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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

 

 

7: Didja Ever Get The Feeling You Wuz Bein' Watched?

I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. -- Casaubon, in "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco

There is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify -- so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish. -- Keats

 

Friday, January 2, 2037. 8:10 PM

Another potential gate song.

Another failure.

And for some reason, there was an occupied police scooter stationed at either end of the alley this time. I had to park a block over and do a little roof-climbing to get and from to my arrival point without being noticed.

The scooters were positioned such that they didn't look like they were surveying the alley, but I got the definite impression that they were on stakeout. The ADP was already interested in me; it looked like they had recruited the N-Police into the effort. Shit.

That had been three days earlier, the day before New Year's Eve 2036. My metagift had come out of burnout on the first. Along with the return of the feelings of despair and depression I had thought I'd banished on Christmas Eve.

I admit it -- I was getting lonely.

I wasn't used to hiding and secrets, not in the last almost twenty years. I had grown accustomed to being open and frank about who I was and what I could do. That hadn't been a problem before MegaTokyo. But now... Now... I would go to work at Ganbare, and look at my co-workers talking and laughing about sports and dates and I would think of how different my life was from theirs. Every morning and evening I'd rush through the streets with the millions of other dark-suited salarymen, and know that despite my camouflage I was different, possibly unique in this world. I'd sit in the window of a restaurant and eat my lunch and watch the passers-by with my magesight: golden beacons of light each one, but flickering fireflies compared to the roiling, seething pool of magical power that lay under the city. Walking through plazas, I'd look up at the GENOM Cone and wonder if my little acts of defiance made any difference at all.

I couldn't tell anyone about what I really thought, what I really felt. Partly because I and my life were so beyond the experience of the inhabitants of this Earth. And partly because I was a fugitive, hiding from the law and the corporation both. Opening up meant risking what little safety and security I had managed to carve out for myself.

Or did it? I have to admit, Lisa's offer was beginning to look very good. First off, she already knew something, and that was half the issue settled right there. She seemed completely unbothered by my, um, exotic talents, and the very fact that she had not used anything that she did know in an article seemed to bode well.

But I wasn't sure. And I didn't think I could trust my own judgment in the matter. I needed to talk to someone... someone whom I knew. Someone whose judgment I trusted more than I trusted my own.

My apartment. I went to the wardrobe and took out my helmet. I placed it on the dinette and slid open the cover that protected the external keypad.

The keypad's a backup device, in case the voice recognition ever goes out. It accepts numeric codes for songs, rather than titles. Contrary to popular myth, I don't have the codes for every song memorized, just a score or so: ELO's "I'm Alive" for a fast heal; "Lightning's Hand" from Kansas for my favorite ranged attack; Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" for a fast escape with some offensive power. A couple others. And the songs that create simulacra of every Warrior other than myself.

I sat down, turned on the external speakers, and keyed in "The Song of the Jellicles" from "Cats".

"<'Abigail? I'm very lonely, Abigail,'>" I murmured as the music came up.

"<Wrong musical, Doug.>" For a moment, Kat's sweet soprano voice seemed to come from all around, but then I heard the rustle of cloth and leather behind me. "<And I'm not your wife.>" I turned to see her perched lazily on my bed in her duty uniform.

"<Hi, Kat.>" I rose, stepped to the bed, and bent to give her a brief brotherly kiss.

She smiled warmly and breathed, "<Hi. How're you doing, Doug? I don't see a fight, so you must just want to talk.>" She uncoiled from the bed, stretching in a distinctly feline fashion which sent her long blonde hair swirling in a broad fan around her waist.

I sat back down at the dinette and gestured at the other chair. Kat slid lithely into it. "<You're right,>" I said, nodding. "<I've got a bit of a dilemma, and I need some advice on what to do about it.>"

She leaned forward with an attentive look on her face. "<Well, I'll do what I can, but you know I'm only a reflection of your own mind, so you're really just talking to yourself.>"

I nodded again. "<I know. But talking with my memory of you, as expressed through this song,>" I tapped the top of my helmet, "<is better than trying to worry through this by myself.>"

"<But you are worrying through this by yourself,>" she offered, not unsympathetically. "<This,>" and she indicated herself with a brief head-to-toe wave, "<is only an illusion.>"

"<Yeah,>" I said, "<but you're a comforting illusion.>"

She shrugged, sending shimmering ripples through her hair. "<It's your choice. So, what's wrong?>"

I sighed. "<Well, in a nutshell, I'm trying to keep a secret identity here, but the reporter across the hall knows enough to blow my cover sky-high. She's hinted that she wants me to confide in her. The thing is, I'm needing someone to talk to, and for more than three minutes a day. No offense.>"

"<None taken.>" Kat pursed her lips in thought. "<So you're wondering, should you risk talking to... what's her name?>"

"<Lisa.>"

"<So you're wondering, should you risk talking to Lisa. I see.>" Kat nodded slowly. "<Well, is she trustworthy? What do your instincts say about her?>"

I sighed again. "<I'd like to think she's a friend. She clearly thinks of me as a friend, and maybe more... on occasion she's been unusually forward and flirty for someone so culturally Japanese.>" I paused as I organized my thoughts a bit. "<We've also been through some nasty situations together -- life-threatening stuff, even.>"

Kat nodded. "<That kind of experience can bond people together for life, you know. Also, consider this: if you think she already has enough information on you to blow your cover, and she hasn't done so already, then what difference will it make to give her even more?>"

I thought about that. "<That does make a fair amount of sense. So you think it's safe to open up to her?>"

"<I don't know yet,>" she replied, shrugging. "<Tell me more about her.>"

"<Hmmm. Lisa's young, just out of college last June. She's a bit intense and driven, especially about her job. Or jobs -- she hasn't said much about it, but it seems like she's got some irregular night job somewhere. Tenacious, too. She can be impatient, even demanding at times. I know she's open to new experiences. She likes modern music and dancing. Likes to go club-hopping. She's got a bunch of co-workers and other friends that she talks about all the time, but whom I've never met.>" I counted off points on my fingers. "<Like I said, she's very culturally Japanese, particularly about etiquette, and that's funny because she looks very Euro. Hmmm. What else?>" I stopped and thought some more.

"<Is she culturally Japanese about honor, too?>" Kat asked.

My eyebrows shot up. "<Huh. I don't know. I suppose so. I've never seen her do or say anything that would indicate one way or the other. But I do know that except for her dedication to being a journalist, she was raised in all ways as a proper Japanese girl. So, yeah, I guess that probably includes the Japanese sense of honor.>"

She gestured with one hand, holding it palm up. "<Well, there you go. If you feel you can trust her sense of honor, you can confide in her.>"

I nodded thoughtfully. "<That being the case, Lisa might take my refusal to do so yet as a personal insult.>"

Kat smiled reassuringly at me. "<I don't think you need to worry about that. Patience is a Japanese virtue as well as Western one, you know. She'll probably wait until you're ready to talk.>"

There was a slam, and Kat and I both jumped; together, our eyes leapt to the source of the noise: my apartment door being flung open. Oh no, I groaned to myself.

Lisa marched in through the open door and barked, "Doug, we have to talk! Now!"

Then she stopped short and stared at Kat and me. Mainly at Kat. We three sat there like that, unmoving, for at least a ten-count. I thought I saw Lisa's eyes narrow angrily for a moment, before Kat broke the tableau by turning to me and saying, "<Then again, she may force the issue after all...>"

I could only nod in agreement.

Lisa suddenly looked embarrassed; she flushed a bright red, and she covered her face with her hands. "Please forgive me for barging in and interrupting," she whispered from behind them. Her feet and legs twitched with the apparent desire to turn and flee, but she didn't -- instead, Lisa took a deep breath, lowered her hands, and stood her ground. "We need to talk," she repeated, more softly this time.

"Um..." I replied intelligently.

When that failed to resolve matters, I expanded on that with, "Uh..."

Kat looked back and forth between Lisa and me, then rose and stepped over to Lisa. Holding out one gloved hand, she said, in Japanese, "Hi, I'm a part of Doug's subconscious mind masquerading as one of his oldest friends."

Lisa blinked. Twice. "Um," she started. "Lisa Vanette. Pleased to meet you... I think..." Rather than shake her hand, Lisa bowed, her eyes rotating in her head to stay focused on Kat's face. She seemed fascinated by Kat's masque makeup.

Kat laughed, that lovely soprano trill that Maggie says looks like a waterfall of faceted crystal rods. Still in Japanese, she continued, "Pleased to meet you, too. You can call me Kat, that's who I look like and who I am for now." The simulacrum of my teammate and friend glided over to the table where I sat and laid one hand on top of my helmet. "Well, I can see you two have a lot to talk about, so I'm going to get out of the way. See you later, Doug." Kat bent over to brush another chaste kiss across my lips; I heard a sharp intake of breath from where Lisa was. Then Kat stood straight and pressed the "song off" button on the helmet keypad.

The music stopped. She vanished.

Lisa's eyes grew very large. At the same time, I was hiding mine behind my hand as I rubbed my forehead.

"Who... what was that?" Lisa whispered.

I took a deep breath. "Just what she said she was. Kat. A simulacrum. Part of my own mind. A creature of magic. Take your pick."

"No." Lisa's puzzlement faded away into a firm (dare I say "pig-headed"?) tone, and I uncovered my eyes to see a determined look on her face. "I'm not going to guess. You're going to explain. Now."

"I knew this was coming eventually." I grimaced, then sighed. "Okay. But not here."

She narrowed her eyes again. "Why not?"

"Well, for one, I am hungry and I don't feel like cooking right now. Get your shoes and coat."

* * *

Fifteen minutes later I parked my bike and we walked into "Eriko's" -- an "American-style" diner near the University of MegaTokyo. We took a moment to brush off the snow -- it was flurrying lightly that night -- and Lisa took the opportunity to give the place the once-over.

"Why here?" she asked. In her left hand she held my spare (mundane) helmet and her camera; I swear, the thing must have been sewn to her or something because she never seemed to put it down. Her right hand was busy trying to cure a bad case of "hat hair" she'd acquired on the ride over.

I carried my regular helmet and wore my uniform jacket (with the Harley patch instead of my insignia) over my jeans and T-shirt ensemble.

I waved to Eriko, who stood behind the counter pouring coffee for a customer perched on one of the stools. Then, with Lisa in front of me and one hand on her shoulder, I began to steer us both around the tables full of students toward a booth at the far end of the diner. "Well, for one, the food is good, and inexpensive, too. And also, even if we're overheard, no one will pay any attention to us at all."

"Huh?" Lisa swiveled her head around to look back at me. "Why not?"

I just smiled. "Listen," I said and inclined my head toward the table full of students that we were passing at that moment.

"So there we were, finally talking to the captain-major," one of them was saying. He had a slightly maniacal glint in his eye and was badly in need of both a shave and a haircut. "And he looks at us, and says in this haughty tone, 'I report only to the king!' So the mage turns to the thief and says, 'Okay, let's go break the king's kneecaps!'" The table broke into laughter.

"What?" Lisa whispered when we'd gone past, and I smirked at her.

"I found this diner while exploring the city last summer. It's the number one hangout for the University's role-playing gamers." I snorted a momentary laugh. "You could confess to assassinating the Emperor in here and no one would give it a second thought."

Lisa's eyes grew very big for a moment, and then she grinned. "Nice. Good thinking. And you say the food is good, too?"

We reached the booth, and I made an exaggerated bow to usher her into the seat. She smiled as she shrugged out of her coat. "For an American-style diner? Yeah, pretty tasty." As she wadded up the coat and set it, along with the helmet and her camera, on the seat next to her, I slid onto the padded bench opposite. A moment later Eriko, resplendent in her aqua 1950s-vintage waitress' uniform, made her way over with a hip-swinging walk that should have been accompanied by a burlesque show drum beat. "Hey, Eriko."

She snapped her gum and held up her pad and pencil. "Evenin', Doug," she said, smiling warmly. "Out on a date for once?"

I nodded. "Sorta." Across the table, Lisa wriggled and got a pleased look for a moment. I raised an eyebrow and asked her, "Do you trust me?"

"To the ends of the earth," Lisa said with a dreamy tone in her voice. I raised my eyebrow again, and she started. "Oh, you mean to order? Yeah! Sure!"

I laughed and turned back to Eriko. "Two coffees, one cream and sugar, one black with way too much Nutrasweet. A gyro, extra tomatoes, heavy on the sauce, for the lady. And my usual."

"Double bacon cheeseburger deluxe, hold the slaw, extra pickles, double fries," Eriko recited from memory with a grin.

I grinned back at her. "You got it. Perfect as always, Eriko."

"I do my best," she replied. She snapped her gum again, spun on one heel, and swivel-hipped her way back to the counter, to Lisa's unabashed astonishment.

"I think she's seen one too many American movies," I stage-whispered to Lisa, who got over her astonishment and snickered.

Then she fixed me with a determined look and said, "Okay, spill it. You're the Loon."

I sighed. I seemed to be doing a lot of sighing that night. "Yes."

"You have super-powers."

"If you mean metagifts, well, yeah."

"You're from another universe."

That still stopped me short, even though she'd intimated that she knew that much six weeks ago. "How the hell did you figure that out?"

She just gave me this knowing smile. "Trade secret."

I looked to the sky and saw a fluorescent light. "Remind me never again to befriend a reporter while trying to keep a secret identity." Lisa laughed out loud.

"Don't worry," she finally said, "I won't tell a soul. I swear on my family's honor. Tell me your story."

I thought for a moment. "Well, I guess the best place to start is my Earth."

"Your Earth?"

I raised an eyebrow. "Of course. What, did you think I came from someplace else entirely? No, born and bred on Earth. Just a different Earth from this one."

"A parallel universe!" Lisa whispered, her eyes wide.

"Not exactly parallel." I smiled and waved one hand at the view outside the plate glass window to my right. "Our two worlds' histories diverged in 1929."

It was at that point that Eriko came back with our coffee. We paused the conversation as she placed the cups before us, saying, "Here y'go, kids. Have fun," snapped her gum again, and wiggled off.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Lisa looked me straight in the eyes. "What happened in 1929?" she asked.

"A lot of things. But more importantly, what didn't happen? And the answer is, in this universe, what didn't happen was that no metahumans showed up. Ever. The Knight Sabers are the closest thing this universe has to metahuman vigs, and they're just mechanics."

Lisa looked over her coffee cup as she raised it to her lips. "Metahumans? Vigs? Mechanics?"

"Oh, sorry. Trade jargon. Metahumans are folks who were born with or somehow acquire abilities to do things normals can't: fly, punch through steel, see with sonar, stuff like that -- metagifts."

"And you're one of these metahumans."

"Yeah," I nodded, sipped my coffee, then continued with the definitions. "Vigs are vigilantes. Like the Knight Sabers. And mechanics are people who simulate metagifts with technology. Like the Knight Sabers."

"You don't like mechanics." It was a statement, not a question.

I shrugged. "I don't have anything against them, really, but a mechanic can have his 'talents' taken away and maybe used against him. It's a potential liability."

Lisa coughed diplomatically. "Okay, let's move past that. So, what happened differently when these metahumans showed up?"

"Well, as far as I can tell from my reading here, both our worlds had WWIIs that ran about the same -- not much surprise, until the 1950s there were maybe two dozen metas in the entire world and the ones in the military didn't make that much difference on the battlefield. After the war... well, I think it'd be better if I showed you." I reached down to my helmet where it sat on the seat next to me; I rotated the speaker housings to "on" and thumbed the volume to low. "Give me a moment, I have to set up to target only you, otherwise the entire diner's gonna get this. <System, load song 'I'll Play For You.' Play song,>" I said quietly to the helmet.

Seals and Croft immediately began singing, and I could feel the magic shape itself around me. Viewed in magesight, it would have appeared somewhat like a lens and somewhat like a cage, surrounding and connecting Lisa and myself. And unlike most of my other songs, it remained, slowly fading instead of vanishing immediately when I shut down the playback 10 seconds later. "<System, load song, 'We Didn't Start The Fire.' Play song.>"

With the new song's first notes, the fading structure blazed back to life; when Billy Joel began to sing, it focused all of the effects upon Lisa and Lisa alone.

"<Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray,
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio,
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, metahumans, television,
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe...>"

Lisa found herself plunged into a storm of sound and light; it was like standing in a hurricane of televisions, each one tuned to a different channel. After a moment, she realized that should could focus briefly on the images as they rushed past her, and began to make sense of the barrage:

A mushroom cloud, brilliant gold and white; an bespectacled man at a podium, surrounded by a dozen people dressed in costumes out of a comic book; a flash of a battlefield in a jungle, with gunfire and flame and beams of searing energy. An ancient television commercial in black and white, with a caped and cowled man hawking cereal; a fragment of newsreel, grainy and scratched, showing a man and a woman in tight stars-and-stripes costumes in front of a waving American flag; another newsreel with Cyrillic subtitles displaying a dozen men with Slavic features who demonstrated their metagifts for the camera.

The first metavillains, and the vigilantes that hunted them; the first "adventuring companies" of civilian metahumans; the growth of the peacetime metahuman military.

A wild-eyed, black-haired man in a room that might have been a court, howling accusations at a table full of costumed heroes; school children receiving injections; a young woman in a voluminous red robe receives an ornate crown in a church. A bonfire fed by books; the lynching of a black man set topsy-turvy when he explodes with light and kills his tormenters; a woman in a masked costume speaking from the podium of the United Nations General Assembly.

The images spun by, almost too fast to see. Lisa felt as if she were being yanked left and right, every new image pulling fiercely upon her, drawing her in and filling her up. Slowly she realized that she wasn't just watching...

"<We didn't start the fire,
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire
No, we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it.>"

A pitched battle outside the Kremlin; labor strikes in cities she realized were European capitols; a bank robbery, and a guard is reduced to ashes with a casual gesture from the masked robber. A coup in Argentina, led by a middle-aged man and a luminous woman with the wings of an angel; prosperity in North America as a pipe-smoking father in ludicrously antique clothing takes his family on a picnic in a bloated, swollen automobile; the Rising Sun used as a symbol by a growing reactionary movement that surges across Japan.

Primitive-looking battlesuits plow their way through the jungles of Viet Nam; Disneyland opens with a flying metahuman dressed as Tinkerbell swooping over the crowd; a burning church, and men dressed in white robes and hoods. Elvis Presley on a television screen; Nikita Kruschev pounding upon a table with a shoe; Budapest in ruins, inhabited by thin, scuttling figures.

... she was living it.

Decades of experience, dozens of lives, sights and sounds and touches and smells and tastes all poured into her and through her. She was a first-hand witness to the entire second half of the Twentieth Century, and she had forgotten that this was not the history of her world. She was too many people, in too many places, to remember the one person in the one place that was at her core.

"<Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac,
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, 'Bridge on the River Kwai'.
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball,
Starkweather, homicide, mutants from thalidomide...>"

A battle between metahumans over New York damages buildings and sends deadly debris plunging into the street; the Queen of England pinning a medal upon the massive chest of a giant man in a costume based on the British flag; a rocket climbs into space on a column of flame. Metahumans with nonhuman appearances are killed in gory public executions in the heart of Tokyo even as more "normal"-looking ones are celebrated as pinnacles of the Japanese race; a laboratory in which a scientist and a man dressed like a wizard collaborate over test tubes and ancient books; Soviet soldiers holding captive a manacled American metahuman whose wings of energy droop and trail upon the ground.

A breakneck speed-through of maternity wards the world over as a new generation of metahumans are born, some spontaneously, some triggered by some outside agency like radiation or mutagenic pollution; a wall is constructed through the center of Berlin; the Beatles waving to the crowd at Idlewild. JFK's head explodes as Oswald's bullet hits; Sirhan Sirhan fires upon RFK; Malcolm X is assassinated as he speaks from a podium.

She was hundreds of people, hundreds of viewpoints: American, Japanese, English, Chinese, Egyptian, Israeli, Russian, Brazilian, Swedish, Vietnamese, Australian, and more. She bore witness to the greatest triumphs and failures of a century, she took part in them all. She only barely remembered that she was Lisa Vanette; there were far too many others she had to be.

Freedom 7 and John Glenn; Apollo 11 with Armstrong and Grissom; the youth movement grows in Europe and America, and metahumans are there. Woodstock enchants a nation and births a half-dozen metahumans from its audience over three days; out of fear of the youth of America, Richard Nixon attempts to cancel the 1972 elections and fails; Indochina explodes in blood and rain as the French walkertanks crush all resistance.

Revolutions, coups, juntas; religious conservatism grows in America and the Middle East; demagoguery and hatred abound. The JSDF is disbanded, and the Nationalists re-establish the Japanese military, headed by the metahuman elite of the Home Islands; tensions grow worldwide as economies weaken and scapegoats are sought; the United Nations Security Council is called to session again and again.

"<We didn't start the fire,
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning.
We didn't start the fire
No, we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it.>"

The years spun by faster and faster, but there was no relief. She lived through the rest of the 1970s, as tensions rose. She exploded into the 1980s, as the U.N. reluctantly took action to halt the accelerating spiral of metahuman and military might and international conflict. The appointment of Warriors International as part of the enforcement effort. Familiar faces began to appear: Kat, Doug, the mysterious Maggie with her hidden eyes... a dozen more at their side. An Edwardian estate under a dome of shimmering light. Scores of metahumans of all descriptions fighting them. Battle after battle after battle; a man who looked like a vampire. The Warriors, all in black, escorting a horse-drawn carriage bearing a casket laden with flowers.

"<We didn't start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on...>"

She was hurtling through a tunnel lined with images, lined with lives, as underneath the song continued building to its end and a brilliant light appeared in the distance. The lives were now flashing by too fast to grab more than fragmentary pictures, and she was accelerating towards the light, the speed building and the detail blurring and world rushing around her and she entered the light and

* * *

Lisa was surprised to find herself still sitting in the diner with Doug. Wasn't that, um, what, 50 years ago? she thought, shaking her head to clear it. No, wait... it's only been a couple of minutes. My food isn't even here yet.

"Whoa," she murmured.

* * *

"Hell of a rush, isn't it?" I said, smiling not unkindly. "I don't use that song all that often, but it makes a damn good history lesson. I know I always spot something new in there."

Lisa stared into space for a few more moments, then shook herself. She shot a wide-eyed look at me. "How did you do that?" she demanded.

* * *

Back in 1993, a couple years before we figured out my metagift, Barbara Walters built one of her specials around the Warriors. Each of us got about ten minutes' air time, edited down from half-hour mini-interviews she did after she finished a week's stay at The Mansion. Walters pulled no punches. For instance, she asked Hexe thorny questions about her claim to be an incarnated weather goddess, and how that stood with various religious leaders. Dwimanor got grilled over the uproar raised by the Southern Baptists over the fact that he's a mage and Jewish. And so on.

She introduced me as "the court jester to the royal family of metahumanity", the sound of which I rather liked. After she got done raking me over the coals about my battlefield antics, she asked the question everyone always asks: "How do you do it? How does your metagift work?"

I smiled at the camera. "Did you ever hear a song that sent chills up and down your spine? That raised the hair on the back of your neck? A song that made you feel a power inside your chest that you could almost but not quite touch? And you knew that if you could only stretch your metaphorical fingertips that extra millimeter and touch it, you could do anything with it -- fly like a bird, punch out trucks, lift locomotives, jump over buildings, run forever, travel through time... be a god?"

Walters nodded, saying, "I think everyone has, at one time or another."

I nodded back. "Well, I can reach that extra millimeter. That's how I do it."

* * *

"The gods' honest truth?" I replied, and she nodded. "I haven't the faintest idea." For a moment, I thought Lisa was going to fall out of her seat. "The metabiologists at the U.N. used to call it a 'wild talent,' but that just meant that they didn't know either." I drew a deep breath and leaned back into the padded bench of the booth. "What a friend of mine and I have determined is that I am what you might call a shugenja -- a mage. Only I have a twisted and crippled version of the gift of magic."

"Twisted and crippled...?"

I nodded. "It's a negative mutation. I can't work magic like regular mages. I can't wave my hands and chant incantations and make things happen. I just have no conscious access to my magegift. But songs do it. No one knows why, and not for lack of trying. Something about the combination of music and lyrics feeds right into my subconscious or whatever and tells it what to do with my magegift. Not every song does something interesting, and I can only use a particular song once a day, but still..." I shot Lisa a smirk. "There are more than a few metabiologists and theoretical mages who've gone bald pulling their hair out over me. And a couple of wizards have politely requested that I never come near them ever again."

"Why?" Lisa still looked a little shaken.

I chuckled. "I gave them headaches. Literally." I tapped on my forehead just above the bridge of my nose. "Mil-spec migraines, every time I used my metagift. Anyway, I'm something of an idiot savant when it comes to magic. I can't learn the simplest spell, but I can do things that are impossible even for an Archimagus. And I don't know how I do it. I do have the mage sight, but of course I had to be taught how to use it, instead of coming to it naturally like every other mage."

"But magic isn't real!" she wailed plaintively.

"The hell it's not. One of my best friends is a full-bore beard-and-pointy-hat wizard." I paused a moment. "Well, not the pointy hat. Dwimanor wears tuxedos, actually. But that doesn't matter," I forged on boldly. "Magic is real. I do magic. Period. In fact, magical energy is rather plentiful here."

"Really?"

"Really."

"So why aren't there any wizards here?"

I frowned. "You know, that's a very good question. From what I've read here, your folklore is no less full of them than ours is. And if the node under the city is any indication, there's certainly power to spare. There ought to be someone using it, however crudely. But there isn't."

Eriko arrived with our food, and again we suspended the conversation until she finished laying the plates in front of us. She gave me a sly wink and then wandered off with her exaggerated "boom-bada-boom" walk. I just chuckled.

Lisa picked up her gyro and took a delicate, lady-like nibble at the pita before shrugging and biting off a large hunk of bread, lettuce, meat and sauce. After swallowing, she said, "Well, don't you need to be trained for years and years to use magic?"

"Welllll," I drawled. "Yes and no. The magegift is a natural thing, and it kind of 'wakes up' on its own when its owner is old enough. Or when a latent gift gets triggered. Then it gets pretty obvious -- there are some 'spells' that anyone can do without training once their talent turns itself on. One of the first signs that a person is a mage and that their gift has awakened is apportation -- items that they need spontaneously teleporting into their hands."

"Huh."

"Sure makes things fun around the house," I grinned, "especially for the parents of a particularly young and powerful mage. Fortunately, there're schools set up to handle that sort of thing." I took a bite of my burger.

Lisa nodded, wide-eyed, then stole a french fry from my plate. "You said something about a latent gift getting triggered?"

I nodded, still chewing, then swallowed. "Sometimes a person won't have enough of a magegift for it to wake up on its own -- or perhaps some psychological or physiological trauma won't let it. That's called a latent gift, and it's not just the mage talent -- just about any metagift can be latent. Anyway, sometimes enough exposure to mystic energies will trigger the awakening of a latent magegift. Like calls to like -- that's the Law of Sympathy. Power calls to Power."

"Law of Sympathy?" Lisa mumbled around her gyro, looking up at me over the sauce-smeared pita.

I gestured with a french fry as I went into lecture mode. "The Laws of Sympathy and Contagion -- two of the most useful principles of magic. Sympathy means you can use the essential similarity of two items as a link between them, for many varied purposes. Contagion is the principle that things that were once together or part of the same thing always retain a, um, 'memory' of that, kinda, and you can use that as a link, too."

"Weird..."

I shrugged. "Not really. It all makes sense on a quantum physics level. Some physicists think Sympathy works because the whole universe is really made up of a single subatomic particle bouncing back and forth through time, playing different roles on each pass through. Contagion works because atoms will always migrate between two adjacent objects, no matter how briefly they touch, and then sympathy effects come into play between them. Of course, the longer they touch, the more atoms migrate and the stronger the effect. Some researchers have suggested that both effects are the result of quantum mechanical entanglement." I shrugged. "They're just simple approximations, anyway. Sorta like Newton's version of gravity as opposed to Einstein's. They'll work for most mages' purposes. But if you want to do heavy-duty stuff, you need the detail versions. That's where the world-class wizards and world-class physicists end up collaborating, and accounts for their similarities. Both require an incredible mind for detail, an unbounded imagination, and a huge budget for experimentation." I took another bite from my burger, chewed, and swallowed. "The very best researchers are masters of both fields."

Lisa laid her gyro back down on the plate. "I thought science and magic didn't mix."

"They do and they don't. Magic operates by certain rules, and the same methods that work for understanding, say, how atoms decay, work for figuring out the rules of magic. But below a certain level, though, we're stumped." I scarfed down several french fries. "We know that magic is powered by an energy we've taken to calling 'mana'. We don't know what that energy is -- it doesn't fit into the normal framework of physics, although it seems to follow a lot of the same rules. Plus, magic too often functions as though it had some kind of rudimentary mind and common sense -- as though it were an intelligent being in its own right. That makes for a lot of confusion among researchers, believe me." I put down my burger and grinned. "All I know is that it's a real rush to use it."

"Then..." Lisa began.

She was interrupted by an explosion.

Our heads both swiveled to look out the window. Eriko's was in the middle of one of the more Bohemian areas of MegaTokyo, thanks to the proximity of the University. Unlike other parts of the city, you could be guaranteed of finding a fair sized crowd at just about any hour of the night.

At that moment, the usual crowd was running for their lives.

Six boomers leaped, ran and flew down the street after them, firing indiscriminately in all directions. One turned it attention ahead, towards the diner where we sat.

The inhabitants of MegaTokyo have excellent reflexes, I discovered that night. I was just starting to yell, "Down! Get down!", but the diner's patrons were already rushing out the front and back doors, leaving only Lisa and myself in the place. Lisa had slid under the table at first sight of the bots. I saw the red glow in the one boomer's open mouth, and decided to join her.

The beam shot was brief, passing through the window and burning part-way through the back wall. It set a couple of fires, but once the boomer had turned its attention elsewhere, Lisa and I dashed behind the counter and, grabbing a couple of extinguishers, made quick work of them. Still, when we were done, the diner was filled with choking smoke, so I motioned to the door.

* * *

We exited Eriko's to the screams of the injured and dying, and the wail of sirens. The bots hadn't moved as I'd expected; instead of being safely behind the lines, we were still in the killing zone. The air smelt of ozone and death, and to one side I could hear gunfire, the buzz of those stupid little helicopters the ADP used, and the occasional sharp crack of small artillery.

Down the street I could see a pair of smoking corpses, and I hoped that Lisa hadn't noticed them. I couldn't see Eriko or any of the other diner customers around, and I hoped that they had all gotten away safely. Damn, it's like Kuwait City all over again, I remember thinking. I spared a glance down at Lisa, who looked more determined than scared. "This is ridiculous! Why hasn't anyone shut GENOM down yet?"

"Plausible deniability," she spat. "That, and they own dozens, maybe hundreds, of politicians, from the wards all the way up to the UN."

"Shit." I couldn't stand still here much longer. There were people in danger. I could do something about that, so I had to do something about that. Call it a compulsion. Call it ethics. Whatever. But I also couldn't leave Lisa alone and undefended, not in the combat zone. I dragged her into the alley next to the diner and put on my helmet. "You know I have to act," I said as I fastened the chin strap and made sure the ear pieces were seated properly.

She nodded. "I know."

I pulled off the Harley patch and put my insignia back on. "I can't leave you here unprotected."

She shook her head. "Don't worry about me. Do it."

I smiled grimly inside my helmet, and twisted its external speaker housings to the "on" position. "I plan to. But first... <System. Combat mode on. 'Invisible Touch'. Play.>" As the intro began, I reached out with one gloved hand and tapped Lisa on the forehead. Under my fingertips, a rune-like tracing of light flashed golden. "Here. Take this. Defend yourself but stay out of trouble. And pay attention to the song -- remember, when it ends, so does this." Lisa's eyes went wide and her jaw dropped open, but before she could say anything, I spun and leapt to battle.

* * *

Lisa gaped as the sensation washed over her. Power, simple, sweet and pure. It flooded out from the spot on her forehead where Doug had touched her, and swept through her body, all the way to the tips of her toes and fingers, in a fraction of a second. It filled her to brimming, and she almost expected to see it shining out of the pores of her skin.

What... she began to think, but before she could complete the thought, something almost but not completely unlike a voice began to whisper to her. It was as though a forgotten memory had raised its head to sing sweetly to her of things she'd always known. How to attack. How to defend.

The power was hers to use.

The world seemed to slow around her as Doug bounded away. The sensation was incredible; her senses and mind seemed to be running a hundredfold faster.

For the first few milliseconds, wonder suffused her. Then indignation took over. How dare he tell me to stay put, after giving me this! She almost took a step, before realizing, If I do this, I'll be awfully conspicuous. I'm going to be noticed, and someone will end up asking me uncomfortable questions. I wish I had some kind of disguise or something.

The power stumbled in its whispering song, as if puzzled by her thoughts. It almost dissolved into cacophony, but rallied itself and, if anything, increased in intensity. Here, it said to her, here is how to do it. You are the first to ask.

Lisa's eyes widened even further, and a delighted grin spread across her face. Of course. But what to wear, what to wear? She found herself reaching for her favorite, beloved TV show. She almost giggled to herself as she laid her camera carefully on the ground behind a nearby dumpster, then stood in a spread-legged stance. She raised her hand in the air, and shouted out the completely unnecessary activation phrase for the sheer joy of it.

Lisa released the power and guided it into a complex web wrapped around her body, just as the song had instructed. A flash of regret suffused her as she rendered her clothing down to its component atoms in the first fraction of a second -- it was one of her favorite outfits, after all. But I can just put it all back the way it was when I'm done here, she comforted herself.

An eyeblink and a thought later, her new outfit -- durable, yet fetchingly attractive, and certainly evocative of certain classic themes -- snapped into existence around her body. She blinked a couple times behind her mask, not quite believing still what she had done.

* * *

It couldn't have been more than five seconds after I'd left her there by the club's back door. I was beelining for one of those annoying blue mothers when I heard her yell. I swear, she sounded half laughing, half triumphant. "Sailor Power Make-up!" Then I saw my shadow flicker on the ground before me as a bright light flared behind.

I skidded to a halt and turned around. I don't know what I expected to see. Whatever it was, it wasn't what I saw.

Lisa stood there, legs planted firmly in a wide stance, her right hand outspread and over her head. She was dressed in ... a miniskirted sailor dress?

It was mostly white, trimmed extensively in a bright, almost electric, blue. A huge bow of the same color was positioned strategically over her cleavage, with a glowing sapphire stone mounted in a brooch on its knot. A similar, smaller bow resided in the small of her back; I could see it peeking out on either side of her waist. On her feet were short-heeled, knee-high boots of blue trimmed in white, and matching opera gloves adorned her arms. Her face was covered by a three-quarter mask of electric blue that left only her mouth and chin uncovered. A shower of silvery motes swirled around her for a second or so, then evaporated.

Oh, and her hat-hair problem was gone.

It was, on the whole, perhaps the silliest outfit I have ever seen. And that's saying a lot, since I come from a world where every nutjob with a metatalent drools at the sight of spandex and leather. (Your humble narrator included.)

But I was less troubled by her fashion sense than by where the hell that damned outfit had come from. "Invisible Touch" was only supposed to give her simple TK -- a defensive shield and a ranged attack. Enough to keep her alive if anything went after her. That's the way it had always worked before. It had never done anything like this.

Maybe it was that damned node.

Unfortunately, the flash had gotten the attention of two of the boomers, who were now heading in Lisa's direction, so I didn't have time to ponder the situation. She noticed the bots, but instead of doing something sensible, like either running away or attacking, instead, she posed. Sweeping her hand in front of her, she pointed at the bots and in a loud, clear voice that carried very well, announced, "I am Sailor..." She hesitated a moment, then rallied. "I am Sailor Loon! Defender of justice and protector of the weak!"

I clapped a hand to my goggles and groaned. "What the hell does she think she's doing?" I growled to no one in particular.

Lisa continued unabated. "Boomers were made to serve people, not kill them! I hold no malice towards you poor machines, made mad and set upon the streets, but I cannot let you continue on your rampage. In the name of the Loon, I will punish you!" Then she brought her hands together in front of her and fired a telekinetic blast at the closer of the two boomers -- the only vaguely familiar thing in this entire situation. It was practically invisible -- little more than a ripple through the intervening air -- but it struck the lead bot in the chest, picked it up and threw it into the one behind. Both went down with a dull clatter of armor plates on asphalt, but they immediately began clambering to their feet again.

As Phil Collins piped on, I stood there, frozen by indecision -- do I rescue Lisa from her own over-exuberance, or go after the main group of bots and maybe save the lives of dozens? I weighed the dilemma as Lisa -- Sailor Loon, hah! -- launched herself telekinetically into a graceful 10-meter leap.

I cursed and turned to head off the other bots. At least for the next three minutes and five seconds, Lisa could take care of herself.

* * *

Lisa's grin collapsed as the two boomers hauled themselves back to their feet. Her instinctive TK blast hadn't even scratched their armor. Shit. They threw themselves at her even as they dropped their jaws to reveal the mirrored disks behind.

She saw the deadly red glow building, reflected in the collimating mirrors of the mouth cannons, and leapt. Without thinking about it, she added a telekinetic push as she jumped, and found herself soaring far over the boomers' heads in a graceful arc as their lasers seared the wall and door behind her. Remembering her gymnastics training, she tucked in her arms and legs, setting herself tumbling rapidly enough to make the short skirt of her senshi uniform flutter and snap like a flag in a high wind.

As Lisa reached the top of her arc, the two boomers beneath her skidded to a halt and clumsily tried to reverse course. Feeling herself starting to drop, she snapped out of her tumble, spreading her arms wide and kicking out her legs, arresting the her angular momentum and giving herself just a enough spin to end up facing her opponents. A quick burst of TK softened her landing; as she touched down she risked a glance that showed her that Doug was on his way to help the ADP. Over the distant sounds of gunfire and sirens she heard a snippet of song in English, as if it were being whispered into her ear:

"<She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah,
She reaches in, grabs right hold of your heart.
She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah,
It takes control and slowly tears you apart...>"

"Now that's an idea," she said to herself, a corner of her mouth threatening to rise. She let her new instincts flow through her, and brought her hands together in front of her. Concentrating intensely, she focussed her attack tighter and tighter, until it was a pinpoint, a needle of pure force. "HEARTBREAKER!" she screamed, and loosed the power.

As before, the forcebolt was virtually invisible as it ripped through the intervening space, but this time it roared its way there, scattering litter and dust in its wake. Once again, it struck the lead boomer. She was not disappointed by its effect. The cyberdroid howled as it was thrown back into the air; its chest armor gave a brief shriek of protest, then imploded with a shower of glass from the lenses hidden beneath. Lisa smiled, clenched her right hand into a fist, and lifted it to shoulder level.

Thrashing and howling, the boomer rose into the air chest first, yellow pus-like fluids and shattered tubing spraying from the gaping hole in its torso. Its self-repair systems were desperately attempting to seal the armor breach -- she could actually feel the living metal seeking a way around her grip and failing. She squeezed her fist and the boomer roared again as more liquid erupted from its chest.

The cyberdroid flailed wildly as it floated helplessly in midair. It tried to focus its mouthcannon on her, but she made a slapping gesture with her left hand and the mirror behind its jaws shattered.

"This is great!" she cried out as she toyed with the boomer. "I just wish I could take a picture of myself doing this! It'd make great top page material." She began to shake the boomer, and inspiration struck. "Wait a second! I can!" She reached out with the TK and scooped up her camera from its hiding place while maintaining her grip on the cyberdroid. Trusting to its fully automatic settings, she sent the camera circling around the battle site, snapping photos of herself from all sides.

The unexpected impact of a beam cannon upon her telekinetic shield shook her out of her reverie. Both the camera and the boomer dropped as she lost her concentration. Ack! I forgot about the other one! Idiot! Idiot! she thought as she dropped and lay flat, more from reflex than from anything else; her shield had protected her from most of the beam's force, and the armor-like material of her senshi costume had absorbed a great deal of the remainder. I'm still probably going to have a big bruise and a nasty burn, she mused as she probed her side. Serves me right for being stupid. Then it occurred to her. I don't remember putting up a shield...

As another laser glanced off the shield, she rolled to one side and tried to get a grasp on the fallen boomer again. It took several tries, but she managed to force a TK "hand" back into its chest, foiling the self-repair systems once more. She hoisted it back in the air and began using it as a shield, blocking the efforts of the second boomer to reach her. The immediate threat to her life at bay, her natural priorities came back to the fore.

My camera!

A quick glance around the battle site revealed her beloved digital camera battered but intact, perched in a pile of trash near the diner. She scooped it up with a telekinetic "hand" and brought it close, inspecting the damage. It was still functional, but she felt the red burn of anger grow in her breast. With a thought she slipped the camera back into its hiding place behind the dumpster, then turned to face the remaining intact boomer.

"You!" she shouted, pointing at the boomer. Her stance bore the same resemblance to her earlier pose that a stalking lion bore to a kitten. "You made me drop my camera. You almost made me break it." Her voice dropped into a low, dangerous tone. "For that, I'm not going to punish you. I'm going to demolish you."

And with that, she exploded into a frenzy of telekinetic energy. The disabled boomer whipped through the air like a club to smash into its partner again and again as she used it to repeatedly bludgeon the other cyberdroid. Refusing to give her target a moment's respite, she rained telekinetic bolts upon it too, driving it back into the alley. A pinpoint blast shattered its mouthcannon. A rapid fusillade disabled its jumpjets when it tried to flee. A plane of pure force sheared off most of its hands and claws. The unrelenting barrage of blows from the hammer that had once been its partner battered and dented its armor faster than its self-repair facility could handle.

Finally, Lisa had it pressed against a wall. One of its eyes had been smashed; the other flickered weakly, its intermittent red glow making it look as through it were blinking back tears. Lisa tried to smash it one final time with her boomer-bludgeon, but the makeshift weapon fell apart with a crash and a wet, sighing sound.

There was a moment of silence in the alleyway. The boomer almost seemed to cower before her. Yellow liquid dripped from where she'd broken its tubing and conduits, each drop's impact upon the ground a thundercrash roaring in her ears in time with her anger. The pooling fluid stank in her nostrils.

Lisa gave a wordless cry of rage as she brought her hands up before her and yanked them roughly apart, as though ripping a sheet of paper in two.

With a howl of tortured metal, the boomer tore apart in a spray of noxious yellow. Its halves flew in opposite directions, thudding dully, one after the other, into the pavement.

Lisa stood there a moment, panting, as her rage drained out of her like dirty water dropping into a sewer. Dully, she staggered over to her camera's hiding place. She knelt and retrieved it, then wrapped herself in a fetal ball around the camera and began to sob. She never noticed when the power disappeared from her mind.

It seemed like an eternity later when she found herself looking into Doug's eyes. His fingertips were under her chin, lifting her head up as he pulled off her mask. His helmet was on the ground next to them, and concern and fear skittered across his uncovered face. "Lisa?" he said softly, "Are you okay?"

* * *

"That can't be what it's like," Lisa sobbed.

The battle was long over; the ADP had at least not been slaughtered outright, and the Knights had shown up. I faded away as soon as I saw that familiar powered armor; I wasn't needed any more and I wasn't in full uniform, and I had a responsibility to Lisa. I found her curled up into a ball next to a dumpster, half-conscious and crying. She was uninjured, and two ruined heaps of plastic and metal testified that she had come out the victor in combat.

"What what's like?" I asked. We still huddled behind the dumpster, in the damp shadows that smelt of rotting food. I held her like a child, and she buried her face against my chest.

"Buh-being a hero. It's supposed to be noble, doing the right thing because it's right." She inhaled, a huge ragged gasp that rattled in her throat. "I didn't kill them because it was the right thing to do. I killed them because I was angry, not because I was protecting someone or... or..." she swallowed the end of her sentence in another wracking sob.

I shook my head. "It's not about what you're feeling when you're doing it," I said softly. "A hero is someone who does what is necessary to set things right because he can no longer stand seeing what is wrong." I gathered her up in my arms and held her tightly. "There is never nobility in the heat of battle, only necessity. What is noble is why you fight, and for whom, ultimately. And ultimately, you were fighting to protect people who couldn't have defended themselves against those boomers."

"But I got so angry! I didn't care about anything but making them hurt!"

I began rocking her gently. "So? Would it have made a difference to the nobility of the cause if you had attacked coldly and unemotionally, or used a sword or a gun instead of telekinesis? Anger is just another tool, another weapon to help you win the fight. Just remember -- like any weapon, it can be taken by the enemy and turned against you."

"Buh-buh-but how can you fight for good if you're angry?" she moaned.

I laughed softly. "Oh, no, not that old 'Dark Side of the Force' crap! 'Do not give in to anger, the way of the Dark Side it is!'" I said in a fair imitation of Yoda. "Bullshit! Haven't you ever heard of righteous fury? Of outrage at what is wrong? These aren't negative emotions, these aren't flaws. These are the response of a good person confronted with evil." I stroked her head for a moment. "Maybe what you're really upset about is finding out just how dangerous and deadly you can be."

"You think?" she murmured from somewhere in the vicinity of my Harley-Davidson patch.

"Yeah, I think," I whispered back. "And you know what?"

"What?"

"Everyone goes through it after their first live-fire fight."

"Even you?"

I laughed, louder this time. "Yeah, even me. I was a wreck for days afterwards. Got stinking drunk, too, and I don't drink." I chuckled at the memory. "There's a great big difference between knowing what you can do, and actually doing it. I scared the hell out of myself."

Lisa laughed a little, which was a good sign. "Come on," I said, "Let's get you home."

"Okay," she murmured.

I got her up on her feet and we went back into Eriko's to retrieve her coat (which was a little smoky-smelling but okay), as well as my spare helmet for the ride back. As she pulled the coat on, I shook my head. "And by the way, girl, just what are you wearing?"

She paused in buttoning the coat to look down at the brightly-colored miniskirt of the sailor suit, and blushed. "I'll tell you later."

So I let the topic drop. I drove us home, taking the long way to get around the remaining ADP road blocks, and I saw her to her apartment. I stumbled into mine, and was about to crawl into bed myself when she knocked on my door.

"I can't get it off!" she wailed, and showed me. While the boots, mask and gloves were easily enough removed, that sailor suit was another thing entirely. The damn thing had no zippers, no fasteners, and strangest of all, no seams. It was all one continuous piece.

It was also at least as tough as polykev. It resisted tearing, cutting and just about every destructive tool I could dig up in either of our apartments. To Lisa's (and my) immense embarrassment, I finally had to go get my helmet and use a song to disintegrate most of the damned thing. Right after which she blushed furiously, grabbed a robe and shoved me out her door. I did manage to grab one of the remaining scraps for future analysis, fortunately.

And now that I think of it, she never did explain to me what that "Sailor Loon" business was all about.

* * *

Saturday, January 3, 2037. 11:09 AM

"Katie, do you want to watch a video with Mommy?"

That was how it started, when she was only five years old. Her mother took out one of the aging video tapes that had been kept well out of Katie's reach and put it in the player. Then she and her daughter snuggled together on the couch to watch it. "This was Mommy's favorite show when she was a little girl."

I've never forgotten that -- any of it.

"Sailor Moon". Within a year, she had seen every one of her mother's tapes at least twice. By the time she was ten, she owned her own complete set on videorom, and she had her own Senshi uniform that her mother had made for her. Sailor Mercury was her favorite, because she was the smart one, and Katie was a smart one, too. And more than anything, Katie wanted to be a magical girl just like the Sailor Senshi.

Katie grew up into Kate, who discovered algebra, jukus and boys, but didn't forget the magical girls. She managed to submerge her otaku interests as she made her way through high school and into college, but never lost them entirely. Then Kate became Katherine after she graduated and entered the business world, and she found release from the stress of corporate competition by going back to the last remaining joy of her girlhood.

It was an eccentricity, but a quiet, tolerated one. One's fandom was a private affair, provided that the respective boundaries of fiction and reality were maintained and observed. Katherine was very good at that; few of her co-workers were aware of her... hobby. (Mr. Quincy knew; it appeared to amuse him, and he almost seemed to approve -- but that was ridiculous. Wasn't it?)

Katherine Madigan had been certain that there could be no collision between her private and professional lives.

Until now.

The boomers had been deployed as a standard part of a real estate acquisition program. They weren't intended to level the college neighborhood in which they'd been activated, but simply to wreak enough damage to lower property values and "encourage" tenants to leave. Their eventual destruction by the ADP and the Knight Sabers -- and of late, the Visitor -- was planned for. She had planned for it, calculating almost to the building number where the cyberdroids would be halted, and how much property devaluation they would cause along the way.

This time, though, something completely unexpected had interfered.

"I <kshh> Sail<skrrshkk>oon! Defend<krrrshkkkrsh>stice and protec<shhhkkkrsh>the weak!"

The playback was littered with static and artifacts, the result of the enhancement and reconstruction needed to extract it from the demolished boomers' all-but-destroyed combat recorders. The picture jumped and leapt about, from both the merger of the two records and the boomers' violent movement during the encounter. The images were half-obscured with snow, the sound more than half-missing, but the subject was clear.

There was a Sailor Senshi in MegaTokyo.

An impossible, ridiculous, silly, childish, magical girl.

Ridiculous, silly, childish, and powerful. And very, very real. The shredded and smashed remains of two standard combat boomers attested to that.

A Sailor Senshi.

Katherine Madigan didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The dream of her childhood. The last nostalgic icon left to her in her adulthood. The dread of someone who knew that she had sold her soul for success.

Damn Ohara! she snarled mentally, even though she knew it wasn't his fault, nor IDEC's. But six months ago the world had been predictable, controllable, profitable. Her future had been assured. Now... Now all was chaos.

There had been no emotional element to accepting Ohara's theories and proofs of the existence of other universes -- it had been just a flat, intellectual thing like a stock price or a production report: just one more fact catalogued and correlated with so many others. Then the Visitor came, with his insane abilities and insouciant, disrespectful attitude, and turned it all from cold data to pure visceral experience -- and opened her world up to the terror of uncertainty. First the Visitor, and now... a Sailor Senshi. What next? Out of an infinity of universes, who or what would come next to disrupt the orderly workings of GENOM's world, of her world?

Madigan shuddered.

The playback ended and without thinking she restarted it. At first, the technicians who had retrieved and rebuilt the recorder logs were hesitant to turn them over to her. But she had pointed out the realities of their positions with GENOM; they had rightfully yielded, and passed on to her the data units.

"I <kshh> Sail<skrrshkk>oon! Defend<krrrshkkkrsh>stice and protec<shhhkkkrsh>the weak!"

She was blonde, Katherine absently noted. The hair style was wrong, though, very wrong for either Minako or Usagi, and the full-face mask was totally unlike the modified domino that Sailor V had worn. The girl bore no jewelry but the brooch; clearly no tiara. And the colors were more like Sailor Mercury than Venus or Moon. "Sail... ...oon," Katherine whispered, touching the image on the screen with the fingertips of her right hand. "You can't be her. You can't."

Katherine had long ago ceased to believe in absolute good and absolute evil. But if the Sailor Senshi existed, then maybe they did, too. And Katherine knew, with despairing certainty, which side she had allied herself with.

"In <shhrak>ame of <kssshhk>oon, I <shhrrrsk>nish you!"

Beneath her fingers, the girl's image pushed forward with both hands and a faint rippling something shot from them. Whatever that ripple had been, it had punched a hole through a 65C's chest plating like a pencil going through a sheet of paper, according to the technicians. Not to mention the boomer that had been torn in half. Or the stupendous leap she had taken. No chance that she was an imposter, some deluded teen in a costume-shop special.

Katherine Madigan paused the recording and touched the image on the screen once again, the image of the girl who was everything that she herself had once wanted to be.

But it was too late for her now, she knew.

Far too late.

* * *

Saturday, January 3, 2037. 2:32 PM

"No!" I was trying not to shout.

"C'mon, Doug! You need this!" Lisa was nothing if not persistent.

We were in her apartment. She'd taken me out for lunch, partly as thanks for the dinner the night before (as incomplete as it was), and partly in thanks for, as she put it, "that whole experience." Over the meal she seemed to be of two minds about what she'd gone through, though, with one part of her thrilling over having -- however briefly -- a metagift of her own, and another part still in shock over not only the way things turned out, but what she had learned about herself. When we finished and got back to our building, she then invited me in to her place for tea.

And that's when she sprung it on me.

"Explain to me just why I need to have you write a tell-all article about me."

She frowned and pouted, and I swear she almost stomped her foot for a moment. "GENOM's spreading lies about you. The ADP is after you on general principles. God knows what the Knight Sabers think of you. You're the number one topic of conversation in Japan today, you know. We need to dispel the rumors and lies that are springing up around you."

"Look, Lisa, I'm trying to keep a secret identity here -- major interviews with the press are not part of the plan!" The woman could be exasperating at times, let me tell you.

Lisa huffed. "I wasn't going to put your name in the article, dummy! I'll say that you rescued me from a boomer last night, and I got a chance to ask a few questions before you disappeared on me." She got a sly look. "C'mon. I know you've got some pithy things you've been wanting to say to people about GENOM. This is your chance."

I grinned. "Oh, boy, do I have things to say about GENOM." Then I frowned. "But this isn't necessarily the right way to go about this."

Lisa set her hands on her hips indignantly. "Then, pray tell, what is the right way, if you're so smart?"

That stopped me short. "Um, well... um, back home I'd work with both PR and Legal and we'd draft a press release or some other formal announcement, and..."

"And if you just happen to be marooned in another universe far away from your PR and Legal departments?" I don't think she said it with any sarcasm, but I can't be sure.

"Um..."

She sniffed. "I thought so." She stepped forward and poked me in the chest with her forefinger. "You need me, Sangnoir. You're too used to working with a team, you know that? That's why you're trying to get on the Knight Sabers' good side, you know."

"I am?"

She nodded. "You are. You're doing the fighting evil thing you've always done, and you're looking for people to do it with, like you've always done."

I thought about that. Especially given what I had called up Kat's simulacrum to talk about, that made a lot of sense. "Damn. You're right." I peered down at her, a mock-ferocious frown on my face. "Hey. What have you done to the oh-so-proper-and-polite Japanese girl who used to live across the hall from me?"

Lisa snorted. "This is my business side, Doug. And I mean business. Like I said, you're too used to working with a team. And if you're trying to keep a secret identity, that's going to trip you up." She poked me in the chest again. "So," poke, "let," poke, "me," poke, "be," poke, "your," poke, "team."

"Say what?"

She rolled her eyes. "Let me be your team."

"What, as a miniskirted meta-girl?"

"Get real. I'm not ever going to do that again, if I have anything to say about it. I mean a support team. Let me run interference for you in the press, for example. Feed you whatever inside tips I can get my hands on. Like that." She crossed her arms over her chest and tried to stare me down.

I sighed. "And let me guess. This interview you want me to give is part one of your glorious plan to help bullet-proof my secret identity?"

She smiled sweetly. "Exactly."

I plopped down on the edge of her futon. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm not going to win this one?"

She crouched down in front of me with a smirk. "Because you're a wise and perceptive man who knows what's best for himself."

"Yeah, right." I sighed again. "Okay, let's get this done with."

Lisa stood, nodding approvingly. "Good. There's one thing I need to tell you about first, though."

"Oh? And what's that?"

She didn't say anything for a few seconds, then took a deep breath. "Doug, there's this company called 'IDEC'..."

* * *

Saturday, January 3, 2037. 5:13 PM

Linna drew a deep breath as she towelled off, and let it out with great satisfaction. There's nothing like a good workout. Ever since Sylia had reconfigured the testing simulator so that it could be used as a trainer as well, Linna had made frequent use of it. Mopping her head, she smiled slightly in satisfaction; Priss was going to be so annoyed to find out that Linna had finally made it to Level 12 -- first.

After a quick shower and an even quicker change into street clothes, Linna was looking forward to just getting home and collapsing. Joel, her current boyfriend, was out of town on business, and to her surprise she didn't mind as much as she thought she would. I guess that means this one's on the way out, too, she thought sadly. When am I going to find a guy who holds my interest for more than a month? Or whose interest I hold?

In her preoccupation, she almost didn't notice Sylia sitting alone in the dimly-lit records room, but the rapid staccato of gunfire caught her attention. She paused at the door, and looked in to see Sylia studying the mission playback console intently. The Sabers' leader was dressed in greys and blacks, and with the lights all but out, she seemed cloaked in shadow.

"Hi," Linna said from where she stood, one hand on the door frame.

Sylia started and whipped her head around to see who had addressed her. "Oh, Linna, hello." Without looking back at the console, she brushed a finger across a control, and the playback paused. "I saw that you were doing some training this afternoon, but I didn't know you were still here."

Linna smiled. "Yeah, I had the whole day free and no plans, so I decided to come down and make Level 12 in the simulator."

Sylia raised an eyebrow. "And?"

The dancer breathed upon the fingernails of one hand and then buffed them against her blouse with a grin. "Did it."

"Very good, Linna. Congratulations," Sylia said, smiling briefly.

"Thanks." Linna entered the room and pulled up a chair next to the other woman. "So what are you doing inside this bright, sunny day?"

Sylia frowned momentarily, and glanced at the multiscreened monstrosity on the table at which she sat. "Pondering events."

"Well, that's specific." Linna leaned back and stretched her legs out before her.

"Do you remember something you said right before the first time we met the Loon?" Sylia asked, turning to the console and hitting a series of keys. There was a flicker of static and then, four different viewpoints of a combat appeared.

"You do realize," Linna's voice echoed from the speakers, punctuated with grunts, "that we've seen more action in the last few weeks than we have in the entire year before this?" Sylia flicked her finger across a button and the playback froze again.

In her seat, Linna nodded as she recalled the moment. "Yeah, I remember. So?"

Sylia pursed her lips. "You were correct, of course. The number of rogue boomer incidents has skyrocketed since last summer." She spun in her chair to face Linna. "Why?"

"Why ask me?"

Sylia laughed gently, and relaxed. "I'm sorry, Linna, I didn't mean to suggest that you knew. It's just that, for so very long now, MegaTokyo has been in a kind of... balance. Ever since we stopped Largo at the fusion plant, there has been a kind of... truce isn't the word, but it will do. An understanding. GENOM does not push, and we do not push back. Boomer events are kept to a minimum, and most of those are truly rogues, not GENOM operations -- or so I believe."

"Up until last summer," Linna offered, and Sylia nodded in agreement.

"Up until last summer. Up until the first appearances of the Loon." Sylia glanced back at the monitors. In the center of the four paused images was the familiar form in helmet and leathers.

Linna leaned in to Sylia. "You think there's a connection."

Without taking her eyes off the screens, Sylia replied, "GENOM claims he's theirs, but appears to be letting the ADP take their time in 'recovering' him. But there are rumors -- and more reliable reports -- that say a GENOM subsidiary is actively pursuing him." She closed her eyes for a moment. "Or perhaps testing or analyzing him. According to my sources, someone with a lot of sensor equipment has been watching him in action."

"I wish them luck!" Linna laughed. "They'll just end up with what we got -- confused and more questions!"

Sylia nodded soberly. "Yes. That's what I'm afraid of. GENOM does not suffer frustration gracefully. What happens when these mysterious watchers reach their breaking point?"

* * *

16 Tokyo Day Times. Sunday, January 4, 2037. 8:55 AM

While the 16 Times' city room slowly filled with the weekend day staff, Lisa's hands flashed across the keyboard. She gave it a final flourish as she completed the article. There! she thought proudly. If that doesn't both obscure Doug's tracks and get me back on stories with real meat to them, I don't know what will.

She and Doug had stayed up half the night thrashing out exactly what was and, more importantly, wasn't, going into the article. No mention of Doug's extra-dimensional origins. A basketful of hand-crafted half-truths specifically designed to mislead any "hunters" on his trail. A careful dance around GENOM's motives in wanting him apprehended, while emphasizing his "natural" origins. And, as she had expected, Doug did indeed have more than few barbed comments about the megacorp; the problem was choosing which ones to use. That summed up the entire project: a surfeit of material from which she had to construct a believable "on the run" question-and-answer session. Working together, though, she and Doug had built an outline of the fictitious interview, and she had adhered closely to it while writing the article.

She grinned to herself. For the sake of verisimilitude, she and Doug had gone so far as to stage part of the interview for the microcassette recorder Doug owned. Even after midnight, the plaza of the Morita complex was subject to enough traffic noise to make the tape sound suitably authentic. And at the same time, it was private enough for them to take a few shadowed "head and shoulders" photos to go with the interview.

She glanced at the tape where it sat atop a stack of datadisks from her camera. I don't think anyone will ask for it, but it never hurts, she mused. Then she reached for the datadisks. Time to pick the best shots to go with the text.

She picked a disk at random and slotted it into the system. The image browser opened up, and Lisa hissed. Oh shit. These are the shots I took of myself as 'Sailor Loon'! What're they doing here? I thought I left them home!

A hand clapped unexpectedly on her shoulder. She squeaked in surprise and her hands twitched, sending the stack of data disks clattering to the floor. "Good morning, Lisa-chan," Kiyoshi bellowed jovially, as she dove out of her chair to gather them up.

"Good morning, sir," Lisa blurted from the floor as she scraped the disks into a rough pile and began to sit upright.

"Hmmmm. What's this?" Kiyoshi asked to the accompaniment of a series of mouse clicks. When Lisa's eyes broke over the edge of the desk, an all-too-familiar sinking feeling developed in the pit of her stomach. Kiyoshi was paging through and zooming in on the shots of her as 'Sailor Loon'. Worse yet, he'd opened up windows for several photos which clearly showed her in frame with the two boomers. A fresh wave of panic surged through her as she realized he was studying one of the first photos on the disk, which showed her holding her fist out as a boomer rose into the air.

"Very interesting, Lisa. Very interesting," Kiyoshi muttered appreciatively. "Another mysterious boomer-fighter? Where were you when you took these shots, Lisa-chan, running around on the roof tops?"

As she slid the unstable pile of disks back onto the desk, Lisa tried to shrug nonchalantly. "You know me, always climbing around, looking for the best angle." He doesn't realize it's me?

Kiyoshi made vague approving noises as he studied the photos. "Was this the same boomer incident that the 'Iceman' was reported in on Friday night?"

"Um, yes?" Lisa found herself answering.

"Anyone else there taking pictures?"

"Um, no?"

"Why weren't these on my desk yesterday morning?"

Lisa swallowed nervously. "Well, um, I was real close to the fight and I was kinda, well, shaken up and all by it, and well..." she closed her eyes and prayed that he would accept the lie, "... I stayed in bed all day and didn't want to get out."

Kiyoshi clapped her on the shoulder again, almost sending her to her knees once more. He nodded vigorously. "Right, came a little closer to death than you'd like, that can be a hell of a shock even for a grown man, let alone a young girl. I've had that reaction myself once or twice. I don't blame you." He turned for his office, then stopped. He looked back at her. "Give me 2000 words to go with those photos, Lisa-chan, and I think I can put it on the top page of tonight's edition."

Shit. He started for his office again, but, thinking quickly, Lisa called out, "Kiyoshi-san? I have something else you might want to print instead."

The editor turned, his eyebrows raised. "Instead? And what might this be?"

Biting her lip, Lisa said, "A first-person interview with the 'Iceman'?"

Kiyoshi's eyebrows climbed higher. "Also from Friday night?"

"Yes, sir."

"Documented?"

Lisa nodded, and snatched the microcassette off her desk to hold up to him. "I have most of it recorded, sir."

"Nothing from your mysterious sailor girl?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. By the time I got to the street, I couldn't see her anywhere." More or less true, too, she congratulated herself.

Kiyoshi peered at her suspiciously. "And how is it that you managed to corner the mysterious Iceman?"

Lisa tried to look as embarrassed as possible, calling on every iota of acting skill she'd picked up in college drama. "Well, Kiyoshi-san, it was a bit of an accident. While taking those shots, I got a little careless, and he had to rescue me from a boomer. As he got in the coup de grace, I slipped, and, well, I sort of... fell on him." She manufactured a sheepish grin. "I took advantage of the moment and his confusion."

He laughed. "You certainly have the kami's own luck, Lisa."

"My father always said a reporter shouldn't rely on luck, but make it for themselves," she replied with genuine feeling.

He nodded, an approving smile breaking across his face. "Yes. Yes, he did. Good job, Vanette-san. Give me both stories." He turned once more to go, then looked over his shoulder. "If I like what I see, I just may consider different assignments for you in the future -- at the very least so you'll be covered by our group insurance during your... exploits." He strode into his office and shut the door.

As she allowed the disbelief and shock to seep onto her face, Lisa slumped back into her chair. Oh dear gods. Both stories. Now what do I do?

* * *

Sunday, January 4, 2037. 11:27 AM

Priss' arm snapped out and struck silently, efficiently, and with a precision surprising in someone still three-quarters asleep. Even with her eyes closed and her head buried deep under the covers, she was able to punch the "voice receive only" button on her insistently-ringing telephone.

"You're going to die, whoever you are," she growled.

"And a good morning to you, too, Priss."

"Whaddafuck you want, Rick?" Priss slurred as she surfaced from the warmth of her blankets to glare balefully at the phone's disabled video pickup. "Whazzat you the other two times the phone rang?"

Priss could hear the smile in the keyboardist's voice, damn him. "I didn't want to leave this to your answering system, Priss -- I wanted to talk directly to you."

She rubbed her eyes and squinted at the light shining almost vertically through her partially-closed blinds. "Okay, you got me. Talk."

"Good news..."

"It had better be," she interrupted him with a snarl.

"I got a call this morning. There was an A&R guy from Sony-Virgin at last night's show."

Priss instantly came close to fully awake. "Go on."

There was a pause as Rick tried to build the anticipation, and Priss growled once more. He laughed. "They've been watching our soundrom sales while we were on tour, and they decided that between our sales and the way we work a show, we're the kind of act they're looking for. They want to sign us, Priss!"

"You're shitting me." But he wouldn't. Rick was a bit of a wheeler-dealer and a player-wannabe, but he wasn't a liar.

"Would I kid you? We have an appointment to meet with their regional A&R VP tomorrow at 10 AM, and after that, we go right to work coming up with our first soundrom for them!"

"Wait, wait, wait." Priss shook her head to clear it. "We have a contract already?"

"Well, not yet," Rick admitted, "but we will after the meeting. We just sign it and we're off."

"The hell we will. I'm not signing anything until I read it, or better, get a lawyer to read it. That's how I almost got screwed by that agent a coupla years ago." Gotta ask Sylia if she knows a good lawyer. Heh. Like there's any doubt of that.

"C'mon, Priss, get with the program! You get all prickly, these guys'll shitcan the deal."

"Not if they're legit, they won't. Chill out, Rick. You get all puppy-dog over-eager on us and we're gonna look like a bunch of idiots ready to get ripped off."

"But..."

"And if they do drop us, well, the hell with'em. If we're good enough for Sony-Virgin, we'll be good enough for just about everyone except maybe GENOM Music. It won't be long before someone else offers us the same or better deal."

"But..."

"That's it, Rick. Go back to your Casio and relax, got it?" And with that she hung up on him.

Then she screeched with delight, kicking her feet and flailing her arms to send her blankets flying into the air. "Finally!" she cried out triumphantly, then lay there basking in the sun with a silly-looking grin plastered on her face for the next hour.

* * *

IDEC. Monday, January 5, 2037. 9:13 AM

Daniel Ohara glanced around the table at his executive staff. "I managed to reach Madigan last night. She maintained that Friday's rogue boomer event was exactly that -- a shipment of 65Cs destined for USSD that went haywire and took off on their own." He frowned and repositioned his glasses. "They had originally been part of a force deployed in the Polar War, and Madigan says her technicians believe that their control circuits failed due to accumulated combat stress."

Across the table, Hiroe Miyama snorted, much to the amusement of the other pair present.

Daniel flicked his eyes over to rest on her for a moment. "Well, yes, we know how dependable GENOM's boomer technical support is, so of course we have the greatest confidence in their analysis. Anyway," he continued, still deadpan, as Tony and Illya coughed and choked, "in regards to any data available from the recovered boomer remains, there isn't any. Madigan said that between the ADP, the Sabers and the Visitor, no sensor recording remained intact for us to study."

"That's impossible!" Tony objected.

Illya chuckled. "By now you should know, Tony, where involved the Visitor is, is not to use the word 'impossible.'"

Hiroe looked pensive. "I've been browsing the newspages all weekend. There are some very strange eyewitness reports -- stranger than usual, that is," she amended as Illya smiled and raised a forefinger. "Last night, the 16 Tokyo Day Times reported -- and documented with photos -- that a Sailor Senshi appeared on Friday night and destroyed two boomers by herself."

"A what?" Daniel frowned in confusion.

"A girl of magic from Sailor Moon, a 40-year-old anime," Illya offered. When he saw the looks Hiroe and Tony were giving him, a perplexed expression appeared on his face. "What? What? The videoroms I buy for my youngest! The show she loves!"

Tony snickered. "Yeah, right."

"What supposed to mean is that?" Illya demanded.

"Settle down, people," Daniel rumbled. "So, what are the implications of this... Senshi?"

"Well," Hiroe huffed, "I don't think I need to point out that Sailor Senshi are not native to this universe. We appear to have a second Visitor. And..." She trailed off.

"And?" Daniel prompted.

Hiroe took a deep breath. "It is my recommendation that we simply ignore her."

"Explain."

Hiroe began to tick off on her fingers. "One, Madigan and GENOM are treating this 'Senshi' as if she didn't exist -- otherwise we'd likely have orders by now about her. So we are under no extra obligation to chase after her like we are the original Visitor. That's the most important immediate consideration."

Daniel fixed his gaze on her. "But there are others?"

Hiroe nodded. "Let us assume for the moment that Sailor Moon is reasonably trustworthy as an information source. This Senshi is then one of a troop of similarly-powered girls, who will no doubt be looking for her and may arrive en masse to rescue her. The clothing she is wearing in the photos resembles the uniform of the weakest of the Sailor Senshi -- and according to the article she took out two combat boomers by herself. Do you really want to risk a potential hostile confrontation with almost a dozen entities each of whom at the very least will equal and at worst may well outrank the Visitor and his technology in raw power?" She gave Daniel a pointed look. "Furthermore, they're the good guys in their show. I'd rather we didn't do anything that put us in the potential 'bad guys' category. Their enemies had a tendency to end up very thoroughly defeated, if not dead."

Tony and Illya silently traded glances across the table.

"Are you seriously asking me to accept an analysis based on an ancient children's anime?" Ohara demanded.

Hiroe spread her hands. "We're scientists. We work with facts whenever possible. And all that we have that passes for facts is this anime. What do you suggest we base our plans upon?"

Daniel scowled. "I don't like the apparent coincidence of having yet another extradimensional visitor show up here. In addition to everything else we're handling these days, we're going to go back the lab, take apart the pinhole projector, go over our records, and make absolutely certain that nothing that we did last June is responsible for their arrivals."

Around the table, the other three nodded soberly.

"Good." He looked down at the papers in front him. "Now, since GENOM is not requiring us to chase down this... sailor girl, I'll accept your recommendation. Anything else?"

Hiroe cleared her throat.

"Is there something else, Hiroe?"

She nodded. "Yes. Two things. The first is something I don't think you've realized yet. If this Senshi is indeed another Visitor, we have something more than just new technologies to consider." She glanced around the table. "Our little sailor girl there kicked butt and took serial numbers. She was most likely at the peak of her abilities. And that's where the problem is."

Ohara shook his head. "I don't follow."

Hiroe looked him in the eye. "Daniel, the Sailor Senshi are magical in nature. Magic. And this one certainly displayed no signs of any kind of weakness. Hell, one of those photos shows her taking a boomer's laser cannon head on and surviving." She took a deep breath. "It means all bets are off. It means that there's real magic out there in other universes. It's strong. And it works here. There's magic loose in our world now, and no matter what we do, we may not be able to unravel that, regardless of how many sensor sweeps we perform."

"Bull," Tony declared, as Illya looked thoughtful. "Just because we don't know what she did doesn't mean it's magic. More likely, it's just an advanced technology."

Hiroe rolled her eyes. "'Just,' he says."

"Yes! Why assume something unrealistic like magic when science would do just as well? Occam's Razor, Hiroe! Perhaps it's advanced gravitics of some sort, like GENOM's been trying to make work for a decade or so now." Tony sat back and looked smug.

"Except progress from boomer gravity gun to gravity control is going at speed of development from fusion bomb to fusion generator," Illya offered. "Slower, even. And I presume shows no sign this Senshi does of the power pack, the hyperdense projector unit, or even anything that might like a gravity manipulator look. Or any other device. Else Hiroe would it mention. If this magic is not, it might as well be."

Hiroe nodded. "Clarke's Third Law. Still, the primary source specifies real magic..." Her forehead creased as she frowned briefly. "God, listen to me. Can you just imagine telling anything about this to Madigan? She'd laugh her ass off and then can us faster than we could blink."

"Thankfully," replied Ohara, "that's not yet a problem we have to face. At least not until this... Sailor Senshi becomes part of our orders." He took off his glasses and concentrated for a moment. "Now, you said there were two things. What was the second?"

"Right," Hiroe said. "The same newspaper that has the Senshi photos has an interview with the Visitor."

Daniel closed his eyes. "Why am I not surprised?" He opened them again, and replaced his glasses. "I'll want to read it, of course."

Hiroe nodded again. "I bought extra copies after seeing the stories, and I've already sent two of my people to talk to the reporter involved."

"Good."

He shuffled his papers again. "Pending that, we need to talk about the next attempt we will make on the Visitor." There were groans around the table, and he gave a sympathetic smile. "I know, I know. But we have been given a large stock of boomers, and Madigan has made it very clear that we will continue making an effort, or else."

Tony looked disgusted. "The fact is, we're having shitty luck trying to contain him long enough to get a good analysis. Forget about capturing him. He keeps pulling incredibly advanced technologies out of his ass, and we can't anticipate what he'll be capable of next. I swear, the man's like some... sort... of... magician..." He let his gaze rest upon Hiroe. "Don't you say it. Don't you dare suggest..."

Hiroe shrugged. "I don't know. It would explain a lot, though, don't you think? At the very least it's another very good reason to study him," she pointed out, and Tony glared at her.

"Yeah, if we can get him to stand still long enough to figure out how what he's doing works. We've been having notably little success at that."

"Then," Illya said, "in one place we must make him stay."

"How?" Tony demanded.

"We the boomers have," Illya smirked. "Make of them a, how do you say, a dogpile?"

"Gang up on him and just hold him down? Forget about trying to make it look like a random boomer incident?" Daniel's forehead creased as he considered this.

Illya nodded. "Why not?"

Hiroe smiled, ever so faintly. "And we leave the PR problem in GENOM's hands."

"Right!" Illya cried. "But the Knight Sabers we must distract somehow, or work it will not. They to his aid likely would come."

"You have an idea?" Hiroe asked.

"Sure!" He slapped the table. "We hire them! On a job far away or very difficult we send them, so that by himself the Visitor must the boomers face. And then on him the boomers sit, we our readings get, and maybe him we capture. Or at least ask him with us to come, eh?" He grinned.

"And we pay for this with GENOM's expense money!" A slow grin spread across Tony's face. "I think I like this plan."

"But what are we going to hire the Knight Sabers to do?" Daniel asked wearily.

Tony chuckled. "Check the corp newsletter, and pick whatever department or facility got the 'GENOM Highlight' article this week, and have them raid it for their current big project."

"Oooh, I know, I know," Hiroe laughed. "Have them trash Madigan's office!"

Daniel allowed himself a smile. "I think that would be overdoing it a bit. But a mid-range facility outside the Tower with a secure project or two might make a believable target."

Tony had pulled out his PIMtop and was furiously scrawling on it with the stylus. "I'll do a little searching around for just the right place. I should have something by this afternoon." He looked up. "Now we just need to find a way to contact them."

"No worries, friend Tony," Illya said. "That I will do."

"How?" Hiroe demanded.

Illya smiled secretively and tapped his finger against his nose. "I my ways have."

"Cousin Bradford?" Daniel asked.

Illya nodded, grinning. "Cousin Bradford," he agreed.

* * *

Monday, January 5, 2037. 7:11 PM

"That was a very interesting pair of articles in the 16 Times, Lisa." Looking up from where she worked on the logs from Friday's deployment, Lisa noted that Sylia looked even more restrained than usual.

This, thought Lisa, is a bad sign. Bad enough those two geeks from IDEC spent the best part of the afternoon hassling her. She didn't need Sylia on her case now, too. "Yeah, well," she began.

Sylia stepped closer to the desk and its hydra-headed system, but stayed far enough away that she did not seem to loom menacingly over the smaller woman. "It's very curious that no one has ever had a chance to talk with the Loon for more than a few seconds, yet you managed to corner him for an entire interview."

Lisa felt a flush of anger surge into her. "Are you insinuating something, Sylia?" Boss or no boss, friend or no friend...

"I'm not suggesting that you fabricated your interview, Lisa." Sylia's mollifying words were delivered in the same rigidly controlled voice, and whatever comfort they might have offered bled away into Sylia's icy tones. "I want to know how you persuaded him to stand still for what had to be at least fifteen minutes' worth of questioning. And I want to know why this information went right to your newspaper instead of us."

"I wasn't aware I was supposed to pass my news stories by you first for approval, Sylia." She wants to pull this cold bitch number on me? Fine. I can do it too, right back in her face.

To her satisfaction, Sylia seemed taken aback by that. As the leader of the Knight Sabers paused for the merest of breaths, Lisa mentally toted up a point in her favor. "I was not suggesting censoring your work, Lisa. The Loon is of interest to the Sabers for a number of reasons, as you know. Any intelligence on him should at least be shared with the organization." Her calm voice somehow managed to sound accusatory.

Inside, Lisa seethed, but managed to keep it from her face. "I didn't know that I was under an obligation to do so."

Sylia pursed her lips and appeared nonplussed. "Well," she responded, "nothing in the letter of your agreement with us actually requires it, but by the spirit..." She trailed off, leaving the rest to Lisa to fill in. "I would simply appreciate learning what you have discovered from you, not from my morning newsfax."

"If there had been anything I thought was immediately important, Sylia, believe me, I would have told you." Lisa turned back to the monitors in front of her, hoping Sylia would get the hint.

Instead, Sylia stepped closer and leaned in to Lisa. "Immediately important? Lisa, anything about that... that person is important! He is a dangerous unknown in the middle of an explosive situation. For now, he appears to be on our side, but who knows if and when that might change? Anything you know, anything at all above and beyond the... the... fan magazine trivia you printed about him, could make a critical difference in a future mission! I am not content to assume he is an ally simply because he acts like one -- it is, in fact, the number one ploy I expect GENOM to use to destroy the Sabers some day!"

"But..." Lisa began, then clamped her mouth shut in horror. Shit. I almost blabbed about Doug to Sylia... I've got to watch myself or I'll screw up big!

"But nothing!" Sylia continued, missing Lisa's aghast expression. "I cannot afford to trust an ally that I myself have not groomed or at the very least verified. As long as he is a mystery to us, he is at best a neutral, and at worst a possible enemy. And any information on him can make the difference between being prepared and being the recipients of a possibly fatal surprise." She stood straight again and neatened the hang of her bolero-style jacket with a quick tug. "Do you understand me, Lisa?"

That Sylia was right burned a cold light of realization in the back of Lisa's mind, but did nothing to soothe her resentment; instead it served only to enflame it. Lisa suppressed a scowl that she desperately wanted to wear. "Yes, ma'am," she snapped.

* * *

Monday, January 5, 2037. 8:17 PM

After the fifth re-read, Leon put down the newspaper. Well, that's that, he thought. Now he's giving interviews, and a second new vigilante has shown up. He steepled his fingers and looked out over them at the living room of his apartment.

This is starting to get out of hand. It was bad enough when he was an open secret shared by GENOM and the ADP. But now the Loon's turning into a public figure. Leon shook his head and stood, stepping to the large window from which he could look over his neighborhood. I can abide by vigilantes if they at least try to keep a low profile, like the Sabers. Hell, some people still think they're nothing more than urban legends! But the city can't have a vigilante celebrity -- it would claw away at what little respect people have left in the authority of the ADP and the N-Police. And how long until the Loon makes matters worse by turning that alleged wit of his away from GENOM and onto us? He stared out over the lamplit streets below and watched the traffic go by as a gentle flurry of snow sifted down.

"Hypocrite," he said aloud to his reflection in the darkened glass of the window. "What little authority we have is what GENOM's lapdogs allow us."

"But," he countered himself, "We still do some good. And the public still believes in us. That's important, perhaps more important than anything but actually doing the job. As long as the people have faith in us, they have hope that things will improve. And anything that erodes that hope is as much a crime as allowing a boomer to go rogue."

He stood silently for several minutes as the pedestrians and the snow drifted by outside. And what if the Loon gets any more careless about his kills? he mused as he thought of the slagged and ruined superboomer recovered from the bottom of Tokyo Bay, the cause some weeks ago of flood damage all along the shoreline.

We're going to have to take him down. Hard. Even if it is what GENOM wants. And to do that, I need more information than we have already.

He shifted his focus to stare at the reflection of the living room, and his eyes fell upon the telephone. I think it's time to call in the marker on a favor they don't know I've been doing them. But which one should I contact? He didn't want to speak directly to their leader, not yet. He'd be far more comfortable with an intermediary. That left him only two choices, really. But which one? He frowned at his reflection in the window as he weighed his options.

Finally, Leon turned from the window and reached for the phone. He almost drew his hand back from the dial at the last moment. Then he steeled himself and punched in the number with button-presses that were firm, decisive, and hard enough to muffle the usual "click" with the duller "tok" of the keys energetically hitting bottom.

He took a deep breath as it rang. "This is the point of no return," he whispered to himself.

The phone's video screen flickered to life as the recipient picked up on the other end. "Moshi-moshi?"

Leon nodded a greeting. "Hello, Nene. I have a proposition for your boss. Your other boss."

END OF CHAPTER SEVEN

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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.

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

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

"Maggie 'Shadowwalker' Viel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.

"Dwimanor" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Joseph Q. Avins.

Lyrics from "We Didn't Light The Fire" recorded by Billy Joel, written by Billy Joel, copyright © 1989 by Joel Songs (BMI). Lyrics from the alternate version of "We Didn't Light The Fire" written by the Billy Joel of Warriors' World and copyright by him.

Lyrics from "Invisible Touch" recorded by Genesis, written by Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford, copyright © 1985 by Philip Collins Limited, Anthony Banks Limited, Michael Rutherford Limited.

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: Joe Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Berg, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Helen Imre, and Eric James. Additional prereaders for future chapters welcome.


This page was created on February 25, 2000.
Last modified January 09, 2015.