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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
5: Kill the Wobot, Kill the Wobot!
Music ... can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable. -- Leonard Bernstein
There's nothing quite like the certain knowledge that you're going to be facing a true maniac in battle. -- Anonymous
Monday, October 27, 2036. 10:47 PM
Lisa laid back on her futon and pressed "play" on the remote control. The screen flickered, and the familiar theme music began to play:
"'I'm sorry, I'm not gentle,'
I can say if it's in my dreams.
My thoughts are about to short circuit..."
My thoughts are about to short circuit, mused Lisa as the recording -- a favorite episode from late in the first season -- launched into its story. These last few months have been too hectic for words. Between the Sabers and the 16 Times, it's a wonder I get any sleep!
Her attention began to drift away from the television as her mind wandered. What with holding down what amounts to two full-time jobs, I've just about sacrificed what little social life I had. And just when things were starting to get... interesting... with Doug.
She sighed. Doug. What the hell am I thinking of? It's bad enough he's a gaijin, but he seems to be involved with someone else, he just might be a boomeroid, and the ADP are after him. And he hasn't shown any real interest in me at all. It's probably for the best that I haven't had any time to spend with him -- it's likely kept me from making a fool of myself, or worse. She chuckled humorlessly. And isn't that the main reason I've thrown myself into my work these past few weeks? Fear: being afraid of making a fool of myself, being afraid of how horny I got that one night, being afraid for him now that he's out on the streets fighting boomers, being afraid of him, of what he might be...
She leaned back; behind her, the Sailor Moon episode muttered away on her TV, forgotten completely. Mou. The last time I even said 'hi' to him was when he asked me about a film lab, what, two weeks ago? She began to feel the familiar pangs of creeping guilt. I really ought to see if he'd like to do dinner some time this week. Just as a kind of apology... She felt herself begin to blush. Not as a date!
A soft, persistent beeping from her wrist suddenly roused her from her train of thought. For a moment, she was disoriented, lost between Sailor Moon and her musings, then she realized that it was a Sabers alert. Tapping the "acknowledge" button, she popped the concealed display open and scanned the details. A band of five state-of-the-art military boomers running wild among the warehouses on the waterfront. Combat team to report immediately for deployment. Support team to wait 15 minutes, then head to HQ to prepare for post-combat stand down and briefing.
Like hell, Lisa thought as an evil grin crawled onto her face. This is just the kind of story I need to get off those damned "human interest" assignments once and for all! She snatched up her camera and gear bag, slipped on her shoes and coat, and barrelled into the hall -- only to run into Doug as their apartment doors both slammed shut at the same time.
"Yow!" Doug yelped in surprise, throwing one arm out to catch and steady both of them against each other. "Oh, sorry, Leese, I didn't see you there, um, can't stay and chat, gotta run," he burbled as he let go. With his leather jacket slung over his other arm and his helmet in his hand, he certainly appeared to be in a hurry, and Lisa had a strong suspicion that she knew exactly where he was headed.
"S'okay, hey, maybe we can get... together... later...?" Lisa trailed off as Doug dashed down the hallway to the fire stairs. I'll bet he didn't even hear me, she thought, then shrugged. Passing the stairwell on her way to the elevator, she paused and listened; a faint "thud-pitter-thud-pitter" drifted up to her. She snorted, partly in amusement, and partly in envy.
After a maddeningly slow elevator ride, she reached the garage and took off on her motorscooter for the warehouse district. Fifteen minutes later, having eluded the still-incomplete AD Police blockade of the neighborhood, she parked her scooter behind a dumpster and made her way to the roof of a warehouse overlooking the combat zone.
This involved no small amount of climbing up and swinging from fire escapes, and one intimidating leap between adjacent buildings, but Lisa's old gymnastics training made it, if not exactly easy, at least possible. After the jump, as she stood bent over at the waist and panting heavily, she remembered the night she had climbed 15 stories up the steel skeleton of an unfinished building to take photos of the Sabers, and compared it to the climb she had just made. I'm only 21. I'm in my prime. I can't be getting old, she thought between long, ragged breaths. Could I be losing my nerve? She stood back up and looked about. Then again, I've never done anything like this while wearing a winter coat before... Around her, the sounds of combat echoed off concrete and wooden walls.
After catching her breath, she crouched and all but knee-walked her way to the edge of the rooftop. Wall and roof joined simply, with the barest overhang and no retaining wall. Lacking that cover, Lisa lay flat and crawled the last few meters. She peered out over the edge at the battle raging at ground level, then ducked back to retrieve her camera from its bag and insert a fresh diskette. Then she lay on her stomach with only her face -- and her camera -- extended past the eaves and surveyed the scene. What the street's small, widely-spaced mercury vapor lamps failed to illuminate, the half-moon above brought to the edge of visibility.
A narrow street, little more than a single traffic lane wide, stretched for several hundred yards in either direction. Bordering it were huge warehouses like the one on which she was perched, their two- and three-story concrete walls painted with corporate colors and forming a man-made ravine some ten or twelve meters deep. Across the road and a dozen or so meters to the right a narrow alley provided access between two adjacent warehouses. In the distance to the right, Lisa spotted the flicker of flames and the plumes of rising smoke they illuminated. The boomers had been busy tonight.
Just past the mouth of the alleyway, the Sabers and their motoslaves held five Bu-65C boomers in a bottleneck with hand-to-hand combat and fire from the motoslaves' guns. Lisa watched with a kind of enraptured amazement that never seemed to fade with repeated exposure; each battle involving the Sabers was like the first, captivating her with its almost dancelike precision and grace. The dull noises of hardsuit and Abotex meeting, the sharp crack of depleted uranium slugs breaking the sound barrier, the explosive crackle of a knucklebomber, the sharp scents of propellant smoke and ozone -- these merely punctuated what for her was a seductively visual experience.
But however absorbed in the deadly beauty of the fight she might have been, she was not deterred from her original purpose in defying Sylia's orders. Its strap wrapped securely around her wrist, she brought her camera to bear on the street below. She began to snap photographs of the action, her left hand working the telephoto lens like a pump-action shotgun.
Closeup: A spray of vaporized Abotex erupting around a glancing blow from Linna's knucklebomber, painting a gossamer blue blossom with a bluewhite heart around the green stem of her arm. Clickclick.
Medium shot: Sylia, laserblade extended in a fencer's perfect thrust as a boomer twists just enough to turn a heartblow to a score along the chest. Clickclick.
Medium shot: The protective cage of the motoslave's frame wrapped about her, Nene's seemingly passive form belying the frantic mental and electronic activity that she coordinated. Clickclick.
Wide shot: An explosion of concrete dust and debris from a warehouse wall, the result of a wild shot from one of the motoslaves' cannon, the gout of flame from the muzzle flash still a brilliant plume of white and yellow. Clickclick.
Lisa continued to snap images as the cloud of dust expanded into the street, drifting across the mouth of an adjacent alley and cloaking the Sabers and the motoslaves momentarily. The boomers seemed to sense a brief advantage and pressed forward, driving Linna and Sylia backwards -- to Lisa's left -- until the motoslaves were forced to retreat in a ratcheting shuffle to give them room to maneuver. As the front line quickly slid past the mouth of the alley, Lisa thought she saw Sylia glance in her direction.
It was then that she heard the music.
* * *
Monday, October 27, 2036. 11:20 PM
"You do realize," grunted Linna as she landed a glancing blow upon one of the boomers with her knucklebomber, "that we've seen more action in the last few weeks than we have in the entire year before this?"
Sylia did not respond right away, engaged as she was in a delicate exchange of monomolecular blade versus mechanized fist. She spied an opening, thrust, and grunted in annoyance as what she'd hoped would have been a killing blow turned into a shallow gouge along the boomer's chest armor. "I'm aware of it, Linna," she finally replied. "Trust me, it has been a concern of mine."
"It's not just that, the boomers are also getting tougher," Nene added in a distracted tone from her protected position in the rear. "These must be improved models; they've got a better frequency-hopping algorithm and it's harder to keep their tactical coordination jammed."
Sylia grunted in agreement as she deftly parried a counterstrike from her opponent. The motoslaves' occasional potshot at the more daring boomers had started to fade into the background noise for her, but she was momentarily startled by the hypersonic whipcrack of a depleted uranium slug not far over her head. As it shattered a nearby wall into a billowing cloud of concrete dust, she made a mental note to tweak their ally-avoidance routines. That last shot had been a little low for her peace of mind.
As the dust cloud expanded into the street, the boomers shouldered forward. The combat had turned into a pitched battle, exactly what Sylia hadn't wanted; the Sabers' most successful tactics required more room to maneuver than the closely-spaced warehouses allowed. I might have to let this fight expand into three dimensions, she thought grimly, if only to break the stalemate. But the moment the motoslaves stop firing, we might find ourselves in a pincer.
A glitter of light up and to the right caught Sylia's eye as she and Linna slowly retreated to Nene's position. She spared a moment for a zoom shot of the rooftop through the hardsuit HUD, fearing a possible ambush by yet another boomer. It was with mixed emotions that she saw the worried face of Lisa Vanette, washed out and pale green under light amplification, peering down over the shining telephoto lens of her camera. Frowning, Sylia made another mental note, and discarded the option to take to the roofs. No, not with a noncombatant up there, damn it all.
"You know," Linna said between panting breaths, "Priss is going to say it's because they knew she was out of town that the boomers started coming out of the woodwork again." Nene giggled and Sylia barked a short laugh in spite of herself.
"Priss will..." she began, but was interrupted by the unexpected: music. It was loud, loud enough to be heard clearly over the clatter and racket of the fight -- a confident downbeat and then a buzzing electronic tone that slid artlessly down the scale to settle into a seething bass hum. Then, a man's high-pitched voice, singing in English:
"<A modern day warrior,
Mean mean stride;
Today's Tom Sawyer,
Mean mean pride.>"
It seemed to Sylia almost as though a voice had spoken in her soul, demanding that she stop, look and listen. Against her will, she found herself pausing in the fight, peering past the boomers in front of her -- which to her surprise were themselves pausing and turning around -- to seek out the source of the song that echoed wildly off the concrete walls which surrounded her. At the edges of her peripheral vision Sylia saw that Linna, too, had frozen in mid-punch.
Within the cloud of dust that still billowed into the street, two points of light appeared, looking for all the world like eyes. Their focus seemed to swing from side to side, as though searching out both enemies and allies. As they drew closer, a figure appeared beneath them, indistinctly at first, then more solid; what had seemed to be glowing eyes were in fact headlamps mounted on either side of a unique and recognizable helmet, worn by a man in grey leather.
"<Though his mind is not for rent,
Don't put him down as arrogant.
His reserve, a quiet defense,
Riding out the day's events.
"Masaka," muttered Nene on the encrypted link. "Sylia?"
The white Saber had recognized the mysterious "Loon" immediately. "I see him, Nene. Return to your tasks."
"I can't. I have to look at him." Nene sounded close to panic. "I need to look at him."
"Me, too..." Linna's voice held an uncharacteristic quaver. "What's happening?"
Sylia managed a frown behind her faceplate. "I don't know, but we're fortunate that it's also affecting the boomers."
"Yeah," breathed Linna, "Otherwise we'd be dead."
Loon stopped several meters away from the frozen combat. "Good evening, ladies." His voice, a pleasant tenor, carried clearly to them over the same hidden speaker system as the music. His tone was friendly, even playful. "You look like you could use a hand. By the way, nice armor. Love the high heels. Very haute couture." Nene giggled nervously, and Sylia snorted.
He cocked his head to one side, as if puzzled by something. "Well, what are we all standing around for? <Let's kick some bot! System hazy shade bangles play!>" The song abruptly cut off, and with it the Sabers' compulsion to stand still and watch. As Sylia and the others realized that they could move again, new music began -- low, languid, ringing tones and women's voices, singing once more in English:
"<Time, time, time,
See what's become of me...>"
Then, as a guitar riff exploded over a pounding drumbeat, Loon launched himself into an impossibly long leap, tucking himself into a blurring, tumbling ball as a pair of sparkling white vapor trails corkscrewed behind him. Only the boomers noticed the blur's color shift from grey to white as they paused, assessed his potential threat level, and dismissed him as unimportant.
With a curt nod to each other, Sylia and Linna lunged forward, and two wounded cyberdroids roared. They spun around in surprise, only to see the two Sabers breaking right and left towards the ends of the boomer line.
Reacting only slightly slower, the other boomers turned their attention back to the only credible opponents identified by their tactical software -- the Sabers. With the cheek-to-jowl stalemate suddenly broken, one of the 65Cs stepped up to face Sylia, while two others bracketed Linna. At the same time, the two wounded cyberdroids each confirmed a clear line of sight, locked on a target, and opened their jaws. Within their mouths, red glows grew and capacitors audibly whined as their cannons charged.
From her secure position in the rear, Nene frantically tried to keep a lookout on the rapidly-mutating combat. Firing commands down the interfaces built into her hardsuit, she not only kept pace with the pseudo-random changes in frequency used by the boomers' tactical network, but at the same time tried to reorient the motoslaves to fire upon the two boomers aiming at Sylia and Linna. One corner of her conscious mind registered Loon's leap into the melee, but he was such an unknown that she couldn't, wouldn't, gamble on him being a possible ally. Later, she would tell Sylia, "It didn't matter that I'd watched him take out two combat boomers by himself on that security camera recording. This was real, right in front of me, there were five boomers, and my friends' lives were on the line."
Before the motoslaves could react to their new orders, though, Loon snapped his body straight with an audible crackle and landed feet first on the shoulders of the two boomers. The unexpected impacts drove both of them forward as Loon springboarded back into the air; one boomer fell to its knees and one hand while the other managed to remain standing, but both had lost their target lock. Their shots went wild -- one seared a meters-long streak along one of the warehouses, and the other blasted a small crater from the asphalt.
For a moment, through the black, choking smoke heavy with the foul odor of burnt bitumen, a footprint was visible on the back of each of the two cyberdroids, a rime of frost briefly marking the point of impact before melting away.
Loon had rebounded off the 65Cs, back in the direction from which he had come, and with a somersault and a half-twist landed on the far side of the boomers from Nene. He looked at her from across the line of battle, and Nene stared back. He was no longer simply in leathers; he no longer looked entirely human. A layer of shining white crystal covered him from head to toe; the only exception was his black goggles with their mysterious flickering colors. Wisps of fog rolled down his form and pooled at his feet, flowing slowly away into nothingness.
Nene thought he looked like nothing more than a statue carved out of ice, and the impossibly black depths of his infrared image in her visor more than confirmed that intuition; following Sylia's standing orders from several weeks before, she automatically performed a fast, full-spectrum scan of him.
As she did so, Loon nodded to her, bringing two fingers up to his brow in a mock salute. Behind the combination of helmet, fog, and ice, there was no way she could see the expression on his face, but she got the impression of a good-natured smile, the friendly recognition of a fellow warrior.
It was a brief pause in the midst of the action that seemed much longer than it actually was. She risked a quick glance to either side. Sylia had sliced a broad strip of Abotex from the torso of her boomer even as she dodged its mouth cannon blast. Linna was having a harder time dealing with two foes; she ducked under an open-handed swing by one boomer to land a glancing knucklebomb blast on the other. In the process she took a solid blow in the stomach from her target; it thudded audibly on her hardsuit, making Nene wince in sympathy.
Then the moment was broken by movement in front of her: the two boomers the Loon had all but knocked over returning to their feet. As they rose, they turned their attention away from the pink Saber and to this unarmored human whose threat rating had just been raised enough to merit removing him from the battle.
Loon threw his arms forward, hands and fingers outstretched and spread wide, as if he were pushing something away. A massive jet of brilliant, sparkling white erupted from his palms, and engulfed the two boomers. When it cut off a moment later, they were encased in rounded mounds of ice.
Then he turned and skated towards Linna.
* * *
On a rooftop overhead, Lisa swore in disbelief as she took yet another photo. It was one thing to watch Doug fight a construction boomer bare-handed, but this... this was unbelievable. How did he do that? How was it possible? Something hidden in the jacket? But it hadn't felt any heavier than a normal leather jacket that time she'd looked in his wardrobe...
At least she'd seen his speed before. The fact that he seemed to be everywhere at once didn't bother her so much now as mystify her. I still have to know how... and why... and... and... and what! I swear I'll get the answers.
Unaware of the manic glint in her eyes, Lisa swapped a fresh data disk into her camera, dropping the filled disk to join its fellows in a small pile growing on the rooftop beside her.
* * *
Atop a different warehouse, a masculine figure materialized in a column of sparkling blue light. A moment later he stood with one foot on the retaining wall, unnoticed thanks to certain items of high technology, and watched the battle below.
(Guess what, pretty lady?) he subvocalized.
(I don't need to guess, b'wana, I'm following it all on my sensors,) the female voice relayed back along the link. (We've found the BGC alternate where Doug spent his second jump.)
Legion nodded, more to himself than in response. (His first fight at the side of the Sabers, from the look of it, too. Before the... philosophical differences.) He snorted. (Anyway, you know what that means, m'dear.)
(Already on it, boss. Before those two uglies down there can defrost, the Sabers will have our gift package of advanced technologies buried in their computer system. I'm setting the time-delay lock to release it a week after Doug moves on.) Minerva paused thoughtfully. (You want I should leave him a little present?)
(No anvils, Min. Please.)
(No, boss, that wasn't quite what I had in mind.) The ACI giggled. (Although that would be fun.)
Ed winced. (Don't. He never mentioned ever finding an anvil in his apartment. That would cause a paradox and probably attract the attention of the Three. We don't need that, pretty lady.)
Somehow the sense of a mock-pout carried through the link. (Oh, you're no fun, b'wana.)
Ed rolled his eyes and said nothing.
(I promise, boss, nothing disruptive.)
He sighed. (Oh, go ahead, Min. Do it and let's see if that damned staff of Valanna's will let us move on.)
* * *
At ground level, peering out through the window of a warehouse office, a third figure raised his camera again. On the floor by his feet were a set of lockpicks and a press pass.
"This'll get me a top page credit for sure," he murmured to himself.
* * *
Trapping those two bots in big ice blocks wasn't the smartest move I might've made, but it was about the only thing I could do. White and Olive were already on the flanks of the line, Pink was effectively a noncombatant, the support bots weren't firing because I was in the way, and I couldn't take both boomers on in hand-to-hand fighting by myself. Unfortunately, channelling that much power, even with (cautiously) tapping the node to boost my output, took a fair amount out of me. If I tried anything like that again I'd probably knock myself out, at least until I had a chance to breathe and center and recharge, and, surprise surprise, I wasn't going to get that in the middle of a fight.
But I certainly wasn't going to show any sign that I'd just expended more than half my reserves in a single attack. Not good from the combat psychology end, and besides, I had more than enough left to carry myself through to the end of the song if I avoided throwing any more huge all-or-nothing effects at the boomers.
* * *
Linna wanted to curl up around the dull ache in her abdomen; too much of the impact had gotten through her hardsuit. Instead, she just gasped with the pain and threw herself into a single backwards somersault to retreat several meters.
A warning tone sounded. "Armor integrity. At. Ninety. Seven. Percent," the hardsuit computer whispered in Sylia's voice.
As she fought to bring the pain under control before the boomers closed with her again, a figure of gleaming white slid effortlessly between her and the war machines. Not having watched his transformation as Nene had, it took Linna several seconds to realize that it was the Loon, blocking the boomers' charge. He made a motion as if he were throwing a phantom baseball; midway through the pitch, a cloud of glittering motes coalesced into a gleaming spear of ice that flew from his hand and smashed into the chest of the lead boomer. It shattered into a spray of fragments without scratching its armor, but the impact forced the cyberdroid to stagger backwards several meters.
The remaining one lunged at him, and he dropped to the ground, pivoted on his hands to sweep its legs, then rolled aside to avoid being crushed by the falling machine; a moment later he was on his feet and at her side. The entire maneuver had taken less than a second, and in her surprise and admiration Linna almost forgot the ebbing ache in her stomach. "You okay?" he said, his words punctuated by the crackling sound of ice breaking with every movement of his lips and jaw.
"Yeah," she answered, "Just need to catch my breath."
"Do it fast," Loon said, not unkindly. Then he turned and pushed a spread-fingered hand toward the closer of the two boomers, which had dropped its jaw to reveal the collimating mirror of its laser cannon. A swirl of white engulfed its head, only to vanish and reveal a blob of ice more than half a meter across seated firmly on the machine's shoulders. The cyberdroid began clawing at the ice, metal fingers sending wet, white chips flying.
Meanwhile, the second boomer had regained its balance and began to charge them. Linna forced the pain away, and stood straight. "I'm okay," she announced.
He nodded to her, held out an ice-encrusted hand toward the oncoming cyberdroid, and said, "Well, then. Shall we dance, Lady Olive?"
* * *
On her perch above the fight, Lisa paused as a distant, repetitive thudding sound caught her attention. She lowered her camera and cradled it to her breast, then rolled backward away from the edge of the roof and into a low crouch. She stood and turned slowly in place, listening and watching.
The sound was growing sharper and clearer, and she quickly identified it -- the prop noise of one or more small helicopters, coming from the northeast. Straining her eyes against the darkness, she could make out the lights of a small flock of FireBees, swarming several blocks away. She brought her camera back up to her eye, thumbed its light-sensitivity all the way up, and stretched the telephoto lens to its full extent.
Through the viewfinder, she could clearly make out the tiny one-man helicopters. They were circling around a dense column of smoke that was more visible by the way it obscured both Fire bees and buildings behind it than by the little light it reflected. Her finger twitched, and the shot was saved. And another. Scanning downward, she was startled by the sudden appearance of a humanoid figure within the pillar of smoke -- the unmistakable silhouette of a boomer, limned with white-yellow light around its legs and torso. It burst from the smoke and hurtled over the roofs of the nearby warehouses, followed by a second.
The first twitched its jets and changed course slightly, a move echoed immediately by the one behind it, and Lisa realized that they were heading directly towards herself -- and the combat below.
Letting her camera hang from its strap around her neck, Lisa raised her Saber-provided watch to her lips and tried to remember how transmit with this thing; wrapping her hand around the plastic shell, she squeezed what she hoped was the right button combination and cried, "Saber Prime! They've got reinforcements!"
Her watch beeped sullenly and its tiny LCD screen lit up with the legend, "You have no new messages."
"Kuso!" Lisa began pressing more buttons.
* * *
As the combat raged before her, Nene played the controls of her ECM suite like the virtuoso she was. Operating as much on instinct as on the rapidly-calculated projections of the pattern-modeling software, she tracked each frequency jump and expertly jammed and rejammed the boomers' tactical network, operating with a Zen-like abstraction and a speed which, of all her teammates, only Sylia would have found neither astounding nor a little intimidating. While she no longer was the poor fighter she had once been and could face a 55C alone with confidence, this was where she excelled -- this was her chosen battleground.
In her "hacker's trance" she played the game of thrust and counterthrust, and even though each encounter, each combat, was a new and constantly-evolving event, there was still a continuity, elements, flows, concepts and constructs, that altered little from confrontation to confrontation, and gave her almost a sense of comfortable familiarity. Although the players and the moves -- and sometimes the pieces -- might change, it was always the same game.
Within this familiar gestalt, the patterns of give and take, action and reaction, check and countercheck, Nene realized there was an alien element. Sparing a thread of her attention on the matter, she launched a sampler routine and a directional trace. Any unfamiliar signal was a potential danger, as it might flag a boomer tactic or system for which the Sabers might not be prepared. It was always a priority to identify and analyze such signals against that possibility.
The sampler quickly returned a first-approximation analysis. The signal was a complex pulse, emitted every five seconds and almost a second in duration, and running on a frequency unused by the boomers' systems. It always began with a series of ten old-style ASCII SYNs -- the antique code that requested synchronization from a remote computer system in preparation for data exchange. And each signal was always the same length. Beyond that, though, there was no resemblance between instances.
Puzzling. Even more puzzling, there were no responses. Clearly it was some kind of digital data packet, and it was on the wrong frequency to be some odd variety of radar. And the SYN header definitely suggested that it was expecting an answer of some sort. The signal strength was enormous compared to the boomers' tactical comm system, which could mean a distant -- or weak -- receiver...
Nene shook her head. The trace pointed into the massed combat, but it did not change in strength or complexity as the boomers fell, one by one. Her instincts were gnawing at her, whispering that this was something important, not to be overlooked. But she could spare no additional attention to it now. She launched a process to record the signal; she'd look at it after the debriefing.
* * *
Linna quickly realized that Loon had meant "dance" almost literally. It took her only a few moments to see that almost his every move was to some inner rhythm, a quick 4/4 beat so regular that she found herself falling comfortably into it herself. She chuckled to herself as she imagined a dance captain calling out these steps: "One and two and punch and kick and one and duck and spin and four... Come on, people, I don't see you really trying!" It might have made him predictable, had he not seemed to be able to be everywhere on the field of battle at once. She had never seen anyone or anything as fast as he, with or without cybernetic augmentation.
He certainly knew his way around combat, she had to give him that. And he knew how to coordinate with an unfamiliar ally. The rhythm seemed to help there, but it wasn't the only thing. She found herself trading signals with him, a kind of instinctive shorthand -- a gesture here, a nod there, flagging the next target, implying the next move. And they attacked as a team -- an "I set them up, you knock them down" partnership that quickly evolved as their blows volleyed the first boomer back and forth between themselves.
But how he fought... He was a martial artist, that much she was certain of. But he couldn't be a merc, he didn't have the attitude and his style was too... wild, rambunctious... immature? As if life were some immense computer game and he had all the cheat codes.
Linna backfisted the boomer, staggering the machine and sending it sprawling. Some yards away, the second of the pair continued to chip away the ice imprisoning its head. "Who are you?" she finally demanded as they wordlessly decided their next move.
"Some people call me the Space Cowboy," Loon replied in a sing-song cadence that was almost mocking. He glided like a skater across the rough asphalt, leaving narrow trails of melting ice behind each booted foot. "Some call me the Gangster of Love." Slipping lithely around the boomer as it leapt upright and lunged for him, he flicked his right hand open. A broad swath of ice appeared beneath its feet. A leap and a spinning kick from Loon, and the cyberdroid found itself sliding, its arms flailing wildly, right to the green Saber.
Half-expecting this, Linna smoothly side-stepped and spun. With a flick of her ribbon-cutters, she sliced off one arm and decapitated it as it passed. A moment later, its headless body slammed into a wall, then fell over backwards.
Loon hazarded a quick glance at her, and Linna thought she could see him grinning through the ice inside the helmet. He snapped his gaze from her and wordlessly they agreed on their next target -- the other boomer had finally clawed the ice from its head. "Some people call me Maurice." He trilled the "r" almost foppishly as he launched himself into motion once again. Without thinking, Linna followed.
"I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru," he called over his shoulder as she sprinted after him.
This guy is nuts, Linna thought as she watched him plow into their target only a meter or so ahead of her. She spared a moment to glance around: Sylia was disposing of her boomer, its face a melted blob from laserfire, with a well-placed sword thrust; Nene was jittering frantically within the protective cage of her motoslave.
"I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic and my bills are all paid. On weekends to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. <I'm a high night flyer and a rainbow rider, and a straight shootin' son of a gun,>" Loon continued, reciting as if it were a litany, never pausing even as he slid up in front of the boomer and stuck his face in its. "I hover and I hold; I stalk through the city on little rat feet. <Shooting at the walls of heartache, bang bang! I am the Warrior!>"
Dodging and weaving around its attempts to hit him, Loon physically taunted the cyberdroid with a collection of gestures liberally lifted from ancient movies and cartoons from America: the fluttering hand in the face, the double eyepoke, the "spot on your tie" nose tweak. Not programmed for physical comedy, the war machine roared its frustration. All he needs now is an exploding cigar and a circus sledgehammer... Linna mused as the boomer turned all its attention on its ice-covered tormentor.
Now here was an opportunity she wasn't going to pass up. A jet-assisted leap sent her on a long, high arc. Like a stooping hawk, she dropped down upon the cyberdroid from above, her right arm extended and knucklebomber charged.
At the same moment, the boomer threw a claw-handed blow that sent Loon tumbling backwards over the asphalt. To its immense surprise, he popped briskly to his feet like a jack-in-the-box on the third roll. The boomer growled again and lunged for him, only to find that its feet had been iced to the pavement.
Loon was still wagging a reproachful finger at the struggling cyberdroid when Linna's knucklebomber shattered its braincase.
They paused a moment over its fallen form and looked at each other, expressionless goggles to blank faceplate. This close up, Linna was even more amazed -- a layer of ice that had to be at least a centimeter thick completely coated him except for the goggles, effortlessly breaking and refreezing at each joint as his body flexed, making his every movement an arpeggio of crackling noises. Fog continued to roll off him, and the bone-chilling cold of his very presence reached through her hardsuit to send goose bumps crawling across her skin. And the music continued to echo from his very person:
Leaves are brown,
And the sky
Is a hazy shade of winter...>"
"What are you?" Linna whispered more to herself than anything, but the voxmod carried it to his ears.
Loon tilted his head. With the ice coating his features, it was hard to see anything but the broadest of his expressions; he was completely unreadable. Then he grinned, the ice at the corners of his mouth shattering and thrusting out to either side. "That would be telling. Wouldn't you rather enjoy the suspense?"
Linna stared at him, blinking and completely at a loss for a meaningful response. Suddenly his grin drained away and he lunged at her, striking her hardsuit in the solar plexus with his shoulder. His shout of "Down!" registered a moment later, as a searing beam of laserfire lanced down from above, neatly slicing through the spot where she had just stood.
"We've got trouble! Two more 65Cs coming in from the northeast!" Nene cried over the private link.
"Now she tells me," Linna muttered.
The walls and ground vibrated with the thunderous roar as all three motoslaves opened up with their guns. Still on her back, Linna watched as two new war machines dropped out of the night sky. The lead boomer, mouth laser still deployed and protective eye shutters still closed, failed to evade the high-powered salvos; its chest and head exploded when the guns tore through it, sending a shower of boomer parts and yellow nutrient fluid throughout the street. Its companion was luckier, coming through the attack untouched. Cutting its jets, it plummeted to the ground; it shattered the asphalt where it landed on its feet, crouched and facing the Sabers.
Loon flickered, going from laying on top of her to standing next to her without seeming to move between the two positions. Linna backflipped into an attack stance next to him. Already the motoslaves had opened fire on the remaining boomer, and Sylia was firing her lasers. With a shrug, Linna launched her shock darts at it as Loon gestured and ice formed a glistening chin strap around its still-closed jaw.
Several seconds later, its motionless form lay sprawled on the asphalt in a widening pool of yellow, and the Sabers, as well as their mysterious ally, relaxed. Loon looked around at each of them. "Well, that was entertaining," he offered. There was the sound of rotors overhead, and all looked up to see a small flock of Fire bees circling and surveying the scene.
"Linna, Sylia?" Nene murmured over their private encrypted link at that moment. "I'm getting some strange temperature readings from one of the iced-over boomers..."
Then there was an explosion, and a shower of ice shards pelted them. Linna spun to see one of the cyberdroids Loon had encased rising from a steaming puddle of water littered with melting ice chunks. Its chest panels were slightly open but fused in place by melted Abotex, partly revealing its pectoral heat cannon array. Acrid wisps of smoke curled up from the burned polymer covering its chest. Beyond, a surprised Sylia hesitated a critical moment before sprinting at it.
"Shit!" shouted Loon at the same time as the boomer dropped its jaw and fired its mouth cannon at him from point blank range.
The beam was a solid rod of false color in Linna's thermographic vision overlay, so bright that the visible light display had shut down to protect itself and so close that she could feel its heat faintly through her hardsuit. She turned in time to see it strike Loon head on and throw him back against the wall of the warehouse on the far side of the street. To her thermographic vision, he'd ceased to appear human; he'd become no more than an incandescent blob.
Still, the music continued:
"<Seasons change with the scenery,
Weaving time in a tapestry.
Won't you stop and remember me?>"
"No," she whispered. It was strange, but in the minute or so she'd spent at his side, she'd started feeling a kind of camaraderie with him. To see him killed so unexpectedly... she felt bile rise up in her throat and struggled to control it.
The beam vanished abruptly, and she turned back to see Sylia withdrawing her laserblade from the boomer's head. "Take care of the last one before it frees itself," the white Saber said dispassionately as the cyberdroid fell forward with a crunch. "Now."
Linna glanced back to where Loon stood propped against the wall. The ice was completely gone, and faint wisps of steam rose from his body. In IR, he was still radiating heat. She was about to turn to the last boomer when she realized...
"Ow ow ow ow shit." Loon's amplified voice echoed off the warehouses to either side of them as he slowly and painfully pushed himself away from the blistered and seared wall. Behind him was a perfect silhouette of unharmed concrete.
Sylia and Linna froze, watching him in stark disbelief as he glanced up and down the narrow lane. Ice was beginning to form on his body again, producing a crazy quilt of colors on his thermograph. "Is that all of them?" he growled.
"No," Sylia replied, her voice betraying none of her consternation. She gestured to the block of ice remaining in the middle of the street.
"Let me take care of that," he snarled. As he stalked over to the encased boomer, two tiny galaxies of ice crystals swirled into existence around his clenched fists. By the time he reached the block, he was once again completely coated in crystalline white.
The temperature in the street grew noticeably colder as he placed his hands on the encased boomer. Nothing seemed to happen right away. Then there was an audible cracking, popping noise from the block. "There." A cloudy network of cracks and flaws now permeated the ice, obscuring the cyberdroid within.
"What did you do?" Linna asked.
"<Song off>," he muttered as he turned back to the Sabers. "I infiltrated ice into all its body cavities and expanded it until either they popped or everything inside them with water in it froze solid. All that yellow goo these bots have is water-based; it freezes nicely at around -5 C." The ice that had so recently formed on him sloughed off suddenly, landing with a crunch in a pile at his feet and leaving him once again simply in inexplicably dry leather.
"Why didn't you do that earlier?"
He shrugged, then winced. "It takes a lot of attention and precision," he replied as he gingerly rubbed his shoulder. "Not the kind of thing you do in the middle of a combat situation."
Linna nodded and laid a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. "You're a very impressive fighter," she said.
He barked a short laugh. "Lady, you're no slouch yourself." He clasped her other hand in both of his. "If you ever want to go independent and need a partner, give me a call."
"I doubt that will be necessary," Sylia said, stepping up to the pair as his eyes flicked over to her. "I'm certain she will stay with us. You know who we are, then?"
He snorted. "I may be from out of town, but I'm not ignorant. You're obviously the Knight Sabers. <Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name>," he suddenly said in English. "<But what's puzzling you is the nature of my game.>"
Unseen under her visor, Sylia raised an eyebrow. "<Quite>," she replied. "But we have no need to guess your name, Loon-san."
He wagged his finger at her and grinned. "Ah-ah-ah, Lady White. You're telling too much. You obviously have spies in the AD Police."
Over the encrypted channel, Nene eeped. Sylia merely waited, giving neither acknowledgment nor denial in response to his accusation.
His playfulness seemed to vanish, as if a switch had been thrown. "In any case, if you need to name my motives, call it... consumer protection." He released Linna's hand and performed a grandiloquent bow, more European than Japanese in style. "Now, if you'll excuse me, ladies, it's well past my bedtime, and I think I hear my mother calling me. Good night!" Then, with a burst of the speed that they were beginning to find increasingly disturbing, he dashed back into the alley from which he had come, moving so swiftly that he almost blurred.
"Wait!" Linna called, and sprang after him; Nene and Sylia followed a moment later. She reached the mouth of the alley too late to do anything but watch as Loon sped off on a motorcycle whose turbine howled with power.
Overhead, a single FireBee peeled off from the circling formation.
"Mou," Nene said after a few seconds. "You'd think someone that fast wouldn't have to be in such a hurry."
Linna turned to Sylia. "What was that he said a little while ago? My English isn't good enough for me to follow him."
Sylia sounded thoughtful over the private channel. "It was two lines from a song recorded in the 1960s."
"Really? What song?"
Behind her faceplate, Sylia briefly frowned. "'Sympathy for the Devil,' by the Rolling Stones. It does not exactly inspire my confidence."
"Huh..." Nene murmured contemplatively.
Linna snorted. "I'll say it doesn't."
Nene frowned as she shut down her suit's electronic warfare systems, save those needed to screen them from ADP scans and eavesdropping. "I didn't know you were into old music, Sylia," she commented absently.
"I'm not," Sylia replied. "But being Priss's friend for so long does have its effects on one." She looked at the ADP observers in the air above them, then sidewise at her teammates. "Collect the motoslaves and let's go."
* * *
Lisa slid back a safe distance from the edge of the roof and sat up. Okay! she thought triumphantly as she bagged her camera and carefully gathered up the filled datadisks. This'll get me off "Lifestyles" stories for sure!
Getting down from the roof was a touch easier than getting up, and Lisa was soon back on her motorscooter, heading for Raven's Garage.
* * *
Raven's Garage. Tuesday, October 28, 2036. 12:02 AM
Sylia glanced around the room. While Lisa seemed to be bursting with energy, Linna and Nene dropped into their seats and looked close to dozing off. Doctor Raven had been snoring in one of the chairs when they came in from the mission and there he remained; no one had had the heart to wake him.
"In deference to the hour," Sylia began without preface, "we'll make this quick. Given the circumstances, this mission was well-executed; and despite our narrow venue, we managed to halt the boomers with a minimum of property loss. While we can't do anything about the buildings that were damaged or destroyed before we got there, we can at least be satisfied that we accomplished that much."
She looked down at the PIM in her hand. "I have no negative comments on any Saber's performance tonight. However, Lisa..."
At her seat by the computer, Lisa flinched and bit her lip.
"The next time you wish to document one of our combats, please let me know in advance. I had to discard several potentially useful battle strategies because of your presence on a nearby warehouse. And you are lucky that I saw you there, otherwise you might have found yourself in some danger. Do you understand?"
This pronouncement brought the other two Sabers out of their near-stupor, and Nene stared at Lisa in disbelief. Linna merely rolled her eyes, as if to say, "Some things never change." Lisa mumbled an inarticulate response as a sudden wash of shame forced her to lower her eyes.
"I said, do you understand?"
"Yes, Stingray-san," she murmured sheepishly, which seemed to satisfy Sylia, who simply gave a curt nod.
"Now, to our feature presentation," Sylia allowed herself a slight satisfied smile, "the intervention of the alleged boomeroid 'Loon' in our battle tonight. Nene, what do the sensor logs have to say about him?"
Nene shook her head wearily. "It's a jumble. One minute he reads just like the time Priss ran into him, the next he has the IR signature of an ice cube. And I mean that literally; I ran a quick spectrograph on him and that was ice he was covered with."
"I could've told you that."
"I have facts, thank you, Linna." The redhead momentarily stuck her tongue out at her fellow Saber. "I got a lot more data than Priss did, though, and there's even more going on with him than it appears. We need to do a proper analysis of the logs, but I'll tell you this: he's got a weird kind of 'lens' effect around him, like he's refracting energy that comes near him. It's really freaky."
"Would that account for his survival of the laser attack, then?" Sylia asked.
Nene nodded sleepily, her fatigue starting to overcome her. "That's how I noticed it; something similar happened during that one fight the ADP got footage of, some weeks ago. So I replayed the logs of the beam hit on the ride back to see exactly what happened. Most of the laser bent around him."
"Interesting." Sylia eyes were half-lidded in thought.
"What's even stranger is that on the ADP footage, the laser didn't bend, it splashed like water. It's really weirding me out."
"Why the difference?" Sylia asked.
Nene shrugged. "I don't know. I can't even make a guess as to how he's doing it in the first place, so how can I theorize about that? Maybe he's upgrading or changing his equipment every time we see him.
"There's one other thing," she continued. "After he showed up tonight, I picked up a strange radio signal. It might be from him. But it looks like it's encrypted." She yawned and rubbed one eye with the tips of two fingers. "I won't know what's up with it until I crack the encryption. And I'll start on that tomorrow after I analyze the scans."
Sylia nodded slowly. "Let me know when you have any further results from your analyses. Linna? Did you learn anything while fighting at his side?"
Linna smirked. "I learned he's a nutcase." Then she gave an embarrassed look and shrugged. "Actually, that's not really fair. He was talking a mile a minute in both Japanese and English, real crazy, and I thought he was babbling. But the more I think about it, the more I get the impression that it's an act, a put-on."
She shrugged again. "He's too together. Precisely controlled, in a chaotic way, if that makes any sense. I think all his babbling, it's like the patter a magician does during his act, a kind of distraction and misdirection technique. Gets you focused on what he says and what he seems to be doing so you ignore something else."
"Like what?" Nene asked.
Linna shook her head. "It's almost certainly intended to confuse or mislead his opponents. Why did he aim it my way? I'm not sure. Probably to distract me from wondering who he is and where he's from. And who he's worked for. He's clearly experienced at fighting as part of a team -- he never put himself in anyone else's line of fire or motion. And he's a very good martial artist -- but terribly unorthodox."
At her station, Lisa eagerly attended to Linna's analysis. She hadn't given any thought to what Doug's abilities implied, but it appeared that Linna had. Perhaps some of her questions might be closer to answers now. All she had to do was clamp down on the impulse to blurt out some of what she knew...
"I can't quite identify the style he's using," Linna said. "It seems more like a blend of many different things than a single specific martial art. I think I spotted elements of Capoeira and Muy Thai, but he also used some classic Shao Lin Kung Fu and no small amount of unadorned street brawling. In some critical ways it resembles Jeet Kune Do, in that it appears to emphasize flexibility and unpredictability. It's pretty likely that he's studied all of those and more, and that what he's using is a synthesis -- effectively a personal style, custom tailored for his reflexes and his speed on foot."
Sylia nodded again. "Any ideas about what is responsible for that speed?"
"Enough amphetamines to choke a horse?" Linna offered, then laughed.
"Ano," Nene interjected. "I clocked him at almost 50 kph at one point. Nothing human should be able to run that fast and maintain it for as long as he did, under those conditions."
"So," Sylia mused, gazing into space, "we still have more questions than answers. A team player, acting alone. Apparently human, but clearly more than that. Abilities that any rational mind would discount as impossible. Mysterious radio signals and bizarre, elliptical conversations. And he is sought by GENOM."
"So, what do we do next?" Linna asked.
Sylia raised an eyebrow. "We continue to watch and learn. And, if he seems safe enough, we approach him."
Nene looked disgusted. "That just might be the only way we'll get answers to any of our questions."
* * *
Tuesday, October 28, 2036. 12:11 AM
It didn't take me too long to shake my ADP tail -- a trip through the messier parts of the Fault Zone at my bike's top speed quickly dissuaded the little chopper's pilot from following me. And laid a false trail for any other ADP pursuit later.
I got home shortly after midnight, changing into civvies in the garage and toting my leathers and helmet upstairs in a plastic shopping bag. No use compromising security any more than I had already when I ran out earlier in the evening. To prevent that kind of thing, I probably should have kept my duty uniform in the garage, but to tell the truth, the idea made me uncomfortable. I just didn't like the idea of it being 26 floors or more away if I happened to need it. Yeah, I know, I was a whole lot farther away from it when I was at work. That's different. Don't ask me how. It just is.
While I healed up the burns and other indignities inflicted upon my gentle, inoffensive self, I thought over the evening's festivities. My first encounter with the Knights was... interesting. At least this time I hadn't gotten creamed because I'd done something stupidly overconfident. This time it was plain old bad luck. I had to admire the ingenuity of the bot, though; damn good programming, that kind of creativity in combat. Almost human. I actually found myself nodding in approval.
Putting aside the helmet, I got up and made myself some tea while continuing to think. No casualties, all the boomers accounted for, property damage minimal, to the best of my knowledge. Good. No threats to my personal security, as far as I knew, despite my blunder. Good. Pattern of attacks suggested I could safely make an attempt at a gate out some time in the next few days. Good.
I'd drawn upon the node for a little extra strength in dealing with the bots, but it was necessary. Still, I had to make sure that I didn't get in the habit of using raw power as a substitute for skill and strategy; if I ended up tapping the node every time I used a song, I might forget how to make do with more a normal level of magic. My homeworld is a mana-poor Earth; last thing I needed when I got home was a dependency on high levels of mana...
Then, as I sipped my tea, I turned my mind to my last concern of the evening, which only revealed itself when I went to turn down my bed.
I tended to leave my door unlocked when I was at home. (Lisa was probably the only person who knew this. Until her work and my after hours activities set our schedules diverging, she'd been getting into a habit of knocking and entering without thinking about it.) But I locked my door when I went out; and I know for a fact that it was locked when I got back that night. I also know it's not particularly secure -- a low rent Federal housing project? Are you kidding? But marks indicative of any kind of break-in would have been very obvious to me. And there were none.
So where the hell did the complete set of "Looney Tunes" plushies on my bed come from?
* * *
GENOM Tower. Tuesday, October 28, 2036. 8:24 AM
Katherine Madigan touched the "pause" icon on her desktop after the third playback. While the previous night's boomer deployment had not been the success she had been hoping for, it mattered little. There were other ways of seeing to it that those warehouse blocks were condemned; GENOM would own the land one way or another by the quarter's end.
Katherine tapped one expensively-manicured fingernail against the mahogany desktop, listening idly to the sharply defined clicks as she considered what she had just watched. The arrival of the Knight Sabers on the scene, despite their reduced strength, was so routine as that it had been allowed for in planning. A thought occurred to her, and she spoke softly to the PIM in her desk system. "Note to self -- investigate absence of blue Knight Saber. Possible split or dissension in ranks? Dispatch agents to search the mercenary underground for disaffected ex-employees?" Not very likely, she decided privately. But worth some research, just in case.
She bristled momentarily, recalling Mr. Quincy's explicit instructions to her regarding the Sabers: no investigation of their identities, no overt attacks upon them, no traps, no ambushes. Although they were an impediment to GENOM's corporate destiny, he refused to remove them. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the perverse cat-and-mouse game his directives forced GENOM to play. If she were in charge...
But she wasn't. And she had more important things to attend to than daydreams of corporate command. At the moment.
Number one of these was the newly-increased value of the being whom (thanks to Ohara and his people) she had come to think of simply as "the Visitor", despite the "Loon" appellation the AD Police claimed he had given for himself. Initially, he was worth capturing simply for his extradimensional origins. But now, after what she had seen on the recovered data recorders -- his icelike armor and an almost-total defense against a 65C's laser cannon were technologies that she -- and GENOM, of course -- wanted. Immediately.
She allowed herself a small smile, and placed a telephone call.
"Ohara-san, GENOM has new... objectives for your project."
* * *
Ladys633 Building. Tuesday, October 28, 2036. 10:41 PM
Sylia sipped her tea and stared at the monitor. Impossible, but there it was.
She had easily confirmed what Nene had called a "lens" around the Loon. When you know what to look for, she thought with annoyed amusement, it's actually rather obvious. Whatever it was, it didn't affect the visible spectrum, or infrared or ultraviolet -- except for lasers, which perplexed her -- making the effect virtually invisible. But on all other spectra...
On radar, he had the silhouette of a sparrow, when he showed up at all; LADAR had somewhat more success in tagging him. Sonar was damped down to the point where he read more like a mist or cloud than a solid object. When any other kind of active scan even noticed him, it returned a fragmentary or incoherent result more like a signal attenuation than anything else. Passive scans were more productive; most of those returned usable data, although what that data implied...
Curious. Very curious, thought Sylia, pursing her lips.
And it wasn't just energy and scans. Lisa had noticed an anomaly on the playback and pointed it out to the Sabers, and afterwards, Sylia spent several hours enhancing the recordings to confirm and analyze the oddity. Eventually she had been forced to build a 3-dimensional computer model of the scene, drawing upon visual data from all three hardsuits' recorders, in order to confirm that what appeared to happen did indeed happen.
The boomers' strikes at Loon, as often as not, missed when they should have hit. The model clearly showed blows thrown by the machines seeming to swerve away from the man, as if deflected or pushed aside.
Sylia recalled Priss' first encounter with the Loon and the bizarre behavior of the railgun spikes, and steepled her fingers before her face in thought.
"And why the music?" she mused.
Then, reaching for the keyboard, she switched to a search engine on the Net and typed in "<Time, time, time, see what's become of me>" -- the only snatch of lyrics she remembered clearly from the battle.
A few minutes later she nodded to herself. "Interesting," she murmured. "'<Hazy shade bangles,>' indeed, Loon-san."
* * *
IDEC. Wednesday, October 29, 2036. 9:12 AM
"So, what's the word, Davis?" Daniel Ohara slumped wearily into the seat between Tony Nakamura and his number-one research assistant, Davis Kristoff. The pair made up an interesting set of similarities and dissimilarities. While both were heavy-set, Kristoff's two-meter frame towered over his much-shorter supervisor; seeing the pair side-by-side never failed to remind Ohara of the obelisk-and-globe monument somewhere in America that marked the site of a long-gone World's Fair.
Tony's sharp sense of style contrasted with the younger man's rumpled "classic hacker" look, and Davis sported a short blond beard where Tony was clean-shaven. But they wore their long hair in identical neatly-gathered ponytails, and they shared the same eager, inquisitive light in their eyes.
Davis looked at Tony, who nodded. "Well," he began, "We've been looking at the boomer datalogs that Madigan sent down to us, and we can tell you a few things."
Davis smirked. "First, we're going to need better sensors than these crap data recorders the combat boomers have been carrying. They may be good enough for tactical decisions and after-the-fact battle analyses, but there's nothing here that's suitable for a proper scientific investigation."
Tony nodded. "We really do need better remote sensors if we're going to find out anything from this guy. Right now we can confirm that he's not obviously augmented with boomeroid parts, that he's fast, and that he has a raft of powers out of every sentai show you've ever seen."
"At least he doesn't have a giant robot with a silly medieval weapon!" Davis pointed out, chuckling, and Ohara frowned.
"Don't laugh yet," Ohara said morosely. "He may pull one out of his back pocket next time." He scowled. "We haven't the money to buy better sensor equipment; we've got no slack in the budget whatsoever."
"Get GENOM to pay for it," Davis growled.
"That's not a bad idea," Tony mused. "If they want us to catch this guy so badly, they sure as hell should give us the equipment to do it with. And I don't mean remaindered boomers, either." A sly look bloomed on his face. "And who's to say that we can't take advantage of this to get our hands on some gear that'll be put to good use in the lab after we're done with this charade?"
For the first time in what seemed like hours, Ohara smiled. "I like that. After all, we have no idea what will and won't prove most useful in getting the results GENOM wants, so we'll need a wide variety of equipment. And given that GENOM wants results yesterday, only the best will do, of course." He chuckled, feeling his spirits lift for the first time since speaking with Madigan the day before. "I think it's time to make a call to our 'boss,'" he added, grinning.
* * *
Editor-in-Chief's Office, 16 Tokyo Day Times. Wednesday, October 29, 2036. 10:37 AM
"Sole photo credit, 'additional material by' byline on the main story, the 16 Times gets the copyright on the photos, and you get a 25,000 yen bonus," Kiyoshi offered, reaching for the manila folder cradled protectively in Lisa's arms.
Lisa frowned and stepped back, shaking her head at him. "Not good enough. Sole photo credit, my story with my byline, I retain copyright, I get reassignment to a crime beat, and you can skip the bonus." Lisa leaned forward to wave a photo of the green Knight Saber shattering the head of a boomer under the editor's nose; she snatched it away when he made desperate grabbing motions at it.
"Okay, okay, sole photo credit, co-writer credit on a joint article, you keep the copyright, and I reassign you. That's my final offer," Kiyoshi countered.
Lisa paused a moment and took on a contemplative look, dragging one corner of the photo back and forth across her lower lip as she gazed thoughtfully at a water stain on the ceiling of Kiyoshi's office. "Hmmm." She flicked her eyes back at the editor, and gave him her most kawaii smile. "Make it the lead credit on the byline and use my story as the base for the final article, and you have a deal, sir!"
"Done!" Kiyoshi pounded on the desk, causing Lisa to flinch. Even after an hour of exhaustive negotiation -- which at one point had her threatening to take her photos to another online newspaper -- Kiyoshi had far more energy than Lisa liked. The man practically lived on the sludgelike coffee brewed by the interns, after all. She was afraid he would leap across his desk to pump her hand, Western-style, to seal the deal.
Fortunately, he instead turned to his terminal and began typing. "To show you my good faith, Lisa-chan," she resisted a wince once again at his familiarity, "I'm sending the memos about your reassignment right now. You'll be on the city beat before you walk out of this office."
Lisa restrained the urge to squeal and jump for joy, and instead bowed solemnly to the distracted editor. "Arigato, Kiyoshi-san."
"There!" He punched the "enter" key fiercely, then spun around to face her. "Done. Now, I presume, any future scoops you may have will not require us to go through all this unpleasantness?"
She smiled. "We'll see, sir. Depends on how good a scoop it is."
Kiyoshi laughed loudly. "Very good, Lisa-chan, very good! Fair enough. Now, get out of here and go see Toboki-san."
Lisa furrowed her brow in confusion. "Chiasa?"
He nodded. "Yes. She'll be your co-writer on the story. It's good work, Lisa-chan, but you have a tendency towards purple prose and melodrama which Chiasa will help you purge from your system. Now, go, get to work!"
Outside his office, Lisa allowed herself a moment of despair. Toboki Chiasa was one of the best writers in the office, but she also was notoriously cantankerous and highly territorial. Lisa would learn a lot working with her, but the process was guaranteed not to be pleasant.
But so what? I'm off the damned lifestyles stories! she cheered inwardly. That's worth paying any price! Even suffering from the sting of Toboki's tongue! She hugged the manila folder to her chest. My first top page story! My scoop! My exclusive! And I did it without even hinting that Doug was part of the fight, either.
She reflected on that as she began to wend her way through the labyrinth of desks that made up the city room. Photos of a new, unknown boomer fighter at the sides of the Knight Sabers would have guaranteed her everything she'd wanted, but the very idea of doing that felt like a betrayal. If Doug had wanted to be known, he certainly would have gone public before now. It's only right that I help him keep his secrets. Another concern struck her. I wonder if I should tell him that I know about him...
With that thought barely complete, she found herself standing at the desk of Toboki Chiasa. "Toboki-san?" she ventured cautiously, "Kiyoshi-san sent me over to work with you..."
* * *
Editor-in-Chief's Office, 16 Tokyo Day Times. Thursday, October 30, 2036. 8:55 AM
"Would you care to explain this to me, Lisa?" For the first time, Kiyoshi's hyperactivity didn't seem clownish or cloddish to Lisa. This morning, all that energy seemed to be channeled into barely-controlled anger. He slammed a pair of pageprints down on the desk in front of her.
One was the top page of the previous day's 16 Times, with her story and photos. Despite the threatening atmosphere in the office a smile of delighted satisfaction flickered across her face when her eye fell upon it. The other was the top page from the same edition of the Tokaido News P.O.N., but when she saw the headline, she felt a cold pang in her chest and her knees suddenly went weak. Oh, no. Oh, no...
"KNIGHT SABERS SAVE WAREHOUSE DISTRICT," the main head read, but it was the subhead which sent her soul spiraling into fear and despair: "MYSTERY 'ICE MAN' JOINS ARMORED MERCENARIES." With trembling hands she picked up the print and scanned it. Its detailed story was liberally illustrated with very clear, high-resolution photographs of Doug and the Sabers.
"Perhaps you'd like to explain to me why you neglected to include a mysterious new vigilante in your otherwise complete and meticulously detailed story, Lisa-chan?" Kiyoshi's face was turning red as his voice began rising in volume. "Could you explain why none of the photographs you gave us show this 'Iceman'? Can you possibly provide me with any good reason why you knowingly submitted a story that was incomplete? A story that was, in fact, slanted and censored by you?" He was shouting now, and she was sure that beyond the glass walls of his office the city room staff were all watching her public disgrace.
A mix of humiliation and anger at that humiliation welled up in her, making her head buzz even as she fought to suppress her tears. Her chest felt tight, and the desire to do violence, to break something, raged through her, warring with the need to cry. How dare he! He has no idea!
"This new vigilante, who may even be a new Knight Saber, is the number one story in the news all over Japan today, Lisa-chan. And every netstation, newspage, and newspaper in the Home Islands is going to Tokaido P.O.N. -- not to us -- for the details. We lost a great deal of prestige and credibility today, Lisa. It would have been better for the 16 Times to have published nothing rather than what we did put out! We would have been just another paper who didn't have a reporter on the spot. Instead we printed what, compared to the real story, was nothing more than a fluff piece!"
Kiyoshi realized that he had been shouting and snapped his mouth shut. Then he glared past Lisa at whoever was behind her, watching. He glanced once left and once right, a thunderous expression on his face, then returned his attention to her. When Lisa saw the look in his eyes at that moment, she wanted to crawl away and die.
"I'm very disappointed in you, Lisa," he said, more softly but no less angrily. "I had very high expectations for you." He turned and gazed out the window of his office, his back to her. "You probably don't know it, Lisa, but I worked with your father once. He was... a journalist's journalist. There was a fire burning in him, a fire I thought I saw in you. That was why I hired you, you know. That, and the praise Professor Andou had for you when I called her."
The invocation of both her father and her favorite instructor from college was a double blow that almost shattered her control. Unwanted angry tears welled up in Lisa's eyes, and she only barely prevented them from spilling down her cheeks. Kiyoshi continued, heedless.
"I'm afraid I was wrong about you, Lisa. You're not ready yet. Not while you're letting your own private agenda dictate how you report the news." She tried to speak, but he held up one hand. "No, I don't care what your reasons were, or how good they are." He turned back from the window and lowered himself slowly into his chair, seemingly drained of the energy that characterized him for her. "You may go," he said, dropping his attention to the bluelines on the desktop before him.
"Sir?" she quavered. "Am I fired, sir?"
"No," Kiyoshi replied without looking up. "That would be a waste of your talents." He flipped through several pages before continuing. "There will be a home and garden show at the GENOM Convention Center this weekend. It opens tomorrow morning. I want 30 paragraphs and at least three photos suitable for a section front page eyecatch."
Lisa stood there, trembling, unable to form any kind of response. Eventually, the editor grew curious and looked up at her. A soft "Go back to your desk, Vanette-san," was all he said.
Mustering as much of her tattered dignity as she could, she turned and strode out of his office.
To her credit, Lisa made it to the ladies' room before the sobs broke free.
* * *
AD Police HQ. Thursday, October 30, 2036. 4:25 PM
Leon sighed and closed the TV window on his monitor. It had finally happened. "Loon" had made the news.
Chief Todo hadn't been happy about that, but then again, he was rarely happy about anything, Leon mused. He chuckled quietly. At least the Sabers seemed as much at a loss as the ADP when it came to the so-called boomeroid. Thank god for small favors.
He idly tapped the data disk he held on the edge of his desk. Things were starting to spiral out of control. It didn't take much to start, but after all his years in the ADP, Leon knew the signs. And when it did, there would be an orgy of finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and buck-passing.
And if worse came to worse, evidence would be destroyed so that the department could "prove" it had never known a thing, and thus could not be held responsible for any perceived failures. He'd seen it happen before. And the one such time he'd tried to keep an offline copy of his work at home, his apartment had been conveniently -- and professionally -- burgled. Of course, that had happened during the tenure of the last Chief -- the self-serving bureaucrat who had replaced Todo, and who had been ousted after the Illegal Army debacle. Now that Todo was back in charge...
Leon held the unlabeled diskette up to his eye and squinted, sighting idly through the spindle hole. He leaned back and slowly rotated his seat, surveying a narrow slice of the squad room through the tiny opening. He needed an undisputedly secure hiding place. And just in case more than the usual happened, he needed to make sure the data was in the hands of someone who could make the best use of it.
The bitch of it was, Leon knew exactly what he could do with the data to meet those requirements. He just wasn't sure that he should do it. He continued to spin slowly, musing on the question that had occupied his mind on and off for several hours now.
A familiar shock of red hair came into view through the spindle hole, and he made his decision.
"Oh, hi, Leon," Nene said a few moments later as the inspector stopped at her desk. She had just gotten back with an enormous stack of files and was mostly occupied in paging through them, occasionally stopping to compare a tidbit on her monitor screen with one under a fingertip.
"Hey, Nene. Got a favor to ask you." Leon sat down on the corner of the desk, close enough to the stack of brightly-colored folders that Nene slid them protectively away from him.
"A favor?" she repeated distractedly.
"Yup." He deepened his voice to a pompous bass. "I hold in my hand the complete files we've compiled on the boomeroid called 'Loon.'" Nene's head snapped up, and Leon nodded at her, smiling. "Right. My work, Daley's, Fuko's, yours, everyone's. Up to and including the FireBee video logs from the other night."
"Okaaaaay," Nene drawled, although her eyes glittered with exactly the kind of interest he'd hoped he'd see there. "And what's this got to do with me?"
"I need you to hold on to it for me for a few days. Put it someplace secure, just in case there's a 'system accident' on the ADP computers."
"But..." she began, and Leon lifted a finger and shook his head.
"Listen. I trust your skills and contacts to make sure nothing happens to this data, and that it doesn't get in the wrong hands." The extra emphasis on "wrong" might be overdoing it, Leon thought, but Nene didn't seem to have noticed.
"So, what's in it for me?" she asked with a sly smile.
Leon shook his head and rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. "What, a frequent binger discount card isn't enough? I do and do for you kids, and this is the thanks I get!"
Nene burst into giggles, which she stifled by biting her knuckle before anyone else in the area noticed. As it was, Naoko glanced up and shot her an envious look. Nene responded by playfully sticking out her tongue at her co-worker before realizing that Leon was watching her with eyebrows raised and an amused smirk on his face. She grinned sheepishly and shrugged, and he laughed out loud.
"Sure," she said, holding out her hand. "I'll take care of it for you. I know just the place to keep it safe."
And with any luck that'll be the Knight Sabers' computer system, he thought as he passed the disk over. I know you, Nene; you won't pass up this chance. "Thanks, Nene. I'll let you know if and when I need it back, okay?"
"Uh-huh," she replied, turning the disk over and over in her hands and staring at it almost hungrily.
* * *
GENOM Convention Center. Friday, October 31, 2036. 11:07 AM
Holding her camera to one side with one hand, Lisa scooped up cold water from the spigot with the other and splashed it into her eyes. If I can't keep from crying every fifteen minutes, I won't be able to complete this damned assignment.
All morning her mood had oscillated wildly between anger and despair. Three times already she had had to dash into a restroom to wash away the tears that welled up in her eyes at the thought of her disgrace in the newsroom, once during an informal interview with the chairman of the show's steering committee. Fortunately, he had waited patiently for her to return and continue, but he'd looked at her strangely for the rest of the interview. The last thing I need now is strangers pitying me, she thought angrily, and suddenly her eyes were wet and brimming again, her sight blurred. She drew in a long, rasping whine of a breath, then steeled herself.
The water still fountained from the spigot, and she scooped up another handful and flung it into her face. The shock of the cold water this time did what it had failed to before -- stop her tears.
As she stood there bent over the basin, face dripping, wet hand gripping the edge of the marble countertop, dry hand cradled protectively around her camera, she made her decision. I will get back what is mine. I will do something more with my career than endless fluff pieces. I'll show Kiyoshi. I'll show him.
* * *
Moteru Roku, Kagoshima. Saturday, November 1, 2036. 7:43 PM
"Relax, Priss," Nene's image on the telephone encouraged.
"Relax, hell! Have you seen these papers?" Priss snatched up a crumpled newsfax from where it lay on the hotel room's table and waved it in front of the phone's video pickup. A four word headline blazed, "BLUE SABER? NEW SABER!" in 5-centimeter characters.
Nene giggled. "Yeah! Pretty funny, huh?"
"Funny my ass!" Priss ranted. "They're saying this 'Iceman' is my replacement!"
On the screen, the redhead frowned. "Wanna shout it louder, Priss? I'm sure the guy in the room at the end of the building didn't hear you that time."
Priss growled, sparking another surge of giggles from Nene. "Listen to this, Nene," she spat when she managed to collect herself. She shook the paper out and read from it. "Despite an entrance that suggests that he may be an independent vigilante, the 'Iceman' is thought by most knowledgable Knight Saber watchers to be the successor to the Blue Saber, who hasn't been seen in many weeks and is believed to have left the team. 'The Iceman is significant on several fronts,' says Tokaido News P.O.N. technology columnist and self-professed Knight Saber otaku Albrecht Yamaguchi. 'He breaks new ground with his combat style, his disposable ice armor and the very fact that he's the first male Knight Saber. He is clearly more of a team player than the Blue Saber, as well. Could the Blue Saber have been fired?'" As she read, Priss's voice crept back out of her forced calm and upwards into tones of outrage and anger.
"Oh, come on, Priss, chill out!" Nene urged, although a flicker of worry crossed her face, unseen by Priss. "It's just some stupid reporter's opinion! We know you didn't get fired, and we have nothing to do with the Loon. And you know it, too. Why get so worked up over it?"
"Just one month, Nene, one more month!" Priss jabbed a rigid forefinger at the pickup, almost hitting the screen. "Then I'll be back in MegaTokyo and I'll show this Loon character what it means to muscle in on my rep!"
"Mou... I thought you liked him, from the way you talked about that motorcycle race the two of you had."
Priss grimaced. "Well, yeah, it was fun, and he was cool about everything and all. But that doesn't give him the right to go waltzing in taking over for me!"
Nene rolled her eyes. "He's not taking over for you, Priss! He usually operates on his own, and he just stepped in to help us out in a tight spot." A far-off look drifted onto her face. "You should have seen him, Priss. It was like being in an old sentai program, the way he leaped and moved. And he was enjoying himself, like stopping the boomers was the most fun he'd had in... in... ever!"
"Shit!" Priss spat. "You sound like you're getting a crush on this guy, Nene."
The redhead's eyes snapped open to their widest extent. "What? No! It's just that, well, it kinda reminds me of, like, when we first started. It was all so fun..."
"For you, maybe," Priss muttered.
"...and exciting," Nene continued, unhearing. "It was a great big adventure, being the mysterious good guys, taking on the forces of Eee-vil. But now..."
"It's just another job?"
On the phone's tiny screen, Nene shook her head. "No, not really. It's still fun and all. But, after Mason and Sylvie and Largo and Largo again, I don't know... It's like I lost something."
"Go on," Priss murmured, a sudden, familiar pang stilling her anger.
"I mean, I didn't even notice at first." Nene's voice had grown quiet and solemn. "I mean, I still acted the same way, still related to people the same way. But I realized that... that the world is different to me. It's been different, maybe since the day we... the day Sylvie died."
Priss nodded. "The world's not the bright shiny place you thought it was, it's dirty and rotten and the worst part of it is that part of you that used to be clean is dirty and rotten, too." Her voice was soft, and far away, and full of regret.
"Yeah," Nene whispered. "Yeah." Her gaze drifted down, off-screen, as she spoke. "And it was what I lost that made the difference. I didn't know I'd even had ... whatever it was ... until it was gone."
"I mean, I'm still me. I laugh, and smile, and do my thing. I'm just not as.. carefree as I used to be. I'm not taking quite the same joy in it, do you know what I mean? I still get a thrill from the danger and the challenge, but I've lost that ... delight ... in doing what we do because it's right."
Priss looked thoughtful. "And he's still got that... joy?"
Nene nodded. "And I envy him, Priss, I really do. Say what you will about me acting like a kid, but I've lost my... um..."
"Your innocence," Priss supplied softly.
A sorrowful look came across Nene's features. "Yeah. My innocence. And I want to know how he can do what does and still keep his."
* * *
IDEC. Monday, November 3, 2036. 9:09 AM
As the internal courier scurried off, Daniel Ohara and Illya Vaysberg stared at the collection of large crates that had been left in their care.
"Me and my big mouth," Daniel muttered.
Illya clapped a hand to his superior's shoulder. "So more boomers she gives us. But the expense account also we get! This is good, no?"
Ohara twisted his head around to look at the larger man. "Oh, the expense account is good. Even if she did warn me that I'm going to have to document every paper clip and stamp we buy. That's not a problem." He gestured at the largest of the plasteel packing cases in front of them. "This is the problem." He clenched his fist and drew it back as if to pound it on the side of the case, then relaxed as he changed his mind. "A superboomer! A goddamned superboomer!"
Illya ran a hand across the smooth surface of the case, and raised an eyebrow at his boss. "So?"
"So, she's expecting us to use it. She said as much. 'GENOM wants results now,'" he said in a falsetto mockery of Madigan's voice. "'You will use the resources we send you. We will worry about the publicity the Visitor has generated.'" He sighed. "It was bad enough trying to rein in those two 55Cs she gave us, and they still all but broke free. Avram's going to have a fit trying to put constraints on this mother. And if it breaks free..." He shook his head. "Every time I think this can't get worse, it does."
Illya laughed, surprising Daniel. "So these 'opportunities' we must make the best of, no? And what happens, happens." He shrugged elaborately. "It is a dangerous job, true, but as my cousin Bradford from Murmansk says, 'When it is the fan you are holding, you must expect sometimes to be hit with the shit.'"
In spite of himself, Daniel laughed. "Your cousin sounds like a wise man."
"That he is, friend Daniel," Illya said, suddenly solemn. "The first to warn he would be, as well, that the shit may be more to handle than we want." He laid a hand on the crate holding the superboomer. "This a great deal of resources represents. Perhaps too much. Why to us give such an expensive and dangerous device?"
Daniel frowned. "Because Madigan's willing to go to any lengths to capture the Visitor?"
Illya returned the frown. "Maybe so. But if so, why so great a killing machine as this does she give us, my friend? Perhaps the Visitor is not its only target?"
"What do you mean?"
Illya ran his hand up and down the plasteel surface of the crate. "You should forgive me, my friend, but we Russians -- we have of backstabbing and betrayal by our allies a long history. We have not as a people survived by ignoring the possibility of the poison needle hidden in every hand of friendship. And Madigan no friend is." He traced his fingers along the stenciled model and serial numbers. "You may call me paranoid, friend Daniel, but what if Madigan seeks us to eliminate after her tasks we accomplish? This her perfect tool would be."
"Are you suggesting that it might be booby-trapped?" Daniel resisted the urge to step back from the crate as his expression darkened.
Illya shrugged again. "In a way. Imagine this: Not long after its lost boomeroid GENOM recaptures, goes rogue a superboomer does within the Tower itself. Great tragedy, no? So many die before destroyed is the boomer -- many GENOM employees, including us. 'About damned time boomer destroys GENOM property,' people say, and on their way go. Boomer is untraceable scrap, and we forgotten are while IDEC goes on with GENOM-picked management." Illya looked back over his shoulder at Daniel and raised an eyebrow. "Is how I would the play make were I Madigan."
Ohara scowled. "Have I ever told you that you have a dark and depressing imagination, Illya?"
The large blond man laughed heartily, the sound echoing oddly in the storeroom. "I am Russian, friend Daniel! What do you expect?"
Daniel smiled ever so slightly in acknowledgment, then took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I suppose we'll need Avram to look for overrides, trojans and logic bombs in the superboomer's programming, then, as well as laying in our priority commands," he said.
Illya nodded in agreement. "Is work of at least three-four weeks, if done right we want it."
"Madigan won't like that," Daniel reflected.
"Fuck Madigan and horse on which in she rode," Illya declared, then grinned. "Hot damn! That I have wanted to say ever since about the Red Chinese Bradford say it last year!"
Daniel chuckled, and replaced his glasses. "Right. Fuck her. She wants the job done right, then it gets done on our terms." Then he grew serious again. "Still, we'd best plan some countermeasures for her inevitable retaliation."
"Then go plan shall we, my friend?" Illya waved expansively at the door.
"That we shall," Daniel said. "That we shall."
END OF CHAPTER FIVE
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(Version 1.1, 25 September 2001)
(Version 1.2, 22 October 2003)
This work of fiction is copyright © 2000, 2012 Robert M. Schroeck.
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