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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

 

 

8: Of Course You Know This Means War (Part I)

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain. -- G'Kar, "Z'Ha'Dum," Babylon 5

Never invoke the gods unless you really want them to appear. It annoys them very much. -- G. K. Chesterton

 

Monday, January 5, 2037. 8:45 PM

"Calm down, Nene." Sylia glided to Nene's side and handed her a cup of tea before seating herself next to the younger woman. Behind them, Nene's coat lay draped over the back of the sofa, shedding clumped and melting snow. "Now, what did he say?"

Nene shivered as she took the tea and slurped a long drink from it. Raising her face to look at Sylia, she whispered, "He said that he's known all about my 'night job' for years." She laughed. "Maybe he meant my 'knight job' -- I wouldn't put it past him. He said he's been covering for us, and giving us help here and there for a long time -- like that disk of information on the Loon he asked me to hold a few weeks back." She took a quieter sip from her cup. "He gave it to me because he knew it would end up in our archives. Now he wants something in return."

Sylia raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"

"Everything we know about the Loon that ADP doesn't."

"Why?"

Nene put the teacup down on the coffee table before her. "Leon's going to try to arrest and prosecute him for vigilantism."

Sylia rose and stood before the great plate glass window that made up one entire wall of her penthouse. Outside, snow swirled, grey-white in the light that leaked out from the living room, and built up into drifts upon the patio. For several minutes she said nothing. Nene began to squirm, and took up her tea again to calm herself. But it ran out quickly, and soon Nene found herself squirming once more.

The snowdrifts built slowly. Finally, Sylia spoke. "I'm going to need to think about this overnight, Nene," she said without turning around. "In the meantime, find out what his plans are for after he arrests the Loon."

"Sylia?" Nene stood and took a step towards her friend and employer.

Sylia continued watching the snow. "Find out if he's only going after the Loon, or if he's planning on pursuing all of MegaTokyo's vigilantes."

"Um, sure, I can, I can do that," Nene stammered.

"Very well," Sylia said. "Good night, Nene. Please lock the door behind you when you go." She showed no signs of moving from her place before the window.

"Um, yeah," Nene murmured as she gathered up her coat. "I'll just be going, then." Stuffing it under one arm, she dashed to the door and opened it. Then she paused and looked back. "Good night, Sylia."

"Good night, Nene."

Nene bit her lip, stepped out the door, and closed it behind her.

* * *

The Beanery. Monday, January 5, 2037. 9:12 PM

Linna paused just inside the coffeeshop and shivered in the last gust of frigid air that slipped in through the closing door. She stomped her feet to shake the snow off her boots, then unbuttoned her cloak-like coat and slid it off her shoulders. Hanging it on the last open hook on the wall, she scanned the crowd until she spotted a familiar face. Her quick and confident stride through the dark, aromatic bistro brought her to her friend's table in a few brisk steps while at the same time attracting no few admiring eyes. "Hi, Priss," she said.

The singer looked up from the large, and empty, cup in front of her. "Heya, Linna, thanks for coming out in the snow." Despite the many customers in the shop, there was a ring of empty tables around her.

Linna slid effortlessly into into a chair next to the singer. She smiled and shrugged. "No problem, you know that. So, what's the word? You did talk to those music people today, right?" She brushed a hand through her hair and flipped the dark locks back above her headband.

Priss nodded in the near darkness, her lips quirked oddly such that Linna couldn't tell if she were smiling or not. "Yeah, I did."

"And?" Linna snorted.

"And," Priss said, "they offered us a contract." She picked up her mug and stared at the drying coffee left inside.

Linna waited for Priss to say more, but quickly grew impatient. "Well?" she demanded. "That's good, isn't?"

Priss nodded almost imperceptibly. "Might be. Won't know until Sylia's lawyers finish going over it." A pensive look crossed her face. "Did you know that Sylia keeps an entire firm of entertainment lawyers on retainer?"

Linna, who had been searching the coffeeshop for a waiter, snapped her attention back to Priss. "You're kidding."

"Nope."

"But why?"

Priss shook her head. "I don't know. And to tell you the truth, I don't even want to think about it." She looked over at the dancer and flashed a momentary grin. "The Reps are going nuts, you know. They wanted to sign the contract right then and there. They think I'm crazy, being this careful about our big break."

Linna caught the eye of a waiter across the floor and waved. "Are you?" she said as she gestured.

Priss shrugged. "I know better than to jump at the first offer we get -- unless it's as good as it can possibly be."

The waiter appeared by their table. "Latte, please," Linna said, and with a bow he vanished. She turned her attention back to Priss. "And is it?"

Priss looked back into the depths of her mug and nodded fractionally. "It's pretty good. They're serious about it."

"So, when Sylia's lawyers give the okay, you sign, you get rich and famous, and everything's cool, right?" Linna flashed a confident smile at her friend.

"Yeah, well..." Priss trailed off, still staring at her empty mug.

Linna leaned in to her, confusion plain on her face. "Well what?"

"One of the terms of the contract is that they want us to use a studio in Osaka," Priss murmured.

"Osaka?" The waiter, latte in hand, materialized and set the mug down on the table before Linna before vanishing once more. Linna lifted it to her lips and blew gently on the hot liquid within.

Priss nodded. "They said that GENOM Music's got all the good studios in town under exclusive contract for their own artists' use. Anything we could find open wouldn't be up to Sony-Virgin's standards." She slammed the mug down on the table. "They're building a studio complex in town right now to try and break GENOM's stranglehold, but it won't be done for a year or more."

"Mou..." Linna whispered, and took a tentative sip from her latte.

"So I'm stuck again," Priss growled. "Music or..." She looked around for eavesdroppers with a fierce glare, but found none. "Or my other work. Dammit." She quirked one corner of her mouth up as she glanced over at the dancer. "Maybe Sylia will let me open up a branch office in Osaka?"

The image of Priss in her hardsuit, sitting behind a big mahogany desk in a plush leather chair and ordering around lackeys and office ladies with a cigar in hand, rose up in Linna's imagination and she couldn't help herself -- she burst out in laughter.

"What's so funny?" Priss growled, and between giggles, Linna tried to explain. When she finally succeeded, Priss, too, began to laugh, and together they attracted discreet attention from the other coffeeshop patrons with their whoops and snorts.

Finally, their laughter trailed off, save for sporadic giggles -- mostly from Linna, but Priss contributed a few of her own. "Damn," she said. "That's what's the worst part of this. If I go to Osaka, I've gotta leave you guys behind. It was bad enough on tour, but this..." She took a deep breath, and Linna was suddenly certain that Priss -- Priss! -- was only barely holding back tears. "You, and Nene, and Sylia -- you're more than just friends, you're like family to me, like sisters, you know that? And I don't like having to leave you behind." She snatched up her empty mug and banged it once more on the table, much to the consternation of their waiter, who reappeared to snatch it up the moment she let go of it. "I feel like I'm gonna be abandoning you because I'm being selfish."

Linna smiled gently and shook her head. "Priss, you're not being selfish, and you won't be abandoning us. You're just going to Osaka, not New York or London or... or... or Genaros! You go, you make your record, you kick ass, and you come back able to dictate terms because you're a huge star, you got that? You'll be so big you'll get them to build a special studio just for you here in MegaTokyo. And then you'll never leave again, and we'll all be together forever and ever, right?"

Priss glared at her, but it was half-hearted. "You're either making fun of me, or you're being silly."

"I'm only being a little silly," Linna said, and ruffled Priss' hair fondly. "Imoto-chan."

Priss growled, and grabbed Linna's wrist. "'Imoto-chan'? I'll give you 'imoto-chan', obaba!"

Linna's only response was another peal of laughter.

* * *

Tuesday, January 6, 2037. 9:01 AM

"AD Police, Sergeant Romanova speaking!"

"Good morning, Nene."

Nene shot from her comfortable slouch into a ramrod-straight posture, her aging chair squeaking its protest at the sudden movement. "Oh, hi, Sylia!" she burbled as she triggered the scramble for the phone line.

"Have you spoken to Inspector McNichol?"

Nene glanced across the squad room to where Leon sat at his desk, chatting animatedly with a smirking Daley Wong. "Yeah, I cornered Leon this morning before the shift started. He said he was just going after the Loon. Something about him being 'too visible'."

Sylia's image nodded sagely. "Do you believe him?"

Her gaze still upon Leon, Nene thought for a moment, then gave a quick, decisive nod. "Yeah, I do."

"Very well. Tell him I accept his proposition, with the following caveats. He has to understand that although I am willing to pool resources, we have little more substantial information than he does. Our scan data won't help him arrest the Loon."

"Understood, Sylia. What else?"

"He is only to contact us through you. And he is not to press for more than we are willing to give. I don't care what he already knows, Nene, we still have secrets that I am not willing to reveal."

The cold steel in Sylia's voice made Nene swallow nervously. "And if he does press?"

Sylia raised an eyebrow. "Deflect him, Nene. I have faith in your abilities."

Nene let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Oh! Okay."

"Did you think I was going to suggest something more... drastic?"

"No! No, no, not at all." But she had... the Last Rule had never completely lost its terror for Nene, even when it had been tacitly abandoned.

"Nene." Sylia's cool voice drew Nene out of the momentary fugue into which her fear had driven her. "No matter how troublesome," she smiled slightly, "Leon might become, I will not enact that... sanction... against him. Even if he were to divine all our secrets. The immediate benefit of such an act would be far outweighed by its long-term consequences." Her expression grew softer, more sympathetic. "I know he's your friend as well as your coworker, Nene. You needn't worry."

Nene wasn't sure why her eyes seemed to be misting slightly, but she quickly rubbed them and nodded to the telephone camera. "Okay." She flashed an uncertain but apparently reassured smile. "Thanks."

Sylia smiled. "You're welcome, Nene." She looked down and touched something off the edge of the screen with one hand. "I'm transferring an encrypted archive of the information to your machine right now."

* * *

Tuesday, January 6, 2037. 7:41 PM

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Leon said, staring dumbfounded as Nene inhaled a bowl of udon. "I thought you said you wanted to talk over 'a quick bite'?"

Nene paused in her wholesale consumption and poked her chopsticks in his direction. "Hey, don't be such a meanie. I was hungry after such a long day. And you can certainly afford it."

"I'm not sure that subsidizing your personal famine relief efforts was supposed to be part of the deal." Leon frowned, but the expression turned out so comical that Nene giggled. He tried valiantly to maintain his glower, but her amusement was infectious, and he was forced to crack a smile. This only delighted her more, and she laughed aloud, drawing looks from the other patrons in the restaurant.

"I'm sorry, Leon, it's just that... how come that face looks so imposing when you make it at a criminal or a boomer, but so silly when you make it at me?"

"It's a gift," he grumbled in annoyance.

Nene giggled again. "Now, I want you to make sure that Daley knows that this is a business dinner." She wagged a finger at him. "I don't want him thinking this was a date, getting all jealous and making a face at me, too."

Leon rolled his eyes. "You've got to be kidding. 'It's the truth, Daley, old pal, I wasn't dating Nene, I was negotiating with the Knight Sabers through her.'"

Nene frowned suddenly. "Don't you dare! If S... Saber Prime ever hears you joking like that she'd..."

"Kill me?" Leon asked, an eyebrow raised.

Nene blanched. "No! She told me that wasn't an option." Then she got a sly look. "She'd probably arrange something horribly embarrassing for you. Or maybe tell Priss she saw you with another woman."

"Heaven forbid." But despite his smile, Leon seemed somewhat more reserved than he had moments before. "Well, if this is a business dinner," he said, watching in amazement as Nene continued to vacuum up her soup despite her impeccable table manners, "let's get down to business."

"I agree!" Nene replied brightly.

"You do?"

She nodded with excessive perkiness. "Yup! First things first!" A smile that tried hard to be both charming and cute at the same time flashed across the table at Leon. "Ice cream, please!"

Twenty minutes and a discussion of terms later, Leon shook his head at the sight of Nene assaulting a veritable mountain of ice cream. He silently congratulated himself on taking her to one of his cousin Barry's shops, because the family discount he rarely used was going to come in very handy this evening.

"Okay, you've got your ice cream," he grumbled. "Now, business?"

Nene spooned a mound of fudge-covered vanilla into her mouth and nodded happily. "Sure," she mumbled around the utensil, and drew it out slowly between her lips to extract every last trace of the confection. Still holding the spoon in one hand, she twisted in her seat to reach the large bag hanging by its straps from the back of the chair. She plunged her free hand into its recesses, and rummaged about long enough that she grew impatient and scooped up another spoonful of ice cream and crammed it into her mouth.

Leon couldn't decide whether to laugh or sigh.

A few more moments of searching, Nene made a vaguely positive sound around the spoon and withdrew a data unit from the bag. She pulled the spoon out her mouth, and held up the cartridge. "Here we are. This is for you." She tossed it down on the table in front of him with a clatter of plastic on plastic.

He picked it up and looked it over. It was unlabeled. Not even an embossed brand name. He glanced at Nene, who had gone back to demolishing the multicolored pile of ice cream in front of her. "This is everything?"

Nene nodded without looking up from the dish. "Everything you could possibly use. Prime didn't include most of our sensor readings on him."

"Why not?" Leon turned the data unit over and over in his hands.

She glanced up at him over a full spoon. "Because they don't make any sense. If we can't figure them out, you can't. Trust me on this, Leon."

He slipped the cartridge into the pocket of his leather jacket. "What do you mean, they don't make any sense?"

Nene shrugged, again focused on the ice cream. "Just that. Bizarre results all over the map. Spectra that shouldn't come back off of anything -- human or boomer. EM radiation patterns that look like the holoshow Priss uses to back up the Replicants. Stuff like that." She looked up and into his eyes. "Really weird stuff, Leon. S... Prime isn't saying anything, but I'm pretty sure it's starting to freak her a bit, because she can't make heads or tails of it."

Leon nodded slowly and gave that some thought. "Prime" being whom she was -- and Nene's near-slips were no giveaway to him, not at this late date -- he could imagine her reactions. There was no reason not to expect that she had inherited her father's brilliance, and a puzzle that was as resistant to solution as Nene suggested this one was must be maddening to her...

"Thanks," he finally said. "I'd say we're even now, your boss and I."

"You'd better be," Nene muttered petulantly, frowning momentarily around her spoon. A beat, then, "Just don't hurt him," she added in a softer tone.

"What?"

"Don't hurt the Loon when you bring him in, Leon. He's a little nuts, but he's a nice guy." Nene stared resolutely at her dwindling supply of ice cream. "He saved my life, you know. The night he was flying, with the superboomer. You were there -- you should remember it. I don't want to find out that he 'fell down the stairs' on his way to a holding cell." She snapped her gaze up and caught Leon's eyes with her own. He was surprised by the fire in them, and for the very first time he suddenly, truly understood, deep in his gut, that as sweet and fluffy as Nene might seem, she was one of the Knight Sabers -- one of the best, and most dangerous, mercenaries in the world. "I'm going to hold you personally responsible if that happens, Leon. Do you understand?" Soft as her voice was, there was a hard edge there that he had never heard before. An edge that promised pain and retribution, and not at all playfully.

Slowly, he nodded. "You have my word, Nene. No 'accidents,' either at arrest or while he's in ADP custody. But you know that GENOM will press to take custody of him... and they may well succeed."

She returned the nod. "Thank you, Leon." She laid her spoon down in the empty dish before her. "Now that we've taken care of that," she added brightly, looking around for a counterperson, "I want more ice cream!"

Leon valiantly resisted the urge to fall out of his chair.

* * *

Wednesday, January 14, 2037. 7:50 PM

Hiroe nodded slowly as her two coworkers settled into their seats. "Thanks for coming over," she said quietly. "In particular, Illya, thank you for bringing the additional, um, research materials."

Illya smiled broadly. "Is no problem."

She offered a small, hesitant smile in return. "Now, this research is informal, in case the information becomes necessary to our pursuits. We needn't be stringent at this time -- a broad overview of relevant facts and trends will suffice until we need greater detail." She nodded, more to herself than anything else. "Do we have everything we need now?"

Tony and Illya silently held up pads and pencils. Additionally, Illya displayed a bowl of potato chips, and Tony brandished a 2-liter bottle of cola. Hiroe nodded again. That plus the popcorn and other snacks in her kitchenette should hold them. "Very good. Now, assuming we are all settled in, shall we begin?"

At the murmurs of assent from her fellow scientists, Hiroe picked up the remote control and pressed "play".

"'I'm sorry, I'm not gentle,'"

drifted from the TV's speakers.

"I can say if it's in my dreams.
My thoughts are about to short circuit..."

* * *

Wednesday, January 14, 2037. 9:07 PM

"...will continue falling all through the night. It will turn into occasional flurries tomorrow morning, and disappearing by noon as the clouds start to break up. We'll likely see some glorious blue sky before sunset! Right now it's 2 degrees below zero, with a low of -5 expected, and the barometer is..."

Lisa looked up from the cutting board and out the window to confirm that the snow was indeed still coming down, just as the TV weatherman had said. It looked pretty enough, but then again so had the last few snowstorms that had hit the city, and within a few days they had all turned to disgusting grey slush. It was just a matter of time before the fresh white coating they were getting tonight became more of the same. She made a face and went back to slicing the pickled daikon before her.

If I'd known it'd be that bad a walk from the station, I'd've never taken this place! She flicked her eyes the other direction, momentarily resting them on the tall snow boots that rested on a thick wad of old newspaper. They still glistened with meltwater, and the paper was on its way to becoming a blob of moist grey pulp. Hanging over them, her coat still dripped with its own runoff. "I hate snow in the city!" she growled. "I should've asked Nene to give me a ride home tonight."

A few more slices of daikon had been added to the growing pile at the right end of the cutting board when her door suddenly rattled and shook from the force of a loud and solid impact that sent a "thud" echoing in through the apartment. Startled, Lisa flinched; the knife slipped and sliced into her finger. She stifled a cry of pain as pungent pickle juice splashed into the cut, and began to suck on the wound.

Dashing to the door, she peered anxiously through the peephole. Irrationally, she remembered how old Mrs. Morikami down the hall always talked about the time a gang had besieged the building one night, a decade or more ago. Fortunately, she could see through the fisheye lens -- just barely -- and to her immense relief it was no gang, but Doug. But even allowing for the lens' distortion, he looked odd. When he fell against his apartment door a second time while trying to open it, Lisa flung open her door and rushed into the hall.

He was in what she'd learned he called his "duty uniform" -- the helmet and leathers that were now his trademark. But they were covered with scorch marks and soot, and large, cleanly-sliced rents billowed open in the jacket and pants, revealing equally sliced clothing beneath and, in some places, blood on an opalescent white background. And were those bullet holes?

Doug began to slide slowly down the door with a soft moan. "Doug! What happened?" she cried, and rushed to his side. Sliding under one of his arms to prop him up, she wrapped her right arm around his waist to help keep him upright. Then she grabbed his keys from his limp fingers and unlocked his door.

Fortunately, Doug wasn't completely incapacitated; with her support, he stumbled into the tiny apartment and flopped roughly upon his narrow bed. As Lisa turned and closed the door behind them he rasped, "Tried to open a gate home. Got impatient. Forced the song. It backfired. Aw, geeze," he groaned and levered himself upright to take off his helmet. "And the cops chased me halfway back here."

Lisa dropped onto bed next to him, eliciting another groan with the bounce. "Sorry. ADP chased you?" A sharp sting reminded her that her finger was still bleeding, and she brought it back to her mouth to suck away the blood.

Doug shook his head. "Nah. Whaddaya call'em -- N-Police. The regular MegaTokyo cops. They had my arrival point staked out. Argh." He slid open the panel on the side of the helmet and pressed three keys, then a fourth; unsurprisingly, music began to play.

"<I'm alive, and the world shines for me today.
I'm alive, suddenly I am here today.
Seems like forever and a day,
Thought I could never feel this way.
Is this really me? I'm alive, I'm alive!>"

There was a clatter as two flattened metal blobs suddenly ejected themselves from his body and bounced across the floor. "Aaaaah, god, that feels better!" Doug cried. "It's a damn good thing backfires don't burn me out," he murmured, then began to straighten out and stretch. "Thanks for the help, by the way." The sting in Lisa's finger and the taste of blood on her tongue both vanished at the same time; she pulled her finger out of her mouth to see that the cut was gone, leaving behind not even a scar. Then she glanced at the bullets on the floor.

"Wow," she breathed, and looked over to see how Doug was doing. To her astonishment, not only was the blood on his clothing gone, but the scorch marks were vanishing, and the holes in his leathers were quickly and silently closing up, leaving no sign that the uniform had ever been damaged. She reached out and ran her fingers over one of the longer rents, which fused under her touch as though a spectral zipper were closing. She looked up and found herself almost nose-to-nose with him, his blue-grey eyes startlingly close and (unintentionally, she was sure) inviting. "How...?" she began.

He shook his head. "I don't know. It just happens, no matter what I'm wearing. Just another one of those things no one understands about my metagift." He grimaced as he shut off the song. "You know, I like cops, I really do. And cops usually like me. But the bunch in this city are starting to get on my nerves."

Lisa carefully slid 20 or so centimeters away from him. Staying that close is just asking for trouble, girl, she chided herself. Aloud, she asked, "What happened?"

Doug shrugged off the jacket, then bent over to pull off his boots. Lisa suppressed an automatic frown of disapproval; he was an American, he kept house as an American, and that meant -- sometimes -- he wore his shoes inside instead of proper slippers. "Like I told you during that 'interview', I'm trying to get back to my home universe," he said as he picked up the boots and carried them to the wardrobe with his helmet.

"Uh-huh," she murmured, happily watching the unconscious grace with which he performed even such a mundane task.

"Well, I was trying to open up a gate," he continued as he got up and put away both boots and helmet, then peeled off the leather jacket to reveal the black "Priss and the Replicants" concert T-shirt she'd talked him into buying back in October. "Most of the time, that means I have to use a song that I've never tried before." He hung up the jacket, and pulled out a pair of jeans. "'Scuse me a minute." He gave an embarrassed smile and dashed into his apartment's tiny bathroom.

Almost before Lisa had time to blush, he was back out again, wearing the jeans, with the grey leather pants and that strange white body suit draped over one arm. "Now, where was I?" He slung them on the same hanger as the jacket, hung the set up and closed the wardrobe again.

"Songs you've never tried before," Lisa offered. "What did you mean before when you said you tried to 'force' the song?"

He sat down heavily in one of the dinette chairs. "When I play a song to get a power the first time, it usually works or it doesn't." Doug held up his hand as she opened her mouth. "Only about eighteen or twenty percent do something I can use. Most of the rest are trivial or don't do anything at all. And about five percent backfire."

"Backfire?"

Doug smiled ruefully and snorted a quick laugh. "Unpleasant or harmful effects, centered on me. Usually fairly painful and almost always personally embarrassing, but rarely fatal." He shrugged. "It seems my subconscious doesn't like it when I try to boss it around, and it gets even any way it can."

"Ouch." Lisa leaned forward. "So is 'forcing" a song trying to change the odds on what works and what doesn't?"

He touched the tip of his forefinger to his nose and then pointed it at her. "Got it in one. I kind of try to 'will' the song to do what I want it to, within certain rules. One, I've got to force the song from its start, and only on the first time I play it for a power. No retries. And two, it's still got to be something the song would have done anyway." He leaned back with a grin. "Boosts my success rate to about 75 or 80%."

"Uh-huh." Lisa narrowed her eyes. "And let me guess. The backfire rate goes up, too."

Doug raised an eyebrow. "My, we're clever tonight. You're right, of course. Every failure becomes a backfire when I force a song. Usually pretty nasty ones, too." A sheepish look crossed his face. "And that's what I did to myself tonight."

Lisa reached out with a toe and dragged one of the flattened metal blobs close enough to grab. She held it up, perched between her thumb and forefinger, in front of her eye. It was warm, clean and perfectly dry. "Backfires make bullets?"

"No," Doug growled. "Cops make bullets."

"Go on."

"For a few weeks now the police have been staking out the alley where I arrived in this world. God knows why. I've had to dodge them the last two times I wanted to try a gate song." Doug grimaced. "Instead of slipping back out unnoticed again tonight, I got their attention. With a rather spectacular backfire that left me looking like Wile E. Coyote after the dynamite went off, but feeling much worse."

"Who?" Lisa frowned in puzzlement, and made a mental note to look up the name later.

He waved a dismissive hand at her. "Don't worry about it. So my song goes 'boom,' and a cop comes running in at either end of the alley. I'm just standing there, smoking, in the middle of what looks like a bomb crater. By the time I've got my wits back, they're both almost on top of me, waving guns and ordering me to put my hands up."

"What did you do?" Lisa breathed, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them.

Doug shrugged. "I jumped for the fire escape I'd used to get into the alley in the first place, and tried to scamper away as fast as my little feet would take me." He frowned again. "Damned cops started shooting. My field took care of most of the shots, but two hit. Normally that wouldn't have been a problem, but they got me where I wasn't armored and I was already in bad shape from the backfire. Plus I couldn't stop to heal myself because they kept chasing me. I had to run to my bike and then lead them halfway through the Canyons before I felt safe enough to come home. And you know the story from there."

Lisa nodded, then rested her chin on her knees. "Doug," she said after a short silence. "What's your 'field'? You've mentioned it to me a couple of times, but you've never explained it."

"Oh, that." He chuckled nervously. "Well, that's kind of hard to do."

"Try me," she said drily.

"Well, you already know about my magegift."

Lisa nodded. "Uh-huh."

"Well, one of the things about it that make it, well, broken, is that it's always on. All the time, constantly taking in a little mana and turning it into unfocused, diffuse magical power which then leaks into the environment around me. The upshot of which is, well, I live inside this little 15-centimeter thick zone of weirdness. Improbability, really."

"You're kidding."

He shook his head. "Nope. Here, throw that at me." He gestured to the flattened bullet still in her hand. "Hard as you can."

Lisa looked back and forth between the bullet and Doug. "But..."

He smiled reassuringly. "It's all right. Go ahead."

"Okay," she said doubtfully, "if you say so." She drew her arm back and flung the metal blob at him with all of her strength.

It flew across the room in a perfectly flat trajectory, straight at Doug's face. She gasped as she released it, realizing at the point of no return what she'd done.

A handsbreadth away from Doug's nose, the flattened bullet skidded to a perfect stop, spun in midair twice -- slowly -- on its vertical axis, then shot off to the left at the same speed at which it had approached him.

The two of them simultaneously winced at the sound of broken glass.

"Oops," Lisa said after a moment, her eyes large. "Sorry."

Doug shook his head. "Not at all, not your fault. You had no idea that it would take a sudden left turn rather than hit me." One corner of his mouth twitched up. "And neither did I. Anyway, that's my field in action. Makes it hard for harmful things to hit me, but it's also damned inconvenient at other times."

Lisa rose and stood next to Doug. "I can bet." She waved her hands slowly along his arms and around his head, and Doug laughed.

"Yeah, sometimes it's a bitch. I had to learn how to eat while concentrating on what my food was supposed to be to keep it from turning into something else. Usually something inedible. I can't reliably use most off-the-shelf hand-held electronics. I don't tan normally; I end up with silly stripes and bands because the UV refracts weirdly in the field. And sex can get a little... problematic." He shrugged. "I can go on forever, but I don't want to bore you."

"Uh-huh," Lisa grunted absently as she tried to see if there was anything palpable to this field of his. Doug bore this with an air of amused patience.

"Lisa?" he asked after about a minute of her vague gesturing.

"Yeah?"

"You might want to stop that."

"I might?"

"Yeah. Were you wearing electric blue nail polish when you helped me in?"

"No. Why?"

"You are now."

"Eep."

* * *

Wednesday, January 14, 2037. 11:41 PM

"So this is your place," Leon said, looking about as Daley closed the door behind him.

"Yeah," the other man replied. "I've finally managed to lure you up to my lair, babe," he added with a mock leer.

"I can see why you like to crash at my apartment," Leon shot back as he stepped fully into the main room and took a seat on a couch in front of a coffee table. He gave the the small living room a thorough once-over. "What, no Judy Garland posters?"

"You know, that's crass even for you, Leon-chan." Daley settled himself into an armchair positioned at right angles to Leon. He gestured toward the tiny hallway to the left of them. "They're in the bedroom, of course, where they're the last things I see every night and the first things I see every morning." He fluttered his eyes coquettishly then gave a self-deprecating grin, and his guest laughed.

"All right, all right," Leon said between chuckles. "I think we've gone about as far enough as we can with the mutual teasing, don't you?"

Daley raised an eyebrow. "So soon?" he replied in mock disappointment.

"Oh, come on," Leon grunted as he reached for the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He drew out the black-and-white plastic oblong of a data unit. "We have business to cover here."

Daley's entire demeanor changed. "Hold on, Leon. Tell me one thing first. Why did you want to meet here? Why not the office?"

"Privacy," Leon said. "Maybe even a little security. We know that the ADP systems are compromised -- by GENOM and god knows who else. I don't want what's on this," he brandished the data unit, "anywhere near them."

His partner raised an eyebrow. "Must be explosive stuff, Leon-chan."

Leon shook his head. "Not explosive. But it's an edge -- my edge. And I'm keeping it that way." He held out the cartridge to his partner. "Slot this in your system and check it out."

Daley raised an eyebrow and grinned slyly, but said nothing as he took the data unit.

* * *

"So, Leon-chan, you want to let me know where you got all this new information from?" Daley perched himself on the arm of his sofa and gestured broadly at the data unit, now serving as a paperweight on a coffee table covered with hard copy and photo prints.

"My informant wishes to remain..."

"Anonymous, yes, you've said that several times already." Daley looked peeved for a moment, and pursed his lips. "You're holding out on me, Leon, big time." He tapped one thick sheaf of paper. "I mean, just this alone -- a diagnostic readout of a computer the Loon's carrying? A computer that ADP doesn't even know exists? What did you do, make a deal with the Knight Sabers?"

Leon didn't answer.

Daley whistled. "That's it, isn't it? All this information came from the Sabers!"

"I needed more information, and I had a way to pay for it, so I contacted them and got what I wanted," Leon said softly, then glanced sharply at his partner. "But that stays between us. It doesn't leave this apartment. You didn't hear that, I didn't say it. Understood?"

Daley slowly nodded his assent. "Understood. But you'd better know what you've gotten us into. God knows I don't."

Leon merely grunted as he paged through the sheaf of papers in his hand.

* * *

"Some of these photos look familiar," Daley opined as he spread out the prints in question across the coffee table. They were shots of Loon in action, starting with his initial "Iceman" appearance at the side of the Sabers, and continuing irregularly through to the present. Some seemed to be still images from the Sabers' combat recorders. But the rest were too high in quality, and were clearly shot from a high angle outside the combat zone.

"Yeah," Daley continued. "Some of these remind me of the photos in the newspaper articles we have in our files. Same fights, same views. More or less."

Leon sat bolt upright, startling his partner. Oh, gods, no. "Which papers?"

Daley shrugged. "Um, I'm not sure. P.O.N., the 16 Times, a few others. Why?" He narrowed his eyes. "You've thought of something."

Leon waved away Daley's question. "Maybe. I'm not sure. I'm going to have to do a little digging before I know for sure." But after Daley had mentioned the 16 Times, he was certain. She'd had a Knight Sabers obsession from the day he'd met her four years ago, and she and Nene were close friends. He resisted the urge to drag a hand down over his eyes as he thought, Lisa. Of course, Lisa's involved with the Sabers. How could she not be? Probably their media contact, certainly an informant on the Chief. Good god. What next? How many of Nene's friends are part of this? How many ADP staff? Hell. With my luck, Naoko will turn out to be the Sabers' weaponsmith.

He winced and forced himself to return to studying the material in front of him.

* * *

"Holy shit."

The expletive was so out of character for Daley that Leon looked up and stared in disbelief. "What?" he asked, not sure that he had heard correctly.

Daley slowly raised his eyes to meet Leon's. "According to these notes, the Sabers noticed that this mystery computer Loon's carrying was sending out a network connect ping."

"So?"

"Well, this goes on to say that the signal was encrypted -- with a variant on the algorithm used in our new radios."

Leon whistled softly. "So he cracked our scramble and copied it?"

"No." Daley shook his head. "His is tougher than ours, according to this."

"You're kidding."

He shook his head again. "No. But do you realize what this means? The Sabers, and maybe the Loon, too, have complete access to all classified ADP communications."

"Oh, that." Leon relaxed. "I'd suspected that the Sabers had cracked our cryptosystem a long time ago -- how else would they find out about so many boomer incidents while we're still responding to them? I wasn't really expecting the new system would make that much difference." Not with Nene around, anyway.

Daley stared at him, dumbfounded. "You suspected, and you never said anything?"

Leon shrugged. "What good would it do? If I brought it to the attention of the higher-ups, they would just change the crypto, the Sabers would crack it again, and we'd be back to where we started. At the best there'd be no change in the status quo, and we'd be out the cost of the upgrade. And at the worst we'd end up in an endless crypto battle that would siphon funds away from other areas in ADP that need them more. And why start that?"

"Hmmm." Daley thought on this. "I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. But I'm still not sure I like it." He picked up the papers he had been reading at his outburst. "I know I don't like this. Why would the Loon be using a variant on our custom encryption scheme? How could his be stronger?"

Leon found himself nodding. "It's got me curious, too. I think we need to pay a little visit to..."

"Ganbare Electronics?" Daley offered.

"Yeah," he grunted. "To Ganbare Electronics."

* * *

16 Tokyo Day Times. Thursday, January 15, 2037. 10:01 AM

"Nice nail polish, Lisa!"

"Thanks." She flashed a fake smile and went back to work.

A few minutes later...

"Cool color! Where'd you get it?"

"It's custom-mixed for me by a friend of my mom's," she lied.

Not long after that...

"I lovethat shade of blue! It's soyou!"

"Thank you," Lisa growled through gritted teeth. Doug, I'm going to kill you. I swear, I'm going to kill you.

* * *

Thursday, January 15, 2037. 1:24 PM

I came yea-close to having my cover blown on that day. As a result, I was out of a job.

Let me backtrack.

I was coming back from doing lunch with several of my co-workers. (There was this yakitori place around the corner from Ganbare that we were all fond of, but that's not important right now.) As we stepped into the lobby, I spotted two men who seemed to be verbally sparring with Jo, the security guard. I didn't pay them too much mind -- at first.

My passcard opened the gate at the desk, and Hiroshi, Reiko, Benito and I all stumbled through, laughing. Well, they stumbled; I'd already sobered up, between drinking less at lunch and my metahuman metabolism, so I was the one keeping them all more or less vertical. They weren't drunk, really, just a little tipsy, but they wanted to be drunk, and were acting that way.

Anyway. I paid no mind to the visitors at Jo's desk until I got into the elevator last and turned around -- and then I saw that they were the redoubtable Inspector Wong and his friend Mister Cool Shades. Make that Officer Cool Shades. They were both flashing badges as Jo went for the phone.

I didn't need to be told that I was probably just minutes away from being found out. If I were lucky, they'd have to navigate through at least at least a quarter-hour of management buck-passing until they actually got past Jo.

When we got to our floor, I deposited everyone at their desks. I said to Reiko, the last of them, "Hey, I gotta hit the john. All that beer, you know? Cover for me, will ya?"

Reiko giggled and made a sloppy salute. "Sure!"

"Thanks." I turned and headed for the men's room -- and as soon as I was out of sight of the engineering pit, I dashed for an unoccupied office that I knew of on the other side of the floor.

Once there I quietly closed the door and pulled shut the blinds on its glass front wall; no need for anyone to see what I was doing. The office had been recently vacated, and its computer was still active the last time I'd poked my nose in; I was glad to see that was still the case.

With a puff of leather-scented air I dropped into the seat behind the desk and began hacking.

You have to understand, while I worked there I had a lot of free time (compared to the other employees -- there are benefits to having metahuman boosts in both intelligence and working speed), and a lot of curiosity. Over the previous five-plus months I had, just because I could, wormed my way into just about every system in the company.

Today, I was interested in just three of those machines.

The first was Personnel and Administration. I didn't nuke my files outright; that would probably have raised alarms. Instead, I altered my personnel records to indicate that I lived on the other side of MegaTokyo from my apartment building, that I was a French immigrant in my late 50s with a very slightly different surname, and that I had submitted my two weeks' notice three weeks earlier. I followed up with a few notes in related files about "transcription pending" for a mythical exit interview, but gave myself medium-high marks for my positive attitude on the way out.

I then jumped over to Accounting to zero out my pay account to correlate to the resignation date, and marked it as "closed". I'd lose my next paycheck, but I didn't mind. I'd been living in a poverty-level apartment on a white-collar professional's salary for nearly six months and had more than 50 man -- half a million yen -- saved up by that time. Not a fortune, but carefully managed it could keep me going for a month or maybe two. And even if I hadn't had that nest egg, I still had my stash of gems from Velgarth.

Next, I went over to IT and changed my system records to reflect the hasty fabrication I had built elsewhere. I blanked my storage area on the company dataweave. Then I flagged the directories as damaged and backfiled an internal request to replace or reformat the drive they were on. I also purged the nanofac logs of whatever I might have left in them after my various unauthorized uses. Then I set up my passcard to disappear from the system 15 minutes after the next time I used it, and to take its trail after my "departure date" with it.

Finally I stepped out to a supervisor level on each system and reset all the traces and flags to indicate the various file modifications and transactions had taken place on the proper dates. That would be enough to cover my trail unless someone got very suspicious and did a compare against the daily backup tapes.

I really wished that I had my helmet with me; a little "Lightning's Hand" and I could even take care of that. While the song is great for lobbing massive bolts of lightning at the bad guys, I can also use it to project my consciousness into and through dataweaves and computers; if they were within about 35 meters of me, I could even directly access systems that weren't physically connected to a dataweave. It's a lot easier to hack a system by riding a signal inside.

All in all, it took me about seventeen minutes. With luck, the AD-cops were still busy with some middle-management flunky, and not heading for my cube.

Although I was handling all these tasks with a certain external calm, inside I was raging at myself. Once again I had bungled what should have been a basic preparation. I had no bolthole, no escape plan. That damned complacency was still hamstringing me!

To distract myself from my internal harangue, I thought about what I had at my desk that could give me away. My nameplate, a datebook, a few files on the local system drive, a couple other personal items. I realized that I had no choice, even if the cops were on their way -- I had to dash back to my desk and clear it of identifying miscellanea. Which meant that my coworkers would see me come and go again, maybe with my arms full, and that would raise questions I didn't want raised. If only I could hack their memories as easily as I could the computer records... I began to think, and then had a golden moment of inspiration.

I sauntered back over to my cube, sat down, and rode out into the Tapestry -- I'm sorry, the "Net" -- to a pirate music site that I knew of. I picked the song I wanted and downloaded it. Those were 39 very tense seconds, let me tell you. Then I turned my system's speakers up just a bit and started the music playing.

"<Don't think sorry's easily said.
Don't try turning tables instead.
You've taken lots of chances before,
But I ain't gonna give any more,
Don't ask me.
That's how it goes
Cause part of me knows
What you're thinkin'...>"

I'm far from the best at telepathy. Most days I don't even get the three or four minutes of practice that I can extract from a playing of "Eye in the Sky". But I've studied and trained with both Psyche and Skitz for more than 15 years, and I can manage blanket suggestions and compulsions. Everyone within 35 meters of me got some very specific telepathic instructions -- to simply forget I ever existed any time they talked with someone from outside of the office. If pressed by a co-worker, instead of me they'd vaguely recall some tall, heavy-set French guy who kept to himself and didn't socialize. I didn't actually implant any memories, just suggested that they would come up with some if they needed to.

Doing that was a whole lot easier and faster, and whole a lot less dangerous, than trying to go in and do a mass memory manipulation. I might have been able to manage it for a single person in the time that I had, but on the three dozen or so people that I would have needed to alter? Uh-uh. I'd've more likely brainburned them by accident. The old saw about "the speed of thought" is pure hyperbole; most people, including me, think about as fast as they can talk. An experienced telepath can work at, at the most, double that. And if an inexperienced telepath like me were trying to work that fast? Imagine a human mind as something like a coloring book. Then imagine what happens if you scribble outside the lines... with the wrong colors.

No, it was safer just to give them guidelines and let them fill in the details on their own. The suggestions would fade with time, but not before their inconsistencies would totally confuse my pursuers.

While the song played and I messed with people's heads, I shoveled all my personal belongings into my briefcase and then wiped the directories that held any personal information -- including the work files on the SQUID42 mods I made to the ADP radios and my nanofac specs. I didn't just erase them; I started up a process to overwrite them several times with random noise.

By the time I'd finished all that, the song was nearly over. In its final seconds I made one last suggestion: everyone between my work group and the elevators "knew" that I was the photocopier repair guy who had just finished his call. I latched my briefcase shut, took one final look around the office, and walked out to the lobby in front of the elevator banks.

A few moments later, there was an electronic "bing!" and a pair of mirrored bronze doors slid apart. I managed to keep my composure when Inspector Wong and Captain Cool stepped out, shepherded by Nando Shinobu -- one of the empty suits from Admin. I nodded politely in the proper manner and stepped into now-vacated elevator. It smelled of leather and expensive cologne.

The last thing I saw as the doors slid shut was Wong glancing curiously in my direction.

* * *

Later that night, I decided to start laying in a bit of an insurance policy. I felt confident enough in my stratagems of the afternoon that I didn't immediately bug out of my apartment, but I knew I'd have to move soon. In the mean time, I decided I would make use of Lisa's knowledge -- and, hopefully, if she hadn't been exaggerating months ago, contacts.

I went to my stash and pulled out one of the larger diamonds -- about the size of a shelled almond, with an ellipsoid cut kind of like a chubby marquis. I wrapped it in tissue paper and stuffed that in an envelope. Then I crossed the hall and knocked on Lisa's door.

"If anything happens to me," I told her a few minutes later, when we were in her apartment and the door was closed, "if I get captured by anyone -- GENOM, ADP, A&P, PDQ Bach, it doesn't matter who -- do this for me." I handed her the envelope. Silently she opened it up and dumped the diamond out into her palm. "Find the Knight Sabers. I don't care how you do it. Find them and hire them to rescue me. The diamond is my payment. If they want more than it's worth, then it's my downpayment."

Lisa just looked up at me with wide eyes and nodded.

* * *

Monday, January 19, 2037. 7:30 PM

"We have a... quite lucrative job offer."

Sylia seated herself on the couch next to Linna and crossed her legs. The four Sabers, plus Lisa, had gathered that evening in her penthouse.

"How much?" demanded Priss. In one hand the singer held a pad with a pen clipped to it; she'd been murmuring to herself and scribbling potential lyrics on it until Sylia had called the meeting to order.

"Doing what?" Linna asked at the same time. Much of her attention was focused on the electronic datebook she held in her left hand. Her right hand hovered near her face, waggling the datebook's stylus absently next to her ear.

"We've been offered sixty million yen to retrieve a set of experimental human genetic specifications from a GENOM subsidiary in Kyoto," Sylia replied, covering both questions with a nod to each asker. "The usual terms: half in advance, half on completion."

Nene, sprawled on the second couch, tilted her head her head to one side. "What does that mean, 'experimental human genetic specifications'?"

"Gengineering, Nene," Priss spat. "Bastards are planning on rebuilding humans to their own particular designs."

"Mou..." Lisa stretched the word out to fade almost into a whisper. "Who wants that?"

"Anyone who wants a kid free from genetic diseases, Lisa," Linna said without looking up. "Or who want their child to be guaranteed healthy, fit and attractive."

"Or someone who wants to build the perfect soldier," Priss snarled in return.

Sylia's expression had flickered briefly into something less than totally serene. "My sources traced the commission back through several blinds, and the trail ended at a Russian Intelligence message drop."

That tore Linna's attention completely away from her datebook. "Russian Intelligence?"

"Can't they just buy the info from GENOM for less?" Lisa asked.

Sylia shrugged elegantly. "They should. Unless these designs are something extraordinary that GENOM does not want available to the world at large." She frowned. "What concerns me is that our erstwhile employers should be more than capable of performing the task themselves, and for less than they are offering us. So why hire us?"

"It could be a trap of some sort," Linna suggested.

Sylia nodded. "The thought had occurred to me. It's one reason I had the offer traced as thoroughly as I did. But it seems unlikely -- GENOM has never had close ties to the Russian government."

"Either way, do we really want to take the job?" Nene asked. "I mean, do we really want to see that kind of stuff even in GENOM's hands?"

"Screw it," Priss declared. "Somebody else will do it if we don't. Besides, it's a chance to hit GENOM where it hurts them the most -- in their wallet."

"Hmmm." Lisa laid a finger on her cheek and looked up at the ceiling. "A thought. You could always 'accidentally' destroy all the data while trying to retrieve it. Oops, too bad. Oh, and we still keep your deposit." She smiled impishly at the others.

"The idea does have merit," Sylia admitted with the hint of a smile. Then it disappeared. "But it is poor business ethics. Much as we may dislike a particular job, we are not free to sabotage it once we accept the commission. The Knight Sabers have a reputation for dependability and trustworthiness, even in the face of our..." Her eyes twinkled as she almost smiled once again. "Our obsessions." She glanced around at the others. "The mission is scheduled for the afternoon of January 31 -- a Saturday."

"Good," Nene murmured. "Then I don't have to arrange time off from the ADP."

"We will assemble for the mission at Raven's at noon," Sylia continued. "Assuming no complications, we will depart in the mobile operations base two hours after that."

Linna closed her datebook with a snap and shoved it into her handbag. "We'll need some way of getting into a GENOM installation unnoticed, you know."

"What about those boomer disguises you were working on last summer?" Nene asked. "They'd work."

Priss sat up. "What boomer disguises?"

Sylia shifted position and took another pose of studied elegance. "Four months ago I completed a set of four ... shells, for lack of a better word. Each shell mounts on a hardsuit and gives the wearer the appearance of a C-class boomer in active mode." She shook her head. "No, Nene, that would be unnecessary and premature -- the shells are intended for use in an operation that is far more dangerous and critical than this."

"But..."

"No, Nene. I will not play this card prematurely."

"Mou..." Nene slumped her shoulders and pouted. Lisa reached over and patted her encouragingly on the head.

"Relax," Lisa said. "You'll get to play dress-up another time." Nene snorted, then turned and gave the red-eye to Lisa.

Priss rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to Sylia. "So. We take the job?"

Sylia nodded once, curtly. "Yes. We take the job."

* * *

Saturday, January 31, 2037. 5:53 PM

"Damn this snowstorm!" Leon spat. "It's the last thing we need now." Around their patrol car, the storm's great gusts of wind sent the fog-thick snowfall swirling and drifting in the twin cones cast by the car's headlights. Overhead, the overcast sky belied the hour, reflecting the lights of the city a pale orange-pink only occasionally visible through the snow.

"Chill out," Daley said, smiling grimly at his joke as he wrestled with the steering wheel. "We'll get by like we always do."

"Yeah. Maybe the snow will hide the two-thirds of our men who usually get killed by the boomers."

"See?" Daley replied cheerfully. "There is a bright side!"

"Bright enough to snow-blind me," Leon growled. Daley chuckled and downshifted.

* * *

"Who the hell deployed those Firebees?" Leon stood at the open door of the patrol car and bellowed into the radio as he wrapped his coat around himself tighter. Scowling at the freezing wind that had fogged up his shades as soon as he stepped out of the patrol car, he listened to the faint response.

"I don't care what he thought!" he shouted back into the transceiver. "They're not designed to operate in this kind of weather!" As if to emphasize his point, the wind gusted furiously, sending a blast of snow directly into his face and swirling his coat away from his body. Little tendrils of frigid air raced up and around his torso and set him to shivering again. "If they had any sense, the pilots wouldn't have..." A seething pause. "He what?"

On the other side of the car, Daley stood watch over the ADP forces assembling at a hasty roadblock fifty meters away. About a hundred meters beyond them, several teams were setting up floodlights to illuminate the no-man's-land up ahead. As Daley surveyed their efforts, a worried frown distorted his features. With visibility down to at most two hundred meters in the snow -- less during the gusts -- he could hardly see the men on their side even with the lights; how could they expect to see the boomers before it was too late, should the cyberdroids choose to attack?

Overhead, the familiar "top-top-top" of helicopter blades faded in, announcing the return of the Firebee scouting team. Daley glanced up but could not see their fly-by. The usually smooth engines stuttered and popped. Snow's getting into the air intakes. That's bad.

So far the boomers hadn't caused any direct casualties -- a miracle for which he and Leon were thankful. But the property damage was getting out of hand -- and there had been already been a few calls in to the emergency squads for civilians caught in or injured by the debris.

He glanced around, trying to see through the falling snow as if he could brush it aside with the force of his glare. Kabuki-cho rarely saw this kind of violence -- it was one of MegaTokyo's few privately "gentrified" areas, slowly recovering from quake devastation and a centuries-old unsavory reputation as young professionals took advantage of the low property costs to move in and rebuild, followed by the commercial establishments that catered to their needs. That meant that even on the weekends, there weren't nearly as many potential casualties present as there were in, say, Tinsel City. But it made each one that much worse.

As Leon continued to rant into the radio, Daley mentally reviewed the facts of this boomer incident and tried to find a flaw in his analysis. A dozen or more combat boomers -- reports were still unclear on the exact number -- had erupted out of human guise in the middle of an amusement center, and had quickly seized the large building. Within the first few minutes before the ADP had responded, they had cut it off from the outside world, first by severing power and communication lines, then by demolishing the few nearby buildings to establish a defensive clear zone. Good strategy, he thought. Damn it. Now we have no chance of sneaking up on them.

Evidently, some subcommander had grown frustrated with the no-man's-land and had decided to deploy a squadron of Firebees to scout out the glass-and-steel structure despite the unsafe weather. Daley wondered briefly what, if anything, they had discovered.

One thing that he already knew was that when the boomers had activated, the complex had been full of families.

And that it still was.

* * *

"Damned storm. Damned cold," Ohara muttered and pulled his wool cap down more firmly upon his head and brought the electronic binoculars back up to his eyes.

From his perch amidst the carefully-stacked banks of suitcase-sized portable sensors and computers, Davis Kristoff glanced at his employer. "You know, if we hadn't blown all the expense account money on hiring the Knight Sabers, we might have afforded a couple of relay transmitters for these things." He waved at the pile of silver-and-steel boxes. "We could have been monitoring them from the office, nice and warm and comfortable."

"Yeah, yeah, tell me something I don't know," Ohara muttered.

The tech gave his boss a sidelong look. "Pardon me for asking, sir, but just why are you out here with me, instead of Doctor Nakamura? You don't need to be suffering through this weather."

Ohara grimaced. "Call it my overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Even if I didn't come up with this plan, I approved it, and I damn well ought to be here to watch over its execution." He was silent for a few moments, as he brought the binoculars back up to his eyes. "How're the readings?"

Davis shrugged. Between his bulky form and his bulkier winter clothing, it came across more as a movement akin to continental drift. "So-so. Most of the EM-based sensors are okay. Grav-field and flux don't even notice the storm. We have a little snow on the video, though." Between his scarf and his hat a smile briefly flashed, lit by a dozen or more tiny instrument lights.

"Very funny, Davis." He desperately wished that they could have performed this job from inside, even without a relay, but they needed unobstructed line-of-sight for almost all the sensor packs. That required that they once again take up a post on a building overlooking the site of the operation. Originally their primary concern had been the chance of being spotted by an ADP minicopter, but at least in that regard, the storm was working in their favor. "How about the boomers?"

Kristoff ducked his head to study one of the displays before him. "So far, nominal. Avram's new code looks like it's holding up better than the last couple versions did."

Ohara nodded and shivered in the gusting wind. "It had better."

The other man nodded. "I'm already uncomfortable with the damage we've caused this time around, Dr. Ohara. Fortunately, we should be able to keep it from getting any worse."

"Any cost is worth finding out the Visitor's secrets," Ohara muttered, not seeing Kristoff's concerned glance in his direction. He stared out through the binoculars at the open plaza in front of the amusement center. "When is he going to get here?"

* * *

On top of another building, blond hair and brown eyes peeked out from within an orange parka. Brown-gloved hands held a digital camera up to the opening in the hood.

Huh. I wouldn't've imagined I'd find myself being thankful Sylia left me behind, Lisa mused as she zoomed in on one of the boomers that patrolled the ring of devastation surrounding the amusement center. This is a hell of a story. She lowered the camera, sucked in a deep breath of lung-chilling air, and looked towards the ADP encampment. The only question is, where's Doug?

The veil of snow thinned for a moment, and a flicker of movement on top of a nearby roof caught her eye. She raised her camera to her eye to use its telephoto lens, but the snow thickened again and hid the other building. And just who the heck is that?

* * *

Something about this one stank.

The ADP had managed to cordon off the neighborhood before I got there. For once, I couldn't find any holes to slip through on my bike, and that spoke volumes about how serious this incident was. So I parked maybe a kilometer away and used "Don't Stop Me Now" to get close to the target.

You don't have to go fast and high for flight to be useful. Any gunship pilot can tell you that. And despite not only my performance weeks before, but the fact that boomers can fly under their own power, the ADP never seemed to look up. The gusting snow helped a lot, too -- no one wanted to look up, I was sure. So I hugged the sides and roofs of buildings, and eventually I landed about a half a block down an empty side street that led right into the ring of devastation the boomers had laid out around "Bunko's Castle Fun-O-Rama Amusement Palace and Arcade".

I left the song running.

The Palace was one of those oddball "Bauhaus by way of Disney" designs. It reminded me a little of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only built on a larger scale: a great stepped pyramid of glass panels and steel rods that sheltered an assortment of carnival rides, midway games, VR arcades and other entertainment venues. At the moment it was lightly frosted with new-fallen snow. In daylight that probably would have added a wildly discordant flavor of Italian wedding cake to the entire structure, but at that moment it merely diffused the light emanating from inside, turning it from sharp gleam to soft glow. Wild gusts of wind randomly assaulted the building, sending further snow swirling up and around its vitreous peaks and valleys and darting in and out of visibility.

As pretty as it was, the snowstorm was a pain in the ass. I can't remember a time when I fought in worse weather conditions. (And given Hexe's particular metagifts, I've fought in a lot of different weather conditions.) It limited my line of sight, made my footing uncertain, and it was just plain annoying.

Fortunately, after almost 15 years of drills and live combat under Hexe's command, I could operate in just about any weather, and turn it to my advantage. This wasn't that much more extreme than Hexe's usual blizzard tactics, after all. And unless they were arctic models, the bots would probably have a far worse time of it than I did. I was surprised that those stupid little helicopters the ADP had up and about weren't having any trouble.

Anyway, what bugged me right then was that this incident looked way too organized. This wasn't a case of a bunch of rogue bots running wild. This looked more like a classic terrorist operation -- seize some turf, grab some hostages, dig in, and wait for your demands to be met. Except that the boomers weren't making any demands, as far as I could tell from the ADP radio traffic. They were just waiting.

Waiting for what?

I didn't know.

All I did know was that my first priority was those hostages.

* * *

"Bring them in, you damned idiot! I want those Firebees grounded now!" Leon roared into the radio.

Daley glanced up again as the syncopated roar of helicopter blades faded in once more overhead. He could just barely make out the trio of Firebees through the snow, silhouetted against the glowing grey-pink of the cloud cover. With each gust of wind, they swerved right and left along their narrow flight path between the buildings, sometimes skimming dangerously close to one side or the other. As he watched with growing concern, they shot out over the plaza for one more pass over the Palace -- just as another series of gusts began to batter the glass mountain.

Behind him, Leon was demanding, "What? Who is this now?" of his radio.

A few seconds later, Leon demanded, "How do I know you're the Loon?"

"What?" Daley yelped as he snapped his attention to Leon. What the hell? I guess it only makes sense that he can transmit as well as listen... Damn, if only our trip to Ganbare had turned up a solid lead... Minding his footing in the snow, he made his way around the patrol car.

Ignoring him, Leon grunted, "Yeah," and after a moment held out the transceiver. "It's for you."

Daley raised an eyebrow and then took the handset. "Wong here."

"Good evening, Inspector. I hope you hold no hard feelings about me sucker-punching you a few months ago."

"Loon?"

A throaty chuckle. "One and the same. '100% California natural, not a smidge of cyber.' How's the head?"

Daley handed the transceiver back to Leon. "It's him," he said blandly.

Leon snorted and brought the handset back up to his ear. "Loon, Inspector Leon McNichol here. You know there's a warrant out for your arrest."

A long pause. Daley raised an eyebrow again. Okay, where is this going?

"How are you going to do that?" McNichol demanded.

Another pause.

"What?"

Daley began to make "come on" gestures at Leon. "Hurry up, tell me what's going on," he mouthed at his partner.

Leon pulled the handset from his face and put his thumb over the microphone. "He's inside," he whispered.

"He's where?"

"Inside Bunko's. Says he's got a plan to rescue the hostages, but needs us to start an attack out front as a distraction."

Daley shrugged. "It's what we were going to do."

Leon nodded. "My thought exactly." He uncovered the microphone and turned back to the handset. "You're on. We were going to start our assault shortly anyway..."

Frowning, Daley turned his attention to the Amusement Palace. Behind him Leon continued murmuring into the radio. After a terse signoff with the Loon, he began issuing commands to the gathered ADP forces. Overhead, the Firebee team -- their commander momentarily free of Leon's demands to ground them -- swung about for yet another pass at the building. The snowfall had just barely thinned enough that Daley could now clearly make out their running lights. A minute later, they had crossed the no-man's-land.

They came in close, skimming along the snow-frosted glass structure in an apparent attempt to peer inside. The snowfall still seemed to be growing lighter, making it easier for Daley to follow the Firebees' progress, but the wind still roared up and down the street in treacherously-changeable gusts. Unconsciously, his hand tightened its grip on the top of the patrol car's door as another blast of wind lifted the tiny helicopters up, and then hurled them down towards the glass panel below them.

"Leon!" he cried, but it was too late. Two of the Firebees skittered away from the Palace, banking and rolling through the falling snow to recover in open air. The third smashed into the roof panel, snapping its rotor blades and sending them flying wildly into the night.

For a moment the glass looked like it would hold despite the punishment. Then, with an audible "crack!" that Daley could hear a third of a kilometer away, the panel shattered and the Firebee dropped down into the building. Through the translucent, snow-coated glass, he saw a flame-colored blob of light plummet towards the ground. Halfway there, it was intercepted by a brilliant blue beam and exploded into a fierce orange-red-yellow blossom that turned the entire structure into a great glass flame flickering in the night.

"Dear god," Leon whispered. Then he raised the radio handset to his lips and depressed the button. "Who was that? Kimura, do you hear me, who was that?"

* * *

Per mission guidelines, unit Bu-65C-7723-Beta-24-Idec(Temporary) maintained a sentry post in the lobby of Bunko's Castle. As it slowly scanned the broad, bare floor from its position in front of the central ticket booth, it cycled through its complete list of mission directives and objectives several times each passing second.

It was trying to reconcile two commands, both encoded with the highest priority, that partly counterindicated each other: "Do not physically harm humans" -- a core directive -- and "Cause maximum damage and chaos" -- a mission objective accorded core-level priority.

It could not determine a way to completely fulfill either directive without willfully disobeying the other. Communications with the other members of the squad indicated that they, too, were contemplating the paradox. 7801 reported a worse scenario; it had reason to believe that inadvertent harm had come to humans because of its efforts while creating the defensive buffer zone, but it was unable to confirm its suspicions. Its signals were growing erratic.

Incorporating this data into its tactical analyses and continuing to pursue the matter, 7723 found itself entering a state which in humans might have been called agitation. When a damaged and burning Firebee broke through the glass roof and approached its position on an aggressive vertical vector, the combat boomer's hardwired reflexes took over from its pre-occupied mind; its jaw dropped and a laser belched forth, neatly spearing the miniature helicopter and turning it into a fireball. Large fragments of the craft went flying; its Vulcan minigun, mostly intact, spun across the tiled floor and came to rest at the base of the ticket booth.

It was only during its immediate post-action analysis that it realized that there may have been a human aboard the craft. As its teammates abandoned their prisoners and rushed into the lobby, it tried to evaluate a proper course of action now that a core directive had likely been violated. And unit 7723 found its attention inexorably drawn to the weapon.

* * *

Using what was left of "Don't Stop Me Now", I got past the bots and into the building via the roof. I landed myself on an upper mezzanine right before the song ran out, and quickly surveyed the situation.

The place was, as I said, an indoor amusement park. It was probably well lit most of the time by the many large mercury vapor lamps hanging from the girders and trusses that supported the ceiling. At the moment, though, they were dead. Instead, emergency lights perched in every nook and cranny bathed the place with harsh yellow-white illumination that cast sharply-defined shadows -- and which just coincidentally made my job a little easier.

Like most amusement parks, there was a central space -- a hub of sorts -- off of which the different arms of the complex sprang. It was tiled with a fountain in the middle, and ringed with lush planters and assorted concession stands. I also noted a set of emergency doors not far off the hub.

Three boomers stood guard over a surprisingly small number of people -- probably everyone who didn't flee the building as soon as the damned things showed up. Maybe a couple hundred or so shivering as the temperature slowly dropped inside -- children outnumbering adults about two to one. There was a fourth boomer standing guard just outside the ticket booths; given the patrols outside, I figured bot four was a redundancy factor of some sort.

It wasn't my idea of a winning scenario: Me against four warbots, with several hundred civilians in the way. My tactical eval didn't look promising. Even if I couldn't actually defeat them, I could at least try to keep the boomers too busy to slaughter the hostages. But I couldn't guarantee zero casualties, which was unacceptable. I needed to get the civs out of the combat zone first. And to do that, I needed to get the boomers away from them.

Think fast, rabbit...

"<System, open crypto channel designation 'ADP'.>" I hadn't really expected to ever want to transmit to the AD Police, but I didn't get to be Security Chief of Earth's foremost metahuman paramilitary force by not planning for contingencies. (My recent lapses excepted, of course.) I crouched down, turned around, and leaned back against the mezzanine railing to get out of the boomers' potential line of sight. In the HUD the green "channel open" icon blinked on, and I was suddenly presented with the middle of a rather heated conversation:

"Bring them in, you damned idiot! I want those Firebees grounded now!"

"Loon calling ADP," I said softly into the helmet mike, "Come in, ADP."

"What? Who is this now?" came an annoyed-sounding voice -- the one who had just been yelling -- over the air.

"Officer, this is Loon. I'm inside the building, and I'm preparing to rescue the hostages. But to do that, I'm going to need a distraction out in front of the building. Can you arrange that?"

"How do I know you're the Loon?" the radio crackled suspiciously.

I sighed. "Is Inspector Wong there?"

"Yeah..."

"Put him on."

A moment's pause, then, "Wong here."

"Good evening, Inspector. I hope you hold no hard feelings about me sucker-punching you a few months ago."

"Loon?"

I chuckled. "One and the same. '100% California natural, not a smidge of cyber.' How's the head?"

There was a rattle and a crackle, and Wong's voice, distantly: "It's him." I chuckled to myself.

The other voice came back on the line. "Loon, Inspector Leon McNichol here. You know there's a warrant out for your arrest."

I sighed again. Somebody wanted to play Mister Macho Cop. "Still? Fine. Whatever. But let's deal with that after we save the innocents, okay, boss? Just get me a distraction out in front of the Castle in five minutes -- a little later is okay, sooner is bad. If you do that, I can get the hostages out."

"How are you going to do that?" McNichol demanded.

"Have a little faith, Inspector, there's magic in the night."

"What?"

"Just make sure there's no one positioned behind the building, okay? It might get a little... messy."

There was a long pause, and I thought for a moment that I'd lost them. Then McNichol came back on the air. "You're on. We were going to start our assault shortly anyway. Nothing changes if we cooperate with you. But let me tell you something, Loon. I don't like grandstanding vigilantes. When this is over, I'm taking you in."

"Whatever you say, Inspector. Just as long as you and your people are on time, you can do whatever you want afterwards."

"You can bet on it. We attack in five minutes. I'll see you in six minutes." I could hear the smirk he was wearing. "McNichol out." I glanced at the HUD clock to set my mark.

I shook my head and smiled. "Loon out." I hit the "no transmit" chin switch and added, "<System, scan open channel receive only.>" Just in case anything happened that I ought to know about.

I peeked back over the railing and re-ran my tactical. There were enough walkways and terraces and mezzanines and balconies that I didn't need a song to reach the floor; I could make it down in a very fast series of leaps. That was good, given what I had planned. I checked the HUD clock. Four minutes to go.

It was at that moment that an unplanned distraction conveniently, if tragically, manifested itself. One of ADP's stupid little helicopters had apparently been buzzing the building and crashed through the roof not ten yards from me. It had barely cleared the ceiling supports when the lobby sentry lasered it; the little chopper, already on fire, exploded and showered a rain of flames and debris onto the floor below. Two of the guard boomers immediately left to investigate, leaving a single bot to oversee the hostages.

This was an opportunity I couldn't let slide by. Without thinking, I grabbed the railing and vaulted over the side of the mezzanine. "<System, 'Lightning's Hand'. Play,>" I murmured to the helmet computer as I bounded off the walkway beneath, and my very favorite combat song began.

"<Can you see me, do you know my position,
How quick is your eye?
I have no home, no reason to roam,
Yet I travel the length of the sky,
I stretch my fingers jagged icy white
'til my energy's all around.
My clutch is swift, my force is fearful,
I convey it without a sound.
I live to free the skies from everyone.
Watch me run -- watch me!>"

My senses exploded into the full electromagnetic spectrum. I flicked a line of power down to the ground below me and into the remaining guard boomer that waited there. Had I wanted, I could have ionized the air along its line of travel, shown the pulse of energy as it flowed along the leash I was anchoring into the boomer's circuits. But this was a stealth operation -- for now. For the same reason, I did not charge up my usual defensive shield. Crawling blue sparks make one so noticeable.

Also for the same reason, I tried to make my leaps and landings as quiet as possible. Fortunately, the Palace was built quite solidly, and rather than horrendous rattles my landings were quiet thuds. Still, below me, first one, then several, then finally all of the hostages noticed me. (For some reason, the bot didn't. It seemed... distracted.)

To return the favor I checked them out in brief instants between and during the leaps. With the exception of several wailing toddlers (and no few older children who were also crying), almost all the hostages cowered silently, even as they watched me drop level by level from the ceiling.

What broke my heart was seeing not hope or relief in their faces, but resigned acceptance and fear. The adults, at least, were so completely cowed -- and so quickly! I must have looked like just one more inexplicable horror of modern life come to prey upon them. I suppose a decade or more of random terror would do that to a population.

I never wanted to utterly destroy GENOM more than at that moment.

Anyway.

My intent was to seize control of the bot and shut it down before it even knew I was there. Normally I could do that in a couple seconds, but I ran into unexpected problems. It was easy enough to find all manner of slave processors -- which of course I shut down or burnt out -- but the main CPU eluded me. The bot had to have one, of course -- the damned things were autonomous after all -- but I just couldn't find it. It was shielded or cloaked so well that I couldn't even detect it; something that I had never encountered before. And that left me dangerously uncertain as to just what the bot could or couldn't still do.

By that point I was on the last walkway overlooking the hostages and their captor. I looked down. Nothing had changed among the hostages -- fear and resignation ruled, leavened by the occasional face wearing bleak despair. And the boomer was still moving. Damn. There was nothing else to do.

Once again, I leapt the railing and dropped -- this time right over the boomer, just as it finally caught on to the fact that the prisoners were all watching something above its head. As I fell those last few meters, I charged up.

I suppose it must have been quite a sight for the hostages -- let's kick the coming horror up a notch or so. Blue sparks began to writhe and crawl across my body as my defensive static field energized. At the same time, glowing "mittens" of St. Elmo's fire formed around my hands as I got ready to deliver a pair of punches the boomer would never remember. Tiny bolts of lightning arced between my fists and my forearms and back again, and the smell of ozone would have surrounded me, had I not been falling.

"<The black intruding clouds approach
As I release a destructive blow.
All the crashing, all the flashing light
Brings terror upon my foe!
I fight with force and power for my land --
I command the lightning's hand!>"

I'd targeted myself perfectly -- both boot heels struck the boomer precisely at the base of the neck just above what would have been shoulder blades in a human, and the bot dropped like a poleaxed steer. I rebounded off its shoulders into a back somersault, landing with my feet straddling its legs as it slammed face-down on the floor. Then I dropped to my knees and pounded two massive hammerblows into the back of its head.

Thunder crashed as each punch discharged a couple of megawatts of point-blank lightning directly into the bot's skull -- I imagine the double flash must have lit up the entire structure for several seconds. The boomer's polymer armor vaporized and the voltage discharged right into its chassis and circuitry. It spasmed under me, its arms and legs flung wide and thrashing as its braincase exploded beneath my fists.

"<I hear them moan, I hear them weep
Because they feel I belong to the devil.
They feel the pain, and will again
'Til they stop reaching up for this level.
No one will defeat me, no one can --
I command the lightning's hand!>"

As the hostages broke into an excited sussurus, a roar of gunfire announced the beginning of the ADP attack. A quick glance to my rear confirmed that the boomers in the lobby were running out to deal with the police. I rotated my helmet's speaker housings to "on" and announced, "Okay, people, I'm called Loon, and I'm here to rescue you. Let's start moving out the emergency exit!"

"The boomers lasered the doors shut!" someone wailed from the back of the crowd.

I smirked, and in a deep bass voice I slowly said, "Leave that to me."

* * *

"Where is he?" Ohara snarled. "The ADP is already storming the plaza! He should have shown by now! All he had to do was show up!"

"Uh-oh," Davis said, his gaze intent on the makeshift boomer telemetry unit. His expression grew worried.

"'Uh-oh'?" Ohara repeated. "What the hell do you mean, 'Uh-oh'?"

* * *

Unit Bu-65C-7723-Beta-24-Idec(Temporary) paused in its dash to the entrance. Available sensor data indicated substantial enemy forces. Additional firepower was welcome. 7723 remembered the Vulcan minicannon, and turned back to retrieve it.

As it stood in the midst of the smoldering debris of the crashed Firebee, 7723 reached down. Its right hand writhed and flowed, turning into a mass of cords and cables that plunged themselves into the autocannon. Self-replicating nanocircuits laid themselves down into the gun's mechanisms, building the scaffolding on which artificial muscle grew at a lightning pace to anchor, support and finally control the weapon. The entire process took only a few seconds, making a wet, slithering sound that echoed off the tile floor and smooth surfaces of the ticket booths around it.

As the fusion process completed, 7723 heard a double explosion, followed by an amplified human voice that announced, "Okay, people, I'm called Loon, and I'm here to rescue you. Let's start moving out those emergency exits!"

7723 paused, tilted its head to one side and considered. According to its data, the designation "Loon" was congruent with the entity labeled "The Visitor" in its directives. The Visitor was its mission target. The Visitor was interfering in the execution of group subdirective three -- acquire and hold hostages. The boomer then stopped in something akin to shock. If the Visitor was interfering in the hostage phase of the operation, then the Visitor must have disabled or destroyed unit 7699. Root tactical heuristics required threat level upgrade and overrode current mission directives.

7723 flexed its arm and brought up the Vulcan as it turned to step between two ticket booths. It was time to engage the target.

* * *

"It's another boomer," Yui whimpered, and buried her face in her brother Toshi's chest. The two children were huddled between the concrete planters near the ticket booths. They had hidden there after the boomers first appeared and they had gotten separated from their parents.

"Nah, ain't," Toshi said confidently. "He's a boomer-fighter, I saw'im on TV!"

"You sure?"

He nodded. "Yup! He goes out and kills boomers with his bare hands."

Yui sniffed and pressed her face harder against her brother's body. "Don't care. I want Mommy and Daddy!"

Toshi stroked his little sister's hair with all the elder-brother confidence the nine-year-old could muster. "He'll kill all the boomers, and Mommy and Daddy will come back and get us."

"They will?" Yui's voice was muffled but intelligible.

"Yup!" Then, almost to himself, Toshi added, "Gee, I wanna see him fight."

* * *

ADP Lt. Peter Yankowy gently nudged the joystick of his Firebee and swung around the back of Bunko's once more. Unlike its spectacular facade, there was far more pre-stressed concrete and steel than glass here. It surrounded and formed the service entrances, loading docks, and other entries and egresses employed out of sight of the Castle's customers. Several trucks remained parked in the wide lot behind the Palace, along with the cars of a few employees believed to be among the hostages.

Bringing his craft to a hover directly behind the building at an altitude of 100 meters, Yankowy took a moment to brush snow off his goggles. Then he scanned the no-man's-land below, looking as far to the left and to the right as he could in the dwindling snowfall.

"I don't see anything, Pete. How about you?" His surviving wingman, Sgt. Gabriela Shimura, drifted into her usual place at his 4 o'clock position. He refused to acknowledge the empty spot at his 8 o'clock. This wasn't the time or place to brood about it; he and Gabriela would mourn Ken after the action ended, and no earlier.

"Nope. If I counted right, we saw all of them head for the action." A twitch of the joystick left and right and center again allowed him to quickly scan the ground below once more. "Unless they've got reinforcements hidden down below. But I doubt it. Let's call it in."

In her seat in Flight Two's open cockpit, Gabriela nodded sharply and tossed an informal salute at him. "As you say, o fearless leader."

He snorted, then thumbed the radio to the open channel. "This is Flight One to base. Confirm on all bogies running to the front door. Repeat, we have all bogies running to the front door."

"Roger, Flight One," crackled a feminine voice on the radio, a touch of sarcasm coloring the tones. "Ground units engaging the enemy now. Get your butts over there and give them some air support, why don't you?"

Yankowy eased back on the Firebee's throttle and began to drop toward the ground in preparation for a fast sweep around the building. Gabriela, ever the perfect wingman, was only moments behind and in perfect sync. "Since you asked so nicely, Penny, it'd be our... holy shit!"

"What the hell is that?" Gabriela shouted.

Below and in front of them, a circle of concrete wall surrounding a pair of steel doors briefly glowed blue, then exploded out horizontally across the parking lot. Driving the debris forward was a whirling, spiraling piston of glowing blue light. It looks almost... braided, Yankowy thought as he watched it erupt across the asphalt. A moment later, a powerful shockwave struck the two Firebees, tossing them through the air.

By the time Yankowy and Shimura regained control of their craft, the cylinder of light had vanished and dozens of people were running out of a five-meter-wide hole in the back wall of the Palace. A shallow trench filled with a trail of shattered concrete and twisted steel stretched in a ruler-straight line away from the perfectly-circular opening. A hundred meters along that line, a steel fire door embedded in the cab of one of the tractor-trailers silently testified to the strength of the explosion.

"Flight One! Do you read me?" Penny shrieked over the radio. "Flight One, come in!"

"Fl-flight One here, Base," Yankowy croaked, and cleared his throat. "Something just blew a hole in the building."

"Another boomer, Flight One?"

"I don't think so, Base," Gabriela cut in as dozens of people began to pour out of the tunnel-like hole. "The hostages are on their way out. I'd say the Loon just made good on his promise."

* * *

"One of the boomers has just gone rogue," Davis said tonelessly.

Ohara lowered the binoculars. "God, no."

* * *

Yui shrieked at the explosion.

"Cool," was all Toshi said.

* * *

I cut the song and startled hustling people out. I did enjoy the delicious appropriateness of using the Doors to make a door... But like most of what I do, "Break On Through (To The Other Side)" was far from subtle, and I was sure at least one bot would come a-hunting to see what was up. I tried to keep my attention toward the lobby as much as possible while running around, scooping up stragglers or the hesitant, and sending them on their way.

"Move! Move! Move!" I shouted over my helmet PA, and fortunately, most of them did, with an unnerving quiet and a certain near-dignity. Typical Japanese -- even the gaijin. Judging from the looks on their faces, though, I think I scared most of them as much or more than the boomers did.

Of course, I was herding when it happened, my attention on getting folks outside. The hair on the back of my neck went up before the first shots hit me, barely. The roar of the gunfire shattered the hostages' unnatural reserve, and their calm evacuation became a frantic, screaming rush out of the hole I had created.

I felt a series of faint impacts on my back and spun around. In front of me was a boomer with a fucking huge gatling gun grafted onto its right arm and something akin to surprise on its face. It was standing almost on top of the one whose head I had exploded.

Oh, and I was ankle-deep in a pile of cherry blossoms, instead of bullets and/or blood.

I looked down at the flowers. "Well, that's new," I muttered. Say what you want about my field, it always manages to surprise me. For a moment, I wondered just how fast the flowers had to have been going for me to feel them through the polykev, but then I realized that that was awfully stupid of me and I did the best thing I could do to draw the bot's attention from the hostages.

I ran right at it, screaming.

It tried to draw a bead on me, but I'm fast and a gatling gun makes for a poor close-quarters weapon. A couple of meters away from it I jumped and got it flat in the chest with both feet; as I fell on my butt, it tottered backwards, flailed its arm and its gun and fell over, shooting wildly into the air. I scrambled to my feet and gave it a swift kick in the head, then ran like hell for the lobby.

Just as I'd planned, the boomer got back on its feet and galloped after me. Although the thing had a better ground speed than I did, I had a head start, and I made it out the door before it caught up. Without thinking about it, I hit the snow and skidded sideways a good five meters before I got my movement under control and brought myself to a halt.

In the middle of a war zone.

Gunfire, artillery, lasers, grenades -- you name it, it seems like someone in that plaza was flinging it at someone else. Overhead, several of those little helicopters were cutting loose with suspiciously-familiar-looking gatling guns. What snow was left on the ground was churned up and stomped down, and what snow was still falling seemed to vanish faster than it could accumulate.

"<System, open crypto channel designation 'ADP',>" I told the helmet computer as the action around me seemed to freeze. As soon as the green icon appeared I shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, the hostages have left the building! <System, close channel.>" I didn't want any more distractions.

My new playmate with the gatling gun stepped outside and into the fun.

* * *

"He was inside the building all this time?" Ohara growled through gritted teeth.

Davis looked up at his boss, who stood at the edge of the building, binoculars to his eyes. Then he returned his attention to the sensors, and chewed his lip.

* * *

"I gotta see this!" Toshi exclaimed and began to crawl out of their hiding place.

"No! Don't wanna!" Yui cried. "I wan' Mommy and Daddy!"

"Don't be a baby!" Toshi sneered disdainfully at his sister. "I'm goin' to see." He crept out on his hands and knees.

A few seconds later Yui, sobbing, reluctantly followed him.

* * *

"I still can't believe it was that easy," Linna said, stretching out on one of the contour couches inside the Sabers' mobile command center -- a.k.a. the Silky Van. They had spent nearly four hours in the cramped vehicle so far, interrupted only by the mission itself; Linna, at least, felt ecstatic to be almost home. Just one more exit, thank god.

"Yeah," Nene mumbled around a mouthful of potato chips, "in, bang, out!" She made a vague gesture with one hand that Linna supposed was intended to illustrate that statement.

"Don't complain, you two." Priss lay draped across another of the couches. "We got good money for the job. I don't care if it was a piece of cake."

Sylia stepped into the back of the van; she had been riding up front with Doc Raven. "Don't relax yet, ladies."

Nene swallowed and clapped a hand over her eyes. "No, don't tell me."

Priss chuckled grimly and shook her head. "You two just jinxed it." She turned to their leader. "Okay, Sylia, how many and where?"

Sylia's business face was on; she refused to react to the banter. "A dozen, all combat models, at Bunko's Palace. They have hostages. The ADP just engaged them."

Linna sighed, stood, and turned to the locker that held her hardsuit. She didn't even pause as she palmed the catch. "How long, Sylia?"

Sylia nodded approvingly. "Our ETA is five minutes."

* * *

I hadn't seen a reaction to it since the last time I crashed a party at the Palladium -- literally every boomer on the field of battle dropped what it was doing and turned to look at me. The ADP kept attacking for a couple seconds after that, until it realized the boomers had just stopped cold; then they, too, more or less trailed off. Out of surprise, I suppose.

I looked around at all those mechanical faces staring at me. "What? What?" I brought my right wrist to my face and mimed sniffing at my cuff. "<Do I oh-fend?>" I asked pretentiously.

Then, in perfect unison, all of the near-dozen boomers lunged at me.

I yelped and scampered to get out of ground zero.

* * *

"Hey," Sergeant O'Shaughnessey shouted, "It's him!"

"Huh? Who?" several other members of the ADP chorused while they dealt with the sudden change in the boomers' behavior.

"Yeah," Itoh said, a slow smile crossing his face. "That Loon character!" To their blank faces, he added, "You know, the Iceman! The one McNichol is so hot for!"

"You know," O'Shaughnessey caressed the high-powered rifle he held. "If McNichol wants this guy so bad, whaddaya say we help him?"

Itoh's smile, if anything, grew bigger. "Now that's a fine idea." He hefted his own rifle. "A fine idea, indeed."

* * *

I spent more than a couple minutes dodging boomers who suddenly wanted to tackle or pummel me. Except for my friend Mr. Gatling Gun, who was taking potshots at me all the while. At least I think it was only Mr. Gatling Gun. Although very occasionally, shots seemed to come from the direction of the ADP forces. Those forces, by the way, were still in the fight, and taking as much advantage as they could of the fact that the boomers were now ignoring them.

This is getting me nowhere, I thought as I dodged for the Nth time. I should be on the offensive. I bounced clear of the latest tackle attempt, and took a moment to catch my breath. Beyond the battle lines, I could see the familiar shapes of newsvans, their microwave antenna booms extended and their crews' camera lenses glittering in the darkness. What the hell. Let's give them a show.

"<System, 'White Wedding'. Play,>" I told the helmet, and as Billy Idol began to sneer his way through the song, I sneered with him.

"<Hey little sister, what have you done?
Hey little sister, who's the only one?
Hey little sister, who's your superman?
Hey little sister, who's the one you want?
Hey little sister, shotgun!>"

I reached over my shoulder, and from a holster that didn't exist I drew forth a shotgun that hadn't been there a moment before. Its comfortable weight nestled almost naturally in my hands. I whipped it vertical, pumped it once for effect, then held it up in the air. "All right, you blue-plated screwheads," I shouted over my PA, "listen up! THIS... is my BOOM STICK!"

Then I swung it to bear on the closest of the bots. I fired, and and most of its arm vanished in a satisfying explosion. I grinned to myself. This was going to be fun.

* * *

Ohara was near-apoplectic. He watched incredulously through the binoculars first as an ordinary-looking shotgun appeared in the Visitor's hands from out of nowhere, and then as the leather-clad extradimensional casually blew the arm off BU-65C combat boomer with a decidedly un-ordinary blast from that same weapon. "What the hell is that gun loaded with?" he muttered to himself through clenched teeth.

"If these readings are right, nothing, Ohara-san," ventured Davis calmly. In the distance, a flash of light and the delayed crack of an explosion announced another shot from the weapon.

Ohara whirled on him. "What do you mean, nothing?"

Davis betrayed no emotion as he pointed to the displays before him. "I mean, as far as the instruments are concerned, that's not even a gun he's carrying."

"It's not?" Ohara stood stock-still at this. "Then what the hell is it?"

Davis ventured a slight smile, and replied, "About three kilograms of pure energy."

Ohara narrowed his eyes and glared at his subordinate. "That's nonsense. You don't measure energy in kilograms."

The tech gestured again at the displays. "You do in this case. Grav-field sensors indicated a mass discontinuity equivalent to about three kilograms simply appeared at the same time as that 'shotgun'. The radar and spectroscopes don't register anything material, but the flux sensors indicate the presence of an intensely powerful electromagnetic field in the same location as the mass -- intense enough that I had to recalibrate the sensors twice simply to get it on the scale. The field and the mass both get marginally smaller each time he fires off a shot." Another distant crack and both Davis and Ohara winced. "That 'gun' is actually a vast amount of pure energy somehow 'gelled' into a state that is almost but not quite real matter."

"Then each shot is?" Ohara asked.

"At most maybe a picogram of energy, I'd guess, somehow contained until it hits its target." Davis turned and gave him a sober look. "Dr. Ohara, the Visitor is carrying the energy equivalent of a 3-kilo total conversion bomb in his bare hands. He created it out of thin air. And is firing off bits of it at will. I sincerely hope he doesn't drop it, because MegaTokyo won't survive the result. I'm not sure Japan would survive the result. And we're expected to capture him?" Davis shook his head. "I don't know about you, but I'm not getting paid enough to tangle with someone who can do that."

* * *

Lisa was well aware of the fact that a valid press pass wouldn't get her into a typical commercial mid-rise building, especially on a weekend. Not by itself, no.

However, a little chutzpah and a certain set of not-quite-legal tools, plus the skills to use both effectively -- all of which had served her well since high school -- opened many doors. Whether their owners knew about it or not. It's not really breaking and entering, she silently repeated to herself as she rode the freight elevator to the building's top floor. It was a mantra she used to calm herself during excursions like this one. It's investigative reporting.

It was risky to slip into two adjacent buildings within such a short span of time, but she needed to find out who it was that had camped out on the other roof, and why. It's not really breaking and entering, she recited once more as the elevator jerked to a halt with a cascade of bangs and thuds. She took at deep breath and pulled open the safety gate. Before her were the final steps to the top of the building.

A few moments later she stepped out onto the darkened roof. A violent gust of wind penetrated her coat as if it weren't there at all, and set her to shivering. Directly in front of her, two men hovered around a low wall built out of what looked like silver equipment cases. In the orange-hued twilight of the overcast night, she could see dimly-lit dials, gauges and monitor screens arrayed across some of the boxes. And a repeated corporate logo: "IDEC".

Lisa did what came naturally when she was surprised or in shock. She took a picture.

* * *

So there I was, leaping around and putting holes into boomers.

Well, not really. The bots' torsos and heads were well-armored -- enough to (mostly) resist my shots. Between that and their ability to self-repair, I hadn't really put any of them down, not permanently. But I was taking out limbs here and there, which were not being replaced. And the damage I inflicted with the body shots had to be taking a toll on the boomers' resources. And that doesn't even take into account the concentrated fire that the ADP was laying down.

It was just a matter of time before we took them all out. But how much damage would we inflict on the neighborhood first? The ADP was being just a bit profligate with the firepower. Then again, it must say something about how often this kind of thing happened that the "glass" facade of the Palace had only suffered a few cracks so far; evidently, its architects had designed for the possibility of a firefight in the front yard. Go figure.

The other thing was, the ADP wasn't exactly treating me like a friendly. Now, this wasn't unexpected -- that Inspector McNichol did say he was out to arrest me. What was unexpected was that at least some of the ADP forces were treating me as a valid target.

So I bounced over to have a little talk with them.

As I landed, I put up my shotgun up on my shoulder, parade-rest, and got in their faces. "What the hell is wrong with you morons? I'm working the same side of the street as you!" There were eight or ten of them, all in pretty good body armor and carrying high-powered rifles.

There were eight or ten ratcheting sounds and suddenly the rifles were all brought to bear on me.

Big deal. As a Warrior, I've faced down armies before. Ten rifles aren't going to intimidate me. Hurt me, yes, possibly. Badly, even, if they got lucky. But not intimidate me.

"Loon," the big guy in the front said, "you're under arrest for vigilantism, possession of illegal firearms, trespassing, criminal mischief, interfering in police business, assaulting an officer, resisting arr..."

He choked off as two boomers dropped down between us, facing him and his crew. One of the bots turned and shoved me away, sending me sprawling in the snow. My shotgun flew out of my hands and vanished. The other bot was busy grabbing officers and tossing them in random directions.

I rolled to dodge a third bot that tried to body-slam me, then got up and conjured a new shotgun. I blasted the bot, doing no real damage but sending it rolling away across the plaza. A quick step, and I tapped one of the first two boomers on the shoulder. It stopped in mid-assault to turn and look at me.

"Excuse me," I said, sticking the business end of the shotgun in its face. "But I can handle all my dealings with the police by myself, thank you."

Damn, but the machine actually looked confused and puzzled! Its mouth dropped open in almost realistic surprise. So I jammed the shotgun between its jaws and fired. I'd already leapt back into the middle of the fray before it finished toppling, mostly headless, to the ground.

Good rule of thumb for fighting warbots: the roof of the mouth is rarely armored.

Assuming they have mouths.

It was about this time that I heard a familiar voxmod-distorted female voice shout, "Knight Sabers! Sanjo!" I smiled, and started my sampler routine. The last time I'd encountered the Knights, I hadn't gotten enough of their private communications to analyze sufficiently; this time would be different.

* * *

"Damn it all," Itoh swore under his breath. "Did you see that? Did you see that?"

"Yeah," growled O'Shaughnessey. "The damned boomers were protecting him!"

Itoh slapped a new clip into his rifle. "That's it! He's going down!" He looked around for the rest of his squad, who were slowly regrouping. "You hear that? We're taking him down!"

* * *

Daniel Ohara had passed completely through apoplexy and had come out the other side into a kind of serene agitation. "Well, well, well. The Sabers are here. They should've still had their hands full at GENGenTech. Did they default on our contract just to spite me?" He looked to the sky and spread his hands. "Can things possibly get worse?"

"Now that you mention it," Davis ventured, a certain degree of concern evident in his voice, "we're getting some strange readings from some of the other boomers."

"We are?"

The tech nodded. "I think they might be about to go rogue, too."

"Recall them, shut them down, whatever! Do it now!" Ohara snapped, falling completely out of his brief moment of peace.

* * *

In the shadows of the stairwell, hidden by darkness and snow, Lisa snapped one more picture of the pair and their equipment. Huh. Doug's definitely going to want to hear about this.

* * *

"Wow! The Knight Sabers! Cooool!"

"Toshi! I wanna go back now!"

* * *

Nene held back from the action as the other three dove in. Between them, Loon, and the ADP, her presence in combat was unneeded; her ECM skills weren't.

As she drifted slowly around the edge of the plaza toward the ADP forces, she isolated the boomers' tactical network, then analyzed its crypto and frequency-hopping. "Okay, Sylia, I've got them. Starting to jam... now!"

* * *

On almost a dozen readouts, indicators spiked to their full travel, then dropped to zero. On almost a dozen panels, a red LED flickered to life.

"Gah!" Davis blurted. His hands danced across two keyboards and a score of controls. "The tactical net is gone!" He typed frantically. "Backup net's down, too! I've lost contact with the boomers!"

"Did you send the recall signal?" Ohara was at his side in an instant, his eyes sweeping across the banks of sensors and taking it all in at once.

"No! It happened just as I was about to transmit!"

"Shit. Try to get the tactical net back up." Daniel dashed to the edge of the roof and peered through the binoculars. "Dear god." He glanced back over his shoulder. "Hurry, man!"

In the plaza below, the tone of the battle had changed utterly.

* * *

"Looks like the kid gloves are off," Daley shouted over the gunfire.

"You're not kidding," Leon grunted as he squeezed off a shot from his Earthshaker. "What brought this on?"

"Who cares?"

Moments earlier, without any warning, the nature of the conflict in the plaza had changed dramatically. Leon realized that until now, the boomers had been mostly ignoring the ADP, returning fire only to discourage those firing upon them, and concentrating their attention on the Loon. Even the berserk one fused to the Vulcan had kept most of its attention on the vigilante.

Now all bets were off.

Within seconds of each other, each boomer spasmed and then began firing upon any non-boomer that crossed its line of sight. He'd lost at least 20 men in the first ten seconds. Leon was ashamed to find himself thinking that it was a fair tradeoff against the two boomers they had brought down at the same time.

* * *

I don't know what happened, but the bots suddenly spazzed and started shooting at almost everything that moved. And I was running out of time on the song.

Aw, hell. Here we go again.

Reluctantly, I reached for the node and grabbed power.

* * *

With the blast of her knucklebomber, Priss put her fist through a boomer's head. The cyberdroid's body tottered for a moment as she pulled her hand out of its skull. It fell to its knees, then toppled forward to send snow spraying from the pavement. Yellow liquid pooled around the ruins of its head and soaked into moist white accumulation beneath it.

Through the space the boomer had just occupied, she could now see the Loon. The shotgun-like weapon in his hands was glowing faintly, lighting a halo around itself in the falling snow. Even as she blinked to try to clear her eyes, the glow intensified. The weapon doubled in thickness and then split down its length like an amoeba reproducing... to become two shotguns, one in each of his hands. The glow flared once more, and the shotguns writhed and flowed; thick disks grew from their stocks, right in front of the trigger. Drum magazines, she realized. Fully-automatic shotguns? I like!

As she watched, he opened fire with both guns, driving back a boomer with a hail of tiny explosions that within seconds pounded their way into and through its cratered and scorched torso.

* * *

Nene sighed. No challenges today. This batch of boomers was running familiar code in their tactical communications suite. Nothing here required her full attention; the ECM system in her hardsuit could handle it almost entirely on its own.

Then she brightened. That meant she had no reason to stay out of the fight.

Not far from her, the Loon was blasting away at the boomers with what looked like a pair of fully-automatic shotguns. Heh. Priss got to race him, Linna got to team up with him. My turn! She ran into the heart of the battle.

A nearby roar of gunfire startled her, and she glanced to her right to see a squad of ADP troopers opening fire. She flicked her eyes left to spot their target, and realized... Ohmigod! They're shooting at the Loon! She narrowed her eyes in anger. And Leon promised he wouldn't get hurt!

Abruptly she changed course and charged the troopers. So intent were the police on their target that they didn't notice her until almost the last moment -- a pink juggernaut that barrelled into them and bowled them over. Nene almost lost her balance when she plowed through the group, but managed to rescue herself and turn the fall into a not-quite-graceful turn. She tried to make it look intentional, and finished the move by firmly planting herself between the police and the Loon.

She raised her right arm, and her laser barrel popped up. "Drop the guns," she said through the voder. When they didn't comply right away, she repeated it, more emphatically. "Drop. The. Guns. Now."

* * *

Daley tried to watch everything at once, but there was simply too much. It was hard to see how many boomers were still up and active, although he thought he could see three or four dead cyberdroids slowly gathering a coat of snow. The ADP was laying down a crossfire that seemed to be holding the boomers down, if not actually killing them. The Loon had pulled what looked like a pair of USAS-12 fully-automatic shotguns from nowhere and was bounding around like a maniac, miraculously untouched by the crossfire. And the Sabers...

"McNichol!" A feminine voice heavy with electronic distortion carried faintly across the battle, and Daley sought out its source.

His eyes widened. "Leon!" He pointed down along the front line.

"Huh, what?" His partner followed the pointing finger, then groaned. "What the... What the hell does she think she's doing?" He broke into a half-run, trying to make good speed and still watch his step in the snow.

* * *

"Nene, what are you doing?" Linna asked over the private link.

Nene didn't answer. The big one in the front -- O'Shaughnessey, from the Shinjuku precinct, she faintly recalled -- tried to fire on her, but she'd had been expecting something like that. Her laser lanced out and struck the rifle's barrel right in front of the stock; she had set the weapon on its lowest intensity -- enough to heat the metal almost instantly, not enough to melt it or set off the gun's ammunition.

The trooper yelped and dropped the firearm. She cut the beam but kept the laser trained on him. After a moment's thought, she shouted, "McNichol!", carefully never taking her eyes off the squad.

A moment later, Leon arrived, shouting, "Stand down! Stand down!"

Nene nodded at Leon. "Inspector McNichol," she acknowledged coldly. Then, before she could say anything unwise, Nene turned and ran back into the combat.

* * *

Leon watched as Nene ran off, then turned back to the squad. "What's going on here, O'Shaughnessey?" he demanded of the hulking trooper after glancing at the rifle on the ground between them. The snow beneath it was melting into a small, steaming puddle. I think I have a pretty good idea what happened here. Looks like I'll be buying the ice cream again. He sighed to himself as O'Shaughnessey rushed to explain.

* * *

I was playing with Mr. Gatling Gun.

That's the only thing I can call it. That particular boomer seemed to have had it in for me, chasing after me no matter where in the battle I went. It got to the point where I started teasing it. The presence of the news crews just outside the killing zone only contributed to my irresponsibility. I had decided to show off for the cameras.

Since the Sabers had shown up and the ADP stopped shooting at me, the rest of the boomers were slowly dropping; the battle seemed to be under control. There was just this one boomer that was relentlessly pursuing me. So I turned all my attention to it.

"White Wedding" had ended about a minute earlier, and I hadn't started up a new song yet. Instead, I led my playmate away from the bulk of the battle by dodging (mostly) its attacks, then running up to it and tagging it lightly before running away again.

This wasn't exactly the safest strategy, nor the smartest. I got a couple creases from a gatling burst that penetrated my field -- nothing life-threatening, but they stung like hell. And one time, it managed to grab me as I dodged in, and put me in a headlock under the arm with the gun. It grabbed my helmet -- I thought it was going to rip my head off -- but before it did anything, there was this flash of light and an electrical crackle. It dropped me rather suddenly, and I got the wind knocked out of me as I plopped into the snow. The smell of burnt plastic drifted into my nostrils.

I got to my feet, expecting to be nailed any second, but instead saw the bot staggering around. It looked just about as unsteady as I felt at that moment, and I wondered exactly what had happened. Not what the boomer had intended, I was sure. It recovered before I could take advantage of its distraction, unfortunately.

Anyway, I eventually let it back me up against the front of the building. I guess I looked like I was in trouble, because Lady Olive hit her jumpjets and launched herself towards me. But before she even reached the zenith of her arc, the boomer brought the gatling up and fired.

I was already jumping myself. The bullets passed under me and smashed into the polycarbonate or whatever it was that made up the front of Bunko's Palace. Tough stuff, as I've mentioned, but not tough enough to handle a full salvo from an autocannon at point blank range.

As god is my witness, I never saw the two kids behind it.

* * *

Linna watched helplessly as she completed her jump. Loon smashed the boomer's face with a spinning back kick as the wall of reinforced glass behind him shattered into a rainstorm of shards. It was almost beautiful, in a violently surreal way.

The boomer staggered backward. Loon landed and dropped to the snow-covered ground, leg-sweeping the off-balance cyberdroid and knocking it off its feet. Priss had seen the action and was in motion herself, letting loose a salvo of railgun bolts as she dashed to join the fun. The glowing blue needles stitched their way across the boomer's head and body as it toppled. It twitched once, then exploded when Linna landed spinning and sliced its body into neat sections with her ribbons.

Loon got to his feet and nodded to her. "Good evening, Lady Olive."

She returned the nod. "Good evening to you, Loon."

"Fuck," Priss said, some meters away. They turned to see her blue hardsuit standing just inside Bunko's, amidst a sea of red-stained glass.

"Oh, no," Loon whispered, and Linna looked back at him. Under his helmet, he had gone pale. "Oh, dear god, no." Before she could stop him, he sprinted into glass and fell to his knees next to the bodies of two children. "Oh, god, I thought they were all out."

Linna entered the Palace, the shards of glass crunching almost musically under her booted feet. She stepped to his side and laid her left, more human-like gauntlet on his shoulder; he was shaking violently, and she could feel it travel through her suit. She forced herself to look down.

A boy and a girl, neither more than eight or nine, she guessed, mostly from the size of the bodies. They might have been hit by the bullets, but it'd take an autopsy to find out -- the shattered window had reduced them to shreds of flesh and broken bones. But by some perverse miracle, their faces were still intact. She gasped and quickly turned away from the sight.

The Loon made a low, keening noise that somehow seemed to drown out the firefight only a few meters away. "It's my fault," he whispered after the moan faded away. "It's my fault." His head snapped up, and he looked at the two of them. Even with his eyes hidden behind those black-and-rainbow goggles, Linna felt the intensity of his gaze. "Go get the rest of those bots."

"But..." Linna began.

"Go," he snarled, "now. Kill them for me. I have matters to attend to here."

Priss laid a hand on her arm, and shook her head as Linna looked at her teammate. On the private link she said, "Leave him be."

"Are you sure?"

The blue helmet dipped in a nod. "Trust me. I know exactly what he's feeling. He needs this."

"I'm not sure that..." Linna replied, uncertainly.

"Remember how you felt after Irene died?"

Linna drew a quick intake of breath, and glanced down at Loon, who remained kneeling by the bodies. She looked back up at Priss and nodded.

Then she crouched down next to the vigilante. "Are you going to be all right?" she asked.

He laughed humorlessly. "Not for a while, I don't think. Hexe always told me I'd get someone killed by showing off." He drew a deep, ragged breath. "I wish I'd listened to her." He looked over at her, goggles to visor. "Go, finish the fight for me, please."

Slowly she nodded. "If you need us, call on the ADP band."

He reached over and gripped her hand. "Thank you."

* * *

I knelt over the two bodies as the Knights took on the remaining warbots. The stink of blood rose to my nostrils, unabated by the cold. This was not supposed to happen. I was supposed to protect and defend. Not grandstand. If only I'd paid more attention to the noncombatants.

I reached down and closed the little girl's eyes, and I realized that I was shaking. Behind me, explosions rocked the plaza and beamfire scorched past, but I didn't even notice them; all I could see was what was left of that angelic face, smeared with blood.

"<System, 'Twist of Fate'. List,>" I muttered, and the computer complied, throwing the lyrics up on the HUD. They floated translucently in mid-air, doing nothing to hide the dead children before me. I studied the words with great care. It had been years since I last used this song, and the Power that I had invoked had forbidden me from using it ever again. But I was in another universe now; different Powers governed different worlds, or so my experiences and Dwimanor's grimoires indicated. My life was forfeit if they -- and I -- were wrong, but I had to try. I would not, could not, live with these two on my conscience.

I settled in to a more comfortable kneeling position, and gently reached out both hands, touching each on the cheek. They were already cold, and snow was beginning to collect on their bodies. I don't know why that surprised me. I drew a deep breath, and realized that I was still shaking, worse than before. I wasn't as fearless about my prospects as I thought. Damn.

"<System, 'Twist of Fate'. Play,>" I said in a clear, determined voice, irrevocably committing myself to the cause. I could only hope it would not prove futile.

"<Do we deserve a second chance?
How did we fall into this circumstance?
We weren't so straight and narrow,
This is much more than we deserve.
A higher voice has called the tune.
Two hearts which lost the beat will now resume.
The gift of life extension,
By divine intervention...>"

As the clear Australian soprano rang in my ears, I felt my metagift gather itself, then flare. The bluewhite magefire blinded me.

When my sight cleared, I was... elsewhere. Or rather, my consciousness was; if I concentrated, I could still feel myself kneeling in the lobby of Bunko's, each hand on the body of a warbot's victim. But my new environs were more demanding of my attention, and I quickly lost contact with my physical body.

I was in a fog of light, a phosphorescent mist speckled with gleaming motes. Shapes lurked deep within it, shapes that I could almost but not quite make out. I sensed, rather than saw, a tree, whiter than the fog, larger than a redwood, older than a bristlecone pine. A gentle lapping sound suggested a pool of water nearby as well. It was a peaceful place that smelled of power.

Then They appeared.

All I could see of Them were three sets of enormous eyes: emerald green, rich blue and warm chestnut. All deep and beautiful and unmistakably feminine. I began to worry.

"A supplicant has come to us," murmured a Voice. "Unusual."

"He seeks to compel us," said another. "That isn't nice. Should we punish his arrogance?"

"No," replied a third. "Let us hear him."

"Who are you?" I said, then, abashed at myself, tried a more polite tack. "Please, with whom am I speaking?"

I felt Their amusement briefly before They answered.

"I spin." A low, sultry voice.

"I measure." Sweet, bell-like tones.

"I cut." The voice of a wise child.

"I rest not."

"I envy."

"I avenge."

"I engender."

"I boil."

"I haunt."

"I protect."

"I love."

"I know."

"I am Past."

"I am Present."

"I am Future."

"Maiden."

"Mother."

"Crone."

"Birth."

"Growth."

"Death."

The Voices whirled around me, hurtling at me from all sides as the Eyes watched me impassively. "What is it that you seek?" all Three demanded suddenly, in perfect unison.

Oh, great, I thought when I realized what these descriptions added up to. The Three. I swallowed, and took a long, measured breath to steady my pounding heart. As I've mentioned before, I don't like divine beings. Dealing directly with gods (including Hexe at times) is dangerous even in the best circumstances. With my luck I found myself facing the most dangerous of the lot. I looked down to remind myself exactly why I was here, forgetting that I was no longer in my physical body, but remembering the two dead children laying amidst the glass. I brought my gaze back up and stared into those three sets of Eyes with what I hoped was a look of steely determination.

"Two innocents lie dead because I failed to protect them," I said. "I ask that their lives be restored to them."

"Presumptuous!" responded Sultry.

"Excessive!" continued Child.

"But selfless," cautioned Bell-tone.

"You are not of this plane," Child said haughtily. "Why should we do what you ask?"

"Cast him into the Void and be done with it," Sultry murmured lazily.

"Hush!" said Bell-tone.

I rose, however illusory my form was here, and stood proudly. "I took an oath," I answered, "to protect the lives of those who could not protect themselves, and my oath extends even beyond death, if need be."

"We care nothing for your oaths, mortal," Sultry sneered.

"But you take supplications, and you control the lives of mortals," I countered. "Is it so strange for such a thing to be asked of you?"

"Their threads are cut!" objected Child.

"His is not," Sultry said slyly.

There was a moment of silence as they -- and I -- considered this. Then Bell-tone asked, "Would you sacrifice your thread so that theirs may continue?"

I gave the answer to this without a moment's hesitation. "In combat I would have given my life to save theirs. How could I not do the same now?"

"Brave," said Child.

"Foolish," Sultry added, but in a tone that seemed more respectful than not.

"Caring," finished Bell-tone, "Caring and wise."

"No, not wise," I shook my head. "If I were wise, I would never have had to disturb you."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. I had the sneaking suspicion that I was being weighed and judged.

"Look you," Bell-tone finally announced, "there is unused thread enough to splice to the severed ends of their lives."

"Why, so there is," said Child in exceedingly unconvincing mock surprise.

"Indeed," noted Sultry, and I suddenly had the image of a cat on its back, idly batting at dust motes in a sunbeam.

"We shall do this thing you ask, Douglas Sangnoir," the Three said as if with one voice. "But a price is demanded."

"Name it!"

"We see the twisted path you walk, and the step you must take to reach your next destination. Do what we ask, or the threads of these innocents' lives remain cut and your way will be barred forevermore."

"What do you want me to do?" I begged.

"'Nothing is so certainly written in the Book of Fate than that this people shall be free,'" said Child.

Jefferson? "I don't understand."

"'It passes my comprehension how human beings, be they ever so experienced and able, can delight in depriving other human beings of that precious right,'" intoned Sultry.

Gandhi? My confusion was growing.

"'Let my people go!'" This with surprising vehemence from Bell-tone.

Moses? I suddenly suspected the cost the Three were demanding of me. I didn't know how I could break the stranglehold GENOM had gained upon the people of MegaTokyo and the world, but I'd be damned if I wouldn't try. I held my head up and looked into those Eyes with all the conviction I could muster. "I accept your price. This I do swear upon my honor and upon my soul."

"Your soul is already pledged to Another," Child said petulantly.

I'm going to have to have a little talk with Hexe when I get home, I thought with some petulance of my own. "Nevertheless. I will do what I can."

"Yes, you will," replied Sultry with a smirk in her voice. "When you finally understand what it is you must do."

"You do not have to do it all yourself," amended Child. "All you need do is set in motion the forces that will play it out."

Bell-tone added, "You are a catalyst. Change and chaos follow you like devoted hounds. Start the weave of destiny that we foresee, and the way will be made clear."

"And the children?"

Again, They spoke with a single Voice. "The threads of their lives are restored, as reward for your willingness to serve Our purposes. Now go, and act. But come not again to Us, for once only will We grant the desire of any mortal, even in exchange for his service. Return to your body, Douglas Sangnoir, and continue to keep your oaths."

And with that I found myself back kneeling on glass in the lobby of Bunko's as the children before me began to stir and awaken.

"<It's gonna be a strange twist of fate,
Telling me that heaven can wait,
Telling me to get it right this time...>"

I barely had time to see that their bodies had been completely healed before the dizziness and the grayness rushed me, and I passed out.

END OF CHAPTER EIGHT

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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.

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

"Psyche" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Frank Lazar.

"Skitz" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of John L. Freiler.

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

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

Lyrics from "Moonlight Densetsu" (also known as "Moonlight Legend"), lyrics by Oda Kanako, music by Komoro Tetsuya, copyright © 1992 Nippon Columbia Co, Ltd. English lyrics translated and copyright © by Theresa Martin, courtesy of the Sailor Moon FAQ.

Lyrics from "I'm Alive" recorded by the Electric Light Orchestra, written by Jeff Lynne, copyright © 1980 by EMI-April Music, Inc. (BMI).

Lyrics from "Eye In The Sky" recorded by The Alan Parsons Project, written by Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons, copyright © 1981 Woolfsongs Ltd./Career Music Inc.

Lyrics from "Lightning's Hand" recorded by Kansas, written by Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren, copyright © 1977 Don Kirshner Music, Inc. (BMI).

Lyrics from "White Wedding" recorded by Billy Idol, written by Billy Idol, copyright © 1982, Capitol Records, Inc.

Lyrics from "Twist of Fate" recorded by Olivia Newton-John, written by Stephen A. Kipner and Peter Beckett, copyright © 1983 by Stephen A. Kipner Music/April Music Inc./Big Stick Music Careers Music Inc. (ASCAP/BMI).

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

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

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

Other chapters of this story can be found at:

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

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

http://drunkardswalkforums.yuku.com/

Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Berg, Delany Brittain, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Helen Imre, and Eric James. Additional prereaders for future chapters welcome.

Special thanks to Allyn Yonge and several other members of the Fan Fiction Mailing List for invaluable aid given on the names of certain Tokyo neighborhoods.


This page was created on April 11, 2000.
Last modified January 16, 2013.