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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.

Drunkard's Walk II: Robot's Rules Of Order

by Robert M. Schroeck

 

 

10: I Can See Where This Moron Is Going To Give Me Trouble

The attempt to justify an evil deed has perhaps more pernicious consequences than the evil deed itself. The justification of a past crime is the planting and cultivation of future crimes. -- Eric Hoffer

A man, even the best, who accustoms his spirit to cruelty and finally makes, from that which he detests, a law. And from that habit becomes hard and almost unrecognisable. -- Goethe

 

Monday, February 2, 2037. 12:25 PM

Katherine Madigan stepped into her apartment and quietly closed the front door. Turning, she fell back against it and stayed there, eyes closed and face lifted, as she struggled to calm herself.

How could he possibly know that? Those were no guesses, no intuitions. That was unequivocal, certain knowledge. She closed her eyes and resisted the urge to bite her lip. Could the Chairman actually know the Visitor? How could the Chairman know the Visitor?

Hunger had struck her like a hammer blow the moment she had exited Quincy's office, but her emotional state was so uncertain that she chose not to take her lunch in the executive dining room. Unable to fully control her reactions, she'd have flagged herself in minutes as a target for every climber and shark in the GENOM power structure. She'd need the private time that eating in her own apartment would afford her to regain the composure that was a vital necessity in her position.

Pushing up off the door, Katherine resolutely drove herself through the foyer and into her living room. She slipped off her jacket and draped it carefully over the back of one of the two chairs that stood, unused, at the chest-height counter that divided the kitchen from the living room, then slipped into the kitchen proper. Opening her refrigerator, then the freezer, she surveyed her options.

Her stomach growled, and she laughed at the sound in spite of herself. The very act lightened her mood enough that the task of feeding herself no longer seemed quite the onerous chore it had a few moments earlier. Smiling wryly, Katherine withdrew a single-serving package of frozen vegetable lasagna -- a GENOM brand, of course -- and slipped it into the microwave.

Eight minutes later she drew it out again. Triggered by the rising heat of the food, the colorful wrapping had sublimated entirely and the memory plastic tray had unfolded itself into a reasonable facsimile of a china dish, leaving her with a perfectly presented, if still somewhat prefabricated-looking, entree. Katherine set the plate on a serving tray next to a cup of tea and a small bowl of salad and dressing that she had prepared while waiting.

A few moments later, the tray sat atop the walnut and crystal coffee table in her living room, and Katherine was perched on the edge of the couch that paralleled it. Kicking her shoes off, she reached down to pick at her lunch while pondering the questions that disturbed her.

It had been a long time since Catholic school, but old habits -- especially those which Father Knecht had ingrained in her -- died hard. They had served her well in her climb upwards through the world of business, too. Katherine closed her eyes and forced herself to calm, and focused her mind back into the paths of logic and reason so beloved of her Jesuit instructors. Slowly, carefully, occasionally punctuated by bites of lunch, she mentally built a logic tree in the manner she had been taught years before with pen, paper and raps on the knuckles with an archaic wooden ruler.

As usual, the familiar practice of boiling down the source of her anxiety into a flowchart of logical questions and conditions did wonders for her emotional state. Even without real answers, Katherine found her tension easing, if not yet vanishing.

Next, though, came the hard part: follow out all the possible results of the flowchart and plan for them. The first step there was to prune the tree based on what information she had at hand, or could reasonably infer. She savored the tangy salad dressing coating a cherry tomato as she considered a question that, if not the base of the logic diagram, resided close to it.

Does Mr. Quincy make use of intelligence sources external to GENOM? she wondered. If there were someone reporting to him outside of GENOM's nominal chain of command, it might explain his information. She considered this.

Obviously, there are no line items in GENOM's public budget for that kind of thing. On the other hand, there are no black budgets that are unaccounted for, she thought. Despite her position, she didn't know the details of most of GENOM's black projects. But she did know the patterns of money flow within the mega-corporation. With that information, she could tell where black projects unknown to her were located, though not what they pursued. And no black projects were currently under Mr. Quincy's direct overview.

Therefore, she concluded, if he's got outside sources, he's not paying for them out of a GENOM budget. Which left paying out of his own pocket -- a possibility which not only made matters far more delicate, but far more dangerous for her. To find out for sure if he were doing so, she'd have to spy on the Chairman. Very carefully.

Because if he were paying for a private intelligence network, it was very unlikely that it stopped at the lobby of the Tower.

Katherine turned that conclusion around and around in her mind while eroding the remains of the lasagna a tiny forkful at a time. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, she was forced to assume that this was the case. With that in mind, she traversed the logic tree one last time, discarding null branches and leaves, pruning it down to a final set of conclusions.

As she finished the last of her salad, she quickly categorized her results on the spectrum of "impossible" to "certain", keeping in mind that the Visitor's very existence had irrevocably mutated the criteria by which she could ever make such judgments. The final step was to divide the more likely conclusions into those about which she could do something and those she couldn't, and prioritizing the former.

As she had hoped, the exercise had not only calmed her, it reduced the seemingly insurmountable chaos of the situation into several discrete paths of cause, effect and possible action, any of which she was more than capable of handling without a second thought. She took a deep breath of relief and sipped her tea.

In her mind's eye, the possible paths spread out before her. Ignoring for the moment several more likely results, she paused to consider the implications of one conclusion that, however improbable, she could not dismiss as impossible. I cannot easily believe that Mr. Quincy could himself be a Visitor, she thought, scowling. But where there is one, there can be two. Then, with a guilty start, she realized that there had already been a second. How could I forget ... Her? Mr. Quincy would make... three.

"Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times, ah, Kate, three times is direct enemy action," Father Knecht had once told her while recounting his parts in the various wars that had taken place in the late 20th century. And if anyone had known the signature of enemy action, the former mercenary, now turned priest and teacher, had.

And if it has happened three times, then there's unlimited potential for it to keep happening, she realized. I need to talk to Ohara about this. Which means I cannot seize IDEC. Yet.

Mr. Quincy as a Visitor... and maybe as an enemy? Madigan considered this new wrinkle. Not entirely justified, but another possibility that had to be considered. She needed more data to properly decide that issue. And the only way I will get it is to bring this Sangnoir to him, she realized. And make sure I learn whatever it is that the Chairman wants from him.

But after that, what then? With a start, she realized that she was not foreseeing the personal and professional advantages which she could gain with that information. Instead, she was anticipating ... a decision on the course of her life. What then, indeed?

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 1:51 PM

In the weeks since Sony-Virgin had first offered a contract to the Replicants, Priss had made a concerted effort to keep the matter at arm's length. "Play it cool," she'd repeatedly told the other members of the band, "and they'll give us everything we want." And she did her best to follow her own advice, if only to keep her own anxiety and restlessness from overwhelming her. The fact that Sylia's lawyers had handled the majority of the subsequent problems and negotiations had also helped insulate her from an overload of stress that might have otherwise driven her out into the streets looking for a tangible release.

Now, though, it was all over. At a sumptuous luncheon paid for by Sony-Virgin, the record company's lawyers and Sylia's lawyers both declared the contract satisfactory, and the Replicants had signed.

All that's left is to tell Sylia that I'm moving to Osaka at the end of the month, Priss mused as she punched in the access code that opened the Silky Doll's back entrance from the cold, wind-swept parking deck.

A few minutes later, after seeing that Sylia wasn't on duty in the shop, Priss stood in the elevator to the sub-basements, restlessly shifting her weight back and forth from one foot to the other in her impatience for the door to slide open. She ignored the tinny string orchestra wafting faintly from the speaker above her until her practiced ear caught a familiar passage that demanded her full attention. Her restless energy faded away.

"Someone needs to talk to Sylia about her sense of humor," Priss muttered a few seconds later. She was torn between outrage and outrageous laughter; drifting out of the sound system was "Konya wa Hurricane" -- as languidly interpreted by a computer-synthesized orchestra of 200 heavily-medicated violinists. Smirking in spite of herself, Priss began to suspect that Sylia had already heard the news she'd come to share. She debated the benefits and drawbacks of strangling her friend rather than thanking her for her help.

She was saved from having to make a decision by an electronic chime and the whispery rumble of the elevator doors opening.

Priss's steps echoed slightly as she made her way down the long hallway, glancing through the doorways she passed even though she was reasonably certain where she would find Sylia. Sure enough, she thought, smirking again, as she came upon the open door at the end of the hall. Right where I figured. She knocked once on the door post. "Yo," she added as she stepped into the room.

"Congratulations, Priss," Sylia said without looking up from her worktable. She wore a set of flip-down magnifying lenses attached to a headband, and was intently studying a molecular circuit block. Surrounding her on the table top were an assortment of parts, from weapons subsystems to cowlings and fairings. Several of the latter were mirror-polished steel; reflected in them Priss could see the faint smile that on Sylia was the equivalent of a broad grin on anyone else.

"Don't your lawyers believe in client privilege?" the singer asked goodnaturedly.

Sylia set down the circuit and turned on her stool to face her. She flipped up the magnifier, still wearing that just-barely-there smile. "Of course they do. I know nothing about your deal. Just that it's closed. You did sign in public, you know." She tilted her head quizzically. "I take it this means you will be moving to Osaka?"

Priss nodded. "In about three weeks. They're setting up temporary apartments for us now, and we'll look for permanent places once we're there. And they're picking up the moving costs, too." A corner of her mouth flickered up in a partial smile. "That's one thing I definitely have those lawyers to thank for. I'd've never thought of getting the record company to pay for the move. I really owe you, Sylia."

Sylia gave a delicate, feminine snort. "You owe me nothing, Priss. You're family. Your success and happiness is repayment enough for me."

"You really mean that, don't you?" Priss slid over to lean on the workbench, and Sylia turned to follow her. "Huh."

"Why should that surprise you?" Sylia turned and picked the circuit block again, holding it in her palm and studying it. "Over the years, we four have been through trials that have welded us into a single unit, closer even than sisters."

Without thinking about it, Priss folded her hand around Sylia's. The block within was warm to the touch. "I'm glad to hear that, Sylia, because I've felt that way, too." She released her friend's hand. "Still, I repay my debts. You can count on it."

"If you insist," Sylia replied indulgently, after a moment's hesitation.

"I insist," Priss stressed, smiling. Then she cocked her head at the component-laden table. "So, what mad scientist-style trouble are you getting yourself into this time?"

Sylia raised her eyebrows at that, then snapped the magnifiers back down before allowing herself another brief smile. "I'm preparing for our next meeting with the Loon."

"And it's not diplomacy you're expecting to use, huh?" Priss picked up one of the parts closest to her and turned it over in her hands. It was shaped like a glider's wing, with an aperture at the narrow end and a hardpoint mount near the wide one. A handgrip-sized D-ring was attached to the underside of the narrow end of the "wing". The whole arrangement was coated with refractory hardsuit cerametal in a familiar shade of blue. "I recognize this..." she said. "This is one of those over-the-shoulder spike shooter things you worked up for me a couple of years ago."

"Yes," Sylia murmured as she selected a probe from a tool tray and inserted it into the circuit block. "It is."

Priss carefully laid the weapon part back down on the workbench and glanced around the dimly-lit room. "Planning on having me blow a plate-sized hole through him and his magic armor?"

Sylia didn't look up. "If we need to."

In the darkness, other benches held suggestive shadowy shapes. "You giving us all power-ups?"

"As quickly as I can, yes."

Priss thought about this for a few seconds, then nodded slightly to herself. "Cool."

* * *

16 Tokyo Day Times. Monday, February 2, 2037. 2:01 PM

"Vanette!" came the gravelly shout across the city room, and Lisa's head snapped up from where she had hunkered down behind her monitor. "Visitor for you!"

Half-standing out of her seat, Lisa craned her neck left and right, looking for the source of the yell through the bustle and traffic circulating around her. It took a few moments, but she finally spotted Lafcadio Nguyen, one of the graphic designers, waving lazily to her from his workstation almost diagonally opposite her. His salt-and-pepper ponytail swung in casual counterpoint to his hand. Next to him was...

Leon?

Trying to digest this development, she stood up completely and waved back until Leon spotted her. He nodded soberly to her and removed his trademark shades, then began the delicate process of navigating his way across the bustling room. After threading a careful path through the thronging swarm, he stood looming over her. "Vanette-san," he said formally but noncomittally.

"Inspector McNichol," she replied cautiously. She wasn't surprised to see that the obsessive-compulsive drones sitting on either side of her showed no sign at all that they'd noticed Leon.

"Is there somewhere we can speak privately?" he asked in a lower voice.

Lisa's eyebrows shot up. Then she bit her lip as she thought. "Maybe, yeah," she replied after a moment or two. She motioned to the door of the city room with her head. "Follow me." She opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out her camera, then led Leon out into the hallway that connected the city room to the rest of the 16 Times' offices.

"This your first time here?" she asked conversationally as she peered into the various rooms and offices they passed.

"Yeah," Leon grunted. "I don't normally have much use for reporters." As Lisa began to turn to him, eyebrows raised, he hastily added, "Present company excepted, of course."

"Nice save," she muttered.

"Well, you're in a happy mood," Leon said softly.

Lisa glanced over her shoulder at him and shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry. There's a rumor going around the city room about possible layoffs and it's got everyone on edge."

He nodded. "Yeah, I can understand that. No problem."

"Thanks," Lisa replied. "Ah, here we are!" Grabbing Leon by the hand, she dragged him into an unoccupied conference room. As soon as they were in, she toed the door shut and released him. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"

Leon glanced around at the prematurely-aged and peeling paint, and the decrepit table and chairs. "You're sure we're private here?"

"Private enough." Lisa resisted the urge to snap at him. "What did you want to talk to me about? It must be pretty important for you to come all the way down here." She dropped into the "boss" seat at the end of the table and watched him expectantly.

Leon frowned for a moment, then took a seat himself. Putting both elbows on the table, he clasped his hands together in front of his face. "First, Lisa, this is off the record, and not official police business. Yet. Okay?"

"Okay," she said slowly, confused.

"Okay." He nodded and leaned forward. "What happened between the Loon and the Sabers yesterday after they carried him off?"

A spike of panic shot through Lisa's chest, and she only barely kept herself from leaping out of the chair. "H... how should I know?" she stammered, eyes wide.

"Spare me the innocent act, Lisa-chan." He slid his chair closer to her. "I know who the Sabers are. All of them. I've known for years. And I know that you're working with them in some capacity. And if you weren't with them when they brought the Loon back to their base yesterday, then you've certainly talked to Nene about it."

Lisa closed her eyes and sighed. "If you know so much, why don't you ask Nene yourself? You wouldn't've had to leave ADP headquarters for that."

Another frown creased Leon's brow. "We had a bit of a... disagreement, and she's not talking to me."

"Huh." Lisa mulled that over. "She's mad at me, too. I had an argument with her last night."

Leon raised an eyebrow. "It wouldn't happen to have been over the nature of boomers, would it?"

"What? No, nothing like that." Lisa peered at him curiously. "The nature of boomers?"

He nodded. "Someone apparently called her a murderer for killing boomers, and she didn't take it well."

Lisa took a long, deep breath. In for a penny... "It was... the Loon. He only found out yesterday that boomers aren't just machines." She bit her lip. "He... got angry. He called the Sabers 'slavecatchers' and murderers."

Leon let out a low whistle. "He's not completely wrong, either."

Lisa nodded. "He was mostly angry at the fact that he'd been helping them do it, out of ignorance. He took off right after that."

"I can't say I blame him." Leon leaned back in his chair and shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather coat. "You ever have a day when you look at what you do, and you realize it all seems so wrong?"

Lisa looked at the camera in her hands. "Yeah. I've had days like that."

"I wonder what the world he comes from is like," Leon continued. "Must be a paradise."

Lisa shook her head. "No, not really. Better than ours in a lot of ways, but worse in a few."

Leon stared at her. "And how would you know that?"

She smiled mysteriously. "He let me live there for fifty years one evening."

"He what?"

"It's a long story, Leon," Lisa said with a laugh.

"Then tell it to me over dinner." The expression on his face was open and inquiring, with none of the playful leering or mock lechery that Lisa would have expected to accompany the request. She considered it for a moment.

Then she nodded. "Sure. I know this place near the University where we can talk."

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 9:12 PM

Maybe a date wasn't the best way to de-stress after yesterday after all, Linna thought sourly as she fumbled through the keys on the ring. The shadows hiding the door didn't help. I should've replaced that damned bulb weeks ago.

"Having trouble there?" The tall, masculine shape was silhouetted by the same distant streetlight that cast such dark shadows over the door. She paused for a moment to admire the sleek lines that Julian's body displayed even in his winter coat, but then shivered as a cold wind whipped between them.

"A little." She stepped back away from the door and quickly located the key she wanted. "Not much, though," she added, flashing a smile at her date. Stepping back into the shadows, she unlocked the door, and the two of them stepped inside the darkened building.

As she closed and locked the door behind them, his voice drifted to her, bolstered with echoes. "So this is what you're into. Usually the second date doesn't end in a pitch-black warehouse in the middle of the night."

"Baka," Linna murmured fondly. "I just have to find the light switch. I keep meaning to have it moved closer to the door; this wasn't the entrance the original owners used." She groped through the darkness and ran into Julian, then giggled as he grabbed and kissed her.

"Fresh!" she shrieked and slapped at him playfully. Squirming out of his grip, she slid along the wall until her fingertips found the bank of switches for which she'd been searching. Moment of truth time, girl, she thought. Now comes the test. Will he understand or not? If he didn't, there wouldn't be a point in seeing him any more. Linna hoped he would understand; she liked Julian.

"Okay, get ready," she called out, and flipped the switches.

It always seemed somehow anticlimactic, how quietly the lights came on. Even after four years, she kept wanting there to be the loud, heavy "ka-chunk!" noises of huge breakers being thrown. Instead, there was simply the faint hum of the fluorescent lights. "Tada!"

Blinking as his eyes adjusted to change in illumination, Julian took in the sight before him with a delighted smile. "Holy... are these all yours?" His blond ponytail whipped from side to side in response to the swiveling of his head.

Nodding, Linna returned the smile. "These are my babies." Not bad for someone who only had a clunker econobox five years ago, eh?

Before them stood Linna's pride and joy -- her collection of automobiles. She smiled as her eyes caressed their familiar lines, from the antique creation of chrome and cedar and brass at one end, to the sleek modern shapes at the other. It was a small collection, she'd be the first to admit. Six working automobiles and one... one other. Even at her "official" level of wealth, which was considerable, she'd be hard-pressed to afford this much garage space even here on the outskirts of MegaTokyo. Any larger and the collection would raise uncomfortable questions about the real size of her income... and draw unwelcome attention that might reveal the hidden equipment stockpile Sylia maintained in the building's secret subbasement.

Julian was not quite dashing from car to car, an almost childlike wonder on his face. "They're gorgeous," he murmured as his fingers hovered above the Delorean's door handle, as if he worried his touch would pop the stainless steel like a soap bubble.

Linna chuckled. "Go ahead, you can sit in her."

Julian grinned broadly and hesitated no longer; a yank and the gull-wing opened upward. He slid in. "Oh, right," came his muffled voice from within the car. "American."

Linna laughed and bent down to look in at him. "Enjoying yourself?" So far, so good, she thought. Just like most of the others, too... she warned herself.

"Hell, yeah!" Julian ran his hands over the dashboard and breathed deeply, then forced himself to step out of the vehicle. "Is that what I think it is?" he whispered, gazing at the chrome and cedar form near the far end of the row, next to a gleaming black Corvette Stingray.

Linna nodded as they walked slowly, almost reverently, over to the vehicle. "They only made four of them, and this is the last surviving roadworthy one. I bought it from the estate of an Englishman who used to hire it out for charity events. He'd helped maintain and drive it during the filming, and acquired it a few years later. And yes," she added as Julian opened his mouth, "the wings really do extend. And no, she doesn't fly."

Her date nodded slowly. "It was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid."

She smiled broadly. "Mine, too. Now I get to drive her. Occasionally," she added after a moment's reflection.

"Does it... you know, make the noises?"

Linna chuckled. "No... Unfortunately, that was movie magic, too. She's a lot deeper in the throat in real life; there's a Ford V6 under that hood. She needs it, too -- she weighs almost 2 tonnes."

"Sugoi," Julian whispered. Then his eyes fell on the last vehicle in the row. Unlike the others, it was far from mint condition: a large black rear-engine sports car, so heavily modified that most of its original beauty was gone, hidden by skin that looked almost like armor. It was up on blocks, its rims bare and damaged; the body was crumpled and scorched. "That looks almost like it might have been a classic Griffin once," Julian opined, "but someone's butchered it horribly."

"Uh-huh," Linna murmured, preoccupied by avoiding old, bad memories.

"Are you getting it restored?"

She shook her head. "No. I'm leaving it like it is."

Julian frowned. "Why?"

Linna stepped in close to the crushed and burnt vehicle. She reached forth a tentative hand and laid it on the rippled metal of a fender. "It's... a trophy, I guess you'd call it." She pursed her lips for a moment. "Yes. A trophy." She didn't miss a disgusted expression flit across his face, and suppressed a sigh.

He doesn't know its history, of course, Linna reminded herself. The history and the emotion. Even with the interface web and cybercore yanked out long ago, it still feels menacing to me. There's a burning hate there, still lurking in that dead hunk of metal, and I'm not going to be the one to bring it back to life. She turned her back on the Griffin, returned her attention to the car with a far happier history, and shook her head.

And she's ... joyful. Almost reverently, Linna caressed the cedar boat deck that encompassed the car's leather seats. Her fingers slid soundlessly over the gleaming varnish. A little regretful that she's not getting out as often as she used to, but happy to be loved and cared for still.

She snorted at herself. There I go again, anthropomorphizing them. What's it called again? Right. "The pathetic fallacy." Then a chill ran through her, as Sangnoir's accusing words from the day before echoed again in her mind. But it's not a fallacy with boomers, is it? Staring blankly across the rich red wood before her, Linna chewed anxiously on her lower lip.

If I can believe, really believe, that a car can hate or be happy, can be a "person", then how can I not believe any less of a boomer? she thought. But to make that leap is frightening. There's something atavistic about the fear, some dread of that which is almost but not quite human. Absently she retrieved a chamois from the back seat of the car and began to polish its brasswork. It was and is easy to think of Sylvie and Anri as people, even after we knew they were sexaroids. Was it because they were so close to human that they were no longer frightening? It's a strange, fuzzy line we draw.

"Linna? Oi, Linna!"

Linna started, surprised by Julian's firm grip on her shoulder. "Huh? Oh, I'm sorry, Julian, what was that?"

Her date studied her closely. "You were completely spaced out over that car, Linna." He peered into her eyes. "You okay?"

She grinned and playfully flapped the chamois in his face, forcing him to jump back. "I'm fine, Julian, just thinking about... things, that's all." She tossed the sheet of soft leather into the back seat again. "So, you were saying?"

Julian caught his reflection in the gleaming black finish of the nearby Corvette, and preened for a moment. "I was just wondering what you're doing with a guy's hobby."

Linna felt the familiar sinking feeling in her gut. "A guy's hobby," she replied flatly.

He smoothed his hair, then smiled back over his shoulder at her. "Yeah, sure." He straightened up. "You're not the type of woman that I'd associate with keeping and fixing up a car collection like this."

Oh, well, Linna despaired. I'd half-expected that he was too good to believe. "And what type is that?" she asked, an anticipatory chill creeping into her voice.

Julian didn't notice the change in her tone in time.

* * *

Is every available guy in MegaTokyo secretly a sexist jerk? Linna fumed silently, bending over to almost touch her nose to the leg she held raised, straight and firm, to the barre. The mirrored wall reflected the motion without comment or criticism. She held her breath for a ten-count, then released it slowly, trying for the hundredth time in the last hour to let her irritation and anger escape her body with the exhaled air.

It still didn't work.

"Damn."

Linna straightened and turned around, keeping her rolling foot upon the barre, until she stood with her left leg stretched out almost horizontal behind her. Slowly she bent over to lay her palms flat against the gleaming, varnished wood of the floor. It was comfortably warm to the touch, which didn't surprise her -- she'd paid more than enough money to have radiant heating installed when she'd bought the place and turned this room into her combination salle/studio two years ago.

Her left leg rose from the barre, followed by her right, as Linna gracefully lifted into a handstand. She held herself there for a few moments, her back arched and her feet overhanging her head by 10 or 15 centimeters, before drawing a deep breath. Then she flexed her arms and launched herself into back flip.

The flip turned into two, then three, as she hurtled toward the far wall. She'd never make a fourth, but she kept going, springing once more from her hands and drawing up her legs in a manner that would have thrown her into an uncontrolled, possibly dangerous, tumble on flat ground -- but which instead set her up perfectly to land on the wall, her feet flat against the smooth, unadorned wood.

She seemed to hang there for a moment before launching herself horizontally and falling into a rapid series of forward rolls back towards the wall and barre where she had started. Before she could collide with the mirror, though, she redirected her momentum with an almost feline twist of her torso; instead of another roll, she popped upright, sliding into a combination kick-double punch targeted at her reflection. Then she froze.

She held the final stance for a moment, serious gaze meeting serious gaze through the barrier of silvered glass. In her mind's eye, it wasn't herself that she faced, but a pony-tailed figure with broad shoulders, a too-easy smile, and attitudes out of 18th-century Nihon. Then she grinned, bowed to her reflection, and ritually clapped once.

So much for Julian, she thought, and raised her hand to waggle her fingers through an excessively-kawaii "bai-bai" wave. And with a move stolen from the Loon, to boot, yet! Linna nodded in satisfaction as she turned from the mirror. That proves you don't have to be superhuman to do some of what he does. A muscle twinged in her side and she grimaced. Just willing to push yourself to mind-bogglingly stupid extremes.

Rubbing her back just above her right hip to soothe the insistent ache, Linna picked up her towel from where she'd slung it over the barre. She draped it around her neck and padded out of the studio towards the bath. A nice long soak sounds good right now.

On her way to the furo, though, she found herself pausing at the sliding doors to her patio. While not as large or as high above the city as Sylia's place, Linna's home was still a penthouse, too, and as such commanded a striking view of MegaTokyo. She found herself staring out through the chill glass at a skyline that was mostly obscured by the reflection of her den.

Is the Loon right? she mused, shifting her focus between her reflection and the city lights leaking through it. Would I be as prejudiced in my way as Julian is in his if I were to insist that most boomers are just machines? Her gut told her that if she didn't know the answer to that question now, she would soon. There was no "just machine" about most of the boomers I've run into. "Just machines" can't be cruel and can't love, and I've seen boomers do both. The question is... were they exceptional? Or average?

The Sabers by definition rarely encountered an "ordinary" boomer. It was remotely possible that they were what the Loon had accused them of being -- an execution squad for boomer lunatics and escapees from slavery. Linna frowned at the thought, a thought which had forced its way to the front of her mind too many times over the last 24 hours. She shook her head and watched as her faintly-limned counterpart in the glass imitated her. Perhaps... perhaps until I know for sure, I should err on the side of caution.

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 9:30 PM

"...and I'm still finding little bits of information about his home world drifting up out of my subconscious at the oddest moments!" Lisa grimaced and then slid the last bit of her pita into her mouth.

The door to Eriko's clattered open again, and just as he had done every other time since they'd arrived, Leon automatically glanced up over Lisa's head to survey the customer or customers entering or leaving. Unlike the other times, though, he paled and shrunk down into his seat a little. "Uh-oh," he muttered.

Lisa halted in mid-sentence. "What?" she asked, and gaped at him. The skin between her shoulder blades began to itch and she suppressed a desperate urge to turn around. Then a hand fell on her shoulder and she almost yelped in surprise.

"Oi, Lisa," Priss said calmly. "Tired of me already, Leon?" The tone of her voice was dangerous, but Lisa looked up to see the singer surreptitiously wink at her.

"It's business, Priss," Leon declared as he sat up straight once more. Lisa almost giggled at what looked like the beginnings of a typical Leon-Priss game of pseudo-macho oneupmanship, but she resisted the impulse when she realized that there was something new and different in the emotional undercurrents between the two.

When Priss' hand squeezed her shoulder lightly, she looked up at the singer. "Beat it, kid," Priss murmured, but it sounded more like a request than an order. Lisa glanced from Priss to Leon and estimated the tension between the pair.

"Sure," she said with a brief nod, and Priss squeezed her shoulder again. Gathering up her camera, coat and gloves, she slid out of the booth. Priss stepped aside to let her pass, but Lisa caught the older woman by the arm and pulled her close. "Don't you dare break his heart!" she hissed into Priss' ear, only to be answered by rolling eyes. "I mean it!" she added as she pulled on her coat. "Leon, remember to tell me what I owe you for dinner when I see you next, okay?"

"Sure, Lisa," he grunted, still watching Priss carefully.

Still concerned, Lisa bowed formally to the pair. "Good evening to you both," she offered, then turned and made her way out of the diner.

* * *

Leon and Priss silently watched Lisa exit to the street before turning their attention back to each other.

"Priss, I..." Leon began, almost apologetically.

"Oh, can it, Leon," Priss interjected, one corner of her mouth twitching as if eager to leap into a smile. "I know you weren't doing anything vaguely romantic with Lisa." Leon let out a breath, and the momentary flash of palpable relief on his face was enough to shatter Priss's mask. She grinned broadly at him. "I'm flattered that you were worried about what I might think, though."

"It's just that..." he began again, but Priss reached over the table and lay her still-gloved fingers across his lips.

"No," she said. "You don't have to say anything."

She drew back her hand slowly. "But..." he managed to get out before her fingers returned.

"I said, 'no.'" She gave him a feral smile. "Understand?"

"Ye..." The fingers were back before he finished the word.

"I see I'm going to have to get remedial on your ass, loverboy. Shut. Up. Nod if you've got it now."

Leon nodded once, the movement of his head carrying her fingertips up and down with it.

She drew her hand back slowly, the look in her eye daring him to say something more. He didn't. "Good." She pulled her gloves off and stuffed them in the pockets of her jacket as he watched her silently, all the time holding his eyes with hers. "Now, I have something to tell you."

Priss almost chuckled at the look in Leon's eyes, but caught herself in time. "Leon," she said, taking his hands, "I'm moving to Osaka."

He stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending. "What?"

"I... we, the Replicants, we finally got that recording contract we've been working for. Sony-Virgin. But the only studios they've got available are in Osaka."

Leon looked completely and utterly poleaxed, and suddenly Priss found nothing funny about it any more. "Osaka?" he repeated.

She nodded. "I know how hard it is to keep up a long-distance relationship, so if you want to..." Her voice caught in her throat unexpectedly; somehow it was much harder to say than she'd thought it'd be. "If you want to..."

"Break up?" he rumbled, and she nodded again, curtly. "Hell, no!"

Priss felt the release of a pressure in her chest that she hadn't even noticed before. "No?" She released his hands and folded her arms on the table before her.

"No. How long are you going to be in Osaka?"

"At least a year." Priss frowned. "Maybe two."

Leon nodded, more to himself than to her. "Well, I've got a friend on Osaka's SWAT team who tells me that they can always use another good field officer. He's been trying to get me to hire on with him for years."

Priss lost control of her expression and gaped openly. "You're kidding! What about your seniority? Your pension?"

Leon snorted. "What pension? If I relied on my ADP retirement benefits, I'd be living in a two-by-three rathole eating crackers during my declining years. But I've been investing almost since I joined the force, Priss. And Linna's been helping me the last couple years, so I'm doing really well. I'm not gonna be rich when I retire, but I'll be comfortable. And that doesn't depend on me keeping my job." He paused, then chuckled. "As for my seniority in the ADP... well, seniority just means I'm the one who has to deal with boomer conspiracies and superheroes from other dimensions. I don't know about you, but a guy can get tired of that."

"But..." Priss began grasping at straws. "What about Daley?"

Leon shrugged. "He'll just have to get a real boyfriend." He narrowed his eyes. "You know, I could get the impression that you don't really want me to come with you." But he grinned to let her know he wasn't entirely serious.

"No, no!" she protested. "I just ... I didn't want you to screw up your career just to follow me around."

He shook his head with a gentle smile. "I won't be screwing up my career, trust me. Besides... dammit, Priss, you know how I feel about you. I don't want to be separated from you for a year or more. I want us to be together." He suddenly looked concerned. "That is, if you want us to be together, too."

"Baka," she murmured fondly and, reaching across the table, bopped him lightly on the top of the head with the back of her hand. "Of course I want us to be together." The relieved look on his face warmed her heart.

"Well then," he said slowly, "why don't we make the arrangement a bit more formal?"

"Huh?" This can't be what it sounds like, she thought. "What d'you mean?"

He shook his head. "This isn't exactly the way I saw it happening, but, well, maybe this is the right time. Priss, we've been seeing each other in one way or another for almost five years..."

"You're not counting that first night in front of that burger place, are you?"

"Shut up, I'm trying to be romantic here." Leon recomposed his face. "We've meant something to each other for while now, even if we've had a hard time admitting exactly what that something was. I want to make it formal."

"Leon, you don't mean..."

He took a deep breath and interrupted her. "Priss, will you marry me?"

Priss stopped short and stared at him.

For a very long moment, she did not move at all, and Leon began to worry.

Then she leaned back, looked at the ceiling of the diner, and pursed her lips. After a minute or so of this, she turned her eyes back on him.

"You bet your ass, Leon."

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 10:39 PM

A phone rings, is answered. "Moshi-moshi?"

"Lisa, it's Nene."

Cautiously, "Hi."

"Are you going to tell Sylia?"

A pause. "There's nothing I need to tell her, Nene."

A sigh. "Then I will. Good night, Lisa."

"Good night, Nene."

"I... I'm really sorry about this, Lisa."

Dryly, "I'm sure you are."

Another sigh. "G'night."

"Yes. Good night."

Click.

* * *

Monday, February 2, 2037. 11:51 PM

Based on recommendations from my Tapestry readings, I rented and watched several films while I holed up. One of them stays with me to this day -- a movie called Mystery Men. Very, very strange film. It was like looking at Homeline through a funhouse mirror.

Worse yet, I think I may've worked with some of those guys...

Anyway, when I wasn't watching old movies, I was brooding. The topic was what to do about the boomers. As you can probably imagine, I was less than happy with the Three, now that I knew the mission they'd set me on. I mean, it was one thing to try and liberate humans. But boomers... I mean, I couldn't just defend them from the Knight Sabers and the ADP and then let them go free. With what little I'd managed to read over the months, it was clear that they had both software and hardware blocks controlling their behavior. Even assuming I could calm a rogue boomer down and spirit it away to some sanctuary, it'd still be enslaved. I needed to find a way to shatter those blocks permanently without harming the boomer.

That meant I needed more information on boomer brain design than I could get from the public dataweaves. And that meant a serious hacking run, at the very least. From a public terminal. Not a good thing.

I had begun to regret jumping ship from Ganbare. I really could have made use of the company's technical resources about then. I wondered for a while if I'd over-reacted on that front, but decided that I hadn't. Not with the redoubtable Inspector Wong and his sidekick Shadesman literally on my doorstep. Not to mention that McNichol character who was seriously jonesing for my incarceration. No. My freedom was not a fair trade for the information that I needed. Not when the freedom of thousands, no, millions rested on my slumping shoulders.

And there was one other thing to do. In a couple of days, after I finished recovering from my encounter with the Three, I would have to pay a call on IDEC.

* * *

Tuesday, February 3, 2037. 12:11 PM

"Whose budget is lunch coming out of today?" Hiroe asked as she opened the menu and studied the choices.

"Mine," replied Illya. "Four work days it is since last a lunch I covered, so only fair it is."

Tony sniffed. "It certainly is. I paid for last Friday and yesterday." He rattled his menu indignantly.

"Oh, suck it up, Tony," Hiroe muttered. "If you're so upset, I'll take tomorrow and this coming Friday, and Illya can cover Thursday." She nodded at her blond coworker.

"Sure, is okay with me," the big man responded affably. The menu lay at his elbow, unopened. "Now, Hiroe, about your email..."

"Right," Tony jumped in. "You can't be serious, can you?"

She shrugged. "Why not? Twice the Sailor Senshi were able to defeat a planetary government or its equivalent -- the Dark Kingdom and the Black Moon. And that was before they became a de facto government themselves. And if our visiting senshi comes from the era of Crystal Tokyo, there is not only the entire corps of the Sailor Senshi -- Inners, Outers, Sailor Stars and god knows what else the anime doesn't mention -- but the combined armed forces of Crystal Tokyo, to boot."

"Yes, yes," Tony replied impatiently. "If GENOM goes after her, it'll be biting off far more than it can chew. That's still assuming she's the real deal. I still don't fully buy that, mind you."

Illya leaned forward, propped his chin in his ham-sized hands, and gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling. "She has by now been rescued, I would think. Weeks it has been since she appeared. If here she still were, more of her should we have seen."

"Oh, I hope not." Hiroe was surprised at the plaintive tone in her voice.

Tony shook his head in disgust. "I simply cannot believe you seriously think we should try to emigrate to Crystal Tokyo and ask for asylum."

"Well, between Daniel's increasingly erratic behavior on the one side and the tender mercies of GENOM on the other, do you have a better idea how to survive jumping ship from IDEC?" Hiroe snapped her mouth shut and studied her menu further.

* * *

Tuesday, February 3, 2037. 6:35 PM

As Nene stepped through the doors of the Silky Doll, she frowned at her watch. She'd been saddled with some last-minute overtime, forcing her to stay at work an hour longer than she'd planned. That had been an hour longer than was good for her peace of mind.

When she saw that Sylia wasn't manning the register, Nene knew where she'd find the older woman. After a round of token browsing to allay possible suspicion, the redhead slipped out of the store and made her way to the back entrance of Ladys633, and from there to the private elevator. As Nene had expected, Sylia was in the shop at the far end of the sub-basement.

As always, a melange of odors assaulted her nose as she entered the shop -- oils, metals, smoke, and sweat, all blending and combining over the years into a distinctive scent that would always mean "Knight Sabers" to her. For once the room was brightly lit, revealing a half-dozen projects in various stages of completion on as many tables and workbenches. To one side, Nene idly noted a mockup of Priss' current hardsuit bearing the wing-shaped heavy-duty railguns which had come in so handy some years earlier, and which had not been used since. On the nearer of the two guns, an access panel hung loosely open on a single screw, revealing the wire-wrapped linear accelerator within. A pair of color-coded cables dribbled out of the opening; the brightly-hued plastic and metal connectors at their ends looked empty and incomplete.

On another table nearby, another mockup -- this one of Linna's suit -- lay prone. Articulated panels shaped almost like butterfly wings spread open from its front, revealing a set of lenses not unlike those of a boomer's heat cannon.

It took Nene a moment to tear her eyes away from the two hardsuit facsimiles and their modifications to spy Sylia hunched over the largest workbench in the room. It appeared that she was working on something that might have resembled a large model airplane, had it had anything like a fuselage between its two broad wings. Instead, there were a turbofan engine and several boxy modules of unexplained provenance.

As Nene stepped closer, entranced by the creation on the bench, she realized that Sylia was not hunched over it hard at work, as she had thought. Instead, Sylia's arms were folded atop the engine, pillowing her head. Her breathing was slow and regular, Nene noted with some relief after a spike of irrational fear shot through her. She gently nudged the sleeping woman's shoulder.

"Sylia?" she called softly. "Sylia, wake up."

An aggrieved mumble was the only response. Nene shoved more firmly. "Sylia?" she repeated, louder this time.

"G'way, Henners'n," Sylia murmured in a little girl's tones. "Don' wan' go t'school, gotta buil' mecha..."

Nene blinked.

Then she scowled. She grabbed Sylia's shoulder and shook her roughly. "Sylia! Wake up!"

Nene wasn't sure whether it was the shove or the shout that did it, but Sylia started and sat bolt upright, blinking and confused. "Nene?" she asked after a moment. "What... How did you... Oh. I fell asleep."

Nene nodded vigorously, suppressing a shudder at how haggard she looked. "Like a rock." A beat, then, "Who's Hennerson? You said his name when I tried to wake you up."

Sylia's eyebrows shot up almost into her hairline. "That's 'Henderson'," she corrected sharply. "My family's butler for many years. He raised Mackie and myself after..." She trailed off without finishing the sentence, and Nene nodded.

"What's wrong, Sylia?" she asked, changing the subject rapidly to escape an apparent sensitive spot. "I know you're not a morning person, but this is ridiculous."

"I have been..." Sylia paused to yawn. "I have been hard at work preparing for our next encounter with the Loon. We will be more than ready to face that... that... creature!" she spat.

Nene's eyes grew wide at Sylia's uncharacteristic vehemence. "Riiight. You know, Sylia, you can work yourself too hard. Why don't you call it an evening and get in a few extra hours of sleep? You're only human, after all." She laid her hand gently on her friend's shoulder. "Just how long have you been working down here, anyway?"

"Since Sunday night," Sylia replied sharply, and brushed Nene's hand from her shoulder.

"Continuously?"

"Yes, Nene, continuously," Sylia growled. "I've pushed myself as hard and even harder before. I don't need you to nursemaid me." She turned to fix the younger woman with an annoyed and irritated expression that was completely out of Nene's experience with her. "Would I be correct in assuming that there was a reason for your visit other than interfering in my development schedule?"

Nene stared at her in shock for a moment before remembering why she had come. "Oh, right. I found where the Loon, I mean, Colonel Sangnoir lives. Or lived, rather. I think he's gone to ground, because... well, he's not living there now."

"Good, good," Sylia said, nodding absently as she ran a finger along the dull grey cerametal wing on the table before her. "Even if he has abandoned his home, we can learn a lot there." She gave the redhead a dark, approving look. "Excellent work, Nene. Excellent. Your ADP experience is finally bearing fruit, I see."

Nene ignored that cryptic comment and took a deep breath. "There's something else, Sylia."

Sylia raised an eyebrow. "There is?"

Nene nodded. "Sangnoir was living in the apartment across the hall from Lisa."

The eyebrow went higher. "Indeed?"

Closing her eyes for a moment, Nene tried to make her peace with what she was about to do. I'm really sorry, Lisa, but I have to. "Yeah. And I think she's known all along who he was. From the very beginning, maybe."

A familiar, faint smile appeared on Sylia's lips. "Very good. Very, very good."

"Huh?" Nene wanted to wring her hands, but forced herself to slide them into the pockets of her skirt. "Um, so what are you going to do about Lisa?"

The smile stayed there on the older woman's lips, which unnerved Nene. "Nothing at all, Nene."

"Why not?" Nene's hands grabbed and twisted the fabric of her skirt pockets.

"It would be a poor way to reward her for finally and conclusively proving her loyalty to the Sabers." Sylia turned her attention back to the collection of components on the table in front of her, picking up a logic probe and considering it carefully.

Behind Sylia's back, Nene worked her mouth soundlessly for several seconds before leaning forward to peer at the other woman. "I beg your pardon?"

Sylia sighed and laid the probe back down on the bench top. Then she turned back to face the younger woman. "If she had informed me that her neighbor was the Loon, I would have been obliged to take certain... steps against Lisa."

Nene's eyes grew wide. "What? Sylia, you can't mean that!"

Sylia shook her head firmly. "I mean exactly that. If she couldn't be trusted to keep her knowledge about Colonel Sangnoir a secret, then she couldn't be trusted to keep what she knows about us a secret, either."

"But... but that's not the same, Sylia!"

"If she would betray him, she could betray us. It's that simple." Sylia looked at Nene sharply. "I'd hoped you'd grown out of these childish beliefs by now. You disappoint me."

Nene stared back, something in her heart slowly breaking.

* * *

Hot Legs. Tuesday, February 3, 2037. 10:03 PM

"Great set, guys." Priss slapped shoulders left and right as she slipped backstage with the other Replicants. Behind them, the crowd howled approval even as the club DJ brought his custom soundrom mix back on-line.

"Yeah," grunted Roy as he unslung his guitar. "If we'se not countin' th' assholes in th' audience who thinks we'se traitors fer signing a contract an' movin' out o' the city."

"Let'em think what they want, baby," Estelle crooned, "we're headed for the top!"

Priss laughed her agreement and held up a hand for Estelle to high-five. Despite the narrow confines of the backstage hall, they slapped their hands together and cheered. It was hard not to be jubilant, even if the hardcore snobs had decided that the Reps had sold out. Ah, Estelle's right. Fuck'em, Priss sneered to herself.

Then she spotted a pale and forlorn-looking Nene, still in her wrinkled ADP uniform, standing next to the dressing room door. She turned back to her band mates. "Guys, I've got some business to take care of, but I'll be back in time for the next set."

* * *

The coffee house was a block away from Hot Legs and, like the club, nestled in the basement of an otherwise industrial building. Although little announced its presence to the world, it still received generous custom, both from club-goers on their way to or from Hot Legs, and from those turned away by the club's bouncers.

Still, a Tuesday night was far from busy, even with the Replicants playing down the street, and Priss and Nene were able to slide into a dimly-lit booth well in the back of the establishment, and just far enough from other customers to avoid being overheard. After placing their orders, Nene then quickly sketched out the basics of her earlier encounter with Sylia.

"I don't understand it," she moaned upon completing the summary. "What does she want from me?" The waitress had returned with their order several paragraphs earlier, and now Nene looked down at her hot chocolate and slowly rotated the cup on the table with one finger hooked through the handle.

Priss slowly sipped her Irish coffee. A flick of the tongue before she lowered the mug removed a telltale whipped cream mustache that would not only have been undignified, but might set Nene giggling and derailed the conversation. She placed the mug down on the synthewood table top. "Nene, you're a cop," she began carefully, "for... How long has it been, now?"

"Six, seven years." She shrugged. "Why?"

"You've never been a beat cop."

"Of course not! Don't be silly. I'm a tech."

Priss picked up her mug and took another sip, relishing the bite of the whiskey. "But you talk with the ones who go out on patrols. I know you talk to Leon a lot."

"Yeah," Nene allowed. "I do."

Priss stared at the melting glob of whipped cream under her nose. "Now, this probably doesn't apply to ADP as much as it does to the N-Police, but... Do you know what they say about snitches?"

Nene nodded, a blank look on her face. "Uh-huh -- 'No one trusts a snitch, not even the people who pay him.'" Her eyes snapped wide for a moment, and then she glared at Priss. "I'm not a snitch!"

"Didn't say you were." Priss took another, long sip. "But that's what you wanted Lisa to be."

"Nuh-uh! I wanted her to tell us something she should have!"

Priss shook her head. "Nope. If she'd told us, she'd've been a snitch. And no one -- not the people they tell on, and not the people they tell -- likes snitches. Because you can't trust'em. Don't matter why they say they're doin' it -- high moral principles or a way to make a fast yen. If they did it once, they'll do it twice, and you never know when you're going to be the one they tell on next."

"But we're..." Nene snapped her mouth shut, and Priss smiled ferally.

"I know who we are, Nene. We're the good guys, right? Well, to someone like Mister Gai Salariman over there," she gestured randomly over her shoulder with a thumb, "we're a band of dangerous cut-throats, a street gang with military weapons. To GENOM we're saboteurs, and maybe industrial spies. To the ADP, we've been allies, kind of, but now they're not sure about us any more."

"Whose side are you on, anyway?" Nene blurted indignantly.

Priss fixed her with a sharp look, and the redhead wilted. "I'm on our side. But we aren't automatically the 'good guys' to everyone. 'Colonel S' sure as hell doesn't trust us, at least not after Sunday night." Priss found herself slipping into a growl and stopped it. "Look. If Lisa knew him, she'd have to be a piss-poor friend to tell someone he didn't trust about him. And what kind of friend would that make her? Would you want to hang around with her if you never knew whether or not she'd sell you out to GENOM?"

Nene was staring at her hot chocolate again, her hands clasped around the mug. "No," she whispered.

"When I ran with my gang," Priss continued, "before... before 'us', all we had was trust. Anyone we couldn't trust was..." She coughed. "They were, um, kicked out of the gang."

Nene rolled her eyes. "I'm not a kid, Priss, and I've seen your juvie record. And your gang's. A couple of guys who ratted on you turned up dead." A shudder ran through her body, belying the attempt at the practiced sang-froid of an experienced officer.

"Yeah," Priss said quietly. "Yeah." She swirled her Irish coffee and watched the last of the whipped cream turn into pale spirals against the now-mocha liquid. "Tell me, Nene, is Sangnoir a good guy or a bad guy?"

Nene opened her mouth, then thought about it. "Ummm..."

Priss nodded. "Right. 'Ummm.' Look, Nene, I know I'm not the best person to be telling you this. But you're like the little sister I never had and..." She broke off, and chuckled throatily. "Damn, it seems like I've been saying things like that to everybody but Leon these days." At the sight of Nene's raised eyebrows, Priss laughed out loud, then reached out to tap the tip of the redhead's nose with her fingertip. Green eyes crossed for a moment. "You're a good kid, Nene, a sweet kid. And despite what you might think, you haven't lost your innocence, not entirely. No matter what I've said or might say any other time, I like you like that." She drew back her hand. "But you gotta learn, the world doesn't run on absolutes. Everyone's a good guy in their own heads. Us, ADP, Sangnoir. The gang I used to run with and the gangs we fought. Even Quincy and Largo, damn them. We're all doing what we think is the only right thing to do. No one gets up one morning and says, 'I think I'll be a bad guy today'."

"Like heck they don't," Nene muttered.

"I'm serious, Nene. When you understand that every crook and creep and asshole knows he's the hero in the story of his life, when you really accept deep inside that it's possible for other people to be completely and one hundred percent convinced that they're acting right and moral and still do things that'll make you puke, then you'll understand why Lisa acts like Lisa, and why Sylia said what she did." Priss raised the mug and slurped down the last of her coffee.

Nene sat back and slumped in her seat, an imminent pout threatening to burst onto her face. But her eyes were thoughtful. Resentful, full of hurt, maybe even a bit despairing... but thoughtful. "When did you get to be such a philosopher, Priss?" she asked softly.

Priss stared into her friend's... no, her sister's pained eyes and sighed. "I'm an artist. It comes with the turf." She reached across the table and took Nene's hand. "Come on. I've got another set to play, and I want you there."

Slowly, hesitantly, Nene smiled and squeezed Priss' hand.

As the two of them stood and made their way to the door, Priss gave her companion a mischievous sidelong glance. "By the way, Nene, have you ever wanted to be a bridesmaid?"

"Nani?"

* * *

Tuesday, February 3, 2037. 10:39 PM

A phone rings, is answered. "Moshi-moshi?"

"Good evening, Fargo."

"Good evening, Sylia. What can I do for you this fine night?"

"I have a job for some of your specialists."

* * *

Wednesday, February 4, 2037. 9:47 AM

It was easy enough to learn where IDEC's offices were. They were listed in the MegaTokyo Tapestry (excuse me, "Net") directory and on the Yellow Pages, after all. It didn't surprise me at all that they were physically in the Cone, and getting the suite number was trivially easy.

The hard part was actually getting in.

It may come as a shock, but GENOM wasn't popular. Like most of the Western nations during the previous century, it was seen as predatory and imperialistic, and there were certain peoples who preferred not to be absorbed into the GENOM way of life. Such peoples tended to object strenuously, in a traditional and time-honored fashion: terrorism. As a result, GENOM's lobbies the world over were somewhat less inviting than the usual corporate ground floor.

In particular, the home Cone was especially secure. No solitary rent-a-cop behind a desk here, nosiree. Instead, we had the Berlin Wall as interpreted via modern art.

Let's start at the "street front". First off, it was several stories up, reachable only by the private spiral road that wound around the outside of the Cone. A broad, deep staircase of pale stone a dozen meters deep and at least three high separated the front door from the road and the commuter drop-offs; its risers were just high and deep enough to to break the stride of anyone trying to charge up to the entrance at a speed faster than a brisk walk. The entrance itself sat back another three or four meters from the top of the stairs, inset into the building proper. Its "plate glass" windows and doors were actually made from aluminum oxynitride sheets thicker than any I'd ever seen before. Broad slots and rails along and around them pointed to some variety of blast shutters. The entry looked like a typical commercial building's weather "airlock", except it was obvious that this one locked rather more securely than the norm -- the first defensive choke point.

And it didn't stop there. A low, broad wall, richly golden/brass in color, spanned the room from one side to the other, and the only ways through it were several narrow, stylized gates that I surmised doubled as both employee verification and weapons sensors -- the second defensive choke point. These were manned by an over-large staff of beefy, broad-shouldered men and elegant, too-beautiful women, all wearing subdued but stylish "GENOM Security" uniforms. They all moved too smoothly to be human, and had artificial smiles and a cold deadness in their eyes. I didn't need to use a song and scan them to paste a mental "boomer" label on the forehead of each one.

Behind that low wall was an unobstructed walk to bank upon bank of elevators. But in front of it... You couldn't navigate a straight line through the front lobby for all the "artwork" in it. There were a large number of rather bland, unremarkable stone and concrete sculptures that I was certain were actually intended as barricades. Scattered among them were floor-to-ceiling aluminum oxynitride slabs, etched and decorated with the corporate emblem and assorted product logos. The slabs were staggered front-to-back, but stretched in an unbroken line from left to right across the floor. It only took me a moment to realize that they were a very cleverly deployed barrier in their own right. They wouldn't stop something like an explosion, but someone running in the door and spraying the lobby with gunfire wouldn't hit much at all. And they'd force any kind of invaders to go through several narrow, easily targeted avenues before they could reach the middle of the room. It made for a third defensive choke point.

Overhead, among the huge crystal chandelier and all the hanging lights, were many small but obvious fire sprinklers. At least twice as many as the local building code required, in fact. Ten to one at least half of them were fakes, rigged to spray a variety of chemical agents ranging from incapacitating to lethal, depending on the situation.

It's what I'd've done.

At this point, I think pointing out all the surveillance cameras and hidden weapons turrets in the lobby would be redundant. But trust me, they were there in abundance. Plus the strategically-placed mirrors lining the side walls -- in just the right places to bounce lasers around and through the barricades in a complementary webwork that would turn the entire lobby into a deathtrap.

It was an incredible, if subtle, display of an overweening siege mentality on the part of the megacorp. As the Warriors' security specialist, I found myself admiring the full-bore gonzo paranoia of their architect. Not to mention their interior decorator. It also made me wonder if the White Knight's crusade were actually having some real effect on GENOM's corporate culture after all.

Now, you may be asking yourself, how did I manage to figure all of this out?

Simple.

I took the tour.

GENOM's PR department provides an extensive and leisurely guided tour of several of the Tower's less sensitive, "public" areas. Every half hour between 10 AM and 4:30 PM, a tour group of anywhere between 15 and 30 visitors, escorted by a guide and two boomer guards, departed from a kiosk located on the left side of the lobby. I walked in on Tuesday morning, in my then-current disguise of denims, black hair and mustache, one carefully-measured minute after the day's first group departed. I bought a ticket for the next tour, and was then able to loiter in the lobby for almost half an hour without anyone deciding I was an "undesirable".

I got more out of that half hour than I got out of the tour that followed, I'll tell you that.

And what I got out of it was that there was no earthly way I could sneak into the Tower without being detected.

So I used an unearthly way.

Wednesday morning, right on the cusp of the end of rush hour. I took a bus to the Tower (it was a GENOM transit line, of course), sitting in the very back row. I was wearing my full duty uniform, but over it I had on a long winter coat that Lisa had nagged me into buying a couple of months earlier. I was still black-haired and mustachioed. And I carried my helmet in a small backpack.

I made sure to sit in the very back seat, and tried to look as hostile as possible to anyone who thought to join me there. Fortunately, I'd timed the ride right, and there were just enough other riders to keep me from standing out, but not so many that I had to share my seat.

As we pulled up to the stop on GENOM Drive right across from the main entrance, I unzipped the backpack and pulled out my helmet. When most of the other passengers got up (just incidentally hiding me from the driver's mirror), I put it on and keyed in a song code I'd looked up the night before.

"<There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution.
Have no faith in constitution;
There is no bloody revolution.>"

Then I rolled off the seat, through the side of the bus and onto the sidewalk, where a small horde of tardy or flextimed office workers rushed right through me, unseeing, as I stood in the greying slush.

"<We are spirits in the material world.
We are spirits in the material world.
We are spirits in the material world...>"

Pausing only to make sure my chin strap was securely fastened, I followed them into the mouth of the beast.

"<Our so-called leaders speak,
With words they try to jail you.
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure.>"

Non-corp is one of those metagifts that still give the metabiologists absolute fits. Mainly because when it's in use, all you can measure is the absence of measurements. No mass, no surface boundary, no air current changes, no radar trace, no sonar echo, no nothing. It's even worse (as far as they're concerned) when you're invisible, too, like I was at that moment. The scientists get very frustrated when they have to rely upon your word of honor that you're even in the lab at all and not just phoning in your side of the research...

Still, you can't deny that it has its uses. It also has its weaknesses, of course -- a force field would still stop me cold, I'm completely tactile to most other non-corporeal beings, and anyone with magesight could tell I was there, invisible or not. In fact, I'd glow like a beacon to any reasonably alert mage until I went corp again. But the odds that anyone in either category would be found in the GENOM lobby struck me as ludicrously small.

And I was right. I breezed through from doors to elevators in a straight line that ignored all the barriers in place. Oddly, one of the boomer guards almost seemed to sense me, turning and searching as I skipped merrily past him, still carrying the empty backpack. Fortunately, his sense of me remained just "almost", and he quickly gave up. But for future reference I added the incident to my mental list of "Why They're Not Just Machines".

I'm not sure why, but for a long time in the late 80s and early 90s, it seemed like almost everyone in the Warriors had some variety of non-corp. It got to the point where the Fleet Street papers were calling us the "Flow-Through Squad." These days, though, Kat and Hexe are the only full-time non-corps on the team. And they both have a trick that I really want to learn -- they can pick up objects and even fight hand-to-hand while non-corporeal. Something about selective activation/deactivation of the effect. I don't know... I can't seem to muster that kind of fine control, and honestly, I can't figure out why the solid parts of their bodies don't fall off the non-solid parts. But I'll keep working at it -- it's too cool a trick not to have.

Anyway.

I killed the song as I reached the edge of a crowd waiting for an elevator. I could "climb" upwards while non-corp (my local horizontal being entirely arbitrary), but it's slow, hard work and the song would have run out long before I reached the 17th floor. This would be a Bad Thing. If I could learn Kat and Hexe's little trick... ah, well.

Non-corp in an elevator wouldn't do for the same reason; I'd have work even harder to keep up with a fast-moving car, and if the song ended while I was interpenetrating members of a crowd, the results would be... unpretty. (One of the reasons the metabiologists are so hot to dupe non-corp was because of its weapons potential. All you'd need would be a delivery system, a non-corp system, and a large solid mass -- a big box of dirt or rocks would do nicely. Let it loose, it arrives at its target undetectably, positions itself inside some solid object or in the ground, and shuts itself off. Boom. Big boom.)

So I had to be solid and visible between the lobby and IDEC. Not safe, but necessary. So I slid in at the back of one of the waiting crowds, right against a wall, made sure I wasn't partly inside a wall or a salaryman, then yanked my helmet off at the same time as I hit the "song off" code. I popped back into the material world. I forced myself to take a slow, casual glance around me as I slid the helmet back into the backpack and zipped it up. As far as I could tell, no one in the small mob had noticed my sudden appearance.

There was a musical sting not unlike the old Microsoft "Tada!" clip, and the elevator doors opened. The crowd swarmed in, me with them. My position left me right in front of the doors when I turned around in the car. Around me, assorted voices were murmuring "Five, please," "Second floor," "Twentieth" and so on; all the buttons on the elevator's control panel were slowly lighting up. I was starting to get a bit impatient at the thought of all those stops.

There's a trick -- not a trick, really, more of an undocumented feature -- that you can use on most brands of elevators. Hit the button for the floor you want simultaneously with the "close doors" button. The car doors will shut immediately, and the car becomes an express to the floor you chose.

With a little shrug I did exactly that -- jabbing a forefinger simultaneously into "17" and "close doors". And damned if GENOM brand elevators didn't support the old trick! The doors slammed shut, again with a little "tada!" chime, and the car took off. Blessed be backwards compatibility. We shot past all the lower floors to the growing discontent of many of the car's occupants.

A minute or so later, the car began to decelerate, and a chorus of sighs and other sounds of relief went up around me. Yet another little "tada!" and the door opened up on the 17th floor. I stepped out amid grumbles of complaint and dissatisfaction.

As the door slid shut behind me, I glanced around. Pretty much a stock elevator area. To the left was a short wall with two forgettable paintings and a couch. To the right was a hallway to the rest of the floor. In front of me was a glass wall; a door was set into it (predictably), somewhat offset to the right, and "IDEC" in stylized letters had been etched over most of the left side. Through it I could see a receptionist seated a large semicircular desk and reading a magazine. A pair of large wood-toned doors loomed to the right of her.

I didn't go in right away. I spent several long, excrutiating minutes remembering in every disturbing detail the shredded corpses of those two poor kids, lying open-eyed on the gaily-colored floor of Bunko's lobby, glass fragments and their own blood pooling all around them. I opened up the grate and stoked the anger that I'd banked three nights earlier, stoked it and fed it and stoked it some more. I wanted more than anger coursing through my veins. I wanted wrath. I wanted righteous outrage at the people who'd made that happen, who'd threatened hundreds and killed two. I wanted pure fury.

I got it. With ease. And interest.

I stripped off my coat, tossed it on one of the couches, pulled my helmet from the bag, and drew it down carefully over my head.

And then, as I keyed in the code for "Lightning's Hand", I stepped through IDEC's front door.

* * *

"And that's it," Ohara concluded, folding his hands on the table top before him. "That's why we're here this morning -- in the Tower instead of tossed out on the street. I've already given her all our information, and Madigan, for her part, has not fired us." He suppressed a twitch; this had been the last thing he'd expected. So of course, the Law of Maximum Irony had to kick in... Now he had to come up with a way to keep everyone out of the office, out of the Tower, tomorrow. It was the only way they'd survive the day.

A moment of utter silence filled the room after his pronouncement.

"Let me get this straight," Hiroe finally said. "We're not chasing the Visitor any more, we're not getting merged into GENOM, and we're now acting as consultants for Madigan?"

"Yes," Ohara replied blandly.

Hiroe turned to the others. "If you ask me," she said, "I'm willing to put off our mass resignation until we see how this shakes out."

"Mass resignation?" Ohara murmured.

"Agreed. Something strange going on here is," Illya opined, frowning. "Madigan an angle has, but it is... what?" He shook his head. "Friend Daniel, I am by this baffled. Grateful my job to keep, but baffled."

"Excuse me," Ohara continued softly. "What mass resignation?"

"That makes two of us." Tony's fingertips gently massaged his closed eyes. "This is some kind of ploy by her, I agree. But damned if I can't figure out how she stands to profit by it. Or what she even gets out of it."

"What... Oh, the hell with it." Giving up on getting an explanation at the moment, Ohara simply shrugged. "What she gets," he continued, "is our data. She..."

He was cut off by a fist wreathed in seething, flowing lightning that shattered the room's wooden door, spraying charred and smoldering flinders across the table.

* * *

I turned around and pulled the door shut behind me. It had a shiny brass plate wrapped around the edge at hand-level with a lock embedded in it. Once the latch caught, I laid my hand over the whole mechanism and fused it into a solid mass with a burst of electricity. As I turned around, I flung a tiny line of power into the office's security system. It took only a moment's thought to put the various hidden cameras into a loop that repeated the last innocuous image they'd captured instead of relaying a live view to whoever or whatever monitored them. Another flicker of thought isolated the suite's fire and intruder alarms from the rest of the Cone's grid. Both tricks would last only a few minutes, but that was all I figured that I'd need. Lastly, a tiny surge burned out the junction box connecting IDEC's phones to the outside world.

I'd accomplished all this before I had gotten halfway from the door to the receptionist's desk. Not bad. I'd been concerned that I would run into something I wouldn't have been able to crack, and I'd've had to abort.

I stepped up to the desk. "May I help you?" the receptionist asked as she laid down her magazine and looked up at me. Then her eyes widened in apparent recognition.

I smiled broadly at her and nodded. "Yes. The Loon for Dr. Daniel Ohara." She worked her mouth silently for a moment as one hand fumbled under the desk. My line of control in the security system revealed a now-useless panic button there. "No, never mind, I'll just announce myself." I raised my hand and released the lightning at the double doors. As their electronic lock shorted out and they exploded inward, she shrieked and ducked behind her desk. I could feel the rapid, impotent pulses in the alarm system as she frantically hammered at the button.

I charged up into full defense mode and stepped through the doors. Not surprisingly, I found myself in a long, straight hallway. I began walking down it, sparks snapping and popping around me, occasionally grounding out into the carpet and leaving long, smoking scorches. Several heads popped out of doors on either side of the hall, gaped at me, and popped back in to the sound of vigorous slams; as I strode determinedly along I heard murmurs from behind them, and shrugged as I checked the nameplates on each. If they didn't want to bother with me, I wouldn't bother with them. They weren't my target after all.

I was at the end of the hall where it made a left-hand turn, when I found Ohara's office. Of course. I kicked the door in without preamble.

It was empty.

There was a rustle of movement behind me, and I whirled on it. I shot out a hand automatically and found myself pinning a terrified office lady to a wall by her neck. I reined in the sparks along that arm before I burned her.

She was tiny and delicate and my hand spanned her neck practically without touching her. I almost lost my focus when I saw the shrieking, fear-born madness that loomed in her eyes, but I remembered those two kids, and I held on to my purpose. But dear god, she was little more than a teenager herself...

I let my eyes start to glow, bright enough to be seen through the goggles. I knew it would blind me while I did it, but I wanted the extra intimidation factor. "Ohara," I ground out, careful to exert no pressure on her slender throat. "Where is he?"

She began to cry, and I felt like a complete heel. "Where is Ohara, please?" I repeated, more gently.

"In a meeting. The conference room," she squeaked out around her tears. "Down the hall on the right."

I released her, stepped back, and after a moment's thought, released the glow in my eyes and bowed deeply. "My deepest thanks, miss. And my apologies for frightening you." I held the bow, sparks crackling and snapping up and down my body, and heard more than saw her hesitate then return the bow with one of her own. It was brief and cursory, followed immediately by the sound her running feet along the carpeted floor. I straightened in time to see her vanish into the lobby.

I stalked down to the closed door with the plaque that read "Conference A". I ran my gloved fingertips over the sign, the sparks singeing tiny craters in the plastic. Then I drew back my arm, gathered a bolt into my fist, and struck the door.

It blowed up real good.

* * *

"Is everybody happy?" bellowed the glowing, crackling blue shape that strode through the smoke as the four of them leapt from their seats. "I know I'm awfully delighted to be here today, let me tell you. Just to be invited is a big honor... Oh, silly me, I wasn't invited. I just dropped in! <I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in...>" he suddenly sang.

The shape resolved itself into the unmistakable figure of the Visitor, wrapped in sizzling, arcing electricity. As Hiroe slid around the table to keep it between herself and him, the Visitor swiveled his head left and right to eye each one of them. Instinctively, they pressed themselves against the wall on the far side of the table.

"But enough about me," he continued. "Who's our next lucky contestant, Don Pardo?" His voice dropped half an octave as one spark-webbed hand rose to point an accusing finger. "Well, Loon, he's a multi-degreed pioneer in the field of interdimensional physics, a corporate flunky and a murderer of children! Daniel Ohara, come on down! You're the next contestant on 'Your Life Is Worth Shit'!"

* * *

I checked the timer in my HUD. A minute fifty left on the song. I'd been making good time. I cupped my right hand and let the lightning flow down into it.

"I have not murdered any children," Ohara said calmly. He didn't cower. He stood straight, his posture saying nothing of either bravado or fear, and much about accepting that which is.

I wanted him to cower, dammit.

His employees didn't cower, either. Oh, they were afraid -- they'd've had to have been fools or insane not to be -- but they didn't cower. The huge blond mountain of a man looked like he was memorizing me from head to toe. The fat one with a ponytail never let his eyes rest on anything for more than a moment; he was looking at me, the walls, the fragments of the door, everything, taking it all in, adding it all up. And the woman glared at me icily, her expression promising pain and retribution.

Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, Ohara's eyes raked across me, paused on the seething ball of electrons in my hand, then moved on, evaluating, studying, sifting. Weighing me dispassionately. He was being a scientist to the last.

"Two children died in the little trap you set for me on Sunday," I said softly. The lightning I held in my grasp surged and crackled, and ran little trailers up and down my arm in its eagerness to find release. "Two innocents died in a hail of gunfire from one of your boomers, killed by you as surely as by your own hand."

"Two..." Ohara whispered, swallowed, then tried again as uncertainty finally flickered in his eyes. "Two children died? There was nothing in the news..."

I nodded. "I knelt by their shredded bodies, my boots and my knees soaked in their blood." I clenched my hand into a fist, the lightning arrested there hissing in protest as it was squeezed out to play across my gloved knuckles and around my wrist. "Your fault, Ohara. Your crime." I glanced at the display. One minute ten left. "And your punishment."

Ohara stepped forward, ignoring the shrill objections of the other three. He put himself almost face-to-face with me. "My crime?" he asked softly.

"Yeah," I answered. "Your crime. Your guilt. Your responsibility."

To my surprise, he nodded thoughtfully. Then, to my utter shock, he dropped to his knees before me, and lifted his chin as though baring his throat to a blade. His eyes were closed -- simply, calmly, not clenched in the anticipation of pain. "Do it, then."

* * *

"Daniel, no!" Hiroe cried and tried to lunge forward, but a grip like iron descended upon her shoulder and held her in place. She looked up to see Illya glance at her and shake his head infinitesimally. Even as Tony grew still at her side, she turned back to the tableau that had formed.

The Visitor had frozen in place. Only the sparks that danced across his body and the writhing snake of Saint Elmo's Fire clasped in his hand moved. Too much of his face was hidden, by the helmet, by the goggles, but Hiroe wondered if that weren't an expression of shock or surprise betrayed by the sudden slackness she could see.

"Do it," Ohara repeated softly.

The raised fist twitched once in its roiling cloud of electricity, then twice. Then the blue glow guttered like a wind-blown candle and vanished.

"Dear god," the Visitor whispered in tones of shock and disgust. "What am I doing?" He backed up a step, hand still raised, and shook his head infinitesimally. "I can't. Not this way."

For a moment more he stood and stared at them as they stared back, a frozen diorama of aborted violence. Then he turned and dashed from the conference room, his passage so swift that his wake caught up and swirled the smallest of the still-smoking fragments of the door.

For a moment, Hiroe, Tony and Illya shared a look between themselves, then chased after him.

* * *

"He went poof!" Sindra said for the tenth time. She sat stock-still behind her desk in the lobby, eyes wide and slightly out of focus. One of the office ladies stood behind her and held her shoulders while murmuring reassuringly in her ear. The sharp tang of ozone still drifted faintly through the air around them.

She's in shock, Hiroe thought. And who of us isn't? "'Poof'?" she repeated aloud.

Slowly, Sindra nodded. "He kicked the doors open, grabbed a coat and a bag from the couch out by the elevators, and then he disappeared." She made a gesture with her hands that might have been a tiny explosion, or maybe a soap bubble bursting. "Poof!" She turned her glazed eyes up to meet Hiroe's gaze. "People don't go poof! Boomers don't go poof! Why did he go poof?" she asked plaintively.

"Sindra's gone bye-bye, Egon," Tony murmured behind her.

"Shut up, Tony," Hiroe snarled. "This is no time for stupid movie quotes. We were assaulted, in case you hadn't noticed. By a homicidal extradimensional. In the heart of the Tower, yet." With a surprisingly gentle touch, she brushed Sindra's ink-black bangs out of her eyes. "She's had a very traumatic experience, Tony, and your humor is simply not appropriate right now."

Before Tony could reply, Daniel's quiet voice drifted in from the elevator banks. "Now what do we have here?"

"Call a doctor," Hiroe said to the OL with her hands on Sindra's shoulders, then turned to see Daniel step back into IDEC's lobby, holding a small scrap of paper. Grains of shattered safety glass crunched beneath his feet.

"What is it, friend Daniel?" asked Illya from where he studied the security system control panel. In one hand he held a small blob of fused plastic and metal that had once been a key player in the dance of electrons therein.

Behind his glasses, a bemused expression slipped into Ohara's eyes. "It's a receipt from a video store in, hmmm, looks like it might be Ota ward. A Mr. E. J. Fudd rented several videoroms on Monday night."

"Why does that name sound familiar?" Hiroe asked as she joined him.

"You don't think..." Tony began.

Ohara slowly frowned as he slipped the scrap of paper into his breast pocket. "I believe I'll look into this myself." He turned to head back to his office, then stopped. "Wait," he added. "Two more things. One, we handle this completely in-house. Tower security is not to be 'bothered' with this matter. If they ask, we had one of our internal systems tests go a little haywire, nothing more. And two, as of right now, we're shutting down for the rest of the week. I think we could all use a little time off after today's... excitement, don't you? Anyone reporting to work before Monday will get sacked." Ohara looked slowly around the room to see almost everyone nodding. "If Madigan makes a fuss about it, I'll deal with her." There, he thought. That will get them all safely out of the way. He glanced around the lobby once more. "Carry on."

* * *

Wednesday, February 4, 2037. 5:47 PM

I couldn't do it.

I was prepared for everything but a man who would agree with me and offer himself up for death.

I expected him to justify, to rationalize, to explain it all away as necessary. I never expected to see the shock of realization in his eyes, followed by the moment of evaluation as he weighed one fact against the other, and then the final acceptance that it was, indeed, just.

Damn it all, why couldn't he have been what I expected him to be?

I was ashamed.

I had chosen to exact vengeance for two children who, yes, had died, but had had their lives returned to them. Who possibly did not even know that their lives had ever been interrupted. Who had not asked me to exact vengeance on their behalf. I had decided to play judge, jury and executioner, on my own.

But I am a soldier, not an executioner. I had forgotten that. I had been playing the vigilante too long. I had started to believe that I was justice.

Then I watched a man judge himself, and find himself guilty, because of my accusations and anger.

And I felt shame.

I thought of the damage I'd caused, and the terror in the eyes of that poor girl in the hallway, and the calm resignation on Ohara's face, and I realized that I had no righteous anger. All I had was anger, and it was aimed at the wrong person.

So I ran.

And I hid.

Only three days earlier I had told Lady White that vengeance wasn't healthy. I should have listened to my own preaching.

God, how had I come to this?

I've had two low spots in my life. The first was when Arcanum, the sadistic bastard, took my best childhood friend, warped his mind with the Servant Factor virus, then borged him into a killing machine aimed right at me -- and anyone else in my vicinity. And I had had to kill Jack, because nothing else would stop him, and because the other Warriors were all facing down their own customized assassins.

The second was when I realized I'd almost done the same thing to myself, in the name of "Justice".

* * *

I'm not sure how many hours I sat, curled into a ball between the end of the bed and the micro-kitchenette of my new apartment. I do know that the sun had gone down and the narrow slice of sky visible through my window had gone from industrial grey-blue to light-polluted black. I wasn't sure when, exactly; I'd had my face buried in the bedclothes, breathing in their musty scent, all the way through sunset. I probably would have stayed there until dawn, at least, had there not been a knock at the door. More or less on autopilot, I got up and opened it.

Daniel Ohara, Ph.D., Etc., resplendent in a black cashmere overcoat and a maroon scarf, stood in the hall, his hand raised for a new round of knocking.

We stared at each other for a while. I realized some seconds after we'd started that I'd never changed out of my duty uniform, I'd only thrown my helmet on the bed. I'm not sure which of us was the more surprised.

Probably me, because he got his voice back first. "Ah, you..." and at this he glanced at a slip of paper in his hand. He began again. "'Elmer J. Fudd,' I presume?" he asked, addressing me by the name I'd used on the lease and a couple of other pieces of paperwork.

Geeze, I remember thinking. Am I so rusty at coming up with cover identities that he could track me down this fast? Then I quickly and silently debated the virtues of running versus staying. Staying won, but only because I was emotionally drained and weighed down by a kind of fatalistic apathy. I sighed. "You got me dead to rights, Doc. I am Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht."

Ohara, bless his morally-deficient little soul, actually boggled, which managed to cheer me up a little. There's nothing like freaking the mundanes to improve one's mood. "I beg your pardon?" he said.

Feeling perverse, I kept going. "So, are you going to shoot me now or wait until you get home?"

"What?"

I studied him for a moment. Outside my window, the continuous low rumble of traffic noise was punctuated by a long honk on someone's horn. "You don't get out much, do you?"

Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, Ohara blinked several times in rapid succession. "I'm not going to shoot you at all. May I please come in?"

I shrugged and opened the door wider while sliding to one side. Ohara stepped in and gave the room an assessing look that would have ended with a turned-up nose on a lot of people. Him, he just had this expression that said, "I'm too urbane to express my distaste at your accommodations."

I shut the door, then crossed the room to flop on my bed. The springs made a noise like half a dozen baby frogs. "So," I drawled. "How did you find me?"

He held out the slip of paper, which I took from him. "You dropped this on your way out of our offices." It was the receipt from my recent videorom rental. Oh joy. "It wasn't hard to get your address from the store's records."

"<'Oh, drat these computers. They're so naughty and so complex, I could pinch them!'>" I muttered. "If I weren't so habitually honest, I might have avoided this. Lovely."

Ohara, meanwhile, was turning around slowly and surveying the vast expanses of my great estate. He took in the entire room in a second or two, then asked, "This is where you live?"

"For the moment," I growled. "It was my emergency bolthole."

He raised an eyebrow at me. "Really?"

"Really. I pissed off the Knight Sabers, so I hid."

That got me both eyebrows. "I was under the impression that you were... allied with them."

"Yeah," I said. "So was I."

"Um-hmmm."

I didn't elaborate, and Ohara didn't pursue. He glanced around the room once more, then settled himself into the one dilapidated chair that came with the place.

"Tell me, Elmer..." he began quietly.

"Doug."

"What?"

"My name is Douglas Q. Sangnoir." In for a penny... "'Elmer J. Fudd' was just an alias."

He nodded solemnly. "Of course." He was silent for a moment, then pursed his lips and launched into what clearly had been bothering him. "Two children died at the amusement palace?"

"Yeah," I said, sliding back on the bed and leaning against the wall. The baby frogs complained. "But they got better," I added as a stricken look washed across his face.

"They... got better?"

I sighed. The more times I explained this, the less credible it sounded, even to me. "A few minutes after one of your boomers cut them into shreds with a machine gun, I made a deal with some... Beings who could restore them. Are you a religious man, Dr. Ohara?"

He shook his head. "Not particularly."

I shrugged. "You probably should be. Let's just say, then, that they were very powerful creatures, and the lives of mere humans are like threads to them, to be spun out, cut short, and sometimes, very rarely, to be tied back together. In exchange for a service from me, they agreed to re-tie the children's severed threads."

Ohara studied me dispassionately for a long time. Finally, he said, "If I'd heard that from anyone else, I'd say they were insane. But I've seen enough of what you can do that I'm inclined to believe you."

I grinned at him for a moment. "You could always ask the Knight Sabers to confirm the story; they saw the children's bodies before, and handed them off -- alive -- to the ADP afterwards."

"Thank you, no," he said with a grimace. "What was the service you agreed to?"

"Ah," I sighed, growing serious again. "That's what pissed off the Knight Sabers. And to be completely honest," I continued, eyeing him cautiously, "I don't think I ought to tell anyone who works for GENOM, either."

Another raised eyebrow behind the glasses. "Because it might piss GENOM off, too?"

I nodded. "At the very least."

"Well, then," he said, "I'd love to hear it, because I, personally, would not mind seeing someone piss GENOM off."

Now it was my turn. "Huh?"

He gave me a dry, tight little smile. "Let me tell you the story of a man, an academic, with a crazy idea he knew could work. He had a good business plan, but he needed some venture capital to kick off the company he wanted to found. So he went to the corporation that had funded so much of his research at the university where he taught. GENOM." He grimaced. "GENOM knew a potential windfall when they saw it. And they were sufficiently oriented toward the long view to not worry about a few years of zero or negative profits while the academic turned his idea into a reality. So they gave him lots of money, and let him have a long leash."

Ohara settled into his seat. Pulling off his glasses, he rubbed his eyes as he continued. "But the process took longer to develop than he expected. And GENOM turned out to be less patient than it had seemed. They called in their marker."

"And they absorbed your company," I said, frowning.

He nodded and put his glasses back on. "Oh, they left me in charge, but mostly as a figurehead. I lead the research, but I don't really run things on the business side any more. Madigan does." A sour look crawled onto his face.

"Madigan?"

His distaste was obvious. "Katherine Madigan. She's the right-hand-drone to GENOM's chairman, Quincy. A jack-of-all-corporate-trades who answers only to him. Madigan doles out the funding and occasionally gives us our orders. And one of those orders was to capture you." He scowled. "Damned purple-haired bitch."

"Purple hair? Really?" I asked, and he nodded. "Is it natural?"

Ohara shrugged. "I have no idea. I'm not close enough to her to find out, and God willing, I never will be." He cleared his through a couple of times. "Would you happen to have anything to drink?"

"Sure." I leaned over to the mini-fridge and pulled out a can of Yebisu. I tossed it to him; he caught it handily, popped the top, and took a long pull.

"Aahhh, I needed that. God, I haven't had a beer since I was an undergrad. Anyway, anything that sticks a pin in GENOM's corporate rear is fine by me. As long as I don't get caught in the aftermath, that is."

I pulled out a beer for myself. I don't normally drink, but I'd been under a lot of pressure that week. "So," I said as I popped the top, "that's a nice story and a nice sentiment, but it still doesn't change the fact that you're out to capture me. How do I know that you don't have a crack team of labtroopers surrounding this building even as we speak?" I took a long swig and savored the flavor of the hops.

He snorted over his can. "That order got rescinded last night, so you don't have anything to fear from IDEC any more. Now we're just acting as consultants to Madigan. I guess she decided we were too incompetent after Sunday's debacle." He frowned again. "I lost a good employee over that. He resigned because he felt he couldn't continue to be associated with IDEC with the way we were going."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I murmured. "Not surprised, but sorry."

He was silent for a moment, staring down into the opening on the top of his can of beer. Then his eyes widened behind the glasses. He looked up at me. "Do you have any kind of technical background?"

"Yeah," I ventured cautiously. "A degree in cybernetic engineering. One year of formal employment in that field, followed by 13 years as a semi-formal tech expert for the paramilitary team that employs me, back home. I'm handy hacking both software and hardware, and I've got enough background to work in half a dozen other technical disciplines. Why?"

"And can you recreate the technologies of your homeworld with the materials and equipment here?"

"Yeah, some of them. Why?" I repeated.

"Can you explain the workings and theoretical underpinnings of those technologies, too?"

"Yeah, of course. Why?" I tried again, a little more firmly.

"And are you in need of, um, call it 'living expenses'?"

"Sure. Why do you want to know?"

He smiled for the first time. It was a nasty smile, but the nasty wasn't aimed at me. "I just thought of a way to thumb my nose at Madigan without her realizing it." He leaned forward in his seat. "Come to work for IDEC, Mr. Sangnoir," he said earnestly.

I stared at him for a moment.

Then I burst out laughing.

"I'm sorry," I managed to get out a few minutes later. "But are you serious? Me, work for the people who've been hounding me and who have inflicted gods know how much death, injury and property damage on the city in an attempt to catch me? Are you nuts?"

Ohara spread his hands and fixed me with a serious expression. "Look at it this way. We want to study you, and learn something of the technologies you use. You need an income and a somewhat sturdier cover identity. Plus, whatever your mysterious mission is, won't having access to GENOM resources make it easier? I'm certain it would appeal to your senses of irony and justice, too." He lowered his hands and grew serious. "As for our pursuit of you, well, that wasn't entirely our choice, as I told you, and it's over and done with. And we did try to do everything in our power to prevent harm to innocents."

"Yeah, that's what you say now," I countered. Still, I thought as Ohara waited patiently, where better to hack into GENOM's systems than from inside... and where better to watch the ones who were chasing me, than from among them? "Conditions," I said suddenly. "I'm not following any dress code. I reserve the right to walk out at any time. I'm not living in the Cone. And you quit it with the fucking boomers, okay?"

Pursing his lips in thought, Ohara nodded slowly. "Agreed. Just... don't wear that costume of yours to the office; you'll panic the other employees."

I raised an eyebrow. "And what are you going to tell them? After all, I didn't make exactly the best impression today."

He shrugged. "You'll just be the new tech replacing Davis, the man who resigned. Which is the truth, after all. As long as you stay out of that helmet, I doubt anyone will recognize you." He thought for a moment. "I suppose I'll have to tell my senior staff the full story, though."

"Uh-huh. They wouldn't happen to have been the folks you were meeting with when I barged in on you this morning, would they?"

"As a matter of fact, yes." He waved it off. "They're flexible. They'll deal." He frowned in thought for a moment. "What are your salary requirements?"

I shook my head. "We'll talk about that after I see what you have to work with, and what you want from me. The more I have to build from scratch, the more you'll have to shell out."

Ohara nodded again. "Fair enough." He stood and held out a hand. "Then we have a deal?"

I rose and shook his hand. "We have a deal."

"Excellent."

We ended the shake. "So," I said, "I'll come in first thing tomorrow morning, then?"

Ohara suddenly blanched. "Tomorrow," he said softly. "Oh, god, I forgot about tomorrow..." He buried his face in one hand.

My suspicions aroused, and my danger sense began to whisper to me. "What about tomorrow?"

He looked up at me, a pained, shameful look upon his face. "We have a... complication."

I stared at him unblinkingly. "A complication."

"Yes," he said softly. "You've got to understand, Sunday night I thought I was finished, that Madigan was going to take IDEC, and that I wasn't likely to live out the week. GENOM's involuntary retirements tend to be somewhat... terminal."

I suddenly realized where he was going. "You did something stupid and defiant, didn't you?" Maybe I could get to like this guy. Maybe.

He nodded slowly. "I gave a lot of money to an old associate to unleash an obscenely powerful combat boomer on the Tower some time tomorrow. I don't know when, and I don't know how. I didn't want to know. I didn't expect to need to know." He collapsed back into the chair. "You did me one favor with your 'visit' this morning, Sangnoir -- you gave me an excuse to shut down IDEC and keep all my people out of the Tower until after the attack."

I clenched my teeth and counted to ten in English, then French, then Japanese, and finally in Valdemaran. Maybe I can make the damned thing my first "rescue".

"Okay," I finally said. "I'll take care of your little revenge trip, Ohara. But I'm getting overtime and hazard pay, you got that?"

END OF CHAPTER TEN

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This work of fiction is copyright © 2001, Robert M. Schroeck.

Many thanks to Ed Becerra, who suggested and/or contributed certain passages in this chapter.

Special thanks to David Johnston, who on November 24, 1999 posted a message in alt.fan.bgcrisis about Linna's (canon!) car hobby, which was the first I'd ever heard of it.

Bubblegum Crisis and the characters thereof are copyright and a trademark of Artmic Inc. and Youmex Inc., and are used without permission.

"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

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

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

Lyrics from "Spirits In The Material World" recorded by The Police, written by Sting, copyright © 1981 by EMI Music Publishing Ltd./Magnetic Music (BMI).

Lyrics from "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, written by Mickey Newbury, copyright © 1968 by Acuff-Rose (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: Joseph Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Berg Oswell, Delany Brittain, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Helen Imre, Eric James, and Startide Rising.


This page was created on April 5, 2001.
Last modified January 16, 2013.