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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.

Drunkard's Walk II: Robot's Rules Of Order

by Robert M. Schroeck

 

 

3: Robot Season! Doc Season! Robot Season! Doc Season!

Establish unto thyself principles of action; and see that thou ever act according to them. First know that thy principles are just, and then be thou inflexible in the path of them. -- Akhenaton (c. 1375 BCE)

Prudence consists in knowing how to recognize the nature of the difficulties and how to choose the least bad as good. -- Machiavelli

 

Sunday, July 20, 2036. 11:15 PM.

As the monitors flickered and displayed "End of Recording", Lisa leaned back from the desktop, yawned and stretched. The surprisingly pleasant tension in her muscles was punctuated by small pops as various joints cracked. I'm really sorry I had to cancel out on Doug, Lisa thought, but no matter how much I wanted to go dancing, I wouldn't have missed this for the world. Thinking of her neighbor returned certain disturbing questions to the front of her mind, though. Not now, she told herself firmly. Later. Later I'll do a little more... investigating.

As she laced her fingers together behind her neck, she took a deep breath and stared blankly at the system in front of her: a hydra of a multimedia computer, sporting five separate monitors: four large ones mounted just at eye level and a smaller one partially sunk into the desktop and flanked by speakers. Lacking only a Net connection, it had all the other standard peripherals, plus one more decidedly non-standard one: a driveslot for a broadcast grade digital video cartridge.

Several such cartridges were stacked on the desktop, each labeled in Sylia's obsessively neat hand: "12 March 2032", "7 September 2032" and others. Inserted into the driveslot was a cartridge marked "21 December 2033".

"Each of our hardsuits has a mission recorder connected to its sensors," Sylia had said when she'd handed the cartridges to Lisa some hours ago. "After every job we do, Mackie or Nene synchronizes the four recorders' tracks and transfers them to a standard broadcast cartridge using our proprietary format. We can then replay the mission from all four viewpoints, making it easier to study it and analyze our performance." Sylia had smiled at that point, more to herself than at Lisa. "You'll find that many of the earlier cartridges do not contain complete records. The first generations of our hardsuits -- and their sensors -- were not as sturdy as our current ones."

As the four simultaneous video tracks had played out on the upper four monitors, a complex master control panel had appeared on the fifth, touch-sensitive, screen. Lisa had quickly realized that Sylia hadn't told her half of what was on the datacarts. In addition to basic audio and video tracks from each hardsuit, there were dozens of other datastreams available. Most of them were from Nene's hardsuit, although a fair number came from Sylia's. The suits' video feeds could be swapped not only into the ghostly green of light-amplification, but on through several additional spectra. And all the data -- video, audio and digital -- could be fed through a stunning array of analysis wares. It was incredible.

It was also far more than she expected that she'd ever need. Still, Lisa took the time to learn the basics of the system's idiosyncratic interface, just in case. Realistically, she realized she didn't need anything more than play, rewind and fast forward at the moment, but it couldn't hurt to be a bit more proficient than that....

Once she had been satisfied that she could handle the interface, Lisa had spent hours playing and replaying the recordings from Dr. Yoshida's siege of the AD Police headquarters. She'd long known all the publicly-available details of the event, in addition to her own experiences, but watching it unfold from four other viewpoints gave her a new perspective on the frantic battle to save the building and its occupants. After a while, she stopped manipulating the recording and simply watched, raptly shifting her attention from monitor to monitor.

Now, hours later, her eyes felt dry and itchy from the unblinking attention she'd paid to the recordings. She unlaced her fingers and propped her elbows on the tabletop, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.

"You," came a voice from behind her, "look like you should call it a night."

Lisa yawned once more as she swiveled her chair around to see Linna grinning as she leaned casually against the doorframe. She was dressed in a set of designer sweatclothes, gold trimmed in white, that screamed "upscale casual". Her hair was held back with a matching gold headband, and she wore white canvas deck shoes.

"How do you guys do it?" Lisa mumbled through her yawn. "I'm completely wiped just from watching one of your missions!"

Linna snorted. "Adrenaline helps a lot. Trust me." She unlimbered herself and after flipping a stray lock of dark hair out of her eyes sauntered over to the computer. "December '33?" she said as she glanced at the slotted cartridge. "Starting with what you know?"

A sheepish grin crept across Lisa's face as the younger woman shrugged. "Why not? Besides, it's also the mission that I know the most about from other sources."

"No big surprise there," Linna chuckled.

Lisa suppressed a nervous giggle. "Anyway, since I have an outside baseline of sorts for that mission, I can get an idea of not just what the hardsuit records hold, but more importantly, what they're lacking. That way I know what I have to fill in when I do my side."

Linna nodded, her eyes half-shut in thought. "That's a very professional approach."

"I may be a bit of a ditz sometimes and I may occasionally act a little like a rabid fangirl, Linna, but that doesn't mean I'm not a professional in my own right." Lisa popped the cartridge from the driveslot and returned it to the top of the pile of other datacarts. Then she focused all her attention on carefully arranging the stack into a neat and orderly column of black plastic.

"Gomen, Lisa, I didn't mean to imply any of that. It's just, well, I've never seen you... well..." Linna seemed at an uncharacteristic loss for words.

Glancing up briefly, Lisa flashed her a grin. "I know. You first met me when I was stalking you guys, and after that, only when we went clubbing together. You've never seen me acting like a responsible journalist before."

"Yes, that's it." Linna seemed relieved that Lisa had come out and said it. "And you know, that's something I think you'd better be aware of. I think Sylia believes she's taking a big chance on you. Nene vouches for you, of course. But Sylia's not absolutely certain yet. And while Priss likes you, she doesn't trust you, not completely, not yet."

"What about you, Linna?" Lisa murmured without looking up.

Linna sighed. "I like to think we're friends, Lisa. I've known you for a couple of years now, thanks to Nene. But between your school and my job, we've never seen each other all that frequently, and never outside of a... well, a kind of party setting. You're bound to surprise me, you realize -- if you look at it right, I hardly know anything about you at all." Linna stepped over to Lisa's side, and twisted herself so that she was looking into the smaller woman's downturned face. "For all I know, you're an axe-wielding serial killer who's been keeping the heads of her murdered lovers in her freezer since high school!" She grinned in a manner that she hoped was infectious.

"Damn," Lisa whispered tonelessly. "You found out. Now I'll have to kill you, too."

"Wha...?" At the sight of the crazed look that suddenly entered Lisa's eyes, Linna involuntarily drew back. With her contorted position, though, she lost her balance and stumbled backwards. She barely managed to catch herself on the edge of the desk as Lisa slowly lifted her grim gaze to follow her.

For a moment, the two women stared at each other, then Lisa's lips twitched, and she burst out in laughter. Reaching over, she tapped Linna's nose with her forefinger. "Gotcha!"

"You... you..." Linna breathed.

Lisa laughed again. "I guess Nene never told you I did a little drama in college, huh?" Another peal of laughter filled her, and to her delight it flushed away the day's weariness. She sighed happily. "Thanks, Linna. I really needed that."

Linna had straightened up, and now wore an expression that hovered between outrage and anguished giddiness. "You know I'm going to get you for that, don't you?"

"Probably," Lisa smirked. She stretched her arms out above her head and spun her chair about. "Wow. Now I'm awake again. Aaah!" she cried as Linna yanked her from the seat.

"C'mon, Axe-murderer-chan," the dancer said, "Let's get some tea and keep you awake for your trip home." As she dragged Lisa out of the room, she continued. "I came by earlier this evening because Nene asked me if I could give you a tour of the facilities, but you were already hard at work. If I know Sylia, she handed you the mission records and sat you down there first thing."

Lisa nodded as she tried to keep up with Linna. The dancer's grip on her wrist was strong and unyielding -- the only choice Lisa had was to scamper behind her. "That's it, exactly. Then again, that's gonna be my 'duty station' most of the time. Gotta learn how to use it, after all."

Linna nodded. "Makes sense. But that doesn't mean you have to be glued to it. It's too late now to show you the rest of the place today, unfortunately, but I came by anyway just to make sure you stopped at a reasonable hour." She dragged Lisa around the corner and into a small galley kitchen which, as it turned out, possessed a "breakfast bar"-style counter opening on the hardsuit maintenance bay. Linna's mien shifted from energetic into an almost motherly mode as she sat Lisa on a stool. She quickly and efficiently brewed two cups of tea and set one in Lisa's hands.

Sipping her tea and savoring the heat radiating into her palms, Lisa nodded toward a large, shadowy shape in the half-lit bay. "That's Mackie's battlesuit over there, isn't it? It's hard to make out in the darkness, but I kinda recognize the shape."

Linna nodded as she blew across the top of her cup. "Yeah. It's out of commission for the moment, because he was working on it when he was last home and didn't finish up before his break was over." She took a tentative sip. "By the way, it was nice of you to go out on those dates with him last year."

"Well, I really did it as a favor to Nene." Lisa set her cup down on the counter and propped her head up on her fist. The moist, hot scent of the tea drifted up into her nostrils, and she inhaled deeply, feeling the pleasant warmth entering her throat and lungs. "He's nice enough, I guess, just a little... um... I dunno, twitchy. And every once in a while his eyes just kinda glazed over, like he was undressing me in his head."

Linna snickered. "Count yourself lucky it was just there."

"Huh?"

"It's a long story," Linna replied with a dismissive gesture. "I'll tell you later. Or you can ask Nene, okay?"

"Sure, I guess..." Lisa picked up her tea and took another sip. "Anyway, I think two dates was enough. Besides, Nene's got this thing for him, I think, and even if I did really like him, I wouldn't want to poach."

Linna turned to look at her, one eyebrow raised in a doubtful look. "Nene and Mackie?"

"You didn't know? I guess she tells me things that she doesn't tell you." Lisa shot a smug glance over at the dancer, who harrumphed and returned to her tea. "Look at it from her point of view. He's cute, kinda, he's a techhead like her, he's 21 and he's rich. Any way you cut it, he'd make a good catch, you know?"

Linna's only response was a snort.

At this hour, the Sabers' base was mostly silent, save for the faint hum of the few perpetually-running systems. Lisa closed her eyes and savored the stillness, only to find it broken by the rattle of a doorknob.

"Who left the lights on in..." began a gruff voice, and Lisa snapped her eyes open to see an old man, small and slight, dressed in faded grey mechanic's coveralls. He was vaguely familiar, his shock of white hair raising faint memories in the back of her mind. "Oh, good evening, Linna, I didn't know you were down here," he said as he made his way around the worktables and scattered equipment. His gait was spry and confident, to Lisa's surprise -- he looked old enough that she'd expected him to take slow, cautious steps. Instead, he moved like a much younger man.

Stepping into the galley, he continued, "I was just closing up for the night, thinking I was the last one here." He glanced over at Lisa, giving her a warm, welcoming look. "Ah, you must be Vanette-san. Sylia told me this morning that she'd added you to the 'staff', and that you'd be in the records room today."

"Lisa," Linna said as she put her tea cup down, "this is Doctor Raven, our primary hardsuit technician -- along with Sylia -- since Mackie's been in Germany." She gave Raven a warm smile. "You're up late tonight, old man."

"Watch your mouth, young lady." The exchange was playful, almost practiced, and Lisa immediately got a sense of the depth of friendship that the two shared. Raven made a perfunctory bow to Lisa. "It's a pleasure to meet you. It's been a while since we had any new blood in the organization."

Lisa returned the bow. "I hope I can live up to the reputation of its members," she replied with a smile.

He chuckled warmly. "If Sylia recruited you, it was for a very good reason. I'm sure you'll do fine." Tugging the cuff of his overalls, he exposed an antique analog wristwatch, and made an elaborate production of consulting it. "Well, well. As Linna-san there was so kind to inform me, it is indeed late. I do believe I will be going home and to my bed. If you ladies would be so kind as to shut down and lock up behind you, I'd appreciate it. Good night." He ended with a bow that was little more than a friendly nod, which both women returned, and exited.

As he walked through the bay and out the far door, Lisa spotted the legend on the back of Raven's coveralls. Eyebrows raised, she waited until the old man had left the room, then looked over at Linna and asked, "'Nobel Prize for Science'?"

Linna shrugged. "He won't tell anyone if it's a joke or not. I'll tell you this, though -- no one named 'Raven' ever received a Nobel Prize in any category according to every encyclopedia I've checked. Then again, Nene claims his records have the earmarks of a very good alternate ID."

"Really? She went looking?"

A snort. "After an afternoon of Raven dodging her questions a couple years ago. She swore she was going to get some answers and got that 'hacker's gleam' in her eyes. But she came back empty handed."

"Huh." Now that's a thought, Lisa mused. I wonder if I could get Nene to dig up a little info on Doug. I'll have to ask her tomorrow. She drank the last of her tea, stood, and placed the cup in the kitchenette's sink. "Well, I'm for sleep. You?"

Linna nodded. "Yeah. You want a ride home?" she asked as she dropped her cup in the basin as well.

"Sure." Together they made their way out, shutting off lights behind them. "So," Lisa continued as they disappeared down the hall, "how did you get involved with the Sabers?"

"That's a..." Linna started.

"...long story!" both voices echoed in unison and laughter as a distant door rattled open, and then thudded closed. And at last, the Knight Sabers' facilities behind Raven's Garage lay in the silent dark.

* * *

Monday, July 21, 2036, 4:26 PM.

I was a little disappointed that Lisa cancelled out on me this past weekend, but to tell the truth, it prodded me to take a shot at what I was supposed to be doing, namely finding a way home. So I spent Friday night and all of Saturday alternately working on the bike and running queries on the songbase in my helmet. Back when I'd found the song that opened the gate out of Velgarth, I'd dumped all my previous searches and tags because I didn't need them any more. Or so I thought. Idiot me. Kat has told me time and time again that my overconfidence and my impulsiveness are the two traits that have caused and will cause me the most trouble. But do I listen to the licensed therapist on the team? Of course not.

So I spent half of the sweltering weekend sitting in my un-air-conditioned workshop and trading off between deciphering the special characteristics of a ceramic turbine housing and running endless queries for songs that mention "home", "travel", "worlds", and what have you. Every time I got sick of doing one task, I swapped off to the other. Surprisingly, I got a fair amount accomplished.

On the motorcycle front, I got a handle on the properties and behavior of the ceramic that they used in cycle engines around here. Knowing these let me begin designing the custom engine I wanted to make. On the getting home side, I managed to whittle down my extracts to a list of just under 150 "promising" songs, after excluding those which already activated my metagift for other effects. That was about as far as I could get without screening the lyrics of each one individually. Even then, my gut reaction wasn't going to be anything close to 100% accurate. I was going to have to try each one. Even the ones whose lyrics, frankly, scared me.

So, Sunday morning found me back at a certain alley near the steel taffy-pull that used to be the Tokyo Tower. After making sure I had no unwelcome observers -- I could do without another dozen gangbangers, crunchies or not -- I tried to locate as best I could the spot where I'd arrived.

Such precision probably wasn't necessary. Back at the Collegium, when I was researching my first attempt to jump out of a universe, I'd discovered a cache of theoretical works on magic that no one there seemed to know even existed. While nothing in them specifically applied to inter-universal travel, some of their axioms, properly extrapolated, seemed to indicate that a so-called "weak point" would be fairly large, both physically and temporally. It was entirely possible that the one via which I arrived was as big as or bigger than MegaTokyo. Then again, Haven's "weak point" was restricted to the grove in the Companions' Field. I decided to play it safe and get as close to my original ground zero as possible.

So there I was, straddling a piece of yellow police tape in a trash-littered alley. At least it was nice and sunny this time. "System. File 'Prospects MegaTokyo'. Display," I told the helmet computer, and the list popped up on the HUD. I took a moment to scroll through it, then picked a likely candidate. "System. 'I'm Going Home'. Play," I muttered into the mike, and tried to focus on going home.

No dice. I felt my metagift activate, but fifteen seconds in, I shut Tim Curry off. There'd been no visible effect, but I'd felt my personal reserves of energy sucked out of me -- the attempt to punch through to another universe had taken every joule my body had had stored. It had drained me completely, leaving me drooping and all but gasping for breath. My limbs hung heavily; it was almost too much effort to stand up straight. As I leaned against the graffiti-covered wall and wheezed, I could feel a numbness inside... inside my chest, inside my head, inside my soul? If you don't have the gift, you can't understand where and how I felt it, but the empty hole where it had been told me that once again my metagift had overloaded from the effort and temporarily shut itself down.

Scratch the first song of the 150. Damn. And I couldn't even eliminate it from consideration in the next universe I landed in, if it wasn't home. Something had happened, as evidenced by my fatigue; if it had been a null song, I'd've still been fresh as a daisy.

Anyway, I limped back to my apartment and sacked out until this morning, then went off to work with several million other sarariman. Upon reaching my workstation, I sat down, unlocked the security cabinets, and pulled out the breadboard design I was working on.

Among other things, Ganbare Electronics made radios. Police radios, to be precise. They had a contract with some division of the Tokyo Police Department that went by the codename of "AD". I didn't know what their gig was, but I guessed that it'd be antiterrorist, since they seemed to have heavier weaponry than the rest of the force, from what little I'd heard, and they needed radios with frequency-hopping and serious encryption.

Well, serious for this here-and-now. The local state-of-the-rat isn't bad, but then again, they've never had to deal with electropaths and the occasional meta who can digitize himself with a thought. I'd considered offering them the UN's SQUID42 algorithm, but it'd take forever for them to get it analyzed, let alone tested and certified. Not to mention that they'd ask me some questions that I couldn't answer meaningfully without sounding like an utter lunatic. So scratch that idea.

Instead, I added SQUID42 as a carefully-disguised little hardware hack in the encryption chip I was helping develop. I might not have been able to get it officially approved, but that didn't mean I wouldn't help those cops out. Supporting local law enforcement is one of my duties, after all.

One nice benefit of the job was that I had access to a midsize nanofac. We used it for prototyping new components -- CAD up a new chip design, feed it to the fac, and in about an hour I could breadboard it in and test it. Made development very fast -- when you could design and implement a chip in a week, everything got easier. (It was also very good at making certain ceramic motorcycle engine parts quickly. Heh.)

I liked it. I was planning on acquiring one of these little toys and bringing it home with me when I left. This was a technology that's much better than we have back on homeline, barring the existence of some talented tinkerer somewhere. We get a lot of that -- the UN has a warehouse of incredibly advanced tech that we've either confiscated or accepted from donors. Excepting the odd alien device or magical artifact, this tech almost always comes from the minds of various isolated geniuses who've made incredible intuitive leaps thanks to metaboosts to their intelligence. Unfortunately, it's often so advanced that it's pretty much unusable and unreproduceable -- so beyond anything understood by current science that it is practically magic.

Thinking of that reminded me of one reason to be thankful that I was burnt out for a little while. It allowed me to indulge myself in creative hardware design without worrying I might accidentally enchant the damn thing. One of the several drawbacks of my metagift, it plagued me throughout my short civilian career and in all the engineering I did for the Warriors. This even with my world's relatively low mana level.

Here, with that godawful huge node under my feet, I had to be doubly careful, or else Ganbare's production department might find their radios weren't working up to the prototypes' test specs. I'd already had to scrap a couple breadboards and start over. That I could kitbash carefree for a whole day was a real boost. It almost made up for my failure to open a gate.

* * *

Tuesday, July 22, 2036. 10:54 AM.

Dr. Daniel Ohara made sure the door to his office was closed and locked, then sat down heavily behind his desk. Sliding the fingers of his right hand under his glasses, he rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose. Under his fingertips, he felt the muscles of his right eyelid twitch. Damn that bitch, he thought wearily. Ms. High-and-Mighty Kate Madigan of Nigh-Unto-God-GENOM who wouldn't know real science if it bit her on her cosmetically-enhanced butt. What gives her the right to jerk my company around like this?

But he knew the answer to that, and he hated it. GENOM had invested heavily in IDEC, had paid for his time, his staff and his equipment, and if they wanted to yank its highly-paid and highly-skilled people off their research projects and send them running around MegaTokyo like a team of semicompetent field techs, well, they got it. Ohara had known a decade ago that going to GENOM for venture capital was making a proverbial deal with the devil. When GENOM took over IDEC after seven years of zero results, it had only been further hammered home -- his company, his baby, taken away from him and handed to that purple-haired pencil-pusher. Oh, he was still CEO and Chief of Research and Development on paper, but IDEC now operated out of the Tower, and Madigan and her flunkies had made all the business and scientific decisions for three years now.

His stomach bubbled angrily and he felt the familiar, annoying pressure well up at the base of his throat. Damn acid-blocker never works when I see her. He growled wordlessly as he rifled through a desk drawer for the prescription bottle, then gave up when it failed to come immediately to hand. Instead, he stared balefully at the neat, elegant portfolio on the desk before him.

"You're very lucky," Madigan had said to him not half an hour ago. "Most research subsidiaries with a ten-year record of failure and zero profit would have been folded back into GENOM by now. But Mr. Quincy has a special interest in your work and in the InterDimensional Explorations Corporation. He has great faith in your ability to deliver."

"Then why are you keeping us from doing just that?" he'd shouted at her. It had been two hours since the meeting had begun, and he'd already used up his admittedly-limited supply of propriety and tact. She hadn't reacted at all, except to offer a small, infuriating smile -- that of a parent tolerating the pointless tantrum of a child.

"Oh, but you have. You did something of which no one else in the Tower would have been capable. You detected a... I believe the terminology you use is, a 'wave-function interpenetration'?" She'd favored him with another smile, this one cold and predatory. "Mr. Quincy was most interested in that report, Doctor. He has been waiting for this since we agreed to back IDEC. I myself have had standing orders waiting on this event for as long as I've worked with Mr. Quincy." Reaching into her briefcase, she'd withdrawn a black leather folder and handed it to him.

"What's this?" he had grunted.

"Useful information. Discovering that... someone... had come through that 'interpenetration' was a definite bonus for you, Doctor. We want you to find that someone. And in that portfolio is everything that the AD Police has gathered on our 'visitor'."

"I won't ask how you got this."

"Good." She snapped her briefcase shut. "GENOM wants this visitor found. You and your people are best equipped to handle the more exotic aspects of this search. If I understand them properly, by your own theories he should be slightly out of tune with this world, in such a way that is detectable by your equipment, correct?"

"Yes," he'd grudgingly admitted. "But probably not at any great range."

She shrugged. "How you manage it does not matter to GENOM. Simply find him."

"And if I refuse?"

She'd looked him directly in the eyes. Her gaze was disturbing: cold, matter-of-fact, simple. "If you refuse, GENOM completely absorbs IDEC, takes your research, and assigns the task and the equipment to our own people. And we blackball you and your staff in the scientific community. Not the optimal route, but one we will take if you force us to. Do you understand?"

"Yes, damn it," he'd snarled, fiercely enough that Madigan's boomer bodyguards had snapped their attention directly to him.

She put on that cold smile one more time. "Very good. We will encourage the ADPolice to continue their investigation, and keep you up to date on their progress in order that you might make use of their results. Once you locate the visitor, we will provide you with boomer forces in order to 'acquire' him. Once that is accomplished, you may then return to your researches." As she stood and slid her briefcase under one arm, she added, "GENOM may even be grateful enough to return ownership of IDEC to you, Doctor."

And that had been that. She and her boomer bodyguards had departed without another word, and Dr. Ohara had been left with his orders and without any hope.

As the minutes ticked past, he stared at the folder carefully positioned in the precise center of his desktop. The bold block letters of the GENOM trademark were embossed in gold-leaf on the lower right corner of the black leather cover. Then he sighed. Reluctantly, unwillingly, Daniel Ohara picked it up, flipped it open, and began to read.

* * *

Tuesday, July 22, 2036. 11:15 AM.

Leon picked up the manila folder, flipped it open, and began to read. He hummed to himself as he perused the abstract, then paged through the detail sheets. Nearby, a Styrofoam cup of coffee slowly steamed, forgotten.

"So?" Daley asked, one eyebrow raised inquisitively.

"Well, this certainly supports my conclusion," he replied without looking up. "Whatever the hell IDEC is, it is not a simple cell system maintenance firm."

"Right. They also have nothing at all to do with GENOM's boomer manufacturing division, or any of the GENOM subsidiaries doing boomeroid research. According to both their PR and the independent info I could scrape up, they're an advanced physics research laboratory."

Leon nodded. "Yeah, I checked up on Dr. Ohara and as much of his team as I could identify. He's a world-class physicist, used to be an academic, specializing in..." he scrabbled for another folder and opened it "...'grand unified theory and quantum probability research'. This guy's got a list of awards and patents as long as my arm. He's also the president and CEO of IDEC." He tapped his fingertip on the printout and looked up at his partner. "What's GENOM doing putting an upper-management egghead like him on a job that a security goon could do in his sleep?"

Daley lifted his eyes to the ceiling and spread his hands in a despairing gesture. "This just gets crazier by the minute."

"There's something more going on here than we're supposed to see," Leon murmured, half to himself. "And the jewels?" He closed the folder and gave Daley an intent look that the detective found all too familiar. It was the look that Daley had privately dubbed "The Pit Bull", the one Leon wore when he had a goal and simply would not give up on it. He'd worn that look during more than a few cases in the past, and he always got it around that rock'n'roll singer he'd been pursuing for the last few years. It meant dogged determination, and usually it meant success. But to Daley, it inevitably meant only one thing: more overtime than he really wanted to put in. He suppressed a sigh.

"I got the report back this morning. They don't match anything in any of the last year's insurance claims."

"So they're not stolen, at least not recently. Anything else?"

Daley nodded. "Yeah. According to Taddeusz, they're Western in origin, and probably very old, on the order of a couple centuries, minimum. Practically museum pieces. He says they're faceted with a cut that hasn't been used for hundreds of years, and they show signs of antique European tools and methods rather than modern ones."

Leon rolled his eyes. "Of course they do. So let's add this up and see what we come out with. We have a military martial artist boomeroid in biker garb who leaps down off a building and trashes a dozen Outriders..."

"And then makes a 110 call right afterwards so they can get medical attention," Daley interjected.

"Right," Leon nodded, "and he's carrying antique gems which he sells to a Tinsel City jeweler. Then GENOM sends one of the world's foremost research physicists after him in the guise of a celphone repairman." He reached for his coffee. "What else?"

Daley smirked. "Then the boomeroid disappears. Very thoroughly."

"Right." Leon gestured with the cup of coffee, almost slopping it on himself. "So, what does that add up to?"

Daley sighed. "A most irrational number."

Leon sipped his coffee morosely. "Not that it really matters any more."

"What do you mean?" Daley pulled up a nearby chair and sat on it backwards, his arms folded over the top of the backrest.

"With the boomeroid out of sight for so long, finding him has dropped off the priority list," Leon replied. "The Chief warned me this morning that we're going to have to close the case at the end of the week if we don't get any more leads."

"Even with the outstanding assault and battery charges?"

Leon slumped further in his seat. "The assumption will be made that the boomeroid is over 70% artificial based on what the Outriders said it could do, and is thus legally an out-of-control machine..."

"...which can't be held responsible for its actions, or prosecuted for crimes." Daley shook his head in disgust. "Damn. It's not like there's a more pressing case that we have to cover. And this was turning out to be one of the most interesting investigations I've worked on, you know."

"Don't give up on it yet," a female voice drifted across the desk, and both men looked up. Fuko MacNamara stood there, with Nene Romanova at her side. Nene giggled at the stricken looks on the faces of the two men.

Nene's got to be, what, 25 or 26 now, Daley thought. How does she manage to still act and sound like a schoolgirl after five years in ADP?

"What was that?" Leon managed to stammer.

"Don't give up on your boomeroid case," Fuko repeated with a hint of a smile. "I'd heard that the chief was going to force to you close the case, so I thought I'd come over and ask if there were anything I could do to help you keep it open. On my way over I ran into Nene here." She indicated her red-headed companion, who was bouncing on her toes with barely-suppressed energy. "She had some interesting news. Tell'em, Nene."

Nene leaned forward conspiratorially and planted her folded arms at the edge of the desk. The others clustered around her as she began to speak quietly but excitedly. "Well, you didn't hear this from me, but I just happened to be cycling through the voice circuits as part of a perfectly routine maintenance test..."

"We get the picture, Nene," Daley interrupted with a tolerant grin.

Nene stifled another giggle. "Okay, well, I'm doing my testing, when what do I stumble across but a call to the Chief from Councilman Tomino."

Leon grunted. "Tomino's one of GENOM's lapdogs. What was he doing, pressuring the Chief to take us off the boomeroid case right away?"

"No!" Nene eyes widened. "The exact opposite! He was telling the Chief that finding the boomeroid was a maximum priority, that the AD Police had to duty to track it down as fast as possible. That the longer it's out there on the streets, the more of a danger it is to ordinary citizens."

"Shit," Leon hissed. He looked over the desk at Daley. "What the hell is going on? GENOM wants us to find it?"

Daley shook his head. "They're probably using us to flush it out, and maybe even take it down, before their people move in to handle the cleanup. We're catspaws again, as usual."

"I hate being used," Leon growled.

"Then don't let them use you," Fuko said. "Surely you can make this work to your advantage, can't you?"

Leon gnawed on his knuckle as he thought about this, and nodded after a moment. "Yeah. I think might I see a way or two to turn this around." He looked up. "One other thing, Nene, what's the word on the new radios? We put in the requisition two months ago."

Nene pursed her lips. "According to what I've heard, Ganbare is putting together the field prototypes right now, and they should be in the department's hands in a couple of weeks."

He nodded as Daley looked on in puzzlement. "Nene, I want two of those prototypes, as soon as they come in. Can you work a little of your magic and make sure I get them?"

Nene stood and folded her arms. "I don't know, that'll be real tough -- a lot of the top brass want first crack at them. What's in it for me?" she added with a sly look.

A slow, knowing grin spread across Leon's face. "How does a 'frequent binger' discount card to your favorite ice cream place sound?"

Nene's eyes grew huge as her mouth made a silent "O". Finally, she nodded without saying a word, then turned and walked off.

Fuko laughed. "I'll take that as my cue to go. Look, you two, let me know if there's anything I can do to help, okay? I feel like I have an interest in the case, too, you know. Ja." She gave a little wave and left.

After Fuko departed, Leon continued to gaze off into space, nodding and rubbing his chin absently. Daley waved a hand in front of his eyes until Leon started and looked up at him.

"You've got some kind of plan, don't you," Daley said. It wasn't a question.

"The beginnings of one." Leon's eyes flickered over to the Chief's office door, which was closed. "I don't like being used, Daley. So I'm going to try and use them right back. Fuko's right. If they want so badly for us to investigate this, that gives us a little leverage for once. The catch is where to apply it, and how."

Daley nodded, and decided to change the subject. "You know, Leon-chan, I've always wondered. Just where do you come up with all those coupons and premiums that you use to bribe Nene?"

Leon chuckled. "Didn't I ever tell you? My cousin Barry is a franchisee for that chain and owns all its MegaTokyo shops. He not only lets me have fistfuls of coupons, sometimes he'll set up special promotions just so I have something to wave under Nene's nose. Like a certain 'frequent binger' card."

"Leon-chan," Daley said, shaking a finger at his partner, "you are evil."

Leon's only response was a grin.

* * *

Tuesday, July 22, 2036. 1:05 PM.

Katherine Madigan hung up the videophone and nodded to herself. The AD Police were not going to abandon the case, not now. She made a mental note to reward GENOM's loyal servants in the city council.

She opened a PIM window on her desktop and marked the task as "complete". Now there existed two different avenues of investigation into the visitor, even if Ohara's was partially dependent on the ADP. Redundancy in everything -- that was the key to minimizing risk on efforts such as these.

She glanced over at the folder that lay open on her blotter. Reproductions of the police sketches topped the sheaf of papers, and she stared for a moment at the goggled, helmeted visage, then reached out and closed the folder. She let her fingertips linger for a moment, savoring the smooth texture of the cool leather as she mused on the next steps to take.

Up to now, Mr. Quincy has been satisfied with my verbal reports and abstracts on this project, she thought, but it won't be long before it will be time to present him with the complete written report. He will inevitably want all of the information in front of him for evaluation as it enters its final stages. I'm not ready for that yet, though; I'll have to wait until there is some progress on either of the investigations.

She palmed the sensor on the high-security drawer of her desk. It opened, and she deposited the folder in it. Then she returned her attention to her PIM's window, scrolling through the agenda for the rest of the day.

Ah, yes, that's right. The Marathon starts tonight, she realized with a private smile. I'd best make sure my DVR is properly programmed. We all have our little vices, after all. She opened another window on her desktop, this time to access the entertainment system in her Tower apartment.

* * *

Tuesday, July 22, 2036. 3:51 PM.

There was a rumble of an engine, and Doc Raven looked up from the call he was taking on his antique voice-only phone. Priss had pulled into the garage on her cycle. As she shut down the engine and dropped the kickstand, Raven returned to his call. "You're lucky, son. Those injectors are practically custom-made, very hard to get. But I just happen to have a dozen in stock. How many do you want?"

Priss pulled off her helmet and slung it over the taillight.

"The whole dozen?" Raven sputtered a moment in surprise, then covered it with a cough. "Well, young man, I think I can offer you a quantity discount. 250,000 yen for the set."

Priss swung her leg over the bike and strode into the garage. "Hey, Pops," she murmured half-heartedly as she passed Raven without a glance.

Concerned, Raven watched her as she stalked towards the back rooms holding the Sabers' facilities, and didn't offer his habitual rejoinder. An indignant squawk from the telephone handset reclaimed his attention. "What? Yes, that is the quantity discount," he growled, irritated.

* * *

Some minutes later, Priss and Sylia sat across from each other at a small table in the kitchenette off the maintenance bay. Sylia was dressed in tight-fitting coveralls made of a thin white plastic. A pair of heavy gloves lay neatly to her side, still dripping slightly from their anti-nanite rinse.

Priss had found Sylia at the nanotank, retrieving mysteriously sculpted pieces of dark blue plastic from its sluggish, sludge-brown depths. "We need to talk," Priss had told her, trying to ignore the sharp, unpleasant tang of the nanobath.

Each woman had a cup of coffee before her: Sylia's creamed to a deep beige, Priss's black with a flock of torn sugar packets huddled about its base. As Sylia delicately overblended her coffee with a wooden stirring rod she asked, "What was it that you wanted to speak to me about, Priss?"

Priss stared down at her coffee, seemingly lost in the wisps of steam rising from its dark, shining surface. "The Replicants are going on the road," she finally said, surprising herself with the casual, conversational way in which it came out.

Sylia raised her cup to her lips and took a long sip before responding. "Ah."

"The bookings aren't all in yet, but it looks like we might be heading out in ten or twelve weeks."

Sylia pursed her lips and considered this. "You will be wanting a leave of absence from the Sabers for the duration of the tour, then?"

Priss nodded. "Yeah. Three or four months, depending on what gigs we get." She peered at Sylia. "You're not upset by this?"

Raising an eyebrow, Sylia replied, "Upset? Not at all. I have long anticipated this request, Priss. In fact, I'm surprised it took so long in coming. I was starting to get worried." Priss was astonished to realize that Sylia was almost smirking at her -- Sylia!

"You... were... getting worried?" Priss didn't react well to confusion.

Sylia nodded. "I take everything into account, Priss. When I brought you into the Sabers, it was with the anticipation that the Replicants would eventually go on tour, during which time I would lose your services, at least temporarily. I had originally estimated that such a tour was likely to take place some time in 2035 based on, among other factors, the talent of the band as a whole and the enthusiasm of your fan base. Your brush with idol singing in 2034 aside, I was concerned when you showed no sign of moving beyond MegaTokyo's club scene. I'm glad to see that I wasn't completely wrong in my projections."

"You... you..."

Sylia smiled warmly at Priss, which disconcerted the singer even more. "Any future paying jobs that require all four of us, I will do my best to schedule around your availability, Priss. Our operations this year have made more than enough profit to keep us going even if that means having no work at all during your tour."

"But..."

"Moreover, boomer incidents have been at an all-time low for the last few months. Of those, almost all have been construction or mannequin models easily handled by the AD Police; it's been a long time since there was a boomer threat requiring Knight Saber intervention." Sylia's eyes twinkled as she lifted her coffee to her lips once more. "In fact, if conditions continue to hold steady, I don't think there'd be a better time for you to go on tour."

Priss simply stared at her. Then she began slowly shaking her head. "You know, I was actually paranoid about how you would take this. I've been agonizing about it for more than a week! And here you are, telling me you've planned for it all along." She gave a low, throaty chuckle as the stress finally drained from her. "Damn, Sylia. Is there anything you don't have figured out ahead of time?"

Sylia stood and turned to rinse her coffee cup out in the kitchenette's sink. "Why, certainly. I've never been able to anticipate Linna's taste in men."

Priss's laughter was cut short when she spilled her remaining coffee in her lap.

* * *

Tuesday, July 22, 2036. 4:37 PM.

Well, at least I finally have a desk. Lisa tweaked the various knobs and levers on the decades-old chair until it was marginally comfortable to sit in, then surveyed her new domain. She'd been working for the 16 Tokyo Day Times almost a month, and they had only now managed to find a place for her in the office.

Not that I really needed it, what with being "on assignment" almost all the time. Who'd've thought a human interest beat would keep me on the run so much? She looked around at the erstwhile "city room" in which she had finally scraped out her little corner of real estate. Although the 16 Times was housed in a post-quake building, all of the furniture seemed to be of turn of the century vintage. The various computers and data terminals employed by the dozens of bustling employees looked just about as old. The city room, despite its large size, felt cramped; between the employees, the shelving units loaded with binders and books, and the huge piles of paper stacked haphazardly on the tiny desks, it seemed overfull and claustrophobic. To top it off, the place smelled of mildew, rancid coffee and old tobacco.

Lisa glanced left and right at her neighbors, both hard at work on their terminals. One was obsessively writing and re-writing an article with a muttering intensity that was beginning to frighten her. The other was manipulating a layout grid and the news objects on it so feverishly that she appeared to be playing some bizarre form of Tetris. Neither had greeted her when she'd been shown to her desk, and neither spared her a whit of attention now.

She sighed softly and carefully placed her digital camera on one corner of the desktop. Then Lisa pulled her palmtop from her pocket and opened it up in front of her. It beeped as the screen flashed to life. She had a few free minutes before the end of the day, and she decided that it was time to focus her thoughts on the mysterious, disturbing, immensely intriguing -- and rather cute, admit it, girl -- Mr. Douglas Sangnoir.

Opening a pad page, she began to type, a few fitful words at a time, as one by one questions and observations about Doug came to mind:

1. Medieval clothes in his wardrobe.
2. Biker outfit. What does "LT" mean?
3. Helmet with stereo? Why?

I suppose it could be that he just likes to listen to music while riding motorcycles, but that doesn't explain the speakers. Or the of-a-piece goggles. Or the microphone. Maybe it's a built-in celphone?

4. White leotard. What is that stuff?

She'd probably never get another opportunity, but she desperately wanted a chance to examine that bodysuit. No source she'd consulted -- not even Sylia, for god's sake -- could identify a fabric with those properties. Lisa closed her eyes and indulged herself with a few moments' speculation about how to test the limits of the mystery cloth.

"Ah, working on a story, Vanette-san? Very good, very good!"

Startled, Lisa snapped her eyes open to find her editor standing over her. "Kiyoshi-san!" she stammered. "Uh, yes sir, I..."

Kiyoshi Akira was a large, loud man who seemed to be powered entirely by caffeine and enthusiasm. As he pushed his glasses up his oversized nose with one hand, he clapped Lisa on the back with the other. "Good, good. Glad to see you're fitting in with your coworkers here, Lisa-chan." Cringing inside at his untoward familiarity with her, Lisa recovered from the blow and gave quick sidelong glances at both of her neighbors; neither seemed to acknowledge Kiyoshi's extremely obvious presence.

"We'll have to get you a proper terminal next," the editor continued, "that little handheld is good for the field but not at all enough for the office. I'll put in the requisition immediately." He spun and strode off across the floor. "Keep up the good work!" he shouted as vanished into the mass of humanity on the other side of the room.

Lisa released a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. Then she closed the file on Doug. I think I'd better wait until I get home tonight to finish this.

* * *

Three hours later, the air conditioner moaned as it bathed the room in a faint stream of chilled air. Lisa swallowed a forkful of tabouli, then laid the foil takeout plate down on the small table that served her as a nightstand. After spreading some hummus on a piece of pita and popping it into her mouth, she picked up and booted her palmtop.

She sat cross-legged on her futon with the tiny computer in front of her, perched on her shins between her knees. Beyond it, her television bathed the room with a blue-tinged glow. "Tonight," an anonymous announcer proclaimed over an elaborately over-animated CGI logo, "the Anime Network begins its five-day Sailor Moon marathon, all the way from Sailor V to Sailor Moon ZZ!" Next to her set, a stack of vid cartridges stood precariously atop her DVR.

Investigating mysterious neighbors is all well and good, but a girl's got to have her priorities, Lisa thought, and chuckled to herself. As she turned her attention back to the palmtop, the announcer continued to natter on: "Up first, the classic American live action version of the Sailor Moon story from 2000! Starring Kirsten Dunst, Ariana Richards, Lacey Chabert and Geena Davis as Queen Beryl...."

Lisa tuned out the announcer as she concentrated on continuing the task of listing Doug's... peculiarities. She scanned through the short list she'd written a few hours earlier at work, then began to type again, slowly and hesitantly.

5. Ghost for girlfriend???
6. Other worlds?????!!!

Those two were the most disturbing details she'd acquired, and if she hadn't been there to witness them herself, she would have never believed them. Was Doug an alien? Was his girlfriend? Why the hell did there have to be a girlfriend, damn it? And were all the stories he'd told her about his friends and his old job lies, then?

Lisa realized that finding out the whole truth behind Doug's background was beyond her current abilities. She could check on some of what he had told her, but not all of it. Sighing, she looked up at her TV. On the screen, she saw an 18-year-old Kirsten Dunst in a truly awful odango-and-ponytail wig sitting helplessly at an antique personal computer as a CGI-enhanced mooncat lectured her. But... she realized, there is someone who can -- and I was going to ask her yesterday.

Carefully laying her palmtop to one side, Lisa scrambled off the futon and over to her phone. She hit the first speed-dial button. Two rings later, it was picked up.

"Moshi-moshi?" said the person on the other end in a bright, perky voice.

Lisa smiled winningly at her friend's image on the screen. "Hi, Nene-chan! I've got a favor I want to ask of you."

* * *

Friday, July 25, 2036. 10:41 PM.

So I'd figured, I've been in town a month, and I've just totally geeked out. It's like I'd reverted to my one year of being a professional engineer, back in 1985 -- you know, all work and no play makes Jack a dork. Yeah, so I was building a motorcycle. Depending on how you look at it, that's just a great big model kit, or another kind of engineering. Sure, I now had something that actually looked like a custom ceramic turbine engine starting to form on my workbench, but that really wasn't what I wanted at that moment.

I needed to do something different. Something physical.

Something musical.

Besides, I wanted to harvest the local crop. I'd picked up a miniature digital audiorecorder from a "spy shop" in Tinsel City the week before. It was intended for surveillance and bugging conversations and the like, and came with a disguised pickup. I planned on carrying it and filling its 6-hour capacity with as much of the local music as I could. Then, when I got home, I'd take those songs from which I got that "could be something here" feeling and transfer them to my helmet's storage. So not only would I get to have a good time, I might get a few extra metapowers out of it, to boot. A big win situation, as far as I was concerned. But I needed to find good music and good clubs.

So a couple days earlier, I'd finally cornered Lisa. I caught her just as she was unlocking her apartment door; I was just going out as she was going in. I'd been a little surprised to see her at all. She'd been putting in a lot of overtime the last few weeks or so, judging from how little I'd seen her. And to tell the truth, she looked a little haggard, but the work must have been exciting, because her eyes glittered with an almost manic energy and she seemed to be happy.

It didn't take much convincing to get her to commit to a round of clubhopping that Friday night, not after reminding her how she'd cancelled out on me the week before. I told her what I was looking for -- all current stuff, no oldies -- and I wouldn't mind it being danceable. Which is how we ended up at this place called Hot Legs.

It was the fourth club Lisa had led me to that night in a series of dirty little holes with small dance floors and passable J-Pop and J-Rock garage bands that did almost nothing for my metatalent. Lisa seemed to be growing in energy as we made our way from one dingy club to another, though, and this new one, well, when we got to the door she was practically exploding.

"This is a great place!" she effervesced at me. "Some of my friends and I come here all the time. And a friend is in one of the bands that usually headlines here -- they're playing tonight, too, see?"

She pointed at the poster by the door: "Priss and the Replicants". I raised an eyebrow and wondered whether the band name was a tribute to a local version of Blade Runner or just a weird coincidence. I decided to look into it if I got the chance.

There was a hell of a line out in front of the place, which was a good sign. The bouncer was one of those 2-meter walls of meat that don't seem to find any employment other than grunting at clubgoers. I looked him up and down and did a tactical just for practice. He was just a crunchy. I could take him with my eyes closed.

I was starting to pick up Lisa's energy. As we stood in the line, I heard the dull thump of the beat through the concrete and flesh that still blocked us from going inside. Just the rhythm, nothing more. It was familiar, and I found myself singing to Lisa:

"<Come dancing
Come on, sister, have yourself a ball
Don't be afraid to come dancing
It's only natural.>"

"Huh?" replied Lisa as I grabbed her hand and spun her around in place. When I let go, she wobbled dizzily, blushing, as she tried to get her swinging purse under control. She probably had her camera in there, judging from the size.

I chuckled. "Never mind. A song from before your time." A few minutes after that we got inside, and I made sure the recorder was running.

From the front door, I thought that Hot Legs looked like another dive -- a little hole-in-the-ground club occupying an industrial basement in a dingy neighborhood. Damn, but I was wrong. Inside, it was huge -- the club must have filled a major part of the building. It was at least two stories to the ceiling -- a wide mezzanine ran around three-quarters of the circumference of the place. A fair-sized bar and grill, judging from the tables of people eating and drinking both Japanese and Western fare. An entire mirrored wall overlooking the dance floor made the already large space look even bigger. But the most impressive part of the club was the low stage that spanned one entire end of the dance floor -- a stage hosting a live band and one hell of a holographic fog-and-light show.

And the band was good. The lead singer in particular caught both my eye and my ear. A tall, leggy blonde in a little red and black leather halter-and-miniskirt outfit, she was belting out her song with a raw emotion and power that would have made Patti Smith proud. She was wailing something about mad machines that I didn't quite catch, but that didn't matter -- I was entranced just by the sound of her. Her voice was something like a cross between Pat Benatar and Judith Clairaide from Gossamer Axe. She had the edge. And she had the gift. The audience was in the palm of her hand.

"That's Priss," Lisa shouted to me over the music.

"It is?" I shouted back.

"Yeah! That friend of mine that I told you about outside? Nene and Linna, some of my other friends, they ought to be around here somewhere -- I'll find them when the set ends and introduce you to them, okay?"

"Yeah, sounds great," I replied absently while keeping my focus on the stage. My metagift was waking up. I could feel it nosing about drowsily, looking for a familiar song to latch onto, then sitting stock-still when it "heard" the Replicants' music. That was enough to make me take notice -- as if I hadn't already realized that there was something about this Priss and her band that I ought to pay attention to.

They ended the "mad machine" song with a flourish and the crowd roared. The lights came down and the band vacated the stage -- apparently it was the end of the set -- but the crowd kept roaring. Then the lighters and matches and laser pointers came out, and the rhythmic stomping and clapping began. I looked around, and I saw that Lisa had joined in. This band had a hell of a local following, and if that little sample I'd heard was any indication, it was well deserved.

A minute or two later, the lights came back up. The rhythmic stomp/clap collapsed into general applause and yelling as the band returned to their instruments. Last of all, the blonde returned, and stepped back up to the unexpectedly antique-looking microphone and stand.

"Thank you, MegaTokyo!" Her speaking voice was surprisingly sweet but throaty, sexy with a knowing edge. She knew how to use it, but before she'd learned what to say, she'd probably been able to hold crowds spellbound just with the sound of it. "Do you want to hear more?"

"Yes!" Lisa and the crowd screamed.

"I can't hear you!" she prompted, and I chuckled. Does every band use the same old gag?

"Yes!" The lasers illuminating the fog behind Priss rippled with the force of the crowd's reply.

She gave the audience a sly smile and softly said, "I still can't hear you."

The resulting "Yes!" shook the entire building.

"Well, then," she began as the drummer and the lead and bass guitarists behind her launched into what must have been a familiar opening melody, because the crowd erupted again. "Well, then," she repeated, "we'll just have to oblige with one last number. But be careful when we're done, people, be careful when you go home, take care as you leave and bundle up, because... Tonight is a hurricane!"

The crowed exploded into screams of approval and delight as she stepped back and the band launched into the song. This was clearly an old favorite, maybe even the Replicants' signature tune. And my metagift sat up and paid attention when she started to sing.

"I kept rushing down the storm's highway,
Searching for the whereabouts of an interrupted dream,
The bitter illusions and all of the lies
Flying at my back.
Big city, lonely heart to heart,
All of us are love's stray children.
Big city, tears run day by day
Rocked only by restless thoughts.

Tonight is a hurricane!
In you there's a hurricane!
Wanting to say 'I'm loving you'.
Tonight is a hurricane!
Feel the hurricane!
A seemingly honest touch,
Give me touch!"

I found myself unconsciously translating the lyrics into English and Valdemaran as I stood there, enraptured. In the back of my mind, in the depths of my soul, my metagift was doing the metaphorical equivalent of jumping up and down and screaming "I want it!" There was no doubt. This was going right into permanent storage when I got home. This one song had made the entire evening worth it.

And I would be coming back to this club tomorrow night to listen to the Replicants' entire act from beginning to almost its end.

As they played, the Replicants whipped the audience into an utter frenzy. Behind them, the fog and holosystem went wild, spinning through geometric shapes, the classic "light tunnel", images of streets speeding by, and smears and streaks and swirls of flame-colored light. Somehow, random as it sounds, it all seemed to tie in together, flowing with the song in some subtly choreographed manner. I wanted to congratulate their lighting tech -- he certainly knew what he was doing.

Priss and the Replicants ended the song with a thunderous close. The crowd roared its approval as the band vanished from the stage. Lisa turned to me. "Aren't they great?" she enthused as the house lights came up.

I nodded wordlessly, trying to make a guess at what would happen the next time that I'd hear that song. The first time that I listen to a song, it never does anything. It's only after my subconscious and my metagift have both had a chance to muse on it that it has a chance to trigger some effect. I already knew this "Hurricane" song was going to give me a metapower. The question was just exactly what, if not the obvious, it would be.

I realized Lisa was still talking to me as the crowd dispersed and the DJ on the other end of the club spun up some dance tunes. "I'm sorry, what?" The DJ or the wiring was lousy -- some slow, irregular secondary beat was just barely audible over the unfamiliar tune he was playing.

Lisa gave me a quick disgusted look. "I said, is this the first time you've heard the Replicants? No one does retrothrash like they do."

I raised an eyebrow. "Retrothrash? Is that what they call it? Let me tell you something, Lisa. That was definitely retro -- very 1980s, trust me. But thrash? Not even close. Believe me, I know thrash and that wasn't anything like it." Then without really thinking about it, I murmured to myself, "<Everybody's talking 'bout the new sound, funny, but it's still rock and roll to me.>"

She just shrugged and eyeballed the crowd, so I gave up. Okay, I know. Not everyone is as obsessive-compulsive about music as I am. But then again, I have a good reason.

That damn irregular beat was beginning to annoy me. I turned to Lisa to comment on it, but before I could say a word, I found myself grabbing her and rolling. "Down!" I shouted after we were already in motion. Between my initial intent to speak and the actual execution, my danger sense had gone off bigtime, and my reflexes had taken over.

The wall right next to where we had been standing exploded, and a blue bot stepped through the hole.

Shattered concrete showered around us, but by that time I was already shielding Lisa with my body, and my field deflected most of it, arranging the debris in a typically unlikely set of perfect concentric circles with us at the center. We were unharmed. Others weren't so lucky -- four or five people were already down and bleeding from flying masonry, and as I looked up in horror the bot growled and mauled another two.

Nearby clubgoers were screaming "Buma! Buma!" and I could hear a mass exodus begin. With a noncombatant to watch over, bugging out is always the better part of valor, so I scooped Lisa up and onto my shoulder and ran for the door.

Lisa, sweet child that she is, thrashed and kicked and insisted on being put down as I shouldered my way ahead of the rest of the clubgoers. I ignored her. From her movements, I gathered that she was also craning her neck and peering around as I carried her out of the club -- probably looking for her friends to make sure they were okay.

In the distance I could hear sirens and explosions, and I wondered aloud just what the hell was going on. Around us, the panicked clubgoers streamed into the night.

From over my shoulder, Lisa shouted, "It's a rogue boomer!"

We were half a block from Hot Legs and safely out of danger, in my opinion. I stopped short and swung Lisa off my shoulder. She yelped in surprise.

"Shit," I swore. "What are the odds we'd be so close to a malfunctioning bot that decided to run amok?"

"Pretty good, actually," Lisa answered, a scowl marring her face. "Don't you ever read the news?"

"You mean this happens on a regular basis?" I asked incredulously. As she opened her mouth, I held up a hand. "No, forget I asked. I'm new to town, remember? Look, stay here -- you should be safe."

"Where are you going?"

"There were some people injured in the club. I've gotta make sure they got out okay."

"You've got to be kidding! That boomer is probably still in there!"

I shrugged. "I'll just keep out of its way."

She stared at me, disbelief plastered over her face. "You're crazy!"

As I turned and started running back to Hot Legs, I called over my shoulder, "You only just noticed?" And as I ran I sang to myself, "<You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you're looking for...>"

Lisa was in fact right. About the bot, not about me. Well, about me, too, but... Anyway. When I got back to the club, the bot was still there. It was, as I'd suspected, a construction model. On our way to Hot Legs, we'd passed a new building going up a couple blocks away; it had probably come from there. It was far from the only bot that had been working at the site, and I wondered whether it had freaked out all by its lonesome, or in a pack.

By the time I got there, the club had been completely emptied save for the bot and a couple of mangled corpses. Only a few pools and trails of blood indicated where the injured but alive had been. Everyone who could had already evacuated. That left just me and it.

If it hadn't killed anyone, I might have left it alone, but I doubt it. You don't let an out-of-control machine just wander on its merry way. I was going to have to take it out.

I found, to my surprise, that I was looking forward to this. It had been months since the last combat I'd been in (the twelve crunchies who attacked me when I arrived here hardly counted). I hadn't realized just how much I'd missed the excitement. I felt energized, and somehow more alive than I had just a few minutes ago, at the prospect of actually facing a threat that needed stopping. I'd forgotten just how good that felt to drop back into persona -- I hadn't been "Looney Toons" in a long time. Not since Delandra got kidnapped by that Hardornan mage.

And what made it sweeter was that it couldn't have been more of a challenge had I been naked. I was in sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt. While I had the songs in the minicorder, I wasn't about to use them. Mainly because I wouldn't be able to hear the damn thing's little speaker from my pocket, not over the usual racket of combat. But also because they were all unknowns, even that "Hurricane" song. Last thing I needed right now was a backfire.

So that was the way it was going to be. No polykev armor. No helmet. No music. Just me, my field, my speed, and my skill.

Against 225 kilos of out-of-control bot.

Should be about even.

Then I remembered I also wouldn't be wearing my gloves with the polykev knuckle plates.

Oops.

I'd just have to make sure I hit only the soft spots on the bot's body.

Yeah, right.

* * *

As Lisa watched Doug run back towards Hot Legs, indignation washed over her. How dare he tell me to stay here when he's heading back there! Then indignation gave way to inspiration. She began to dig in her purse as she thought, Hey, I'm a reporter, right? I'll get in there and take some action shots of the boomer! That will get me off the human interest stories for sure!

Pulling her camera out of her purse, Lisa turned and followed her neighbor into danger.

* * *

It took a moment for the bot to notice me, during which I did a tactical eval. Man-sized. Reasonably humanoid in design. Not heavily armored, but covered all over. Joints protected, but not perfectly. Physical strength estimated at probably low meta level. My initial estimate of its agility/reaction time put it in the high end of human normal, but that left me well in the advantage anyway. Intelligence? Probably minimal. Sensory equipment, I remembered from my reading when I first got here, was human-level sight, sound and touch. Even if it had radar, well, my field tended to route microwave pulses around me, making my radar profile very small.

By the time it roared at me, I had something approaching a plan.

Adrenaline flowed, and I combat-hyped. The room took on a reddish tinge as my perceptions and reflexes sped up to their full level, catapulting me out of normal time and into combat time. The bot's quick, efficient motions slowed down to below human-average; in comparison to where I was now, it was lubed with molasses and powered by snails. This two-bit bot didn't have a chance.

I rushed up to the thing and got in its face before it could react to me further, and started in on trying to overload its little botbrain. "Okay, buddy, what's the story?" I demanded of it in Japanese. I was betting that by default these things had some basic reflexes to obey humans. I hoped that enough remained of those presumed default behaviors that I could confuse it.

It didn't appreciate my violation of its personal space. It took a wild swipe at me, which I dodged without much difficulty. Its hands were coated with blood and concrete dust and gave off a strange coppery-limey smell.

I put my face up to what I assumed was its ear and shouted, "Vandalism, trespassing, assault and battery, murder! You know what you'll get for this?" I slid backwards out of its reach and gave it a stern look. "Thirty days!" I switched to English and began to count on my fingers, "<Hath September, April, June and Montana!>"

The bot charged -- it moved surprisingly fast on its feet for something so bulky, a lot faster than me. It threw a hamfisted punch which my field caught and redirected even as I tried to duck. My field's not very flashy when it comes to fisticuffs -- it's when it has to handle projectiles and energy weapons that it gets a bit on the spectacular side -- so all that happened was that the punch slid off to my left, as if the bot had tripped or overextended itself.

Anyway, I popped back up and started screaming in the bot's face. "<All the rest have cold weather, except in the summer, which isn't often!>" I sprang rearwards and rolled over onto my back with a twist that spun me once around on one shoulder, breakdance style. As the bot jumped in to grab me, I pushed myself up into to a one-armed handstand and channeled my angular momentum into a powerful one-two spinkick that landed both feet hard into its side, right above what passed for its hip.

The impact knocked the bot sideways across the dance floor and into the mirrored wall. The glass shattered into a spiderweb of cracks for several meters on all sides, and some of the shards showered down around the bot. As I flipped back onto my feet, it levered itself out of the broken glass and drywall. It didn't look happy.

I was starting to move again when the bot picked up a table and threw it at me; I somersaulted over it, hooting and laughing like Daffy Duck. I turned the somersault into a cartwheel that brought me almost back within arm's length of the thing. Then it hit me with a thrown chair that made it through my field. My lungs emptied with a whoosh as the wooden back broke against my chest, knocking me off my feet and flat on my back. As I tried to catch my breath, it raced at me. I barely managed to roll out of the way when it slammed a punch into the floor where my head had been.

I kept rolling back onto my feet while the bot was busy pulling its arm out of the floorboards, and tried to hammer at the base of its skull with both hands clasped together. Nice try -- it would have knocked out most humanoid biologicals, but the bot was made of sterner stuff. It roared again, and with the crack of breaking wood backfisted me in the chest with the hand it had put into the floor. I went flying, the breath driven out of me.

I think I blacked out for a moment because the next thing I knew, I was behind the bar, along with a fair amount of the bar itself. I shook my head to clear it, then crawled to take a look through the hole I'd apparently made in the bar's plywood front. That was a mistake. I felt a sharp pain in my lower left side, and the grate of bone on bone, and knew I'd broken at least one rib. I took a long, careful breath, and was relieved to feel no bubbling nor deep pain in my chest. My lungs hadn't been punctured. Cool. I could deal with that.

Through the hole, I could see the bot begin to tear apart tables and rip up the dance floor. Apparently it had written me off. Terribly careless of it, but understandable. That last blow would have killed or incapacitated most humanoids, but then again, I'm made of sterner stuff, too. Well, so much for Plan A, I thought, and took a few moments to recover while I watched the bot and re-evaluated my tactical.

In terms of reflexes and rate of attack, I was two, maybe three times faster than it was and a lot more precise, but not counting my adrenaline-driven bursts of speed it could outrun me easily. And it was tough enough that I couldn't simply dance around and punch it into collapse, not without my gloves. I'd more likely pound my hands into hamburger against its armor first. It was at times like these that I envied Silverbolt her metallic skin, Broot his stone fists, or Kat her many tiny can-openers. Okay, so I couldn't just wear it down. I was going to try something else.

Something warm trickled across my forehead, and I wiped at it. Looking at my hand, I saw it was blood, and now that I thought of it, yes, I was bleeding in several places, in addition to having one or more broken ribs. And that gave me an idea.

Ignoring the pain, I slid quietly back from the hole and took a look at what was back here. I found a mid-sized knife used to cut various fruit for the drinks, and stuck it through my belt. There was the requisite bartender's baseball bat -- an aluminum one -- within arm's reach, and a pushbroom a meter or so away. And... Yes. Just where I thought they'd be.

I spent a moment focusing my will and my awareness, and banished the pain of my broken ribs to a cul-de-sac in a remote suburb of my conscious mind. Then I grabbed the baseball bat and threw it out onto the dance floor.

As the bot reacted to the clatter and turned to find the source of the noise, I jumped to my feet and grabbed the broom. A little thin, but it'd serve. I raised the broom and slammed one side of its head down on the edge of the bar. It spun like a propeller, obligingly unscrewing itself and clattering to the floor. Then I tossed the stick out onto the floor after the bat.

And finally, from where they had fallen off their shelf under the bar, I took the last part of my plan. With a grin, I stepped back out onto the dance floor, juggling my weapons of choice, as the bot figured out where I really was.

* * *

Camera at the ready, Lisa snuck back into Hot Legs. In the distance, sirens continued to wail, but none seemed to be heading towards the club. The AD Police must have their hands full, she thought. Where are the Knight Sabers? She slid along the wall, trusting to the shadows cast by the mezzanine to keep her out of sight. Risking a glance towards the dance floor, she saw no sign of Doug. The boomer was easy to spot, though, as it was systematically smashing tables and chairs against the floor.

Frightened but determined, Lisa crept over to the stairs that led to the upper level. When the boomer turned its back to her to take another table, she dashed up the stairs.

As she maneuvered herself into a position that left most of the dance floor visible to her, she heard three clattering noises, one after another, then footsteps. Settling into her perch, she looked down to see a bloodied Doug stepping onto the dance floor from behind the partially demolished bar. A broad grin on his face, he was... juggling three glass bottles of ketchup?

Lisa blinked. Unbelieving, she raised her camera and looked again through its telephoto lens. He was indeed juggling ketchup bottles. On the floor near him were a broomstick and a baseball bat, and he had a knife stuck in his belt. With these he was going to take on an enraged boomer? The look on Doug's face frightened her. His grin was manic, the smile of a madman about to unleash some incomprehensible insanity upon the world. But his eyes were cold and angry.

Then, as if she didn't already feel as though she were in the twilight zone, Doug began to sing, in a strong, clear tenor voice:

"<All the world was gay,
Swinging on its way,
Things were looking brighter day by day.>"

The boomer gave an inarticulate cry and rushed at him. Doug stood there, singing and smiling until the cyberdroid was almost on him, then stepped aside like a matador nimbly evading a bull. The rosette of orbiting bottles never wavered, never faltered.

Seven meters past him, the boomer skidded to a halt and howled its rage.

"<Nothing ever wrong,
Life was just a song,
'Til that Looney Tunes came along!
Ooooh...>"

He stretched the note out, gargling a laughable vibrato as he sustained it. In the mezzanine, Lisa's eyes popped wide open as a small epiphany hit her. <Looney Tunes>? Could that be what "LT" stands for?

Below her, the boomer crouched and launched itself at him, arcing through the air with arms spread, in an attempt to overbear him. Doug dropped to the ground, allowing the ketchup bottles to fall into his arms. The boomer soared helplessly past and crashed inelegantly to the floor. To Lisa's amazement, Doug never missed a note even as he returned to his feet with an acrobat's flip. Lisa blinked at his catlike agility, then remembered why she had returned and began snapping pictures.

"<I'm going cuckoo, woo-woo!
Here comes the choo-choo, woo-woo!
I'm so gooney, looney-tuney,
Touched in the head.
Please pass the ketchup,
I think I'll go to bed.>"

As the boomer lifted itself from the floor, Doug launched one of the ketchup bottles into a long, high arc that reached its zenith above the mezzanine. The other two he tossed, one after the other, above his head. Time seemed to slow down as Lisa watched the bottles travel their courses with dramatic inevitability.

As the third bottle left his hand, Doug scooped up the broomstick and snapped it over his knee. It broke with a sharp crack, fracturing on a neat diagonal into two sharpened points. He transferred both halves into his left hand, and without looking reached up for a falling bottle with his right. In a single smooth motion he grabbed it out of the air and slung it in a flat trajectory right at the boomer's face, then brought his hand back up. The third bottle dropped into his palm with a slap.

"<Am I the screwball, woo-woo!
Throw me the eight ball, woo-woo!>"

The boomer swept out a hand to bat away the bottle heading towards its face, only to have the glass shatter against its palm. At the same time, Doug hurled the last bottle on a path that would take it centimeters over the boomer. Just above and in front of the cyberdroid's head, it and the first bottle collided with a surprisingly dull cracking sound.

"<Once I knew a thing or two,
Now I'm a buckaroo,
Hinky dinky parley woo-woo!>"

Then Doug, well, blurred was the only word Lisa could think of, exploding into a whirlwind of motion around the boomer as ketchup splattered over its eyes. While the boomer cycled their protective shutters to clear the red goo away, Doug flickered around it, stabbing and thrusting with the two pieces of broomstick as if they were knives. The boomer swung blindly at him, but none of the blows struck home.

The staccato crack of shattering wood echoed through the club once, then twice, as Doug whirled around the boomer. With an oddly graceful spin, he danced away from the cyberdroid, revealing to Lisa's telephoto lens shards of splintered wood wedged into its right knee and left elbow. "Gotcha," Doug said softly as he momentarily paused.

Doug dropped the remains of the broomstick and picked up the baseball bat. An audible grinding noise could be heard as the boomer tried to flex its immobilized limbs. He circled the cyberdroid, which growled and lunged for him. It nearly overbalanced when its knee refused to bend properly, and only barely regained its equilibrium.

Doug had sidestepped the clumsy blow, and for a moment stared at the boomer as slivers of wood began to work their way out of its semi-paralyzed joints. There was no mock-madness or unseemly hilarity in his face now, Lisa realized; just the silent gaze of the executioner who pitied his client. Blood slowly dripping from his scalp painted his face with red-brown stripes, adding to the stark eeriness of the moment.

Then, its arm almost restored to full motion, the boomer tried to leap at him with a one-legged hop. Doug raised the baseball bat.

As Lisa watched in horrified fascination, Doug methodically battered his way through the construction boomer's minimal armor while dodging its increasingly-fluid attacks. Then he dropped the bat and drew the knife from his belt. Whirling once again into blurred motion, he stabbed it into the rents in the cyberdroid's carapace. Driving the blade in deeply, he twisted and wiggled it as he almost magically avoided the boomer's flailing arms.

Yellow fluid squirted from the wounds as the boomer tried vainly to strike him. With each stab and cut it seemed to grow weaker, and as Doug continued to slice up its insides it let out a long, keening howl unlike anything Lisa had ever heard before. All the while she could hear Doug muttering to himself; she wasn't sure, but it sounded like, "if I ever find out who's responsible for letting something like this run loose..."

Finally, he must have severed some of its motor or balance control circuits, for the boomer froze with a mechanical sigh, then toppled forward onto its face. The resulting crash echoed loudly in the empty club, and Lisa winced involuntarily.

When she reopened her eyes, Doug had picked up the baseball bat again. With it he rolled the boomer over onto its back. It lay twitching in a slowly spreading pool of yellow nutrient fluid touched in places with the red tinge of ketchup. Bringing the bat up above his head, he looked down at the boomer and darkly uttered a short, cryptic sentence: "Okay, tinman -- sing 'Daisy'."

Then he brought the baseball bat down on the boomer's head, again and again and again.

* * *

It had taken the Sabers and the AD Police long minutes to take care of the rest of the construction boomers that had run wild through the neighborhood. All that was left was the one which had attacked Hot Legs. As Sylia and the others mopped up outside, Priss stalked into the club, a white-hot rage burning in her chest at a boomer's violation of her special sanctuary.

She took the stairs down into Hot Legs in one jump, using just enough jet to soften her landing into inaudibility so as not to alert the boomer to her presence. The club was strangely silent, save for the slow, regular thud of metal against yielding metal. This was not what she had been expecting. Her anger banked for the moment by both an uncharacteristic surge of caution and her growing curiosity, Priss carefully rounded the corner past the coatcheck room and paused to look out on the dance floor.

The sight was so bizarre that she momentarily froze, her breath catching in her throat. A blond man was bludgeoning the blood-covered remains of a boomer with a bent and dented mass of metal that could only be identified as a baseball bat by the rubber-wrapped handgrip still intact in his fists. He stood with his back to her, but he was reflected a thousand fragmentary times in the shattered mirrors on the wall beyond him.

Confused, her habitual anger growing once more, Priss stepped onto the dance floor. She took up a braced, spread-legged stance in case of trouble. But as she raised her arm and began to shout at him, the man must have spotted the reflection of her movement in the crazy-quilt of mirrors on the wall. Bat still in hand, he flickered in place, coming to face her without seeming to move. He stared at her for a moment. Then he spoke.

"Shit."

Before she could react, he threw the bat away and ran at her. She tried to bring her railgun to bear on him, but he was almost too fast, impossibly fast -- 20, 30, 40 KPH gibbered the targeting computer in the second it took him to cross the few meters between them.

Priss fired a salvo of railgun spikes. One went wild, missing him by a meter or more. The other two should have hit him. The first seemed to curve around his body, bending and flexing snakelike with the path it followed. The second exploded into a shower of luminescent threads that whipped around him only to reassemble themselves into an intact spike. Continuing on their original trajectories, both of the glowing blue needles buried themselves three-quarters of their length into the floor.

No other choice left, Priss braced for the impact. But a mere two meters before he would have hit her, the man -- if it was in truth a man -- dropped to the floor and slid on his back between her widely-spaced feet. For a split second, Priss stared dumbly at the spikes embedded in the slick wooden surface before spinning to see him race up the stairs and out of the club.

"Hey, you! Stop!" she shouted as she sprinted to the stairwell and fired her jumpjets.

* * *

When the adrenaline rush wore off, I was in serious pain. I was pretty sure that I'd worsened my broken ribs, and every muscle ached. The sudden appearance of the woman in powered armor -- and there was no doubt it was a woman, not with that surface sculpting -- surprised the hell out of me. The fact that both she and the bot had similar color schemes suggested to me that it might not have been a random construction bot as I'd thought, but maybe the bottom half of a master-servant relationship.

Well, I really hadn't been in any condition to take on a new, fresh opponent who was clearly pissed because I trashed her minion. So I took the only reasonable action -- I ran. Thank god my field had handled the ordnance she'd lobbed at me. It looked like her battlesuit had some kind of big gauss needler mounted in the right arm; if one of those bolts had hit me, I'd've been neatly skewered -- dead meat.

Anyway, I ran through a lot of twisty alleys and got maybe six blocks away before the rush left me and I was forced to walk. Damn. I hadn't had a fight that rough since... well, in a long time. Years.

A block west of where I ended up, near that construction site, the authorities had set up triage and first aid. Without my helmet, I couldn't do anything about my condition, so I limped over to the ambulances. I let the paramedics bandage my ribs and my various cuts and scrapes, but I refused to go to the hospital. While they treated me, I pulled out the microcorder and confirmed that it was still in working order -- a minor miracle, that.

After they finished with me, I went looking for Lisa.

* * *

By the time Priss reached street level, the blond man was nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, she prowled back and forth in front of the club and growled -- there were just too many ways he could have gone in the maze of alleys that made up this industrial neighborhood. She looked at the frozen display on her hardsuit's targeting grid and swore. At one point as he'd run towards her, he'd hit nearly 50 kph. "Fucking boomeroid!" she muttered to herself. "Whose toy are you?"

Turning around, she made her way back into Hot Legs and made sure the boomer on the dance floor was dead by firing several railgun spikes through its flattened and cracked skull.

While Priss was preoccupied, Lisa snuck down from the mezzanine and up the stairs to the club's main doors. Priss was very obviously frustrated right now, and Lisa knew better than to bother Priss when she was frustrated. Especially not a Priss in her hardsuit. Besides, the last thing Lisa wanted was to be asked questions about her presence or about Doug.

Doug. If she'd had her palmtop with her, she'd've added several new questions to her list. Doug had moved like nothing human should have -- agile and acrobatic enough to perhaps equal Linna in her hardsuit. Able to take out a construction boomer with a baseball bat, a knife, a broomstick and some ketchup. And that was impossible, unless...

Unless Doug were a near-equal to a boomer.

Unless Doug were a boomeroid.

A chill down her spine punctuated her deductions. Boomeroids went crazy and turned into killing machines. Everyone knew that. That was why cybernetic replacement had been all but outlawed.

But even if he were a boomeroid, that still didn't explain everything else -- it just made it worse, more confusing. His secret talk of different worlds, that could be written off as the onset of boomeroid madness. Lisa shivered as she remembered his manic grin and cold eyes during the fight with the boomer. But what about the woman who had vanished into thin air? She certainly wasn't a typical symptom of a boomeroid going insane, and the woman found nothing strange at all in what Doug said to her.

Discarding the possibility that she herself had gone insane and merely imagined the disappearing woman, Lisa could reach only one conclusion. No, whatever, whoever Doug is, he's not a boomeroid. Or not just a boomeroid. For a moment, she considered talking to Nene and the other Sabers about him, then dismissed the idea. Doug's been a friend to me. He trusts me. I can't betray that trust, unless I know for sure that he's dangerous. So I'll keep secret what I know. For now. The image of Priss in her hardsuit stalking onto the dance floor at Hot Legs rose unbidden in her mind. And that includes protecting him from the Sabers, she appended silently after a moment's thought. For now.

Another thought occurred to her. And I'm getting my wish, aren't I? Another adventure. If I blow his cover, even if it's just to the Sabers, that might end. I don't want it to end.

I hope they'll forgive me.

"Lisa!" A distant yell woke her from her musings. She whipped her head left and right, looking for its source. "Hey, Lisa!" Behind her. She spun around to see Doug, half a block away, running towards her at a merely human rate. It was a stilted motion that suggested he was trying to move his torso as little as possible. Forcing down her doubts, she gave him a broad smile as he reached her side. "So there you are," he said. Lisa noticed that he wasn't at all out of breath after that run, nor did he seem to realize he should have been. "I was starting to get worried about you."

"I'm okay," she replied. "I was worried about you." She examined him closely. His various wounds had been professionally treated, and through the rips and rents in his T-shirt she saw the signs of a large bandage wrapped around his chest. "What happened to you?"

He shrugged, and winced. "When I got back to the club, all the injured had been evacuated already. So I turned around to get the hell out of there before the bot noticed me, tripped, and smashed through a table. Cut myself in a couple of places and got a big bruise on my side." He chuckled as they began to walk side-by-side down the street. "I'll be just fine in a day or so."

Yeah, right, Lisa thought smugly. "'Boomer'," she said out loud.

"Huh?"

"We don't call them 'bots', here. We call them 'boomers'. If you want to fit in better, you really should talk like the locals."

She hazarded a glance across at him. His brow, cleaned of bloodstains, was furrowed in thought. I wish I could just ask him, she mused. But I learned my lesson with Nene and the others. I don't want to panic him or chase him away. Or worse, make him think I'm a threat.

Slowly he nodded. "You're right, of course." He looked over at her and grinned. "Thanks for the pointer."

"No problem. After all, you've come from quite a long ways away; you probably need more than few more tips on fitting in, no matter how good your Japanese is." She slipped her arm through his, and was surprised by how comfortable it felt doing so. No matter what he is, he still needs a friend, at least for the moment. So I'll be that friend as long as he needs me. Or as long as he's trustworthy. "So, do you want to call it a night? Or do you want to hit another club?" She grinned impishly at him.

Doug snorted. "I've had enough excitement for one day, thank you very much. I think right now I'd rather go home and get into bed."

"Would you like a little company?" Astonished at her own boldness, Lisa laid the side of her head against his shoulder for the briefest of moments, then looked up at his face. She was gratified to see an expression of shock and surprise flicker across it before being replaced by a friendly smile.

"I appreciate the offer, Lisa-chan," he said quietly, "but I don't think I'm up to anything more than groaning in pain for a while."

"Oh. Maybe some other time, then..." Inside, she railed to herself, What the hell am I doing? Doug's covered with blood, he may be an insane boomeroid, and he's got a girlfriend already. Why am I flirting with him?

"Maybe," he replied neutrally.

As they made their way to the subway stop in comfortable silence, Lisa tried to understand the sudden, wild impulse that had taken her. Dear god, she realized, this whole night, the music, the boomer, the danger, everything -- I should be in shock, shaking with leftover terror, but I'm not. God help me, I'm turned on by the excitement. She unconsciously snuggled up to Doug, not seeing the look of discomfort and distress that momentarily played across his features. And he's at the center of it.

* * *

Saturday, July 26, 2036. 2:21 AM.

After making sure Lisa was unharmed and seeing to it that she went to bed, I retired to my apartment. As I dug my helmet out of the wardrobe, I pondered Lisa's sudden affectionate behavior on the trip home from Hot Legs. It was quite a bit out of character for her, and I didn't know exactly what to make of it.

While I tried to think through that issue, I keyed in ELO's "I'm Alive" and healed up from the night's fun. It's all well and good to go beating up the bad guys, but if you can't repair all your damage afterwards it gets to be a drag. Do you know how hard it is to sleep with broken ribs? It's not fun, let me tell you. So I took care of mine as soon as I could.

I wasn't too badly off. As the pleasant warmth of the healing effect flooded my body, my cuts and scrapes closed over and vanished almost immediately. It took my ribs another 30 seconds or so to snap painlessly into place and fuse back together -- a really bizarre sensation if you're not used to it.

What was more unusual was that I was healing up at double speed or more. The song wasn't even a quarter done when I felt the feedback which indicated that everything that could be fixed was. It was probably a side-effect of the node under the city; I suspected any traditional mages who tried to cast around here would find their spells going wild until they could correct for the extremely high mana. Anyway, I shut down the song and began peeling bandages off, starting with the chest wrapping. Then I jumped into the shower to get the blood and grime off.

Unfortunately, the answer to the new Lisa dilemma was not as easily taken care of as my wounds, so in my grand tradition, I decided to think about something else. That something else was bot -- no, excuse me, "boomer" -- rampages.

By this time, I'd gotten around to subscribing to the local dataweave provider's basic service, so I had access to this here-and-now's rather sparse version of the Tapestry, specifically electronic archives of the city's major newspapers. (They called it "the Net" here, which I felt was very appropriate -- thin lines of communication surrounding big holes in coverage. I was tempted to do some whispering into an ear or two about the Distributed Global Index architecture.)

Between the excitement and ELO, I was too buzzed to sleep yet. So I spent the next couple hours going through them and related reference threads, looking for anything and everything I could find about boomers running amok.

I was appalled -- no, utterly sickened -- at what I found.

In Pampalona, Spain, they have a tradition they call the Running of the Bulls. Apparently in MegaTokyo they have something much like it -- the Rampaging of the Bots. They're very similar, except in MegaTokyo the human participation isn't voluntary, and the casualty rate is only marginally lower.

I could not believe that this actually happened not just once or twice, but on such a regular basis that they had formed a special police division to handle the problem. Well, at least now I knew what the "AD" Police did.

What kind of asshole actually sells bots that faulty? And keeps on selling them in the face of such comprehensive evidence of catastrophic design faults? I'd bet that Ralph Nader wasn't just spinning in his grave over this, but actually drilling out the end of his casket.

I mean, really. I could design a better bot brain in my sleep. My first reaction was, haven't these people ever heard of the Asimov-Tsung Behavioral Protocols? As it turned out, no. A little light reading later revealed that Asimov never entered the cybernetics field in this world, and was in fact famous here solely as a remarkably prolific author of science and science fiction books. And there was no record of Tsung anywhere.

Still, how hard can it be to come up with the idea of putting a goddamned governor on any system that, like a bot brain, operates on positive feedback? You have to be an idiot or criminally negligent to fail to do so, especially on dangerous equipment deployed in the public sector.

Jeez. It was like GENOM's marketing slogan for bots was, "Kill all you want; we'll make more."

Not that the government response was any more intelligent. The "AD" Police were chronically underfunded, understaffed and underequipped. The fatality rate was staggering. Now, the Warriors are paramilitary -- we have our own powered infantry to support meta-based operations. If we had a fraction of the casualty rate among our people that these "AD" Police had among theirs, first thing we'd do would be take them off the front lines until they had proper equipment. Then there would be a groundswell of outrage, with us at the forefront, aimed at the Security Council and the Committee. Here? The city council gives out commendations and pats on the head, and cuts the budget yet again. It was infuriating, enraging! I so wanted to knock some heads together!

Following threads from that material led me to something that got me so mad I nearly busted my foot kicking a wall: the legal status of cyborgs, at least in Japan.

The 70% boomeroid law was barbarism, pure and simple. I'm no expert -- I leave that to the team's legal attache -- but I can read. This law was so broadly written that a glass eye or a wooden pegleg qualified their owners for "boomeroid" status; in fact, it was so vague in parts that there was a fair chance that wearing glasses could classify you as a "boomeroid", because they were an "artificial enhancement" of your "existing physical attributes". The same with plastic surgery.

I thought about all the cyborgs and intelligent bots and emancipated AIs I'd known and worked with over the years, and wondered just how this law had passed here, and why. It seemed to me that someone had to have a vested interest in seeing to it that a good-sized fraction of the population were potentially considered property instead of people.

And that led me right back to GENOM. I'd pegged it on my first night here, I was certain -- GENOM wanted something more than just simple, massive market share. Like I said, scratch a monopoly and find a conspiracy. GENOM wanted control.

I was sure of it.

At least the city and its people had their defenders. I discovered this when I came across an unexplained reference to something called the "Knight Sabers", and followed a footnote thread. It seems that the woman in blue armor whom I'd seen this evening was one of them. They were a band of mercs who regularly did pro bono boomer fighting, taking down the far-too-frequent rogue combat models that the "AD" Police couldn't completely handle. So Lady Blue wasn't the criminal mastermind I'd thought she was -- she was almost certainly hunting down the bot I'd killed. I suppose I must have given her a surprise or two....

For a while I was confused by how little press these Knight Sabers got. Back home their activities would've been covered at least on page 3, but here, they got little filler articles wedged in under the "lifestyle" stories towards the back of the paper. At least I was confused until I saw who owned the papers and the on-line archive. You get three guesses, and the first two don't count.

Anyway, I did some digging on the good lady knights, even retrieved a little video footage of them. Nice. Definitely well-trained, well-led professionals. It's always good to see someone else who takes as much pride in their work as the Warriors do.

Unless they were playing at obfuscation, they were just normals in powered armor, but that powered armor was clearly in advance of just about anything else on the planet. I mean, every other battlesuit that I'd seen or read about here had been a huge thing that reminded me of the old walkertanks from the French-Indochina Conflict of the 1960s -- big piles of motorized battleship armor that were more driven than worn, and clumsily at that.

The Knights had these sleek, slender, form-fitting suits that were clearly tougher and more powerful than the local state-of-the-art. In fact they reminded me of some of the more advanced battlesuits from homeline. This, if I had GENOM figured right, probably made them a double target -- for being both an obstacle and more advanced than GENOM's technology. The Knights had been at it for half a decade or more, though, so I didn't think GENOM was likely to take them down any time soon.

I didn't have a clue why their armor had high heels, though. Tits I could almost understand. Heels that would make a fetishist drool, no.

Anyway, I'll admit I was relieved by the existence of the Knight Sabers. It meant it I didn't have to get involved. The city already had its own protectors; they didn't need me.

With that comforting thought still foremost on my mind, I collapsed on my bed.

* * *

Saturday, July 26, 2036. 9:00 AM.

"I'm glad everyone finally made it to this 8 AM meeting," Sylia said, nodding towards Priss, who grumbled inarticulately from her sprawled position on the couch. Lisa sniggered, earning her a glare from the drowsy singer.

They were ensconced in the large, comfortable lounge that served as the Sabers' briefing room. Next door to the records room with which Lisa had grown so familiar, it boasted a duplicate of that room's hydra-headed multimedia system, paired with a lesser but Net-aware computer. Lisa and Nene sat together at the wide console, turned slightly to see Sylia, who paced at the front of the room. Behind her, a large flatscreen display hung upon the wall. Linna occupied a nearby armchair, her legs crossed and her hands clasped over her knee.

Sylia continued. "I'd like to say that last night for the most part was a textbook operation for us. Between our actions and the ADP, it took less than 15 minutes to take down the vast majority of the boomers. Nene?"

The redhead nodded. "As far as AD Police technicians have been able to tell, this was a simple case of overworking a team of construction boomers. The operational logs that ADP retrieved from the boomers show round-the-clock usage with no down time or maintenance for at least six weeks. There's nothing more sinister here than a greedy and impatient contractor, and ADP will be arresting and charging him some time this morning."

Sylia returned the nod. "That being covered, we now come to the one anomaly in last night's operation. I know you've all heard about it. Lisa, if you'll play the clip?"

"Hai!" Lisa responded, and clicked the "okay" button on the lower screen. A monitor above her and the wall display both flickered in unison. A rapidly-incrementing timestamp appeared over the image of one humanoid figure bludgeoning another.

"Increase magnification times two," Sylia said tonelessly.

Lisa complied, and the image blurred and resolved into a tighter, larger view of the figures. She intently watched the entire encounter between Doug and Priss replayed from Priss's perspective. Her eyes widened as for the first time she saw the way in which Priss's railgun spikes had missed Doug, then realized from the murmurs behind her that the others were reacting similarly.

Wow, Lisa thought. How did he do that? Then another thought occurred to her as she watched the large screen and realized that Doug was clearly recognizable. I can't ever introduce him to any of them now -- and after talking so much about him to Nene and Linna. With his face on that recording, they'll know that I knew who he was. Aw, hell. What am I going to do?

When it was over, there was silence for a moment. "What was that?" Linna finally asked.

"Was that boomer bleeding?" Nene added.

"Nah," Priss mumbled. "'S ketchup. Broken bottles on the floor, glass all over."

"How did he do that with the railgun spikes?" Linna shook her head. "How can something like that even be possible?"

"He didn't do nothing," Priss answered. "He wasn't even paying attention. It just... happened. On its own, I think."

"Weird." Linna shook her head. "Maybe some kind of fast-acting fusion nanites in the air around him? But why bother putting the spikes back the way they were after making them harmless?"

"I have no answers for you, Linna," Sylia replied. "All I can tell you is what I have determined is not the case. Lisa, please run the recording again, this time in infrared. Be prepared to pause it on my mark."

Lisa nodded, set the filter and replayed the sequence.

"Freeze," Sylia snapped, and walked up to the wall display. "Due to the relatively low resolution of Priss's IR sensors, the data we have here is crude, but there is enough to draw some conclusions. We can immediately rule out any kind of nanotech when it comes to his defense against Priss's railgun. Nanites give off heat -- in many cases it is their only waste product. If a cloud of nanites did surround this individual, we would see it in infrared, obscuring the form of his body." She gestured widely, encompassing the blobby, brightly-colored, but still clearly humanoid figure. "We don't. Therefore, they are not there."

She continued to stare at the image. "Moreover, I spent several hours last night and this morning analyzing the spikes, which Priss was so kind as to bring back with her. There is no evidence of nanomanipulation. No evidence of any kind of alteration whatsoever."

Sylia seemed to rouse herself, and turned back to her audience. "Furthermore, I believe we can eliminate the possibility that this... person... is some new kind of boomer. The heat pattern he's radiating is clearly similar to that of a human being, rather than a cyberdroid."

Well, that's a relief, Lisa thought.

"However," Sylia continued, "we cannot with any certainty say that he is a human being, despite his appearance. Even allowing for the low resolution of this image, his organ signature is noticeably off here and here," she pointed at several bright spots in the torso of the figure, "and of course there is the remarkable running speed he demonstrated, as well as his implied combat ability. He may be a boomeroid, though any known cybernetic replacements necessary for such performance should have shown up on IR. I'm afraid that a definite determination will have to wait until Nene can scan him."

"That's assuming we ever see him again," Linna interjected.

Sylia nodded. "True. In any case, seeing as how he took no offensive action against Priss, even after her attack, and in fact fled quickly and directly..."

"You ain't kidding," Priss muttered under her breath.

"...and since, whether or not it was his intention, he assisted us by downing the last boomer of the pack, I am for the moment designating him as a neutral target, not to be attacked if we encounter him in the future. And perhaps to be approached if conditions favor it."

The other Sabers nodded as Sylia looked around the room at them. Lisa strove to appear relaxed and interested, but inside she was quivering with suppressed tension; her stomach roiled with fear. Should Sylia ask if she knew anything about Doug, Lisa knew she couldn't lie to her. Her only hope was to look as ignorant as possible.

Maybe if I can somehow get Doug and the Sabers to meet and talk, I can get myself out of this.

* * *

Saturday, July 26, 2036. 3:12 PM.

"Hand me that set of calipers, will you, Lisa? No, no... close, but no cigar. The calipers, not the hemostat."

I took a break from the work I was doing on the engine. Now this was one project that I had no problems with accidentally enchanting; in fact I was counting on it happening. I had a couple dozen tools and widgets spread out on a cloth on the workbench, next to the partially-assembled turbine and a second cloth on which rested other parts, including the fully-assembled compressor fan set, a dozen outrageously expensive fuel injectors and a heat exchanger/intercooler of my own design. Lisa was seated on the other end of the bench top from the engine, banging her heels against the cabinet under her perch. I spent a few minutes teaching her which tools were which, to save myself some aggravation while she was here.

My god, but the girl was a clothes horse of the first water. Today's outfit was a pair of designer denim shorts midway between daisy dukes and culottes in length, a blouse of what looked like white silk, and brand-new sky-blue Nikes with little white ankle socks. In the month or so that I'd known Lisa, I had yet to see her in any kind of "dress-down" mode -- no torn jeans, sweatclothes or the like. I was coming to the conclusion that she was simply incapable of dressing full-bore casual.

Me, I was in jeans and T-shirt again, but my fashion statement for the day was the pair of lint-free white cotton gloves I wore to keep my skin oil off the turbine blades.

"Soooo," she said casually, banging her Nikes against the cabinet again. "I heard on the radio that one of the Knight Sabers was seen at Hot Legs last night after the boomer chased everyone out. Did you see her?" She stretched her right leg out for a moment, holding it horizontal and pointing her toe, then relaxed and let it swing back down to drum hollowly against the cabinet. At the same time, her finger idly traced the heart carved into the countertop.

"Huh," I grunted as I checked the diameter of the turbine shaft in preparation for fitting the blades to the hub. Those nanobuilt engine parts had incredibly small tolerances, and I was paranoid about screwing the whole thing up by having specified the wrong size by an angstrom or two. "I thought I saw a woman in some kind of blue outfit as I was leaving, but I was still a little dazed from hurting myself. I thought she was a cop. Could that have been this Knight Saber?"

"Maybe. So, you've heard of them?"

I shrugged and picked up a turbine blade. As I ran my cotton-covered fingers across its seemingly frictionless monomolecular sides I said, "Yeah, but just what you see in the news outside of MegaTokyo. Four righteous babes in armor that looks like it shouldn't stop a BB, let alone a particle beam. I'm half-inclined to agree with the folks who think they're just a big publicity stunt intended to bring the tourists to town."

"Oh, no!" Lisa suddenly got very vehement. "They're the real thing! I know -- I met them when they helped rescue the ADP headquarters from a terrorist boomer attack almost four years ago. I was trapped in the bulding and they saved my life!"

"Really?" I said as I test-fit the blade in the hub.

"Uh-huh!" Lisa shook her head vigorously, catching my eye with the motion. "I was on one of the top floors to see my uncle when the terrorists shut everything down and all the blast doors closed. Right after that, the pink Saber got into the main computer room and saw me on one of the monitors. She talked to me over the PA system and guided me down to where the rest of the Sabers could get me out of the building, opening up doors and stuff for me on the way."

"Huh." The blade fit neatly into the hub, locking perfectly into place, which meant the others were going to be spot-on, too. Gotta love this nanomade stuff -- get one right, and they're all perfect. "So, like, does this mean you know these Knight Sabers?" Pick up the next blade, slide it into the hub, snap it into place.

"Well," she said, stretching out the word as I slid a third blade in and snapped it into position. "I saw them fight boomers once or twice after that, and I got to talk to them for a couple minutes one time."

"Yeah?" Pick up blade, slide, snap.

"Uh-huh. You know they're mercenaries, right?" Pick up blade. "But they don't charge for their boomer work, you know?" Slide. "They said they had a duty to the people of MegaTokyo and their safety that was more important than personal gain..."

Clatter.

As I leaned down to pick up the dropped blade, I whispered, "A duty?"

"Uh-huh. A, um, 'sacred duty', I think they said. A responsibility. They're very honorable women, you know? I think they're the kind of people you could trust if you really needed to. I know that if I ever needed help, and I could find them, I'd go right to the Knight Sabers," she concluded, almost proudly. Lisa began banging the cabinet with her heels again as she leaned back and clasped her hands behind her neck.

A duty. Damn.

Mechanically, I examined the turbine blade and checked it for damage. It wasn't likely -- the entire blade was a single molecule, after all, and couldn't chip or crack -- but I did it anyway.

Almost as if that were some kind of signal, Lisa jumped down off the bench. "Oh, well, I've got to be going. Let me know tomorrow how all this stuff," she waved at the hub and blade assembly, "worked out, okay?" She patted me on the cheek and I woke up a little.

"Oh, right. Sure, Lisa, no problem!" I put the blade back down on the cloth-covered benchtop and reached out a hand to tousle her hair. I gave her a lopsided grin that was purely cosmetic, because inside jagged emotions were ripping through me, their razor edges eviscerating my once-numb complacency.

When the door clicked behind her, I stepped over and locked it. Then I turned and sunk down to the floor, my back against the door, and there I sat, cursing Lisa's turn of phrase, and cursing myself. Damn.

Honor and duty. Duty and honor.

Damn it all.

I should have known it was too easy. But I'd been deluding myself, and not very well. It only took Lisa's random comment to bring it all back, to remind me of something I'd been trying to not think of. Something I had had to force myself not to think of with my dismissal of my own responsibility upon discovering the existence of the Knight Sabers.

I had been shirking.

I had tried to forget that I had a duty. I had tried to forget that when I received my commission all those years ago, I had taken vows, vows that bound me no matter what world I was in. Defend those who had no defenders. Protect those who would be exploited and oppressed, or who suffered the worst losses of unjust war. Champion basic human rights, and take down those who would deny them to others. Enact justice upon those who would wage war. Make and keep the peace.

I had not shirked in Valdemar. But here, here I had been passive and unconcerned. Lives had been lost last night that I could have saved, had I chosen to be ready. Had I bothered to discover what kind of destruction raged through this city on a regular basis. My willful ignorance had had a cost far too heavy for my conscience to bear. I could no longer let myself drift along, unconcerned for the city in which I dwelt.

And having realized that, I felt a weight that I hadn't known I'd been bearing lift from me. My mood changed for the better, with a sudden, abrupt transition that surprised and delighted me. For the first time in weeks, I felt like... like me. Angst wasn't my thing, though I could be grim when needed. I was the Loon, Looney Toons of the Warriors, and I couldn't believe I had forgotten that what I did best was have fun while doing what I did best. All the worrying and planning was necessary, but they had almost taken me over, entrapping me and wrapping me in their suffocating stasis -- they had stopped being tools and had become my life.

No more. Even as I laughed out loud with astonished joy, I marveled at the delicious paradox -- in remembering my duty, I had regained my freedom. Compared to this, the moments during the fight with the bot were nothing.

So I have weird epiphanies. Sue me.

In any case, I saw my path made clear.

It was time to act.

END OF CHAPTER THREE

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(Version 1.1, 25 September 2001)
(Version 1.2, 14 November 2002)
(Version 1.3, 22 October 2003)

This work of fiction is copyright © 1999, Robert M. Schroeck.

Bubblegum Crisis and the characters thereof are copyright and a trademark of Artmic Inc. and Youmex Inc., and are used without permission.

"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.

Lyrics from "Come Dancing" by the Kinks, copyright © 1983 by Ray Davies/The Kinks.

Lyrics from "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me" and "You May Be Right" by Billy Joel, copyright © 1980 by Impulsive Music and April Music.

Original Japanese lyrics from "Konya wa Hurricane" by Aran Tomoko, copyright © 1987 by Artmic, Inc. & Youmex, Inc.

New English translation of "Konya wa Hurricane" by Helen Imre, copyright © 1998, Helen Imre. Used by permission.

Lyrics from untitled "Looney Tunes" song (authorship unknown, possibly by Carl Stalling) and dialog featured in the Warner Brothers animated cartoon "Hare-Um Scare-Um", copyright © 1939, Warner Brothers.

These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.

For a full explanation of the references and hidden tidbits in this story, see the Drunkard's Walk II Concordance at:

http://www.accessdenied-rms.net/dw2conc.shtml

Other chapters of this story can be found at:

http://www.accessdenied-rms.net/misc.shtml

The Drunkard's Walk discussion forums are open for those who wish to trade thoughts and comments with other readers, as well as with the author:

http://drunkardswalkforums.yuku.com/

Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Joseph Avins, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr and Helen Imre. Additional prereaders for future chapters welcome.


This page was created on January 29, 1999.
Last modified January 16, 2013.