me!" Nene waved with a smile on her face as the door closed in front of her.

* * *

3:00 PM, Knight Sabers Armory, Ladys633, Megatokyo

Sylia watched with what she guessed could only be called sisterly exasperation as Mackie eased himself down into the cyber interface chair with only a few winces. As the systems came up, he began to transfer his sketches and ideas into the database Sylia used to prototype armor concepts. On screen, the design of the gray armor began to take shape. The eight-barrel rotary cannon around the right arm, ribbon sabers and boosted flight system went in first, with additional systems being added as he thought about them and programmed them into the simulation.

Already, simple "box room" simulations were running, showing what the armor should be able to do based on what it currently had designed into it. "Just don't forget to include the systems I designed into the latest suits," she reminded Mackie. "I want you to be able to hold your own with anything the girls can stand up to."

Mackie made an irritated growl at the implied comment, but refused to rise to the bait. Sylia merely smiled, and stepped out. "I'll be down to let you know when dinner's ready. Have fun!"

A distracted reply was his only comment as the leader of the Knight Sabers stepped into the main room. She walked slowly across to the vehicle bay, and stepped in, fingers trailing idly across the heavy equipment stored inside.

-I so very rarely just come down here and look at all this,- she thought to herself. Across the room, one of the Motoroids looked over at her, tilting its head to one side.

"Just thinking, Lightning," she said, with a small wave. The giant convertible motorcycle just nodded briefly and returned to a 'neutral' position. Its head continued to occasionally look over in Sylia's direction when he thought she wasn't looking, however.

-And that's a new change too,- she thought with some surprise. -When did my motoroid become 'he' instead of 'it'? And why is it so natural to call him by my childhood show-horse's name?-

Colonel Sangnoir had set quite a few changes in motion, Sylia reflected as she drifted across the room. Finally, she stopped in front of a particular piece of heavy equipment. The item that had set her latest personal changes in motion: MADOX-01.

The giant suit of battleship plate had been repaired from its last outing. The huge combat machine stood silent and motionless in the bay. Unlike most of the other equipment here, MADOX was truly powered down, with no awareness of anything around itself until turned on again. A walking tank, in every sense.

Sylia ran her fingertips across the cold metal. "I think I have you to thank for all this," she whispered, smiling. "It's what you do," she continued after a long moment. "You change the lives of everyone you come into contact with. Don't you?"

The armor made no reply, just stood there stoically, staring blankly at the far wall.

Sylia laughed to herself, then let herself out of the equipment bay, not noticing the considering look Lightning was giving the ancient war machine.

* * *

6:00 PM, Ladys633, Megatokyo

Nene dashed in, folding the umbrella and shaking the water outside before closing the door. Already she could see several pairs of slippers missing from the entryway, suggesting she was one of the last to arrive. She tapped the vidrom in her shirt pocket with a grin and changed from her wet work shoes into the soft, warm slippers, and made her way upstairs to the main living area.

As she stepped into the main room, she quickly picked up Leon and Priss standing to one side talking to Sylia. She held what looked like a really fine leather jacket up, letting Leon slip into it and shift a bit, trying the fit. Priss watched, interested.

Across the room, Jennifer was 'helping' Mackie eat dinner, much to Mackie's frustration. Lisa was on a couch nearby, almost senseless with laughter as she watched the invalid trying ineffectually to stop Jennifer from taking over his eating habits. As Mackie looked up at the ceiling in annoyance, Nene saw Jennifer quickly slip a french fry into her mouth, regarding Mackie with an innocent look as she chewed when he glared at her.

"Is it always this..."

"Wonderfully frantic?" Nene finished the other girl's sentence as the young-looking blonde stepped into the room. Anri took in the subdued chaos of the main living room, and shook her head. "I heard this place was quieter. I think Priss was making that up."

"Probably," Nene agreed with a mischievous grin. "You can't believe anything that hairless ape tells you, you know."

Anri giggled, every inch the teenage girl who was finally being let in on the adult gathering. She walked over to Lisa, pausing briefly to touch Jennifer on the shoulder for a moment. The younger girl looked up at Anri with a smile and went back to her task, acting outraged when she discovered Mackie had stolen the fork back when she wasn't looking.

A presence behind her was her only warning before she felt a fingertip poke her in the back. "You're in the way, Nene!"

The redhead jumped out of the way with a yelp of surprise, drawing laughter from Lisa and Anri. Whirling around, she found herself looking at an amused Linna, who was still holding her hand up in a mock-jab. Behind her, Kou was walking to the far side of the room, one arm cradled around a content-looking Reika.

Sylia stepped around Leon, who was posing outrageously, much to Priss' obvious enjoyment, and walked over to the comfortable chair that was obviously hers. She settled into it and looked around, while the others settled onto chairs and couches, sensing the meeting was about to start.

The final member of their larger gathering that night stepped into the room, and sat down between Jennifer and Lisa, holding what looked like a bowl of ice cream. The golden eyed girl ate slowly, a look of bliss on her face as she made her way through the contents.

"If we're ready to begin?" Sylia looked around at the large group, and although her lips twitched at the obvious pleasure Sylvie took in the ice cream, and Jennifer's quiet attempts to monopolize her brother, she carried on anyway. "I'd like to thank all of you who aren't normally part of this gathering. All of you have some very good reasons to help us keep the secret, and many of you are directly involved with recent events anyway. So it made sense to include you." She looked over at Leon and nodded slightly.

"This must be somewhat strange for you, Inspector. It's the first time you'll actually get to see what we do behind closed doors. Please don't make me regret my decision."

Leon put his arm around Priss, and pulled her close. "You don't need to worry, Sylia-san. I wouldn't do anything that endangered Priss." This was greeted by a very warm smile from the singer, who clearly decided 'to hell with image' just this once, and leaned into the embrace, much to Jennifer's clear approval.

Sylia nodded and turned to the others in the room. "As many of you know, Sylvie and Anri have had prior history with the Knight Sabers, and are good friends with Priss. Given what's happened to them, I've offered to help them build new lives for themselves, and they've accepted."

Sylvie smiled and looked over at Anri, who seemed just as happy and vibrant. "Arigato, Sylia-san," Sylvie began. "What you've done for Anri..." She stopped, unable to continue. On the other side, Jennifer just rested her small hand on Sylvie's arm, her understanding reflected in her eyes.

Sylia nodded and leaned forward slightly. "Your companion suffered from an unexpected side effect cause by poorly constructed marrow breeders. As I'm sure the three of you know," she continued, including Jennifer in her explanation, "The artificial bone structure had to be sufficiently hollow in the upper arms and legs to support the grafting of the artificial marrow which is responsible for producing your 'neutral' type blood supply."

The three girls nodded and looked on as Sylia continued. The others followed on, also interested.

"The problem Anri had was that the marrow in both arms and legs was defective. I don't know why, since the artificial bone structure turned out to be properly formed. It was capable of handling the proper marrow type, it just didn't have it." Sylia looked over at Anri. "All I can suggest is that something may have been introduced into your bloodstream at some point which damaged the marrow. At this point, I'm not able to determine what that was. But replacing the neutral marrow seems to have fixed the problem. We'll keep an eye on it for another year or so to make sure it's taken."

Anri looked both thoughtful and a little resentful. It was a fair bet she knew what had happened, but she didn't volunteer it, and no one asked. After a moment, she looked back up at Sylia and nodded again. "Hai! Arigato gozaimasu, Sylia-san!" she finished with a deep bow from where she sat.

"So where does that leave us?" Sylvie set the empty bowl down on the table, and leaned back, an invisible tension in her eyes as she regarded the others in the room.

"Officially," Leon said, taking up control of the conversation, "now that the boomeroid law has been struck down in the Diet, it no longer matters how much boomer or boomeroid parts go into making a person. Since the introduction of the Leon-freed boomers..." he paused for a moment, clearly pleased with the fact that it sounded like the process had been named after him. A snort from Priss and a giggle from Jennifer across the room suggested this was a common reaction.

"Anyway," Leon continued after a moment. "The fact that we now have self-aware boomers running around demanding their freedom has caused a lot of governments in the world to face the thorny question of what defines a person. Not all governments are open about the idea, which is causing tension and violent action in some places around the globe. The presence of the pro-human and pro-boomer factions isn't helping any either."

Leon leaned forward, clasping both hands in front of him as he looked over at the freed sexaroids. "In Japan, GENOM is pushing as hard to recognize boomer rights for boomers with organic neural matter as it used to be trying to suppres them." He paused to shake his head in mock disbelief, and grinned when Jennifer glared at him.

"To avoid having a very angry daughter on the way home," he continued, getting a suspiciously narrow-eyed stare from her, "I'll go on to mention that word has come down through the police agencies to treat any boomer that claims self awareness, and possesses an organic neural network as the real deal. That includes several models of combat boomer, as well as every sexaroid that ever lived."

"What about those that aren't around, anymore?" Sylvie looked over at Anri as they shared a moment of remembered pain. "Is anything being done for them?"

Leon bit his lip and shook his head. "Not yet. Which is not to say they won't," he said quickly as Sylvie's eyes closed with fresh grief. "Just that they haven't gotten that far yet. It's tricky enough as it is. It's like discovering a horrible new kind of crime you didn't know existed. By rights, you can't try the criminal who committed them with a law you just passed. And if no laws existed then, it technically wasn't illegal when it happened." He looked over at Sylvie, who looked back at him with a sad look in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Sylvie. There may never be justice for your friends."

He looked around at the others in the room. "However, I'd also have cheerfully bet only a couple years ago that I'd never see the inside of a Knight Sabers' strategy session, so who knows? Things change."

Across the room, Lisa got a thoughtful look in her eyes, and looked at the girl sitting beside her, the pain and grief freshly etched on her face. Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and she nodded briefly. Then she turned to watch Sylia again, only to find the older woman's eyes on her. Sylia didn't respond to the implied thought, but instead turned to Sylvie.

"In light of the confused state of things, I'm recommending you keep a low profile a while longer. I can certainly employ both you and Anri if you're worried about living expenses. I have several projects I could use more help with if you're interested. If in the future," Sylia continued as the regular Knights looked at her speculatively, "if the situation politically changes to the point where you can openly register yourselves, you can choose to do so then."

The sexaroids nodded, and Sylvie wiped her eyes with a tissue Jennifer gave her. "Arigato, Sylia-san," Sylvie said quietly.

"Lisa?"

The young reporter looked over at Sylia. "Hai, Sylia?"

"I've been hearing rumors that GENOM is about to expand its sales line to include boomers as part of its targeted sales group. Essentially, it's about to start selling to emancipated boomers." She paused and looked over at Jennifer. "Priss, you and Leon can't keep running the cover story that your daughter's just growing more slowly for much longer. She's due for a growth spurt." Sylia looked back at Lisa as Jennifer bit her lip and smiled slightly as she looked over at her parents.

"I hesitate to suggest this, Lisa, but if you could see what resources your movie partner may be able to offer boomers who want to 'mature' themselves, I would appreciate it. Try to keep us out of the conversation, however," she said dryly. "I don't want them to think this in any way gives them a marker they can call us on in the future."

Lisa ducked her head as Priss snorted in the background. "Hai, Sylia."

"In other news," Sylia continued, leaning back in her chair, "I've gotten confirmation from a contact of mine that IDEC has recorded another Visitor arriving in Megatokyo sometime this last week." She looked briefly over at Leon, as the Inspector started noticeably, and pursed his lips in suppressed anger.

"Given that we have no means of detecting who this person is, or what they want, all I can suggest for now is that we keep alert, and look for more signs of the strange behavior we've seen in the past."

"Do we know anything about who came through?" Linna looked at Nene. "Have you heard anything about this?"

"Iie," Nene replied absently. "Although now that I think about it, another Visitor would make sense from the angle of that new vigilante we've been hearing about lately. It's just the kind of solo behavior you'd expect of Doug when he was here."

"They may be responsible for the recent vigilante behavior," Sylia acknowledged, "but they aren't using the SQUID42 communications protocol in any way. Or at least, they weren't responding when I sent a signal this afternoon."

That got attention from everyone in the room. "You... sent a signal?" Linna blurted out, eyes wide.

Sylia gave her a very old-fashioned look. "Please, Linna. You know me better than that. I was over by the docks at the time, and it was what Colonel Sangnoir's helmet was broadcasting when we initially met him. Essentially, a modified United Nations IFF beacon, requesting connection and report. There was no response. If we do have another visitor, they aren't in any way associated with Colonel Sangnoir." She sighed. "In a way, I'd almost have preferred one of his allies showing up unexpectedly. At least I'd have had a clue what to expect. But once again, we're flying blind."

"Not exactly," Nene countered, pulling a vidrom out of her tunic pocket. "The boomer attack the other day netted us an unexpected bonus. The guy the boomer attacked had the presence of mind to record the event on his cell camera. He gave it to the AD Police when we showed up, and I've got a copy here."

Leon sighed and gave Nene a reproachful look, somewhat spoiled by the teasing grin as the redhead got up and slipped the vidrom into a terminal. "Nene-chan! That's classified evidence."

Nene shrugged. "Yes? Besides, I never took it from the evidence copy. I downloaded a spare copy from the cell phone when I was analyzing it earlier today."

The inspector looked over at Sylia as the older Knight watched the byplay carefully. "Your... outings must be more interesting than I ever thought they were."

A small smile was the only answer as Nene cued up the display system. The lights dimmed and the wallscreen lit up. Kou and Reika shifted from where they'd been sitting in front of the screen to another chair. It really wasn't big enough for two, but Reika didn't seem to be inclined to get another, and Kou didn't seem to object, drawing muffled giggles from the other girls as Reika leaned back against Kou, his arms around her.

"The video's pretty bad," Nene continued after a moment. "It's only a ten megapixel phone, after all. And the resolution's a pitiful 720dp." She tapped the button, and the image began to play.

Ten seconds into the playback, Sylia sat forward in shock, pressing the pause button, as across the room, Mackie exclaimed in surprise. "That's... That's impossible! He couldn't have that cannon!"

Sylia looked hard at her brother, as Mackie continued to stare in disbelief at the figure on the screen. "That's my armor design," he whispered softly, causing Leon and Nene to give him hard looks. "I came up with it in the hospital."

"Did someone copy your design while you were asleep?" Leon's voice was soft, but carried a hint of steel that had never been in their conversations with the easygoing detective before. Sylia continued to look between the others, Mackie, and the image on the screen.

"No way," Mackie answered, eyes wide as he shook his head. "I mean, someone might have seen the pictures, but there was no technology on the pages. Just, you know, concept art. Like the kind of thing Fuko-san would draw on her artwork." He looked back at the image on the screen, and pointed at it. "Besides, I only came up with that cannon design after I came home! Remember sis? I was trying to convince you I could get it to work if I could get some surplus Firebee parts?"

"What's so special about that cannon?" Leon asked softly, eyes still focused on the young cybernetics engineer.

Mackie briefly glanced over at Sylia, drawing a growl from Leon. "I'm already part of all this," he continued, eyes intense. "So you might as well tell me the rest of it." To one side, Priss laid a restraining hand on his arm, but it was obvious she wanted to know as badly as her husband did.

Sylia thought about it for another long moment, then reached a decision. "Shortly after our mutual pest left Megatokyo, I came across an archive of material someone had left me, along with instructions on how to make use of what was included. Meant, according to the email attached to it, as an apology for how Colonel Sangnoir had run roughshod over us during his stay here."

Leon's eyes widened slightly as he made a connection. "The Open Source Antigravity data that was dumped into the Net?"

"That was apparently an independant contribution on his part, but yes, that kind of information. To date, only very small components, mostly just individual pieces, have been added to my armors. But there is enough there to transform this whole world's technology by several millenia if dumped on the market in one shot." She looked over at Leon, who was clearly still trying to absorb the information. "But if I did that, it would also probably destroy civilization as we know it. So I use as little as possible, and only when absolutely necessary."

She nodded over at her brother, who was watching the conversation carefully. "Mackie asked to be let into the Archive after it became apparent he wasn't prepared to sit idly by while his girlfriend risked life and limb on a daily basis." She smiled in a brief moment of genuine enjoyment as Nene and Mackie both turned shades of red and squirmed in embarassment. Leon just looked over at the display, and snorted.

"So you finally made it public, huh? It's about time." This drew a stronger embarassed reaction from the two involved, and muffled giggles from most of the other girls.

"In any event," Sylia continued, "The cannon is based on technology from... somewhere else. We're not really sure where," she explained as Leon looked back at her. "The data only goes so far. But it also more heavily relies on the ability to channel the kinds of energy Colonel Sangnoir was fond of using. Since we can't, Mackie has been looking at alternate sources. Either working it up as a heavy energy cannon, or using a belt feed and attached ammunition drum. Until I saw this, I'd have said the modified technology was purely theoretical. But apparently, it isn't."

Reika leaned forward, shifting slightly in Kou's lap. "But doesn't that make it easier?" she looked at the other girls as they looked over at her. "It means that whoever that is, they're probably the mystery Visitor we've got running around. And it means you know what they're armed with! This sounds more like a lucky break, than anything!"

Mackie shook his head, voice still a little unsteady with shock. "It's not like that," he said quietly. "The original weapon was four barrels that rotated around a central cuff built into the forearm. It was meant to be part of a replacement forearm, some kind of cybernetic arm. And it was meant to channel energies in ways we can't duplicate here. I came up with the eight-barrel design in an attempt to personalize it. Sis doesn't want me to use anything I don't fully understand, and I figured if I completely redesigned it, she'd let me build it."

"So we have two possibilities," Jennifer said quietly, drawing attention to her. "Either someone copied Mackie's design when he was building it inside this building." She paused while the others considered the ludicrousness of that statement. Sylia's expression clearly stated what she thought of that idea. "The other possibility is that Mackie is in fact the person in that power armor."

Mackie looked at her, wide-eyed. "I can barely move right now! And remember? The first appearance was while I was still in the hospital."

Lisa bit her lip, and stood up. Walking around to Mackie, she studied him for a long moment, and closed her eyes.

"Lisa?" Mackie looked at her in confusion. Off to the side, Sylia just held up her hand in a "hold" gesture, watching Lisa intently.

"Let her work."

Lisa found her center and reflexively checked both her ground and personal shields. Excess energy was still set to automatically flow into the earth where it couldn't hurt her, and her shields were still holding strong, with nothing impacting them. Drawing strength from their presence, she let her attention drift outside herself, and into the immediate environment.

Nearby, she could sense the presence of her friends, a welter of emotions, feelings, and intense aura-sense that identified all of them to her.

She'd only recently started touching the weakest ley lines in the world around her. She reached for one now, close to the building. It was difficult, because of the bloody huge node she could now sense under Megatokyo. It was distracting. Like having Gojira standing to one side with a giant neon sign held over his head proclaiming "Pay no attention to the giant monster." Her lips twitched and she banished the image, paying more attention to her task.

As she let her connection drift into the current she felt the energies wash into her, cleansing the fatigue of a day spent tracking down sources for her latest story right out of her. It felt good.

She let the energy go after a moment, and dropped into magesight. As she opened her eyes, she found herself faced with the brilliant jewel tones of the life energies all around her. Amazingly, Jennifer, Anri and Sylvie all had life-glows every bit as vibrant as the other people in the room. -I gotta help Kate get to this stage,- she promised herself.

Then she looked over at Mackie.

The life-glow was similar, but there was... something else... interwoven into it. She looked at it a moment longer, and dropped out, looking over at her mentor. "Sylia, can you pull up the aura patterns of different kinds of people?"

Sylia's quickly pulled up the reference material, placing the visual aura patterns on the wallscreen display. The others watched, fascinated. Lisa walked over and ran a fingertip down the monitor, whispering to herself. She glanced back at Mackie a few times to make sure, before finally settling on a pattern. "This one. It's the only one that matches all the aura markers."

Sylia selected it, and the screen changed, showing the aura pattern, and the chapter name.

"Metahuman, Type 6F: Projectives & Metacreative Telekinesis."

Mackie stared at the screen in disbelief as Sylia opened up a smaller screen beside her, and began to read. "What... What does that mean, anyway?"

Lisa turned to the younger Stingray. "If I'm reading this right, you may be the power armor guy running around Megatokyo. Even if you never leave the room."

"How," he whispered, eyes wide. "How am I doing this? And how do I control it?"

Jennifer stepped around to stand on the other side of Mackie, and hugged him. "It's alright, Mackie! We'll get you through this." Mackie just grinned weakly at her, missing a speculative look from Reika as the younger sexaroid comforted him.

"I think we've heard enough for one night," Leon said softly, drawing Sylia back into the conversation. "We need time to figure out what this all means, and come back with some fresh ideas. Also, we may need to set up some EKG machines to monitor your brother," he added, pointing at Mackie. "If he's doing something he's not aware of, we need to be able to identify what the causal factor is. If we can do that, maybe he can learn to control it." Leon stood up, and stretched. "For now, I think we've all heard as much as we can absorb." He looked down at his wife, and held out his hand.

Priss took it and stood up, nodding to Sylia. "I'll call tomorrow, but I think he's right. We need to take time to sort this out. Besides," she finished impishly. "It's past Jennifer's bedtime."

"Awwwww!!" Jennifer gave her a puppy-dog look that any child would have been proud of. "I don't wanna go to bed, mommy!"

Priss just chuckled and picked her daughter up, ignoring the protests from her as they made their way to the door. The others, taking this as their cue, began to break up and head out as well. Soon, it was just Sylia and Mackie alone in the living area.

"Sis... I didn't know."

Sylia shook her head. "I know. But Leon's right. We need to know what triggers these events. This mysterious power armored figure isn't seen every night, so something is triggering it. If we can identify it, you should be able to control it."

Mackie nodded slowly, looking back at the image on the wallscreen. "Well," he finished weakly, as he reached for the crutches. "At least we know the design works."

Sylia's snort of amused resignation was her only answer.

* * *

Wednesday, October 28, 2037, 11:00 AM
Axil Court Ichigaya Daimachizaka, Room 406
Shinjuku-ku, Megatokyo.

Lisa walked around the empty apartment, taking in the possibilities.

She was still very new to this whole 'secret base' thing, but it made sense to have a variety of places set aside for her Senshi identity that couldn't be traced back to where she lived. All she had to do was remember how hunted Doug had felt at times to convince her to do this.

Cost was the big concern. A second apartment would be a large drain on her resources for a while. She wasn't Sylia Stingray, who could probably buy this building out of petty cash, and she didn't want Kate to feel imposed on any more than she already had lately, so that left her with having to finance two apartments on her meager paycheck, and whatever she could untraceably add to her accounts from her work with the Knight Sabers.

"Mou," she complained softly. "I bet Doug never had to worry about paying the rent..."

She stopped, as a guilty thought occurred to her. "Could I?" She considered it, then let it go for the fifth time that day. "No. I couldn't hide it. And it would make me too obvious." She sighed and she wandered around the empty apartment for rent as she considered her options.

The ideal solution of course would be to cheat ("just a little!" she told herself even as she rejected it as dishonest) and use her magesight to peek under the foil covering of a lottery ticket. Using that, she could find some suitably large cash award under a lottery ticket, and use that to finance her operation.

The problem was, that elevated her visibility. As a reporter, she was paradoxically pretty invisible. Most people didn't see them as people. But a rich reporter would stand out, and people would start to pay attention.

"Plus it's a really cheap thing to do with my gift," she groused, as she walked to the front, donned her shoes, and stepped out of the apartment.

She'd already considered selling her magical services in some way, but most of the ways she thought of were ludicrous, or they involved letting other people in on the secret, which wasn't acceptable. "I just gotta find another way," she said softly as she walked out of the apartment building, and began to make her way down the street.

Lisa thought for a moment about the route home, then looked around as she realized she had another option. "I wonder if that would work," she breathed softly. "It all depends on how the cash flow is handled. Does she authorize what the company does herself? She has to," Lisa said, as she began to pick up the pace. "She'd never have taken the job if she was a figurehead." She started to grin. "This might actually work."

Thirty minutes later, she stood outside the front entrance of the modest-sized business identifying itself as Loon Enterprises. Still with that cocky grin on her face, she walked into the front lobby (noting the expensive and tasteful wood panelling, subdued lighting and absence of advertising of any kind - a sure tip-off that this company had lots of money,) and walked over to the front desk.

"Gomen," she began, as she receptionist looked up at her. (-Human, not Boomer,- her trained mind noted, adding to the probable cost of the business. Sure she knew all this already, but she still enjoyed stretching the mental muscles.)

"Would it be possible for me to speak with Chairwoman Yamazaki?"

The receptionist, too well trained to let her own opinions show, simply looked attentively at the young girl. "May I ask your name, please?"

"Lisa Vanette."

The receptionist paused for a fraction of a second, before nodding. "Very well, Ms. Vanette. Please give me a moment to pass the request to the Chairwoman's staff."

-Aw crap!- her mind wailed in a quiet corner. -Of all the people in Megatokyo Linna has to get to run her front desk, it's someone who actually knows I'm a journalist!- She waited patiently until the receptionist looked back up again, an expression of tightly controlled curiosity on her face. "The Chairwoman has extended an invitation to see her. Security will be down in a minute to escort you up." She looked significantly at Lisa's camera bag. "You may be required to leave unsecure items in the security room."

"Hai. Domo Arigato," Lisa said, trying to put a bit of positive spin on the situation. The receptionist didn't seem to be buying it however, and waited patiently for security to show up.

-Interesting,- Lisa thought to herself as a trim young blonde in an ultraconservative business suit stepped into the lobby. -Anri is one of Linna's bodyguards now?-

The young bodyguard nodded to the receptionist, then both efficiently and impersonally escorted Lisa to the security checkpoint, where she watched impassively as the security men confiscated Lisa's camera, putting it into a lockbox. The reporter glowered at the bodyguard, who seemed not to notice, as the two of them were passed through security and into a private elevator.

As the doors closed and the elevator began to climb, Anri's lips twitched, which was just enough provocation for Lisa.

"What was that all about? You know I'm not going to do anything nasty!"

"Not the point," Anri said, smiling slightly. "This is her work identity, which we have to go to great pains to create and establish in the minds of the people around her. Which is why you're the first of her friends to visit her publicly like this. Besides," she continued, looking over at the progress display, "This is for your protection too. You know Loon's got some pretty nasty enemies right now. If you got preferential treatment, it might paint a target on you."

Lisa blinked a couple times as she absorbed this. -This Anri,- she thought to herself after a long moment, -is entirely too good at this kind of thing. How did she learn to do this, anyway?-

The elevator came to a stop, and the door opened. Stepping out, Lisa followed Anri across several deeply carpeted corridors. Windows on the side looked out into the "Garden", where a good approximation of Earth After The Bomb was recreated, with what looked like some really psychadelic trees and plantlife thriving in the postapocalyptic wasteland.

Anri passed Lisa into a heavily guarded room. This one was large and dimly lit. Across the mostly empty room was a huge desk in which sat a very familiar figure. Kou was barely visible as a black-on-black form behind her, blending in with the back wall. "Ms. Vannette-san, as requested, Madame Chairwoman," she said formally.

Linna nodded coolly. "Thank you, Anri. Please give us some privacy, would you?"

Anri seemed to study Lisa for a long moment, as if considering refusing the request. Finally she nodded and stepped out of the room with a "Hai, Madame Chairwoman." The other bodyguards stepped to one side as she took up a position right beside the door.

Oddly, this strangely formal dance didn't set Lisa off her pace in the slightest. She also found as she approached the woman behind the desk that she didn't have any of the apprehension that a person walking into this deliberately crafted psychological set piece should have had. -Guess I spend too much time in Kate's office,- she thought ruefully.

Taking her cue from Anri, she stopped a respectful distance from the desk, and bowed. "Thank you for seeing me, Madame Chairwoman," she began very formally, but Linna leaned back, and waved Lisa over to a chair.

"I'm not that bad," Linna began with a small smile. "But the others have been avoiding visiting me here to avoid painting targets on them. And frankly, no matter how trustworthy I think my people are, anyone talks if questioned the right way. So I have to be pretty impersonal where others might hear, including the guards outside."

Lisa nodded. "Hai, I gathered that. You do a pretty good job actually. This place feels a lot like what Kate's office is like. There's just a few real differences in style, actually. Otherwise, it's really well done."

Linna's face got a somewhat rueful look of her own. "I'm not sure I like being told I've got the Ice Queen thing down so well you can't tell the difference."

Lisa shook her head. "No, no! Totally different animal! I mean, when Kate puts on the Ice Yoma mask, she could freeze your blood. She really pulls off inhuman when she tries."

"And you've seen this?"

"Once." Lisa looked up at the ceiling, eyes distant. "We were in the middle of a movie when someone called about some kind of accident. I didn't hear much. I walked over to the other side of the room." She glared at Linna's apparent display of shock at her consideration for the Chairwoman of GENOM's privacy.

"Anyway," she continued after a moment, "She suddenly seemed to become a totally different person. You could almost see her flaying the skin off of him by look alone. And every word was delivered with just enough of a whisper to it that it kinda felt like she was flaying him alive. By the time she was finished, he was almost in hysterics. Afterward," she continued with a smile, "Kate told me that she thinks of Queen Beryl when she's delivering those verbal reprimands. She says it puts her in the right frame of mind."

Linna shook her head, and looked up again. "So, aside from the chat, which is nice, don't get me wrong, why are you here?"

"Well, I realized you need something I have, that no one else on Earth can offer you. Assuming you feel it's worth paying for, of course." Lisa grinned impishly at Linna.

"Hmmm," Linna said slowly, a slight grin on her face. "So... What do you have that I'd pay you for?"

"Magical defenses."

Linna paused for a long moment, as the almost-invisible form of Kou in the background seemed to focus more of his intensity on Lisa. To Lisa, it felt... weird. It was as if her ability to sense when others were about to attack her flickered to life or something. She could vaguely sense an almost laser-like intensity as he studied her. -Creeepy...- she thought to herself with a small shudder.

"How effective are these defenses you're talking about? What could they protect me from?"

Lisa got a little grin on her face as she stood up, and walked to the center of the room. "Could you ask Anri to step back into the room, please?"

Linna spoke quietly into a small device on her collar, and the young blonde girl came back into the office. Lisa looked over at her, and closed her eyes briefly. There was a small line nearby, again unsurprisingly what with all the weird organics operating in the building. She hadn't looked, but wouldn't be surprised if some of them were good at regulating ley lines and purifying energy flows.

Anri watched calmly as Lisa opened her eyes. "Anri, I want you to attack me. Anything you can think of."

Anri glanced briefly over at Linna, and looked back at Lisa at Linna's cautious nod. "Very well..." She launched herself at Lisa with no warning at all, hand extended in a flat jab for her midsection.

The bodyguard never made it. An invisible force seemed to wrap itself around Anri, binding her arms to her sides, and dropping her to the carpet, even as those same forces bound her legs together. Anri struggled for a few moments, then relaxed. "I can't free myself," she said simply.

Linna nodded, and Lisa released the bodyguard. "Nice trick," Anri admitted as she started to get up. Lisa smiled - and then hoisted the bodyguard into the air, holding her bound and trussed again as the young woman attempted to launch herself at Lisa from a crouched start, again with no warning.

Lisa felt the sudden spike of intent focus down to a point in space, and casually stepped to the side. Kou's hand struck empty air at a point a quarter foot to the side of the reporter. Lisa looked reproachfully at him even as she grabbed his other hand telekinetically, and trussed him up just as quickly.

"Enough," Linna said from the desk. Lisa quickly released the two bodyguards, and bowed to them.

"So," Linna continued as Anri excused herself from the room again, "You've really improved your control with telekinesis. It's much better now." As Lisa settled herself into the chair again, the other woman continued. "But how does that help us? You have a career of your own to manage. You can't be available here all the time."

"No," Lisa started. "But I don't have to be. The books I've been studying went into some considerable detail on how to use magic to build and maintain defenses in a structure. It included some really interesting schematics for a converted mansion that has a small army living in or around it. There's some significant magical defenses built into the structure, and the document explains how to set most of them in place. Even at my fairly low power level right now, it's not hard to do. The spells read like stereo instructions.

"I could do the same thing here. Defenses the other guy doesn't know are there because there's no betraying technology to let them know about it. Protective force fields that would defend you against external threats, without any visible sign you've got them. And detection gear! I could enchant a pair of sunglasses to let you see specific energy flows. With a bit of training, you could use them to spot hidden weapons, concealed power sources, and weapon-shaped objects at several hundred meters."

Linna leaned back in her chair, her gaze intent on Lisa. "You sure you can do all this? You only just started a couple weeks ago."

"Hai!" Lisa rubbed the back of her neck as she worked a kink out. "I've spent most of my nights practicing. First with Sylia, then on my own at home. I've got workbooks with lots and lots of exercises. And I have to prove what I've learned to Sylia every couple of days. I can already draw energy from small streams of magical energy."

"So how does that help us here?"

"Well, I could set an effect so that it's basically self-powered. Once the detection and reaction events are specified, it's operating in place. Out of sight where no one can see it, ready to act the moment a trigger event occurs. Imagine for instance, if I programmed a telekinetic catcher field in the window," she said, gesturing at the armored one-way window behind Linna. "This catcher field would be set to reflect bullets or other projectiles like a forcefield. But if something broke through and cracked the window, the catcher field then focuses all its energy down on the projectile, catching it mid-air and holding it. Depending on how it's programmed, it could then just drop it and go back to protecting the window, ready to catch the next shot."

Lisa had chosen the example deliberately, but it was still a risky thing to do. The other girl still blamed herself for Mackie being shot, but she also knew Linna wouldn't seriously believe Lisa's claims, no matter what she demonstrated. -The Antigravity thing was different. Linna could build that and see it for herself. She can't see magic, so can't prove I've actually done anything until she tests it. And I have to push her to get her to let me prove it.-

Linna's expression showed she knew that Lisa was button-pushing, but she let it slide as she considered the proposal. "If I let you have a small room to the side," she said slowly. "You put the defenses you're talking about on that room. Then we'll run a test penetration, and see how it holds up. This would have to happen after hours so I don't scare the people working here," she finished with a smile. "You okay with this?"

"Hai!" Lisa jumped to her feet. "You want to do this today?"

"Yes," Linna said slowly. "I want to see this working before I second-guess myself. So I'll arrange for you to have the time and a room. Let me know when it's ready."

Lisa bowed, and bounced out of the room, escorted by the ever-watchful Anri.

Linna looked back at Kou as the door closed. "Kou... I'm not as scary as Madigan, am I?"

* * *

12:00 PM, Hiroe's Apartment, Megatokyo

Makoto took a drink. Then another. Then a third.

It was only fruit juice, but yes, she was really wishing it was stronger. In fact, she was seriously thinking of stopping by some random bar in Roppongi and getting well and truly smashed. It was just something that had to be done.

She looked back at her computer, and shuddered again at what it showed. "It's just not possible," she whispered. "Someone's playing a cruel trick on me." She thought of all the Senshi she'd worked with, and tried to come up with a list of people who would do this to her, but kept coming up blank. "No one's this sadistic," she said with a low moan.

She'd originally started by fishing out her "crystal collection". A couple dozen small crystals done up as a cheap mail-order kind of affair, with "The Power of Crystals!" in garish lettering at the top of the stand that held them all.

They were of course, the most powerful and advanced computer cores and magical devices in Megatokyo. And the stand concealed a reader for them.

Plugging the system into the computer had let her access the local Net, and sift through until she found what she was looking for. Now, one of Ami's programs was quietly running in the background, looking for companies that needed temp workers to do simple grunt work for a specific (and short) list of potential clients.

But after setting that up, she'd tapped in search strings looking up any references for the local Senshi. Hiroe had told them that the girl's voice on audio was badly degraded, but the phrase "Sail... oon" had been recorded.

On the theory that the local girl had somehow reached across the void between realities and discovered the existence of the Senshi, Makoto decided to run a search on 'Sailor Moon'. In any sane reality, the only possible hit should be this mystery Senshi. But what she'd discovered instead had been a shock to her very core. The first entry in the search result was "Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon". And there were hundreds of thousands of search results!

It was a very confused and scared girl who escaped the computer chair to stand at the windowsill, chugging back the rest of her fruit juice.

-I need something stronger,- she decided. Taking a couple of fortifying breaths, she made herself walk back to the computer and clear the screen. Then she gathered up an overcoat and shoes, and left the apartment. -I need something a LOT stronger.-

* * *

8:00 PM, Loon Enterprises, Megatokyo

Lisa stood to the side, and tried not to look too smug as Anri and Sylvie slowly pulled themselves out of the giant glob of goop they were strung up in. The captured girls glared at Lisa who broke into a fit of giggles as they struggled to free themselves.

"Okay, okay," Linna said, grinnning. "You've made your point. Now would you please help them out?"

"Hai!" Lisa carolled as she reached for a fire extinguisher. She sprayed them with the suppression foam, causing the sticky goop to dissolve into vapor on contact. Linna watched with surprise, then nodded after a moment. It made sense. After catching the intruder, you want to be able to get at them easily with something you'll always have handy.

It had been a bad twenty minutes for the girls. Lisa had stood in the center of the room, and promised she was using no power to defend herself. During that time, anesthetic darts had veered off course for no reason, paintballs had splashed on invisible walls, and those same invisible walls seemed to be everywhere in the room, causing the girls to run into them with no warning every time they were about to strike.

Eventually Sylvie had figured out the walls were appearing if you moved beyond a certain speed, and she'd walked very deliberately up to Lisa, a smug smile on her face. Lisa watched, totally unconcerned, as Sylvie went to actually grab the target.

That's when the gooey strands had appeared out of nowhere and yanked Sylvie back and off to the right. Anri of course, had tried to intervene and smashed off a few more invisible walls, before being trussed up as well.

"So," Lisa asked as the girls walked off to the side to clean themselves off. "What do you think?"

Linna nodded. "Okay, I admit it. I was really dubious when you presented the idea earlier. But this! This is really incredible stuff! What did you do?"

The reporter gestured to a few points in the room. "Not much actually. The barriers are set to activate if someone attacks the programmed target with hostile intent, within a certain activation area, and even then only if they're moving at a certain speed. Sylvie found the way around it, which was really impressive."

She waved around the room in general. "I put a variant on the forcefield on the whole room in general. Anyone launching an object moving at the speed the darts were moving at will strike more invisible walls, but these are canted at angles designed to make the projectiles miss their targets. And area effect projectiles would make the barrier form perpendicular to the attack vector, which is why the paintballs splatted instead of deflected. This both sets them off prematurely, and puts a shield wall between the explosion and the target.

"The goop thing was meant to restrain living people. Everything else up to that point was meant to make it harder to hit people with projectiles. The tweak that made the girls hit the barriers was something I found in a liner note." Lisa giggled as the other two girls looked darkly back at her. "I wanted to see how it worked."

She looked around the room, and shrugged. "It's really just two spells. Three on the outside. One for the barrier. A second for the gloop attack, and a third for the detection conditions. I tie it all off so it's drawing power from a nearby ley line, and it's self-powering. Plus, I could make it so it can be adjusted from a device..." she paused. "Although, I'd need more practice before I program the device. This part is much easier than setting it as a mutable effect controlled by an object. The energy cost really isn't all that much for everything I'm doing here. It's just about using the small amount I've got to accomplish major effects by focusing the effect where it does the most good."

Linna nodded. "I'm really impressed, Lisa! This is really useful. Okay," she conceded as the reporter girl bounced on her toes with happiness. "Come back tomorrow afternoon, and we'll work out what gets protected, and how we're going to define trigger events. That work?"

"Hai!" Lisa grinned back at her. "I've got a small article I've been running around on for the last couple days. I can write it up and get it out by noon, and come by anytime after that."

"Hmm. Call it after two-thirty, then," Linna decided. She pulled a small card out of her pocket and handed it over. "While you're setting this up for me, I'd appreciate it if I could count on you not running off in pursuit of a story." She grinned to take the sting out of the comment, but Lisa just shrugged. It was a fair statement.

"What's this?"

"A small advance. Just to keep you focused the project. As each section of the building is finished, and tested," Linna said with an upraised finger, to which Lisa only nodded confidently, "I'll pay you for that section as well. Also, if you can get the programmable functions to work in the future, I'll buy that as well."

Lisa grinned. "Right now I can only really touch some really tiny ley lines... although I think some of the stuff you've got indoors is designed to handle ley energy as well as everything else it does. If it does," she continued as Linna look over in the direction of the Garden in shock, "I could set it up so that the power flow is metered by the plantlife, giving you even finer control over the process, and making the Garden self-protecting in the process.

"Eventually," she continued as the girls looked back at her, "the books say I that if I can master more powerful kinds of magic, I could set some really impressive defenses on this place. Basically, anything you could imagine buying from the government, I could probably duplicate... if my power level is as high as Sylia thinks it is."

"Don't bet against Sylia," Linna said teasingly. Lisa shook her head with a grin, and waved as Anri stepped over to escort her out of the building.

"Magic defenses, Senshi armor, and power-battery trees." Linna shook her head and walked back upstairs, a bemused expression on her face. "Can it get any stranger than this?"

Kou said nothing, but his expression spoke volumes.

* * *

9:00 PM, GENOM Tower, Megatokyo

Kate looked up as arguably one of her two best (and possibly only) friends stepped into the room, escorted by the other one. Jenny nodded to Kate, and stepped back outside again, returning moments later with a small box full of supplies for the kitchenette concealed in the side wall. Lisa walked over to Kate's desk while the bodyguard restocked the pantry, while keeping at least one eye on her charges.

"Sorry I'm late," Lisa panted as she flung herself down in the expensive leather chair in front of Kate's desk. The head of corporate GENOM just looked at her in bemusement as Lisa unfurled the deep blue splash of silk she had tied to her throat and fanned herself. "I had a late appointment, ran later than I expected."

Kate waved her hand dismissively as she sat back in the chair. "Not a problem. I called you, remember? I wanted to go over some of the proposed designs we've come up with for your command center."

Lisa blinked a few times, and grinned. "Sounds like fun. Where do we start?"

"Well," Kate began, as Jenny finished up. "First we need a change of venue. Meeting in the office is fine for most of what I do, but it's really not where I should be meeting with friends, don't you think?"

Lisa blinked a couple of times, and stood up as Kate got up and walked around the desk. "Nani?"

Kate just smiled and waved Lisa toward the door at the back. "Come on, Lisa. I've visited your apartment on many occasions in the past. This time, it's my turn to play hostess."

Lisa grinned and bounced after Kate. "Hai!"

Jenny brought up the rear as the trio made their way into a private elevator. It dropped a couple of stories, opening into a small hallway, guarded by several examples of overparanoid Boomer combat technology, all overdressed in severe business suits and wearing opaque sunglasses in the dim hallway. Lisa giggled at the ridiculous image they represented, causing one of them to look over at her.

Kate just smiled, and opened the door. "Come in, please!" She looked back at Jenny. "You joining us for tonight's planning session?"

"With your permission, Madigan-san, I was hoping to catch up on what Leonard has done to poor Bridget today."

Lisa giggled at the thought of Kate's Leon-A freed bodyguard boomer glued to the television while the city's sappiest soap opera played on. Jenny gave her a look, as if she could guess what Lisa was thinking, but refused to rise to the bait.

"Of course, Jenny," Kate smiled. "Enjoy your night."

"Hai, Madigan-san," the bodyguard replied with a bow.

Lisa walked into the room, pausing only long enough to giggle again at the sight of the two absolutely huge bodyguards taking up all the corridor end, except for the small space directly in front of the door (And she'd swear the boomer that looked at her stuck its tongue out at her as the door closed...) Then, as Kate moved into the room, she began to take stock of what she saw.

The apartment was large, certainly, but not as large as she would have expected the master of GENOM to have. -Says things about her that she's still living in her old apartment,- she thought as she took off her shoes. A pair of white and blue slippers decorated with a large blue domino mask "bow" got a smile from Lisa as she slipped them on and walked into the apartment.

Lisa could smell supper cooking. "Mmmm," she said approvingly, as she moved to a small, well appointed table. "That smells really good."

Kate moved around behind the kitchen counter, checking the salmon baking in the oven. "I don't get many visitors," she said with a grin at Lisa's laugh. "So I hope you don't mind if I'm a little out of practice."

Lisa made to step around the counter and help, but Kate gave her a mock- imperious glare and pointed back to the table, so the reporter went back to her seat and watched Kate at work in the kitchen, head propped up on her hands.

She looked around the room, noting things that stood out. It was almost obsessively neat, looking a lot like the kind of room you'd see in a business class hotel. -Then again, knowing Quincy, she was probably afraid he'd had the place wired for video, or something. So it was important to always show the right things, even in private.- The thought of how that evil old man had hurt her friends made her (very privately) glad that Doug had killed him.

She was brought back to the present by the clinking sound of crystal as Kate set the wine glasses down on the table, and poured a really nice off-dry white before heading back into the kitchenette.

"I never knew you liked to cook," Lisa said bemused by all the activity.

"I've always liked making good food," Kate said with a half-distracted smile. "Doug was also a great cook, but he didn't seem to need the instructions as often as I do," she finished, with a tap of the neatly- printed instructions clipped to the side of the oven.

Lisa fought down the totally unexpected surge of jealousy at the comment, and thanked whatever gods were listening that Kate had been paying attention to the oven when she'd said it. -Doug's married! So he wouldn't have... well...- She paused, and reorganized her thoughts. -So he's cooked for her. So what? He took me out on a date, and showed me 50 years of his world's history.-

She smiled at everything else that had happened that night. By the time Kate was taking the parchment-wrapped salmon out of the oven, Lisa was relaxed again. "Paper? You're cooking paper?"

Kate gave her a mildly exasperated look. The kind you give people who just don't understand (prompting Lisa into a fit of giggles). "You'll understand soon enough," she said simply.

While the packages (which smelled really good, Lisa had to admit) cooled down, Kate quickly checked on the rice. An attractive side of wild rice added to the plate completed the confection. When she finished, Kate went back to the paper-wrapped salmon, and carefully drizzled some leftover olive oil on the paper, moistening it. Then, she carefully cut it open, releasing the subtle blend of flavors into the air, drawing an appreciative sigh from Lisa.

Kate grinned and set the paper-wrapped bundle on each plate. Within, the salmon had baked in the parchment container, with a selection of celery, peppers, mushrooms and a few lime slices. A pinch of saffron and a quarter cup of white wine had completed the selection before she'd put it in the oven to bake. Now, the delicious aromas filled the room as Kate sprinkled a few fresh parsley on each. Then, with a poise befitting any well trained hostess in Megatokyo, she set them down at their places at the table before seating herself."

"Wow..."

Kate chuckled, and fished out a pair of elegant chopsticks. They chimed "Itedakimasu!" and laughed, before starting in on dinner.

The salmon was perfect.

Lisa couldn't have said how much time had passed while they ate. They talked about totally normal things (Like Jenny's taste in really bad soap operas), and generally had a lot of fun. Eventually, dinner (and the decadent cheesecake Kate had pulled out) had passed, and the two of them were just... well... gossiping, really.

And it was really, really fun.

Eventually, as eleven o'clock wound around, Kate fished a large object out of a box nearby. "This is what you were talking about late last week. A memory core capable of holding everything we want and still be portable."

Lisa held it, whistling silently to herself. It was almost a foot long, maybe two centimetres wide, and one centimetre deep. A flattened rod, essentially. It looked like it was made of pure crystal, although she doubted it was anything purely natural. "What is it?"

"A type twenty-three memory solid," Kate said, head tilted to the side as she recalled the details. "It's a holographic memory storage device. Essentially, since the number is ridiculously huge, to put it another way, you could put the complete written works of man on one of those and still have room for more."

Lisa looked at the core for a moment longer, then looked up. "Video takes more space though," she said with a grin. "The complete written works of Shakespeare fit on a chip the size of my thumbnail. So how much video could I fit on it? Or music?"

Kate laughed. "Ah, now we come to it. How can you fit a whole music library on a portable memory solid." She laughed again as Lisa blushed hotly. "Well," she continued as Lisa gathered what was left of her dignity, "You could fit roughly every album from the late seventies clear through the modern age, but you wouldn't have a lot of room left for everything else you want to use it for. So, call it ten to fifteen years worth of music, with pieces chosen from all over, and still have enough room left over to run the operating system, monitoring software, and so on."

"And..." Lisa took a deep breath as she held the flattened rod up to the light, causing rainbow hues to sparkle in the air around her. "How much does one of these cost?"

Kate rested her chin on her hand, and answered, "I could launch a ship into orbit for less money."

Lisa's mouth went dry as the probable cost finally registered. She held the rod of crystal a lot more carefully as the sheer cost in Yen of this piece of artificial stone became apparent. "There's no way I could explain owning one of these," she whispered, awed.

"Not a chance," Kate said, shrugging. "They're manufactured in zero-G in one of the giant orbital facilities. Then they're transhipped Earthside in protected shuttles for the sole purpose of selling to rich corporations and governments. No one else could afford them. It's products like that which keep Generos in the black, so to speak."

"So... You wouldn't have shown this to me if you didn't think I could do it. So what's the angle?"

Kate smiled and leaned back in her chair. "I came across information the other day that suggests a Hou Bang contact in town that's loyal to the new faction." She paused as Lisa drew in a sharp breath. "I happen to know the company in question has such a solid. And a lot of the information you'd like to know about what these people have been up to will undoubtedly be recorded on it. So if it went missing during a raid by a certain group of mercenaries, no one would turn a hair if it should someday turn up in a certain Sailor girl's inventory."

Kate fished the memory cartridge out of a drawer nearby and slid it over to Lisa. "I told your friend that GENOM took their near-assassination as an insult to us as well. I meant that. Tell her this is our gift to her, in the spirit of our future relationship."

Lisa took the cartridge and pocketed it, nodding slowly. "Gomen, Kate. This will mean a lot to her." A recent conversation came back to her, and she looked over speculatively. "While we're talking business, I heard you were about to start selling product to Boomers?"

Kate's lips twitched. "Is this an interview? Do I need to fetch my cue cards?"

Lisa giggled and shook her head. "I just heard it from somewhere. I was thinking though, that if GENOM were about to do that, well, I know some people who might be interested. Thing is," she continued as Kate watched with a small smile on her face, "They really wouldn't be interested unless the technology existed to help them increase things like body mass, bone size, and so on."

"Mmm," Kate said softly, as she considered the person she thought Lisa was likely referring to. "The technology does exist, actually. I'd need to look at defining a real market for it before it would be more than a science project, unfortunately. But you raise a good point." She nodded and jotted something down on a piece of paper. "GENOM is actually about to start selling to boomers, and we're looking at all possible markets. If this is one, we'll certainly want to exploit it."

She looked over at Lisa, who was starting to get that glazed-over look she sometimes got, and chuckled. "What that means is that I'll look into it. It's an easier sell if the company can use it on the large scale and make more of them commercially."

Lisa nodded. "Arigato, Kate. I don't know if there's a lot of market for stuff like that or not, but I'm sure people would appreciate stuff like that if there was."

Kate nodded, and looked over at the clock. "Hmm. It's late... we really should call it soon, you know."

Lisa yawned, and grinned apologetically, glancing at the clock. "Hai. Besides, I need to figure out what I'm going to put in my first base."

Kate raised an eyebrow. "You already have a place?"

"Hai. I've got just the place. A little two-bedroom in Shinjuku. It should let me do everything I need. I'll just duplicate the design every time I set up another place."

Kate rose as Lisa got up and began to walk over to the door. "You're really getting the hang of this, Lisa-chan," she said with a grin. "Soon you'll be as hard to keep track of as other regular pains in my company's collective backside."

"I try!" Lisa changed into her shoes as Kate chuckled behind her. She paused at the doorway, and bowed to Kate. "Arigato gozaimasu, Kate-san. I'm really, really happy you invited me over for dinner."

Kate smiled, and bowed back to Lisa, touched. "Anytime, Lisa. My door is always open to you."

Kate watched Lisa walk down the short passageway to the private lift and vanish with a wave, then closed the door.

* * *

Thursday, October 29, 2037, 10:30 AM
Hiroe's Apartment, Megatokyo.

"World's... Worst... Hangover..."

She rasped the words out, and suddenly wished she hadn't as the vibrations caused by speaking threatened to start another nuclear war in her head. Makoto dropped her head to the pillow and considered the night of drinking, not to mention the three bar brawls she'd gotten into.

She grinned as she remembered how good it had felt to just let loose with a bunch of people she didn't know and probably wouldn't meet again. The fights weren't bad either. At least it helped deal with the shock of that computer search.

In the other room, she heard the faint birdlike chirping that announced Ami's program had found something. Growling something incomprehensible, and ignoring the pain, she forced herself to her feet and dragged herself into the main room.

Makoto sat down in the computer chair, turned the screen's brilliance down a few notches, and pressed the button that killed the screensaver. The picture of a cute little chibi-Usagi dusting random Yoma with a variety of attacks vanished, to be replaced by the results of the program.

-Well, well, well,- Makoto thought to herself. -Looks like IDEC is about to begin some kind of construction project, and they need people to help tote stuff around and use heavy equipment.- Ami's programs would help her falsify any records she needed, getting her into that construction project.

-It's only fair,- she thought to herself as she sent the program off with fresh instructions. -They're probably investigating me, so I'm investigating them. Fair's fair.-

* * *

12:30 PM, Scirocco Restaurant, Megatokyo

"You want me to do what?"

Lisa giggled and shrugged as Nene went back to her ice cream sundae with a look of disbelief. "It's not a big deal. I just want a modified voice- activated computer program to handle my music."

"And you need this because...?"

Lisa glanced around briefly. "When I'm out at night, I like to listen to my music. But I kinda need both hands at the time, you know? I can't keep switching tracks while I'm doing something else."

The redhead gave her a suspicious look for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure I can do it. Most of the software's available public domain, although I could probably tweak its performance a bit further, and reduce the overhead a bit more. You'd need a music player you could customize. Not all of the portable players work well with custom managers."

"Got that already. Wasn't hard either. All I had to do was ask Priss what her favorite portable music player was, and why. Took like half an hour for her to finish explaining it to me, and I think I only got one word in six." She shook her head as Nene laughed. "Ask her about anything else, and it's 'smiles and nods blankly'. But if it's related to music, she'll talk for hours!"

"Well, if you got what she uses, I know what it can do, and yeah, customizing it won't be a problem. You'll need to attach a wireless transceiver to it, if you haven't already got one."

"Did that too."

Nene nodded, eyes half-closed. "Okay, so you've got the player, and the transceiver. The music will have to be loaded after, the custom program will wipe whatever was in it before."

"Not a problem."

"Hmm. Okay. Stop by my place after work, okay? Say, six? I should have what you need then." Nene paused and shook her head. "Mou. All this work on top of my job." She moaned theatrically. "And what AM I getting for all this devotion?"

"Free lunch and dessert at Scirocco's?" Lisa grinned at Nene as the redhead laughed again.

"Oh yeah! That!"

After lunch, Lisa made her way to the train station. -Got my two-thirty appointment with Loon to go to. I figure I'll ward her office and commonly accessed areas. They'll test them to see that everything works, and then I'll head over to Nene's.

-The Police will be on special call when Hallowe'en comes along, and Kate's probably got some official 'do' she has to appear at. The others will probably be 'on watch' just in case someone tries something ugly, and they'll probably want me available.-

She ran her pass over the reader, stepped through the turnstile and walked over to the train. -So if I'm going to have an Opening Night anytime soon, it has to be tonight or tomorrow night, really. Especially considering the others might want to pay the Hou Bang a little visit next month.-

Sylia had been characteristically unreadable when she took the cartridge, but she'd promised to have a read sometime that day, and get back to everyone when she'd reviewed the data. Until then, that side of her life was basically on hold. So there was the job at Loon for the next few weeks, the occasional article she could pound out fairly quickly over the weekends, visits with Kate, training in magic, and moonlighting as a Sailor Senshi.

Really, it was amazing she could fit it all in.

* * *

8:00 PM, Hiroe's apartment, Megatokyo

Makoto felt it while cleaning up from a late dinner.

A faint ripple of power. A tingle in the back of her skull that sent echoes through her very being. Somewhere in the city, a Senshi had just transformed.

She thought she'd felt it earlier this week, but a quick dash to the roof had revealed nothing. So she'd dismissed it and focused on getting the tracking device operational. Now however she was ready and powering up the machine as the tingle spread through her being.

-I wonder who she's modeled herself after?-

The videos had been both eye-opening and a little funny. The voices weren't bad, actually, and some of the episodes felt a little too much like what had actually happened, but it was as much hit as it was miss. It was like they'd gotten some of it right, and missed the rest.

A bit of research online had revealed a theory once published by a pair of Twentieth-Century writers. One, a fantasy author, and the other a comic book writer. They'd theorized that the Einstein-Rosen bridge, which should (and did) allow transit and communication between realities, would also allow some people to have "inspirations". These ideas, if they made it to some form of media, would turn up in print, on movie screens and television, and in anime. The Fox-Broome theory, as it was called, stated that it was possible to wind up documenting the histories of other realities this way.

But it wasn't a sure thing. Just because the author had a hotline to another reality didn't mean they understood everything. Some things were misunderstood while others were missed entirely. Sometimes the basic concept was correct, but all the stories were pure fiction.

Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon came uncomfortably close for all that, however. It was a wonderful example of someone with a lot of inherent Gift and the financial backing to make it an anime. And because it came at just the right time in Japan's history, it became a hit, and the artist with the Vision was able to keep dipping into Makoto's homeline and write about what happened there.

-I wonder if what's happening here is written about back home somewhere.- She brought up the machine and set it to scan the skyline for anyone who wore a classic Sailor Senshi outfit. -She's out there,- she thought to herself. -I can feel it.-

After a long moment, the camera stopped moving, and zeroed in on a figure standing on a rooftop clear across the city. The image was a little fuzzy at that range with the false imaging function running in the darkness, but it was clearly a girl in a Sailor fuku, looking down at the dark city below.

"Blue skirt and bows, blue boots and gloves, blue mask. White outfit. Blue stone of some kind, no tiara." She dictated her observations into a crystal recorder, for later analysis. "Blonde, tanned..." She paused and looked more closely. "Ami's filter is running and picking up interference, so it looks like she can mask her appearance against technology like us as well. Interesting."

Across the city, Lisa was fighting to keep her nerve. -Last time I did something like this in public, Doug was right there. I had backup if I needed it. This time, I'm all alone. No one will back me up if I run into problems.- She climbed unsteadily onto an air conditioning unit and looked out at the city spread below.

She was at the top of her Shinjuku location, her first Opening Night performance. And despite facing boomers both with Doug, and the Knight Sabers, despite the almost effortless aerial ballet she'd enjoyed even while fighting the mercenaries, she was terrified.

This was her first night absolutely solo.

"I'm not sure I can do this," she whispered faintly, and took a half step back from the edge.

Makoto stood at the console, a faint grin tugging her lips as she watched the Sailor girl clearly fighting for self-confidence. This was definitely not the behavior of a Yoma or a general, adding up to points in the mystery girl's favor. "Can't do this for you, Sailor Blue," she whispered quietly. "You have to take the first step yourself.

"Come on girl, take that step and soar!"

Across the city, Lisa took a few steadying breaths, and turned on the miniature police scanner she had picked up. She'd picked up duplicates of many things she already had, just so they couldn't link back to her civilian identity. Other cheap but useful devices and objects were already in her apartment downstairs should she need them.

"Attention all units in the Shinjuku area," the scanner suddely kicked in. "Boomer hostile reported in Shinjuku-ku area, one person down but alive, ambulance dispatched. Callers report boomer is hostile and attacking civilians."

Lisa felt a jolt as she heard that. "That's right around here, somewhere." She dipped briefly into magesight, turning the city into an ephemeral wonderland of light. A half-dozen blocks away, she could see the faint red pulse of a heat cannon being fired. No sudden spikes of gold light her textbooks told her were fatalities, but if a boomer armed with a heat cannon was on the loose, it was going to happen.

People were going to die.

Lisa's eyes narrowed. "No," she grated angrily. "Not happening."

Makoto watched the Sailor girl seem to gather her courage, and turn to one side, walking closer to the edge, a more confident stance telegraphing her intent.

"Come on, do it!"

Lisa looked at the glow in the distance. -If I do nothing, people die. if I intervene, I might save people. Doing nothing costs lives. Acting means I might save them. Simple.

She took another deep breath, and touched the transceiver clipped almost invisibly to her ear. The answering beep reassured her that the system was ready for her input. She adjusted the paired earpieces, and judged the distance to the next rooftop.

"System," she commanded. A faint beep was the only response. "Load song, Magic Power." After another moment, a faint beep answered.

"Play song."

The golden ripples of the stage recording by Triumph began to fill her ears as she stepped toward the rooftop edge.

Something's at the edge of your mind,
You don't know what it is.

Makoto stood in her apartment, urging the girl on. "Do it! Come on, you can do it!"

Something you were hoping to find,
But you're not sure what it is.

Lisa listened to the golden notes pour into her for a long moment, thinking of Doug, who this song really reminded her of.

Then you hear the music,
and it all comes crystal clear,
The music does the talking,
says the things you want to hear.

Lisa smiled as the world seemed to slow down around her. It felt a lot like Doug was talking to her. Helping her take that first step. She savored the feeling for a long moment, listening to the song as if it were Doug himself, whispering advice through the music.

I'm young, I'm wild, and I'm free,
I've got the magic power of the Music in me.

Lisa began to run,

Makoto bit her lip and grinned as the Sailor girl began to run at the edge. "Come on, yes!"

I'm young, I'm wild, and I'm free,
I've got the magic power of the Music in me.

The band kicked in with the accompaniment the same instant that Lisa kicked off the roof and into a long, effortless TK-assisted leap, the wind whistling past her as the other roof came into range. She landed, took a couple quick steps and launched again, traveling even farther this time, passing the next roof before landing on the one farther on.

"Yatta!" Makoto squealed in triumph, and touched another crystal, one which would shield her presence from the fledgling senshi.

"Jupiter power, Make up!"

The apartment glowed with brilliant emerald light,

Elsewhere, the kilometres vanished in a long, adrenaline charged rush. All too soon, she saw the boomer below, standing in the middle of the intersection, shooting passing cars and waving like a lunatic when he scored on one.

-Oh wow,- she thought in amazement even as she began to drop on the boomer in an accelerated dive. -A redneck boomer.-

The boomer saw a shadow drop from above. It had just enough time to look up and say "What the -" before the tiny powerhouse landed on it. The boomer was thrown into the pavement, a brilliant crack of blue light, and the girl was vaulting off toward another roofline, the boomer thrashing helplessly as the power dropped out, and died.

-35C combat model,- Lisa thought as she landed on the other roofline. - Take out the main power node, and it goes into standby mode to protect the main memory. AD Police can pick it up and deal with it later.- She grinned and reset the police band scanner, as she began to vault across the rooftops.

Another boomer nearby watched events play out dispassionately. The decoy was necessary, but it produced results. "Only a matter of time now before we figure out how to kill her. First we gotta get a new body for Tony's backup copy."

The mercenary boomer disguised as a cyborged human began to turn away, then paused as his high-speed tracker recorded something that zipped across the roofline. Most people hadn't noticed, but his optics were designed to higher performance levels. He replayed the image, in extreme slow motion.

Another Senshi girl, this one dressed in white and green, with a tiara.

"Aw... fuck!"

End of Chapter Six


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.

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This page was created on August 14, 2008.
Last modified March 12, 2011.