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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

 

 

4: Be Vewy Quiet, I'm Hunting Wobots

It is a fatal error to enter any war without the will to win it. -- Gen. Douglas MacArthur

The power of an untrained magician can be a truly frightening thing. Since the magician doesn't know that certain things are impossible even with magic, there is no reason for him or her to hesitate to attempt them. -- Chris Davies, "Bubblegum Chakram"

 

Saturday, July 26, 2036. 10:31 PM.

"So," Nene said, looking out over the city.

"So?" Lisa's eyebrows flickered up, then down.

It was the end of another frantic night out on the town, a little early for once, but Nene had insisted. The two had returned to the redhead's apartment ("Clean for once, see?" she'd gloated), where Nene had retrieved a bottle of cola and some plastic cups. A few minutes later, they were on the roof, sprawled in a pair of decrepit plastic chaises longues and sipping soda. "So?" Lisa repeated, savoring her cola and watching the lights of vehicles spiraling up GENOM tower.

"So I did some digging into this Sangnoir person," Nene replied. "The guy's your next-door neighbor, Lisa-chan. What are you getting into now?"

Lisa shrugged without looking at her friend. "Oh, I'm just checking. He's told me a lot of wild stories about his past and I wanted to see if any of them were true." Her tone was elaborately casual.

"Stories like what?" Nene tipped her cup up and drained it, then refilled.

"Like how he lived in England, and worked for the government there -- he never did say just which government, either. Huh."

"Well, I don't think I can answer that for you, Lisa." Nene shook her cup gently, swirling the dark, bubbling contents into the dimple of a tiny whirlpool for a moment. "At least not in the way you want."

"Huh?" Lisa looked directly at Nene, who was pursing her lips and staring off at the distant skyline.

"Your friend Sangnoir's records are probably fake," she said finally. "The work's pretty darned good. There's even a little paper support for it -- the right few files in the right few agencies, in case anyone wanted to run the usual checks, but nothing more than that. It might actually have fooled me if I hadn't been actively looking for anything out of the ordinary." She turned and gave Lisa a pleading look. "Please tell me you're not neck-deep in something out of your control, Lisa. This guy Sangnoir is either a spook or a criminal."

"Or maybe he's someone who wants a little privacy, like Dr. Raven," Lisa offered.

Nene blushed and cleared her throat. "Doc Raven's a special case," she said.

Lisa set her soda down on the roof next to her chaise and reached out a hand to touch Nene's shoulder. "So is Doug. I was just curious. And I'm not going to take it any further than this. Trust me -- I know what I'm doing, Nene-chan." I hope.

"Famous last words, Lisa."

"It's not like we both haven't said our share of them," Lisa responded. "But I think... hell, things have been going well for everyone for a while now, and I really believe that's not going to change."

Nene considered this. "I hope you're right."

They sat together in silence for several minutes, listening to the faint traffic noises and watching the lights in the distance. A weak ghost of a breeze brought the scent of seawater out of the east.

"You know, there's something I've always wanted to try," said Nene. "Maybe it'll help."

"What's that?"

Nene stood, raised her arms to the sky, and screamed out, "Good god, what else could go right?" She sat down and grinned. "It always seems to work the other way, so I figured, what the hey?"

* * *

Sunday, July 27, 2036. 8:03 AM.

Given the evidence at hand, I had to conclude that the vast majority of bot attacks were intentionally staged. Far too many coincided with other crimes or "terrorist actions". Far too many were too well-organized or well-coordinated. And far too many "terrorist organizations" had claimed credit for the various attacks. There had been no less than twenty-five such groups from all over the political spectrum. They appeared in the wake of a rampage, announced their responsibility and their reasons, and then vanished like mist, most of them leaving behind no trace of their existence prior to or after the attack.

Some were no doubt opportunists. Some few were probably "legit", as far as terrorist organizations go. However, for my own tactical purposes, I had to assume that there was a single entity behind most if not all bot rampages. This hypothetical entity -- be it corporate or individual -- either manufactured or manipulated the scapegoat groups as a smokescreen. The entity, if it had any brains (collective or otherwise), would also be gathering intelligence on all its bot operations, particularly against such regular opponents as the "AD" Police and those Knight Sabers mercenaries. I saw evidence of this in the rapid upgrade of bots encountered by the Knights from 2032 to 2034, a period during which the mercenaries appeared to have become specific targets of the entity. Only apparently-coincidental upgrades of the mercs' own equipment prevented them from being smeared bigtime, from what I could see in the public record.

If I were going to engage this hypothetical foe, I needed to keep it off-balance. I had to assume that it had large resources, especially analytical ones, so it behooved me to let it have as little consistent data on me as possible. My initial rules of engagement became: Keep a low profile when not actually fighting. Enter and depart combat quickly and efficiently. Don't approach a fight from the same direction every time. Minimize accumulated data by taking down the opposition as fast as possible. Sow misinformation and confusion where I could. And never use the same song/power twice.

I knew I was going to regret the necessity of that last one. "Lightning's Hand" alone would be of immense utility in shutting down bots and defending against the charged particle beams some of the combat models appeared to wield. But repetition brought with it the risk of countermeasures. I couldn't afford to be predictable.

Of course I knew that battlefield conditions would inevitably force the violation of one or more of these rules. In particular, saving noncombatants came first in every case, even if it meant exposing myself to analysis and possible retaliation. In such situations, I would just have to improvise. But before that, I needed two things.

I needed to get my cycle finished, for one. I had songs that I could use for transport to and from battle, but most such had side-effects that were either personally inconvenient or allowed me to be tracked. So I needed the physical wheels working. I wondered if I might be able to kitbash a stealth suite for the bike at work. And maybe an autopilot; that would come in handy, too.

Work was where I would get the second thing I needed: a radio capable of receiving and decoding "AD" Police transmissions. If I was going to fight, I needed to know where to go.

* * *

Monday, July 28, 2036. 12:37 PM.

Lisa fumbled the keyboard of her new terminal into her lap. Poised in the center of her desk, in front of the large, terminally-dim monitor was her palmtop; an editor window took up all of its far-brighter screen and displayed her copious but terse notes. Slowly, carefully, while trying to ignore the entire city room, she began to compose an article from them.

Like I really care about the fifth annual GENOM flower show, Lisa thought, suppressing a sigh. But like Daddy always said, you don't always get the stories you want. Still, why can't I get anything exciting, like...

"Takano, Muklewicz!" Kiyoshi shouted out over the din of the office. "Get your asses out to Timex City! I need a follow-up story on that twister or whatever it was that touched down in the Fault Region yesterday -- get out there and get me at least 25 paragraphs and three good images for tonight's edition!"

Like that, she concluded after a moment. Even if no one was hurt and all it destroyed were a few abandoned buildings, it's still a more exciting story than a flower show. She suppressed another sigh. Of course, the one absolutely perfect story I did stumble onto this weekend I can't do anything about. Not without Doug or the Sabers figuring out that I know more than I was letting on.

A fierce determination welled up in her. I think it's time I talked to Sylia about setting up some good press for the Sabers.

* * *

Tuesday, July 29, 2036. 7:48 PM.

The shop was packed to the rafters with kitsch. Daley and the two officers with him could barely move through the narrow aisles for fear of dislodging some decaying cardboard box or threadbare display tray from its precarious perch. Still, they'd navigated their way to the narrow counter at the back of the tiny shop, and had conducted the interview in response to the phone call they'd received.

The elderly Chinese woman who ran the shop spoke very little Japanese, but was very helpful -- with a lot of patience and a scratch pad full of kanji. But he reached a point where his repeated gentle inquiries only resulted in bursts of rapid-fire Chinese, followed by the old woman pulling a folded sheet of paper out from behind the counter.

Daley took it from her, unfolded it, and stared into the goggled visage of Fuko's sketch. It was the flyer they'd distributed to the local merchants after the boomeroid's one attack. "Him," the old woman croaked out in heavily-accented Nihongo. "He come in, two hour ago, he buy four."

"Four what, okusama?" Daley asked. The woman replied with a smattering of unintelligible sounds that might have been Japanese. Daley shook his head. "What did he buy?"

The old woman grunted, then leaned down to pull a tray out of the grimy glass case that served as her counter. She dropped the cheap wood-and-velveteen container in front of him. "He buy four," she repeated as Daley stared in confusion. The tray held a dozen identical enameled pins of a rabbit from an American cartoon.

* * *

Friday, August 1, 2036. 9:15 PM.

The death toll from the boomer rampage that night had been 27. Dozens of others had been wounded. As it turned out, there had been four fatalities as a result of the one bot's attack on the club. Besides the two corpses I'd spotted when I'd gone back in, one person died in the triage tent before I got there, and another succumbed a day later in the hospital.

I went to their funerals. I needed to.

Herman Liu. Age 22.

He had been an architecture student, and his father had already lined up his "in" with a big, prestigious firm. He'd loved skiing, music, and a young woman named Danielle. A mass of fratboys, fidgeting uncomfortably and their heads bowed, stood in silence at the end of the service to offer a farewell salute to their comrade.

Yelena Brzezinski. She'd been 25.

A singer and dancer who'd just received her first big break by getting cast in a production on MegaTokyo's equivalent of Broadway. It was a revival of a musical that I'd never heard of, first produced twenty years earlier in 2016. She'd gone to the Replicants concert with her boyfriend to celebrate getting the part. The boyfriend was in the hospital, in serious condition but expected to make it.

Cho Jeung-An. 29 years old.

A quiet, friendly "office lady" who had dozens of mourners packed into a small chapel. Almost all of them credited her with some key insight or advice that changed their lives for the better. Many of the men there bemoaned the fact that they'd overlooked her for so long. She'd been the only child of a couple so grief-stricken that they seemed ready to follow their daughter to the next world.

Kazuko Hardy. Barely 16.

She'd sneaked into Hot Legs to see the concert -- her friends testified how much she'd loved retrothrash in general and the Replicants in particular. A hundred or more sobbing classmates, looking a veritable army in their school uniforms, mobbed the church where they held the service. Her mother, already a widow, was heartbroken at the loss of her daughter. Her younger siblings clung to their mother, confused and afraid.

At each service, I left a token: a little enamel-and-metal pin in the form of Bugs Bunny, one of four I'd bought for that purpose early Monday evening. I left the pin in the coffin, or pressed it into the hand of a grieving parent. It was a secret promise between the dead and me: my promise of retribution for their loss and atonement for my inaction. At his best and brightest the Rabbit had never sought conflict, but never hesitated to visit revenge upon those who deserved it. It was my pledge to the dead that I would visit revenge on those who deserved it.

* * *

The rest of my week wasn't as dark as I'm sure it sounds from that, but it was busy. I did throw myself into my work, putting in a lot of overtime to get the radio prototypes in shape and ready to go to my unwitting future allies in the "AD" Police. Late at night, when I was the only one in the shop, I'd also nanofac the final few custom parts I needed to get the cycle up and running. I was pushing myself hard.

But I knew I had to balance myself -- like I said, I'm not the grim and gritty type. Swearing revenge is one thing -- living for it is another. I would avenge them, yes. But I wouldn't let that goal consume me. The last thing I wanted to do was to go down the same road that Psyche did in his final months with the Warriors. It was weird, though. I didn't normally have this tendency to get angsty and obsessed. Maybe this whole dark, gothicky city and world were starting to get to me.

* * *

Saturday, August 2, 2036. 9:02 PM.

Leon stowed the bag of burgers and fries in the leather saddle bag that hung from the back of his motorcycle's seat. The coffee he stashed in the cup holder. His helmet and gloves on, he pulled out of the fast food joint's parking lot. He'd put in a long day of overtime at the office, and while he wasn't about to stop thinking about matters at hand, he needed to get out and about. Priss was too busy prepping for her tour to have the patience to hang with him tonight, so it looked like he was on his own. He snorted to himself. At least she's got something to do now, what with the rehearsing and all. With the way boomer crime dropped in the last year or so, I was afraid she'd end up going stir crazy.

He thought back to the photos he'd seen of the boomer found on the dance floor at Hot Legs. A witness had spotted the blue Saber in the club's vicinity; it wasn't hard to guess what had happened. He could only wonder, though, at what had compelled Priss to savage the cyberdroid so. He shook his head, smiling wryly to himself. And this is the woman I've been chasing for four years.

As he raced down the coastal highway, the summer night's air -- still warm and humid from a bright, hot day -- turned into a cool wash flowing over his body and under his helmet. He drew and released a long sigh, savoring the cooling touch of the moving air as it rushed in and out of his chest and throat. One of the last things he'd done before leaving HQ was read the final reports for that debacle with the construction boomers.

I really didn't need to see those updated casualty figures, Leon thought as he weaved through the light traffic. Just knowing nearly 30 died is enough for me, thank you. At least we're not doing funeral surveillance for deaths by boomer violence -- I'd've hated to have had to wade through all the reports that would've generated.

A few minutes later, he reached his destination: a small pier that overlooked what little remained of Aqua City. The moon was three-quarters full, and shed enough light to pick out the twisted organic forms that still extended above the surface of the water, abstract metallic sculptures that silently attested to the violent death of the abandoned "city of the future". Despite its history and its ruined state, there was a certain stark beauty here that drew him back time after time. That, and the memories it held for him -- meeting Priss, fighting alongside the Sabers for the first time, and rescuing Cynthia, the little girl who had turned out to be a boomer.

He shut off the bike and swung down the kickstand, then dug out the greasy paper bag. Leon unwrapped the first of his cheeseburgers and after taking a bite, balanced it on the fuel tank. He wrestled his coffee free of the cup holder and popped its lid. Wisps of vapor rose from the dark contents. Blowing across its steaming surface, he ventured a tentative sip. As the scalding, bitter liquid slid down his throat, he mused on the latest development in the boomeroid case.

Why four Bugs Bunny pins? Leon pondered as he took another bite of his burger. One I could discount as random, a whim. But there's meaning in four. The question is, what meaning?

He put the coffee back in the cup holder and leaned forward, propping his arms on the handlebars of the motorcycle. Beneath his feet, the water lapped at the pier's pilings, making lazy slapping noises. Okay, given: there is a significance to him buying four pins. He's not going to wear four pins. So the four corresponds to something important to him. Figure that out, and why Bugs Bunny, and then we'll have the first line on a psych profile. Maybe.

A contemplative look appeared upon his face. Four. Four. Four seasons, four weeks to a month, four phases of the moon. Four on the floor. Four suits of cards. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Four Gods. Four stages of anesthesia. Four calling birds. He took another bite. Four elements of drama -- no, wait, that's five elements. Four points on the compass. Wind's four quarters, and the four Western alchemical elements. Four zones in GENOM tower. He paused, coffee in one hand, burger in the other. Now there was a possibility, since the boomeroid was almost certainly an escaped GENOM project. But what would it mean?

Leon shook his head. This is useless. He brought his cup to his lips and stopped there, savoring the sharp, earthy scent of the coffee before drinking again. I'm not going to figure anything out by looking for random sets of fours. We're just going to have to wait for the next time the boomeroid appears. He will appear again. I can feel it in my gut. He sipped again. And this time we'll be ready for him.

* * *

Friday, August 8, 2036. 8:23 PM

"...and I don't care how hot it is, Lisa-chan, I don't want you sitting right in front of the air conditioner. You'll catch a chill, and you know how hard it is for you to shake off a cold once you get one!"

Lisa bowed her head, ostensibly to look closer at the papers scattered before her, but really it was to hide the rolling of her eyes. "'Ka-chan! I'm 21 years old, I can take care of myself, you know." As she ruffled the sheets in front of her, Lisa realized what she was risking and hastily stuffed them into a manila folder. Even if the small size and poor resolution of the phone's screen made it unlikely that they were even legible, there was no point in taking chances; the last thing Lisa needed was for her mother to spot her photos and notes on the Sabers and start asking questions. It was bad enough that her mother had noticed the wristwatch/beeper Sylia had given her as part of her "membership package"; Lisa had only barely deflected her mother's inquiries about it. If she thought her little girl were in danger, Mayumi Vanette would pursue the matter with the tenacity of a pit bull and the common sense of a toy poodle.

"I don't care how old you are, Lisa, you're never too old to look after yourself properly," her mother primly reiterated. "I don't want to hear you complaining that you caught a chill in the middle of summer because you didn't have enough sense to sit away from the air conditioner."

Lisa gave an exasperated sigh, then drew a breath in preparation for engaging her mother in verbal battle. Before she could deliver her first sally, though, there was a restrained pounding at her door. At the thought of the conflict averted, Lisa gave a relieved smile. "Look, 'Ka-chan, there's someone at the door, I've gotta go talk to you later love you bye!" she rattled off quickly and punched the "call over" button before her mother could reply. She shoved the folder under the pillow of her futon, then leapt to the door.

"Hey there," said Doug as she pulled it open.

"Oh, hi!" She favored him with a bright, broad smile. "Come on in!"

"Thanks!" After she closed the door behind him, Lisa turned to see Doug giving a look around her apartment. "You unpacked a few more things, I see." His eyes settled on the wall where she'd hung a few of her mementos, and he stepped over to it. Lisa glanced down and confirmed that he was in stocking feet, not his shoes. "What's all this? Wow."

"Just a few memories and accomplishments."

He studied the photos and certificates, and in the center her diploma from the University of Kobe. "Wow," he repeated. "I'm impressed. You were a threat on all fronts, weren't you?" He gave her an appraising look. "Honors student and star athlete? Although I suppose I should have guessed that you were a gymnast." He returned his gaze to the wall and ran a finger along the edge of a frame that held a photo of a preteen Lisa poised on a balance beam.

She shrugged. "Only until through junior high. When I reached high school, I got caught up in the school paper and stopped competing."

He snorted. "Why am I not surprised?"

"My mother was horribly disappointed," Lisa continued with a grin. "She always saw me as the next Tara Niederhaus."

"Who?"

"Oh, come on, you remember. 'Tenacious Tara,' the wonder girl of the 2012 games? Canadian, won 6 gold medals?"

Doug looked utterly blank for a split second more, then smiled and said, "Oh, yeah, right -- her. For a moment I was mixing her up with Kerri Strug."

"Not even close." Well, there's one more test he's flunked. Tara had parlayed her Olympic fame into a far more profitable film and vid career that had spanned three continents over the last two and half decades. It should have been impossible to have grown up in the civilized world without knowing about her. But Doug had never heard of her before a few minutes ago -- Lisa was sure of it. Very suspicious for someone who claimed to have been raised in Los Angeles. Where are you from, really, Doug?

"Anyway..." she continued with a dismissive wave at the wall of memorabilia. "What brings you over tonight? What's up?"

"Oh, right!" He waggled his eyebrows at her and gave a lopsided grin. "How would you like to go for a ride, little girl?" he asked with a mock leer.

"What...?" she began, then comprehension struck. "The motorcycle! You've finished it?"

Doug shrugged. "Everything except the paint job. It looks like shit, but the engine purrs like a kitten. I was just going to take it out on a test ride and wanted to know if you'd like to come along."

"I'd love to!" Lisa replied, then her smile collapsed. "But I can't. I've got some... work I have to do." She gave a quick sidelong glance at the pillow under which the folder sat, and grimaced. "I really shouldn't put it off."

"If you're sure..."

She grabbed Doug's arm in both hands and started tugging. "No, I'm not, which is why you'd better get going -- you might tempt me too much!"

He laughed and let her drag him to the door, then waited with a smile for her to open it. Chuckling, Doug tapped her on the nose with his fingertip and said, "Just remember, you turned down this opportunity. Who knows what dangerous neighborhood we might have broken down in together?"

Lisa rolled her eyes, but was unable to suppress a spurt of giggles. "Get out of here, you baka." She shoved him, still chortling, through the door and shut it behind him.

Through the door, faintly, she heard him say, "I'll take that as a no." Lisa fell back against the door and laughed.

* * *

Friday, August 8, 2036. 9:00 PM

I suppose it was better for my ego that Lisa didn't come along on the test ride. I stalled out twice in the first couple kilometers and had to readjust the fuel system with the allen wrench that I'd brought along with me. The turbine which had hummed along nicely both on my workbench and in neutral gear once installed in the cycle's frame coughed and wheezed under a real load. At least until I got the fuel flow right -- after that, it ran like a dream, just like I'd promised Lisa. Who cared that the frame was still dented in places and primarily finished in redlead primercoat? It may have looked like shit, but that was just temporary.

Anyway, after my engine trouble was taken care of, I headed southeast toward the harbor. There was a superhighway that ran all along the waterfront edge of the city before merging into a beltway at either end. Oddly, it tended to get only light use, and this Friday night it was almost deserted. I suppose the fact that it went through some very bad areas had something to do with this, but I wasn't concerned. I was too busy paying attention to the bike's performance, and putting its various subsystems through their paces.

Without the proper test equipment, I really couldn't measure the turbine's power output, but my best calculations suggested that I was getting something between 450 and 500 HP from the powerplant. Factor in the bike's overall low weight and my other custom innovations, and it should give me a top speed of at least 325 kph. Maybe more -- I'd cobbled some floating magnetic bearings together from memory and I wasn't sure how much of an advantage they were really going to give me. But it didn't matter. The bike was likely to be right on the edge of what a normal could handle. Maybe beyond.

One thing I needed to test in future rides was the bike's response to different fuels. I fully intended to take the motorcycle with me when I left this universe, and to that end, I'd designed the turbine and the fuel system to be as adaptable as possible. At that moment I was running on this here-and-now's standard gasoline formulation, but theoretically the turbine could handle grain alcohol, aviation fuel, even propane and natural gas -- anything liquid or gaseous that I could inject into the combustion chamber and burn. Hell, with the monomolecular blades and chamber, it could probably handle a LOX/LOH mix. Not that I'd try it. I'm nuts, but not that nuts.

Anyway, I'd built several different tanks for different fuels, which were designed to be hot-swappable, using standard fittings. And as I had just demonstrated, I could tune the fuel system with an allen wrench at a couple key points. With all this and some luck, I could keep rolling anywhere as long as there was at least enough technology to build a still.

Now if only I could have gotten my hands on any Anson GravMaster-series product, I would have been ecstatic. But as far as I could tell, they just didn't have gravity control in this here-and-now. And while I'm pretty good at hacking gravtech gear, I can't build it from scratch -- I don't have the background or the training. Or the necessary parts. So for the moment, I was ground-bound.

I didn't mind, though. Flight would have been nice, but it was really just icing. The bike was fast enough. It would serve. It would more than serve. Between my legs, the frame thrummed, vibrating on some low sub-harmonic of the turbine's rotation as picked up by the suspension, probably. It felt like a gentle massage transmitted up my spine. Instead of the familiar growl that I remembered from my old bike, this cycle had a whine like a jet engine starting up... which, in a way, it was. Maybe if I put some airfoils on it...

Naaaaah.

As I pulled onto the coastal highway northbound, I turned my thoughts to another matter that had recently occurred to me -- a fundamental contradiction in my plans for which I had no ready resolution. I was setting myself up to contribute to the defense of MegaTokyo's population. But I also had an obligation to find my way back home. The problem was that almost every failed attempt at a gate would burn out my primary metagift for at least two days. Now, I could take out an industrial bot without resorting to a song, but I was pretty sure I'd need everything I had to do in one of those combat models I'd read about. So what happened if I was burnt out and I had to fight a fully-equipped warbot?

How would I balance trying as often as possible to get home with the unpredictable demands of the duty I must fulfill in MegaTokyo?

I drove up and down the coastal highway for an hour trying to think that one through. The salt-and-iodine tang of the ocean was surprisingly refreshing -- I was actually expecting something far more polluted and unpleasant, and to come across fresh sea air was a delight. I was very glad that I wasn't wearing my uniform leathers, as the cool air coming in off the water was a welcome relief after the heat of the last few weeks. Unfortunately, I spent so much time enjoying the cool air that I didn't come up with a good answer to my dilemma.

Sea air has always given me an appetite, and this night had been no exception. Back in Ota, I pulled off the coastal highway and found a little all-night burger joint. There I grabbed a bite to eat before deciding to head back home, my problems still unsolved.

A couple blocks away, I was stopped at a traffic light when another cycle pulled up. As little electric cars and the odd gas-guzzler sped by in front of us, I took a slow, casual look at the bike and its rider. The motorcycle was a recent model, all streamlined fairings and huge wheels. Definitely a high-ticket bike, especially with that candy-apple red satin finish on every non-chromed surface. It was an expensive-looking and well-maintained motorcycle; I wasn't yet familiar with all the makes and models out there, but I thought perhaps it might have been custom, or at least heavily customized.

Perched on that fancy cycle was a long, lean woman whose slender build immediately reminded me of Maggie, sending a pang of homesickness shooting through me for a moment. Long brown hair streamed out from under her helmet, just reaching the shoulders of her tight leather jacket. The sodium-vapor streetlight overhead cast pinkish-red highlights through her hair, highlights that were echoed in the odd reddish color of the eyes behind the plexy plate of the helmet that turned to give me and my bike the once-over.

I immediately had her pegged. Some spoiled rich girl slumming on her fancy motorcycle. (Like I'm one to talk. The day I turned 21, my trust fund had eight digits in its balance -- before the decimal point. But despite that, I like to think that I've done something real with my life -- unlike most of the other Beverly Hills Babies I grew up with.) Anyway, it could have been worse. She could have been done up in an oh-so-kawaii pink jumpsuit and matching "Hello Kitty" helmet. Instead, her helmet and her red-brown leathers looked like they had actually seen some real use.

Miss Rich-Bitch chuckled, and revved the engine of her bike. "That's an ugly piece of shit you've got there." She was almost shouting to be heard over our engines, but the arrogant sarcasm in her voice was clearly audible.

I shrugged in response as the cross traffic's light went to yellow. "It's a fast piece of shit."

She snorted -- I could tell it more from the movement of her head and the flaring of her nostrils behind the plexy than from any sound -- and inclined her head towards the road ahead. "Prove it," she said, and revved the engine again. The light turned green and she was off.

I was right behind her.

I was thinking I'd finish this quickly, try not to gloat too much about humiliating her, and head home. Done in 15 minutes or less.

It didn't work out that way.

For a couple blocks we drifted along at the speed limit, and I wondered what this was supposed to prove. Then she suddenly veered left and took an on-ramp that I hadn't seen for all the shadows cloaking it. I was a second or two behind her as we raced up and onto an elevated stretch of the coastal highway.

The moment she hit the traffic lane, she gunned her bike. With a roar she accelerated, almost popping a wheelie before she shot down the road at a speed that surprised me. This wasn't going to be as easy as I thought.

During my long driveabout on the coast highway, I had been less concerned with speed than with simply trying out all the bike's systems. I don't think I'd gone much over 100 kph at any point all evening. So even though I had designed and built both the engine and the transmission, I was caught by surprise and nearly thrown off the bike when I savagely twisted the accelerator. The turbine howled and bucked in response to the sudden burst of fuel. The entire frame shuddered, and I heard a loose bolt or two drop off onto the asphalt in an arpeggio of fading pings and dings. Beneath my butt, the leather-wrapped seat shook and shifted. I rocketed after my nameless adversary.

From the way she was tossing her head as I closed with her, she must have thought she'd won easily. This was confirmed for me by the absolutely perfect double-take she executed as I pulled up next to her and waved jauntily. Then, after making sure I was securely seated this time, I opened the throttle just a little more.

I was rewarded with a banshee howl from the turbine and enough acceleration to take my breath away for a moment. I couldn't help but think of the songs that let me fly, and the times that Hexe had caught me up in her winds and carried me along with her. The cool night air roared by me, chilling me through the thin Taz T-shirt I had on. Behind me, I heard a roar of outrage from my companion's cycle, and I allowed myself a smile.

A few moments later, we were neck-and-neck again. I hazarded a glance at the speedometer -- we were doing around 210 kph. I remember thinking that we were damned lucky that the coastal highway was all but deserted at that hour of night as we banked into a turn that hugged the shore; the centrifugal force shoved me down into my seat and threatened to tear me sideways from the bike even as my knee all but scraped the asphalt. Halfway into the turn, I opened the throttle another couple notches.

This time she was anticipating me; I didn't gain any advantage on her at all. As we shot over 250 kph, the hum of her turbine was still in a comfortable middle register, which meant that her pretty motorcycle was one serious custom street machine -- most production models would have been at or over their maximum speed by now, but we were both still just cruising. As we entered a straightaway, I looked at her and grinned when she flicked her eyes over at me. She gave me a return grin and the finger. Then the pitch of her bike's turbine shot up as she took the lead once more. Of course I accelerated to catch up with her again.

That's the way it went for another twenty minutes, along the entire length of the coastal highway, until we were roaring along next to each other at over 325 kph. We were going fast enough that the wind in our faces felt less like air and more like molasses, a near-solid opposing us and trying to push us back; it had stopped being a cool breeze and had turned into a cold bath, even with the warm, moist night we had.

I'd have to say we were pretty evenly matched. She had the advantage of familiarity with her home turf, plus a skill at controlling her bike that was -- I admit it -- greater than mine. I had the advantage of metahuman reflexes and the light amplification system in my goggles. It evened out. One thing was for sure -- I certainly had underestimated her. Whoever she was, she wasn't just some little rich girl playing at being the big bad biker chick. She rode, and she rode mean.

Of course, to add insult to injury, our bikes were pretty even, too. I can't speculate on what her motorcycle's performance came from, but I must admit that I was disappointed that I simply couldn't blow her away with speed. We both topped out at around 360 kph, and neither of us could get a real advantage over the other. It was galling and exhilarating both. Galling that the first biker I'd come across on my first night out had a crotch rocket and skills to equal my own. Exhilarating that I could test myself against someone so good without having to spend months finding them.

We were so closely-matched that I suspect we'd still be racing against each other if we hadn't come upon the accident. We were on another bit of straightaway, well between exits, and I spotted a pulsing, blinking glow up ahead. It took a couple seconds for me to figure out that I was seeing a turn signal light on a stationary car. I shouted for my companion's attention and pointed it out to her; she knew what I had in mind and nodded, already beginning to slow down.

We had dropped to about 30 kph, maybe a hundred meters away, when we saw the fire and the boomer. The blaze was already burning briskly around and over the hood; it looked ready to spread and maybe worse -- a pool of liquid was spreading out from under the rear end of the car. The boomer was pounding its fists on the car's roof; it looked like a builderbot like the one from the club. Its carapace was scored and dented, probably from the initial accident.

As we simultaneously pulled to a halt, I spotted one other detail -- a human arm hanging limply out of the driver's window. "There's someone still in that car," I shouted over the engines to my companion.

"Get'em out," she replied as she rocked her bike up on its kickstand, "I'll take care of the boomer."

"You'll what?" I took my eyes off the boomer for the first time and noticed that she had pulled out one of the largest damn revolvers I had ever seen, and was in the process of checking the three artillery-sized cartridges in its cylinder. When I recovered my wits a moment later, I yelled, "For shame, Doc! Shooting robots with an elephant gun!"

"What?" she called back without looking up.

"Never mind! You shoot, I'll rescue. Cool. You ready?"

She snapped the cylinder into place and brought it to bear in both hands. At the same time, she rose slightly from her cycle to straddle the bike in that wide-legged stance that I'd seen more than enough professional gunmen use. Sighting down the barrel, she shouted, "Go!"

Now, like I've said, I've never really kept a secret identity before, but I wasn't keen on blowing my cover at the moment. Especially not with my intended campaign about to start. So I dashed over there as fast as I could justify for a normal, which, fortunately, was still pretty fast. I heard a thunderous "bang!" as I reached the driver's door. He -- no, she -- was the only one in the car, fortunately enough. I took a quick look to see if I were about to become a target for the bot.

I wasn't. My companion's first shot hadn't killed it, but she had wounded it and drawn its attention. It was limping towards the motorcycles, and she drew another bead on it. I hoped that if she missed, she didn't miss by much, since I and the driver were almost directly in the line of fire. I would probably survive the shot, but I doubted the driver could.

I had another problem -- the car had spun around and was crushed up against a guard rail, crumpling the driver's door just enough to make it impossible to open. Thankful that I was wearing my gloves, I spent several precious seconds punching the remains of the door window into glass beads. I had to cut the safety straps with my pocketknife, and as I dragged the driver through the window, my nameless friend finally took her second shot. I gathered up the driver in my arms and -- the hell with secret identities -- ran like the dickens back to the bikes.

I don't think my companion noticed, thankfully. Her second shot had dropped the bot, and she was busy putting her third through its head as I whipped past her. At the same time, the fire finally met the expanding pool, and the entire auto was engulfed in flame. If that didn't bring an emergency squad soon, nothing would. I'd've called for one myself, but that would have entailed all kinds of nasty questions about why I was on an "official" frequency...

As soon as I laid the driver down on the pavement near the cycles, I surreptitiously keyed "I'm Alive" into the helmet computer. I probably wouldn't be able to keep it going long enough to bring her to full health before my racing partner got close enough to see the healing in progress, but I didn't want to anyway -- perfect health after such an accident? Too many questions. I just wanted to take the edge off her injuries -- bring her out of critical condition and into serious.

Well, to make a long story short, an MHP car showed up in a few minutes, then another two, then a fire truck and an ambulance not long after that. The cops never noticed the fact that my brand-new cycle lacked any kind of license plates or registration, mainly because they were busy hassling my companion over her pistol. Apparently she had papers for it, though, so they gave up about the time the EMTs were pulling out with the driver.

I got away with a fairly minimal questioning, since she and her baby howitzer were the center of all attention. Much to my annoyance, my little talk with the police, not to mention the dangerous looks in the eyes of a couple of the other cops, kept me from getting too close to the girl's roadside interrogation. I'd hoped to overhear a little about her and her taste in firearms... Anyway, about the time the firefighters finished with the car, the two of us were getting back on our bikes.

"The cops said the boomer came from a construction site nearby." She tugged her helmet back down over her head. She'd pulled it off earlier so the cops could compare her face to her photo ID. "They think the driver spotted it on the road, mistook it for a person and crashed trying to avoid hitting it."

"Charming. Here's hoping the driver recovers quickly."

She nodded as she fastened her chin strap. "The ambulance guy I talked to said she's in a lot better shape than you'd expect after an accident like that."

"Really? That's good. Hell of a lot better than being burnt to a crisp."

"Uh-huh. Too bad we never got to finish our race, though." She kicked her bike into life. "You're the first real challenge I've had in a long time." She peered suspiciously at me. "That's no ordinary motorcycle."

"Yeah, like you're riding the showroom special yourself," I snorted. "I'm an engineer -- building this bike's been a bit of hobby for me."

"I know a guy like that," she replied.

"I take it he made your bike?"

"He helped."

"Uh-huh. Well, maybe we can race again, soon?"

"I don't think so -- next week I'm going out of town for a couple months."

"Oh, well."

I could see her smile behind her faceplate. "Look for me on the streets at the end of Fall. We'll have a rematch then. Loser buys the beer."

I chuckled and nodded. "Deal. If I'm still in town myself."

She gave me a mock salute, revved her turbine and peeled out, noisily and showily.

For my part, I made my way back home at a more legal speed. After locking my bike in my workshop and taking a groaning, overheated elevator up to my floor, I made my way to my humid little one-room apartment and collapsed.

A lot of things about me are metahuman, but my endurance isn't one of them. I can pace an Olympic athlete if I have to, and sometimes outlast him, but I do tire -- faster if I use my metagift. And between the adrenaline and healing the driver, god, was I tired after that evening. All things considered, I was more than ready for the next bot that came my way, but if one had somehow shown up in my apartment in those next few hours, I'd've probably slept right through it.

* * *

Saturday, August 9, 2036. 12:17 PM

"So, there we are," Priss paused to take a bite out of her sandwich and continued as she chewed, "in the middle of the coast road. I'm taking shots at the boomer with the Earthshaker Leon gave me for my birthday last year, while the guy is standing there in the line of fire, half a meter from the flames and punching away the window in the car door. Doesn't even flinch."

"Mou..." Nene exclaimed around a spoonful of double mocha ripple.

Linna rolled her eyes. "So he was cool and level-headed in a crisis situation. So what?" The three of them were in Raven's Garage, waiting on Sylia's arrival for another round of weekend training. Nene was perched on a workbench at the back of the garage, and Linna sat daintily on a nearby stool. Priss slouched between them, her back propped against the edge of the countertop.

She shrugged while taking another bite. "There's cool, and then there's cool. This guy was frosty, like he was used to it. Like he was used to working under fire. I dunno, maybe he was in the military somewhere. It was just one of the odd things about him."

Linna and Nene traded glances. "One of them?" Linna inquired. "And the others were?"

"Well," Priss took a moment to swallow a mouthful of well-chewed hoagie. "I mentioned that I ran into him while I was out getting one last ride on my motoslave before the tour, right? Well, I didn't mention that he and I were racing."

"Priss!" Nene was shocked. "Our motoslaves can do over 350 kph! That's not fair to anyone!"

Priss fixed Nene with a sharp glare. "Nene-chan, the guy was keeping up with me. This little shitpile-looking bike -- it was a 20-year-old Mitsubishi, for god's sake -- and he was pacing a motoslave all the way." She tore another ragged bite off the sandwich with her teeth. "I want to get a look at that bike," she mumbled through the food.

Linna shrugged. "So, somebody else can build a hot bike to match Sylia and Mackie's designs. It was bound to happen sooner or later."

"Hmmm. Maybe," she grunted. "It was just, you know, on top of everything else, it's got me a little, uh, oh I dunno..." She chewed thoughtfully.

"Was that it?" Nene leaned forward. "Just the motorcycle and the way he handled himself?"

Priss stopped chewing for a moment. "Well, there was one other thing, but it's just, well, it's a little thing. He was wearing this funky helmet, like I'd never seen before."

Nene snapped to attention, her spoon halted midway between the ice cream and her mouth. "A funky helmet? What did it look like?"

"Um, well, I never did get a great look at it, even when we were up close, but it sorta like," and she gestured, sandwich in one hand, "had these round things on each side, and a little antenna, and these dark goggles, which was odd for nighttime."

Nene dropped her ice cream and looked around herself. Her eyes alighted on a pad of work order forms and a nearby pen; she grabbed them and began drawing on the ruled paper.

"Nene?" Linna inquired.

A few pen strokes later and Nene held up a crude sketch: a dome-like shape with a square opening behind which were a rough black mass that could be seen as goggles. An indistinct blotch was centered above the opening. On either side of the shape were half circles, and from one a long curved line stretched upward. "Is this what it looked like?"

Priss grabbed the pad and gave it a brief look. "You'll never be an artist, Nene."

"Priss!"

The singer sighed. "Yeah, that's him. How'd you know?"

Nene's eyes grew very wide and her expression serious. "It's no wonder he was so calm in a crisis. That's the military boomeroid ADP's been looking for since the end of June."

Priss stared at the pad. "Shit."

* * *

Saturday, August 30, 2036. 11:51 PM

"Oh god oh god oh god..."

Hiroshi Kardos dashed around the mass of open pipes and conduits and fell back against the wall of the building. As he tried to control his gasping breath he flattened himself against the concrete; under his fingers he could feel the fossilized grain of the long-gone wooden forms used to cast the walls that made up this little dead-end alley. Random fits of dank steam spurted from the pipes, making the humid night even more oppressive, and the ground beneath his feet was muddy from drippage. The vertigo caused by too much cheap sake made his head spin, and he could feel his bladder growing inconveniently full.

I shoulda never threw those bricks at that fuckin' boomer. His thoughts were barely coherent through the alcoholic haze. But I thought it was turned off! A tiny sober portion of his mind reminded him that even off-duty construction boomers no more get turned off than humans do, and he cursed himself for not listening to that sober voice.

It won't find me here, Hiroshi optimistically thought, it didn't see me make that turn, it won't come after me, it'll get confused and go away. The chase he'd led the boomer on had wended through the plazas and alleys surrounding half a dozen federal apartment buildings across a fair length of the Ota ward, but it hadn't given up. The cyberdroid had been doggedly persistent, though seemingly in no hurry.

Several minutes passed, and Hiroshi began to breathe more easily. I lost it, he thought. It shoulda found me by now. He slumped down against the wall and began to softly laugh in relief. His laughter ended in a fit of coughing that threatened to turn into a spasm of vomiting, but he held it back and straightened up. "Geeze," he muttered aloud at the pressure in his groin, "I gotta go find a pisser."

Shaking his head at his good fortune, he stepped out from behind the pipes to spy the boomer standing patiently at the end of the alley. For the first time, he noticed that it held a brick in one hand.

"Oh god...." It was a long, drawn-out sound that trailed off slowly as Hiroshi realized his fate. "I'm going to die..."

Hiroshi's entire attention was focused upon the boomer that started slowly walking towards him, and he failed to hear the soft voice murmur above him, "<Saturday night's all right. Play.>" But he did notice the leather-clad stranger who dropped down out of nowhere to stand between him and death.

"Bets?" the stranger said, smiling back over his shoulder at Hiroshi, and then clenched his fists. As Hiroshi shook his spinning head in disbelief, beams of golden light squeezed out like clay between the stranger's fingers and formed themselves into the shapes of blades.

* * *

Sunday, August 31, 2036. 2:05 AM

"We can't identify the specific weapon," Daley said, "but Kardos-san claims the man who rescued him was using switchblades and butterfly knives. Dozens of them."

Leon slid his sunglasses into his shirt pocket. "That certainly ties in nicely with the shape the boomer was left in. I don't think I've ever seen that many punctures and cuts in anything before." He shook his head. "And through Abotex, too. Damn. Either the guy is strong or the knives had monomolecular edges."

"Most likely both," Daley offered, and held up an evidence bag holding a brick. "Check this out."

Leon took the bag and held it up at eye level. As it twisted back and forth slightly in his grip, a flash of streetlamp shone intermittently through a hole punched through the brick at an oblique angle. It was shaped like a flattened diamond. Leon raised an eyebrow. "That looks like a blade puncture similar to the others."

Daley nodded. "That's what Kardos says it is."

Leon shook his head. "I'm not going to dispute him. There are twenty or thirty exactly like it in the concrete wall behind where we found the boomer."

Daley gave a low whistle.

Leon nodded. "I'm having casts made, just in case we need to make a comparison."

"Good idea."

"Inspectors!" As the pair turned towards the call, Sergeant Fuko MacNamara came running up, a sketch pad under her arm. "Inspectors," she repeated as she opened the pad and began flipping through it, "You're going to want to see this." Finding the right page, she held it out to the two men. "This is the guy who rescued Kardos."

Leon and Daley stared silently at the familiar goggled and helmeted head.

"Our boomeroid is back in the ass-kicking business," Fuko said.

* * *

Monday, September 1, 2036. 9:35 AM

Nene glanced around furtively, then squirted the compressed data files across the encrypted link. "He's also the guy that Priss raced a few weeks ago," she whispered into her headset.

"I see." Sylia's voice in her earphones was typically restrained. "Does ADP consider him a threat at this time?"

"Well... we have standing orders to arrest and detain him. A GENOM subsidiary says he's an experimental boomeroid and needs to be captured and returned to them. But they also say that at worst, he's a low-level threat -- he's been loose since the end of June and he hasn't killed anyone."

"Hmmm. Curious." Nene could almost hear Sylia think. "Nene, until further notice, keep a watch for incidents involving this boomeroid. Relay copies of any material on him to our files. Until he becomes an active threat, we'll not worry about him."

"Hai!" Nene replied, and closed the link.

* * *

Monday, September 1, 2036. 9:51 AM

Ring.

"Ohara here."

"Your visitor is back."

"He is?"

"Last night. A courier will be bringing you copies of the ADP's latest entries on him. I think you will find them... interesting."

"Will I."

"You will also be receiving a shipment at precisely 1 PM today. At Chairman Quincy's orders, I am placing two model 55-C boomers at your disposal for use in the acquisition of the target."

"Oh joy."

"Sarcasm does not become you, Doctor Ohara. Remember that GENOM holds the fate of IDEC in its hand."

"You remember, Ms. Madigan, that should GENOM exercise that hand, you will not get results nearly as good as you would otherwise."

"One way or another, Doctor, GENOM will get results. That's all that matters in the end. Good day."

* * *

Monday, September 1, 2036. 11:23 AM

Daniel Ohara took a long look at everyone gathered in IDEC's conference room. "Before we go any further, I just want to thank you all once again for coming to this emergency meeting. Given the pressures our... benefactors," he spat out the word, "can bring to bear on us, it's heartening to see that the upper-level personnel are staying the course instead of resigning. Not that I'd blame anyone if they did," he added. "Remember that we are now embarking on a course of at the best dubious legality. And it stands a fair chance of seriously upsetting GENOM. Anyone here who feels uncomfortable with that is free to leave, with no prejudice. If at some future time IDEC becomes free of GENOM, you'll be welcomed back with open arms."

He glanced around the table, taking stock of the serious, determined faces looking back at him, and felt heartened. They were good people, all of them. Real scientists, each and every one of them, and as disgusted as he that GENOM's plots had interfered in their personal searches for Truth. He smiled and snorted. Idealists, all of us. Working for GENOM. Who'd've thought it?

"Just to make sure we're clear on everything, let's go over our parts in the new, temporary, reorganization," he said, and there was a chorus of assent from around the table, accompanied by bobbing heads. "We'll be dividing into four groups: Target Study, Acquisition, Research, and Control. Tony?"

Tony Nakamura nodded and looked at his notepad. He was a heavy-set man, nattily dressed with his long hair in a neat ponytail. "I'll be heading Target Study. My staff and I will split between data acquisition on and analysis of the Visitor. We'll start with the material GENOM provides us, but we'll also be deployed at any attempt to acquire or simply encounter the Visitor. We already know that he has some variety of superhuman abilities -- in fact he may not be human at all -- that he may possess unknown technologies, and that he has some kind of combat experience and training. We will attempt to analyze his abilities, equipment and tactics, cooperating with Research on the first two and Acquisition on the latter." He looked up from the pad. "We're also in charge of any computer modeling of the Visitor, and the .. um ... retrieval of data from outside sources."

"Trying to crack GENOM and ADP's networks," Hiroe Miyama moaned. "We're not just asking for trouble, we're walking up and begging for it." She was a handsome woman in her forties, with graying hair and casually dressed.

"Hiroe, please," Daniel said. "If you have second thoughts, you can still back out of this."

"No, no," she replied. "I'll head Research, as I promised. To summarize our role, we'll be doing pure research on any data acquired by Target Study and other sources. Where they'll be concerned with the 'what' and the 'when', we'll be focusing on the 'how' and the 'why'. We're looking for the principles behind anything unusual he or his equipment can do. If there turn out to be no revelations there, well then, we have a cushy job. Although we want to learn things that can help us 'acquire' the Visitor, our goal ultimately is to get something useful out of him that we can then use to offset any losses inflicted on us by GENOM."

Tony snorted. "Useful! You mean marketable."

Hiroe smiled sweetly at him. "Yes. Marketable."

"Children..." Daniel warned, but with a smile, then turned to the next department head at the table. "Illya?"

Illya Vaysberg was a blond mountain of a man, resembling an American professional wrestler more than a world-class physicist. His blue eyes sparkled as he nodded enthusiastically. "Yah! I and my people, we are Acquisition. How we acquire Visitor, I do not know. But we will find a way! We must rely upon Target Study to obtain data before a plan we can make." He smirked at the others. "At very least, we can go up to Visitor and say, 'Hey, Person-From-Another-Universe-San, can you please with us come?' and hope that 'yes' he answers."

Hiroe rolled her eyes as Tony chuckled.

Daniel allowed himself a smile and nodded. "Very good. And I will be Control. My role is to act as arbitrator between the other groups, determine overall strategy, enact any plans and dispatch teams as necessary. I also have final authority over any actions IDEC takes on this matter." He paused and drew a deep breath. "I will also be acting as a buffer between GENOM and the rest of IDEC, and as sacrificial lamb to Madigan and Quincy if needed." Over the uproar that erupted he shouted, "No, hear me out. There's no need for anyone's career outside of mine to suffer if we fail. We probably won't be that lucky, but I can try."

There was a momentary silence before Ohara cleared his throat and continued. "Next, there is the matter of the boomers that GENOM is shipping to us, and what to do with them."

Tony held up a forefinger. "Avram thinks he can reprogram their behavioral protocols. He wants to add Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics' to the boomers' OS as priority directives; he claims it will make them safer to use." There were noises of agreement from around the table, and Ohara nodded.

"Tell him to go ahead and try. If it works, then we'll proceed with our first plan."

"Which is?" asked Hiroe.

"Well, one data point does not a trend make. But the Visitor showed his face last night to protect some drunken slob from a rampaging boomer. We'll just deploy a 'rogue' boomer of our own in the same neighborhood and see if he comes out of his hole."

Ohara allowed himself the briefest of smiles at the poleaxed looks upon the faces of his staff.

* * *

Monday, September 1, 2036. 7:42 PM

"So, this means the Sabers will still be able to follow ADP transmissions, right?" Lisa folded her clothes neatly and put them in the gym bag she'd brought.

"Right!" Nene said brightly. "I could have just brought Sylia an encryption chip from one of the test units to analyze, but I wanted to crack the new algorithm myself. It was a pain and a half! I don't know who came up with it, but it's not what's in the official spec."

"So, the programmer did a crappy job on it?" Linna asked from around the end of the locker bank. The sound of running water floated over to the two younger women.

Nene shook her head vigorously. "No, it's better than anything I've ever seen before. It's weird, the only thing it looks like is an old UN crypto system from fifty years ago. And if I hadn't stumbled on that by accident during a Net search, I'd still be hacking away." She sighed. "It shrugged off every cracker tool I threw at it! And even with the UN code in front of me, it took me two and half days before I got my 'aha!' moment."

Lisa nodded knowingly as she pulled her bathing suit from a different compartment of her gym bag. "So that's what you were doing all last weekend -- another hacking run."

Nene smiled sheepishly. "Well, yeah." She began donning her suit.

Linna stepped back into sight and began stripping. "Well, what do you expect from Little Miss Cyberpunk?"

"Hey!"

"At least we're getting her to relax now, right, Lisa?" Linna gave a conspiratorial wink, and Lisa snickered.

"There are definitely some benefits to having a rich friend," the blonde responded.

"It is nice of Sylia to let us use her pool, isn't it?" Nene said as she tugged her black maillot up above her breasts. Rows of tiny chrome "buttons" studded the suit and formed a downward-pointing triangle between the neckline and the waist. "What with how hideous it's been -- all rain and humidity and heat in the 30s."

Before Lisa could reply, Linna laughed. "You ask me, it's really just another way for her to hold a Sabers meeting without it looking like she's calling them almost every other day." She turned around in front of the changing room's full-length mirror, examining her figure and the lime-green bikini in which it was clad. Not surprisingly, she also wore a matching headband.

"Hey, that's not entirely fair," Lisa objected. "We haven't had a formal meeting in a couple weeks." Like Nene, Lisa was in a black one-piece suit, but instead of chrome buttons, lines of various fluorescent colors trimmed and highlighted her maillot. She looked down her front and traced the piping, checking to see if it was starting to come off. It was one of her older bathing suits, after all...

"No, just a half-dozen cases of 'Thank you for coming by for tea, or videos, or swimming, and while you're here...'," Linna grumbled. "I swear, with Priss out of town, it's almost like Sylia's turned into a micromanager." She frowned. "A subtle one, but a micromanager nonetheless."

"Or she's gotten horribly overprotective," Nene added. She stood and tried to crowd Linna away from the mirror. "My turn, Miss Narcissist!" Linna chuckled and stuck her tongue out at her for a moment before turning to put her clothing in a locker. Lisa giggled at the exchange. Nene spent a moment adjusting the lines of her suit before continuing. "Of course, she's got a right to be overprotective, what with that military boomeroid running around out there."

Lisa looked up from where she had been examining the magenta trim around her left leg. "Military boomeroid?"

"Uh-huh!" Nene abandoned the mirror and plopped herself on the bench next to Lisa. "ADP's been looking for him since he first showed up about two months ago."

"That's news to me." Lisa frowned. "Why haven't I heard anything about it before now? I know nothing about a military boomeroid's gone through the city room at the 16 Times."

Nene chewed her lip for a moment before answering. "Well, ADP's not going out of its way to publicize it. And the boomeroid's not been doing all that much. The first we heard of it was at the end of July when it beat up a bunch of Outriders, then a shopkeeper spotted it a few weeks later. And it rescued a guy from a construction boomer last night." Nene paused. "Oh, and you didn't hear this officially, but it had a motorcycle race with Priss about three weeks ago."

"Right." Linna drew the word out into a drawl. "I remember that."

"Huh." Lisa considered this. "Doesn't sound like your usual boomeroid. Doesn't sound very dangerous at all. Are you sure it's a GENOM product?"

Nene and Linna exchanged looks and giggled. Then Nene nodded thoughtfully. "I know what you mean; it sounds too... peaceful. But the City Council's on the Chief's back about it, or rather, one of GENOM's bought council members is. So Leon and Daley and a couple others have this little team set up to try and track it down." She pursed her lips for a moment. "One good thing is that it's left a lot of witnesses alive, and Priss hung out with it for the best part of an hour, so we know what it looks like and a lot of how it acts."

"So, what does it look like?" Lisa asked absently. "Two meters of hulking plastic and metal?"

"No, not really. It's..." Nene turned around and dug through her clothing in its locker. "Actually, I have one of the sketches we were handing out to merchants for a while after it first showed up; Fuko gave it to me. Ah, here it is." She withdrew a sheet of paper folded in quarters, creased and wrinkled. She tossed it to Lisa, who unfolded it and suppressed a cry of recognition at the sight of a helmet she had found once in a wardrobe.

Oh my god, she thought. It's Doug.

* * *

The Pink Pagoda, Sapporo. Tuesday, September 2, 2036. 8:51 PM

Estelle touched Priss' arm and whispered, "Five minutes until showtime, baby," into her ear.

Priss gave a thumbs-up and returned her attention to the phone and its too-small screen. "Yeah, so, it's a dive. It's not like I was expecting much else after the first few places Rick booked us into." She looked sidewise to the long, elaborately tacky bar that ran the length of the main room. Rick stood at the Plexiglas-and-pink neon monstrosity, downing a local beer and chatting up a gaggle of underage groupies. Priss briefly imagined the tortures she would put him through in repayment for this trip.

"Well, why don't you just call the tour a loss and come home?" Linna's voice was weak and tinny as her sympathetic face peered out of the credit-card sized screen on the phone.

"Coupla' reasons. One, we've got contracts with 'no-show' penalties; if I pull the plug on this traveling circus, we end up owing money to everyone we stiffed." She snorted. "And two... I hate to admit it, but Rick and everyone were right. Since we started the tour, our online soundrom sales have doubled or even tripled in every city we've hit."

"Well, that's great!"

Priss nodded. "Better yet, the sales have been staying up after we leave town, which means..."

Linna jumped in. "Which means you're still getting new people buying your music, even after you're not there to play!"

She grinned and made a "gun" with her hand. "Bingo. It looks like we're getting the word of mouth we need."

"That is so great. Everyone's going to be so glad to hear about this, you know." Linna's obvious happiness and enthusiasm was contagious, even over a long-distance line, and Priss found her mood lightening a bit.

But not that much. "Don't go jinxing it, Linna! Let's see how we're doing at the midpoint, okay?"

The head on the tiny screen nodded in agreement. "Okay, it's your call, Priss." Linna's tone grew softer. "You know we all miss you, right?"

"Yeah." Priss' lips quirked into a small, but definite, smile. "I know. Wish I were back there, too."

"So do we." Even through the too-small screen, Priss could see the emotion in Linna's eyes, and realized once again that while the Replicants were her friends, the Sabers were family. She felt an unaccustomed upwelling of emotion at the thought, and rode it for a moment before reluctantly reining it in.

"Oh, and before I forget, your motorcycling buddy's shown up again."

"Huh?" Priss yanked her attention back to the phone. "What was that?"

"That boomeroid that you raced almost a month ago. It's back."

Priss shook her head. "I've been thinking about that, Linna, and I think someone's putting out a line of bullshit about this whole thing. I mean, he didn't act like any boomeroid that we've ever met. He didn't feel like a boomeroid to me, do you know what I mean?"

Linna shrugged. "That's as may be. All I know is what I hear. And for now, they're calling him a boomeroid."

There was a tap on her shoulder, and Priss turned. Roy was there. "Oi, getcher ass onna stage, Priss, it's showtime."

"Right, right," she said, and pushed him towards the rest of the band. "I'll be right there." She turned back to the phone. "Linna, I..."

The dancer gave a laugh. "I heard, Priss. Go, get on stage and give 'em hell, okay?"

Priss smiled. "Thanks, Linna. I'll do that. But I'm gonna get back to you on this boomeroid business. There's something very wrong going on here." She paused. "Take care, and tell everyone... ah, hell, tell 'em all I love 'em and miss 'em, okay?"

Linna's eyes twinkled. "Even Leon?"

A grin spread across Priss' face. "Nah, I think I'll do that myself," she said, and Linna laughed again. "G'bye, Linna, talk to you soon."

"'Bye, Priss. Kick some ass tonight. Even if it is a dive."

"You bet," she said, and ended the call.

* * *

Wednesday, September 10, 2036. 11:25 PM

"Let me just make sure the pickups are in place, and then we'll start, okay?" Leon asked, bustling around the pen-sized sensors mounted on their gimbaled support arm. The other officers on his side of the room stepped forward to help. "No, no, I've got it."

As Leon made sure the spring-and-hinge apparatus was securely clamped to the table, Daley grimaced. "C'mon, Leon-chan, just sit down. The damned thing is fine, okay? Let me just give my testimony and get it over with." He shifted uneasily in the hard metal chair and resisted the urge to rub the bruise along his jaw.

Leon frowned, then gave up on the camera mount. Pulling out the chair next to it, he seated himself on the opposite side of the table from Daley. "I just want to make sure we have everything recorded properly. Okay," he pulled his chair in, and turned to the officers who stood in the shadows behind him. "Gentlemen, are you ready? Good. Let's go." Looking at Daley, he began. "Your name please, for the record?"

Daley suppressed the impulse to roll his eyes. "Daley Wong."

"Job and place of employment?"

"Inspector, AD Police."

Leon paused for a moment, then continued. "Can you tell me in your own words what transpired at or about 9 PM on the night of Wednesday, September 10, 2036?"

Daley drew a deep breath. "Okay, well, I was driving in for the late shift I'd elected to take that night, when Dispatch made a general announcement. A terrorist group that objected to GENOM's alleged use of third-world slave labor had called ADP and announced that it was going to stage a 'protest' by releasing a combat boomer in the Ota ward."

"The so-called 'Coalition for Free Workers'?" Leon offered.

"Yeah, that's what Dispatch said they'd called themselves," Daley sniffed. "Anyway, I was passing through Ota at the time and responded to the call. The Morita Federal Housing Complex is fairly central to the ward, and wasn't far from where I was at the time, so I drove there, parked and waited for some kind of alert. I spent about 20 minutes listening to Dispatch and our forces deploying around the ward."

"Then?"

"Then Dispatch announced that the boomer had been sighted, at the Morikami Federal Apartments, about half a kilometer from where I was. I headed right over there. I was the first on the scene, not counting the FireBees. I didn't see the boomer anywhere, though. What I did see was a woman and a pair of kids, just entering the plaza."

"Then what happened?"

Daley's lips quirked into a self-deprecating smile. "Well, it was about then that I got my car shot out from under me."

* * *

Daley gingerly got to his feet. Damn, I hurt everywhere, he thought. He felt a trickle on his forehead, touched it, and brought back his fingertips bloody. Oh, great. He looked around for the mother and children, but couldn't spot them between the smoke and his own blurred vision. If I hadn't gotten out to chase them away, I'd've never been outside of the blast radius. I was damned lucky.

He glanced back at the remains of his car, now a flaming hulk emitting huge, billowing clouds of black smoke that seemed content to cling to the ground rather than rise up between the towers of the apartment buildings surrounding him. They stank of petroleum and burning rubber. The woman and her children were nowhere to be seen, but the smoke could easily be hiding them.

Overhead, he could hear the rotors of the FireBees as they buzzed the plaza. He couldn't expect any immediate help from the tiny one-man helicopters. After the slaughters that occurred when the first 55-Cs reached the street in 2032, FireBees' pilots were forbidden to enter direct combat with anything other than construction or mannequin boomers. And what hit him was definitely the weapon of a 55-C.

He reached for his gun and didn't find it. He risked a glance down at his belt and his head spun; unable to maintain his balance, he toppled over, scraping his hands on the pavement when he tried to catch himself. Damn, he thought. I'm not going to be rescuing anyone like this. I hope they got away. His sight dimmed, and when it returned, he found himself sprawled out on the ground.

He heard the crunch of heavy footsteps nearby through the thickening smoke, accompanied by a tell-tale ratcheting clank. Oh, shit, Daley thought. I'm going to die without ever having gotten Leon-chan into bed. Overhead, the noise of the FireBees grew inexplicably louder.

"<Sutandu sutiilu, laadi!>" The voice echoed around him, louder than the rotors, clipped and pitched as from a cheap PA system. Daley shook his head in confusion, immediately regretting it as a stab of pain flashed behind and above his eyes. It was English; Leon was far more fluent in the language, but if he could have concentrated past his pounding, spinning head, Daley might have puzzled it out. As it was, he had no idea what was being said.

The next thing he knew, the concrete under him turned white, and he felt himself being lifted. His stomach, until now quiescent, rebelled at the sudden change and threatened to empty itself; he could taste bile already at the back of his throat. It almost distracted him from the strange surface on which he lay: it looked like blocks of white stone, sculpted and fit together in some complex, curving surface, but it was warm and felt almost... almost alive.

The surface jerked again, and once more his sight dimmed. When it returned, he almost cried out. Smooth leather gloves gripped either side of his head, and staring into his eyes were a pair of black goggles set into a gleaming grey helmet. Black goggles lit from within by a constant play of lines and shapes of colored light. Black goggles that hid much of the face of their wearer and gave him an alien, almost insectlike cast.

"Well, well. You're pretty lucky, Officer. Mostly you're just shaken up, although you do have a couple minor lacerations and, hmmm, you look like you have a serious concussion," said the boomeroid, "but we can take care of all that later. At the moment, though, we have a wild bot on our hands."

Daley murmured vague sounds of agreement while studying the boomeroid as best he could, given his condition. As the man gently laid him against some kind of support, Daley noticed through his daze that the mysterious blotch on the helmet -- long the subject of low-key debate in the squad room -- was in fact the olive-branch-and-map symbol of the United Nations. How strange, he thought absently. "The woman and her kids?" he mumbled.

The boomeroid nodded approvingly. "Safe for now."

"Good," Daley whispered, and his sight grew blurry for a moment.

"I hope you don't mind if I take out this warbot for you, Officer, um..." the boomeroid glanced down to one hand where, inexplicably, Daley's ID was held, "um, excuse me, Inspector Wong." As he continued speaking, the boomeroid reached over and returned the ID to the inside pocket of Daley's tattered jacket. "I mean, I know you guys on ADP can handle this easily, but, well, to tell the truth, I need the practice."

"Oh, no, no problem, go right ahead, feel free," Daley murmured in disbelief and confusion as his head continued to swim and spin. It's strange, Daley thought vaguely, but I was expecting him to be taller and bulkier... Nice build, though... I wonder if he's got a cute butt... Distantly, he noted that the Harley-Davidson patch on the leather jacket had been replaced by a palm-sized shield insignia with the romanji letters "LT" on it.

"Thank you very much for the permission, Inspector," the boomeroid replied in exquisitely formal mode. "I prefer to work with the full cooperation of local law enforcement, so I'm very glad that you're so underst... oh, shit. Excuse me, please."

As the helmeted man turned his attention elsewhere, Daley reflected absently that it was rare to encounter anyone so polite these days, least of all a potentially insane boomeroid. And just where did that meter-wide ball of worked white stone blocks come from, and how was it floating over the boomeroid's hand? Oh, no, never mind, it was flying off now.

Daley managed to focus clearly enough to realize that he had somehow gotten to the roof of a building. The various apartment towers loomed overhead, so this had to be one of the smaller administrative offices that flanked them. He took a deep breath and twisted himself around, driving down the dizziness and pain. He was leaning against the low retaining wall that ran around the edge of the building's roof. The boomeroid stood, one foot on the parapet, looking down into the plaza below and working his empty hands as if he were operating machinery or, perhaps, a marionette.

"You know, Inspector, you and I are just two bricks in the wall that separates civilization from rampant crime and complete social breakdown," the boomeroid noted conversationally. "It's quite a heavy burden to bear, wouldn't you agree?"

Daley just stared.

Every once in a while the helmeted man flinched and grunted, and Daley slowly realized that every grunt came a split-second after the sound of a weapon from below. "You know," the boomeroid said between grunts, "GENOM makes damnably tough warbots."

"Their boomeroids... are impressive, too," Daley managed to gasp out. He hoped his tone was as flip as he'd intended.

"Really? I haven't met one of those yet. They really that tough?"

Riiiight, Daley thought, and allowed himself to sink back to his original sitting position. I wonder if it's just my concussion, or have things just gotten a little more surreal than I was expecting? Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boomeroid glance at him and shrug, then return to whatever the hell it was he was doing. Yup, he does have a cute butt... Daley thought irrelevantly as his eyesight began to dim once more.

He must have blacked out again, because he jerked to alertness when the boomeroid started yelling in English. This time, he could concentrate enough -- barely -- to make out the words, but they seemed like nonsense. "<Hah! Gotcha!>" the boomeroid cried out, jumping onto the retaining wall and shaking a fist in the general direction of the plaza. "<If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding! And you're going to have to eat your meat and your vegetables to beat me, you sorry junkheap! Take that!>" And from below and behind him, Daley heard a sudden sharp crunch, followed by a dull crash, followed by silence.

Daley levered himself up and peered over the retaining wall in time to see what looked like a dome of white stone blocks simply vanish, leaving behind a frightened woman and two children. A short distance away lay the inert remains of a 55-C boomer; between his difficulty focusing and his odd position, Daley could make out no details except that it was prone and still.

The boomeroid waved and called out, "Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience and the fright, madam, but it was necessary for your safety. You'll probably want to return home and make yourself some tea. And maybe some hot chocolate for the children. Yes, that's right. Have a good evening." Then he turned to Daley and said, "Ah, yes, Inspector Wong, let's do something about that concussion. <System, I'm alive. Play.>"

A minute later, Daley, dirtied, bloodied and clothes torn, stood on the rooftop and marveled at how well he felt. "Who are you?" he said to the man whom he was beginning to suspect was something more than just a boomeroid.

"<Song off,>" the other said absently, then looked at him. Daley could see the evidence of some exertion in the sheen of perspiration on the visible parts of his face -- far more than could be accounted for by the man's relatively restrained movements. "Ah, well, that's the 64,000-yen question isn't it? I'm not terribly willing to say. Let me just note that," and his voice grew strangely pitched and accented, "some call me... Loon?"

"Well, Loon-san," Daley began as he searched his pockets for his handcuffs, "I'm going to have to ask you to come with me."

"Loon" drew himself up and suddenly seemed to gain a dignified presence that belied his earlier behavior. "May I ask why?"

Daley stood his ground and tried to stare eye-to-eye with those featureless goggles. "Because you are suspected of being a rogue boomeroid with enhancement/replacement in excess of the 70% limit."

A few moments of silence passed, then the helmeted man began to snicker. The snickers turned into chuckles, and then the chuckles became full-fledged belly laughter. "<'Oy vey,'>" he finally said between snorts, "<'have you got the wrong verevolf!'>" Finally, he regained control over himself and spread his arms. "Sorry to disappoint you, Inspector, but you're looking at 100% California natural, all organic. Not a smidge of cyber. Where on earth did you get the idea I was 'borged?"

"Well, GENOM claims..."

"GENOM!" Loon's laughter ceased abruptly. "GENOM knows about me already?"

Daley blinked. "They've been insisting we find you since early July, because you're valuable property."

"Shit." Loon put a hand to his helmet and began pacing in small circles. "Shit, shit, shit. How could they possibly have known so soon after I arrived? I mean, I didn't even start doing the vig thing until what, ten days ago?" He shook his head and turned back to face Daley. "I'm sorry, Inspector, but I can't go with you. By the time you confirm that I'm free of cyber, GENOM will have come up with some other spurious but legally solid reason to claim me as their property. I will not give myself into their hands."

Daley nodded slowly. "I think I understand. But I have my duty to perform and my orders to follow. If you won't come voluntarily, I'm going to have to place you under arrest."

Loon sighed. "I'm sorry it has to come to this, Inspector, but I can't let you do that."

* * *

"And then?" Leon asked.

Daley grimaced. "And then he decked me." He unconsciously touched the bruise on his jaw and flinched at the pain. "I didn't even see him move. Then he runs off and jumps off the roof. I hear a motorcycle revving, and by the time I get back up, the only thing I can see of him is his back as he's riding off."

"Did you get a license number?"

Daley favored Leon with a Look. "Leon, I was on the roof of a three-story building, and he was halfway down the block already. I was lucky to even make out that it was him."

Leon leaned back and said nothing.

Daley leaned across the table and looked into Leon's eyes, a pleading expression on his face. "Leon-chan, believe me, I wasn't hallucinating."

One corner of Leon's mouth twitched up. "Oh, I know you weren't, Daley. We've already interviewed the woman and her kids. They all agree that one moment they were face-to-face with the boomer, and then the next, poof, they were inside a dome of what looked like white stone blocks. Except they were warm and felt soft and springy, like plastic." He paused a moment. "They said that for a while they could hear the boomer trying to break through the dome. Every couple seconds there'd be a dull thump, and the inside wall would bulge a little, then smooth back out."

"You must be kidding."

Leon shook his head. "Nope. Anyway, when the dome went away, the boomer was dead. They also saw the boomeroid on the roof and had a conversation with it that was pretty much the same as you overheard. We also have building security camera footage of both the floating stone ball and this Loon character bouncing and somersaulting his way down to the street. No, Daley, you weren't hallucinating."

Daley slumped in his chair. "That's a relief."

"So... any idea how you got up there?"

"Not a clue."

"One of the kids says a white stone column with a giant hand on the end of it grew out of the ground under you and carried you."

He stared at Leon. "You're not bullshitting me, are you?"

"Nope."

"What did the FireBees see?"

"Huh?"

"I heard FireBees overhead right before I ended up on that roof."

Leon shook his head. "The FireBees didn't get there until all the fun was over."

"That's impossible. I heard the rotors..." Daley shook his head. "Never mind. What happened to the boomer?"

"Well, the lab boys are still looking it over, but the executive summary is that it was crushed." Leon was fiddling with his sunglasses and did not look up at his partner.

"Crushed?"

Leon nodded. "Like a, um, well, like a giant hand had grabbed it and squeezed." He made a gesture evocative of a small explosion or a balloon popping. "Well, I'd say that concludes this interview," he added, then reached over and shut off the recording pickups.

He nodded to the other officers who had silently witnessed the testimony. "Gentlemen." The officers each returned the nod and filed out. One gave Daley a thumbs-up; another clasped his shoulder for a moment and offered words of encouragement.

When they had all left, a thoughtful look drew across Daley's face. "Leon-chan, I don't know what conclusions you're coming to, but I don't think we're dealing with something as simple as a runaway boomeroid here."

Leon pushed back his chair and stood, saying, "I think you're right." He glanced left and right, as if expecting someone to be on either side of him. "You know I was already suspicious of this whole assignment." Daley nodded slowly. "This just confirms a few things I was thinking." Leon walked around the table and sat on the corner near his partner.

"I'm all ears," the latter said.

"Okay. This does not leave this room, and it does not go into any official record. But despite what GENOM says and whatever this guy 'Loon' is, I don't buy the claim that he's GENOM property. He's something else entirely, and I think they're basically trying to steal or kidnap him." His face grew dark. "And they're making us into accomplices."

Daley nodded. "The UN symbol on the helmet clinches it for me -- he's theirs. If he belonged to GENOM and were going to wear an emblem, it'd be their trademark. No doubt about it." He paused and thought for a moment. "And he talked like he was used to working around cops. 'I like having cooperation from local law enforcement.' That sounds like someone with national or even international jurisdiction."

Leon shook his head, still glowering. "This still doesn't make any sense. If this guy's a UN operative, why isn't he holed up in some UN or USSD facility? Why hasn't he just gone back to his headquarters or home base? Why hasn't he left Japan, or even just MegaTokyo?" He growled angrily.

"Why hasn't the UN stepped in to take him out of GENOM's clutches?" Daley offered, wearily ticking questions off on his fingers. "Why haven't they contacted us? Is he on some kind of undercover assignment? If so, why is he being so public recently? Why is GENOM going along with our theory that he's a boomeroid if he isn't? No, strike that, I know the answer to that one. And if he's not a boomeroid, how does he do all those things that made us think he was one?"

"And what do Ohara and IDEC have to do with everything or anything? Too many questions, Daley," said Leon, offering his partner a hand up out of his chair. "Too many damned questions and not enough answers."

Daley sighed. "I'm getting the feeling that the answers are going to add up to something so strange that we're not even going to recognize it when we see it."

* * *

Thursday, September 11, 2036. 9:00 AM

Ring.

"Ohara here."

"I see from my sources at the AD Police that our visitor had a run-in with a boomer last night."

"Yes. We deployed the 55-Cs in an effort to capture him. One was to be a lure, and the other was to effect the capture while the visitor was distracted." Pause. "We did not anticipate his ability to... engage the boomer from a distance."

"Yes. Fascinating. I trust you had the sense to deploy some kind of reconnaissance or sensor package?"

"We did."

"I want the raw data immediately, and an analysis as soon as you have it."

"Certainly."

"Oh, and shall you be needing further boomers? We have several dozen which have grown... inconvenient. Various models. You may have them if you can make use of them."

"What's the catch, Madigan?"

"Ah, well. Most have serial numbers too similar to those of other boomers employed recently by 'terrorists' in Europe and North America. Entirely coincidence, of course, but you know how these things can be blown out of proportion. And some have... attitude problems."

"Uh-huh."

"So. How many will you be taking, Ohara-san?"

* * *

Thursday, September 11, 2036. 10:39 AM

Sylia did not allow the "End of Recording" dialog to blink more than once before touching the "OK" box on the screen. Inspector Wong's account of the previous night's activities caused her concern. This "Loon" was a new, unknown variable in the carefully balanced dance of forces and influences that defined the hidden underlayers of MegaTokyo. However indirectly, however shakily, a multisided agreement that was somewhat more than a cease-fire and considerably less than a truce had evolved over the past few years. Now this new player threatened to shake everyone from their comfortable seats on the sidelines.

Her thoughts troubled and chaotic, Sylia tapped one impeccably manicured nail against the icon that read, "Boomer Autopsy, 10/9/36". As she followed the report and began understanding the implications, she found herself -- for the first time in years -- fearing the approach of the unknown.

* * *

Room 2413, The Okayama Marriott. Thursday, September 11, 2036. 3:09 PM

"Okay, Nene, thanks for calling. 'Bye."

Priss hung up the v-phone and stepped to the sliding glass door that led to the balcony. It was far too hot and muggy to actually go out there, so she contented herself with standing with her nose to the glass and looking out across the beautiful mountainous terrain to the north. In the distance, she thought she could just make out the famous temple through the late summer haze, and there seemed to be a glint of water near it; a lake, perhaps, or maybe just a mirage from the heat.

Priss rested her head against the warm glass and closed her eyes. It was no good trying to distract herself. Face facts, girl, you're worried, she told herself. This "Loon" character may not be a threat to the Sabers, but he's doing just the kind of thing that's going to bring GENOM down on him, hard. And anything that involves GENOM eventually involves the Sabers. She kicked the metal frame of the door. And you won't be there to help when it does, dammit.

* * *

Friday, September 26, 2036. 9:17 AM

Still buttoning her uniform jacket, Nene raced around the corner, the centrifugal force of her turn threatening to tear away the slice of jelly-coated toast dangling from her lips. She hurdled an intern bent over to refresh the paper supply of a photocopier and dodged between a pair of K-12S pilots, nearly knocking their Styrofoam coffee cups from their hands.

She dashed into the conference room and yanked the toast from her mouth, almost spattering herself with flying preserves. "Let me see! Let me see!" she insisted breathlessly.

Daley, lounging in one of the less-decrepit seats, chuckled. "So good of you to join us, Nene."

"Hey, give me a break," Nene retorted indignantly. "I overslept, traffic was bad, and anyway I only just got Leon's message."

"Well, now that you're here, close the door and take a seat," Leon said absently. He stood at one end of the conference table, near the built-in computer that controlled the room's multimedia functions. He held a datarom in his right hand and tapped it gently against his left.

Nene, one hand feeding the toast into her mouth and the other finishing the task of buttoning her jacket, shut the door with her foot. It latched shut noisily, and she flinched. Seeking out a chair, she mumbled a greeting to Fuko, Daley and the other officers present as she dropped heavily into the seat. She swallowed with an audible gulp and then grinned brightly. "Please, continue," she said cheerfully, prompting a chorus of chuckles from the others in the room.

A smirking Leon stepped to the front of the room, in front of the large display that took up one entire wall. "Ladies and gentlemen, the reason that I've called you all together this morning is because together we make up the ad hoc team assembled to investigate and apprehend the so-called military boomeroid." He held up the datarom. "Thanks to one Fujisawa Naomi, shop owner and apparently a professional paranoid, I hold in my hand the first video recording of the mysterious 'Loon' in action." To the murmur this prompted, he smiled and continued. "Other than Daley and myself, no one else has seen this clip, which is about three minutes long. Let me warn you. What you're about to see, well, it's hard to believe. But it matches the few eyewitness accounts, and, well..." Nene was surprised to see that Leon was actually at a loss for words.

"Shut up and slot it, Leon," Daley offered wryly.

Leon chuckled and put on a lopsided grin, his self-assuredness seeming to flow back into him. "Right. Just remember that for now, what you're about to see doesn't go beyond this room." With a calculated flourish, he twirled the cartridge through his fingers and slid it into the terminal at the end of the table. Picking up the remote from its cradle on the side of the unit, Leon aimed it at the wall behind himself and pressed a button, then stepped aside.

The window shutters automatically closed. The immense screen flickered and exploded into a shower of black and white "snow". After a second of this, an image snapped into place -- a parking lot lit by several tall street lamps. The view was that of a roof-mounted camera, canted slightly on the diagonal. The full-color image's quality wasn't bad -- a little grainy, but hardly the blocky pixellation that a less-expensive surveillance system would have displayed. A timestamp with blurring tenths of seconds hovered, subdued white, in the lower right corner -- just before midnight, less than 10 hours previous.

The clip had barely begun when a pair of 55-Cs dropped down from above the field of view and landed in the empty lot; the asphalt buckled and cracked from the force of the impact. Nene silently noted that their tactical commlinks obviously weren't being jammed, as one was clearly in sentry mode while the other fired toward the lower right corner of the screen with its mouth cannon. An identical answering blast impacted upon its armor almost immediately, driving the cyberdroid across the parking lot without actually damaging it.

Behind them, on the side of a building bordering the far end of the parking lot, a computerized banner advertisement flickered and went dead for a moment. Then it blazed back to life, its endless loop of sales pitches replaced with an unmoving string of zeroes, silent testimony to either boomer-caused damage or a coincidental system crash.

A flicker of movement at the right edge of the screen resolved itself into the shape of a man running into the empty lot. Two glowing, almost crystalline oblongs floated in midair slightly before him, flanking the man at arm's length as he entered the camera's field of view. They were angled in toward the man, making him the point of a surreal "V".

Even with the rear angle on him, the helmet he wore was unmistakable: it was the boomeroid who called himself "Loon".

The purpose of the crystalline forms became obvious a moment later, as the sentry boomer opened its mouth and delivered its own blast. One of the glowing shapes swiftly pivoted around its outer end and batted away the beam, reflecting it like a mirror back at the cyberdroid who'd fired it. As before, the returning attack drove the boomer back without seriously damaging it.

"Loon" came to a halt and held out a hand. A pinpoint flare of light appeared in the air about 30 centimeters above his palm and expanded into mirror-finished sphere perhaps 35 centimeters across. The reflective ball hung there motionless. Then he made a curious motion with his right hand, as if he were pulling back on a rope and then letting go. The ball hurtled at the closer of the boomers.

Its impact was impressive -- the boomer was lifted off its feet and carried two or three meters before landing on its back. A cavernous dent was left in its chest plate, its edges rippling and crawling as the cyberdroid's self-repair systems set to work. Meanwhile, the sphere had rebounded and struck the second on the leg, apparently damaging one of its knees; the sentry boomer was spun around by the force of the blow and seemed to be favoring one leg as it regained its balance.

Inexplicably, at the moment of impact each boomer was momentarily outlined by nimbus of white light, and a glowing number briefly appeared floating over its head, ruddy and robust and bright enough to cast shadows: "500" over the first boomer, "100" over the second. On the electronic banner behind them, the line of zeroes vanished and were replaced by the number "600".

The silver ball hurtled back at its originator, only to be sent flying away by another pivoting oblong. It ricocheted wildly across and even off the screen, careening off the adjacent buildings, the lampposts, the ground and even a few parked cars without apparent damage to any of these. Each point of impact glowed for a moment, washed with a clean white light, and manifested a number in lambent red: 100, 200, 250, and more. The numerals on the banner blurred with each hit, and the number there grew to four digits, then five.

For their parts, the boomers seemed momentarily confused by this turn of events. Nene supposed that their tactical 'ware had been churning through excess cycles trying to evaluate this new weapon and its threat potential. The sentry boomer spun unsteadily in place as it tried to track and target the speeding, unpredictable ball, loosing futile laser blasts a moment too early or late to hit it.

"Loon" immediately took advantage of the cyberdroids' distraction. Crystal oblongs still floating serenely to either side of him, he sprang into a wild sprint that would have taken him face-to-face with the sentry boomer had he not launched himself into a flying kick at the last moment. The broad sweep of his booted foot intersected the boomer's face, and even at this resolution and angle it was possible to see the spray of delicate optics and electronics leading and trailing the blow as it swept past. Almost immediately, it was followed by the second boot which dealt another hammerstrike to the damaged face.

The boomer reflexively grabbed at him, and was parried by a flashing sweep of crystal. "Loon", spinning like a top, rolled through the air past the sentry. Upon reaching the ground, he flowed through a handstand and into a long, arcing somersault that took him over and behind the downed boomer as it clambered to its feet. His right arm whipped out in a precisely-aimed blow that left the boomer's left arm hanging limply at the elbow.

Behind her, Nene heard someone whisper, "Good tactics. He's limiting their mobility and using one as a shield against the other."

On the screen, the silver ball had finally escaped from its wild series of rebounds and now seemed to be homing in a bullet-straight line for the wounded boomer. After a moment's hesitation, the cyberdroid chose to ignore "Loon", instead letting loose a fusillade of beam attacks in an attempt at point defense.

One beam missed and struck its partner, bowling the blinded boomer over and scorching its pectoral armor.

One salvo hit the silver sphere head on; instead of being destroyed, though, the ball bounced upward, as though it had struck a solid obstacle. The boomer ceased fire and paused, evaluating this new behavior, as its companion shakily returned to its feet. The mirrored sphere vanished off the top edge of the screen.

At the far end of the parking lot, the electronic banner paused its wild enumeration at "87,950".

During this, "Loon" had not been idle. He had been busily engaged in a series of mostly ineffectual blows to the boomer's back and upper arms, but had stepped back when the rain of laser cannon fire began. As the silver ball rebounded away, he stepped in close again and was caught by surprise when the boomer's arm snaked back and grabbed the front of his jacket.

The boomer yanked him overhead and slammed him down against the pavement twice, then threw him across the parking lot, almost out of the camera's field of view. The playback was silent, but Nene and the others could almost hear the tearing metal and shattering glass as "Loon" smashed into a car, staving in the passenger door completely and setting the automobile rocking side-to-side.

"Well, that's it for the boomeroid," Lt. Vong muttered from behind Nene. Leon, his face awash in light from the screen, smiled enigmatically.

"No, look!" Fuko exclaimed.

As the car's motion damped down, a pair of booted feet kicked the remains of the door out of the way and hooked their heels against the lower edge of the opening. They pulled, and "Loon" slid out of the ruined vehicle.

"Dear god," someone -- Nene wasn't sure who -- whispered. "He survived that?"

"Loon" levered himself to his feet and stood, swaying, for a moment. It was hard to tell, given the size and quality of image on the screen, but he seemed to have a thin layer of dust coating him; he visibly shook himself, and it scattered away in a sparkling cascade.

In the lower half of the screen, the more intact of the two boomers had moved to cover its companion as their self-repair systems dealt with their most recent damage. It stood with its back partly to the ruined car; a fatal mistake.

"Loon" dropped his arms into a position that was vaguely reminiscent of a gunfighter readying to fastdraw. The comparison must have occurred to him as well as the audience watching, for he flicked away the edges of an imaginary duster and settled into a low slouch. Then his right hand snapped up and made the strange "pulling" gesture three times in rapid succession.

A second silver sphere formed and shot away from him, followed by a third, and then a fourth. Behind the action, the electronic banner flashed three times and proclaimed, "MULTIBALL!" Then he launched himself after them.

At top edge of the screen, the original ball finally reappeared, plummeting downward.

What followed was a whirlwind of light and movement that as often as not was reduced to a blur by the video system that had recorded it. "Loon" sped through and around his boomer opponents even as the metallic spheres ricocheted to all points of the compass. Every time a ball came back to him, one of the crystal oblongs flung it away again, and every object a ball struck shone white and evinced a floating, glowing number in the hundreds. The only exceptions were the boomers, who displayed values that soon mounted into the thousands. A crazy-quilt of shadows played and shifted across the parking lot as the lights burst into life and faded moments later. The banner ad had ceased to display a clear number; it was a blur of spinning digits.

"Loon" himself never was far from the two cyberdroids, and Nene and the others watched incredulously as he engaged them in the midst of the storm of silver balls. Gloved fists and booted feet drove their way into joints and seams as if their owner had studied boomer physiology to pick out their weakest points -- and perhaps he had. Attempts at counterattacks as often as not seemed to simply slide off of him, and few of those that actually struck seemed to harm him. One or two blows staggered him, and more than once he was knocked back several yards, but compared to the initial slams and throw he had taken, these were nothing.

No single blow -- from either sphere, boot or fist -- seemed absolutely crippling to the boomers, but the accumulating total was clearly telling upon them. A bare minute after "Loon" had dragged himself out of the wreckage of the car, both boomers were effectively crippled. Each had had knee and ankle joints pummeled into mangled junk. One was missing a leg entirely; the other one had a shattered arm that hung limply, fluids and sparks spraying weakly from the elbow. They no longer used the sentry-and-combatant tactic with which they had begun this battle; they now knelt back-to-back, supporting each other and trying to lash out at the boomeroid without knocking themselves over.

While the storm of attacks from boomeroid and silver spheres had taxed the boomers' self-repair systems to their maximum, they were still working. As "Loon" danced away after a rain of punches, the more intact of the cyberdroids staggered to its feet. This seemed to delight the boomeroid, who paused in his constant motion to crouch and make a "come here" gesture with both hands at the now-erect boomer.

It turned and tried to flee.

Every fighter eventually makes a mistake -- it is all but a law of nature, and has proven the downfall of many a soldier and police officer. Nene gasped as, at two minutes and forty-seven seconds into the recording, "Loon" made his critical, perhaps deadly, mistake. He had chased the stumbling boomer around the parking lot, toying with it and teasing it into describing a great arc as overhead, metallic silver balls bounced from wall to wall and never approached ground. Pounding with foot and fist into slowly-crumpling and -tearing Abotex, "Loon" had herded it around to and past its starting point. And as he passed the second, still-crippled boomer, he left his back open for a moment too long. Seeing the opportunity, the damaged cyberdroid opened its chest plates and mustered enough power to fire a point-blank heat cannon blast into Loon's spine.

It splashed like a fire hose against a brick wall.

A susurrus of shocked whispers broke out in the briefing room at the sight, and someone behind Nene let out a low whistle.

Fifteen centimeters from grey leather, the faintly-visible beam splattered, its deadly radiance reflected in all directions but toward its target and forming a glowing hemisphere of red-orange centered upon his back. The backwash caught the damaged boomer by surprise; the still-powerful energies liquefied the asphalt below its knees even as it seared and scorched the cyberdroid's armor. The boomer clumsily hauled itself backwards and cycled the shutters over its optics several times.

Then four silver balls struck it simultaneously from four directions. Its damaged torso armor collapsed under the impact, and then its chest imploded. The four balls collided in its shattered chest cavity before exploding back out to continue their paths. White light suffused the boomer's body, and over its head the English word "<TILT!>" flared into life. Then the glow and the letters faded away, and the boomer's lifeless body toppled over to lie motionless on the asphalt.

The electronic banner flashed "X5 MULTIPLIER!!!"

And a scant three meters away, "Loon" pummeled the remaining Bu55-C combat boomer into collapse with only his gloved hands.

In less than three minutes, he had taken two cyberdroids, each easily equal to a light tank in combat, and had reduced both to scrap.

As the recording wound down, "Loon" stood over the bodies of his opponents, his chest heaving visibly. The silver balls appeared to have vanished.

After a few moments, his breathing returned to normal. He looked down at the boomers and thumbed his nose at them, then looked up and around, as if searching the windows of the overlooking buildings. His gaze fell upon the security camera, and he waved enthusiastically. Then he spun on his heel and loped off unevenly to vanish into the shadows. The banner ad flickered, and returned to its endless stream of pitches and come-ons. And the boomers lay in slowly spreading pools of liquid.

The screen dissolved into static.

There was silence in the briefing room for almost a minute. From where he leaned against the wall, Leon snorted and asked, "Do you want to see it again?" At the mass exhalation of affirmatives, he pressed "play" once more.

As the second playing ended, Nene shook her head. This time she'd noted that "Loon", far from being miraculously unscathed after the battle, was in fact favoring one side as he ran off. Somehow, that seemed to humanize him for her -- he wasn't some kind of unstoppable combat machine, after all. But that didn't mean that what she'd seen was any less remarkable.

Leon gestured with the remote control, and the screen shut down. The window shutters reopened, allowing shafts of golden morning light back into the room. The occupants were dazzled for a moment; when their eyesight had returned, Leon stood before the now-black screen.

"A few points," he began without preamble. "Daley and I have come to the conclusion that GENOM is lying when they say this guy's a boomeroid and he's theirs."

"We think he might be the result of some secret UN boomer-killer project," Daley interjected. "It would explain a lot of the unanswered questions we have about him."

"And GENOM feels rather deservedly threatened by the existence of equipment or a process that allows a single human to turn boomers into so much recyclables," Leon continued. "They want him, and they want him with as little fanfare as possible."

"Probably to see if there's a weakness to exploit or use as a counter," Daley appended.

Leon nodded. "Now, what we don't know. We don't know how he does it. We don't know, really, what it is that he does, exactly. Probably no one other than our hypothetical UN project knows. All we know is what we've seen. He's demonstrated something that all the experts we've talked to say is impossible -- a 'force field', however unreliable it appears. He's far faster and more agile than an unaugmented human. He shrugs off the kind of damage that would put some of our best into the hospital for weeks; hell, that would wreck a K-12S. He seems to be able to produce physical objects out of thin air. He can also heal injuries with a touch."

Daley raised a finger. "I can attest to that last one from personal experience."

"He claims to have no cybernetic implants at all, and found the suggestion that he did quite amusing." Leon paused, looked down, and frowned. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, cupping his hand around his mouth.

"So," Fuko asked, "where do we go from here?"

Daley nodded to himself as Leon looked up. "Well, that's the quandary. If this 'Loon' is telling the truth about his nature, then we have no jurisdiction over him. We need to find that out for sure. If we can confirm that, maybe we can come up with some way to catch GENOM red-handed at some dirty work."

"In the mean time," Daley added, "we continue in our current tasks. Anything we can uncover to ascertain the truth of either his claim or GENOM's will help us with the eventual disposition of this case."

Leon resumed. "As usual, before you go I just want to re-emphasize: no discussion of this case in the squad room or around the water cooler or whatever. It's a fact of life around here that GENOM and other organizations have their connections, channels and yes, even spies in the ADP. If necessary, take your conversations completely out of the building." Leon paused momentarily, and Nene had the distinct, uncomfortable impression he was avoiding her eyes and looking everywhere -- anywhere -- else in the room. "In addition, commit as little as possible on this case to your computers. Keep memos to a minimum, hand-write any you absolutely must send, and shred those you receive. We can't keep everything completely secret, but we can at least hinder the flow of information out of the department. Everyone got that?"

There was a general mumble of agreement, and Leon grinned. "Okay then, people, you're dismissed."

As the other officers filed out of the conference room, Nene hung back with Leon and Daley. Something about the way Leon had talked about spies in the ADP worried her. Maybe I should just ask him outright what he suspects, she thought, but when the room was finally empty and she was face to face with the inspector, her will deserted her. "Um... that stuff with the flying balls was really weird," she found herself inanely chattering.

Leon raised an eyebrow. "Yeah," he replied.

"How do you think he does it?"

"I don't know."

From where he sat, Daley grinned and added sotto voce, "What makes him so good?"

Nene looked over at him. "Huh?"

Daley's grin grew larger. "Well, it's obvious that he's a pinball wizard. And that there has to be a twist."

"I don't get it," she pouted. She returned her gaze to Leon, who was favoring his partner with an odd look.

"I don't, either," he rumbled.

Daley chuckled. "Never mind, you two. Just an old song that all this reminded me of."

"Riiight," Leon and Nene both intoned together.

* * *

Monday, October 27, 2036. 11:21 PM

The moon was almost my only light as I ghosted my way down the alley toward the larger, better-lit road. Just at its first quarter, it wasn't really enough illumination for unaided eyes; through my goggles' night vision system, though, it bathed the warehouses to either side of me in a soft-edged glow. The chill breeze that swirled dry leaves and loose paper around my feet testified in its whisper of a voice that the long summer of 2036 was well and truly over, and that autumn would be merely a brief harbinger of winter to come.

My last encounter with boomers, just about a month prior, was a lot closer than I liked to think about. I barely ended the fight under my own power. If it hadn't been for the fact that the pinballs from "Pinball Wizard" are semiautonomous, I'd probably have ended up either dead or in some high security hospital ward. I'd been thoroughly pissed at myself for over a week because I'd made exactly the same mistake I had committed with the builderbot in the dance club -- I'd gotten overconfident and got in too close too soon without taking precautions, and I let myself get creamed. And it also didn't help that the damn warbots regenerated a lot of their damage.

As a result, I'd found myself drawing on the node under the city for a little extra oomph. I originally didn't want to tap it at all -- what happened during my attempt to rescue Delandra from her kidnappers had made me very wary of trying to supercharge my metatalent by chugging down raw mana. But the node was so damn large, and the mana was so pervasive throughout the city, that it was hard to resist. I figured I'd learned my lesson about restraint, though. Besides, the node was big enough that there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to suck it down whole the way I did the little one near that Hardornan keep. I'd probably explode if I tried. Not that what happened to me in the keep was much better, but that's another story.

One thing that surprised me in the wake of the last two battles was that I was still undercover. I do my share of egosurfing on the Tapestry back home, looking for my appearances in the news and opinion weavesheets. When I did the same here, expecting to find a classic vig's "Who is he?" coverage, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Oh, I found stories on the bot attacks, but my part in their resolution was conveniently missing. For whatever reasons it had, ADP (or someone else) was keeping my existence under wraps. That both intrigued and worried me.

Finding out that GENOM knew about and was actively looking for me was a shock. Learning that threw me into a 24-hour fit of paranoid re-evaluation of my tactics and security measures. In my misplaced confidence, I'd frequently gone out in full duty uniform without a second thought about it; I immediately stopped that practice. Even almost two and a half years out, I found myself slipping into habits and behaviors that, while harmless at home, put me at a serious risk here. I made a conscious effort to avoid going out in public in helmet and leathers unless I absolutely needed to. I wore my polykev every day, though -- just in case. Wash'n'wear body armor is so convenient...

However, there was no disputing that I was still needed, so I kept an ear open for alerts on the ADP band radio I'd built for myself at work. (Actually, I had two -- the tabletop model that I kept in my apartment, and the piggyback circuit I installed in my helmet radio to decrypt ADP broadcasts while I was out and about. No use responding to a call if I couldn't coordinate with or work around the local police once I got there, right?)

In the mean time, I risked two more attempts at opening a gate. Major rogue boomer incidents that required high-firepower responses -- the kind of incident that would require me or the Knights -- had averaged about two or so weeks apart at their most frequent. I bet on those averages and tried to open a gate the day after I took out those two warbots, and then again about three weeks later. For the first, I tried Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill", hoping the repetition of "I've come to take you home" would prove to be the key. Unfortunately, it didn't. The second was the Who's "Going Mobile" (also with frequent references to "going home"), but it crapped out, too. And of course, both songs burnt me out again. Bleagh.

In between the two tries, I finally got a chance to see the Knight Sabers in action.

On the night of October tenth I'd heard the call go out on the ADP band about a trio of boomers loose in Tinsel City. I'd just come out of burnout, so I hopped on my bike and tried to get to the scene fast enough to do some good. I was almost there when the voice of the informative Inspector Wong crackled across the airwaves to announce that the Knight Sabers had been spotted on their way; he ordered ADP forces to fall back lest they get caught in the crossfire. I could see I probably wasn't going to be needed this time, but it was the opportunity to gather a little intel. After a quick stop in one of MegaTokyo's ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores, I found myself a perch overlooking the battle zone.

"<System, access song 'Kodachrome'. System, play.>" With the helmet not in combat mode, I needed to use the longer command syntax. But since I wasn't in a critical situation, it didn't matter. I was looking down at a broad avenue, along the middle of which a very energetic fight was progressing. As Paul Simon began to sing, the fully-automatic Nikon camera materialized in my hands, its long, heavy telephoto lens threatening to seesaw it out of my grasp.

With one eye on the street, I popped open the back of the camera body and discarded the roll of 35 mm film I found inside; it was a useless virtual object unless I could process and print it before the song was over. Not bloody likely. Instead, I dropped in one of the rolls I'd picked up on my way, and shut the case. Thank god digitals hadn't yet completely supplanted old-fashioned film here. There was a whirring as the camera automatically loaded, and a shuttersnap when it advanced to the first frame. I brought it up and started snapping pictures.

The first thing I noticed now that my attention was on the fight below was that the Blue Knight was missing. For some reason, I felt vaguely disappointed at this. The remaining three Knights at first seemed about evenly matched with the three warbots they faced. As they engaged the enemy, I did a tactical eval on them, supplementing what little intel I'd eked out of the few photos and recordings I'd seen. Lady Olive was clearly the best of the three in combat, definitely a Warriors-level fighter. But Lady White wasn't far behind her. Lady Pink demonstrated that she was competent, but she obviously preferred a rear-echelon support role of some sort.

On a hunch, I had my computer run a wideband scan and picked up several unusual radio signals. A couple sounded like encrypted communications -- whether voice or data, I wasn't sure. (I was regretting never getting around to putting in that extra volatile memory as I'd planned, since it meant I couldn't record and study the transmissions later. Ah well.) Another set of signals were clearly some kind of electronic countermeasures. I had noticed that these three boomers were far less well-coordinated than the pair I'd confronted, acting as individuals rather than a team, and I attributed that to Pink's efforts. I could see that it made a real difference in the robots' tactics and performance.

And they did need it, without Blue there. With Pink engaging the opposition as little as she could, Olive and White were hard-pressed to manage three opponents. As good as they were, they had to put more effort into defense than into offense, until after long minutes they managed to take down one of the bots. After that, though, it was a slaughter. Without the need to watch their backs against a third opponent, they each took on a boomer and killed it in seconds.

As the Knights departed and the ADP moved in, I rewound the film. I popped it out just before the song ended and the camera vanished. I'd get it developed shortly -- maybe Lisa could recommend a good photo lab, even if she did prefer digital cameras.

While I waited for the streets to clear of police before heading home, I considered what I had just seen. Against an equal number of boomers, the current roster of Knight Sabers could handle themselves, but any more and they might be in trouble. In such a case, they just might appreciate a hand.

Which leads me to the night of October 27, 2036.

About two and a half weeks after the fight I'd watched, almost precisely on the dot by my hypothetical "schedule", there was another boomer incident. And, as was also usual, it happened at night. This time, ADP reported five boomers of the ubiquitous 55-C model rampaging in a loose formation through a warehouse district on the bayfront. I was almost disappointed that it wasn't four warbots -- it would have made such a lovely, predictable pattern. Ah, well.

When I heard the alert I burst out of my apartment with my jacket still unclasped and my helmet in my hand. I practically bowled over Lisa, who was just leaving her apartment, too. I burbled an apology and ran for the fire stairs -- I could take those a flight at a time and be in the basement far faster than the elevator could get me there. A few minutes later, I was on the road.

Like the last time, the Knights arrived before I did. After slipping through the ADP lines, I stashed my cycle in an alleyway near the action. Rather than leap into the middle of things, I found myself a vantage point from which to watch the battle. I wanted to see what was happening before I involved myself. In the unlikely event that they didn't need my help, I wasn't going to step in and look like a glory hound.

By the time I got a glance at the action, they were already hip-deep in the fight. They had the support of some kind of well-armed robots -- three of them, of varying sizes, from the metal-skeleton-and-open-motive-machinery school of design (as opposed to boomers' rather organic smoothness), and which for some reason seemed to have large pneumatic tires as shoulder blades. Or maybe wings.

Have I mentioned that I don't yet quite understand all the aesthetics of machine design in MegaTokyo?

And there was something about the candy-apple red fairings and cowlings that covered parts of the bots that tugged unsuccessfully at my memory.

Anyway.

I couldn't spot Pink right away, which made me think for a moment that the Knights were rapidly losing members. Then a flash of color caught my eye and I realized that she was actually inside the largest of the open-frame bots, wearing it like an exoskeleton. Or maybe riding it from the inside, since it was taking potshots at the boomers while she was busy doing something else -- probably ECM, if I was right about her role in the Knights. "<And by the way, which one's Pink?>" I murmured to myself in a moment of amusement.

The Knights' bots -- including the one housing Lady Pink -- were all carrying what looked like small artillery pieces modified for use as longarms by giants. If those automatons had actually been able to shoot at the boomers, the battle might have been over quickly. Unfortunately the skeletal robots were limiting their contribution to laying down suppression and covering fire. I supposed that it was to keep the boomers from engaging their jump jets and leapfrogging their organic opposition into a hammer-and-anvil. As a result, most of their shots ended up blowing holes and gouges and clouds of cement dust out the cinderblock walls that constrained the action. I had to duck a couple of slugs that ricocheted into the alley where I lurked.

You see, the battle had erupted on a one-lane access road between two rows of warehouses. It was a perfect bottleneck, forcing the fight into a narrow front line. Pink was hanging back with the support bots, which made sense if she was their electronic warfare expert. This put Olive and White alone going hand-to-hand against the boomers. Although those big guns were doing their best to blow up the walls on either side of them, the melee was stuck -- for the moment -- in a channel no more than three meters across. White and Olive ended up cheek-and-jowl with the enemy. So even if the support robots weren't needed to keep the fight two-dimensional, they would have been deprived of most of their possible targets by the Knights blocking their shots. This kept the presence of what should have been decisive extra forces from doing anything more than barely evening out the odds.

I don't like even odds. They mean the good guys lose half the time. One reason the Warriors are as successful as we are is that in any given opportunity, we will field far more force that is far nastier than the enemy is prepared to deal with. We don't fight just to win. We fight to crush the enemy utterly. We fight to overwhelm and destroy.

I planned on helping the Knights not just win, but overwhelm and destroy.

I made sure the chin strap on my helmet was snug, and windmilled each arm once to ensure that my jacket wasn't binding them. One quick fan kick with each leg made certain I had maximum freedom of movement there, too. I tapped my breastbone firmly and felt the polykev stiffen into familiar rock hardness under my fingertips. Pulling my gloves from where I'd tucked them into my belt, I drew them onto my hands, flexing my fingers and making sure the polykev plates were seated properly over my knuckles. I popped up my headlamps. Then I reached up and rotated the external speaker housings on my helmet to their "active" position. After all, if I were going to be making an entrance, I was going to make it with style.

"<System. Combat mode on.>" I grinned for a moment as I wondered what the Knights would make of me and my unexpected aid. Then I stepped to the mouth of the alleyway and whispered to myself, "<It's showtime.>"

END OF CHAPTER FOUR

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(Version 1.1, 25 September 2001)
(Version 1.2, 22 October 2003)

This work of fiction is copyright © 1999, 2012 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.

Excerpts from "The Wall" by Pink Floyd, copyright © 1979 by Pink Floyd Music Publishers, Inc.

Lyric from "Have a Cigar" by Pink Floyd, copyright © 1975 by Pink Floyd Music Publishers, Inc.

Lyrics from "Pinball Wizard" by The Who, copyright © 1969, 1993 by Fabulous Music Ltd.

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: The Apprentice, Kathleen Avins, Joseph Avins, Paul Arezina, Nathan Baxter, Delany Brittain, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, and Helen Imre. Additional prereaders for future chapters welcome.


This page was created on May 27, 1999.
Last modified January 16, 2013.