<< PreviousNext >>

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

 

 

9: Of Course You Know This Means War (Part II)

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. -- B. John Naisbitt & Patricia Aburdene, Megatrends 2000

No creature that is intelligent and with the right values is an alien to me. -- John Salter

 

Saturday, January 31, 2037. 6:11 PM

Circling back towards the broken glass wall, Nene kept one eye on the Loon and her teammates, and another on the ADP as she listened to her friends' exchange on the private link. "Mou," she whispered to herself. How could I have never noticed how extreme some of these guys are? she wondered. I mean, it's one thing to go wild on a boomer, but on a person?

Linna and Priss dashed out of the Palace, and Nene glanced back at her fellow officers. Sure enough, a small contingent of ADP troops broke off from the battle to head for the Loon. "Not on my shift!" she growled to no one in particular.

She dashed for the shattered opening, easily outracing the troops, and placed herself between them and the kneeling, oblivious Loon. She raised her arm and popped up her laser again.

* * *

Across the plaza, Leon saw the conflict-in-the-making and swore. "Take over for me," he shouted to Daley, and took off across the plaza.

"What?" Daley, startled, turned to see his partner dash through the heart of the combat zone. "Oh, Leon," he sighed as the Sabers and the ADP cornered and dispatched the last few boomers.

* * *

A sudden movement from Leon's position caught Nene's attention, and behind her faceplate she rolled her eyes. "I've got a few things I want to say to you, Leon," she muttered angrily. "But I'm not going to say them in public."

She settled herself in to wait for the troops and their erstwhile leader to arrive. She firmly planted her feet in a wide-legged stance, and stood with her arms akimbo, hoping that her posture displayed some of the irritation and impatience that she felt. No sooner had she done so, though, then there came a sound from behind her -- a thud mixed with the dull crunch of broken and breaking glass.

She turned back to look and saw Loon sprawled face-down amidst the remains of the window as the two children -- whom she had thought were dead from Linna and Priss's conversation -- sitting up with looks of wonder on their faces.

"Don't move!" she called through the voder. "You'll get cut!" On hearing that, the little girl shrank into a ball with a sob, but the boy turned his gaze on her with a broad smile.

"Sugoi, a Knight Saber!" he said.

Nene turned on the private channel. "Somebody get over here and help me. The Loon's passed out and the kids are surrounded by broken glass and the ADP's coming over here and I don't think I can do it all myself!" She switched back to the voder as she spotted the boy trying to clear away glass shards with one sneakered foot. "No, sweetie, don't do that, you'll cut yourself."

"I ain't no one's sweetie," the boy replied indignantly. "My name's Toshi."

"Okay, then, just wait there for me, Toshi, okay?" Back on the private link. "Priss, Linna, anyone! Get over here! These kids are going to cut themselves to shreds climbing over this glass!"

The radio cracked as Priss replied. "Nene! Those kids are dead! They aren't going to cut themselves any worse than they already are!"

"What the heck are you talking about, Priss?" Nene shouted in return. "They aren't dead! They're sitting up and talking to me."

"They're what?" This from Linna.

"It's Loon who's down. Get over here and help me!" Nene toggled over to the voder again. "Hold on just a minute and I'll have you out of there, okay?" Sparing a glance at the approaching ADP, she carefully picked her way through the glass, trying not to kick up any splinters or shards that might injure either the children or the Loon.

Stepping around the Loon, she saw that he was still breathing, and murmured, "Sorry, you're just going to have to wait." Then she leaned down to the little girl and held out her arms. "C'mere, sweetie," she said as unthreateningly as the voder allowed. "Let's get you out of here."

It took a little persuading, but eventually the girl allowed Nene to pick her up. The boy, on the other hand, all but leapt into her arms with an enthusiasm that almost knocked her over backwards.

As she turned, she heard the sound of jumpjets and high-heeled boots behind her. "I don't believe it," Priss murmured over the link. "I just don't fucking believe it."

"What?" Nene asked as she turned to see both Linna and Priss.

The green and blue Sabers exchanged a glance. "We'll tell you back at Raven's, okay, Nene?" Linna said.

Nene would have shrugged, but she was busy lowering her two passengers to the clear, safe concrete of the plaza. "Okay, whatever." She turned and walked back through the missing window.

"What are you doing now?" Priss demanded.

"I'm getting the Loon," Nene replied and, true to her word, she knelt and picked up his unconscious form.

Linna stared at the two children, who returned the favor. "This is weird, Priss. No," she corrected herself, "this is impossible. Those kids were cut to ribbons. Those same kids! I saw their faces!"

"Right," Priss grunted.

"There was blood everywhere just a couple of minutes ago, right?"

"Right."

"Where's the blood now?"

Priss shrugged. "He did... something," she said in a respectful tone that verged on awe. She gestured at the limp form in Nene's arms. "That's all I can figure."

"Ladies," Sylia voice crackled over the radio. "We're done here. You can join me or you can stay behind."

The sound of running feet behind them announced the arrival of the ADP troops, followed closely by Leon McNichol. They stopped several yards short of the Sabers as Linna and Priss turned to face them -- except for Leon, who approached boldly.

As Nene stepped out of the building carrying the Loon, Leon demanded, "What are you doing?"

"He's coming with us," Nene said coldly. Linna and Priss stared at her, surprised. "Do you have a problem with that?"

Without waiting for an answer she ignited her jumpjets and was gone.

Shrugging, Priss followed. Linna took the children by the hands and led them to Leon. "Here, Inspector. This is Toshi and Yui. They were hostages, and they got... um... separated from their parents. Can you see to it that their family is reunited?" Then she, too, turned and launched herself into the air.

* * *

Lisa shrunk back into the shadows surrounding the stairwell hut, then scampered down the steps as quietly as she could. He's gotta be okay, she insisted to herself frantically. He's gotta.

In her pocket a trio of filled datadisks clattered together.

* * *

Saturday, January 31, 2037. 8:23 PM

With a sudden jerk I snapped from sleeping to awake. I had dreamt of a rescue, of Maggie -- sweet, beautiful, unreachable Maggie -- leading a team of the Warriors' best across the dimensions to find me and carry me away from this nightmare cyberpunk world where killer robots were more common than shoplifters. I dreamt that we had returned to the Mansion, and that my wife and I had finally retreated to our quarters for our first private moments in three years. I dreamt that we had fallen into each other's arms.

Then my eyes snapped open to reveal to me a strictly functional back room of nondescript appearance. I was lying on a gurney or maybe a tall cot. Assorted devices of a somewhat medical nature, stacked hastily and haphazardly, pinged and hissed. Strangely, the place smelled not of medicines and antiseptic, but of... petroleum? Motor oil, gasoline, a few other scents, most familiar, a few not. Odd, very odd. Three out of four familiar, if slightly battered, suits of powered armor (and the people inside them) were my company -- Lady Blue was on the far side of the room, Lady White by the medical equipment, and Lady Pink was not quite hovering over me.

Damn, I thought to myself. Nope, no nice rescue, not yet. Then I remembered the Three, and the promise I had made, and I suppressed a groan. It had looked like a good deal at the time -- hell, a great deal -- but the gods never gave away anything that easily. What was the catch? What was I missing?

It was about then that I realized that my HUD was gone and my visual field was untinted; they had taken my helmet off. And my gloves. My jacket was open, too, I noticed, and assorted leads were attached to me over and under my polykev, connecting me to the pinging and hissing gadgetry.

Oh, and I was restrained -- a leather strap on each wrist and each ankle.

I glanced left and right, looking for my helmet and gloves, and spotted a door to my right. Pink noticed the movement. "He's awake," she announced, then leaned down to look at me. "Don't worry, you're safe from those mean old AD Police."

Across the room, an electronic snicker emanated from Lady Blue.

"This..." I started, but when I heard the rasp my voice came out as, I stopped, cleared my throat, and started again. "This is a good thing, right?"

"Of course, silly," Pink replied, with a bit of a giggle in her voice. Not exactly the personality that I expected from a battlesuited mercenary, but then again, who am I to judge?

"Thanks." I spent a moment trying to gather my wits.

"You're welcome. How do you feel?" she continued.

"Like twelve miles of bad road." I lifted my arms a little and pulled the straps taut. "I could really do without these," I added.

Pink glanced at White, who nodded, then got to work on releasing me. As soon as I was free, I tried to sit up, but she reached out and gently pushed me back down. I realized that the enhanced strength of her armor was completely unnecessary -- I was as weak as a kitten. All my physical reserves were depleted. In addition, my magical reserves were dangerously low. They'd probably been completely tapped out after the song as well, but had recovered a bit during the time I'd been unconscious.

This draining had happened the last time I'd used "Twist of Fate", too. I wondered if maybe it was my life force that they used for the jump starts. I didn't like what that implied...

"You're not going anywhere for a while," she said. "Not in your condition, mister."

"Indeed." The voice came from Lady White, who turned away from the haphazard collection of equipment to face me. "I'm surprised that you are even awake. Based on your life signs, you ought to be in a coma. Or perhaps a casket." Even through the voxmod, she came across as crisp, precise and erudite.

I closed my eyes for a moment. Outside the door, I heard a small commotion. The Sabers' support team, I guessed, debating whether or not to come in. I thought I heard Lady Olive arguing; I guess she was ordering them to stay out, though for safety or security reasons I couldn't guess.

I shrugged as well as I could lying down and said, "I'm tough." Looking around the room, I added, "The kids?"

"Just fine," Olive replied. "ADP's probably reunited them with their parents by now."

"Good," I nodded. "How long was I out?" I winced as the bullet creases and bruises made themselves known to me again.

"Only about two hours." White tilted her helmet as though she were trying to figure me out.

"Can I have my helmet please?" I asked after a minute or so of her study. Pink looked up at White. I sighed. "I'm not going to do anything hostile, okay? I give you my word."

White nodded fractionally and Pink darted around the gurney to slip out the door. I didn't try to look through it as it opened; if they were going to show me anything more than this room, they'd show it to me in their own time, and I respected that. As Pink left, though, I heard Olive lecturing someone on proper security measures in stern but friendly tones.

"So," I began, "why'd you bring me home with you? I have to warn you, I make a poor house pet -- I don't train well, and I'm always digging holes in the lawn." I gave her my patented roguishly charming grin.

While I chattered, I shifted gears into magesight and took another look around. The two Knights present were what I thought they'd be, just plain crunchies underneath their armor. I had no reason to expect that that Olive and Pink were any different. Flaws in their auras indicated that each had some variety of minor wound, too, which I would've guessed from the slightly battered state of their suits.

"So I would gather," White said dryly. "No, you have done us several favors in the past, and we decided to repay the debt when it was clear you needed aid."

"You mean she decided," Blue declared, gesturing towards the door.

White waved the comment off. "Who decided doesn't matter. We are repaying what we owe."

The door rattled, and Pink reappeared, my helmet and gloves in hand. Or gripper, as the case may be -- I got a good look when she handed it to me, and I realized that what had looked like an armored gauntlet was really a robotic hand. I hadn't really noticed the suits' asymmetries before, either. Interesting.

I murmured my thanks to Pink as I took my helmet from her, then looked around the room. Lady Olive had slipped in behind her, having apparently convinced the support crew to stay outside. "I hope no one minds if I heal us all up." I didn't feel up to lifting the helmet over onto my head, so I twisted the external speakers to "on" and popped open the shield over the keypad. I entered the code for "I'm Alive" -- then reached for the node, because I barely had enough energy left to heal a hangnail by myself.

The effect was immediate and visible -- the four women's body language said it all. Where they had been slouching they suddenly straightened and stood erect. Where they had been favoring a limb, it became strong. The effect was even more pronounced in their auras, because I could see the closure of every wound hidden under the armor as its equivalent in that golden glow faded and vanished. At the same time, I felt much better, physically, and the medical equipment started making happier-sounding blips and beeps.

ELO barely had the time to complete a second repetition of the chorus when the feedback down the channels of power indicated there was nothing more that could be done for them or me -- that we were all completely restored.

Well, they were. I was still exhausted, plus now I was completely depleted magically. Only rest would fix that, not the node; I could harness all that power, like directing a firehose, but trying to recharge myself from it would be like trying to drink from that same firehose -- not the smartest move. I'd tried that once, a year ago and a universe away, and hadn't liked the results. As it was, a few minutes' rest would give me just barely enough oomph to bug out if I really needed to.

Anyway, "I'm Alive" naturally took care of the Knights' battlesuits just as it takes care of my uniform and polykev. I think the visible improvement in their armor -- the dings and scorch marks had vanished -- completely distracted them from the relatively minor healing each had received. Or rather, it distracted three of them. Lady White's helm had swiveled to the medical readouts as soon as the song had started having an effect on me, and after I shut it off, she turned back to me and nodded slowly, as if she had just found the final piece to a puzzle which had long bothered her.

"So, what are you, Loon-san?" she asked. "Despite GENOM's various claims to the contrary, you are not a 33S boomer, nor do you have any boomeroid augmentation. At the same time, you are something other than simply human. This is borne out by your speed and reflexes, your thermograph, and the fact that music apparently gives you a variety of paranormal abilities." She paused. "In addition to the ones you already possess, that is. What is it about your body that makes it difficult for the medical sensors to even detect you?"

I raised an eyebrow. "Well, I suppose I shouldn't leave my lovely hosts with unanswerable questions." I flexed my right forearm slightly just to make sure my ID was still in its pocket inside my sleeve. I hadn't had cause to use it since I'd first been presented to Queen Selenay almost three years earlier; I hoped the batteries still held a charge...

* * *

As Loon slowly swung his legs off the gurney and lifted himself into a sitting position, he continued. "So I'm going to present my credentials, not that I expect them to mean much to you." Holding his helmet in his lap with his left hand, he flicked his right hand out to his side. A small case, about the size of a credit card minicomp, dropped into his palm from his sleeve. With a practiced grace, he held it out and flipped it open in a single move.

The tiny case opened like a book, one half displayed vertically between his fingertips, and the other laying flat upon the top edge of his hand between the thumb and forefinger. There was a faintly-audible "beep", and then the flat section began to glow. A 30-centimeter-high, photo-realistic three-dimensional image of its owner faded into existence above it and began to rotate slowly; the emblem of the United Nations floated, serenely sky blue, below and to the right of the image.

Nene gasped with combined shock and techno-lust at the sight. A hand-held holodisplay of such high quality was so far beyond the current state-of-the-art that it was almost inconceivable. She risked a glance at the other Sabers; by her body language, Sylia seemed nonplussed, but Linna and Priss were unimpressed, uncomprehending.

Loon tweaked something on the case's side with one finger. A floating "screen" appeared in the air in front of the case, displaying scrolling text. "My identification, ladies," he announced. "My name is Douglas Q. Sangnoir. My proper code name is 'Looney Toons'. I am Security Chief of the United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha, based in London, England. I received my commission on October 15, 1986, and my rank is equivalent to Colonel. My U.N. Security Clearance is Umbra-12." He rattled off the speech in a practiced cadence as Sylia scanned the text on the screen in front of her.

"'Looney Toons'?" whispered Linna on the private link.

"You've got to be kidding," muttered Priss.

Nene nodded to herself. "So that's what the 'LT' on his jacket stands for."

"Do you expect us to reveal our identities now?" Sylia responded as she absorbed the scrolling text. "Song-triggered polymorphic metatalent acquisition"? "Solidified energy manifestations"?

"Of course not. In your profession, a secret identity is probably a matter of life and death."

Sylia nodded absently as she took in the last of the scrolling text before it looped back to the beginning. "So, then," she said, "you're a professional superhero?"

The Loon -- No, Colonel Sangnoir, Sylia reprimanded herself -- looked perplexed. "I'm not familiar with the term," he admitted, "but I think I might take your meaning. I am a metahuman, of the variety commonly referred to by the popular press as a 'mutant'. As part of my job I face fanatic terrorists, metapowered criminals, costumed extremists and aggressive militaries; I risk my life to save the lives of noncombatants and other innocents threatened by hostile action; and occasionally I get to be a celebrity. If that's what you mean by 'superhero', well, yes, I suppose I am." He grinned suddenly. "I also try to have a lot of fun at the same time."

Sylia looked him over again. I suppose he would, she thought. No matter. Time to find out if Nene is correct about his origins. "Would it then be safe to assume that you are not native to this universe, Colonel Sangnoir?" She would not use his ridiculous "code name".

He froze for a moment, then a grin spread across his face. In a single quick motion he touched the end of his nose with the tip of his right forefinger and then pointed it at her. "On the money, Lady White. Oh, and if you must be formal, 'mister' is fine; we Warriors are technically civilians and only hold paramilitary rank as a courtesy and convenience."

Sylia allowed herself a very small smile as Nene triumphantly hissed, "Yes!", followed by the other three Sabers whispering energetically amongst themselves on the encrypted link.

Another flick of his wrist, and the tiny holodisplay snapped shut and vanished back into his sleeve. "I have to admit, you are only the second person I've met here -- other than those nimrods over at IDEC -- who's come up with some idea of where I'm from. And the first one had far more information to work with, I think." He tilted his head and grinned. "Am I that obvious?"

Linna and Nene exchanged glances across the room. "Yes," they said simultaneously.

Sangnoir swept them with a baleful look, which netted him nothing but giggles. He then rolled his eyes and mimed straightening a tie. "It's the story of my life. I just don't get no respect." His hands brushed an electrode lead and he looked down at it for a moment. "Can I take these off now?" he asked, looking at Sylia.

"Feel free," she replied, and he began enthusiastically removing the sensors. "Surely you have noticed a pronounced dearth of... metahumans, as you call them, in MegaTokyo," Sylia dryly continued as he closed his jacket and snapped the clasps shut.

"That I have."

"And don't call him 'Shirley'," offered Priss with a throaty chuckle from where she leaned casually against the wall. Sylia would have shot her a "not you, too" expression had their hardsuit helmets not made it pointless. Sangnoir just grinned and gave Priss a momentary "thumbs up". Nene and Linna continued to giggle.

Sylia turned her attention back to the extradimensional visitor, who was entirely too cheerful and active for someone who had just been at death's door a few minutes earlier. "Given your... unique abilities, and certain information we had managed to acquire, it was one of the more likely deductions we could make."

"'Certain information...'" he repeated, confusion flickering in his eyes. "Oh, right!" He hopped off the bed and spun to put himself nose-to-faceplate with Nene. "You! You hacked my helmet!"

Nene scrambled backwards, knocking over her chair in the process. "No! No! No! Um, yes?" she squeaked.

Sangnoir's arms flickered faster than she could react, and the next thing Nene knew, her head had been yanked down to his and he was planting a kiss in the middle of her visor. He held the kiss for a ten-count as Nene squealed inside her helmet and flailed about, seemingly forgetting her hardsuit's enhanced strength; Linna's snickers and Priss's guffaws echoed through the private link.

Sylia waited patiently.

"Congratulations!" he announced after releasing her. Nene "eep"ed and rubbed frantically at a mouth-shaped smudge in the center of her faceplate. "You have managed to do something that hundreds have tried but which no one has ever accomplished before! I salute you!" And with that, he planted two more kisses on her helm, one on each "cheek", in the manner of an over-effusive Frenchman. Then he stepped back, with his hands on her shoulders. "And if you ever do it again, Pink, I'm going to hunt you down and kick your butt good, understood?"

Nene nodded nervously, her helm almost rattling with the speed of it. "H-hai."

Sangnoir grinned. "Good. Now, so you know there's no hard feelings, you and I ought to get together and talk shop. I have a feeling we can each learn a little something from the other, eh?"

"Sure!" she replied, her curiosity overcoming her shock and surprise for the moment.

"If you are quite finished, Colonel?" Sylia interjected.

He turned to face the white Saber. "My apologies. I'm sure you have a load of questions. I know I do."

"Indeed. I..."

"What kind of super powers do you have?" Linna leapt in, cutting off Sylia.

"You want a catalog?" Linna nodded, and he shrugged. "Fine. Like most mutants, I have a cluster of metagifts. I've got class 10 neural enhancement. That does double duty, improving both brainpower and reflexes. On the brain side, I have a semi-eidetic memory, and my intelligence is a 3.00 on the Berkeley-Binet scale. Combine it with class 5 myoefficiency and class 8 adrenal mutations, and it gives me a Valmon reflex/speed rating of 470, give or take a couple of points. My physical strength is pretty much human normal, but the adrenal mutation also gives me some burst-mode enhancement in stress situations. I also have a 'danger sense' -- something the metabiologists call 'class 1 post-natal acquired precognition'. I've got the usual mutant life-extension genes. And finally, my primary metagift is categorized as a wild talent, class 18, and considered mildly hazardous to normals due to its uncontrolled probability-spectrum side effects. It took 12 years of intermittent research to discover that it was actually an extreme negative mutation of the standard magegift."

"Magegift?" Nene whispered. "'Standard'?"

Priss held her hands to her helmet. "Argh. Technobabble. My head hurts."

Inside her helm, Sylia raised an eyebrow. "And the class ranking system is...?"

The corner of Sangnoir's mouth quirked up in an odd half-grin. "An arithmetic progression, based on a theoretical human 'average' as class 0, where applicable."

"So, you are more intelligent and much faster than a normal human," Sylia interpreted. "You know ahead of time when you're going to be attacked. Would your 'wild talent' then be your ability to gain other paranormal powers from music? Or, as your identification put it, 'song-triggered polymorphic metatalent acquisition'?"

His eyebrows shot up. "You read all that information that fast? I'm impressed. Yeah, exactly. And the side-effects..."

"Are or include something which makes it difficult to hit you either in melee or at range." She inclined her head towards him.

* * *

Damn, she was good.

The woman inside that white battlesuit was a Grade A USDA Prime intellect. I thought Pink had to be hot stuff for hacking SQUID42, but White... White was a Mind to be reckoned with, pure and simple.

She had also used a very specialized word that appeared to describe my job almost perfectly -- in a world where there were no metahumans at all. Very curious. I needed to research the concept of "superhero".

"Like my railgun spikes," Blue put in suddenly, yanking my attention back to the discussion at hand.

I nodded and kept grinning. "My team leader says that it's because I'm dense enough to curve time and space," I waggled my eyebrows to clue them in to the joke, "but more accurately, the laws of nature become merely general guidelines in my presence. Wild magic, don't you know."

"Magic!" Pink seemed to be watching me even more intently now, judging by the way she leaned in and toward me, and the angle of her blank-faced helmet. Did we have a born romantic under that armor?

I yawned while nodding again. "As far as the U.N.'s metabiologists and thaumatologists can tell, I have a mutated variety of the magegift." I yawned once more.

"You claim to be a... a wizard, then?" White asked.

I sat myself back down on the gurney. Jumping around and teasing Pink hadn't done my recovery any good, and I was still exhausted. "Of a sort," I agreed. "I can't cast spells and I can't enchant things, at least not in the 'traditional' manner. In fact, I can perform only two magical tasks consciously -- use magesight, and tap lines and nodes of power." I shrugged. "It's a negative mutation -- I have no conscious control of it. However, as I discovered disastrously in my mid-teens, my subconscious or something interprets any song I'm listening to as a set of instructions to be fed to my magegift. And lady, if you think I'm an oddball, wait until you meet my subconscious."

White's helmet slowly panned up and down as she looked me over. "You will forgive me if I find your statements difficult to accept."

I sighed. "Look. It's obvious I can do things no one else can. You yourself classified them as 'paranormal'. I tell you their nature is magical. Why would I lie about that? What point would there be? What does it benefit me?"

That blank faceplate didn't move a millimeter. "You could be trying to hide a technological edge."

"Oh, come on." I rolled my eyes. "You had two hours to examine me and rifle my pockets. Did you come up with anything of that sort?"

"Your helmet's pretty advanced, in places," Pink offered.

"We missed that 'ID card' of yours," Olive added.

"And your body armor is unlike anything I have even seen theorized," White concluded.

"Oh, that." I glanced self-consciously at my chest. "That's not technology. At least not completely. My armor's technomagical."

There was a chorus of "what?"s from around the room, and I chuckled.

"Thaaaaat's right! Polykev -- the amazing mage-age plastic! Synthesized, solarized, sanitized and spell-bound -- all for your protection! Each microscopic fiber protects the wearer by converting damage from impact, energy and personal insults into easily-managed, slowly-released heat! This invisible shell..." I tapped my chest just hard enough to get a "tok-tok!" sound, "...seals in the freshness!"

"Riiiiiight," drawled Olive. Okay, maybe I was laying the public persona on a bit too thickly.

"Explain," White demanded.

I shrugged. "Technology and magic aren't mutually exclusive, Lady White. They're just two different ways of getting the job done, and if you do it right, they can both work at the same time for the same goal, with a lot of profitable synergy. Polykev," I tapped my chest once more, "is a good example. Originally an advanced pseudo-aramid fiber mesh, it's been merged with some standard enchantments and a lot of custom ones to create something that neither magic nor technology alone could produce."

"Bullshit," Blue murmured. Somewhat tentatively, I thought.

I leaned over and fiddled with the gurney to elevate the head end, then leaned back comfortably. "The only reason you're hesitant to believe in magic is because a special talent is needed to even perceive raw mana, and none of you have it. No one," I gave an all-encompassing wave, "in this world seems to, as far as I can tell." I looked around the room. "Just imagine how hard it would be to believe in technology if only one in a million people could see a radio or pick up a screwdriver. Sometimes the majority doesn't have a handle on the sum total of reality."

There was a short silence. Then White, again, addressed me. "Be that as it may, I have a great deal of difficulty accepting your claim. I do not believe in magic, psionics, or any other phenomenon that cannot be touched and measured, Colonel Sangnoir. To live otherwise is to invite unimaginable chaos and terror into my world." Her tone was level and measured, as if she were reciting a personal litany.

I shook my head. "So, if I were to change the label and call it an obscure or new branch of science, you'd have no problems with it? That's bogus. Magic is a science -- it's just that it has a totally different foundation in the fabric of reality than the other sciences have. As far as psionics go, they're so well-documented and understood on my Earth that you can get degrees in their study, and the Bonded Telepaths' Organization is a major professional guild. Don't get arrogant, White. Just because you don't know about it doesn't mean it isn't there to be known."

Pink snickered.

"I believe him," Blue said suddenly. Olive's helm turned to regard her.

"You do," White said flatly.

"Yeah. Those kids were dead. I saw their bodies."

"We saw their bodies," Olive amended, and Blue nodded. "And you've seen the recordings, Prime."

Pink glanced back and forth between them; reading her body language, I could tell that she was confused, and maybe a little troubled. Blue definitely was troubled; the sudden change in her demeanor was dramatic. And I wasn't that happy myself, to be reminded of my fubar.

"They were so messed up that they couldn't be anything but dead. Now they're alive, without a scratch on'em. No science I've ever heard of can bring back the dead." Blue pushed off from the wall and stood straight, her posture radiating implied menace. "What did you do? How did you do it?" Then, softer, hopefully, "Can you do it again?"

I closed my eyes to fight away the sting of threatened tears. I knew that tone. I'd heard it too many times in other voices. Including my own. She'd lost someone, maybe several someones. "<The gift of life extension, by Divine intervention,>" I whispered. I opened my eyes again and shook my head sadly. "I didn't do it, Blue. I struck a bargain with Someone who could. And I can only sell my soul once in this world."

"Who? Who did this for you? How can I talk to them? They can have my soul, if they want it!" Olive laid a hand on Blue's shoulder but it was shaken off as Blue rushed me and grabbed the front of my jacket. I let her. "Tell me, dammit, tell me!" She began to shake me.

Pink eased in between Blue and me as White and Olive stepped over to her sides. As the latter two took hold of their teammate and pulled her back, Pink pried her teammate's grippers off my leathers. "Please," Blue whispered as she finally stepped back.

Dear gods. "I can't... I'm not allowed. I've been forbidden," I said softly. "I'm sorry..."

She fell back against the wall and pounded it once, angrily; the cinder block crunched and powdered under the blow. "Bastard," she hissed at me. "Bastards!" she roared at the ceiling. And then she whispered something that I didn't quite hear, and which might have been a string of names.

Then that blue helmet turned back to me, and that blank visor faced me, and I didn't have to see her hidden eyes to know that I had just become a target for years' worth of frustration, anger and despair. And to tell the truth, I can't say that I wouldn't have felt the same in a similar situation -- face-to-face with someone who had demonstrated the power to raise a loved one from the dead, and who wouldn't do it for you.

The room grew quiet. For all I knew, the four of them were having an energetic discussion on their private radio link and I was simply out of the loop. But I don't think so; it was more like we had come to an uncomfortable point in the conversation, and no one was sure how to go on.

"Magic," Pink said, finally, a tone of bemused wonder managing to cling to her electronically-filtered voice.

"Yeah," I said, turning my head to smile at her. "Magic."

"Magic," Olive said, "And beings that can raise the dead." She wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't know whether to be excited or terrified."

"Excited," Pink whispered. "Definitely excited."

"So, Colonel, what brought you to our world?" White suddenly asked, as if to cut off any further exploration of that topic.

I turned my attention back to her. "Is that 'what brought me' as in, 'what are my reasons for being here?' or 'what brought me' as in, 'how did I get here'?"

"Either will do. Preferably both."

"You won't like one of the answers."

"Try me."

"What brought me was magic, White."

She snorted. I waggled my finger at her. Then I lost the smile and sighed. "I'm lost and trying to get home, Lady White. It's been more than three years by my subjective time since I was catapulted out of my home universe by enemy action." I closed my eyes and remembered for the millionth time that day in Piccadilly Circus -- the charge as the extremists started to kill their hostages, Maggie -- Shadowwalker -- to my left, Dwim and Kat to my right, Silverbolt and Hexe overhead, Skitz and Proteus leading the others against the enemy's rear. I had "Lightning's Hand" playing. Then the teleport gate that opened up in front of me, and plunging into it before I could check my motion. And finally, waking up surrounded by gleaming white horses with blue eyes.

I shook my head to clear it of the memories. "I thought I'd discovered a way home from the universe I'd landed in, but instead I found myself here -- almost forty years into the future of a different Earth entirely. <Homeward bound,>" I murmured. "<I wish I was homeward bound.>" Pink laid her hand on my shoulder, and I thanked her with a small smile.

I drew a deep breath. "Ever since my arrival last summer, I've been trying to move on, to get home. No luck. And now..."

"Now, Colonel Sangnoir?" White tilted her helm slightly.

I frowned. "Now, the... Beings I bargained with today have told me that I am blocked, that they are blocking me. Until I do what it is they want, I can't move on." I laughed mirthlessly. "That's the rest of the price I'm paying for them restoring those kids."

"Just who were these... Beings, Colonel?" White managed to pronounce the capital letter, although she seemed to hesitate a moment. "And what did they ask of you?"

I studied her for a moment. "Are you a religious woman, Lady White?"

"Not in the sense most would use," she said curtly.

I looked around the room. "And the rest of you?"

Blue shook her head once, sharply.

Olive spread her hands. "I was raised Shinto, but I haven't practiced since I was a teenager."

Behind me, Pink offhandedly said, "I'm Russian Orthodox." I turned to stare at her, as did the other Knights. She backed up a step. "What? What?"

"Nothing," Olive said. "I just... wasn't expecting that."

"You didn't know? But I..."

"Pink." I held up my hand. "Enough. Or you're going to say something I shouldn't hear."

"Right." I got the impression of a sort of electronic pout as she sat down heavily in her creaking chair.

"Anyway," I said. "The Beings whose purpose I now must fulfill are often called 'the Three'. A trio -- or maybe three faces of one single Being, the research theologists at home aren't sure yet -- who prefer to take female aspects. They're just about every trinity of goddesses you'll find in mythologies the world over." I laid back on the gurney again and closed my eyes as it creaked under me. A quick check showed that my magical reserves were already recovering, which was very good. "The Norns, the Fates, the Furies, the Wiccan Goddess -- you name it."

"And what did they require of you?" White pressed.

I closed my eyes again. "That's where this gets confusing."

"Only now?" Olive murmured, and Blue muttered something angry and unintelligible.

"I think... I think I'm supposed to help liberate some group of people. At first I thought it was all the people that GENOM had caught in its web of monopolies, but I can't see creatures like the Three being concerned with issues that are still mostly economic." I sighed, and shook my head. "I just don't know."

"GENOM is no innocent," White replied with surprising vitriol in her electronically-modified voice. "Once it achieves total economic domination it will not be content to stop there."

I opened my eyes and studied that white armor's blank faceplate for a moment. "Well, you certainly sound like a woman with a mission."

"It is my goal, and the goal of the Knight Sabers, to thwart GENOM's plans in any way we can," White said with a harsh vehemence that carried clearly through the voxmod. "We dare not destroy it -- not that I think we could -- as it is far too important to the economic well-being of the world, and grows more so every day. But we can do what we can to resist and hinder its plans. To punish its excesses. Perhaps even to teach it and its leaders humility."

Good god, I thought. I've just been subjected to the official Knight Sabers manifesto, haven't I? Who'd've thought that this band of mercenaries and pro-bono bot-hunters were actually a kind of Resistance movement? That type of goal spoke of something more than just a monetary reward, or the gratification of public service. No, there was something personal there for White. I could hear it in the tight, controlled anger underlying her voice.

"Good god, Lady White, what did GENOM do to you?" I blurted out. I tried hard to peer through that damned opaque visor -- her body language wasn't giving away a thing -- and ran down the standard list. "Destroyed you financially? Usurped your throne? Crushed your struggling platypus-breeding program? Killed your parents?" Not so much as a twitch from the White Knight, but I heard a gasp behind me from Pink and a muffled cough from Olive, and I figured I'd hit the mark. "They did," I continued, nodding. "They killed your parents."

"What GENOM did to me," she said in tones of ice, "is not important at the moment."

"Vengeance isn't healthy, White," I pressed. "I know, from experience."

"My life and what I choose to do with it are none of your business, Colonel Sangnoir." And the tone of her voice clearly said that, as far as she was concerned, that was that.

There was a flicker of movement, and Blue was next to me. "You've got no right to lecture us about our motives, jerk." She prodded me in the chest with one mechanical finger, rocking me back and forth with the force of the pokes. "What about yours? Why are you out there killing boomers?"

I focused my eyes on an imaginary point about twelve centimeters behind her faceplate, and let them grow hard. "Because I couldn't just sit around and let people be killed by rampaging machines. It doesn't matter that I'm nowhere near my home universe, I have a duty to protect those who need it. I swore oaths when I received my commission, and I will keep them." I prodded her back, jabbing my finger at her breastplate just below the base of her neck and high enough to make it clear what I was, and wasn't, targeting. "I'm just glad these boomers of yours are merely rogue automatons, even if they are cyborgs. It would've made it very much harder for me if they were sentient beings."

"But they..." Pink started, then cut off, almost as though her voxmod had been disabled suddenly. As I spun in response to that, she was frantically keying in something on a pad that had opened up on her left forearm. As she typed away, one-handed, she kept looking up at White.

Olive and Blue were looking at White, too. Olive kept shooting little glances back at Pink.

"Ladies, what's going on?" I'm not stupid -- it was pretty obvious that there was a frantic argument raging over their private radio link. And given Pink's behavior, I got the sudden suspicion that White had just remotely cut off her voxmod before she could tell me something. And that before that moment, the other Knights hadn't known that White could do such a thing.

I swung my legs over the edge of the gurney and let their momentum swing me around and pull me into a standing position. Holding onto the edge of the bed for a little extra support, I looked over my shoulder at the Knight behind me. "But they what?" I turned back to White. "But they what, White?" I had a chilling suspicion that I knew the answer, and it wasn't one I was going to like. And that I had just discovered the real meaning of the charge the Three had given me.

"Nothing you need concern yourself with, Colonel." Damn her. The smug self-righteousness just oozed through her voxmod.

"They are sentients, aren't they?" I said, raising my voice into a shout. "AREN'T THEY?" Dear god, let me be wrong. Let me not have been on the wrong side all this time...

"Any creature with sensory apparatus is sentient," White replied with a calmness I found mocking and insulting.

"You know what I mean! Are they sapient? Sophonts? Self-aware?" Dropping my helmet by my side, I pushed off from the bed and stepped in close, putting myself face-to-faceplate with her. "Are. They. People?"

* * *

"Are. They. People?" he growled into Sylia's face. The change in him sent Nene's emotions reeling. The other Sabers were stunned and surprised by the shift, as well -- one moment, he was relaxed and friendly, even playful; the next, his very posture expressed a level of menace so intense that Sylia only barely restrained herself from taking a step backwards. As he waited for an answer, his arms tensed, though his fists hung at his sides, clenched tightly enough that they were growing red with trapped blood.

Without a word, Linna and Priss leapt to either side of him. It took almost no effort to force him away from Sylia and back to the bed, where he sat, glaring at her. "What's the answer, White? I thought they were just sophisticated machines. Are they something more than that?" He returned his helmet to his lap and wrapped his arms around it, almost as if deriving comfort from the contact.

"They're like wild beasts, Colonel," she began confidently. "They..."

"I don't care what they're like, White. I care what they are."

"Don't you know?" Linna asked from her position at his side.

He turned to her. "Don't I know what?" he replied, puzzled. "I see what looks like killer robots attacking civilians, I act."

"But the literature..." Nene began, puzzled.

He made a slashing gesture with one hand. "What literature? 'Jane's Robots and Androids of the World'? Look, I'm not some independently wealthy individual who can just waltz into the vigilante business and devote their entire lives to their chosen targets. My ultimate goal is to get home. In the mean time, I have to put dinner on my table and keep a roof over my head. With the prices in MegaTokyo, that means I need to hold down a full-time job in addition to keeping my skills honed and acting according to the dictates of my conscience. That doesn't leave me much time to go diving for contractors' brochures. It doesn't leave me time for much of anything."

"Except bootlegging live concerts," Priss snarled.

Sangnoir raised one eyebrow as he glanced in her direction. "You sound like you have a personal interest at stake, Blue. Something I should know about you?" As Priss sputtered, he dismissed her response with a wave of his hand. "No, don't tell me, I don't want to know. Look, you know how my metagift works now. Would you begrudge me the chance to build up my arsenal?" Then he covered his eyes with one hand and took a deep breath. "I'd've been far happier if there had been no boomers in this world. I'd probably be home by now. But duty calls. The people of this city needed protecting."

"Hey!" Nene objected, and Sangnoir gave her a sheepish smile.

"Okay, more protecting," he amended. "At least more than the city's currently getting." Then his countenance darkened. "But I wonder now if maybe I've been on the wrong side. Or maybe just viewing the whole conflict from the wrong angle." He shifted in his seat to spear Sylia with another glance, and began tapping his fingers on his helmet impatiently.

"You still haven't answered me, White. Are boomers just automatons? Or are they self-aware?"

"Some models," Sylia reluctantly answered, "appear to be self-aware."

Sangnoir frowned at her. "'Appear'? Which models, White? Combat units?"

She nodded slowly. "Yes. And certain maintenance models. The odd mannequin, as well."

"And sexaroids," Priss added in a growl.

Sangnoir stared at her with wide eyes. "'Sexaroids'? As in..."

Priss nodded grimly.

"Oh, dear gods, how depraved can you get?" he whispered as he covered his eyes once more. He drew another deep breath, and slid his hand back down to the helmet in his lap as he turned his focus once more to Sylia.

"Do you mean to tell me then, White," he said, in a voice that oozed quiet and confident menace, "that instead of stopping rogue war machines, I have in fact been helping you execute escaped slaves?"

* * *

Absently clutching her camera against her stomach, Lisa paced anxiously outside the locked door. I've just got to get in there and make sure Doug's okay, she fumed. But the last two times she tried, the Sabers had blocked her way. Lisa scowled furiously at the door. Linna had even lectured her about proper security -- Linna! Her laissez-faire attitude was exceeded only Nene's, in Lisa's opinion.

Security! Ha! I could show them a thing or two about security! Then Lisa stopped stock-still, realizing where her thoughts were headed. Yeah, as soon as I said anything, my credibility'd be shot. "Let me show you how well I keep secrets by telling you all the secrets I've been keeping!" Yeah, right, Lisa. That'll work so well. She scowled again, this time at her own foolishness.

Stepping up to the door, she leaned against it, pressing her forehead and cheek to the cool, smooth wooden surface. Through it she could hear the muted sound of Doug's and the Sabers' voices. Try as she might, she couldn't make out any words, but the tones carried through clearly. Her eyes widened as she realized that whatever was being said inside, it wasn't friendly.

No sooner had she come to that conclusion than three of the five voices on the other side of the door exploded into a chorus of barely-intelligible outrage.

Oh, Doug... what did you say to them?

* * *

Well, I remember thinking, I've certainly endeared myself to them now.

No sooner had I asked that one innocent question than the entire room erupted into chaos. Blue tried to put herself in my face, shaking her fist and growling a remarkable stream of invective at me. At the same time Olive had interposed herself between Blue and myself, and held her teammate just out of gripper reach while trying to explain her views on the subject. Pink seemed absolutely frantic, babbling into my ear how I didn't understand what was going on and that there was no other way and so on and so on.

And posed like a statue, Lady White quietly stood and waited for the storm front of the Knight Sabers' reaction to wash over and break on me. I could tell by her posture. I could tell by her silence. I was right. And she knew it. And she had always known it.

Aware of this, I simply sat there, held on to my helmet, tapped my fingers, and let the roar of protest play itself out.

When it did, when the other three noticed that White and I were doing nothing but looking at each other, they stepped back and lapsed into silence.

"How does it feel, Lady White," I asked, "to know that you serve GENOM as a catcher and executioner of runaway slaves?"

"Nonsense," she replied curtly. "We destroy insane machines deployed by GENOM and its puppets. We defy and foil its plans, not serve them."

"'Insane machines' is an oxymoron, White." I never took my eyes off her. "Only a person can be insane. Not a machine. Or will you tell me that toasters and cars can be psychopaths?" Behind me and to my right, Pink giggled nervously.

"It was a figure of speech, Colonel," White snapped.

I shook my head. "No. No, it wasn't. You meant it literally, White. Don't you start playing CYA. It's too late for that, and you're too smart for it." I repositioned myself on the gurney, prompting Blue to flinch in my direction. I spared her a glance and a raised eyebrow before returning to her leader. "If they're insane, then they're people. And you don't execute the insane, you barbarians! You cure them!"

"Who are you calling a barbarian?" Blue demanded.

"You!" I answered, spearing an accusing finger at her. "And you, and you, and especially you," I continued, symbolically skewering Olive, Pink and finally White in turn, as all but the last protested. I shook my head again. "You're all so in denial that it's laughable. Your whole culture is! Haven't you ever met a boomer who could laugh or love? A boomer who wanted to be free and just be left alone? They're out there, I promise you that. I don't have to know any more than I know right now, and I can guarantee it."

Blue stepped back and slumped against the wall, murmuring something I didn't catch.

* * *

Oh god... Sylvie, Anri, Priss thought, stricken, as the memories of years of nightmares boiled up in her mind. Adama... "Must boomers always be poised midway between can openers and Man?" Sylvie's shade had often demanded in the darkest hours of the night.

How dare this... this... this Loon reach into her soul to thrust her nightmares into her face? How dare he parade her doubts in public? Anger began to bubble in Priss's gut, flowing up into her chest and filling her with its familiar, comfortable warmth. How dare he threaten her certainty that what she did was right -- the very certainty she needed to live with herself? How dare he? How dare he?

* * *

He doesn't understand, Linna thought. It doesn't matter if they're sentient or not. It needs to be done. You have to make a choice somewhere -- aren't the people in danger more important than a boomer -- or human -- who endangers them? She squeezed her eyes shut with the pain of memory as she recalled that horrible night when the DD battlemover's cockpit opened to reveal Sylvie. Sylvie, who had been a friend. Sylvie, who had been a boomer.

Sylvie, who had begged to be killed.

Gods, why does that still hurt?

Then she remembered the razor dolls who had killed Irene, and tried to envision one of them in Sylvie's place. If the circumstances had been different, could she have felt the same horror and despair over killing one of those... things?

Sylvie had had a life, she had had loves, she had had her moments of transcendent happiness. Did an assassin boomer have a life outside of its job? In Sylvie's place, might one of those boomers have been just as... as human? At one time she thought she knew, but she realized that she didn't, really -- and that terrified her.

Oh, gods, what if he's right?

* * *

No no no no nonononono... Nene wailed inside her own head. He can't be right, he's gotta be wrong. I can't have been a murderer without knowing it, I can't!

She pulled herself together, her hidden features set in a look of stern determination. "I don't care what he thinks. I am not a slave hunter."

* * *

He has no knowledge, no understanding, but he accuses, Sylia thought grimly. Worse, he is almost correct. My father's fatal error -- making boomer brains both expendably fragile and usefully self-aware -- is the very cause of the boomer problem. Take either feature away, and there would be no crisis; but boomers would never have been as useful as they needed to be. Together, they allowed boomers to perform the work needed to build and rebuild, but they make every sufficiently sophisticated cyberdroid a potential time bomb. Inside her helm, she frowned. But debating the moral value of every rogue we must destroy would render us useless.

She studied the alien before her. As human as he appeared, that was what he was, an alien in origin, attitude and ability. No human being should possess the kind of power that he demonstrated. For all his claims of another science, the very idea of magic, real magic, terrified her. No human, no being, should have that kind of power -- the power to shred reality and redefine it at will.

She would have to ensure that he never fell into GENOM's hands.

* * *

"And that 70% boomeroid law!" I continued, working myself up into a fine rant. "More utter barbarism! How can you people pass a law dehumanizing an entire segment of the population?"

"Your world has cybernetic replacement for limbs and organs, Colonel?" White inquired calmly. Too calmly. I still felt as though she were mocking me.

"Damn straight! And a godsend it's been, too. I can't tell you the number of lives it's saved."

Pink touched me lightly on the shoulder. "Did... did any of them go insane?"

That brought me up short, and I frowned, puzzled at the question. "No, of course not. Not because of the bionics, at least. Why do you ask?"

"That's what happens to anyone here who gets too many boomeroid parts," Olive offered softly.

"The law is there to allow the police to stop those who have gone insane and have begun killing sprees," White added. "If they have so much replacement that they have gone mad, then they have legally become machines, and can be destroyed with impunity."

I shook my head; I'm sure the horror I felt was painted across my face for them all to see. "And I was thinking this world was a nightmare already! How could you people fuck up bionics that badly?"

"We did not, Colonel," she spat back. "Biomedical researchers a generation ago did."

"Granted," I allowed, "but either way, there ought to be a better cure for the problem than killing those suffering from it!" I waved my free hand in an all-encompassing gesture. "But that seems to be the usual solution here. This entire world is a goddamned madhouse! Your ecology is in the toilet, half your population is disenfranchised and in total despair, most of the economy is run by an organization which is just an IPO away from the Mafia, and if any serious problem rears its head, the culturally-approved solution is to deploy a SWAT team to blow huge holes in it! Good god, woman, you're living in Hell, and you don't know it!"

It was clear where this conversation was taking my relationship with the Knights. It was also clear that there might come a time in the near future where I would have to defend myself against them. There was no doubt that battlesuits and weapons designed to take out those warbots could turn Mama Sangnoir's favorite son into hamburger, even with my particular talents and equipment. In an effort to try to even out the odds, I began to expand my tactical eval on them as we argued. I already had a lot of data from watching them at range and fighting side-by-side with them; now I supplemented it with details acquired from extended close-range examination -- spotting potential exploitable weak points like seams and joints, and other less obvious design flaws. The ridiculous high heels on their armor made the ankle joints good targets, for one. There also seemed to be a criminal lack of neck support under those helmets for another. Shattering their faceplates might be a good tactic; knock out whatever HUD system they have, and possibly blind them. And I couldn't ignore psychological tactics, either...

I won't kill if I can avoid it, but I will maim if necessary to defend myself and those I have chosen to defend.

"So, Colonel Asshole, you come from some kind of utopia which gives you the right to trashtalk our entire planet?" Blue growled at me. I shook my head.

"No, my home's no utopia. But it's a lot better than here. I just don't understand it. Your world and mine are practically at the same technological level -- you could have everything my world has, all your problems reduced, if not actually swept away. So why don't you?"

"Maybe it's because we don't have any superheroes," Olive said softly.

"No," I said. "No. Metagifts aren't the key. Personal choice is the key. You have to decide you want to live differently, to make things better, and then act on that decision. You have to choose to do the right thing." I rested my eyes on their leader again. "Unlike you, White."

The predictable exclamations of surprise and anger followed that, but I didn't wait for them to die down before I pressed my attack. "I don't know how or why, but you already knew boomers were people, before I even asked. You knew that self-aware boomers weren't isolated, random incidents, but a matter of design. You knew, and yet you organized and ran your little squad of assassins and slavecatchers anyway."

White said nothing, and the others took their cue from her, I guess. I could feel the glares even through their faceplates. Wonderful. Well, I knew when I'd hit a brick wall, and it was clear that I'd outstayed my welcome. I sighed and used a fingertap to disguise sliding open the helmet's keypad. The little rest here, despite the yelling, had given me just barely enough strength. Or so I hoped.

"Well," I said with false cheerfulness, "I'd just as soon not prolong this argument anyway, so I believe I'll be hitting the road."

Blue loomed over me threateningly. "I don't think so," she grated. I gave her a disingenuous smile and keyed in the execute code.

A pealing boom overpowered the harmonica's first few notes as it appeared: a broad ribbon of writhing blue sparks that rumbled and crackled and stretched to infinity in the meter or so between me and the cinder block wall. The shockwave from its creation tossed the Sabers off their feet.

"Sorry, folks, I have to run," I shouted as I jumped over the now-prone Lady Blue, leapt onto the road, and fled.

* * *

The room still echoed from Sangnoir's escape for several seconds after his exit route had closed behind him with a final, lingering crash. Lisa had tossed away all concern for Saber security and burst in even as Raven's Garage still shook to its foundations. "What happened? Is he all right? Are you all right?" she cried.

Priss levered herself up off the floor to see the other Sabers doing the same. "Shit," she swore. "He didn't have to be so damn literal."

"What the hell was that?" Sylia demanded as she got to her feet. She leaned against the gurney unsteadily.

Priss unlocked her visor and pushed it back as she stood. "Bruce Springsteen. 'Thunder Road'. I recognized the harmonica intro." She chuckled grimly. "I never thought I'd actually see it..."

"Mou..." Nene murmured as Lisa helped her stand.

"Damn," Sylia whispered as she removed her helmet and laid it on the vacated gurney. Then she looked up. "I'm afraid we've made an enemy today, ladies. And an extraordinarily dangerous one, at that, if only for the strength of his convictions. Never mind what GENOM might accomplish should they capture him." She stared soberly at the wall into... through... within? which he had vanished. "And there is no reason not to believe that he can find his way back here with another use of that... ability." Sylia gazed levelly at her teammates. "For our own safety and security at the very least, we must capture or -- if necessary -- kill him."

Lisa and the other Sabers stared at her in stunned silence as she continued. "We have his name, that gives us an immeasurable lead over GENOM. Nene, crack every database you need to, but find him. He strikes me as just arrogant enough not to be living under a pseudonym."

Inside her open helmet, the Pink Saber nodded crisply. "Right!" Then she grew thoughtful. "You know, I didn't mention it earlier, but I could swear I'd heard his name before. I wish I could remember where..."

Lisa tried to suppress a nervous shiver.

* * *

IDEC. Saturday, January 31, 2037. 8:27 PM

Daniel Ohara sat alone in the dark.

Davis Kristoff had departed at least an hour before, after the two of them had silently carted all the equipment back to the office. Neither had said a word to the other that hadn't been absolutely necessary to the task at hand. Neither had looked at the other.

But before he had left, Kristoff had wordlessly drawn a sealed envelope from an inner pocket of his coat and handed it to Ohara. The letter within now lay open, its creases flattened out, on the shadowed desktop before him.

Kristoff's resignation from IDEC, effective immediately.

Ohara shook his head. "Reasons of personal honor," he said. Differences between the company's values and his own. With a forefinger he gently traced along a column of characters running near the center of the translucent sheet. It's started. How long until the others decide that their self-respect is worth more than their loyalty? How soon?

Rising from his desk, Ohara left his darkened office and slowly paced through the brightly-lit hallways of the office suite IDEC occupied in GENOM Tower. His footsteps echoed off the white tile floors, barely louder than the soft, warm rush of air from the ventilation system. He studied every meter of the way, memorizing each detail in the unfamiliar silence. I've failed, he mused as he progressed. I'm a failure. Academically, scientifically, in business. He stopped to peer into Tony's office, smiling sadly at the cartoons and posters that plastered the walls. I've led good people, and I've let them down.

His slow perambulation brought him to the room that was known to IDEC's staff as simply The Lab. He unlocked the heavy door with his keycard, and stepped inside to stand marvelling at the device to which he had dedicated almost twenty years of his life, the device which they had finally reassembled after painstaking weeks of diagnostic tests.

Hiroe had once described the pinhole projector as looking like "an MRI scanner crossed with a Klein bottle" -- monstrous coils of superconducting wire that crossed and interpenetrated each other, with the tiny hollow sphere of vanadium not quite 3 centimeters across nestled at their center the focus of literally hundreds of sensors. Nearby, a bank of flywheels hummed, still drawing power and slowly climbing to their maximum speed against the next time IDEC tried to punch a tiny peephole into another world. Through his feet he could feel a faint vibration in the floor, a weak resonance of the power the wheels held.

But whose IDEC will it be? Ohara despaired. After today's debacle, Madigan is going to toss us to the wolves and take the company. There's no doubt of it. I'll be ruined. But worse, everyone else will, too. So much work, so many lives damaged or lost because that damned bitch wanted us to do her dirty work. He drew a deep breath and released it in a sigh.

He turned to leave the Lab, when a thought struck him. Well, what was that song that Grandmother used to sing? "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." A tiny smile threatened to form on his lips. I certainly have nothing left to lose. Maybe...

Coming to a decision, Daniel Ohara, drew his cellphone from his pocket and flipped it open. He punched a sequence of 15 digits, and waited as it rang.

"Jimbo!" he sang out when the other end picked up. "Dan Ohara here! How are you, you old bastard?"

A pause.

"Just fine, never better, thanks. Jimbo, I'm calling to ask a favor. You still sitting on that decommissioned G&B hardware? Great, great. I think I might have a use for that BG series 2 prototype you've been keeping in cold storage, if you don't mind taking a small loss on it..."

* * *

Saturday, January 31, 2037. 8:43 PM

There are some disadvantages to living in the Tower, Katherine Madigan thought, despite the prestige it confers. One of them is being on call 24 hours a day. She drew her silk dressing gown tighter about her and tugged on its belt, all the while frowning at the blinking "priority incoming" message on her phone. And while I'm doing some soul-searching is the last time I want to be handed more work.

A few minutes later, she pounded the desktop and swore, both in anger and in surprise at the pain caused by the blow.

She rewound and once again watched the sight she least wanted to see: the Visitor, limp and apparently unconscious, carried off in the arms of the pink Knight Saber. She paused the recording, leaving a still, faintly-flickering image on the screen as she cradled her throbbing hand.

Between this and the raid on GENGenTech, it's clear that someone has hired the Sabers to help them get a head start on a human augmentation program -- by plundering ours, and by abducting the only apparent paranormal known to date. Katherine closed her eyes and rested her head on her good hand. Why does everything have to blow up all at once? It doesn't help that my mistakes have aggravated the situation. I should have never let Ohara and his collection of intellectual clowns do my detective work for me. That was purely petty vindictiveness on my part.

Katherine took a deep breath and sat up straight, opening her eyes to see once again the frozen video image. She grimaced and shook her head. It's time to try and recover as much as I can from this debacle. No more executive summaries and capsule reports. She reached out with her unhurt hand and tapped one of the speed dial icons on her phone's screen and waited.

It barely had time to ring before it was picked up. "Yes, Ms. Madigan?"

"Mr. Quincy's office, please."

* * *

Heidelberg, Germany, Saturday, January 31, 2037. 12:56 PM (Local Time)

"Magic!" Sylia spat the word with a vitriol that surprised Mackie. He watched, amazed, as on the telephone's screen his sister scowled with uncharacteristic ferocity.

Her call had taken him by surprise for two reasons. First, it had come well outside of their usual phone schedule, which tried to split between them the 8-hour difference in their respective time zones. Second, his sister had initiated the secure scramble mode immediately after he accepted the call, without warning him first. It was then that he first suspected the level of her agitation. And after half an hour, it was obvious to him that his sister was far more overwrought than he had ever seen her before.

Since when do I get to be the voice of reason in this family? Mackie mused with an inward smile. "Are you sure he wasn't joking with you? I mean, yeah, the little coverage I've seen on this Loon guy shows him doing some pretty weird stuff, but can't he just have some advanced tech that he was hiding from you? Can't it just be a case of Clarke's Third Law?"

She shook her head once, sharply. "Many of the medical sensors I had attached to him can also serve as parts of a polygraph, if one knows how to read them. He wasn't lying; or, to be precise, he believed what he said."

Mackie suppressed a sigh. Only my sister... "Well, then," he said, "the obvious thing to do if you have to fight him is to disable that helmet of his. From what you've said, that should take care of most of his 'magic'."

Sylia's image nodded in agreement. "My thought exactly. There are two problems with that, though. One, if Sangnoir's 'resume' is to be believed, he is a combat veteran of no less than fifteen years, who has faced a panoply of foes and threats that I can barely imagine. His helmet will undoubtedly be designed to be as resistant to damage and other kinds of attacks as possible."

"I thought Nene hacked her way into it?"

"A fluke," Sylia replied with a precisely-controlled, dismissive wave. "He is too intelligent not to have already corrected the weakness she exploited. And I doubt there are any others she can make use of. No, we will need a more direct approach, which brings up the second problem."

Mackie in leaned toward the phone as he rested his elbows on the table in front of him, and his chin in his cupped hands. "And that is?"

On the screen, Sylia scowled. "His very existence warps probability. How do we fight someone whom the fabric of space-time itself conspires to protect, however imperfectly? Even without his helmet, I have no idea what his limits are, or even if he has limits! How can I strategize around that?"

"Sis, I think you're getting too worked up over this 'magic' stuff," Mackie offered. "So weird things happen around him, and because of him. So what? If you ask me, he's a lot less of a problem than Largo ever was! I mean, he's versatile and surprising, and might be hard to hurt, but he's no hyperboomer with a lasersat control box."

"This is true," his sister, still frowning, reluctantly admitted. "It's just that... oh, damn it all, Mackie, he was so infuriating! Sitting there, smugly lecturing us on how morally superior his world was to ours! Calling us barbarians!"

Wow, he thought. Sylia's really worked up over this guy. "Well, he kinda had a point, you know. Dad said in his papers that..." he began.

"Don't you start, now, Mackie!" Sylia barked.

"Sorry, sis." He sagged a little at the reprimand, and it must have been visible to Sylia, because her expression softened enough to be seen on the phone's tiny monitor.

"No, I'm sorry, little brother. I shouldn't snap at you. It's just that... too many things have been taking a bizarre turn recently."

Mackie tilted his head. "Like what?"

She shook her head. "Coincidences, or things that look like them. A visitor who claims to be from another universe. And suddenly, a low-key GENOM subsidiary trying to peek into other universes starts operating outside of its secure little hole in the Tower. Russian intelligence, of all people, hires us to break into another GENOM subsidiary, this one busy trying to engineer "improved", maybe even paranormal, human beings. But even so, the job seems to be an excuse to get us out of town so that a massive boomer attack can capture Sangnoir -- if you can imagine GENOM and Russian intelligence working together. Then, if Priss and Linna -- and their data recorders! -- are to be believed, Sangnoir raises two children from the dead, then says that he didn't do it, a trio of goddesses did. He just asked them to. And to top it off, a character from an old anime appears, demolishes two boomers on film, and then disappears again!" Sylia covered her eyes with her hand. "When did MegaTokyo turn into a magnet for surrealism?"

"An anime character? Who?" He hadn't been expecting anything like that.

"Something called a 'Sailor Senshi' from a show named Sailor Moon," Sylia replied, still covering her eyes.

Mackie's eyebrows shot up under his bangs. He was very familiar with Sailor Moon -- the amount of ecchi stories, images and doujinshi that the series had inspired over the last forty-plus years was simply staggering, and he had ended up borrowing copies of the original series on videorom simply to learn more about the characters. "A Sailor Senshi? Really?"

"Yes, really," Sylia replied wearily.

"Sugoi! Which one?"

Sylia dropped her hand and stared at him. "What do you mean, which one? How would I know?"

"Geeze, Sis, no need to get nasty about it!"

Sylia closed her eyes and slowly exhaled. "I'm sorry, Mackie. It's just that it's all starting to get a little overwhelming. The world has taken a very strange turn for me, and I'm not exactly certain that I'm suited to the new shape it has." She visibly collected herself, seeming almost to turn off the agitation that had characterized her behavior throughout the call. "I just can't help wondering, though... if there is as much magical potential in the world as Sangnoir claims, why isn't someone other than he using it?"

Mackie didn't have an answer for her.

* * *

Saturday, January 31, 2037. 9:13 PM

I wanted to thrash myself for stupidity, but I kept packing instead...

I couldn't believe that I had sat there and introduced myself to the damned Knight Sabers. Gave them my real name and everything. It didn't matter that I had thought they were friendlies at the time. I shouldn't have let my guard down that far, that fast.

I was dashing around my apartment, trying to decide what to keep and what to take. I had my leather backpack (the one that Delandra had given me) in my left hand while I rifled through drawers and my wardrobe with my right.

I had to bug out. Immediately.

If Pink was as good as I thought she was, that little bit of personal theatre with my Warriors ID would give them exactly what they needed to find me. The only reason they weren't already at my door by now was that they probably wanted to make the snatch quietly and unobtrusively. Storming an upper floor of a federal housing project in full armor wouldn't go unnoticed, so they'd probably wait until late at night and come in stealthily.

I hoped.

That, thankfully, gave me enough time to grab a few things and run. I'd already started putting together an emergency escape kit a few days earlier; I just needed some more clothes and several personal items I hadn't quite gotten around to adding. Then I could dash down to my cycle and head off to one of a couple possible boltholes I'd scouted out over the previous week.

I wasn't counting on a knock on my door quite so soon.

I combat-hyped, snatching up my helmet with one hand as I darted over to the hinge side of the door. If they forced it, I'd be out of sight for one or two critical seconds -- just long enough to give me an edge.

Another knock rattled the door. After flashing my hand across the peephole just in case the caller was waiting for me to put my head in front of a gun, I risked a quick glance into the hallway.

It was Lisa. "Doug! Let me in!" she demanded, her voice muffled slightly by the door's cheap hollow-core construction.

I dropped out of combat time and tried to move as quietly as possible back to my packing. Another salvo of pounding assaulted the door. "I know you're in there!" she called out as a follow-up.

She was a nice kid, and I wasn't going to let her get mixed up in my troubles. So I was going to ignore her, pretend I wasn't home, and wait until she gave up to make my getaway. If she was persistent, which was pretty likely, actually, I could use a song to make her sleep, or mind control her into forgetting she wanted to talk to me, or hell, better yet, I could just go invisible and non-corp and drop all the way down through the building to the ground floor.

Behind me the knob rattled as she tried it, having apparently given up on knocking. I ignored that, too, and shoved my "Priss and the Replicants" T-shirt into the pack. Then I spun on my heel to retrieve a couple of toiletry items from my sorry excuse for a bathroom. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement where there should have been none, and reacted with a reflexive attack. "<Jesus Harold Christ on a fucking handtruck!>" I bellowed a moment later as I managed to abort the full-force punch I had started to throw.

"'Harold'?" Lisa asked. She was standing just inside my now-open front door, a set of lock picks in her devious little hands.

I sighed as I dropped my helmet on the bed, and recited in English, "<Our Father, Who art in Heaven, Harold be Thy Name.> Lisa, what do you think you're doing?"

"Breaking into your apartment," she replied matter-of-factly as the lock picks disappeared into a pocket, and tossed her head. It seemed almost like a challenge. "What are you doing?"

"Packing." And I went back to doing exactly that, dashing into the bathroom for those toiletries.

I heard the front door click shut just before I dashed back out, and a moment later she was at my side. "Why?"

I opened a side pocket on the backpack and dropped my toothpaste, brush, razor and antiperspirant into it. "My cover's been blown. It's not safe for me to stay here any more," I growled. "Not for me, for you, or for anyone else in this building."

She stepped up behind me and laid a hand on my shoulder. "Where are you going, then?"

I turned, taking her hand off my shoulder and holding it in both of mine. "I'm not telling you."

She stomped her foot. "Doug!"

"Give it up, Lisa. I'm not telling you." I flipped the backpack closed, laced the straps through their buckles and cinched them tight. The worn leather bulged, looking a little like an over-inflated balloon yea-short of bursting.

Lisa grabbed me and spun me around. "You are an infuriating piece of shit, you know?" She wore a pout that was almost, but not quite, at the level of self-parody.

"And you are an infuriatingly persistent little shit, yourself, you know?" I said with a grin. I gently took her face between my hands and kissed her forehead. "Don't worry. As the cliche goes, you're safer not knowing."

Lisa scowled furiously at me as I let go of her, and raised one hand as if to slap me. "Oh, you! You make me so mad some times, you know that?" She lowered the hand and began to pick at the buttons on the front of her silky green blouse with it. "Look, just be careful. Today's boomer attack wasn't an accident."

I nodded as I saw the concern in her mahogany eyes. "Yeah, I know. They were too well-organized. It was practically a military exercise." I frowned. "If I ever find out who deployed those boomers, I'm going to make them very sorry."

She chewed her lip for a moment as she continued to fidget with her buttons. "IDEC sent them out," she said softly.

"They did?" A cold chill ran through me. "How do you know?"

Her brown eyes bored into me. "Because I was covering the siege and I found their base station."

Without a word I turned away from her and snatched up my backpack and my helmet from the bed. Then I strode to the wardrobe and pulled out my civvie winter coat. Most of my Valdemaran garb remained there, neatly organized on their hangers; it was all expendable. All except my honorary Whites, which I'd already taken care of.

I turned back to Lisa. She made no effort to hide the concern on her face, and I regretted having to leave a friend such as her behind. But it was better than trying to take her with me, by a long shot.

"Thank you for that piece of intel, Lisa," I said, trying to smile. "You can be sure I'm going to act on it within a couple of days." I stepped to the door, pulled out my keys, and tossed them to her. She caught them automatically, then registered surprise. "I've got to go now," I continued. "Keep an eye on the place, okay? But don't let yourself be noticed by cops or strange women in powered armor."

I slipped out into the hallway and fled.

* * *

Saturday, January 31, 2037. 10:14 PM

Lisa sat crosslegged on her futon, idly turning a ballpoint pen over and over in her hands. At her side was the long, low table that she used as a desk; at the moment it was littered with books and files. A portfolio with Fuko MacNamara's business card taped to it leaned half-open against one end and propped up an ink-encrusted brush left over from Lisa's most recent unsuccessful attempt to pen a holiday greeting in haiku for her mother.

An open file filled with Sabers history lay before her, but she wasn't seeing it; in her mind's eye, all she could see was Doug silently slipping away down the hall as the keys in her hand jingled like the rings on a monk's staff.

A knock on her door roused Lisa from her reverie, and a flash of hope shot through her like an electric current. She leapt from the futon, scattering papers everywhere, and flew to the door. "Doug! You came back!" she cried as she yanked it open.

Nene stood there, a grimace flickering so quickly over her face that Lisa wasn't sure she had actually seen it. "Hi, Lisa-chan," she said soberly. "Can I come in?"

Eyes wide, Lisa worked her mouth silently for a moment or two before anything deigned to come out. "Um, sure." She stepped to one side and waved Nene in. "Have a seat."

Nene pulled a chair from under the little table that served as Lisa's dining area, and sat down on it backwards. "Thanks."

"So, what's up, Nene-chan?" Lisa asked, trying to moisten a suddenly dry mouth. "What brings you around so late, especially after a job?"

The redhead ignored her questions. "So, Lisa, is Doug your boyfriend?"

Uh-oh. Here it comes. "No, just my neighbor from across the hall." Lisa tried to hide her nervousness by collecting up the papers she had sent flying.

Nene studied her carefully. "The same one you asked me to investigate last summer." It wasn't a question.

Lisa paused in her collecting, on all fours in the middle of the floor. She studied the patterns in the rug below her. "Hai," she finally whispered.

There was a long silence, long enough that Lisa unfroze and continued gathering the scattered papers just for the sake of having something to do. As she retrieved a sheet that had slid part-way under her one small bookcase, she risked a glance at Nene. Her friend was clearly troubled; a frown creased her forehead and she chewed on her upper lip as she looked anywhere in the room but at Lisa. Lisa frowned, too; it was almost like Nene was on the verge of saying something, but couldn't bring herself to it.

Shaking her head, Lisa bent back down to reach for the next sheet. "What is it, Nene?" she murmured, taking another quick look at the redhead.

Nene started, eyes wide. "Oh! Sorry!" she squeaked, then composed herself. "I haven't told Sylia yet."

"Told her what?" Lisa asked from near the floor as she reached for the last of the lost papers.

"That you knew."

Lisa straightened up and sat back on her heels. "What did I know?"

Nene frowned again. "That your neighbor is the Loon." She stood and started to pace back and forth in the small room. "You did. That's why you were trying so hard to get in the storeroom with us all this afternoon. You were worried about him." As Lisa nervously sorted through the papers in her hands, Nene stopped and loomed over her. "You've known almost from the start, haven't you? All that time we were trying to figure out if he was a friend or a foe or... or... a whatever, you knew and didn't tell us! You didn't tell me! I thought we were friends!"

Lisa leapt to her feet. "We are friends, Nene!" Indignant, she crossed the room to plop herself down on the futon and carelessly flung the collected papers atop the books arrayed on her makeshift desk. "But I don't tell friends' secrets. Not yours, not anyone else's."

Nene pounced on her apparent evasion. "So, you admit you did know about him?"

Lisa narrowed her eyes. "No," she said flatly. "I don't admit anything of the sort. This is the first that I've ever heard anyone suggest that Doug was the Loon." Declare it, yes. Suggest it, no, Lisa silently annotated to herself.

"Aaugh!" Nene threw her hands up. "Lisa! This is important!"

"Yes, it is!" she shot back. "Friends are important! Friends' confidences are important!" She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Nene," she asked, her eyes still shut, "do you trust me?"

Nene pursed her lips and slowly nodded. "Yes. For now, at least," she added, and Lisa winced.

"Why?"

"Why?" Nene's eyes widened, and her right hand crept up to rub the back of her neck. "Because... because when you had a choice between achieving your dreams and protecting a friend with secrets, you chose the... you chose me."

Lisa opened her eyes and stared deep into Nene's. "Right. And it was the right thing to do. And if -- just hypothetically, mind you -- if I had other friends who had their own secrets, just as big as yours, I wouldn't, couldn't choose any differently for them. I'd no more tell you their secrets than I would tell them yours. It has to work both ways, Nene."

Nene's eyebrows drew together in disapproval as she shook her head. "No. I don't buy that, Lisa. You're a member of the Kni... of the team. What about loyalty to us? The team should come first. If you care about your friends on the team, that is."

Lisa was back on her feet in an instant. "That's not fair, Nene! You can't demand that of me! If I violate a confidence for your convenience, then how could you trust me with your secrets? How could I ever trust myself?" Her voice climbed in pitch and volume as all her doubts and worries, some dating back to her great "scoop chase" four years earlier, forced their way once again into front of her mind.

"You could trust yourself because you'd know you're doing the right thing!" Nene, caught up in Lisa's growing hysteria, herself started to grow shrill.

"It's not the right thing!"

"The heck it's not!"

"You want me to break my promises just for your convenience?"

"It's not convenience! It's necessity!"

"Bullshit!"

The two were screaming at each other now, but a pounding on the wall cut across the exchange and brought it to a crashing halt.

Lisa glanced sidewise towards the wall from which the banging had come and a brief, sheepish grin flickered across her face. "I think we're a little too loud for the neighbors." A look of sadness slid into her eyes. "I think you'd better go now, Nene."

The redhead stared at the floor. Her face was faintly flushed and her breathing was audible and ragged. "Yeah. Maybe I should." She turned and walked slowly to the door, and Lisa followed. The knob rattled, and Nene paused in the open entry. "I'm not going to say anything to Sylia, Lisa. Not yet. But if you don't tell her soon, I will." She stepped fully into the hall. "Good night, Lisa," Nene said, then strode quickly towards the elevator bank.

Lisa stood, holding tightly onto the door frame, and never took her eyes off her friend as she walked away. All the time her chest burned, and she felt the sting of tears threaten to overwhelm her. When at last Nene turned the corner and disappeared, Lisa looked away. Before she slid back into her apartment, though, an unexpected, aged voice startled her.

"Lovers' quarrel, dearie?"

Lisa flinched in surprise and turned around to see one of her neighbors peering from the the next apartment down the hall. The old woman was dressed in a ragged robe that might have been silk, and ratty terrycloth slippers. Through her open door Lisa could hear the sound of a television tuned to a broadcast channel -- the excited yammerings of a hyperactive emcee and the laughter of an audience drifted tinnily into the hallway.

Lisa stared at her neighbor for several moments as the old woman watched her expectantly. "No, Mrs. Chiba," she finally said. "Nothing that small." The live television audience roared in laughter once more, and Lisa turned to re-enter an apartment that suddenly seemed much smaller and colder than it had when she'd woken up that morning. "Good night, Mrs. Chiba," she murmured, then shut the door behind her.

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 9:35 AM

Leon looked up without surprise as Nene stormed through the squad room to loom over his desk. "We have to talk," she declared angrily.

"You're right about that," he responded, giving her a long, level look.

Nene glanced left and right, then continued in a lower voice. "Not here."

He nodded curtly as he rose from his chair. "Right."

A few minutes later the two of them stood in the conference room in which Nene and so many others had first seen the Loon in action, several months earlier. Upon entering, Nene crossed the room to look out of the windows at the city streets below. Leon closed the door tightly behind himself, then brushed his fingers across the control panel situated next to the light switches. The window shutters slid shut, and faint hiss of white noise sprang up.

Her view cut off, Nene slowly turned to face Leon and opened her mouth to speak.

"What the hell were you thinking, carrying him off like that?" he quietly demanded, before she could say anything.

"Well, your people were trying to kill him, despite our deal," she hissed.

"They were operating outside of their orders," he shot back. "I've already publicly reprimanded them, and put a copy of it in their files."

"Good!" Nene looked smug and satisfied. "O'Shaughnessey and those other bozos deserved it." Then her eyes narrowed. "That reminds me. You know I have my annual pistol qualification next week, right?"

Leon perched himself on the edge of the conference table, feeling the wood-grained plastic give ever so slightly under his weight. "Yeah," he ventured cautiously, as he rested his arm on top of the built-in computer console. Where's this going?

Nene stepped forward until she was within arm's reach of Leon. She didn't look at him, instead gazing into the distance over his shoulder, as if she could stare through the bulk of the ADP HQ building now that the windows were closed to her. "I came in early to get a little range time in before my shift. Do you know what I found when I went to choose my course?" she growled. "Somebody put the Knight Sabers' silhouettes on the target menu!"

He slowly nodded. "Those profiles have been in the training system for years."

"You think I wouldn't know that, Leon?" Nene hissed, acutely conscious of being overheard, even in a room that was ostensibly sound-proofed. "They've been inactive all this time, stashed in a storage folder with the Doberman and DD battlemover profiles. But now they're active! And they were being used!" Nene stepped in closer to Leon, who began to feel like a trapped animal. "When I got there, Hato and Ramirez and a few others were already on the range, laughing and joking and taking potshots at the new targets. They were shooting at me and making dirty jokes about it! They were shooting at Priss!" She thrust her face forward and put herself nose-to-nose with Leon, close enough that he smell the coffee on her breath. "What are you going to do about it?"

Leon steeled himself and tried to stare her down. When the hell did she stop being cuddly and cute? "Nothing."

"Nothing?" Her voice threatened to rise into a shriek.

"Nothing." Taking her by the shoulders, Leon gently forced Nene back and away from him. "I didn't order the activation of those target options. I don't have any control over that, or anything else about the range. You know that. Those profiles were unlocked because someone up the chain of command -- Chief Todo, or someone even higher -- ordered it."

"Why?" Nene demanded as she began to stalk back and forth in front of him. "Why?"

Leon suppressed a sigh. She really has no clue, does she? "It might have something to do with you facing off with a half dozen troopers last night, Nene, and then helping a suspect escape."

"But we're good guys!"

He snorted. "The Sabers are mercenaries, Nene. But you've been helping out the ADP for so long the people tend to forget that. You and your friends have been perceived as..." Leon waved his hands aimlessly as he searched for the right words. "Kind of like a band of superheroes, always on the side of the city." He slid off the edge of the table and intercepted Nene, who still paced angrily. "What you did last night reminded people that the Sabers' loyalty is not necessarily to MegaTokyo."

Green eyes wide with shock turned upon him. "But..."

Leon shook his head. "But nothing. Last night was a debacle, and it got someone or several someones nervous about why a band of high-tech mercenaries support the ADP's efforts with pro-bono boomer hunting. That's why the four of you are now valid range targets. You rattled a lot of people, and now they're worried that there'll be another face-off between the Sabers and the ADP, that you could turn on us again without warning. And that it won't end as amicably. Because they're no longer as complacent about your allegiances as they used to be."

Nene bowed her head, hiding her face in a cascade of red hair. "It's all my fault," she whispered.

A gentle smile tugged at the corners of Leon's mouth. He reached out and, cupping her chin, lifted her face. "I'm sure you had good intentions, Nene-chan."

"Ha," she mimicked a laugh without humor. "You know what they say is paved with those. Besides," she sighed, "it almost wasn't worth it. He was so mean!" Her features took on a sad, thoughtful cast. "Leon," she said after a moment, "are boomers people?"

"Huh?" He released her chin and frowned. "What kind of a question is that?"

"The Loon, he's not from, um, around here, so he doesn't know that much about boomers, and..."

Leon raised an eyebrow. "Doesn't know about boomers? Where in the world can he..." His eyes widened. "He is something that IDEC snagged from another universe, then?"

"Not really," she said, shaking her head. "He said he's from another universe, but that he came here under his own power. It's just a coincidence IDEC's working on that stuff, I guess." Nene studied him for a moment. "I didn't think you'd actually read that paper of theirs that you gave me."

"Hey, I'm not just a pretty face, Nene," he chuckled, and she grinned for an all-too-brief moment. He continued. "Still, it's one thing to read about the possibility, another to see it in action." He tilted his head. "You said he was mean?"

Nene nodded curtly, her lips thrust out in a fierce pout. "Uh-huh. After we rescued him and took care of him, he started yelling about how boomers were really people, and how S... how Prime knew it all along, and how we were nothing but slave hunters and executioners. Then he... ran away." She looked at him, her eyes glistening and pleading. "We're not murderers, right? We're not!"

To her despair, Leon didn't answer right away, instead closing his eyes as his expression grew serious. "I don't know, Nene-chan, I really don't," he said after a few seconds' thought, and opened his eyes. "It's the kind of thing I think about, every once in a while, late at night when I can't get to sleep. I've got almost ten years more experience than you in the ADP, most of it in the field. I've seen things..." He shook his head and took a deep breath. "There have been a few boomers that have been so close to human that I sometimes forgot that they weren't. I think I could call them... people."

Nene's expression suddenly morphed from pleading to enraged, and Leon stepped backwards in surprise and shock, running painfully into the table edge behind him. "Not you, too!" she shouted. "I don't care what you, or the Loon, or, or, or anyone thinks! I'm not a murderer!" She turned and stormed out of the conference room as Leon watched helplessly.

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 11:00 AM

About half an hour after I left Lisa and my apartment, I stashed my cycle and my leathers in an automated public storage facility, paying for a month's time with an anonymized credit chit. With my helmet in my pack and a hood over my head, I then made my way to a cash-only, no-questions-asked love motel on the edge of Timex City.

I left about fifteen minutes after checking in, dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, winter coat, and helmet. None of this was immediately obvious because during the time it took me to drop off my keycard and walk out the door, then around the block, I had "These Dreams" playing and an illusion disguise wrapped around me. The pimply slacker behind the bullet-proof glass at what passed for the front desk didn't look up from his manga as I dropped the card into the checkout slot. I was surprised... I'd've thought a black transvestite hooker in a gold lame miniskirt and bandeau, topping out at just under two meters tall in a set of matching stiletto heels, would have gotten more attention. I don't know, maybe he was just jaded.

I'd studied this area, and I knew that there was an alley with a large dumpster a little more than a minute's walk from the motel's side door. I ducked into the narrow, pungent space behind the dumpster just as the song entered its last 30 seconds, then killed the disguise. Underneath it, I had black-dyed hair and a matching crepe mustache, courtesy of a Ginza costuming shop. I knelt and pulled an old, worn bowling ball carry bag out of my backpack, then stashed my helmet in it. Finally, after making sure I had no obvious tails, I continued on to my real bolthole.

I probably didn't need to go through all the cloak-and-dagger rigamarole, but if there's one thing I've learned fighting terrorists and costumed extremists, it's that in civvies, they look just like everyone else. Any woman I passed on the street might've been one of the Knights, surveilling me. And I couldn't even be sure that the Knights were women. With the voxmods they had, a slender man in a suit with that kind of surface sculpting could easily pass for female, especially if he were sensitive to body language. I couldn't dismiss that possibility, much as I'd've liked to. So everyone was a potential tail.

It didn't make my walk very relaxing.

My bolthole was a tiny efficiency apartment on the edge of the Fault Region. Even compared to my poverty-level housing at Morita, it was pretty lousy; the building predated the big quake and the quality of the cramped accommodations was so bad that the roaches were saving up for a better place. The price was right, though -- three months' rent would eat only about a quarter of my cash supply.

I dropped my stuff on the thin, rickety bed and plopped down on the floor to sit cross-legged on the threadbare carpeting. If I pulled in my elbows I could just fit between the bed and the micro-kitchenette. I closed my eyes and planned my next moves.

An hour later, I had debugged my plans as thoroughly as possible. Or so I hoped. I would visit IDEC, but not right away. It would be better if I just sat tight for a few days and let my trail grow cold. I doubted that the Sabers, GENOM or the cops would give up, but I'd be damned if I would help them by popping back up right away and giving them a metaphorical "Yoo-hoo! Here I am!"

I then went out and familiarized myself with the neighborhood. In particular, I kept an eye out for potential jobs that were inconspicuous or easily overlooked, in case I needed more money faster than I expected. I zigzagged through the typically Tokyo maze of streets for a couple of hours, stopping only when I stumbled across a crumbling neighborhood cybercafe. As I paused in front of the grimy plate glass window and peered into its dark environs, I remembered that I had a little research I wanted to do. I nodded to myself and stepped in.

A few minutes later, I sat at a terminal with a cup of steaming green tea to hand. Calling up a search engine, I entered the word "superhero" and pressed "enter".

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 11:31 AM

So far, it hadn't gone as badly as she had expected. Which was to say, she hadn't been fired or liquidated... yet.

For the past half hour, Mr. Quincy had sat, clearly entranced, by the collection of telemetry, video and still photos Madigan had assembled on the Visitor, as well as the ADP and news site records on him. Katherine stood silently behind the chairman's left shoulder as he methodically studied every frame, print and page without a sound.

Upon entering the chairman's huge office, Katherine had begun by laying out her culpability. That was the professional thing to do, she reassured herself. Mr. Quincy would have been disappointed in me had I tried to cover up my errors. She allowed herself a glance in the direction of the chairman; he was absorbed in the first video taken of the Visitor, pausing and replaying it to study the action. It seems to have worked. So far.

Ten minutes later, Madigan would have been fidgeting with impatience had she allowed herself the luxury. The only sounds in the huge room were the gentle sussuration from the heating ducts and the occasional keyboard click from Quincy's computer. That in itself was almost monumental; in all her experience with GENOM, Mr. Quincy had never deigned to manually operate his desk system in her presence. He had always delegated such mundane tasks to others. That fact, added to the intensity with which he examined the data, only reignited and compounded her discomfiture. Is he deciding the magnitude of my failure?

Finally, he closed the last file. Rather than address her, though, he slid back his chair (forcing her to sidestep quickly), and steepled his hands in thought. It was several more minutes before he roused himself, during which Katherine did her best to stand at attention, still behind his left shoulder, still worried about her fate.

Quincy reached out and stabbed at the speakerphone on his desk, his hand flickering like a striking viper. Katherine almost flinched in surprise.

"Get Kentaro Kloberdanz in my office. Now," he demanded. His deep bass growled even deeper, in the manner that Katherine knew from experience signified a level of annoyance that was lethal to someone's career plans.

"Yes, sir," a tinny voice replied faintly. The response was too indistinct for her to determine which of Quincy's legion of administrative assistants had received the order, nor did it really matter -- it was yet another piece of trivia at which she grasped as a distraction from her anxiety.

Quincy returned to the photoprints spread across his desktop. They seemed to occupy his entire attention for the two minutes that ticked by before the receptionist swung open one of the great oaken doors. A thin, sallow Eurasian man entered, hesitating only a moment on the threshold. Katherine looked him over dispassionately as he trotted nervously across the office's lush carpet. He was not familiar to her, but even she could not be expected to know every employee by sight -- although she did try. Quincy did not look up as the man came to a halt and stood, almost cringing, three meters in front of the chairman's desk.

"Kloberdanz," Quincy said conversationally, still studying the prints. Katherine noted the undertones of his voice; for the moment, Kloberdanz was a target, which meant that she was -- temporarily -- safe.

"Ha..." Kloberdanz' response came out as a choked squeak; he coughed and tried again. "Hai, sir?"

"You are one of my readers, Kloberdanz." Katherine nodded slightly to herself. This was one of the many GENOM employees whose job was to filter through the gigabytes of material emitted by the world media every day. Each focused on a small number of topics, selecting and condensing material on their specialties into concise digests for the chairman's daily consumption. She allowed herself to relax infinitesimally.

"Hai, Chairman," Kloberdanz squeaked again.

Quincy picked up one of the color prints and studied it with remarkable intensity. "Over the past six months or so, your duties have included summarizing all media coverage of the individual that GENOM has chosen to call 'The Visitor'."

"That is correct, sir." Some measure of confidence seemed to be flooding back into the man, Madigan noted. The corners of her mouth twitched slightly.

Quincy carefully laid the print down in the exact position from which he had lifted it, and looked at his employee for the first time. "The Visitor gave a name for himself in a newspaper interview some months ago, Kloberdanz. Why was that name never included in my digests?"

Color drained out of Kloberdanz' sallow features. "It... it was..." He gathered himself and began again, more confidently. "We had an internal designation for him, already, sir, and I saw no reason to confuse the issue. And it was such a silly name, Chairman. I didn't want to waste your time with it."

"You did, did you?" Quincy watched his employee unblinkingly, and Madigan did her best to match her superior's expressionless gaze. "You were afraid I would be... confused, and took the liberty of eliminating such a... distressing datum from my daily summaries?"

"Hai! That's it, exactly, sir!" Katherine almost laughed as Kloberdanz straightened and colored again.

Quincy nodded. "You have disappointed me, Kloberdanz."

The other man's expression fell suddenly. "What? I mean, sir?"

Quincy speared him with one final look, then stabbed at the speakerphone again. "Tell Human Resources that Kentaro Kloberdanz has been relieved of his position. And send someone from Security to my reception area to escort him from the Tower."

"Yes, sir!" came the tinny voice.

Quincy returned his attention to the photos before him. "That will be all, Kloberdanz."

"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir." Pale once more, Kentaro Kloberdanz stumbled backwards to the office doors, which silently opened behind him to reveal two waiting security boomers, still in their human guises. As they took him by the arms, the doors closed.

"I do not tolerate failure, Madigan," Quincy commented, and she stiffened.

She managed to keep her voice under control. "No, Chairman."

"I am, however, willing to forgive a... lapse in judgment by a promising employee," he continued, "assuming that the employee is of sufficient value to GENOM." His leather chair turned around so that he could face her. "It would cost GENOM far more to replace you than it would to ensure you learn from this... experience. So we will endeavor to see that your performance improves, won't we?" He gave her a toothy smile which failed utterly at being friendly and instead made him look predatory, hungry.

Katherine nodded once, curtly, sending her lavender hair swinging. "Yes, sir."

"I can understand your frustration with IDEC and Ohara, Madigan. And I commend you on the decision to make use of their expertise in this matter. You left it in their hands for far too long, though. Fortunately, none of their actions have reflected badly on GENOM, and that is fortunate indeed." He raised an eyebrow at her, and she suppressed a shiver, before he continued.

"Effective immediately, you will personally take over this operation, and you will bring me the Visitor. You have two weeks, Madigan. Two weeks."

"Very good, sir," she replied, torn between elation and despair. Then a thought struck her. "Bring you the Visitor?"

Quincy nodded, his teeth still bared in the rictus of his smile. "Yes, Madigan. Bring him here, to my office."

"But he is in the hands of the Knight Sabers!"

The chairman dismissed her objection with a sharp wave. "I do not think he shall stay in their company for long, Madigan."

"But..."

Quincy spun his seat back to face the monitors overlooking and embedded in his desktop. "Some information to help you in your assignment. You will find that his name is Douglas Q. Sangnoir. He goes by another ... nickname ... that is also very undignified, but quite accurate. You will want to have your people inquire on the street after anyone calling himself 'Looney Toons'. As well as..." he gestured at the ADP files in front him, "'Loon'. Once you capture him, take his helmet, and keep him away from any kind of music."

"But how...?" Madigan began.

Quincy waved a hand dismissively. "That is my concern and not yours. Find him. Bring him here. Alive. Able to speak. But be forewarned, it will not be easy."

"Just what is he, sir?" she asked quietly.

"Dangerous, Madigan. Very dangerous."

Madigan tried to control a swell of anger as she stared at the chairman. "If you already had this information, sir..."

Quincy glanced up and gave her a sharp, reprimanding look. "What I know and how I know it are none of your business, Madigan, unless I choose to make it so. You will continue as you have in the past, and proceed as you have been ordered. Understood?"

She bowed her head in submission. "Yes, sir. Understood."

"Good," he rumbled. "Now go."

* * *

Madigan turned sharply on her heel and left the office. As the sound of her footsteps receded into the distance, Quincy rose from his seat and turned to the window behind him. He stood staring out at the broad expanse of MegaTokyo, brilliantly lit by the light of the noon-high sun, that spread out around the base of his Tower.

"Why now?" he muttered to himself. "Fifty years ago, even forty years ago, I would have welcomed you. Why do you finally have to come now?"

END OF CHAPTER NINE

<< PreviousNext >>

(Version 1.1, 22 October 2003)
(Version 1.2, 4 November 2008)

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.

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

"Diana 'Silverbolt' Apostolidis" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.

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

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

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

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

"Proteus" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Eric Mee.

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

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).

Lyrics from "Homeward Bound" recorded by Simon and Garfunkel, written by Paul Simon, copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972 Sony Music Entertainment Inc.

Lyrics from "Me and Bobby McGee" recorded by Janis Joplin, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, copyright © 1969, Combine Music Corporation (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, Eric James, Startide Rising, and Peggy Schroeck. Additional prereaders for future chapters are welcome.


This page was created on July 18, 2000.
Last modified January 16, 2013.