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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

 

 

6: Aw, Poor Putty-Tat! He Faw Down And Go *BOOM*!

To see itself through, music must have an idea or magic. The best has both. Music with neither dies young, though sometimes rich. -- Ned Rorem

I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole. -- Malcolm X

 

ADP Headquarters. Monday, November 3, 2036. 11:49 AM

"Um, hi, everyone?"

Lisa was a little surprised when her quiet greeting cut through the squabbling like a knife. The argument surrounding Leon's desk stumbled to a halt as its participants looked up at the unexpected visitor.

"Lisa!" Nene flung herself to her friend's side. "Are you okay? You weren't at... you weren't answering my calls all weekend, and after what happened at your job, I was afraid you'd committed seppuku or something!"

Lisa gave Nene a tight smile that broadcast confidence and determination. "I'm okay, Nene-chan. I just had to cover the flower show at the convention center all weekend long."

"What happened at your job?" Fuko asked, sincere concern written across her face.

Lisa shrugged haphazardly. "I got promoted out of lifestyle stuff and into the real meat. Then I bungled a story and got busted back down to flower shows."

"You don't seem all that brokenhearted about it," Daley observed.

"Oh, I am, believe me," she replied. "I just decided to stop crying and start working to get it back."

"Good for you!" Fuko said.

"Yeah!" Nene concurred as the rest of the group around the desk murmured their assent.

Lisa smiled with genuine warmth. "Thanks, guys. So," she looked around at the small group, "what's got you all worked up?"

"This," Leon spoke for the first time, and the team stepped away from the desk as he spun his monitor around. Displayed in a maximized window was a document headed by a prominent GENOM logo.

"What is it?" Lisa asked as she leaned down to peer at it.

"A GENOM press release concerning our friend 'Loon' -- that's the 'Iceman' to you and the general public, Lisa," Leon added, not noticing her already nodding in recognition.

"...radical new design...," she murmured, skimming the document, "anti-rogue boomer based on a modified 33S chassis... intended to supplement the AD Police... unique proprietary technologies, patents pending... accidentally released... no threat to the public... recall system malfunctioning..." She looked up and around at Leon and the team. "And what's all your opinions on this?"

A cacophony of voices showered her as everyone began speaking at once.

"Seems reasonable..."

"...combat sexaroid? Oh, come on..."

"...tougher than a human..."

"...does display what might be new technologies..."

"There's the force field..."

"I don't buy it. Loon himself denied..."

"...you take a rogue boomer's word on..."

"...you take GENOM's word on..."

"...doesn't act like..."

"Sexaroids aren't like other..."

"Bullshit, that's..."

"...DD battlemover..."

"...combat sexaroid???..."

"...he's a chicken, I tell you, a giant chicken!"

There was a sudden silence.

"What?" demanded Daley.

"I, um..." mumbled Lieutenant Vong.

"Yes?"

"I heard it on an old Americanime show?"

Fuko whapped him one.

As the meeting around the desk degenerated into another argument, Lisa turned to Nene, who still stood beside her. "What do you think?"

Nene gazed thoughtfully into the distance and said, "I think that if you threw GENOM into a room with the truth, you'd risk a matter-antimatter explosion."

When Lisa stopped laughing, she saw that the door to the chief's office was finally open. "Nene-chan, I've got to go now, I'm doing lunch with Uncle Todo. See you after work?"

The young ADP officer nodded vigorously. "Sure! Go enjoy lunch." A sly grin sneaked onto her face. "Greek again?"

Lisa smiled sheepishly. "What can I say? I like it. And, as it turns out, so does Uncle."

Nene snickered.

A few moments later, Lisa knocked tentatively on the open door of the chief's office.

"Oh, Lisa-chan, hello!" The portly black man was already up and pulling on his rumpled suit jacket, the brown tweedy material more than adequately hiding the shoulder holster he had begun wearing after Yoshida's takeover of the ADP building several years before. "I'm ready to go." He smiled at his niece, an expression rarely seen on his face in the office. "Which Greek restaurant is it this time?"

Lisa idly twirled her beret around her forefinger. "Well, I thought we could do the Mykonos Gri..."

The phone on her uncle's desk rang shrilly, interrupting her. Todo glanced at the array of lights and lines and froze for a moment. "I'm sorry, Lisa," he said, recovering and reaching for the receiver, "I need to take this call first. Could you wait outside? It's a confidential matter."

"Sure," she said, puzzled, but complied with her uncle's request. Stepping outside, she closed the door to the office tightly. A vague suspicion insinuated itself into her thoughts, and she positioned herself in front of one of the office's plate glass windows. As innocently as she could manage, Lisa angled herself so that she could see her uncle without looking like she was watching him.

Whoever it was on the other end of that call, he made her uncle nervous. All the bluster and fire that normally defined the man seemed to have vanished, and his body language... As a gaijin who had enthusiastically adopted Japanese culture when he'd married her late aunt, Beauregard Todo was punctilious about proper etiquette, enough so to satisfy even Lisa's mother. (Except when it came to the officers under his command, she amended wryly.) But he was never obsequious, even to the highest officials; some of his American attitude still bled through the acquired manners of his adopted land.

However, the caller, whoever he may have been, drove her uncle into depths of subservience she had never seen in him before. Every sentence he spoke was punctuated by an abbreviated bow. A fine sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead, adding a glistening highlight to his dark skin.

It didn't take her reporter's instincts to realize that whoever was on the other end of that call held a lot of power over her uncle. That whomever it was frightened him.

I wonder if Nene can get the phone logs for me, Lisa thought, a frown flickering on her face. I'd dearly love to know what's going on here.

* * *

Monday, November 3, 2036. 5:53 PM

Red hair topped a misbalanced pagoda of dishes, themselves surmounting a Chibi Maruko-Chan T-shirt and denim shorts with a Dear Daniel patch covering the left rear pocket. Bare feet padded from the kitchenette to her favorite spot in the apartment. Once there, an expanse of leg reached out to snag one caster of a well-padded chair and roll it back from the desktop.

Precariously balancing her dinner in one hand, Nene twitched the mouse with the other. "Finally!" she breathed as the screen flickered to life and revealed an "analysis complete" dialog box. "Any positive results?"

With her free hand she carefully shoved aside the litter of papers and computer parts that covered the desktop to clear a small area between the two custom one-hand keyboards that were her primary interface to her system -- the boxy keypad to the left and the smoothly rounded semicircular one to the right. As her dinner jittered and threatened to topple, she rescued first the salad, then the soup, then the dinner plate, and finally the tall glass of cola from the wobbling stack. Sliding into the chair and rolling it back to the edge of the desk, Nene reached again for the mouse and began scrolling through the automated cracker's report.

"Nuts," she murmured. "Failure, failure, failure. What is this damn thing?" Frowning, she pushed her rarely-worn glasses back up from where they had slid down to the tip of her nose. After almost a week of effort, she was tempted to admit defeat -- the mystery signal from their run-in with Loon was either encrypted with an algorithm of hitherto unheard-of strength, or an elaborate deception built out of pure random numbers.

She couldn't accept the latter possibility. It ran against both her instincts and her common sense. As she continued to scroll, pausing to read the more promising failure reports, she once again went over the reasons why it had to be real in an effort to keep her spirits up. The last thing she wanted to do was admit failure or deception to Sylia. I'll only accept 100% success, she told herself firmly.

But the truth was, she was almost out of options and tools. The results she now read came from the last and most powerful cracking program she had, the one she'd used to break the new AD Police encryption. And so far, every approach it had tried had come up blank, too. "Nuts," she repeated, louder this time, and jammed a tempura shrimp into her mouth before scrolling further.

She finished her dinner and the results log at almost the same time, paging listlessly through the file in the hopes of finding something -- anything -- that had showed promise. Upon reaching the last entry, she started.

Huh. I left the rosetta for the new ADP cryptosystem in here. Of course, it won't... She stared at the screen, frozen momentarily in mid-thought. What the heck? She pushed the dinner plate away, took a long swig of her cola, and read the report.

She reread it twice to make sure she understood the implications.

"Whoa." She pushed back from the table.

The encryption schemes used by the mystery signal and the new ADP radios were almost identical. They were close enough that the cracking program had been able to brute-force the difference. But where the two had differed, the mystery signal had been a tougher, more robust algorithm.

There was something profoundly disturbing about this, Nene felt. Her hacker's instincts were all on edge. Acknowledging them, she opened the files that held the decrypted packets and began to study them.

Half an hour and a liter of cola later, she was certain of two things: It was a networking protocol of some sort. And she'd never seen it before. She opened a browser and linked to her favorite programmers' metasite.

After searching references and archives all over the Net for eight hours, she uncovered the protocol. Or its distant ancestor, at least -- an abandoned standard for radio telecomm. Like the closest relative of the ADP encryption scheme, it was a fifty-year-old product of the United Nations' private, internal computer network, discarded decades ago.

Now that was too much of a coincidence to wave off. Was someone in the ADP using a variant on this antique protocol, perhaps gambling on a "security through obscurity" strategy? If so, whoever it was had to be good enough to hide from her in the ADP network, and all egotism aside, she didn't think that was likely. Over the last five years, she had installed or activated back doors in every ADP system both public and secret -- including a couple "black" projects that didn't even officially appear on the ADP budget. There was nowhere someone could hide a secret network where she couldn't at least see evidence of it.

Not to mention that there hadn't been any ADP presence at the fight. The boomers had operated on standard frequencies using familiar protocols, despite their improved hopping algorithms. That left...

She nodded to herself. The only real possibility, after all.

Loon.

And Loon had the UN symbol on his helmet.

"Three times is enemy action," she quoted to herself mentally. Three instances of the United Nations so close to each other can't be a coincidence. But why would the UN provide the algorithm for the new ADP cryptosystem? And how could Loon have had anything to do with it? It was contracted years before he showed up. And why would he have anything to do with it?

Putting these thoughts aside for future consideration (and possible presentation to Sylia), she took the old protocol and, using it as a guide, began dissecting the data. If the protocol were indeed the correct one, the packets were extremely complicated login signals. Tracing their record structure, she discovered yet another oddity: the origin system seemed quite confused about the current date -- its clock was almost 35 years behind, if she'd identified the date/time sync fields right. The transmitting computer seemed to think that it was July of 2001. Weird, she thought, shaking her head.

A thought occurred to her. You know, I have all the protocol specs. I should be able to spoof this thing if we run into it again. I just have to write a dumb little server program to respond to its login request and feed it dummy data. A grin spread across her face. And then I can poke around and see what it is that's sending this oddball signal to begin with.

A mouseclick later, and she had begun to write the program. She never noticed the hour -- until her alarm clock went off.

* * *

16 Tokyo Day Times. Thursday, November 6, 2036. 1:05 PM

Lisa smiled grimly as she typed away. If they were going to keep her on "human interest" stories, by the gods she'd work in her own topics among the assignments. She paused and sat back to read what she'd written. Not too bad, she nodded. That sentence is clumsy, let's fix it. And there's a misspelling. Take care of that.

She brought the window holding her notes forward and consulted them again. This article on fans of the Knight Sabers was going to be one of her best pieces yet, she was sure. And it served multiple purposes, too. Not only was it a "lifestyles" story that verged on the kind of hard-news coverage she wanted back in on, it also was the most obvious salvo in the publicity war she and Sylia had planned so many weeks ago. But not the first -- that had been all the little freelance writing and editing jobs she'd done for the various online archives and encyclopedias, gotten thanks to Nene and Sylia's contacts -- jobs that invariably included evening out the coverage of the Sabers therein.

Now came the first newspaper article in the campaign, approaching the topic obliquely -- emphasizing not the Sabers, but their otaku. She hated putting the standard "look at the weird people, folks" spin on the article, but it was one of the things that she had to do to get past the subtle hand of GENOM censorship. With luck, the opinions expressed by the fans would carry more weight than the implied editorial ridicule.

She'd certainly enjoyed the research. That Yamaguchi guy at Tokaido P.O.N., for all that he worked for a rival newspaper, had been more than happy to cooperate. He had hooked her up with a huge network of Sabers otaku, some of whom had surprised her. She'd've never expected Fuko MacNamara from the ADP to have been a closet Knight Sabers fan, let alone the premiere Sabers fan artist in Japan. But her pseudonymous website displayed dozens of depictions of the Sabers, in startlingly lifelike poses and detail. Even more were for sale -- Fuko turned a tidy profit on her Sabers drawings.

Lisa had visited Fuko's apartment a few days earlier, and the two of them spent hours poring over several large portfolios full of artwork. "I generally like pastels or pencils," Fuko had said as they paged through her work. "But I've tried every medium at one time or another." She'd gestured at a painting hung in the corner of her apartment that served as a studio. It depicted the four Sabers in stereotyped sentai poses looming over the smaller figure of a man, who stood covering his eyes in embarrassment. Lisa had found herself giggling wildly when she realized that the man was Leon McNichol. Fuko shared a smile with her. "Like that -- that was my first work in acrylics."

"Wow. Not bad. But Leon?"

"I saw him in that exact pose right after one of the times that the Sabers beat us to the punch. He just stood there watching them, shook his head, and covered his eyes." Fuko laughed.

"You want to know what my best selling pieces are?" Fuko then asked, a conspiratorial glint in her eye. "You can't tell your uncle or anyone else at ADP. I'd never live it down."

"Of course," Lisa had answered. And then Fuko had pulled out her portfolio of hentai Knight Sabers art. They had reminded her of that 20th Century artist Sorayama, and his "sexy robots:" gleaming fusions of skin and metal and ceramic, hardsuits blending imperceptibly into lush flesh to form visions of techno-eroticism that embarrassed and excited her at the same time. The more extreme images were laden with implicit and explicit lesbian themes, and ranged from autoeroticism all the way up to full-blown orgies.

Lisa hadn't even begun to form the questions that she wanted to ask when Fuko had smiled and shrugged. "I've got a sick mind. What can I say? Something about those hardsuits gets me hot." She laughed.

"What about your fiance?" Lisa had managed to stammer out.

Fuko's smile had grown even larger. "They get him hot, too."

Lisa couldn't even come up with a reply to that, and didn't try. She did buy several prints, though, including one emphatically explicit representation of the Pink Saber pleasuring herself. Just the thing to tease Nene with, she'd thought at the time, but now Lisa was having some trouble imagining even admitting to owning the print.

Then she shook herself and returned to work. No daydreaming! she told herself sternly, and continued to craft her first work of overt propaganda.

* * *

"The Original Ray's New York Pizza," Tinsel City. Monday, November 24, 2036. 8:05 PM

From his seat in the back of the pizzeria, Leon looked up and watched the rain outside. It splattered fiercely against the neon-lit windows, and lights from the other businesses on the street shimmered in the puddles and rivulets it formed on the street and the parked cars. A burst of storm-born white noise mixed with the din of traffic would wash over the restaurant every time a customer entered or exited, along with a cold blast of wind and the scent of moist asphalt. He was grateful for the cold air; it would shock him and bring him back to his senses just often enough.

Glancing back down at the folder in his hands, Leon reflected that it had been a wise choice to wait until he was out of the office to start going over it. Even Daley might have accused him of sneaking in some light science fiction reading had he perused it in the squad room. He flipped back to the first of the many xeroxed pages that were clipped into the black plastic file, and shook his head as he reread that innocuous -- if obscure -- title: "Riding the Wave Function: Discovery and Profit Via Quantum Interpenetration". The author, Daniel Ohara, Ph.D. this, Ph.D. that, Ph.D. some other damned thing; a veritable alphabet soup followed his name. And the date: May 13, 2026.

Back when I was still working with Jeena, he thought irrelevantly.

In front of him was a paper plate upon which lay the crusts of two slices of allegedly "New York-style" pizza; he picked up one crust and began to gnaw on it as he flipped through the pages at random. He had had to call in some favors to get his hands on this third-generation photocopy, but it was worth it. What he held was nothing less than the venture capital proposal that had prompted GENOM to bankroll IDEC. And it explained exactly what Ohara had thought he could do with the money and his specialty.

Which was, Leon threw the crust back down and shook his head unbelievingly, to punch holes into other universes and take what they could find there.

The proposal had made it clear that according to Ohara's best case scenarios, all that could be brought back was information. Actually transferring physical objects from one universe to another was theoretically possible, but Ohara had claimed it would be prohibitively expensive; Leon paged through the photocopy until he found a passage which estimated the power requirements for moving a 1-kilo mass at roughly a week's output from the MegaTokyo municipal fusion plant. But Ohara had been confident that they could create small "interpenetrations" that could surreptitiously siphon copies of data streams from other civilizations -- once certain technological obstacles were overcome, of course -- with power costs several orders of magnitude lower than that.

Leon couldn't help but be amazed. God, what chutzpah! To suggest finding a universe like "Star Trek" or "Nadesico" and stealing its technological secrets! Even more amazing to him was the fact that GENOM thought it was worth pursuing. He couldn't follow any of the math in the document, but apparently it was quite convincing.

Knowing what he now knew, Leon was beginning to see a coherent picture form from all the seemingly nonsensical details that had accumulated since the end of June. Why Ohara was sent after the Loon. Why GENOM wanted the Loon and kept obfuscating his origins. And just possibly, who or what the Loon was.

Leon was beginning to understand the possible answers to his questions... but he wasn't sure yet if he wanted to believe them. Or even if he could. Either way, he needed to get this information into the archive that Nene -- and the Sabers -- were keeping for him. Maybe they could make more sense and better use of its implications.

He forced himself to close the folder and think of other things, before his brain exploded from the ideas that were shouldering their way into his mind. There were other things to think about -- like Priss finally coming home next week.

* * *

Wednesday, November 26, 2036. 7:41 PM

Well, so much for my analysis of the cycle of boomer "events." At three weeks and counting, I decided that it had all been a series of coincidences, and that I had simply had a run of good luck in guessing how often rogue boomers went out on the town. So I gave up on being nervous about when the next outbreak of boomer violence would happen. If I were lucky, it wouldn't happen at all.

If I were lucky.

In the mean time, I slouched comfortably through the lifestyle that I had evolved since the summer. I'd been keeping busy with my motorcycle, mainly. With a little cash and a lot of elbow grease I restored the chrome to a like-new condition, and finally gave it a proper paint job -- gloss black with classic flamework along the gas tank(s). I'd also hacked together a crude autopilot and installed it in the bike along with a radio relay so I could remotely command it. Nothing fancy, just "start up", "come here", "park yourself," that kind of thing.

Oh, and "change color."

A happy shipping accident at Ganbare in early November netted me four liters of electrochromic "paint". This stuff was a lacquer-like material that was normally transparent but could turn just about any other single color with the application of the right voltage. Related to both liquid crystal and "digital ink" technologies, it got a lot of use in animated billboards and other displays. Ganbare's tiny consumer products division used the stuff to make high-end stereo components which would automatically color-coordinate themselves with your apartment's decor. It was hideously expensive, hard to make, and not readily available to buyers outside of industrial markets.

A few cans of the stuff got shipped to our division by mistake.

As soon as I realized what it was and what it could do, I snagged a can and hacked the invoices and shipping records to indicate we'd received one less than had actually arrived. I smuggled it home, stashed it in my workshop, and chuckled evilly. I had just solved the last of my identity/security problems.

By this time I of course had legally registered and licensed my motorcycle, which made the use for which I'd built it somewhat hazardous to my freedom. Up to that point I had been using the old dodge of muddying the plates on a regular basis so that they couldn't be easily read. Even so, a search as broad as "model = Mitsubishi AND year < 2025 AND color = black" followed by some old-fashioned footwork would have eventually found me.

So I turned the bike into a chameleon.

I laid down an overcoat of the electrochromic stuff on every painted surface of the bike and right over the license plates. Then I wired it all up with a voltage regulator to both the autopilot and a simple (but hidden) toggle switch. While the current flowed, the paint shifted from its default clear to a neutral grey that coordinated nicely with my uniform -- and blanked out my license plates to boot. A rather cool effect, if I say so myself.

I was active outside the workshop, too, don't worry. A gate attempt about once every week or so eliminated three more songs from the running. I managed to pry Lisa out of her work for several nights of clubbing, which resulted in another half dozen or so primo candidates for semi-permanent storage. And related to that, I finally got around to sorting through all the microtapes I'd accumulated over the past few months and dumping those candidates to my helmet.

I was working on that very task one night when Lisa did her knock-and-enter thing. "Forgive me for disturbing the harmony of the house," she called out in her usual formal manner as she came in. Given the matching (and of course fashionable) wool skirt and jacket she wore, it looked like she had just come home from work. She had a newspaper under one arm, too.

Fortunately, I didn't have my helmet out at that moment; I was simply sorting through the microcassettes and deciding which held keepers and which didn't. "Hey there," I said as I carefully gathered the tapes and set them aside.

She removed her shoes -- yup, just come from work. She usually took them off in her place and came over in stocking feet. "Don't you ever lock your door?"

"Only when I'm out," I replied. "I can take care of anyone who might try to break in while I'm here." Not an entirely unlikely prospect, given the general economic stratum of the neighborhood.

"I'll bet you can. What's that?" she asked as she plopped herself into the chair on the other side of the dinette from me.

"Part of my music collection." I grinned evilly. "Bootlegs from the clubs you've taken me to."

"Ooooh," she said playfully, "I'm gonna tell my friend Priss, and she'll beat you up!"

"Uh-huh, sure," I snorted. "So, what brings you by tonight, Leese?"

"Oh, right. I wanted to show off my latest article!" Lisa whipped out the newsfax and unfolded it with a grand flourish. "Here!"

It was, I noted with some discomfort, yet another article about the Knight Sabers and myself. Since I'd participated in that fight, the papers had been full of them. I'd expected -- hell, hoped -- that they would fade away after a week or less. But with GENOM's recent bullshit press release claiming I was some kind of over-enthusiastic boomer-hunting bot, the media coverage revved back up and hadn't stopped.

I was a little disappointed that Lisa was a part of it all.

I gave the newsheet a quick once-over. A too-clear photo of me from the end of October -- in full "Iceman" mode and surrounded by the three Knights -- anchored the article, surmounted by a rather uninspiring headline. The story itself took up about half the tabloid-sized page. I looked over the top of the sheet at Lisa. She wore this innocent, expectant look that I found a little hard to believe, and not for the first time I wondered just how good an actress she was.

To cover my sudden case of nerves, I harrumphed a bit, then said, "You and the Knight Sabers again. What is this, your new specialty?"

"New specialty?" She wrinkled her nose in an over-cutesy, kittenish puzzlement, then shook her head. "No, I've been following the Sabers since I was in high school. That's not new for me. But this is." She reached over the top of the paper tapped the photo.

"Huh? What is?" I tried to figure out how much of my face was really visible in the photo behind the helmet and goggles. Like I've said before, I've never really kept a secret identity at home, and thoughts like that were relatively foreign to me.

"Him. The Loon."

I carefully suppressed my impulse to snap my head up and lock eyes with her. "I thought he was called 'The Iceman'."

"I have a friend in the AD Police, remember?" I let myself look up at Lisa as she tossed her head. "She says he calls himself 'Loon'."

"Does he?"

"Uh-huh. And my article is about all the different theories people have about who he is and where he comes from. GENOM said he's a prototype boomer, but then, GENOM said he was a boomeroid, too, only a few months ago. Some people think he's a new Knight Saber. Some people think he's an alien from another planet." She snorted.

The back of my neck was tingling. Not quite my danger sense. Not quite. "What do you think?"

She shrugged, not looking at me. "I think he's from another world. Some kind of other world, at least."

It doesn't mean anything, I told myself, even though my heart had started pounding double-time. I was pretty sure I was lying.

"You know," she continued, catching my eyes with hers and holding them, "if I knew the Loon, I'd like to think he could confide in me, you know? Someone he could share secrets with? But even if he felt he couldn't, it wouldn't bother me. I mean, there might be a really good reason not to tell things to someone like me, you know? But if I knew someone like him and he needed his privacy, whether or not he shared with me I'd certainly respect that." Her eyes released mine, and she stood there in an elaborately casual pose, watching me.

Oh. Shit. I got that cold stab of panic you get in your chest when everything goes to hell all at once. She knows. Obviously not all, but enough. How the hell did she find out? Then I worked through what she said, and I considered what I'd learned of her in the past four and a half months.

I pursed my lips and looked thoughtful. "I'm sure that if you knew someone like him, he'd be very grateful for the, um, personal space and privacy. He might not be ready right away to talk about anything too, um, idiosyncratic, not yet. But I think that when he were ready, you'd be just the kind of person he'd entrust with his secrets."

That megawatt smile of hers lit up the room. "I'm glad you think that," she said happily. "I'm glad." She turned to leave. As she picked up her shoes by the door, she paused and looked back. "If I knew the Loon, I'd also tell him to be careful. Not because I didn't believe he could take care of himself, but because I'd like to think he'd be the kind of friend I'd care a lot about, and worry about. You know?"

"Yeah," I replied. "Yeah, I know. I'm sure he'd appreciate it."

She smiled again. "I'm glad." She gave a quick little wave. "Ja!" And the door clicked behind her. I stared at it for several minutes, motionless.

Then I started banging my head against the tabletop.

* * *

ADP Headquarters. Tuesday, December 2, 2036. 2:11 PM

A sweaty Leon all but staggered into the squad room.

Ramirez looked up from his desk. "You nail it, Inspector?"

Without looking, the inspector flung the head of a mannequin boomer onto Ramirez' desk. The other officer toppled his chair as he started backward in surprise. Then Ramirez glanced down at the 100-yen-piece-sized hole in the middle of the blank mechanical face, and a broad grin spread out underneath his heavy mustache.

"Nailed it," Leon replied, his voice inflectionless with exhaustion. Slowly he made his way to his desk and dropped heavily into the chair there. With a shove he spun the monitor around so he didn't have to see his waiting messages. Taking a deep breath, he muttered to himself, "I'm getting too old for this shit."

His phone rang. Sighing, Leon groped blindly for the monitor and turned it back to face him before stabbing the "accept" button with his fingertip. "McNichol," he grunted without actually looking at the opening receive window.

"Well, you're looking good, loverboy," a familiar female voice. "Been chasing the interns again?"

Leon snapped his head up to see a familar near-smile on the monitor. "Priss!"

"Hello to you, too, Leon." Her tone was dry, but the smile remained.

He exhaled heavily. "Sorry, just had a rough day. This giggling maniac of a mannequin boomer led me and a squad all over town before we took it down. I just got back into HQ this minute."

"Poor baby. Would a nice dinner help relax you?"

"Would it! I..." He stopped short. "You're back in town early?"

She nodded. "Got back to my trailer mebbe an hour ago." She paused for an almost imperceptible beat. "About that dinner?"

He peered suspiciously at the image on his screen. "Not that I'm complaining, but you're awfully forward all of a sudden. What's going on?"

Priss looked almost offended. "Nothing! I was just thinking we could get together for dinner on my first night back from tour." She glowered at him. "Not that it means we're involved or anything, you know."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. You tell me every time we do something together." Priss rolled her eyes, and Leon relented. "Okay, where and when?"

"Arturo's, tonight, at eight. My treat."

Leon whistled. "You're really feeling generous, aren't you? What brought this on?"

Priss actually grinned. "The tour. We're so flush from the new soundrom sales, I figured I could splurge a little."

"Already? Congratulations! I want to hear all about it over dinner."

"Oh, you will, loverboy, you will. See you then."

"Right. Bye, Priss."

"'Bye." Her image flickered out, followed by the window which had framed it.

Leon leaned back, a broad, giddy smile on his face and his exhaustion forgotten. Today is a good day, he thought.

* * *

Tinsel City. Saturday, December 6, 2036. 8:41 PM

By my personal clock and calendar, I was four months away from Christmas. But I didn't let that stop me from celebrating along with the rest of MegaTokyo when the local date rolled around to December.

I like starting Christmas early -- like right after Thanksgiving. (What can I say? I'm just a big kid at heart.) I was a little late this time. I only got around to buying my tree on the first weekend of the month, although I'd bought all my decorations already. I'd've invited Lisa to join me in the sacred tradition, but she was off visiting her mother (a task that, judging from her expression, she did not look forward to, but felt obligated to perform). So I had to go tree shopping alone.

You'd be surprised how many lots filled with Christmas trees you can find in MegaTokyo in December. Back home, I'd've had to go to Tokyo's "Gaijin Ghetto" to find any hints of Christmas -- Japanese Christians being more or less undercover to avoid trouble with the more fanatical of their Nationalist neighbors. Here, I could find them almost as frequently as I might in London or even New York.

Anyway, I was wrestling this nearly two-meter Douglas fir into my apartment when my ADP scanner went off. As I leaned the tree up against the wall and pulled the brand-new stand from its factory packaging, I listened to the alert carefully. It'd been five, almost six, weeks since the last bot incident that needed my attention -- the ADP could and did easily handle the occasional "mannequin" and construction boomers that popped up, and I didn't even count the mannequins when I tried to map out the cycle of boomer events. So I was not expecting to be needed, really.

Of course, when you get complacent...

As soon as I heard the count of boomers I'd flung open my wardrobe and grabbed my duty uniform. Rogue mannequins and builderbots were almost always solo. Only warbots showed up in packs, damn them. Then I heard the word "superboomer" and combat-hyped just to finish changing. I'd read about those mothers. The ADP dispatcher reporting "officers down" just encouraged me to go a little faster.

I was already suited up and opening the door when Dispatch announced that there were civilians trapped in the combat zone. I slammed the door shut and ran full speed for the stairwell.

Bounding my way down to the basement, I formulated and discarded battle plans, starting from priority one: rescue the civilians. By the time I flung the garage door open, I'd come up with one that would get the civs out of danger and maybe give me a chance against the rest. If the reduced roster of Knight Sabers showed up, it would be lots easier, but I wasn't going to count on that.

If I was going to save the non-combatants, I was going to have to get there fast. Cycle turbine whining, garage door shut behind me, and safety straps secured around me, I said, "System. Load song 'I Can't Drive 55'. Play song."

I combat-hyped again, and I was off.

* * *

"Damned skyscrapers," Doc Raven muttered angrily from his seat at the controls of the Knightwing. He did not relish his position as acting pilot while Mackie was still in Germany. "Damned reporters! There's no room to put you down on the street close enough to the action."

"We'll take a roof and jump down, then," Sylia replied calmly.

"They'll see you coming," the old man warned.

"Like they haven't already noticed the Knightwing?" Priss muttered.

"We have no other choice." Sylia glanced at the others, who returned her gaze with confident looks of their own.

"All right," Raven grumbled. "It's your heads. Coming up on the Glory Bank building. Prepare to deploy on my mark... coming to hover... opening bay doors... Mark!"

A moment later, Sylia's voice crackled "Sabers away!" on the encrypted link as the four armored figures landed lightly on the roof below. Raven gunned the turbofans and the Knightwing shot up into the dark sky like a frightened bird.

Sylia said nothing as she made a quick survey of the scene. Not good. The street was a disaster area. The larger buildings would survive the damage, but some of the smaller ones were already ruins. At least a dozen civilians were trapped in a half-destroyed coffee shop. There were three newsvans parked where she could see them, and twice as many camera crews were deployed in the street below, dangerously close to both the ADP forces and the rampaging boomers. And the boomers... Sylia frowned. Eight 65Cs, and dear gods, a superboomer. Even at this distance, the superboomer had already detected the Sabers and was directing the attention of the others their way.

Even as she took all this in, another part of her mind was scanning the nearby buildings and mapping out their route down to the street. "This way," she said, and the four leaped down to the next lower roof.

"Sylia, I'm getting that signal again!" Nene cried as they landed, then leapt again. "Spoof program's accepting, replying..."

The four bounded down from rooftop to rooftop.

"Bingo!" she yelled triumphantly. "Connect, acknowledge, and I'm in! Looks like I have complete access, too! Am I good or what?" She was silent for a moment as they landed on the last rooftop, then, "Hey, here're a couple of audio feeds..." There was a snap and a hiss as she fed an additional channel into their link. The sound of quiet, regular breathing, followed by a click, and a familiar male voice, in English: "<System. Combat mode on. I'm a pioneer. Play.>" And then, music -- a short piano and synthesizer intro, a dozen or so notes long, followed by a thin, ethereal voice, singing in English.

"<Did you know I am a pioneer?
I'm out on a secret mission,
I travel the galaxy and far beyond...>"

"Wha...?" grunted Priss, as Linna said, "Hey!"

"More music," mused Sylia. "Interesting..."

Then the thunder began. Crack after chest-pounding crack of thunder, a second or two apart at the most, coming from no visible source in the street below. The few remaining intact windows overlooking the combat zone shattered with the first blast; a rain of glass shards showered the camera crews below as they ran for cover. All of the cyberdroids save the superboomer were bowled over by its intensity, and the civilians...

Sylia was stunned to see that with every other peal of thunder, there were fewer civilians caught in the rubble of the coffee shop. Almost as an afterthought, Sylia noted that the music from their mysterious helper had gone into a pounding orchestral overdrive, its beat almost coinciding with the thunder.

"Sylia," Nene's voice was quavering with what might have been shock and disbelief, "I have a sporadic LADAR trace on something moving -- this can't be -- moving back and forth at at least Mach 6 between that coffee shop and..." She scanned the skyline, then pointed. "There!"

Sighting on the building top Nene indicated, Sylia raised the magnification on her visor to full. By twos and threes, with every other blast of sound, the civilians were appearing on top of the office building. They seemed dazed and stunned, but otherwise unharmed. Unharmed? By something that grabbed them and moved them at six times the speed of sound? They should be bloody smears!

"Sylia!" Linna shouted as the last peal of thunder faded into echoes. Sylia snapped her attention back to the boomers, to find them facing --

Facing the Loon, dressed in his trademark motorcycle leathers and helmet, a scant ten meters in front of the cyberdroids. He was floating two meters off the ground. Quietly, the song on the audio feed continued.

"<Can't you see that I am a pioneer,
Unlocking the greatest myst'ries?
My key is a fearless heart
So pure and strong.
People laugh when you are a pioneer,
Not walking the straight and narrow.
They tell you the way things are,
They swear you're wrong.>"

Loon studied the superboomer, and seemed to regard it balefully for a moment. His breath was still quiet and even. A muttered "<You and me, warbot. You and me,>" crackled through Nene's illicit audio link.

"<You can't be a hero
Hiding underneath your bed,
Got to live the life
You create inside your head...>"

Then he was in motion. From a dead stop to human meteor in a blink of an eye, Loon hurtled at the superboomer. Hands outstretched, he tore off a set of eye-sensor spars as he shot by. He looped up into a barrel roll to dive down on the confused cyberdroid as it and the other boomers tried to target him, but he dodged and wove in a complex spiral path that avoided their fire and brought him back to within arm's reach of his target. His right arm blurred, and with the crack of a small sonic boom one of the cyberdroid's weapons pods shattered.

He did an impossible right-angle turn and shot straight up as the superboomer activated its own flight systems. It jetted after him, only to find itself far outclassed in raw speed. Far above, Loon soared higher and faster, then spun on a dime to plunge straight back down.

"<So I opened the window
Caught the wind one night.
Now I sail with the birds
In their flight...>"

Loon howled past the superboomer and slapped its outstretched arm, snapping the hand off at the wrist and sending the cyberdroid into a wild spin as the human's flight path leveled out. It roared its outrage as it tried to regain flight control, its jets screaming in protest. Yellow fluid sprayed wildly about the street as the broken hand clattered to the ground.

In the distance, more windows shattered as Loon reversed his flight path with an inertia-confounding 180-degree spin and returned to the site of the battle heralded by another thunderclap. With him came a hurricane gust of wind that sent the newsvans rocking wildly on their suspensions and forced the ADP to hold on tightly to their vehicles as the camera crews stumbled for cover.

Sylia shook herself out of utter amazement and barked, "Nene! Full record on him! I want everything! Everyone else, let's go! There's still more boomers, and we're wasting time gawking!" Without looking at the others, she launched herself into one last jet-assisted leap that took her down into the middle of the remaining boomers. With the civilians out of danger and the AD Police falling back, their options were at their maximum, and she intended to make the best use of them.

As she landed, she deployed her blades and attacked. A quick swipe wounded one of the boomers, but she missed a second as it activated its own flight systems and took to the air.

Behind her, she heard a tell-tale metallic "ping-thunk". "Getting sloppy without me, Sylia?" Priss grunted as the white Saber turned to see a third boomer pitch forward onto its face, its metallic skull neatly skewered by one of the blue Saber's railgun spikes. On the other side of the street, Linna was neatly dismembering another with her monoribbons. So much for the improved model, Sylia allowed herself to think smugly. Then a sudden glint of light from overhead caught her eye, and without thinking she threw herself to the left. The superboomer's pectoral laser array vaporized a wide swath of the road where she had been standing.

As the acrid odor of molten asphalt worked its way through to her nostrils, a muttered "<Out of my way, tinkertoy!>" came over the audio link. There was another crack of thunder overhead, and the array beam was wrenched away. Sylia risked a look up. The Loon had grabbed the superboomer's leg, and was dragging it up into the sky above the city at an astounding rate of speed. As it struggled to break free of his hold, the cyberdroid launched a wild hail of point-blank laserfire at Loon that Sylia was not surprised to see miss widely.

A moment later, Loon and the boomer vanished into the night sky.

Meanwhile, a rain of broken boomer parts and more yellow fluid showered down around them; the one 65C that had joined the superboomer in the air had apparently been destroyed -- quite thoroughly so. Then another boomer charged her, and she was engaged again.

Softly, below the noise of combat, the song continued, relentlessly optimistic and upbeat. It was beginning to get on Sylia's nerves.

"<Some may say we're safer here.
Never mind them, be a pioneer!>"

* * *

Gotta hand it to that fan club of mine back home. They do find me the damnedest songs. That one, for instance, was the English translation of the theme to some Japanese TV show, and I liked it. Not only did it give me multi-Mach flight, but complete spaceworthiness and hyperflight as well. (Of course, FTL speed is pretty useless when it lasts only 3 or 4 minutes... But I digress.) Of course, there were certain minor side-effects to going Mach 1 or better down a city street, but I think a little broken glass isn't too much to pay to stop rogue warbots, don't you? And I wasn't going fast enough to cause actual structural damage to the buildings.

I think.

Anyway. The primary threat was the superboomer. In addition to its own respectable arsenal, it was almost certainly acting as a field commander for the lesser bots. I had no doubts the Knights could handle what was left of the rest of those with ease. So I decided to take care of the big fucker. Between my field and my polykev I figured I stood a pretty good chance of shrugging off most of what it could throw at me, so I grabbed it by one leg and starting taking it up.

At first it tried to struggle and break free, loosing most of its weaponry on me and at the same time burning jets to try to counteract my pull. As I'd hoped, most of its attacks bounced, and what was left didn't get through my armor; and between the thrust both of us were putting out and the fact that I was cloaked by the song's variable-inertia effect, the superboomer ended up exhausting whatever it used for jet fuel. It tried to kick me, and even contorted itself to swipe at me with its remaining hand. The kick missed, but I took a nasty blow to the hip that got through both my field and the polykev, and hurt like hell.

So I let go of its leg.

By that time we were nearly at the edge of the atmosphere. Below me, MegaTokyo was a webwork of golden lights punctuated by a set of concentric rings around a central glow that had to be the GENOM Cone. The whole thing wrapped around the vast, glimmering darkness that was Tokyo Bay. The wildly-flailing superboomer overlaid on the almost abstract image of the city made such a lovely composition. I spent a second or two hovering there, admiring both the city and the sense of palpable panic that the bot managed to project as it plummeted away from me.

Forgot you ran out of fuel for your jets, eh, bunky?

Even falling, it still tried to blast me with assorted weaponry. Too bad that dropping from 150 kilometers up in almost non-existent atmosphere when it has no flight capability really fucks up a warbot's aim, especially when it's shooting at a mutant with an improbability field.

I counted to ten.

Then I said, "Going down!" and took off after it.

After giving up on hitting me, the superboomer rolled face-down and spread its limbs sky-diver style. I came up from behind/above, matched speeds with it, planted my hands in the small of its back, and let out the throttle again.

I accelerated to my full atmospheric speed, nearly breaking the boomer in half. (I had actually expected it to snap under the stress, after the way its hand had come off earlier, but the torso structure was apparently far more resilient. I guess that with boomers, as with humans, hands are delicate things.) As an envelope of ionized air formed around me, the boomer started to glow from air friction -- first a faint cherry-blossom pink, then a red like the core of a burning charcoal briquette. It stopped struggling around the time its limbs began to melt and trail little droplets of molten boomer behind us.

As we fell, I kept nudging our course to make sure we stayed over the bay. Five or six kilometers above the water, I let go of the boomer's remains. Almost immediately, air friction slowed the glowing mass down to just over 200 kph -- terminal velocity. Angling down to one side, I put on a a modest burst of speed to outrace it; twelve full seconds before it hit the surface of the bay, I reached the water first.

* * *

Nene swore mild curse words under her breath. She'd managed to trigger some kind of burst transmission from what looked like the remote system's diagnostics programs, but a few seconds after the Loon dragged the superboomer off into the sky, the signal attenuated and vanished. As she reluctantly turned all her attention to the less-than-challenging job of jamming the remaining 65Cs, she looked upward.

Wow. A meteor. A bright one, too, if I can see it through the light pollution... It looks almost like it's coming straight... down...

Ping. A familiar signal requested connection. Ping. The spoof program responded. Ping.

Oh, no.

"Sylia!"

* * *

There are times when I envy Hexe's ability to go non-corp when she flies at multi-Mach speeds; an intangible spirit-form comes in very handy when you need to go very fast but don't want to cause incalculable property damage.

This was not one of those times.

Racing around the edge of the bay, I sketched a ring around the boomer's impact point at almost my full atmospheric flight speed. I was skimming the surface of the choppy water, the wall of air that I pushed in front me plowing physically through the freezing waves. At the speed I was traveling, the trough I made had no time to collapse in upon itself before I looped back and flew the circle anew.

Behind me, a shockwave ballooned in both the air and the water. One side of it, the outside, weakened as it expanded. It eventually washed over and rattled the shore, certainly breaking a few more windows and damaging weaker buildings. No help for that now...

On the inside, though, the other half of the shockwave rushed inwards, stronger than the first by virtue of being focused and channeled into an ever-tightening circle, and because I kept zooming around it, digging an ever deeper "ditch" in the water with the pressure wave I drove ahead of me.

It reached the center of that circle at about the same time that the superboomer-cum-meteor did.

* * *

The thunderclap was heard over the entire city. It rattled windows as far inland as the USSD National Headquarters building.

The pillar of steam exploded upwards for hundreds of meters before striking a thick layer of cold air and spreading out to turn the clear winter night into an overcast one.

A solid sheet of water erupted around the pillar, cloaking the steam for a moment in a translucent grey-green cylinder, before roaring back down upon the bay like a phantom waterfall.

A hot rain of mud and worse substances showered down upon the remains of Aqua City and on the industrial districts surrounding the bay.

But the expected mini-tsunami never struck the shore.

* * *

On top of the RCA-Sanyo ("A GENOM Company") building in Tinsel City, Tony Nakamura lowered his binoculars and shivered despite his winter coat. "So..." he rasped, then swallowed to moisten his dry, uncooperative throat and tried again. "S-So much for Illya's worries about that superboomer." Still shaking, he turned to his companion. "D-Did you get all that?"

"Everything up to the point where the Visitor exceeded approximately four kilometers' altitude, Nakamura-san," said the technician quietly from where she sat behind a mound of portable instrumentation. "We weren't expecting," she paused to gulp, "um, any kind of flight capability, so we lost our lock on him a couple of seconds after he, um, flew away with the superboomer." She paused. "We got it back right after the impact. The Visitor's returning to the site of the combat, now, at a rather leisurely velocity. Compared to what he was just doing, that is."

"Did we get any useable data?"

The tech took a deep breath. "Well, sir, the Visitor seems... resistant to scans. But the new grav-field sensors indicate that he had and still has a zero mass. That would mean no inertia, which would explain his maneuvering ability and acceleration."

Tony nodded absently as he considered the scientific implications of a man-portable inertialess flight system with no visible exhaust and capable of instant Mach speeds -- at the very least. "Keep recording." He shook his head. It was enough to make him believe in UFOs.

* * *

I wish I could take credit for that maneuver, but it wasn't mine. Back in 1987, long before he had to leave the team on medical disability, Shockwave had used a similar trick to contain the concussion wave from an FAE that one of Arcanum's catspaws had set off near Jerusalem. The circular trough, though, was my addition to the stunt -- a way to damp down or maybe even cancel out entirely the monster wave that would have raced out across the harbor from the point of impact. Since I had the moves, I stole Shockwave's trick and hoped I could make it work with my modifications. Fortunately for MegaTokyo's harbor district, I could.

Anyway, I had managed to outrace the mud shower, and both the condensation and the bay water had long since evaporated off of me. With the last 30 seconds or so of the song left I looped back up and over to the street where the Sabers were mopping up the remaining boomers. I would have gone straight home had I not driven the cycle there. I couldn't very well have had the bike drive itself home; that would have been a little obvious...

I did a quick survey of the scene from a couple stories up. Although the ADP forces were still staying back out of the combat zone, they looked a little antsy. The Knights were making short work of the remaining boomers, even without their funky wearable robots. That didn't mean the scene was safe; it was still a live-fire zone.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a nearly-dead bot that had been playing possum and lining up a "final strike" shot on the Pink Knight with its mouth cannon. I dropped down and scooped her up, grabbing the Knight Saber under the arms and yanking her into the air just in time. "Heads up, Pink," I said as she flailed about and shrieked loud enough to hear through her helm. Below us, the laser lanced through where she had been standing, splashing on and searing the wall beyond. Pink suddenly went limp in my arms. "Our lesson for today, boys and girls," I lectured in mid-air, "is always watch your six."

Hovering, I spun in place with her to eyeball the boomer. White had quickly come up and decapitated it, so I lowered my passenger back to the street near her late would-be attacker. The timer in my HUD was emphatically flashing red as the song entered its last ten seconds.

"You... flew... lifted... how?" Pink stammered, the voder on her suit turning her confusion into a staccato buzz.

"Happy thoughts and pixie dust." I grinned and threw her a mock salute as I set my feet back on the ground. Then I nodded to the White Knight. "Lady White."

"Loon-san," she replied as the others drew near.

"Good evening, Lady Olive," I said, bowing. "I'm sorry that we did not get to dance again tonight."

I was delighted when Olive actually managed a graceful curtsey in her armor. "Another time, Loon-san."

"What do you mean, dance?" growled the fourth.

I reached out, grabbed the manipulator on the end of her right arm before she could yank it back, and began pumping it vigorously. "Lady Blue, a pleasure to meet you again on better terms. I'm glad to see you were only on a sabbatical instead of having quit the team, as the newspapers had suggested. I trust you enjoyed your vacation?"

"Huh? When did we meet?" she demanded.

"At a club called Hot Legs, some months ago? I thought you were the owner of the boomer that I had taken down, and you probably thought I was a boomer myself."

"So that was you with the baseball bat?"

"None other."

"Nice work."

"Thanks."

"How did you do that thing with the railgun spikes?" Pink asked.

I shrugged. "Strange things just happen around me."

"That's putting it mildly," Olive muttered. I grinned at her, then looked past her.

"Huh. Looks the ADP's finally gotten their courage up," I said, and it was true -- they had come out from behind their improvised barricades and were now heading our way, the redoubtable Inspector Wong at their head along with some other fellow wearing a leather jacket and ain't-I-cool shades. The news crews were following close behind. "I'm not in the mood to deal with them right now, so I think I'll be going." I looked around at all four of the Knights. "Nice working with you all again."

White inclined her head slightly as I stepped back and away from them. "<System. "Magic Carpet Ride". Play,>" I said to the computer. Steppenwolf tore into the song, and the small oriental rug came into being under my feet.

"Hey, you!" the bruiser in the shades shouted, and began to run. "Don't move!"

"<'No can do, Mrs. C.,'>" I called out to the ADP goons through the helmet's PA. "Gotta fly, ladies. Some other time..." At my mental command, the rug rose from the ground, lifting me into the air. "Oh, and Pink Lady?" I called down. "Say hi to Jeff for me."

"Huh?" she riposted. I chuckled to myself. I didn't think she'd get the reference.

With a jaunty wave, I and my flying carpet took off into the night. As I sped away, I noticed the Knights were making themselves scarce as well, leaping up onto buildings with jet assists that had been cleverly hidden in their armor. I accelerated towards the Canyons as a little misdirection before I dropped to street level again, and doubled back to where I had stashed my bike.

It was only then that I noticed the message in the HUD from the helmet's network telecomm system.

* * *

Saturday, December 6, 2036. 9:45 PM

Back in the familiar briefing room, the Knight Sabers ran their usual post-mission analysis. Still stinging from Sylia's rebuke over a month ago, Lisa had come straight here after the initial alert. But based on the news coverage and the Sabers' pre-meeting chatter, she wished she had disobeyed Sylia again. As the Sabers' leader continued to critique both tactics and performance, Lisa surreptitiously opened a small window to a news site and followed the coverage of the "meteor" which had struck the bay.

It wasn't until they had come almost to the end of the analysis that Lisa returned her attention to the debriefing, when Sylia asked, "Nene, any preliminary results from your scans of the Loon?"

Nene, whose eyes had begun to glaze over, perked up then shook her head. "Nothing that makes sense. Physically there's nothing different from any other scan we've done of him. And that's the problem! He was flying -- at Mach 6! -- with no heat, no exhaust, no energy signatures, nothing! And no inertia! If I hadn't seen it -- if he hadn't picked me up -- I wouldn't've believed it." She shook her head despairingly. "It defies all physical laws. It's impossible. But it happened."

Unperturbed, Sylia nodded, then asked, "And what did you get from the Loon's system? I am correct in presuming it was his?"

Relieved by the change to a less inexplicable topic, Nene brightened and nodded. "Yup, it's his, all right. When he... when he flew away with the superboomer, the signal disappeared. It came back when he did."

She pulled a data disk from a pocket. Holding it up, she continued. "I triggered some kind of automatic diagnostic and report routine. I think. It sent what looks like a huge system report, plain text, in a burst-mode transmission. Fortunately, it used a standard compression algorithm, so I could open it right up. I've only browsed it, but it doesn't look too cryptic. It's in English, though, and some of it doesn't make much sense."

Sylia nodded again. "Go on."

Nene got up and stepped to Lisa's duty station at the computers to take a seat next to the blonde in one of the rolling chairs there. She dropped the disk into the drive slot on the terminal in front of her and called up a window holding what looked like a technical readout. Lisa rose from her seat to stand looking over her friend's shoulder.

"It looks superficially like a pretty standard report -- at first," Nene said, her back to the others. "There's a system summary at the top -- but that's actually where it starts getting strange. The OS is apparently called 'Loonix 3.1' -- no doubt it's his, huh? -- and it's copyrighted 1995, by, get this, 'L. Toons/Warriors International'."

She looked up at Sylia. "Sounds like the name of a mercenary outfit. Ever hear of them?"

Sylia frowned and shook her head. "I can't say that I have, but that doesn't mean anything. I will make some inquiries later."

Nene turned back to the monitor. "Okay. Next are the hardware specs. And frankly, before tonight I wouldn't have believed them. But if he can fly under his own power, who's to say what his computer is like?" She shrugged. "If these numbers are accurate, it's at least the equivalent of a mainframe, if not more. Depends on how much overhead 'Loonix 3.1' imposes. Any way you look at it, though, it's powerful. And it's obviously portable -- I have no idea where he's carrying it, which means it's gotta be tiny."

She scrolled through the listing. "Listen to what it handles, too. It's got radio telecomm for multiple voice and data channels, multimedia capacity, voice recognition, tactical displays that get projected somehow, maybe on the goggles he wears, and a good-sized text database that seems to be all about the United Nations circa 1998, but Sylia, here's where it gets really weird. Ninety percent of this computer is a jukebox!"

Sylia raised an eyebrow, as Linna and Priss both made noises of surprise. "Explain."

Nene displayed a flowchart. "There is one big data warehouse connected to the system, and it's all audio files, encoded in old-style MP4. Each file is tagged in a database that indexes the songs by title, artist, composer, lyricist, subject, themes and by every word of the lyrics. There's a status report for a retrieval mechanism that can be controlled either by voice or by some kind of keyed commands, that will either play a given song or throw its lyrics up on the tactical display." She sighed. "Sylia, part of this report is a complete list of over three thousand songs stored and indexed in that system. Add that to everything else this says is available online to him, and I have no idea where or how he could be carrying that much storage, even with the latest memory solids!"

"And why would a jukebox have a 'combat mode'?" Sylia mused aloud, remembering what they'd overheard. "This is quite bizarre, to say the least."

"There's something else odd, too." Priss had joined Lisa in leaning over Nene, staring at the display as a listing of the data warehouse scrolled by. "These songs he's got -- they're all old. I don't see anything recorded more recently than about 35 years ago here. Our boy Loon's got a taste for golden oldies."

"Curious." Sylia found herself growing increasingly intrigued by the mystery. "Again, the late 1990s. Nene, didn't you say the clock on that system is set to a date some 35 years ago?"

"Yeah! It was, um, 2001." The redhead glanced at her. "Why? Do you think it means something?"

Careful consideration showed in Sylia's eyes. "Perhaps. I'm not certain yet, but it seems unlikely to be a coincidence."

"And... Hey, wait! Run that back, Nene," Priss demanded.

"What?" Nene frantically paged up until Priss thrust a finger at the screen.

"There!"

"There what?" Nene crinkled her nose in confusion as she read the line under Priss's fingertip. "'Beverly's Dandelion Wine', the Beatles, 1974? What about it?"

Linna stepped over to the computer and craned her neck around Priss to get her own look. "Yeah, what's wrong?"

Priss rolled her eyes. "If you spent less time with your head in a computer monitor, Little Miss Cyberpunk, you'd know what about it."

"Hey!" Lisa rose to Nene's defense, but Priss ignored her.

"The Beatles broke up in 1971, right after the Revolver Tour. They didn't get back together again until just before Sir Paul McCartney's death in 1983." The singer stabbed her finger at the screen again. "And they never recorded any song by that title, least of all in 1974!"

"Are you sure, Priss?" Linna swiveled to face her.

Priss rolled her eyes again, this time more elaborately, and grimaced. "Of course I'm sure."

Sylia stood back and watched the interplay between the four with her face carefully composed in a neutral mask.

"How do you know?" Nene asked.

Priss pulled out one of the rolling chairs and straddled it backwards. She took a deep breath. "What do you do if you want to be a concert pianist?"

Lisa stopped short at the apparent non sequitur.

"You practice a lot?" Nene ventured.

"You study, too," Linna said, straightening up and favoring Priss with an odd, contemplative look.

Priss nodded. "Right, Linna. You study. You learn what's been done before, who wrote it, who performed it, and how they played it. When you know how others do what they do, you can go ahead and do it your own special way."

Nene's nose crinkled up again. "I don't get it." Linna chuckled and bopped her gently on the head. "What?" she cried.

"You're being dense, Nene," the dancer chastised.

Lisa shook her head. "I don't get it either."

"Look, you two, did you think I just got up on a stage one day and decided to sing retrothrash, right out of the blue?" Priss rested her chin on the top of the chair back.

Nene furrowed her brow. "Well, didn't you?"

"Nope." Priss unbent from the console, stretching and twisting to work kinks out of her back. "I studied and trained, just like Linna did to be a dancer." A glint of comprehension shone in Lisa and Nene's eyes, and Linna nodded. "Not as formally as her, more like the way you learned to be a hacker, Nene, but I studied. And I learned. Along the way I learned how to learn, and how to teach. And I learned about who and what came before the music I wanted to sing. Retrothrash is just the latest stage in the long evolution of rock'n'roll music, and I took it all in. The only way to know how to take music where I want it to go is to know where it's been."

Priss leaned backwards and stared up at the ceiling, her arms stretched to their limit by their grip on the back of the chair. "So that's how come I'm so sure the Beatles never recorded a song in 1974."

The room was silent for several moments.

"Huh. Is that the only strange thing in the list?" Lisa asked.

Linna nodded thoughtfully. "That's a very good question."

"Hmmm. Let's find out," Nene said with a gleam in her eyes. She spun around in her chair, back to the computer console. Her hands flew over the keyboard in a ratatattat of furious typing.

"Nene," Lisa asked, bending over the redhead, "What are you doing?"

"Freaking out, just like I always said she would," Priss teased good-naturedly.

"Shush, Priss," Linna admonished.

"Just a moment," Nene murmured, hands bursting into another flurry of typing. "Almost done... There!"

Lisa leaned over to look at the screen; it didn't look any different -- still a list of titles, names and dates -- and screwed up her face in puzzlement. "What did you do?"

Nene waved at the monitor. "I just did a comp/diff redline between the list of songs in the Loon's computer and the Net Music Project's database. After I dumped anything that was in both the Project's db and the list, this is what's left. Check this out!"

"What have you found, Nene?" Sylia asked from where she stood apart from the others.

"A lot of anomalies. Look!"

The other four crowded around the console.

"Are you sure about this, Nene?"

"The Project's db is about as complete as you can get; they use it to check copyrights and licensing, even for independent acts like the Replicants, who don't have a contract with anyone. Yeah, I'm sure."

The room was filled with a cacophony of voices as the five women stared at the computer screen.

"Who's Pat Benatar? I like the sound of 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot'."

"I never heard of 'Maxwell and His Demons'."

"What the hell's a 'Deathtongue'?"

"Oh, cool, he's got some T. Rex!"

"What's T. Rex, Priss?"

"Billy and the Boingers? Interesting."

"Weird, he doesn't have 'Under An Alhambra Moon' by the Eagles, but he's got something else instead called 'Hotel California' that I've never heard of."

"I'm not sure I want to know what kind of music a 'Weird Al' Yankovic would do..."

"I wonder what 'Gossamer Axe' and 'Rockshasa' sound like."

"Anyone ever hear of 'I Want To Fly Like Silverbolt,' by the Kinks? Or 'Bamboo Man' by Howl The Eternal Yes?"

For fifteen minutes, they poured over the list that Nene had generated. Some of the entries were familiar titles that had included abbreviations, others were simply misspelled. Even after eliminating those, though, there were a number of surprises among the remainder.

"Damn that little bastard!" Priss swore as Lisa nodded to herself. "He's been bootlegging!" No less than a dozen of the songs Nene had extracted were actually the works of local bands -- including Priss and the Replicants -- that were not in the international database because they were not (yet) official releases. They'd been carefully tagged with dates that, as far as Priss could recollect, coincided with club gigs for the various bands within the last six months.

Linna grinned. "Well, we know what he does with his free time, now."

Nene giggled. Priss continued to fume, much to the others' amusement.

"But that's so strange," Lisa said, her finger on the entry for "Konya wa Hurricane". "Why would these all be tagged as 'Local Date' this and 'Local Date' that? And Western dates, too. It's not like you can go anywhere on the planet where the Western-style date is different from anywhere else, is it?" Here was another piece to the puzzle that was Doug. And damn it all, she couldn't see what it meant.

Linna trailed her fingertips across the screen. "It's almost like what you'd expect of a time traveler, isn't it?" she mused. "I mean, if you could travel in time and you took records, you'd have to put the date then on them, not the date you came from, right?"

Lisa frowned. "If he's a time traveler, he'd have to be from the past. Otherwise he'd have to have songs from the future, too, wouldn't he?" An idea danced right at the edges of her brain, something that would tie all of this together -- but it refused to come into the front of her mind where she could see it. Something about Doug. No. Something she'd said to Doug...

In her seat Priss growled. "I'm starting to think this is some kind of joke."

Nene shook her head. "No, that doesn't make sense. Why hide the joke behind so much protection that no one could find it? It's got to be real."

Linna still gazed thoughtfully at the monitor. "He's like a time traveler," she murmured. "But it's like he's from the wrong past..."

Nene's eyes widened. "Oh my god. IDEC!"

"What?" four voices chimed.

Switching to the secure system, Nene began once again to type frantically. A window opened, then a second, then a third as she spun through virtual page after virtual page. "They're the high-tech GENOM subsidiary which is after the Loon. Leon got his hands on this paper written by their CEO that shook him up. He gave it to me a week or so ago to add to that file on the Loon that I've been, um," she laughed nervously, "holding onto for him, and after scanning it in I browsed it to see what was so awful about it." She shrugged as she paged rapidly through a file. "I thought it was all just science-fictiony junk, but... Okay, here." A swipe of the mouse, and a passage near the end of the file appeared highlighted on the screen. "Read this."

Lisa was the closest, and leaned in to see the screen. "'In short, the existence of other universes is not merely theory, it is proven fact. The Inter-Dimensional Explorations Company will take advantage of this fact and the revolutionary discoveries of Dr. Daniel Ohara to 'harvest' both pure knowledge and mature technologies from other Earths for the benefit of our own.'" Oh, gods. That explains everything. Doug's...

Nene turned to face the others, crossing her arms over her chest. "There you have it. The Loon isn't a boomer, he isn't a boomeroid, and he isn't an alien. At least not the kind from outer space. He's a human being -- or something close to one -- from another universe, from an Earth similar to but not exactly like ours. And he was probably brought here accidentally by IDEC, which has been in business for ten years now and presumably has perfected whatever process this Ohara came up with." With a smug expression on her face, Nene gave a curt nod, as if to say, "So there!"

"Bullshit!" Priss exclaimed as Linna and Lisa exchanged glances -- Linna's was uncertain, and Lisa's was concerned.

Sylia, on the other hand, looked thoughtful. "It would explain many things about him, though I wonder at the unlikeliness of it. An Earth not yet out of the 1990s, but possessing a technology that is practically magic, judging by what we've witnessed. How is it possible for his world to be as similar to ours as his language fluencies and that list of songs suggest, yet be so much more advanced technologically?"

Her face grew dark as she stepped back from the console. "Why is he still here? Why hasn't he gone home? Why is he helping us?"

"And where'd that cool flying carpet come from?"

"Nene!"

"Whaaaaat?"

* * *

Sunday, December 7, 2036. 12:04 AM

Well, it was official. I had been careless, sloppy and stupid.

No, not in combat. There I had been on the ball and didn't do anything boneheaded. And it took less than 10 seconds to heal myself of the bruise that superboomer gave me.

It was in my personal security procedures.

I still can't believe I never thought to take the helmet computer out of "network link" mode. Two and a half years of careful maintenance in a pre-industrial society, another six months of care and use in a high-tech culture -- you'd think I'd've noticed that it was still trying every few seconds to connect to the Warriors' megaframe via UNNET.

Some fucking security chief I am. I let my own helmet computer get cracked. Thank god the rest of the team hadn't been there. If they had, I'd've never heard the end of it.

As to who had done it, well, the admittedly circumstantial evidence pointed to the Knight Sabers. Rumor (in addition to my own observations) held that Pink was the ECM and tech officer, and probably a hacker extraordinaire. And given that there had been no one else around other than the boomers -- and I didn't believe they could do it, not at all -- it looked like Pink had done what no one back home had yet managed -- she cracked SQUID42, deciphered UNNET's protocols, and spoofed my helmet's login pings, then got a full status dump. Apparently on the fly and in real time.

I didn't know whether to congratulate her or strangle her.

I did know that I wasn't going to let it happen again.

First, I immediately turned off my helmet's network seek mode. It wasn't like I was going to need it any time soon, anyway -- I was universes away from home. I was tempted to dike out the entire circuit, just for safety's sake, but I resisted the urge and instead simply pulled the network I/O chip, coated the relevant pins with an insulating spray, and re-installed it. Voila, instant stand-alone system. So even if Pink had installed a back door while she was in there (which as far as I could tell she hadn't), there was no fucking way she was going to be able to trigger it.

I still can't get over -- even at this late date -- the mere fact that she did it. The computer tech in MegaTokyo was on a par with homeline -- she couldn't have brute-forced a crack, not even if she'd had signal samples since the day I arrived. Either she was some kind of computer prodigy on the scale of, well, me and some of the more versatile electropaths I've seen, or there was a well-hidden vulnerability somewhere in SQUID42 that she found and exploited. Or...

Thanks to Lady White's slip, I knew that the Knights had some kind of inside connection at the AD Police. And to the best of my knowledge the ADP was the only place in that universe -- outside of my helmet -- where you could find an algorithm from the SQUID42 family. Their contact could have passed one of the new radios to them; cracking the crypto would then have been child's play for Pink, if her rep was on target. The only question left would then be how and why she thought of applying the ADP algorithm to my communications.

While I didn't develop SQUID42, I did put it through its most rigorous testing; when it passed, I gave final approval for its use within the Warriors and, by extension, throughout the UN. I don't like to think that I missed something. And the alternative meant that sooner or later -- probably sooner -- the Knights would wonder why my helmet's telecomm and the ADP's new radios both used essentially the same cryptosystem. Then it would be only a matter of time before they decided to look closely at Ganbare -- and its employees.

Just what I needed. More complications.

Anyway. While I had rendered my helmet computer proof against future cracking efforts by Lady Pink and the High-Heel Gang (barring any unexpected technologies or metatalents, of course), I wasn't satisfied. It wasn't enough. I needed to show them they couldn't mess with my computer and get away with it. I would just have to return the favor and crack whatever encryption protected their private communications. It was only fair, after all.

Of course, I'd have to get a decent sample of the transmissions. And that meant installing more static memory in the helmet to hold those samples. There was room for more crystals in the helmet; I just needed to get some. Or rather, make them -- from the copy of the design and specs I kept in the helmet's permanent storage. Thank god for the desktop nanofac at work -- within two weeks I had filled all the unoccupied crystal ports and I was ready to take some samples.

In the mean time, I still had gate songs to try, and I still had to deal with Lisa's surreptitious revelation/ultimatum. And while the former was turning into a regular habit, I had no idea what to do about the latter.

* * *

Monday, December 8, 2036. 7:53 PM

In the shadowed booth, Sylia waited quietly. The only evidence of impatience was the regular, rhythmic tap of the nail of her right forefinger against the stem of the wine glass in front of her. He wasn't late, not yet, and she was annoyed at herself for her nervous eagerness. An ostensibly soothing melody drifted by, and she forced herself to sip her wine and watch the graceful bustle of the servers as they dashed from kitchen to table in their mad dance.

At precisely eight, a shadow fell across her, and Sylia looked up to see him, rumpled as always. She nodded to him. "Fargo."

"Sylia." He slipped into the seat opposite her and smiled broadly before taking out a cigarette and lighting it. A curl of smoke drifted upwards and its scent entered her nostrils temptingly. She ignored it.

"A tasteful French restaurant," she said after a moment. "I'm surprised. Isn't this a bit sophisticated for you?"

Fargo chuckled. "And how are you tonight, Sylia?"

"Fine, thank you," she sighed. "What have you found out?"

"Nothing," he said.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing. There is no company, corporation or non-profit organization anywhere in the world called 'Warriors International'. Nor any mercenary groups like yours. There are no copyrights registered under that name, either." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sylia, it was a complete dead end. I had the trace run back over fifty years, per your request, but I found absolutely nothing."

Sylia took another sip of her wine. "On the contrary, Fargo, you have found exactly what I was looking for."

* * *

A street corner near Tokyo Tower. Saturday, December 13, 2036. 10:39 AM

Shinobu Nakamura leaned away from the grill of his yatai and rested for a moment against the concrete wall behind him. It was just far enough that the chill breeze was moderated slightly by the grill's heat, allowing him to cool off without freezing in the wind. The scanty weekend breakfast crowd had finally tapered off to nothing, and he had a more than a moment to breathe and think.

The winter zephyr carried the whine of a motorcycle's turbine to his ear. Shinobu raised an eyebrow and waited.

Less than a minute later, a black motorcycle appeared, driven by a man in jeans, a leather jacket and a black helmet. A second helmet, this one oddly-shaped and grey, hung from back of the cycle. Slowing down, the biker turned and drove into a narrow alley across and slightly farther along the street.

It was not the first time Shinobu had seen the biker at this corner. In his way, he was almost as much of a regular here as any of Shinobu's customers, appearing more or less weekly for the last couple months. As the motorcycle vanished into the shadows of the alley, Shinobu nodded and began slowly counting.

He hadn't quite reached 200 before the motorcycle reappeared. The driver seemed less confident or skilled than before -- the front wheel quivered and the whole bike wobbled as he turned back onto the street and, somewhat more slowly than he came, drove away. Shinobu watched, unmoving, until the biker turned another corner and vanished from sight.

He often wondered what it was the motorcyclist did in the alley on such a regular basis. Was he a courier for some criminal gang, picking up or dropping off ill-gotten profits or stolen goods? Maybe he made drug deals there. His shaky driving when he left was certainly suggestive of some kind of diminished capacity; perhaps he sampled the wares?

Perhaps it is nothing. But maybe, Shinobu thought, maybe I should bring it to the attention of the police anyway. Just in case.

* * *

Wednesday, December 17, 2036. 9:24 AM

Damn, but he photographs well. Lisa mused, then recalled her few nights out clubbing with Doug. Almost as well as he dances. She shook herself and snorted. Down, girl. Repeated presses of the PgDn key carried her through the images of Doug in action, the window in which they appeared shrinking and growing as needed to display each in their turn.

Around her, the city room of the 16 Times hummed with its usual bustle of activity, and no one spared any notice for her -- not even the catatonic and the obsessive-compulsive who sat to either side of her and had still to acknowledge her existence after all these months.

Not that her disgrace had helped. Kiyoshi-san had had the kindness not to reveal the details of her rapid status change, but Lisa knew rumors had rippled back and forth across the city room for almost a week afterwards. The aftermath had been... difficult. Several formerly friendly co-workers now treated her like burakumin, but others who had been distant and cool had become sympathetic and encouraging. Including, to Lisa's complete surprise, Toboki Chiasa. She shook her head, still astonished how quickly Chiasa's fearsome demeanor disappeared outside of the office.

Stop woolgathering! she admonished herself when she realized how far afield her thoughts had drifted. What she needed to pay attention to was selecting photos of Doug and the Sabers for a "deep and incisive" article exploring the influence -- both positive and negative -- of anti-boomer vigilantes on society at large. She wasn't writing it -- Chiasa had that privilege. With a pang Lisa quickly squelched the memory of how Kiyoshi had flatly stated that it was too close to "hard news" for her to work on yet. But since she had taken the majority of the Times' recent photos of the Sabers and Doug, she had been allowed to select the best candidates for inclusion with the article.

A printout of Chiasa's first draft lay on the desktop immediately in front of the monitor, and Lisa paused to consult it. A good fraction of the text dealt with the AD Police viewpoint on the topic, the result of an interview with the ADP chief. Nodding to herself, she retrieved several stock photos of her Uncle Beauregard from the Times' archive and added them to the directory where she was storing her selections. Looking over one of the file photos, she paused a moment in thought once more.

According to Nene's investigations, the call her uncle had received that afternoon almost six weeks ago had been deceptively routed. Still, Nene was sure that it had originated somewhere in GENOM tower. It hadn't been the first such call he'd received, they'd found, nor had it been the last.

As Nene's logs and traces had built up over the last month, Lisa had been forced to accept the possibility that her uncle was in GENOM's pocket, to one degree or another. Lisa knew well enough that it was almost impossible to advance in the political arena of MegaTokyo without paying some kind of tribute to the megacorporation, but she had never consciously associated that with her uncle, the dedicated if short-tempered public servant. I don't want it to be true, she thought, forgetting about the photos. I know I'd rather ignore the possibility, but I have to face facts. The ADP is GENOM's plaything -- funded and equipped at a bare subsistence level by the corporation's sufferance. Whoever is in charge has to be a GENOM puppet.

She shifted in her seat; the fidgety movement did not attract the least attention from her co-workers on either side. The real question is... Is he theirs all the way, or has he been trying to dance around whatever directives they force on him? Certainly the recent history of the ADP as related to her by both Leon and Nene seemed to suggest her uncle had no great love for GENOM. Leon in particular had taken great pride in describing (confidentially, of course) the sometimes elaborate circumlocutions Uncle Beauregard engaged in to allow his people to work "off the books", as it were.

Even so, it hadn't been quite enough the first time. His dismissal in late 2033 had certainly been politically motivated and at GENOM's instigation, even if its hand had been well-hidden. He almost lost his pension, she remembered, and I don't think it was a coincidence that almost all the city council members who voted for letting him keep it weren't re-elected. Or died in office... It took public outcry after the whole Illegal Army disaster -- and, Nene had claimed, some string-pulling by Sylia -- to bring him back. Fortunately for him, GENOM and its agents apparently did not hold a grudge against him, and it was back to business as it had been two years earlier.

Which meant, Lisa realized, that they felt they had a far more secure hold on him this time around. So, Uncle is either on the take or being blackmailed, or both, she thought. But he still does what he can to subvert his "orders". How long can he get away with it?

She worried her lower lip with her teeth. I wonder if Sylia could do something to help him. After all, she did help get him rehired, if Nene's right. While I'm at it, I wonder if there's anything Doug could do to help... In spite of her concerns, she almost laughed out loud. What am I thinking? He's going to go and beat up GENOM until they let go of my uncle? Uh-huh, sure.

After briefly resting on an image of Doug peeking out from under the other windows on the monitor, her eyes drifted away as her thoughts turned away from the topic at hand. It's been two weeks since I more or less told him I knew his secret. What's taking him so long? She sighed. Now, that's not fair, Lisa, she thought to herself, You told him you'd respect his desire for privacy, too, remember? But I so want to know if Nene's right! I could always drop an anonymous hint to the Sabers to try and force his hand... She had to suppress the urge to shake her head violently. No! That would be betraying his trust! I can't do that!

She sighed again. But it's so hard to do nothing but wait.

* * *

Saturday, December 20, 2036. 2:41 AM

"It's so nice of you to have us over, Priss," Sylvie said. She lifted the china cup to her lips and sipped her tea before nibbling delicately on the biscotti that sat on the edge of her saucer. The modest cotton dress she wore emphasized rather than hid her slender beauty, and Priss approved of how the flowery pattern matched the woman's lovely, hypnotic eyes.

Priss delicately adjusted her own yellow sun dress, then poured herself more tea. "We have been somewhat... estranged... since that unfortunate incident in the park. But I'm glad we're friends again."

"Are we?" Anri asked. Where Sylvie was stunningly beautiful, Anri was seductively cute in a youthful, innocent way. Like her companion, she wore a flower print dress, and the growing bloodstain on her side added an intriguing avant-garde counterpoint to the traditional pattern. "Really, are we? We were certainly good enough for you when you thought we were human, but we're not human, Priss."

"And we know how you feel about boomers," Sylvie added, and Priss noticed for the first time the lovely blossom of red on the dress right over Sylvie's heart. How sweet! she thought absently. They have color-coordinated wounds!

Then what they said registered. "But you're not boomers," she laughed. "You're Sylvie and Anri!"

A look of consternation crossed Sylvie's lovely face. "We're Sylvie and Anri the boomers, Priss. Sexaroids, remember? Vat-grown to be eternal love slaves to executives and important clients -- perverts and thrillseekers alike."

"Sadists and masochists and coprophiliacs and necrophiliacs and transvestites and transsexuals and pedophiles," Anri said in a flat, dead voice as blood continued to soak her side.

"Into golden showers and infantilism and domination and bondage and leather and latex and needles and scarification," Sylvie added somberly, the bloom of deep red on her chest spreading to blot out the fabric's flower pattern.

"All forced on us without our consent," Anri said.

"Which is why we wanted to be free," Sylvie agreed.

"Don't be silly." Priss laughed nervously. "You're not like boomers!"

"Why not, Priss?" Anri asked.

"You don't look like boomers!" Priss replied, a sudden nervousness growing deep within herself.

"Most boomers aren't armor-plated killing machines, Priss." Sylvie put her teacup down on the table and leaned forward to stare at the other woman. "Most look pretty human, almost as human as we do. Combat boomers are the exception, not the rule. And even they can pass for humans if needed."

The blood from Sylvie's chest had begun to drip down off the front of her dress, and Priss' heart had begun pounding. This isn't the way it's supposed to be, she thought. No, something's terribly wrong here!

"Our brains are no different, really, than any other boomer's, either." Anri, too, set down her cup and leaned forward, blood pooling around her feet. "Fewer constraints and more freedom, that's all."

"No!" Priss cried, overturning her chair as she leaped up. "You're not real boomers! You're different, you're special! Real boomers aren't anything like you!"

"What about me, Priss-san?" From behind her came what sounded like the voice of a boy, but with a faint electronic quality to it. Fear gripped her, and she spun around to see another face lost to her over the years -- a familiar, motionless, mechanical face.

"Adama," she whispered. "Oh, gods." She shook her head. "You... you're different, too," she whispered as panic took control of her and sent her limbs trembling. She suddenly noticed that his body and face were riddled with bloodless bullet-holes.

"I am not a boomer, then, Priss-san?" Adama asked. "But I'm not a human, either. If I'm not a boomer or human, what am I? Please tell me, Priss-san. What makes us not boomers? And how then are we not human?"

"Man is poised midway between ape and angel," Anri said.

"Must boomers always be poised midway between can openers and Man?" Sylvie asked.

Priss spun in place, unable to stop without seeing one of them -- Sylvie or Anri, soaked in blood and reaching out for her, or Adama, sparks beginning to spit out through his own dry, sterile wounds. She spun and spun, and the panic spun and spun with her, carrying her and lifting her. How could they ask, can't they see she didn't have the answers, she couldn't answer without betraying her own reasons for still living, boomers were evil it was obvious so the ones that weren't evil couldn't be boomers but they weren't human but they were friends but she couldn't be friends with a boomer but she was and she killed them and they died in her arms and she cried for them but she couldn't cry for boomers boomers were evil and

Priss screamed.

* * *

Her eyes flashed open, and she sat up, flailing the covers to one side. A cold winter draft wafted around her as she sat in the semi-darkness grey-lit by the eternal city nightlights that filtered through the curtains and blinds of her trailer. "Fuck," she spat as she swung her feet off the bed and stumbled to the fridge for a beer. She popped the top and began to drink. "That's the worst one in a long time," she mumbled between swigs.

When she finished, she fumbled her way back to her bed and burrowed back under the covers. "Yellow sun dress, gah," she murmured before slipping once again into sleep.

Had someone been there to sit upon the edge of her bed, they would have heard her mournfully breathe three names as she once again dreamed.

* * *

Wednesday, December 24, 2036. 11:55 PM

One of the things I miss most from growing up is Christmas songs. (Sure, I can listen to instrumentals, but how many times can you do "Carol of the Bells" before you go nuts?)

I really loved Christmas songs. But I don't dare play them any more.

There are Powers out there, you see. And they can be called. Sometimes they listen. And, very rarely, they answer.

And, most of the time, no sane person should want that to happen.

Let me make something very, very clear. I don't like gods. Imagine the worst-behaved two-year-old you've ever encountered. Make him immortal and invulnerable. Then give him an endless supply of hydrogen bombs. That's your typical god.

I've met more than my share of typical gods. I owe a couple for favors they've done for me.

I also had to kill one once.

Well, not by myself. But I struck the killing blow.

Yeah, Hexe's a goddess. But she's an avatar, and that's different. An avatar filters the god through a human mind and human thoughts, and as a result, they tend to have more human sensibilities. They still have the temperament and the priorities and the damned snootiness of a god, though. (On Hexe, the snootiness can be cute sometimes. Sometimes. Don't tell her I said that, she'll kill me.)

Anyway, I really, really dislike gods. I try to have as little to do with them as possible.

Which is why I don't -- won't -- do religious songs, least of all Christmas music. It's all "thank you for coming to visit us" and "welcome" and "we rejoice in your arrival", and it's practically guaranteed to get Someone's attention -- attention that I most emphatically do not want.

So what was I doing on top of the Glory Bank building in downtown MegaTokyo at five minutes to midnight on Christmas Eve?

Being stupid and sentimental, what else?

I'd been living in MegaTokyo almost exactly six months at that point, and based on my experiences, I'd decided if that city needed anything, it needed cheering up. It needed encouragement. It needed hope.

No matter how many bots I fought, no matter how much I stretched my metatalent, I couldn't do that by myself. Hell, I had just barely gotten out of the "urban legend" category at that point -- I was far too novel to be universally inspiring.

(I can just hear Hexe in the back of my mind: "Looney? Inspiring? Ha!")

I have to admit, I also needed hope and encouragement. It was almost -- not quite, but close enough -- the third anniversary of the day I ran into battle and right into that metavillain's damned portal. Three years since I had seen Maggie, since I had held her (instead of a simulacrum) in my arms, since I had heard her voice, since I had kissed her. It was the six-month anniversary of my great failure -- the gate that was supposed to take me home but which brought me here instead. And it marked six months of failures to open another gate home. Despite having the on-and-off company of Lisa Vanette -- Miss Hyperactive MegaTokyo 2036 -- these past six months, I desperately needed cheering up of my own.

So there I was, standing on top of one of the larger buildings in Tinsel City, which seemed deliciously appropriate given the holiday season. And there I was with a set of lyrics thrown up on my helmet's HUD. And there I was actually debating whether or not I really wanted to attract the attention of a divine being simply to cheer up both myself and a major Asian city.

"<Oh, what the hell>," I muttered. "<A man's gotta live dangerously once in a while. System, 'Joyful Joyful,' play.>"

It was the choral part of the final movement from Beethoven's Ninth, the "Ode to Joy", in English and funked up with a pop/rock beat. I'd lifted it from the soundtrack of a movie some years ago, just in case.

"<Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love...>"

As the solo a capella vocalist started it off, I reached for that damned node and grabbed hold of it firmly. The hell with my worries -- I was going to need a lot of power for this if I wanted it to work.

The band kicked in, and I opened myself up to the magic.

* * *

"He calls to us. Now?"

"No. It is not yet time."

"But he makes a request. Do we grant it?"

"I say yes. He asks for nothing we would not have given one by one to all those who would have asked individually. What say you, my sister-selves?"

"Mmmmmm. Yes, let's. It will be different and fun."

"He asks not just for himself, but for multitudes whom he has never met. Yes, let us do it. But let us not let him know, for no mortal should think they can command Us to perform at their whim."

"Then it is decided."

"It is decided."

"It is decided."

"So mote it be."

* * *

To those who are properly sensitive, divine power is a very visible thing.

Douglas Sangnoir, known as "Loon" and "Looney Toons", was not properly sensitive. At least, not at that moment.

He did not see the pillar of mystic fire that he sent hurtling upwards into the night sky, for it had ceased to be the "ordinary" magic visible to his Sight. And he did not sense its return as a great wave that spread forth from where he stood to wash over the city.

* * *

At the precinct houses and in the patrol cars of the Normal Police all over MegaTokyo, officers of the law watched in growing surprise and concern as the city's usual crime tapered off and almost vanished. In their holding cells, many of the prisoners from arrests earlier in the evening grew quiet and thoughtful, smiling or bowing respectfully to the officers who processed them through the legal system.

In a laboratory deep within GENOM Tower, Dr. Daniel Ohara woke from where he had briefly fallen asleep over the records of the Loon's last two appearances. He felt... refreshed. As he glanced again at the papers and the monitor on his desk, he felt the despair that had grown in him over the past months shrink away.

In the maternity and pediatric wards of the city's hospitals, all crying stopped. The consumption of pain-killers and sedatives in their other wards dropped to a fraction of its usual rate.

At AD Police headquarters, an officer on night duty named Bochinski felt a peace fill him unlike anything he'd ever experienced before, and he swore he'd find a way to hold on to it.

The MegaTokyo Suicide Prevention Hotline, bolstered with extra volunteers against the usual barrage brought on by holiday depression, had exactly 7 callers between midnight and dawn. One of these simply wanted to wish the volunteers a happy holiday and thank them for their good work.

Atop Ladys633, Sylia Stingray slept and dreamt of her father, of the fulfillment of his posthumous charge to her, and of a chance to live for herself and herself alone.

As midnight mass was performed at MegaTokyo's Cathedral of Saint Jude, passers-by began to wander in. By the time the service had finished, the cathedral was filled to capacity -- for the first time in its ten-year history.

In her small apartment, Lisa Vanette shifted in her sleep and knew in her dreams that everything -- her job, her mother, her relationship with Doug -- would work out.

And a million minds wrapped in chains felt a glimmer of unexplained, alien hope.

* * *

I let the song run its full length, but I already knew it was useless. I'd felt the magic pour through me and out to who knows where or what, but no Power had answered. It figured. The one time I wanted a god involved, and they gave me the finger. But I couldn't find it in myself to be upset. Humanity shouldn't have the gods hand them happiness on a platter, anyway. We'll find our own way, eventually, and it'll be better for the striving and the obstacles we overcome in the process.

Gods. Huh. Who needs'em? I thought to myself as I looked out over downtown. It still is a gorgeous night. Light pollution hid most of the stars, but the moon was a bit shy of half-full and bathed the streets in a faint silver glow. It looked deceptively peaceful down there; it reminded me in an odd way of a traditional Christmas back in the States and I felt strangely at ease. Now all I needed to do was figure out what to do about Lisa and her little hints and intimations.

I stood and watched over the city for another hour before I went back home and to bed.

* * *

Friday, January 2, 2037. 8:12 PM

It had been almost a month and a half, and nothing.

Lisa sat on her futon, fuming and ignoring her TV.

On Christmas morning, they had exchanged gifts -- he had given her a gift certificate from her favorite camera shop, and she had given him a collection of Warner Brothers cartoons. She'd expected him to come clean with her then and there as an extra "gift", but no such luck.

There had been times when it had looked like he was about to open up to her, but then he would just turn around and change the subject. It was absolutely infuriating.

"Enough is enough," she said out loud, surprising herself at first. "He's had six weeks. He should know enough to know he can trust me!" A determined look on her face, she hopped up and off the futon, slid on her slippers, and stormed out the door.

She flung open the door to Doug's apartment and stepped in, boldly announcing, "Doug, we have to talk! Now!"

There was a pregnant silence, and Lisa suddenly realized that Doug was not alone. He and another person sat at the tiny dinette, Doug's helmet between them, playing a song. She gaped as she took in Doug's guest: A gaijin woman with waist-length blonde hair, her lush curves not at all hidden by the tight black Spandex bodysuit she wore. She also wore high boots and fingerless gloves, both apparently of soft black leather. But her most bizarre feature was the makeup that covered her face and made her look like some kind of humanoid cat.

A brief spark of irrational jealousy flickered through Lisa. For a long moment she stared at them, and they stared at her. Then the gaijin woman turned to Doug and said in a mild, melodious voice, "<Then again, she may force the issue after all...>"

END OF CHAPTER SIX

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

This work of fiction is copyright © 2000, 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.

"Helene 'Wetter Hexe' Diedmeier" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Helen Imre.

"Gideon Manley", "Arcanum" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of John L. Freiler and Helen Imre.

Shockwave and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Jeffrey Ventemilia.

Kat and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Kathleen Avins.

Original Japanese lyrics from "Boku Wa Motto Pioneer", recorded by Chisa Yokoyama, written by Natsuko Karedo, copyright © by AIC-Pioneer LDC Inc. English lyrics from "I'm A Pioneer", recorded by Sharyn Scott, written by Lorraine Feather and copyright © by AIC-Pioneer LDC Inc.

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: Joseph Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Chris Davies, and Helen Imre. Additional prereaders for future chapters welcome.


This page was created on January 14, 2000.
Last modified December 12, 2013.