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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

 

 

11: Something Tells Me This Little Black Duck Has Worn Out His Welcome

Laws are only words words written on paper, words that change on society's whim and are interpreted differently daily by politicians, lawyers, judges, and policemen. Anyone who believes that all laws should always be obeyed would have made a fine slave catcher. Anyone who believes that all laws are applied equally, despite race, religion, or economic status, is a fool. -- John J. Miller, "And Hope to Die" (in Jokertown Shuffle: Wild Cards IX)

I'm betting that I'm just abnormal enough to survive. -- The Tick

 

Thursday, February 5, 2037. 2:05 PM

I felt like I was turning into a gargoyle.

Ohara had no idea where or when (other than during business hours) the boomer would strike, but he did have some extremely unofficial specs on the thing, which he handed over to me.

Jesus, what a monster. Or, to put it in the words of my spiritual totem, "My, he's a big one."

I couldn't have taken it down in combat by myself, even if that were still an option. Diana and Maggie probably would have a decent chance of beating the thing if they double-teamed it. Shockwave on his own, before he retired, probably could have taken it down. Probably. Hexe as well.

It was the second of two prototypes, built three or four years earlier. According to a heavily censored report in the packet, the Knight Sabers and some spider-shaped walkertank had destroyed the first one by blowing it up with either a huge conventional bomb or a micronuke; this second prototype was supposed to incorporate fixes for problems noted during that fight. GENOM and an American megacorp called "Gulf and Bradley" had intended to start a production run of the things, but the project got cancelled after G&B formed a strategic alliance with another megacorp called "The Chang Group".

Because several key patents and trade secrets were shared and/or cross-licensed in order to design it, neither corp could move to manufacture the model without immediately becoming tasty and profitable lawyerbait for the other. Result: stalemate, and G&B (who had constructed the second beta version) put the remaining prototype into cold storage.

Two years later, according to Ohara, G&B dumped the prototype as part of an odd-lot sell-off of excess inventory and abandoned junk. Whether or not they actually intended to is an interesting question; if so, someone at the company changed their minds fast. By the time G&B sent its people to the auction house, though, the boomer had apparently already vanished into the grey market or the arms-trade underground. Eventually it made its way to the warehouse owned by Ohara's unnamed and morally ambiguous "associate".

And from there it had been moved so that it could be released on that day at a random time and location somewhere near the Cone.

Which left me where I was: crouching on the more accessible building tops around the Tower, shivering in the cold, grey mist. It was a near-freezing day that continually threatened rain, but didn't quite follow through on the threat, and I couldn't decide which annoyed me more. I spent the damp, chilly hours listening to the ADP band, looming over various plazas and alleyways, and waiting. I didn't even allow myself to break for a proper lunch; I ate a pocketful of sports energy bars while perched atop a crumbling cornice with what would probably have been a glorious view of GENOM Tower, had it not been cloaked completely in fog.

Like I said, I felt like a gargoyle.

The imp of the perverse must love me, because when the call finally came in and put an end to the waiting, the damned thing had been released on the far side of the Tower from my current position. Although the bounce down to ground level didn't take long, the few kilometers I had to travel in city traffic meant that by the time I got there, not only were a few representatives of the ADP already on-site, but the boomer giant was also about to be engaged by GENOM defenses.

* * *

It was pure coincidence that had put Leon and Daley near the Tower when the call came in, a coincidence that left them chasing after a monstrous boomer which strode along a busy city street toward GENOM Tower, scattering civilian vehicles left and right. The street eventually opened onto one of the larger plazas near the Tower, and in its center the boomer paused and turned slowly in place, as though orienting itself and determining its next move.

Dispatch had reported an ETA of 15 minutes for the first squads, so they took advantage of the boomer's distraction to circle around the edge of the plaza. At the far end of the square they took up a position at the mouth of the narrow street that was the closest thing to a direct route to the Tower. It seemed a logical spot for a barricade, however futile. Meanwhile, the N-Police cordoned off the area and began an evacuation of anyone too stupid to leave on their own.

Knowing they'd need all the help they could get, Leon contacted HQ again. Shouting over the traffic noise raised by the evacuees, he requested that Nene be assigned to the scene as his aide. After getting approval, he then called the redhead to let her know she was free to operate independently. Catching his meaning, Nene had given him a thumbs-up and a wink before cutting the line. With luck, he mused, the Sabers'll show up faster than the heavy-weapons squads. And before this whole situation gets too ugly.

That done, he finally had the time to join Daley in studying the boomer before them. Half-crouched behind the open doors of their patrol car with their hand weapons at the ready, however little good they might do, the two ADP officers surveyed the determined-looking cyberdroid.

"You know," Leon said, drawing off his sunglasses as if in slow motion, "I thought they'd only made the one."

Daley realized he was holding his breath, and tried to let it out slowly and calmly. To his disgust, it wheezed out into something like a sigh. "A boomer giant. Damn." He shook his head and turned to his partner. "Leon-chan, this can't be a simple attack on GENOM. It's got to be a lure, like the siege at Bunko's. Someone wants the Loon very badly, or maybe just very dead."

"Well, they can't have me. Either way. I take a lot of killing and catching."

The voice came from ... overhead? Daley and Leon looked up to see the familiar helmet and leathers. Their wearer was hanging upside down from the fire escape above them, the toe of one boot hooked neatly around a ladder rung. He saluted. "Good afternoon, officers." His foot relaxed and he dropped, twisting cat-like in mid-air to land neatly before them.

"Loon!" the pair exclaimed almost in unison.

He cocked his head inquisitively. "You were expecting maybe Humphrey Bogart?" Then he peered at them, wiping mist from his goggles. "Well, if it isn't Inspector Wong of the Yard! And his inestimable sidekick."

As Leon held back a growl and Daley suppressed laughter, they exchanged glances. "You want to arrest him, or should I?" Leon muttered wryly.

"Oh, please, let's not start with the arresting business again," the Loon responded. "I'll just escape, and you'll get frustrated, and your bosses will get frustrated, and whoever pulls their strings at GENOM will get frustrated." He peered closely at Leon. "You know, your voice sounds familiar."

"It does, does it?" Leon all but snarled.

The Loon suddenly grinned, snapped his fingers, and pointed at the ADP officer. "You're McNichol, aren't you?" A fraction of a second later Leon discovered his hand was being furiously shaken. "Nice to meet you, finally. I really must apologize for not being around after the action on Sunday so you could try to arrest me, but as you probably know, I got a little, um, carried away."

Daley stifled a groan as Leon attempted to extricate his hand from the Loon's enthusiastic grip. "Yes, I'd noticed," he replied.

"I'm so sorry about standing you up like that, and I'd like to make it up to you. Can we set a date for you to corner me and try to take me in?" Leon finally extracted his hand and opened his mouth to respond, but the Loon ran roughshod over his attempt to insert a comment. "Today's no good -- I'm all booked up -- but maybe sometime early next week? We can do lunch, you can bring the partner and the girlfriend..." He paused and swept an assessing glance over an amused Daley. "...or the boyfriend, whichever..." Daley suddenly felt the need to suppress a belly laugh. "I know this nice little French place. We can sit down, eat, talk over old times, and then after dessert and cognac you can try to arrest me. Would that work for you?" He ended up with his head cocked at a quizzical angle.

"Um..." offered a completely befuddled Leon.

"But today is right out. I'm afraid you can't try to arrest me at all right now. It'll just ruin the afternoon for a whole lot of people if you tried."

Daley raised an eyebrow as Leon recovered from the verbal barrage. "Well, then, what do you suggest we do in the mean time?" he asked, for lack of any better idea.

"Well..." The helmeted figure pantomimed deep thought for a second. "You could tell me if it's possible for you to take in a giant boomer like ol' Abominababble over there?"

"What do you mean, 'take in'?" Leon slid his sunglasses back on and drew his face into his "pit bull" expression in what Daley was sure was a calculated effort to dispel the last of his bewilderment.

Sensing the change in tone, the Loon also grew serious. "What I mean is, if I can restrain Laughing Boy, can you deactivate or disable it without destroying it?"

Leon looked at Daley, who shrugged. "I think so," he replied after a moment. "Theoretically, we're supposed to bring in all the boomers we can. However, most resist arrest rather... energetically."

The helmet dipped in a nod. "Understood. It's hard to let go of freedom once you get a taste." He tilted his head in a quizzical manner. "So... you can take it down nondestructively if I can get it to hold still long enough?"

"Yes."

"Good, that's what I'll do, then. You be ready." He turned to go, spinning so fast he almost seemed to blink from one facing to the next.

"Wait!" Daley shouted.

"What?"

"Why do it that way? Why bother? Why ask us?"

A change seemed to come over the man as he turned back to face them; his stance softened. "Because I'd rather work with local law enforcement than against it. Because it's the right thing to do. Because every sentient being deserves to keep its life, even those that are built instead of born," he replied in a quiet voice. Then, before any more could be said, he turned away and launched himself at the boomer giant.

Leon pushed his glasses up on his nose with one finger. "Well, Daley, you heard the man. I'll check on our backup, you go get the boomer restraint system." He glanced at the trunk of their patrol car, then looked back at his partner. "Do you remember how to use one?"

Daley didn't deign to answer that as he opened the patrol car's trunk and retrieved the boomer restraint kit. He closed the trunk quietly -- no need to attract more attention than they needed to. Laying the case on the lid, he opened it and began refamiliarizing himself with the device. "I haven't looked at one of these things since I transferred to ADP," he muttered to no one in particular as he studied the squat, broad pistol that resembled a flare gun with a folding stock, and its chunky payload.

It was, to put it simply, a jamming device covered with glue. A nodule of hardened electronics sat at the heart of a sphere of black, sticky stuff that most of ADP simply called the "tar ball" in preference to its 20-syllable chemical name. It was specifically designed to bond to Abotex, but would adhere less permanently to almost anything else, too. In theory, it would effectively weld itself to the boomer's body and send out pseudo-random electromagnetic pulses that would disrupt the electronic parts of its neural system.

Daley couldn't remember ever seeing anybody actually use one during a real incident. The department had all but discarded them years before, after a few capture attempts had turned deadly; the presence of one in their trunk was more a tribute to bureaucratic inertia than to any effort at comprehensive contingency planning.

He hefted the bulky gun, which felt as ungainly as a potato sack in his hands. Stepping back to his position behind the passenger side door, he unfolded the stock and peeled the protective film from the "tar ball". If this thing doesn't have a kick like Leon-chan's handcannon, it's not going to do any good, he thought. And if it does, it's probably going to break my wrists or my shoulder. I just love lose-lose propositions. He sighed and looked up from the pistol at the combat.

* * *

Well, as boomers went, this one was the giant economy size. Six meters tall if it was an inch and vaguely hunchbacked, it had digitigrade legs, surprisingly slender for its size, and hideously over-built shoulders and arms. Its barrel-sized hands bore some seriously wicked claws, but oddly, they seemed to be its only armament. Its head was surely larger than the standard boomer cranium, but perched atop that massive structure, it looked laughably small. Or it would if it didn't have all those fanglike protrusions in its jaws. The whole thing was covered in incredibly thick-looking armor. It was heavy enough to crack the stone pavers that formed the bulk of the plaza.

I wondered where Ohara was. He'd told me that he'd be there while I engaged the giant, but I didn't see any sign of him. Which was for the better, actually. The last thing I needed was a guilt-stricken tech-boy sightseer in or near the combat zone.

While I'd been playing gargoyle, I'd worked out a plan. Having the ADP's cooperation meant I could actually use it, and for that I was glad. Surprisingly, it would be easier to subdue the giant than to destroy it; I could do that by myself. Short of summoning simulacra of the whole team, I didn't think I could kill it. Wound it badly, maybe even cripple it, but not kill it. I wouldn't do that, though. A clean death, or none at all.

But death wasn't the plan this time.

I launched myself at the giant boomer with the primary intent of distracting it, to keep it from progressing any closer to the Cone. We were a scant four hundred meters from one of the four blocky towers that stood sentry around the base of the Tower, and if I didn't keep it in the plaza it would walk right over Wong and Friend and start tearing out chunks of superstructure in less than a minute.

I worried about just how much distraction I could provide. I needn't have. Even as I was bounding towards it, two huge black-and-white boomers plummetted out of the sky in a pair of screaming power dives. At the very last second before their seemingly-inevitable crash, they pulled up and began to circle the giant.

Laughing Boy wasn't amused.

Whatever they were, they were almost as big as it was -- four meters or so. Their armor was somewhat more streamlined, though, and big jet vents on their legs and backs gave them a lot of thrust, allowing them to fly more aerodynamically than the usual combat boomer. Their arms were oddly shaped, hands and fingers pointing upwards in a permanent "come get me" gesture that made no sense until their forearms split in half lengthwise and pivoted at the elbow. The lower halves kept the hands, but the upper halves were clearly weapons pods of some sort. And they were trained on the giant.

Obviously, this was not the welcome wagon.

I arrested my forward movement with a short skid on the damp pavement, and backed off until I could re-evaluate the fight and do a tactical on the the two new bots. As the three boomers settled into what I was sure was a brief temporary standoff, I retreated to within shouting distance of Wong and his partner.

"What are those things?" I shouted over my shoulder.

Wong and McNichol were back to crouching behind their car doors. Wong held something that looked kind of like a bullhorn mated to a leprous softball, and his partner had a pistol that might have been the same model as the one owned by that motorcyclist I'd raced a few months earlier.

"They're called Dobermans," McNichol called back. "They're just as vicious as their namesakes. And about as smart," he added.

"Animal-level intelligence?" I called.

"Yeah!" he bellowed back at me.

I nodded. "Not sentients, then. Good. Thanks!" I turned my attention back to the Mexican standoff in front of me and completed my tactical.

I suddenly felt like a five-year-old about to jump in the ring with a trio of professional wrestlers, and I frantically sorted through the songs I could use to take out the new players and still leave the giant unhurt for my attempt at its rescue. The single worst problem with my metagift is not its unpredictability. It's that I have too damn many options -- more than I care to sift through in a crisis situation. But then, I bring it upon myself. I don't have to keep more than a dozen or two songs in my helmet, but I like being prepared for contingencies. And if I weren't operating under my personal rules of engagement, it wouldn't be a problem anyway. I'd just "Lightning's Hand" them by default. But that choice wasn't open to me any more. Even if they were now presumably made moot by my deal with Ohara, I didn't dare completely abandon my rules yet. Not until I was sure -- of the deal and of Ohara.

Which left me scrabbling for the right song to use against the two newcomers. The tactical called for offense, but not indiscriminate offense -- I had two hostiles and one effective "hostage", since I still intended to rescue the giant. I didn't want to hurt it accidentally. That eliminated area attacks. With the Dobies' flight potential, something ranged would be best, but it had to have the potential to get through what looked like some seriously hefty armor. But I couldn't scale up immediately to a true mainline attack, not in an urban area that I couldn't trust to be free from noncombatants. Not unless I was forced to. Damn.

In the couple of seconds that I took me to reach that expletive, one of the Dobermans took to the air again, and began circling the giant. The second backed off a couple dozen meters as ol' Abominababble began circling to keep the flying Dobie in sight. Damn, I repeated mentally. They're going to hammer-and-anvil it. Classic pincer. I needed to get through that armor to put down the Dobermans -- I needed to punch, cut, melt or burn my way through.

Hmm. Burn. "Like a healing hand..."

I had it. It might be a little slow, but it would do the job. And if I could get the giant clear, I could use it as an area effect, too. And without accidentally burning out anyone's crops like I did while defending Demsbury... I reached up and twisted the speaker housings to "on" and made sure the PA was off. "<System. Combat mode on. 'This Corrosion.' Play.>" "10:55" flashed green on the display in my HUD and started counting down as the trademark Steinman million-voice chorus began its almost Gregorian descant.

I paused a moment to gather the power that started to flow into and through me.

Then I threw myself into the fight.

I combat-hyped, and as the world blue-shifted into slow motion I poured on the speed and darted around the ground-bound Doberman. Leaping for the lower half of its left forearm, I got a good grip and swung myself upward as if I were on a chinning bar.

For all my speed, I didn't quite surprise the beast. Roaring, it waved its arm violently, trying to shake me off. In my state of combat awareness, though, it was like hanging onto a slow-moving piston. I used the movement to pump myself into a swing around the lower forearm and swept a boot heel directly across its left-hand eye. As the optics shattered (from the impact) and melted (from the song), I released my grip on its arm and let my momentum carry me upward; where my hands had been were two smoking trenches in the boomer's armor plating.

"<Hey now, hey now na-now, sing This Corrosion to me
Hey now, hey now na-now, sing This Corrosion to me
Hey now, hey now na-now, sing This Corrosion to me
Hey now, hey now na-now, sing...>"

With ponderous slowness the boomer turned in place, trying to arch its massive back enough that its small, low-hung head could look upwards. I crawled to the low zenith of my flight, tucked myself into an acrobatic roll that set me back upright, then began to drift back downwards feet-first.

And it was at that point that the Doberman in the air picked me off. A deceptively harmless-looking ripple of red light erupted from the weapons pod on its right arm and slammed into me like a speeding truck. I howled as it tore through my field and knocked me out of combat-hype, sending me flying right back into Wong's patrol car.

As I tumbled, flailing, through the air, I spotted the two ADP officers diving to either side from its open doors. My head slammed into the car roof as I hit the windshield, which fractured and flexed under me without giving way. I heard the doors slam shut, then the scream of tortured metal as the mystery blast tore and crumpled the vehicle. I gasped for a moment with the pain as the beam washed past me; it felt like I had gone head-first under a steam roller. The polykev had borne the brunt of most of the impacts, fortunately, and it was so hot that it was almost unbearable. I could feel the radiated heat on my face and even through my gloves. And even so I still took a lot of damage; my left wrist felt sprained and maybe broken, my head still rang from the impact, and every muscle in my torso screamed a complaint. I don't think I'd ever been hit with anything that powerful before -- nor have I since.

Before I could burn my way through the remains of the car, I levered myself out of the bellied windshield using my good hand, then winced as I rolled off the fender and onto my feet. As it was, the safety glass had already begun to melt and run, and patches of pitted bare metal were starting to show on the smoking hood. "Ow ow ow ow shit," I growled as Wong and Friend crept back. I waved them off, but I think the sizzling and bubbling asphalt under my feet had more to do with where they stopped than my gesture did. Some meters away, the flying Dobie had already turned its attention back to Laughing Boy.

"You survived that?" Wong said with no small amount of undisguised awe in his voice.

"Ask me later," I snapped. "What the hell was that it shot me with?"

"What, you don't know?" McNichol replied from the other side of the sheet metal accordion that used to be their car. He seemed both surprised and a little amused maybe at my ignorance. "A gravity gun!"

That got my attention. I snapped my head around to look at him, and immediately regretted it. "Ow! Shit. Do you mean to tell me you've got gravtech?"

He gave me a nasty smile. "Disappointed that we're not as far behind your homeworld as you thought, Loon?"

"Hell, no," I shot back. Precisely what he had said didn't register with me until hours later. Right then I was realizing what I could do with one of those guns, and deciding that I wanted one. Badly. Add that to the dramatically upgraded need to protect the giant from its assailants, and I decided it was enough to justify escalating my side of the conflict to match the opposition. It wouldn't be easy with a sprained-maybe-broken wrist and what might be a couple broken ribs, but hell, I never was one to do things the easy way.

"So they want to play rough, huh?" I murmured, more to myself than to the cops. "All right, if that's the way they want it. Time to fight fire with napalm! <System!>" I shouted. "<'Black Hole Sun'! Play!>"

Then I opened myself up to the node.

* * *

Leon dove for cover as the Loon shouted something in English and started to glow. Daley, though, held his ground and watched.

The Loon stood in a slightly spread-legged stance, left hand held carefully against his stomach, his right at waist height, open and cupped as if it held a sphere about the size of a grapefruit. Which, Daley realized as the glow around the man slid off his body and down his arm, it now did.

Daley's late maternal grandmother had been an indiscriminate enthusiast of pop occultism. Having far too much money for her own good, she had over many years filled her home with all manner of New Age totems, tools and knickknacks. As a child, Daley had been fascinated by all of it, but most of all by the large crystal ball which had held a permanent position of honor on a sideboard in her living room. The shape which floated now within the Loon's right hand reminded him of nothing else so much as his grandmother's crystal ball: round, transparent, warping and lensing the light that passed through it, and outlining everything viewed through it with a rainbow-tinged border. But whatever it was, it wasn't solid, not quite. There were no defined edges -- only a gentle, almost airbrushed, transition from a solid and furious center to the air in which it floated.

As he watched, it lifted out of the Loon's hand and began to speed furiously around him. Another appeared and joined it, then another, and again, and again, until there were a dozen or more, the arrival of each heralded by a small, distinct popping noise, like a distant firecracker.

They swarmed and orbited the Loon, looking for all the world like the electrons in an old-fashioned atomic diagram. As they passed over and around his body, their bizarre optical properties seemed to warp and twist his form, making him waver and flow like a lava lamp on fast forward, all the while emitting a low, whistling drone. Daley found the combined effect profoundly disturbing. His stomach churned and threatened him with nausea, but he fought it down and stood unmoving, the BRS firmly clamped in his hands.

In the center of the plaza, the Dobermans and the giant traded attacks. Gravity blasts battered the giant's armor, scoring and denting the Abotex and driving the boomer to its knees once. The Dobermans had suffered their own share of damage. Three deep, parallel gouges scored the chest of the one in the air, and the one on the ground was now stuck there, with half its jet system torn away by a lucky blow. As another exchange of fire belched forth between them, the Loon dashed unevenly to the right and in towards the conflict. That this took the ADP officers out of the line of any more attacks upon him was no coincidence, Daley noted with gratitude.

The Loon halted thirty meters away from the battle, raised his right arm, and once again held out his hand as if he were presenting the boomer with a phantom grapefruit. He still cradled his left hand against his stomach. The orbiting balls slid around and away from his outstretched arm.

"Bang," he said, clearly enough to be heard from where Daley stood.

As the flying doberman jogged to one side to avoid its companion, there was a crack like miniature thunder and a blast of white light erupted from its shoulder armor. Whatever it was, it staggered the boomer, almost throwing the cyberdroid into an uncontrollable tumble backwards. Its jets shrieked in protest as it fought to stabilize itself. Then, slowly, it brought itself upright again.

On the ground, the second Doberman paused, seemingly distracted. The giant took advantage of the moment and lunged for its opponent, sending up a spray of sparks as its claws bit into the security boomer's armor sheathing.

Daley hissed as he got a good look at the flying Doberman. Its left arm hung limp and useless. At its shoulder, the left pauldron of the boomer's armor was shattered and seared; in its center was a hand-sized crater with blackened and cracked edges, deep enough to reveal the burnt and broken mechanisms beneath.

The Doberman roared its pain, had been roaring, Daley realized. It whipped its right arm up toward the Loon, and fired another gravity blast. The crimson wave slammed into the Loon...

...and died. It shattered upon a wall of whirling, orbiting distortions, and broke into a thousand shreds of scarlet energy. The streamers of translucent red swirled aimlessly around him for a moment before most of them spiraled down into the transparent spheres like rusty water down a drain; the Loon didn't even break his stance when what little was left of the wave finally struck him.

He thumbed his nose at the Doberman.

It howled in outrage and gunned its jets, hurling itself at him as if it intended simply to smash him with its sheer bulk and speed.

"Bang," said the Loon once again.

Another explosion of light and sound, and another smoking crater appeared, this time in the center of the Doberman's chest. Despite the roaring jets gouting flame behind it, the boomer stopped short in its flight at the force of the impact. Its jets stuttered warningly.

Then it roared and dropped upon the Loon.

At the same moment, the Loon leapt into the air.

The Doberman swung its massive arm in an attempt to swat the man like a wayward basketball; it missed, barely. The long, talon-like fingers on its hand slid through and among the orbiting spheres.

And came back out in tatters.

* * *

"What are they?" Ohara murmured.

Tony studied the few instruments they'd managed to carry in the trunk of his car. "Quantum black holes. I think. If I'm interpreting these readings correctly. And if the grav sensors aren't simply reporting garbage. A dozen or so, massing maybe a metric ton each." He shook his head in disbelief. "Why he's not being torn to shreds by the tidal forces..."

"Amazing," Ohara breathed. "We've got to get him show us that device when he starts work next week."

Tony's attention snapped completely onto his friend and nominal employer. "Say what?"

"Oh, did I forget to mention that?" Ohara asked disingenuously.

* * *

The Dobie swiped at me and missed; my field deflected the blow and the holes reduced its hand to a useless tangle of metal and plastic. The boomer was too tall for me to actually leap over it, but I could get as far as its upper arm, and springboarded from there to arc high over its back -- just barely clearing the big, sharp-looking fins it had there. While I was upside-down at the zenith of my second leap, I fired another hole down at the back of its head. Between its movement and mine, I missed my intended target, but I still hit the thing: a glancing blow ripped a long gouge through the armor over what remained of its jets before the hole destabilized and vaporized itself in a burst of light and radiation.

"<Black hole sun
Won't you come
And wash away the rain
Black hole sun
Won't you come
Won't you come...>"

Below and far to the left of me, the giant was holding its own against the other Dobie. More than holding its own, in fact; little pieces of Doberman were flying everywhere as the giant merrily dismembered the weakly-struggling boomer. I absently hoped that it left one of the gravity guns intact.

As I started to drop back down, I risked flexing my left hand. Painful. But none of the all-too-familiar bone-on-bone grating. Okay. Either a sprain or a hairline fracture. Or both. I could work with that, push it if necessary, until I had a chance to heal myself. The polykev plates in the glove would kind of splint it, and the glove itself would help, too. It'd hurt like hell, no mistake. But if I needed it, I could use it. And I needed to, if I were to follow through with my plan to restrain the giant.

Beyond that, I ignored the complaints of my body. As long as I didn't puncture a lung, I didn't care about the ribs. And the other aches and pains were a useless distraction; I banished them from my thoughts.

And well that I did, because at the moment that my feet touched the damp pavement, that damned Doberman swatted me again, lashing out with one of its legs. My field didn't divert the blow, and it slammed into my hip even as the black hole shield punctured and sliced at the limb. I went rolling across the plaza, sweating as the temperature of the polykev shot back up.

The Doberman pulled back a mass of pureed metal, polymer and flesh where its foot used to be.

Then it toppled over.

Groaning, I got to my feet and pointed my cupped hand at it.

* * *

"Bang. Bang. Bang."

This time Daley actually glimpsed the projectiles rather than just their effect: one after the other in rapid succession, round, rippling distortions like those that swirled around the Loon's body. Streamers of mist trailed after them, stretching out almost beseechingly for the strange distortions.

A line of small white explosions walked across the fallen boomer's barrel chest, drawing a diagonal line from just under its left arm up to its right shoulder, and leaving behind shattered and seared Abotex. The impacts sent the Doberman sliding and bouncing backwards across the mist-slickened paving stones. It came to rest near the giant, which at the sound of Abotex on stone had looked up from where it had been savaging the remains of the other Doberman. Growling, the giant leapt upon the wounded boomer and began tearing it limb from limb.

* * *

Once the giant finished thoroughly trashing the Dobies, it stood up and slowly, deliberately turned around in place again, like it was searching for something. Taking several huge paces, it positioned itself a dozen or so meters closer to the Tower and ponderously rotated once more.

"<Hang my head, drown my fear,
'Til you all just disappear,
Black hole sun
Won't you come
And wash away the rain
Black hole sun
Won't you come
Won't you come...>"

I took advantage of the moment to dash in to where its victims lay splattered across the pavement. The paving stones, already moist from the hesitant rain, were now liberally coated with yellow goo and random wreckage, and I had to watch my footing. The first Doberman had been thoroughly smashed. I was out of luck there -- its gravity weapon had been totally destroyed. But the second...

I didn't even try to move the whole arm. Instead, I dissolved the shield and let the holes flow down to form a vertical circle just beyond my clenched fist. I started the circle rotating with a thought, a dozen quantum black holes blurring around an orbit maybe 30 centimeters across, just a few centimeters beyond my knuckles. With the gravitational lensing, it looked like someone had taken a small rainbow and looped it back upon itself.

I now wielded the world's sharpest circular saw.

I knelt by the biorobotic limb and took a moment to study the weapon pod that held the gravity gun. I chose a point safely behind it -- not so far back that it would be unwieldy, not so close to the pod that I risked damaging the weapon. Then I brought the spinning ring of black holes down upon that polymer armor.

It was hard not to expect some kind of resistance and to avoid pressing down firmly to counter it. So, in one quick motion I sliced through the armor, the pod's support stanchion, the rest of the limb, another layer of armor, and finally, a fair distance into the 10-centimeter-thick paving stone beneath.

Standing, I dismissed the holes. With my foot I kicked the pod over to one side of the plaza to get it out of the way of what was to come next.

"<System. Song off.>"

And then it was just me and Laughing Boy.

I turned back just in time to see it start off for the Cone again.

I had two advantages against it -- size and speed. It was fast, like all of GENOM's warbots, but not fast enough, and it was big enough that I could dance around and under it, into and through blind spots. A third advantage: it was somewhat wounded from its encounter with the Dobermans. (Then again, so was I, so that pretty much cancelled out.)

But I also had a fourth advantage.

"<System. 'The Chain'. Play,>" I muttered. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours. A classic. And the next step in my original battle plan.

It didn't take me long to piss it off. This assumed that it had ever stopped being pissed off from the Dobermans' attack. Whatever. Boomers all seemed to be very short on temper. Then again, if hardware blocks had been installed in my brain at birth to make me a slave, I don't think I'd be a very mellow person either.

The challenge was to make it angry enough to draw it away from its course again, but not so angry that it caused wanton damage to itself or the two ADP cops. If I overdid it, well, I was hoping that more ADP forces would show up and at least slow it down a bit while I changed gears and songs. But I didn't plan on overdoing it.

I'd been dodging around, above and below Ol' Abominababble, getting in a hit here and there without doing any real damage. It had been built as a front line combat monster, as a terror weapon -- even its weak points were tough. But I didn't actually have to hurt it to achieve my goal.

Inspired by the silent voice of my combat muse, I abruptly changed the direction in which I was running, dodged a pair of lumbering blows from those huge arms, and shot between its legs and out behind it. I was still combat-hyped, of course, and I poured on the speed until I was a couple dozen yards from it in the exact opposite direction from the Tower. It was still turning about (with painful, ponderous slowness, in my frame of reference) when I stretched out my arms with palms toward the giant bot. I suppressed a wince at the pain in my left wrist, and let loose with the power that had been simmering in me since the song began.

With a metallic rattle, a pair of glowing golden chains made of hand-sized links shot out of the air just in front of my palms. They darted at the boomer like snakes, rearing back just the slightest bit before striking forward to wrap themselves around its legs. The boomer actually managed to look surprised, and I snorted at the comical expression on its partially-immobile face.

Then I yelped, because it triggered its jumpjets and launched itself at me. I threw myself to one side, just barely avoiding evisceration from those huge claws. I didn't stop myself, but let my momentum carry me as far away as I could. I came to a stop on my hands and knees, not quite facing it. Its swipe at me had continued on to rip through the concrete wall of a small office building on the north edge of the plaza. Ouch.

My wrist protested at the weight I'd been forced to put on it. Fucking ouch.

The boomer seemed to have forgotten me as it turned its attention to trying to rip the chains off its legs. They'd already linked back upon themselves -- there wasn't a loose end it could pull out -- so the bot sawed away at the links with its claws. It raised sparks but was getting nowhere; they were solid-energy and, like the song says, "you will never break the chain."

I took a long, quiet breath, considered the situation, and struck.

On either side of the entangled boomer the pavement shattered and exploded as a pair of familiar golden chains erupted upwards. Startled, it flinched, but with its legs bound it ended up only knocking itself off-balance. As it tottered and began to fall, the chains looped down and wrapped themselves around the boomer, binding it neatly before it hit the ground.

As the tail ends of the chains snapped out of the ground and melded into the whole, I pushed myself up with another suppressed wince. In front of me were two holes punched into the stone where I'd sent the chains down into the ground. As I got to my feet, the boomer thudded to the pavement, rebounding once, then twice. Meters away, I could feel the force of the impact through my boots.

"Well, whaddaya know," I said, mostly to myself. "Boomers bounce."

I turned to Inspector Wong and his parter, switching on my helmet's PA. "It's all yo..." I began, but suddenly my danger sense screamed at me and I threw myself into a forward roll. Before I could pop back up onto my feet some meters away, I heard rapid multiple "whoosh-thunk" noises over and behind me, followed closely by an equal number of sharp cracks.

I knew that noise, and to hear it now chilled me to the bone. It meant I'd failed, that the slave I had sought to rescue had instead been summarily executed. Without trial, without jury, without justice; executed for the sole crime of being nonhuman and free. I had just been made an accessory to a murder.

Slowly I turned, knowing just what I would see: the Knight Sabers. Lady Blue was still in motion, landing from some long jump to stand over the fallen giant. She had some new accessories to go with her outfit, in the same fetching shade of blue: two large gauss cannons set up in an avant-garde over-the-shoulder mount, with ring grips for her hands near their front ends. They were the obvious source of a set of fucking huge spikes -- still glowing faintly azure from the bleed-off of their induced electrical field -- that had driven into and through the skull of the boomer I'd tried so hard to save. A boomer whose suddenly still body in its tight wrapping of chains bespoke a quick and quiet death. Behind Blue, the other three Knights approached more cautiously, and stood off to the side.

A cold rage formed in my chest. I snapped out a hand, and a golden chain exploded forth to wrap itself around the blue Knight Saber's chest and trap her arms. Instead of releasing the chain to let it envelope her, I grabbed its end and yanked, at the same time willing the chain to shorten itself. "Get over here!" I yelled. Before she knew what was happening, Lady Blue found herself dragged into a cozy little tete-a-tete with yours truly.

"Why did you do that?" I hissed at her as I dissolved the chain. The PA amplified my almost silent challenge and set it bouncing off the walls near us. "Please tell me."

Blue had been surprised by the attack, but she recovered quickly. Her left hand (the one that was basically in a lightly-armored glove) shot forward, fingers spread; she obviously wanted to grab me by the front of my jacket. It slid off my field to the left. "It was a boomer," she growled and tried again, this time only to have her hand forced uncontrollably to the right. Through her voder came a wordless sound of frustration, and she stood there, clenching and unclenching both hands at chest height.

"You had it down," she continued in a low, dangerous snarl. The familiar voxmod buzz somehow managed to transmit the aggressive and challenging tone of her voice. "I finished the job for you." That tone made it clear -- she was daring me to object.

I nodded slowly. "Oh." I turned as if to go, took a step, then snapped a spin kick at her. I caught her as she was starting to lunge for me and got a solid hit on her midriff, folding her in half and propelling her backwards to smash against the concrete wall the late boomer had rent with its claws. I followed and yanked her out of the rubble by the chin of her helmet.

"NO!" I yelled at her, and the PA boosted it to almost painful levels. "You did not finish it for me. You fucked it up for me!" I found myself bizarrely wishing that her armor had lapels, because I wanted to grab them and shake her violently. "This was my operation, Blue. Understand this -- you Knights do what you like on your own missions, but you do not interfere in mine. Got it?"

"Fuck you, you son of a bitch! Fuck you!" she bellowed and flung her left arm back; with a quiet click some kind of flat-fronted guard pivoted around her forearm and locked into place over the lightly-armored hand. High-tech brass knuckles. Interesting.

I shoved her away and hopped backwards to get out of hand-to-hand range. She stumbled and fell back into the pile of shattered wall. As she scrambled to return to her feet, I turned back to the boomer, shooting a glance at the other Knights as I did so. Olive was jittering nervously in place, while White and Pink stood statue-still. Is this some kind of sick test? I wondered, then turned my attention back to the six-meter armored corpse.

Behind me, I heard concrete scraping on concrete. My danger sense screamed, and without thinking -- or looking -- I dodged the punch Blue threw at me. Her right hand, little more than an armored bludgeon, whipped past my head, an electric crackle and a smell of ozone in its wake. I grabbed her forearm and redirected her momentum to pivot her completely around and then send her rolling across the plaza with a clatter of armor on cement and an explosive discharge of electricity. Nasty.

"You missed," I observed.

A stream of digitally-filtered profanity was her only response.

* * *

As she slowly rose to her feet again, Priss snarled at Sangnoir. I'm going to pound you into the sidewalk, you smug asshole! she fumed silently. I don't need you to make me doubt myself. Self-doubt was an old friend, after all, in the years since Sylvie had died. Hell, say it true, Priss. Since I murdered her. But it was getting harder and harder to stoke the fires of her anger enough to drown out the doubt.

It didn't help that Linna had begun interrogating Sylia about the nature of boomer brains as they were donning their hardsuits, and kept it up all the way here. Sylia had replied in terse, uninformative monosyllables. An uncharacteristic tension had underlaid her voice, and it grew with each of Linna's inquiries. And Nene... Nene was positively bloodthirsty today. Priss had never seen her like that before.

Part of her wanted to scream at Linna for asking questions whose answers Priss didn't want to hear. Another part of her -- the part that despaired and railed at Sylvie's death -- wanted desperately to know as much as Linna wanted to. Confused at the conflict in her own soul, Priss turned to her familiar anger for comfort, hoping for a chance to take it all out on Sangnoir for starting all this trouble. Hadn't her life been a big enough pile of shit without him stirring it up and forcing her to look at things she didn't want to see?

And how dare he refuse to bring them back from the dead? To bring even one back? If he only knew what just asking him had done to her...

No. No more thinking. The only way she'd feel better would be to grind the smirking bastard into the ground.

* * *

I glared at the other Knights. Olive looked at her compatriots, then triggered her jump jets. She passed out of my field of view, and I didn't turn to follow her. Behind me, as I started walking away again, I heard that odd hollow "poink" sound their steps made as she landed.

"That's enough," I heard Olive say softly to Blue.

Ignoring them, I stalked back to the giant boomer, which now lay in a growing pool of yellow fluid. The song timer in my HUD was under 45 seconds and blinking red, but instead of letting it run out, I muttered, "<System. Song off.>" Buckingham and Nicks shut up in mid-syllable, and the golden chains wrapping the boomer vanished. No longer held in tension by the energy constructs, the bot's body slumped. The armor plating made dull impact noises against the stone, not unlike Blue's.

I knelt next to the monstrous corpse and reached out to touch its head when I heard that rapid "poink-poink-poink" coming up behind me. I was still combat-hyped, and my spin-and-stand reaction startled Blue. Her hands rose to the D-rings that hung under from shoulder-mounted gauss cannons.

"Try it," I said softly and with considerably more confidence than I felt. If even one of those spikes got through my field... "Just try it."

"What the fuck is your problem?" she said after a moment's silence, releasing the D-rings. "You pissed because we killed it first?"

I'd had just about enough. I was tired and frustrated, I was cold and damp and half-cramped from a day of squatting on wet rooftops, I'd just fought my way alone through three of the ugliest and deadliest bots I'd ever encountered in my entire career, had the boomer I wanted to save killed right under my nose, my ribs were probably broken and my wrist was still screaming bloody murder at me. And most of all, I realized that I was sick and tired of clueless do-gooder crunchies who ought to know better running around in high-powered armor at the behest of a woman with an obvious private agenda.

I'm afraid I got a little cranky.

"No, you testosterone-poisoned bimbo, I'm pissed because you killed it, period!" Behind me, I thought I heard one of the ADP inspectors say, "Uh-oh," but I didn't care. "I was trying to save its life, you microcephalic excuse for a mercenary!" I glared at her, then shared it with the other Knights. "I give you four notice right now. You interfere with one of my operations again, and I will treat you as hostiles."

The two ADP officers were starting to get restless; I could hear whispers and mutters to my rear. Best to end this quickly.

"Don't you think your declaration is a bit hypocritical, Colonel?" White asked with an obvious sneer in her voice. "You are, after all, a visitor to MegaTokyo, while we have long been the city's defenders."

* * *

"'Colonel'?" Daley murmured. "Looks like they've found out something new since you last dealt with them, Leon-chan."

"Not really," Leon replied absently. "I got an update on Monday."

"Do tell."

* * *

"In case you haven't noticed, Lady White, you four are as much illegal vigilantes as I am. I don't think that being the first to commit a particular crime grants you exclusive rights to it." From his position near the crumpled patrol car I heard McNichol laugh softly.

In front of me, Blue seemed to hover between distraction and combat-readiness. At least once, her head jerked as if someone had called her. It was obvious that at least one of the other Knights was using their private channel to try to talk her into or out of something, judging from her body language. I flicked my eyes over to a small display at the edge of the HUD. My sampling program almost had enough for me to work with.

"Nevertheless," White continued. "Rogue boomers such as this one are a threat to this city. We may well choose to interpret your attempts to... 'save their lives'... as being a danger to the safety of MegaTokyo's people."

"Don't give me this sanctimonious shit, White. Your boomers are people, too. Just as much as the full biologicals who live in this city. Making slaves of them doesn't change that fact."

"The safest way of dealing with a rogue is to destroy it. This is one of the duties we owe to the people of MegaTokyo."

I shook my head. "You just don't get it, do you, White? You're not fulfilling a duty, you're serving a master. You're pro bono slave hunters! You take care of the rogues, the loose cannons and the inconveniently rebellious for GENOM, and you do it for free. What a wonderful bonus for their bottom line! You're nothing more than GENOM's volunteer clean-up squad."

Blue growled at me again, then her voxmod cut off suddenly. She was back on the private channel the Knights shared. Pink and Olive hesitantly stepped forward a few feet, then glanced back at White. Only Blue had a weapon close to trained on me at the moment, but I had to wonder just how much ordnance might be brought to bear on Momma Sangnoir's favorite son should they break form and fire on me.

I was starting to get fed up with all of this. "Listen to me, White, and listen good. You know my mind. You want to dispute it with me, fine, I'll take you all on. You're just four crunchies in tin suits, after all. I'll rip you right out of your armor. And don't think I can't do it." I whirled back to the dead bot, mentally daring Blue to just try something. "<System. 'Dust in the Wind'. Play,>" I murmured, and the helmet obliged. At the same time, the sampler's readout in my HUD suddenly blinked green as it reached a critical mass of data.

"Take this as a warning, White. Don't get in my way," I called back over my shoulder, and punched down.

* * *

"Leon..." Daley began uneasily.

"Wait..." Leon interrupted. "Look!"

In the plaza the Loon stood over the fallen boomer and punched downward with his right hand. A vortex of swirling air sprang up in a column around him, then channeled itself down his arm to engulf the boomer.

The body of giant cyberdroid exploded into a silver mist, a cloud of fine powder that was caught up by the blast of wind and carried out of the plaza. All that was left was the pool of nutrient fluid in which the cyberdroid had lain, and a few blackened and scorched masses that might have been organic, once. "Rest in peace, my friend," the Loon murmured, but the PA in his helmet carried it to everyone. "You're free now."

He turned back to the Sabers. Raising his arm, he pointed at them; something like a dust devil swirled along its length, a trumpet bell of moving air flaring out around his hand. He fixed a warning look on the Blue Saber in particular, then trained it on the others. "Mess with me, and I'll vaporize your oh-so-pretty armor just like that. I'll leave you in the street four very identifiable women in their underwear. Got it?"

Even through her hardsuit, Leon could see that Priss was trembling with rage, and glanced at the white Saber. To his shock, he realized that she was just as angry as Priss. It screamed out to him in her posture and her body language, which Sylia normally kept under strict control. Shit, he thought as he watched the tension between the Loon and the Sabers rise with every exchange. This is bad, really bad...

"I believe, Colonel, that the phrase in your particular idiom would be, 'Of course you realize, this means war,'" said the white Saber quietly.

"Yes," he replied slowly. "War it is. So be it. For what it's worth, Lady White, I'm sorry it has to be like this."

She nodded. "Understood. And believe me when I tell you, I feel the same. You are, after all, acting on your own sincere beliefs, and you are saving lives as well." Sylia's tones still rang with anger even as she made the grudging admission.

The Loon returned the nod. "As are you. It's a pity we cannot come to a better understanding, Lady White. If only you would see what it is you are really doing..." In the distance, the sirens of the approaching ADP backup became audible, and he cocked his head. "I hear the herald of more audience than I care to perform for. I do believe I will be going. I cannot wish you well in your crusade, White, but I will at least wish you well, period." He returned his attention to Priss. "And you, Blue... I owe you a life for the death you inflicted here."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" she snarled, the hardsuit voder not filtering out the savage anger in her voice at all.

Within his helmet, he smiled enigmatically. "Figure it out for yourself." He stepped back, murmuring, "<System. Song off,>" and the tiny twister enveloping his arm vanished. As the Blue Saber looked on, he stood over the fragment of Doberman he'd salvaged earlier. He spread his arms and held them high. "And now, for my next trick... <System. 'Fly Like an Eagle'. Play.>" He swept his arms down, and brought them back up as great golden-feathered wings. In an eyeblink, the Loon had been replaced by an enormous eagle, monstrous and majestic, which seized the wreckage in its talons. A single flap of its immense wings and it was airborne, startling the pilot of an incoming FireBee as the raptor silently hurtled into the overcast sky. It shimmered in the reflected light of a million street lamps, and vanished.

The Knight Sabers stood staring into the sky for a long moment afterward. Then the White Saber triggered her jumpjets and bounded away, followed by the others. The Pink Saber was the last to leave; for several seconds more she stared at the seared and blackened scraps which were all that remained of the boomer giant, until she jerked as if in surprise and triggered her own jets.

What are you thinking, Nene? Leon mused. I'd give a week's pay to know...

As he stood absorbed in thought, his eyes on the overcast sky, the approaching sirens grew in volume, reaching a crescendo and then cutting off abruptly. He turned to see that a half dozen or more armored personnel carriers had pulled up around the edges of the plaza and were now disgorging troopers.

Leon glanced around. Next to the remains of the patrol car, Daley was deep in an energetic conversation with the assembled squad leaders. The forensic team had already unpacked its gear; its members were vigorously studying, measuring and photographing the scene. Leon chuckled at a woebegone-looking Sgt. Kenichi Altonji, relegated to drawing a chalk circle not only around the Dobermans and the giant's ashes, but also around every scrap of metal, Abotex and syntheflesh for 30 meters in every direction.

"Good work, Leon," came a feminine voice from behind and to his left.

He turned to see Fuko, pad and pencil box in hand, walking up to him with Vong at her side, and he laughed without emotion. "Not me this time. Our friend the Loon, and the Knight Sabers. The poor boomers got caught in the crossfire."

Vong gave a long, low whistle. "You're joking, aren't you, sir?"

Leon shook his head as Fuko studied the scene. "Not entirely," he replied quietly. "There's a new Cold War in town, Lieutenant. And it just might flash hot at any moment." He drew a deep breath. "God help us if it does."

* * *

Thursday, February 5, 2037. 5:53 PM

By any objective measure of time, if such a thing really exists, I landed next to my cycle some three hours after I took off from the plaza. Subjectively, it was less than 25 seconds later. "Fly Like An Eagle" is a nice showy song that gives me a top flight speed well in excess of 200 kph, but it has a side-effect that is usually quite inconvenient: any time I'm actually in flight, it also propels me into the near future. We measured it once; the ratio of objective to subjective duration floats between 450 and 500 to 1. If I spent the whole song in flight, I could lose over 25 hours. Obviously, the song does not lend itself well to tactical combat use, or fast response to an emergency.

However, if I wanted to make a quick getaway and stay lost for a while, it's the perfect song. As long as I remain airborne, I'm outside the normal flow of time, and thus undetectable by anyone short of another metahuman with a temporal metatalent. Or a god. Even better, I can still see the world around me. Sort of. It's like watching a film running at 12,000 frames a second -- only the things that stay in one place more than about 5 real-time minutes are really visible, however briefly. It's like flying through a ghost city, populated with bizarre flickers and flashes of light. And there's always something you're just catching out of the corner of your eye, only to turn and see nothing there. It can actually be a bit creepy.

Anyway.

It only took me a couple of seconds to get back to my bike, but that wouldn't be long enough to be safe. So I flapped around some more until the ADP vehicles and the wrecked patrol car all flickered and vanished, along with the various roadblocks around the plaza. I dropped to the ground, carefully released my talon-hold on the gravity weapon, and waited for the song to end.

Once back in human form, I packed the weapon in one of the bike's panniers. It was heavy, which is to be expected of a primitive gravtech device, but it wasn't so much so that it would threaten the cycle's stability. Then, with my bike's color returned to its normal black-and-flames, my spare (normal) helmet on my head, and wearing my duster, I made my way back to my crappy little hidey-hole, carefully avoiding any police (be they "N" or "AD") along the way.

Once inside, I carefully put the gravgun (which had come inside with me wrapped in my coat) on the top shelf of one of the kitchenette cabinets. I would see what IDEC had in the way of facilities first before deciding what would happen with the weapon. Then I made myself a cup ramen and began to analyze the combat with the Dobies and the giant.

Technically it had come out well enough, save for the last-moment murder of the giant itself. If I hadn't had the node to draw upon, I doubt I would have done as well, but at the moment, that was irrelevant. There were other conclusions to draw from the fight. And the number one conclusion was, again, what the hell was I thinking of when I decided on this course of action?

I mean, I was one single person. Even with a polymorphically perverse metatalent, I still didn't pack nearly as much firepower as even the weakest Knight Saber did. I hadn't taken down those Dobermans by the strength of my attack; I simply set them up so that the giant would do the job for me. (I'd barely managed to keep those quantum black holes stabilized long enough for them to impact the attack-dogs' armor, let alone punch through it. "Black Hole Sun" was far better for defense against gravity attacks than it was as an attack itself.)

So what was I doing trying to mount a military action by myself?

That's what it amounted to. And despite the intoxicating freedom of vigilante action, it was all ultimately futile. GENOM could build boomers faster than I could knock them down. One person could not wage a personal war against a multinational power and hope to win. Nor could four, no matter how well-armed they were.

I shook my head as I slurped noodles. Lady White was either an obsessive-compulsive, or an idealistic fool. And I knew from first-hand experience that she was no fool. I would have preferred that she were; it would have made things far less dangerous if I didn't have to deal with a fanatic.

The problem was, despite my charge from the Three and the fact that it was futile as a means of thwarting GENOM, I couldn't very well stop vigging on boomers. They would keep on berserking, and people would keep on getting hurt as a result. I couldn't sit by and not do anything just because boomers were also people. I had to act. I had no choice -- if I were to be able to live with myself, I had to defend the innocent from the aggressors, and that meant taking out boomers. Unfortunately, many of the boomers would be innocents, too, in their own way. What made it even worse was that I would be spending all my time treating a symptom, not the disease. No matter how gently I brought those boomers down, they would -- as I had already realized earlier -- still be enslaved. A purely military approach was pointless and wantonly destructive.

I still needed something that destroyed the blocks that made a boomer a slave without harming it. Only then would I have any chance to free even a single boomer. Let alone the entire race.

* * *

Thursday, February 5, 2037. 7:31 PM

Sylia fastidiously perched herself on the edge of the sloshing mass that aspired to the title of "bed". Studiously ignoring the array of brightly-colored silicone and latex objects sorted by both size and hue on the night stand to her right, she said, "I'm beginning to think you enjoy trying to embarrass me."

"Would I do that?" Fargo asked, drawing on his cigarette.

Sylia simply raised an eyebrow in in response.

Unabashed, the man in the rumpled suit simply gave her a rakish smile. "I'm just a born romantic, Sylia. I keep hoping I'll find just the right setting to fan into flame that spark of feeling you have for me deep in your heart."

She sniffed in amusement and disdain. "A 1000-yen per hour love motel is not the setting I would have chosen."

Fargo simply spread his hands and grinned. Sylia sighed. "What do you have for me?" she asked, a touch of fatigue creeping into her voice.

Fargo took another long drag on the glowing butt, and exhaled a cloud of fragrant smoke. "Last night I had some people check out apartment 2532 in Building 4 of the Morita Federal Housing Complex in Ota ward." He paused, looking to her as though to confirm the address once more. Sylia nodded impatiently, and he continued.

"They weren't the first to get there. Someone else had already gone over the place, thoroughly and professionally." Sylia swore softly to herself. "My specialists think that the first bunch didn't find whatever they were looking for, because they'd done everything but pull out the plumbing and punch holes in the walls. My people went through what was left, though. They found a dozen or so pieces of handmade clothing in a distinctly European medieval style, a supply of food and cheap cookware, and assorted pieces of scrap paper." He smiled at her again. "One of which you may be interested in."

With the hand unoccupied by the cigarette, Fargo fished through the pockets of his jacket, finally pulling out a folded piece of paper. He snapped it open with a shake and handed it to Sylia. Her eyes widened as she realized what it was.

"According to my sources," Fargo continued, "that's a page from the schematics for the new radios the ADP purchased several months ago. As you can see, it's been... altered."

Sylia nodded absently as she studied the English annotations scrawled across the sheet in a strong masculine hand, sometimes in ink, frequently in pencil. Most were changes to the circuit designs printed on the sheet, but others were commentary, often colorful: "This is stupid!" "What moron designed this?" "No no no -- replace!" "Not bad, but tweak register access." And next to the blocky symbol which represented the radio's encryption chip: "Unacceptable. Trash, replace with SQUID42 -- use 1991/pre-'Lord Chess' release."

She cloaked her surprise and shock in studied indifference as she refolded the sheet and slipped it into her skirt pocket. "Excellent work as always. And the other half of the job?"

"The devices you specified were installed in apartment 2533 per your instructions," he replied, reaching into another pocket. He drew out a microdisk and passed it to her. "These are the frequencies and the encryption key for monitoring their signals."

Sylia nodded. "Very good. Thank you, Fargo. That will be all."

"So soon? And we haven't even touched the minibar."

Already deep in thought, Sylia merely waved her hand dismissively in his direction. Familiar with the state of concentration his employer had entered, Fargo simply smiled and let himself out.

* * *

Alone in the motel room, Sylia sat with cigarette in hand and contemplated.

So GENOM has discovered Sangnoir's identity. Little good may it do them. Sylia smiled at the thought of how baffled GENOM must be without the knowledge about him that the Sabers alone possessed. Then she grew serious again.

One question answered, at least. Sangnoir had, at some point, worked on the new AD Police radio system. Which not only explained the similarity between his system's encryption and theirs, but also raised a new, troubling question: why give the ADP an encryption algorithm that may well have been unbreakable by anyone, were it not for Nene? If he had simply wanted to eavesdrop, it would have been easier to keep a copy of the algorithm that had already been in place. The only obvious answer was to help them, to protect them, to enable them to do their jobs better.

Damn.

It was so much easier when the enemy was demonstrably evil in some way. Mason, Largo, Miriam Yoshida, even J.B. Gibson to a lesser extent -- all were focused on their own desires and lusts and treated other people as obstacles or tools, when they considered them at all.

Even as you have, at times, her conscience reminded her.

Not to that extent. Never to that extent.

There was a time when Priss, Linna and Nene were only tools for your vengeance, it whispered. Conveniently skilled and motivated, malleable, aimable.

And that attitude hadn't lasted through the first month, she reminded herself. I never used them; instead, they saved me from becoming like the monsters I fought. Long before our first mission together.

What kind of monsters do you fight?

Mason, Largo, Yoshida, Gibson. Others like them.

Not the boomers? her conscience probed.

No, damn it all, not the boomers. The boomers are only tools, too. Intelligent tools, yes, thanks to her father's genius. But unstable tools, thanks to his willingness to take shortcuts to make his prototype work, and thanks to GENOM's further massacres of his delicate designs in their rush to turn a development project into a production item. Sometimes they were even tools that gleefully embraced their use. But the boomers were not the enemy, any more than a tank, or a gun, could be the enemy.

Could you say that to Priss' face? Can you even say it to your own?

No. And not until now.

And Sangnoir?

Naive, in a bizarrely sophisticated way. Sincere, ethical. And possessed of an immense power whose very nature she found profoundly abhorrent.

But he was not evil.

And Sylia wondered if she could kill a good man who acted with the best of intentions -- and upon the orders of the gods, if he were to be believed -- simply because he stood in the way of her plans.

And if she did, what would be the cost to her soul?

* * *

ADP HQ. Thursday, February 5, 2037. 8:23 PM

Frowning at the dubious odors drifting up into his nose, Daley Wong surveyed the tables in the ADP cafeteria, looking for a familiar face.

It wasn't a difficult job. The afternoon-to-evening shift he and Leon had pulled today pretty much guaranteed that the current selection of diners would be made up of late stragglers like himself and a few folks from the graveyard shift who'd come in early. Leon himself had turned down Daley's invitation to join him. "Wedding planning," was all he'd said, and Daley had ushered him out with a grin. The thought still made him smile -- Leon and Priss tying the knot, finally. And Leon had asked him to be best man. The idea made still him chuckle. Now if only he could find himself his own Mr. Right...

Daley started and realized he had begun to drift off while standing in the archway that separated the serving area from the dining room. Fortunately there was no aggrieved crowd behind him, as there might have been earlier in the day. He stepped fully into the room anyway, and scanned it once more. There were perhaps a dozen members of the ADP scattered around the large, brightly-lit space.

One was Fuko MacNamara, a sketchpad propped up in her lap and leaning against the edge of her table. A tray of empty plates sat to one side as she concentrated, tongue tip peeking from the corner of her mouth, on a series of fine pencil strokes. Daley waited until she lifted the pencil from the paper and studied her work before walking briskly to the table and asking, "Mind if I join you?"

Fuko looked up in surprise. "Oh, hi, Daley. Sure, sit down." She gave a vague wave at the seat across from her, using the hand still holding the pencil.

"Thanks." Daley set his tray down and made himself comfortable. "No big rush to get home tonight?"

"Nah." Fuko frowned at her pad, picked up a blob of grey rubber and began carefully erasing something. "Hiroshi's in New York for some business deal, so all I have to go home to is an empty apartment that smells of my last attempt at an oil painting."

"Hiroshi?" Daley said as he unwrapped his chopsticks and folded their paper covering into an improvised rest for them. "Oh, right, your fiance."

Pencil back in hand, Fuko nodded, a goofy grin spreading across her face. "Yep. Just two months to go, too, until the big day."

He sighed. "Seems like everyone's getting married but me -- you, Leon, even Bochinski and Wadderson."

"It's not good to feel so desperate about it, Daley," she replied as she shaded in part of the pad with flat, rapid strokes of the pencil. "You get desperate, you might jump at the wrong opportunity, and then get stuck with someone like Leon for the rest of your life."

Daley sighed again, this time with a theatrical excess that made Fuko snort. "I wish I were so lucky."

"Cheer up. You're still young and healthy. You just need to make it clear that you're available, and you'll find someone in no time." She made a few minute additions to the sketch and studied it, chewing her lip.

Shifting his attention to the soup, Daley murmured, "If you really think so..."

"I do!" she replied firmly. "Don't sell yourself short."

He gave a half-smile. "I'll try to keep that in mind." Bringing the bowl to his lips, he added, "So, what are you working on there?" just before taking a long sip.

Fuko frowned half-heartedly at the pad. "Just a little something fanciful based on the reports you two submitted today. Nothing official, just for myself." She turned the pad around to reveal an intricate sketch of the Loon and the White Saber locked nose to determined nose in close combat, her sword blade checking and held in check by the miniature tornado swirling around his right arm. The style was somewhere between the clean-lined stylization of most manga and the realism Fuko used in her official sketches; it took Daley a moment to identify it as somewhat reminiscent of late 20th-Century American comic books.

"Niiiice," he said appreciatively, nodding his head as he set down the soup bowl.

"You think so?" she asked. Then she shrugged and closed up the pad. "It could be better; I think I'll work on it some more tonight." Carefully setting the pad to one side, she laid her pencil on top of it and mused, "It's strange, isn't it? I mean, this time last week the Sabers were ADP's unofficial allies, and the Loon was wanted. And then four days ago, everything spins around and turns upside down."

"Not really," Daley corrected as he popped a chunk of carrot into his mouth with his chopsticks. "The Loon's still wanted, officially."

"'Officially,'" Fuko agreed, "but really? He's said a few times that he prefers working with the police -- whatever that implies about where he's from -- and it looks like you guys are taking him at his word. And I heard about him offering to let Leon arrest him."

Daley snorted. "You didn't hear the whole rapid-fire spiel he gave, Fuko. He never said Leon could arrest him. He only said he'd let Leon try." Raising his cup to his lips, Daley took a long sip of his tea. A look of concentration settled around his eyes. "More like he was offering a sporting chance rather than turning himself in."

Fuko raised an eyebrow. "Huh."

"Strangely enough, I don't doubt that if Leon could actually physically catch him, the Loon would really let himself be taken into custody, now. He strikes me as having exactly that kind of twisted sense of honor." Daley took another sip from the tea and then turned to his rice with a smile. "It's the actual catching part that I think Leon-chan's going to have a problem with."

Fuko stifled a giggle, then grew serious. "It's a shame about the whole attitude reversal the ADP's got over the Knight Sabers now, though."

Frowning, Daley nodded. "It's just so..."

"It's an over-reaction, that's what it is," she interrupted.

"Right! That's exactly what it is. I mean, think about it. The Pink Saber steps in to stop a bunch of loose cannons and disciplinary problems from going off half-cocked in the middle of an incident, and suddenly the Sabers are bad guys? Says who?"

"God knows they've made the department look bad enough a time or two before without showing up on the 'most wanted' list," Fuko muttered.

"Exactly!" Daley laid his chopsticks down on the folded paper rest and cupped his hands under his chin while resting his elbows on the table. "It's almost as if someone is taking advantage of this to undermine some of the goodwill the Sabers have generated among us. But who?"

Fuko shrugged. "I think you're reading too much conspiracy into this, Daley. People are fickle, especially en masse. There doesn't have to be a puppet master pulling strings here -- the usual scuttlebutt run through the rumor mill will do the job all by itself, you know?" She leaned forward. "If you're intent on looking for a prime mover behind it, though, find out who put their silhouettes on the range's 'active targets' list. That'll at least give you a starting point."

Daley slowly nodded. "That it will. That it will."

* * *

Thursday, February 5, 2037. 9:02 PM

The fact that cotton denim can reach a point of perfect softness and comfort proves there is a God, Katherine Madigan mused silently as she settled herself back down on her sofa, a quickly-made snack in her hands. She was dressed, true to her thoughts, in a pair of faded Levi's and a cardigan; a white terrycloth house slipper dangled from the toes of one foot while the other was tucked carelessly under herself. A royal purple scrunchie in the precise center of the back of her head gathered her long lavender hair into a deceptively casual-looking ponytail.

Few in GENOM ever saw her dressed like this -- and she took extensive pains to make sure it stayed that way. While image was by no means everything in the corp, it still counted for a lot; her reputation as GENOM's implacable ice queen would suffer if she were seen schlepping about in jeans and a sweater. But in the privacy of her own apartment, there was no reason not to be as comfortable as possible.

Especially when one is engaged in a task as intensive as the one she had set for herself this evening.

Before her, arrayed carefully across the crystal top of her coffee table, lay several stacks of papers and folders, a wireless keyboard, and her household remote control. To one side lay the hours-old remains of her dinner, not yet cleaned away. The large wall-mounted video screen which faced her currently displayed the desktop interface for her apartment's computer system.

After finding a comfortable position on the couch once again, Katherine reached for the remote -- set for the moment to act as a wireless mouse -- and resumed the night's brainstorming session. Purely mental constructs were insufficient to the task of working with the amount of data she had to collate, and so she returned to HARUSPEX 2.1, the free-form information manager/ analysis package (product of a GENOM subsidiary, of course) currently running on the apartment microframe.

The topic at hand (as it had been every night since Sunday) was, of course, the Visitor. Every scrap of information gathered on him in the previous eight months -- be it audio, video, or text -- now resided in the indexed dataspace of the powerful software. Programmed to seek out patterns from the scantest of data with a dogged intelligence and imagination that seemed almost human, the package was practically an AI, lacking only a sense of self-awareness among its features. Katherine was quite adept at its use -- HARUSPEX was one her primary management tools, after all, and was quite handy at detecting both financial and social trends within GENOM.

And at analyzing mysterious visitors from other universes.

If only she dared use it to help her solve the problem of Chairman Quincy's relationship to the Visitor...

Immediately upon launching HARUSPEX several hours ago, she had detached the financial packages which she habitually loaded with the program, replacing them with a full suite of GENOM's military-grade analysis modules. Since then, the program had been carefully churning over the dataset which comprised everything GENOM knew about the Visitor.

Some of her tasks that evening hadn't required HARUSPEX's talents. Examining the disappointing report of the team she had dispatched to Sangnoir's apartment was one. Dismissing the recent report of security glitches from IDEC as just more evidence that the subsidiary was composed chiefly of narrowly-gifted bumblers was another. And determining the reason for the Chairman's injunction against music in the presence of the Visitor...

This last had been gnawing at her, because of its seeming irrationality. But there was no denying that the Visitor used music, almost obsessively -- nearly every reported encounter with him mentioned music, be it loud and blaring, or muted as if heard distantly. She refused to believe that it was for something as simple as amusement; her every instinct cried out against the idea.

What, then, was the music for?

HARUSPEX provided part of the answer, at least, buried in the lists of patterns it produced: in several of the rare audio recordings of him in action, the Visitor had spoken the title of a song from the late Twentieth Century immediately before deploying one of his mind-boggling technologies. And not just the titles -- they were invariably bracketed by the English words "system," "load" and "play". He had been deliberately invoking a voice-operated device of some sort -- probably in the helmet -- before activating his more arcane combat systems. Why?

Shabon spray! whispered a young girl's voice in the back of Katherine's mind. Mercury bubble blast!

No. That was ridiculous. Wasn't it? But...

Ten minutes and a handful of Net searches later, she wasn't so sure that it was so ridiculous. The correlations between song and subsequently demonstrated technology were sometimes tenuous, but always at least possible. Combined with the Chairman's warning, it led her to conclusions she felt uncomfortable drawing, but whose logic was compelling... But if the Visitor weren't employing technology...

Katherine shook her head vigorously and changed focus before that avenue of pursuit led her to a place of uncomfortable conclusions and introspection. She didn't need that right now. She needed to focus on the issues at hand.

There was one other pattern -- hardly discovered by HARUSPEX, though the program had easily expanded upon it -- that could adversely impact any possible capture attempt: the Visitor's enigmatic on-again/off-again "force field."

With a wave of the remote, she gathered together the existing data on the "force field" and tiled the individual files across the apartment video display. There was more to work with than she expected -- between the boomer logs, the ADP records GENOM had acquired and the news footage, she had far more data available than she had on the music question. Another sweeping motion and a click of a button, and a half-dozen different encounters played out simultaneously, each in its own frame, each in agonizing slow motion.

Quietly, in the background, HARUSPEX noted the change in her focus and modified its pattern-seeking priorities accordingly. General combat analysis slipped lower in the queue, while close-fighting modules were opened and inserted at the top of the list.

It didn't take long for Katherine to realize that what she was watching was not a "force field" in action -- at least, not as she'd define one, based on pop culture and science fiction. She'd drawn this conclusion while watching a boomer combat log which clearly showed several hundred rounds of Vulcan ammunition turning into cherry blossoms. Bemused and off-balance, she made a mental note to see if Bunko's still had any of those blossoms. Or if they had turned back into bullets, or had simply vanished. Surely someone must have samples...

Not long after, a HARUSPEX alert appeared over the other windows; "STATISTICAL ANOMALY" it blared at her in red letters on black. A click on "Details" displayed its report: according to its hand-to-hand combat models, a statistically significant fraction of attacks aimed at the Visitor did not hit him when analysis insisted that they should have. When she acknowledged a desire for more information, the video windows minimized. A new window appeared, showing two wire frame figures, one large and blue, the other smaller and red, on a black background. Next to the blue figure floated a blue tag reading simply "Boomer"; a similar red tag read "Visitor". White text scrolled across the bottom of the frame: "Essential motion capture, video fragment 27 September 2036."

In excrutiatingly slow motion, the wire frames recreated a brief exchange of blows, then looped back again, and again. With each cycle, the window flashed when two of the "boomer"'s punches inexplicably failed to hit.

Madigan gestured with the remote as if conducting an orchestra, and the image panned and zoomed to show a closeup of the action. This would be easier if I had a full holo display, she mused, frowning, as she set a single blow on multiple replay and watched it from all angles. Mental note: Have apartment AV system upgraded tomorrow. Another series of swipes and clicks displayed a flat gray pseudosurface along the path of the blow. On a hunch, she instructed HARUSPEX to eliminate the boomer wire frame and then overlay similar surfaces from all other extant "anomaly" exchanges on the Visitor model.

The resulting image was an almost complete bubble of gray, vaguely human-shaped.

This is getting me nowhere. With a savage punch of a button, Katherine shut down HARUSPEX, leaving behind the sparse desktop of her home system. With a groan, she flopped over to lay full-length on the couch, staring at the ceiling. "Physically, he's protected too well," she murmured, "between that... whatever-it-is and the body armor it seems he's wearing."

She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose with one hand. The helmet seems to be key, she thought. Whether they are technology or... other... it seems central to his abilities. If we take that away, damage or disable it... She considered this for a moment. No. Too risky. One unlucky shot and he's either dead or a vegetable. Then the Chairman finds out, and I won't even get the option of being a vegetable. No, we can't use any plan that involves overwhelming his considerable defenses in any way.

She sighed. While I'm thinking of that, we could probably shoot enough tranquilizer darts at him at once to guarantee that some get through, but we might risk fatally overdosing him in the process, if more get through than we expect. Another lose-lose situation.

Tea. She needed tea. Katherine swung her legs off the couch and let their momentum lever her upright. A minute later, she was waiting for her tiny electric teakettle to heat. Still, she continued to muse, sedating him is about the only way we can go, if we're to be non-lethal and ultimately non-incapacitating, per the Chairman's orders. There's no guarantee his defenses won't make simple physical restraints useless. For all we know, they may simply slip right off of him.

The kettle's piercing whistle roused her from her contemplations. Katherine reached for its handle, then froze as her eyes fell upon the jet of steam emitting from the tiny hole in its spout.

"Gas!" she said aloud. "We gas him."

It was perfect. The Visitor had to breathe, after all, "force field" or no "force field". And there was no evidence that he had any kind of respirator or gas mask installed in that helmet of his.

For a moment, the flush of her "Eureka!" suffused her. Then the insistent whistle of the kettle cut through the glow, and she returned to earth. As she poured the hot water over the tea leaves, Katherine realized to her surprise that outside of the satisfaction she got from successfully solving the problem she'd set for herself, she found no joy in the matter.

With a start, she realized that of late, much of her job felt that way.

"I need a vacation," she muttered as she returned to the living room to set her tea upon the coffee table. A click of the remote returned the screen to television mode, and another displayed a menu of the videorom cubes currently installed in her system. Sailor Moon episodes dominated the top of the list, and she browsed through them, looking for something to lighten her mood. "A vacation," she repeated to herself. "And not at the executive retreat. No GENOM resorts, either, for that matter."

Underneath the menu, an ancient American movie played, unnoticed by her. "...I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit 'em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird," lectured the dubbed Japanese voice of a mature man, heavy with a bucolic Kansai accent. Without knowing why, Katherine shuddered and convulsively pressed "play."

* * *

Thursday, February 5, 2037. 10:19 PM

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

"Hi, Lisa, it's Nene."

Cautiously, "Hello, Nene."

"Look, Lisa-chan, I want to apologize about earlier this week."

"You do."

"I do! I'm really sorry. I got carried away and... well, I'm just sorry, that's all. I don't want to talk to you about this on the phone -- I'd rather talk to you in person. Can we meet for lunch tomorrow?"

"I'm not sure, Nene, I might have an assignment..."

"Oh, pleeeeease, Lisa-chan?"

A pause.

A chuckle.

"Oh, okay, Nene, you wore me down. You know where the Olympia Grill is?"

"The Greek place two blocks north of ADP HQ?"

"That's it. I'll meet you there at noon, okay?"

"Great! I'm so glad! I've been just so miserable these last couple days and..."

"Nene, relax. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

"Hai!"

"Bye, Nene." Chuckle.

"Bye, Lisa-chan!"

Click.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 6, 2037. 10:15 AM

There. It was all in place. She would have the Visitor in her hands -- and the Chairman's office -- within ten days. Just another unpleasant matter settled. Just another assignment complete. And all her questions answered, just coincidentally.

So why did she feel so... unclean?

Madigan frowned and looked out over the city. I wish I could talk to someone about why I feel as I do. But I dare not show weakness. The corporation's in-house counselors were a joke -- bait for the unstable and the malcontents among the employee base, their doctor-patient confidentiality a sham to serve GENOM's interests. And any attempt to use an independent practitioner -- almost as bad. It'd be known to sharks below her almost as soon as she made an appointment. And it would not escape GENOM's watchful eye; a note would go into her records, flagging her as a potential security risk. She couldn't afford that. Not now.

She tried to build a logic tree to solve the problem, but could not concentrate enough to lay out the first branch.

Instead, she found herself staring, unthinking, at the city below.

* * *

Olympia Grill. Friday, February 6, 2037. 11:52 AM

Lisa dropped into her seat with a palpable thud, an uncharacteristically ferocious scowl upon her face. "Damned officious, inflexible, humorless, bureaucratic little twit! How dare he threaten my access!" she growled.

Nene blinked. "Was it something I said?" she asked, half-seriously.

Her lunch companion took a deep breath and composed herself. "Hi, Nene-chan," she finally said, with a smile that seemed a little forced. "No, not you. I just got the bad side of a co-worker. Garrett Kelau'ep'pai runs the morgue at the 16 Times..."

"You keep dead bodies where you work? Eewwww!" Nene interrupted in a horrified whisper.

"Nene!" Lisa rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. "You know I mean the paper's back-issue archive."

The redhead giggled. "It was too good an opportunity to pass up."

"Tell me about it," Lisa sighed. "I made the same joke this morning and Kelau'ep'pai gets all huffy and threatens to cut off my access. Twit!" she spat.

"Here." Nene poured a cup of tea and set it in front of Lisa. "You need to relax. It's not that important."

Lisa took another deep breath, then raised the cup to her lips and sipped, eyes closed. It was a mint tea, and she inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the sweet scent. Lowering the cup, she opened her eyes again, and the hint of a smile reappeared on her face.

"There, now." Nene grinned back. "Better?"

"Yes, much. Thank you, Nene." Lisa took another sip.

"Good. And now that you've relaxed a bit, I..." Nene squirmed in her seat, nervousness suddenly washing over her as though Lisa had absorbed all her calm. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry about pushing at you. I had no right to demand what I did."

"No," Lisa said, looking calmly at her cup. "You didn't."

"I mean, I don't understand why... never mind, I don't want to get into that right now." The redhead slumped slightly. "I just..." Staring at the table top, she bit her lip. "I don't want us to stop being friends because of what I did. Said. Because of what I said."

Lisa frowned over her cup, then caught Nene's eyes. "You can relax, Nene, I'm not going to end our friendship. But I'll be honest with you. I'm not happy with you right now. It's going to take me a little while to get over that. But I am going to get over it. Eventually."

Nene's visible relief brought a brief, small smile to Lisa's lips.

* * *

16 Tokyo Day Times. Friday, February 6, 2037. 1:12 PM

Well, Lisa thought as she waved to the receptionist, that went well enough, I guess. She passed her ID over the scanner and the door unlocked with a buzz. It's so strange, though... I felt so much older and more mature than Nene. I wonder why that was?

That line of thought was cut short as she entered the hallway which led to the city room. As always, it was bustling with activity -- even with electronic layout and communications, it seemed that someone always needed to run somewhere else on the floor -- but the bustle was strangely subdued compared to the morning's usual frantic activity.

Warning bells began to ring in the back of Lisa's mind. "This is not good," she murmured to herself as her suspicions began to coalesce. She turned the corner and halted in the doorway to the city room, positively alarmed. Many of the staff were still at work at their stations, but a few...

More than just a few, she corrected herself with her second glance across the room. Some.

A lot, she corrected herself a third time as she looked again. Maybe a quarter of her coworkers were in the process of clearing out their desks or workstations.

"It's begun." The gravelly voice to her left startled her, and she barely suppressed a flinch. She looked over to see who had spoken.

Lafcadio Nguyen sat at his workstation. A cardboard box that once had held several reams of paper for the laser printers resting in his lap. Its stark black-and-white shark logo (topped by the English words "Great White") echoed his salt-and-pepper ponytail and contrasted with the riotous paisley shirt he wore. As far as she could tell, the box contained everything that had ever personalized the graphic artist's workspace, and he held it clasped protectively in his arms.

"What's begun?" she said after a moment watching him slumped in his chair.

He didn't look up at her. "The layoffs. The rumors were right," he rasped in a low voice. "At least a third gone... like that." He snapped his fingers.

"But how?" Lisa demanded.

"They..." Lafcadio began.

"Lisa-chan!" rang out across the office. This time, she jumped in surprise, then spun about to see Kiyoshi leaning through his door into the city room. "My office, right now," the editor continued, somewhat more gently.

"Yes, sir!" she called back, already threading her way around the banks of desks and terminals.

"Good luck, kid," Lafcadio murmured behind her. "You'll need it."

* * *

Most of the explanation of how and why sped past her as she sat numbly wondering what she would do next. Something about a quiet merger of unfamiliar, almost anonymous parent companies of parent companies, and how it meant that the 16 Times would become a part of another online newspaper. She couldn't remember which. It didn't matter; she was sure it was all detailed in the packet which Kiyoshi had placed on his desk directly in front of her. If she really cared to know.

She didn't think that she would.

As Kiyoshi nattered on with a quiet monotony so unlike his usual hyperactive energy, she found her attention drifting off into an almost drowsy no-space built of equal parts emotional exhaustion and embittered fatalism. His words faded into a wearisome drone that she tuned out almost completely as her attention drifted towards her options.

There weren't really any.

The market for reporters and journalists in Megatokyo was steady and unchanging, rarely expanding even during the best of times. She'd been extraordinarily lucky to get this job with the 16 Day Times, and Kiyoshi's claims to the contrary, she suspected it was her father's reputation which had given her -- unknowingly -- the edge over her competition.

She couldn't count on that happening again, and she wouldn't drop his name. She didn't dare look like she was trading on his reputation and contacts; that would hurt her far more than it would help her. Which left her competing in the suddenly contracted market against her former coworkers, most of whom had years more experience, untold credits and even the occasional award. And she had... nothing. A few flower shows. Some lifestyle pieces. "Sailor Loon." And a top page story on the Knight Sabers which had left a black mark on her record because she'd tried to keep Doug out of the spotlight. Doug...

I wonder where he is, now, she thought. Still in the city, somewhere, if yesterday's news is any indication. Damn, I wish I knew where. I think I'm really going to need someone to talk to tonight...

"...is an alternative to letting you go, though." Kiyoshi's sudden change in tone cut right through the sleepy haze of Lisa's introspection and grabbed her attention.

She blinked herself back into awareness. "I'm sorry, sir. What was that?"

Kiyoshi smiled, and Lisa shivered; it wasn't the friendly grin he usually bore. "Even with the merger, we need good reporters, reporters with energy and drive and determination, regardless of their experience. I'd like to think you're one of those reporters."

Lisa sat up straight. "Oh, I am, sir! I am!" she replied brightly.

The editor nodded, still smiling. "I'm sure of it. But I need to demonstrate to my superiors your... value to the 16 Times. I need to show them something outstanding from you. Something that will convince the bean-counters in charge of the merger."

"Sure!" she chirped. "Anything! Name the assignment, and I'll give you an article that'll win the Aoba award!"

Kiyoshi nodded again. "I'm happy to see that you have the right attitude, Lisa-chan. Your father would be proud of you." He reached out and picked up the severance packet from where it still lay on the desk in front of her, opened a drawer, and dropped it in. "Very well, then. Over the past few months, you've demonstrated remarkable luck in obtaining photographs and interviews with some of MegaTokyo's more... unusual... residents." He leaned toward her. "The Knight Sabers. The one the ADP calls the 'Loon.' The mystery sailor-girl." He leaned back. "If you can bring me something outstanding about any of them by next Friday -- a real blockbuster of a piece, not something any other news site could stumble over by accident -- well, I'll see to it that you stay on the payroll. Is it a deal, Lisa-chan?"

Despite the misgivings that sent a pang through her gut, Lisa considered the offer. One more week's work would mean she could pay the rent on her apartment for another month. It would give her almost four weeks to look for another job. And it's not like I'm promising to bring back pictures or a story; I don't actually have to deliver anything, just "try". Still, it wouldn't be that hard... Maybe...

But a sudden flash of guilt and self-loathing washed over her at the thought. What am I thinking? This is just as bad -- worse, even -- than Nene's demands. Just agreeing to try would be tantamount to admitting my connection to the Sabers and Doug! And for what? Another hundred thousand yen or so. Inwardly, she frowned. More like 30 pieces of silver... Then a sudden, liberating realization struck her. Why do I need their money? I have all my Sabers pay still sitting in the accounts Sylia set up for me! I don't need to prostitute myself for a week's wages from this rinky-dink outfit!

"Lisa-chan?" Kiyoshi repeated, an eyebrow raised slightly.

With a grave expression of great dignity, Lisa stood and bowed deeply to the editor. "Thank you, Kiyoshi-san, but I regret that I cannot accept your offer," she said with utmost formality. "I cannot in good conscience promise to deliver that which is beyond my power, simply to preserve my position with the 16 Day Times. I shall accept the severance package the company has graciously provided and will seek new employment elsewhere." And while the editor stared at her, gape-mouthed, she bowed again. Then she turned crisply and strode from his office.

Back in the city room, Lisa sighed softly and allowed a faint smile to grace her lips. "That felt good," she murmured to no one in particular. I wonder if any of the other papers are in the market for a stringer, she mused as she made her way to her desk, her steps so light she was almost skipping.

For once, the drones who sat to either side of her were gone. With a genuine grin, she dropped into her seat and pulled out her palmtop. If I go to them with just the right story, too... I wonder what they might say about an expose of IDEC? A flick of the stylus, and the screen displayed the folder containing all her data on the GENOM subsidiary, and she nodded happily. Yes... I'll have to do a little snooping to supplement this with fresh material, but then again, I'll have all the time I need to do it, won't I?

And with that thought, Lisa stood up again, palmtop in hand and a broad smile on her face. Gathering unknowingly the puzzled stares of her more funereal co-workers, she strode off in search of a box in which to pack her belongings.

* * *

Friday, February 6, 2037. 10:23 PM

Her objective was finally in sight.

Inside her heavy coat, she shivered. The night air was much colder than she had expected, but it wasn't the cause for her shakes. The process by which she had gotten this far had been nerve-wracking beyond all her previous experience. Silently she vowed to herself never to attempt anything like it again. But there it was, her objective, now far too close for her to even consider turning back now.

As far as she could tell, she was, for the moment at least, in the clear. She had slipped past the GENOM security posts -- a conveniently-timed distraction as she approached them had ensured that. She felt confident that she hadn't been detected afterwards; dressed as she was, she looked just like anyone else likely to be seen in the vicinity of her target. Short of major cosmetic alteration, her current looks were as unlike her usual appearance as she could get. Or at least she hoped so.

Trying to be casual, she glanced in either direction -- a quick check for any suspicious figures nearby who might be trailing her, of which there were, fortunately, none -- before she approached the building. The front door was right out, though. Too obvious. Skirting around to the side, she sought out the rear entrance that she knew had to be there. She was in luck -- it was out of direct line of sight and unguarded. She tried the black metal handle. She allowed herself a brief smile when it turned out to be unlocked. Hauling the heavy door open, she slipped inside.

Within, the light was dim and yellow, radiating weakly from sconce-like fixtures of black iron spaced evenly along the walls. As she expected, the interior was deserted except for her. The nighttime staff was minimal -- one or two persons at the most; the usual flock of visitors were almost entirely day traffic. She relaxed infinitesimally, then scanned the sides of the great central space, looking for her ultimate goal.

There. A set of booths on the far side of the floor.

She slid along the edges, avoiding the many rows of benches that filled most of the floor and stopping only briefly at the display set on and above the raised dais which made up one narrowed end of the huge room. Passing this, she made her way to the booths.

A moment later, and she stood before them. Reaching out one hand, she traced the smooth surface of one wooden door with her fingertip. Fear gripped her, right here on the threshold, and she fought down the panic that threatened to drive her back out into the street. She would not let herself come this far, to stand here, touching the door, and not complete the task she had set before herself. No. Acknowledge the fear and worry, but do not let them rule.

She took several long, deep breaths, then yanked open the door by its simple iron handle. A single step took her into the dark, fragrant interior. Turning, she pulled the door shut and threw the bolt, then dropped heavily into the velvet-cushioned seat beneath her. With a sigh, she leaned wearily against the wall to her right.

After spending a moment trying to get her racing heart under control, she knocked once, timidly, on the sliding panel in the wall next to her face. Although she was expecting it, the sharp report it made in opening almost made her jump. Then a deep, gentle voice murmured, "Yes, my child?"

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Katherine Madigan said after a moment's hesitation. Reaching up, she pulled off her black wool cap, letting her long lavender hair spill down around her dirt-smudged face. "It has been fifteen years since my last confession."

* * *

Friday, February 6, 2037. 11:12 PM

"Why did you keep us from attacking him yesterday, Sylia?" Nene demanded with a scowl as she pounded the bench top with her fist. "I thought you wanted to wipe him off the map as fast as possible."

Sylia did not look up from the workbench over which she bent. "We're not ready. Not yet."

"When will we be ready?" the redhead insisted.

"Soon, Nene, soon." Sylia lay down the probe she held and rubbed her eyes. "A couple more days at the most. Your unit is just about complete. Linna's simply needs optical alignment. And all mine needs is final testing." She suppressed a sigh. Since she'd finally gotten a couple of nights' sleep in a row, she had begun to doubt the righteous outrage which had fueled her through much of the week. The Loon was a threat, no argument there. But maybe the Sabers didn't need to take as antagonistic a course as she had originally mapped out. True, her last attempt to be reasonable had failed. Then again, it been punctuated by Priss's violent outbursts and her own anger at the man. At least she'd managed to be civil, even in the midst of publicly declaring war on him.

This time the sigh escaped.

"Sylia?" Nene asked, her own anger evaporating instantly to be replaced by concern.

Sylia shook her head and managed a small, faint smile. "I'm okay, Nene. Just wishing for the golden days of Largo, when the enemy was someone you could feel proud about fighting." She rubbed her eyes once more. "The worst part is, even after we win, those accusations he made will stay with me. I know I'm right, but I'll never again feel as... clean... about what we do as I used to. Do you know what I mean?"

Silently, her eyes sad and glistening, Nene nodded.

* * *

Saturday, February 7, 2037. 12:52 AM

A tired Katherine Madigan yawned cavernously as she re-entered her apartment in GENOM Tower. It had taken her just as long to return from the Cathedral of St. Jude as it had taken to get there -- longer even, since she had had to clean up and dispose of the "street scum" disguise she'd worn before she could risk returning home.

Now that she was back, Katherine was utterly exhausted, and worse, frustrated. While there had been a certain liberation and release in going to her first confession in years, it hadn't been enough. She wasn't any closer to resolving her moral dilemma. Worse yet, doubts and fears still played across the stage of her mind, gaining an almost hallucinatory solidity from the combination of her lack of sleep and her surfeit of paranoid imagination. She shook her head vigorously as if to drive the worst of the images from her head, absently tossed her jacket onto the sofa, and then froze. She snapped her cellphone out of her pocket and hit a speed dial button.

"Security here."

"This is Madigan. Has there been any entry into my apartment since I left it earlier this evening?"

"Just a moment, ma'am, let me check." The sound of rapid keystrokes filtered through the line, followed by a brief silence. "No, ma'am. None at all. The securi-cam and cardkey logs show that you were the only one in and out of your apartment for the past twenty-four hours."

A muscle spasmed in her face. "That will be all, then." She closed the phone with a flip of her wrist and set it down, her eyes on a small stack of videoroms that was serving to hold down a sheet of paper atop the walnut and crystal coffee table in the center of her living room. She approached it cautiously.

Unfolded, the paper was a short note in curiously antique calligraphy.

"Greetings, Madigan.
"Katherine Madigan was always a smart woman. But before there was Katherine, there was Katie. And Katie was a smart one. Perhaps Katie can be a smart one again.
"What do these videoroms have in common, Katherine? Maybe Katie can tell you. And a smart woman like you can learn something from young Katie."

It was unsigned.

The paper suddenly flared up between her fingers, bursting into a puff of flame that died as suddenly as it was born, leaving nothing behind but a tiny sprinkling of white ash.

Madigan swore briefly, then cut it short as wasted effort. Warily studying the videoroms, she immediately noticed that they were hers, taken from her own collection of Sailor Moon videos. She frowned thoughtfully.

"In common," it said, she mused. What do they have in common?

Standard videoroms, nothing unusual about them, save for their contents, so that's what she started with.

The first was an early episode, one that she knew by heart: Nephrite, and his self-sacrifice to save the life of Osaka Naru.

The second featured the Amazon Sisters from the Dark Moon Family saga.

Two different episodes. Two entirely different story arcs. What could possibly connect them? She pounded a fist into the palm of her hand.

"Damn it, what could they ha..."

Her voice trailed away as a terrible suspicion took root in her mind.

She looked around herself. The trappings of power, wealth and fame surrounded her. There were few people who could deny her anything she might desire. Mr. Quincy, of course. A few others, perhaps. GENOM, under Chairman J.D. Quincy, would grow to rule the world. Only a fool would fail to see that.

Power. Like the power Nephrite had willingly surrendered for the sake of a common Japanese girl.

Power. Like the power of the Dark Moon family. A power upon which the Amazon sisters had turned their backs.

Her knees felt weak, and she made her way over to the sofa, dropping heavily upon it.

Katherine Madigan sat there in the dark for a very, very long time.

* * *

In a Place that was not a place, One confronted Another.

"You," said the One whose Voice was as a child's, "are meddling."

"Yes," replied Another. "And why not?" To mortals, Her Voice would sound like the chiming of bells. "In too many timelines this one gleefully embraces the darkest fate her soul can discover. Wherefore should I not encourage her when she reaches for the Light? Is this not why We arranged for Douglas Sangnoir to come to this time and place while on his journey?"

"Not for her," the Child objected. "For the others."

There was a change in the flows of energy; in mortals, it would have been a shake of the head. "This one is as much a slave as the others. It is merely less obvious. I would see her as free when all is done."

"But..."

"Give it up," said the Third, who had kept silent until this point. "You know She is a big softie. Always taking in souls with broken wings. This is as it ever was, and as it ever shall be."

"Well, I don't like it," pouted the Child.

"Nevertheless, My Sister-Self," said the Other, "I desire it. So mote it be."

"So mote it be," echoed the Third.

"Oh, all right," growled Child. "So mote it be." The energies around Her flowed in a manner that signified what for mortals would have been a rolling of eyes.

* * *

Monday, February 9, 2037. 9:02 AM

First day on the job. I hadn't done that in, what, fifteen years or so. Not since they let me join the Warriors after I ambushed Dwim in Hyde Park.

(I had this... somewhat mistaken... idea I that needed to "audition" to get into the Warriors, you see, and he happened to be a target of opportunity. I hadn't done all my research, either, and didn't realize that Dwimanor wasn't a front-line fighter. Hell, he was a Warrior -- best of the best, defender of world peace and all that -- how could he not be a tough customer, right? Well, I won't go into the details of what happened, but suffice it to say that I came off looking like an out-of-control jerk who had to be taken into the Warriors just so they could keep an eye on me and keep me out of trouble. They were probably right. What with one stunt or another I pulled in those early days, it took me three years to get out of probation and earn a full membership -- a record no Warrior before or since has come close to matching.

Not that I'm proud of it or anything.

Anyway...)

I waited quietly in the reception area this time instead of making my own way to Ohara's office. In the few days since I'd been there they'd apparently repaired all the damage I caused during my ill-fated assault the previous week, which didn't do anything to assuage my guilt over it all.

The receptionist was the same girl who'd been working the desk that day. She seemed a little twitchier than she had when I'd first encountered her, which I guess was kind of reasonable, all things considered. After taking my name and informing Ohara that I was there, she gave me a surreptitious once-over. I didn't expect she'd recognize me; after all, I wasn't wearing the helmet, and I had decided to dump the fake black mustache, which was the only identifying characteristic she might have seen, between the goggles and the helmet and whatnot.

A moment later, Ohara burst into the room. "There you are," he boomed happily, and judging from the dubious glance that earned him from the receptionist, it was probably well out of character for him. In a couple of energetic strides he was across the room and reaching out a hand to me. I rose and shook it. "Come in, come in. We have to get you set up. Sindra," he said, turning to the receptionist, "Mr. Reed here is our new technician. You'll be seeing a lot of him from now on."

She blinked. "Welcome to IDEC, Mr. Reed," she said softly, almost inaudibly.

I tried to thank her, but Ohara had me by the arm and dragged me past the double doors through which I had so recently blasted my way. As the doors closed quietly behind me I hissed, "'Mr. Reed'?"

"We've set up a new ID for you under the name 'Craig A. Reed, Junior'," Ohara replied offhandedly. He released my arm and settled for leading me down the hallway, which smelled (not surprisingly) of fresh paint and new carpet. "We used some of GENOM's less-known resources, and a few of our own, to make sure it's real as far as the government and GENOM are both concerned. We just need some photos to finish the job."

"'Craig A. Reed, Junior'?" I grimaced. "Couldn't you have given me something with a little more, I dunno, style?"

We turned the corner by his office, and without looking at me he replied, deadpan, "You'd prefer maybe something like 'Sylvester T. Katz'?"

"Ho ho. Very funny. Ha ha. It is to laugh."

* * *

I'm tempted to say it went downhill from there, but it didn't, really. For a bunch of cloistered academics, they had a collective streak of larcenous duplicity which I can't really say I admired, but which certainly turned out useful. Ohara dragged me into the same conference room where I'd confronted him before (newly repaired) and the same three other people were there, along with a workstation, a couple of digital cameras and several different sheets of colored paper taped to the walls. As they ran me through a quick assembly line for my new fake ID, Ohara introduced me to his merry band.

Hiroe was the angry woman who took a half-dozen or so pictures of me in front of the various sheets of paper. Tony was the frowning fat guy in the Italian suit who dragged me from sheet to sheet, told me which way to turn or look, and who at one point dusted fake five-o'clock shadow across my face with a camel hair brush. Illya was the blond man-mountain stationed at the combination of computer, desktop nanofac and laminator which all sat at one end of the conference table. He took images from the different cameras, cropped and printed the head shots of me, and melded them into various documents and objects which then spat out of the printer and the fabricator. In about an hour I had not only a GENOM/IDEC employee ID card, but an assortment of other paperwork that claimed definitively and with the endorsement of numerous Japanese government agencies that I really was this Craig Reed fellow.

I browsed the documents and examined the implied life history. Born in the US in 1996, immigrated to Japan as part of the post-Kanto workforce, just back from a long-term contract job in the Ukraine, of all places. Letters of recommendation from all "my" former employers (including someone with the unlikely name of Bradford Loukianov, who apparently had been my supervisor in Russia), all effusively glowing. A Japanese passport, about a year and a half from renewal. Driver's license for a motorcycle. A new registration for said motorcycle, in Reed's name. A couple of credit cards, including a GENOMBank Visa. Checking and passbook savings accounts, also at GENOMBank, both with modest balances. A small but healthy independent retirement account. A customer card for the Tower branch of Lackluster Video. Membership in some midtown gym called "The Fitness Bee". Vaccination records. The obligatory stack o' business cards, both old and new. And about a kilo of other assorted paper and plastic, all unimpeachably testifying to my new identity -- far more than I'd gotten from the professional I'd contacted when I'd first arrived in MegaTokyo. I was seriously impressed.

"Damn," I said. "If you guys ever want to get out of R&D and into a more lucrative line of work, I know someone you can talk to." This netted me a few uncomfortable chuckles, even as they watched me with cold and untrusting eyes.

"Is not us," said man-mountain Illya in a slow rumble. "Many illicit resources GENOM has. A few illicit connections into GENOM's systems we have." He coughed. "And no great love for it."

"I'm still impressed." I held out the financial documents and the credit cards. "Are these real?"

"Yes," Hiroe replied. "For now. The cards are paid from what is left of IDEC's rather limited discretionary funds, so please use them as little as possible. Likewise the balances in your bank accounts. The retirement account..." She trailed off and shot a glance at Ohara.

"Call it a redistribution of wealth," he said, with what was almost a smile.

"Uh-huh." I folded the papers back into the stack. "I won't ask."

"Good," murmured Tony.

"Okay, now that I've become Craig, what next?" I asked, dropping into one of the chairs around the table.

"Now," Hiroe said, "you start giving us technology."

* * *

Two hours later. Same conference room, same people. They'd pushed the impromptu forgery system off to one side, and had begun interrogating me about almost every damned song I'd used in public since I got there.

"Your mach-speed flight?"

"Magic."

"That electric weapon system?"

"Magic."

"The congealed energy 'shotgun'?"

"Magic."

"The quantum black holes?"

"Magic."

(This was repeated ad nauseum until it was almost time for lunch, my initial explanation of my metatalent having been ignored or simply disbelieved. As time went on, though, the questioning acquired a certain air of desperation and panic.)

"Your force field?"

"Not a force field. And magic."

"Your body armor?"

"Oh, well, that's different."

"Good," announced Tony, rubbing his hands together. "Now we're getting somewhere."

I grinned at the chance to be a little snotty. "It's both technology and magic."

There was a collective groan from everyone but Hiroe, who seemed strangely sparkly-eyed and much less angry. Ohara glared at me through his glasses. "I thought you said you had devices you could give us."

I shook my head. "No. You asked if I could reproduce my world's technologies for you. I can. I never said I was carrying any samples of them."

"This is bullshit," Tony growled as he shoved back his chair. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to this madman."

I shrugged. "If you want proof, I'll give it to you."

* * *

Which is how I ended up, somewhat less than an hour later, standing in a blank, empty "dead-zone" isolation chamber, stripped down to my Fruit-of-the-Looms. (White briefs, if you must know. The rumors that I only wear custom-made Shadowwalker Underoos are gross exaggerations. It was only that one unfortunate incident, and anyway the lady involved settled out of court.)

Most of that delay was due to the time it took to set up their various sensors. Save for a few devices specific to IDEC's original research goals, the stuff they had on hand was all small, portable, and stashed haphazardly in a storeroom on the other side of the office suite. The five of us headed over there together. I tried to make small talk, but they were taciturn with a touch of hostile, except for Ohara, who was just taciturn, and Hiroe, who was still oddly sparkly-eyed and taciturn. Not that I blamed them. I just hoped that once I established my bona fides, they'd open up a bit. Otherwise, this arrangement would soon rank up right there as one of my least thrilling gigs.

I didn't really plan on being all that social back, mind you -- these people were still responsible for hounding me, killing those two kids, and god knows how much property damage caused by the boomers they sent out. Ohara's little revenge trip alone was more than enough to ensure that I never actually trusted him, in particular. But all that didn't mean that I didn't want a pleasant working environment.

Anyway, I took my share of the large assortment of silver metal and black plastic cases. We made our way back to lab with the isolation chamber, our little parade garnering the occasional curious look and outright stare from the employees we passed in the corridors. (It might have been because I was walking backwards behind the others and vigorously juggling three duffel bag-sized packing cases, but I can't really say. I never did get entirely familiar with their corporate culture.)

From the storeroom to the lab was a quickish walk, and once we were there, Tony snatched the cases from me (one at a time, as I handed them to him out of their orbit) with a glare that could pierce steel. I was getting the feeling he didn't like me. Ohara bluntly told me that he didn't want me involved in the sensor setup, so I busied myself by clearing anything that wasn't me out the isolation chamber.

Finally they were ready for me. Before I went in, they took an initial scan, both for use as a baseline and to make sure I had no secret implants. Tony N. was pretty insistent on that, and even after the others had written off the possibility, he kept going back, cranking up the resolution, and trying again. After about ten minutes of this, I grabbed Nakamura by the lapels of his natty little suit. "Look, you," I snarled. "I'm an unmodified human being, got it? I'm not cybered. I'm not an alien. I'm not an android. I'm not a nanobot anthropomorph. I'm human. Mutant, but human. See? No dealer customizations, no after-market add-ons, got it? Just let me get in there and demonstrate what I can do."

Thirty seconds later I was wiggling my bare toes against cold ceramic tile and wondering if a sense of modesty would have been a benefit or not. Outside the big quartz glass window, Ohara and his crew clustered around their sensor readouts. (The sensor heads themselves snaked into the room on cables that made their way in through both special ports in the wall between us.) Ohara looked up at me, made an attempt at a smile, and spoke into the microphone that sprouted from the center of the chamber's control panel. His voice echoed tinnily against the hard walls of the empty chamber. "Okay, 'Craig,' we're going to feed a song in to you now. We'll be accessing the Golden Oldies channel of GENOMnet's on-demand digital music system to get it, so if you've got a request, this is the time to make it."

I gave that a moment's thought. Something dramatic would be best, something that would be so beyond the range of a portable, hidable technology that they'd have no choice but to accept it as what it was -- magic. I mentally shuffled through all the songs I'd ever used up to that point in time and found one that would more than suffice. "Okay. See if you can find this track," I said with a smile, and told him the title and artist. Ohara consulted something just out of my line of sight and nodded.

The CD hadn't been officially released yet when I... left home, but Nonnie had sent me a copy of the masters when they were finished in the hope I could make use of one or more songs. (To be absolutely honest, it was as much an example of her well-known talent for relentless self-promotion as it was a tribute to our long-standing friendship -- a friendship which dates back to when we met in a Manhattan club three years before she became famous and seven years before I did.) And use one of her songs I did -- that future CD's title track.

While shopping for music some months back, I had confirmed that she'd had an analogue in this universe, with a virtually identical album/CD career, at least up to the unreleased masters I'd received. (She still had an analogue here, in fact, although this here-and-now's version was mostly retired, only occasionally doing a little producing for younger acts.) So I felt safe in requesting that particular song.

As Ohara punched buttons on the console, I sighed and reached for the node once again, determined to prove my point as emphatically as possible.

* * *

"Just a second while the network retrieves it," Ohara murmured to the others as he doublechecked the virtual circuit that would feed the song into the chamber's intercom system. He glanced around. Tony stood against the back wall, arms crossed defiantly across his chest, his brows like glowering thunderclouds as he studied Sangnoir through the thick glass. Next to him, Hiroe's eyes glittered with excitement as she did the same, a pad and pen clasped in her hands.

Illya crouched behind the hastily-erected bank of sensor readouts, less concerned with his co-workers than with the tangle of wiring carelessly laid out on the floor. "Full bandwidth to main computer we have, Daniel," he called out conversationally. "Complete record we will have of all the sensors see."

As Ohara nodded, the music began. At first it was a gentle, repetitive guitar line, then strong techno beat leapt in, interspersed with tuneless synthesized glissandos and arpeggios that were more sound effects than music and which gave the piece an almost old-fashioned psychedelic feel.

"Oh, my god," Hiroe breathed.

Behind the glass, Sangnoir had risen up into the air, his head tilted back, arms and legs spread slightly but hanging limply as he floated a foot off the floor. He began to rotate slowly in place, as if he hung on a string. A faint but perceptible white light, faintly tinged with blue, began to emanate from his body.

Tony took a long, hissing breath, and stepped forward to stand next to Illya at the readouts. "It's just visible light, nothing else."

On the sound system, the orchestration grew more intricate and electronic, and the vocalist -- an American soprano -- began to sing in English:

"<Zephyr in the sky at night, I wonder
Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun?
She's got herself a universe gone quickly,
For the call of thunder threatens everyone...>"

"His mass decreasing is," Illya remarked calmly.

"What?" Hiroe leapt to the displays, her eyes wide, as Tony hissed in disbelief.

"How fast?" Ohara asked.

"Very. Accelerating it is... Mass is now zero." Illya tapped the display. "Mass is... less than zero? Recalibrating now."

"Impossible," Tony softly murmured. "His energy density is off the scale, too. Recalibrating." His fingers danced over the controls before him.

Within the chamber, Sangnoir had been obscured by the glow he emitted, leaving him nothing more than an ellipsoid of brilliant blue-white light which began to pulse and flow.

"Confirmed, Daniel," Illya said. Something like awe crept into the Russian's voice. "Negative mass he now has, and continues to drop it does. And we have the lower bounds of the sensor reached and exceeded."

"Energy density just peaked. No measure on that, though. The computer refused to recalibrate," Tony added. "Beginning to drop now..."

"<...Faster than the speeding light she's flying,
Trying to remember where it all began.
She's got herself a little piece of heaven,
Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one...>"

"He's moving," Hiroe said. Ohara nodded, having seen it already. The azure ball of light which had been Sangnoir began to drift back and forth in the isolation chamber, approaching first one wall, then another. On each pass it seemed to grow faster, leaving a faint, slowly-fading blue trail behind it.

"Energy levels still dropping." Tony spun a knob. "Drop is accelerating? But he's turned into a freaking light bulb and he's picking up speed! Where's it all going?"

"The spectrum he's emitting is consistent with..." Hiroe paused, and swallowed. "With Cherenkov radiation."

Within the chamber, the sphere of light was no longer visible -- it moved too quickly and was lost in its own glowing contrails. It was impossible to make out any of the chamber's details; the window was awash with a blue-tinted white light that streamed out, overpowering the mundane illumination of the control booth to cast sharp, black shadows behind them.

"My god!" Hiroe gripped the edge of the case in front of her with a near-hysterical strength as everything suddenly assembled itself for her in a single flash of insight. "Tachyons! He's turned his mass into tachyons!"

"<...Quicker than a ray of light
Quicker than a ray of light
Quicker than a ray of light...>"

"Is there any danger?" Daniel asked quietly.

Illya studied the displays before him and smiled broadly. "Except for visible light with Cherenkov wavelength, and a little infrared and ultraviolet, is emitted no radiations, Daniel."

"Confirmed." Tony stepped to a different stack of sensors. "In every other part of the spectrum, he's now a black body. A perfect black body." He shook his head. "Impossible. Just freaking impossible!"

None of them were sure precisely what had happened next. Even the high-speed video pickups saw only the wall of the brilliant blue energy that burst through the chamber window, washing out the control room in an overload that left the cameras blank and burnt out.

To the four scientists, it felt as if they had been suddenly buffeted by a fierce desert wind, warm enough for comfort, but not so hot as to harm. It swirled about them, setting their clothes a-flutter and winding around them like an affectionate cat appreciating a favorite pair of ankles. It didn't quite blind them, merely obscuring details while seeming to outline the forms of objects and people alike at the same time.

Then, as the singer faded away, the light again flared brilliantly and contracted back into the outline of Sangnoir's spinning body. One final flash, and he stood there in the control booth among them, nearly naked, arms outflung and grinning broadly.

"Now that's magic," he said proudly.

They all stared at him in shock as he turned slowly to survey them. Sangnoir stopped when he realized that tears were flowing from Hiroe's eyes.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked, concern replacing the unholy glee on his face. "Are you okay?"

As he flickered to her side, she nodded, smiling beatifically even as the tears ran down her cheeks. "Thank you," she finally whispered as he looked down in shock.

"For what?" he asked, his voice as soft as hers.

"For that... for the magic. For showing..." She trailed off, took a long breath, then let go of him and stepped back. Gathering together the remains of her dignity, she continued. "I'm being silly. I'm just a hopeless romantic, I guess." Tears still shone in her eyes, as she smiled shyly.

"Tell me about it," Tony murmured.

Sangnoir nodded slowly, a small smile of his own playing on his lips. He stepped up to her and lifted her chin with his fingertips. "<These are the days of miracle and wonder,>" he whispered, his voice almost breaking with the emotion in it. "<And don't cry, baby, don't cry.>"

* * *

Amarok Brokerage. Monday, February 9, 2037. 1:03 PM

The message light on her phone flashed lazily when Linna returned from lunch. Settling in behind her desk, she lifted the handset and automatically engaged the privacy shields, in case it were a confidential trading request.

It wasn't, but the privacy shields were still useful.

"Hello, Ms. Yamazaki," Sylia's smooth, recorded tones purred into her ear. "This is Ms. Stingray at the Silky Doll. Your special order has arrived, the halter top. Can you come in for a fitting tonight around six PM? Please call back and let me know your availability. Thank you."

Linna gave a little sniff of laughter and instructed the voice mail system to erase the message. "Can you come in?" was Sylia's code for "Be there -- or else." Her amusement faded when she translated the rest of the message. The "special-order halter top" had to be her hardsuit's powerup. Sounds like a night in the simulator with the new equipment, she thought sourly. Abruptly, she stood again.

Several minutes later found her staring at her image in the huge mirror of brokerage's executive ladies' restroom. Linna washed her face, rubbed her eyes, then absently scratched at the decades-old chicken pox scars she habitually kept hidden under her headband. It was usually fun to get a new upgrade to her hardsuit, but this time it grated on her sensibilities. This time it wasn't intended for use against boomers, but against a real flesh-and-blood human being. I'm sorry, she thought, that's just wrong.

Using a growing nervous energy that might otherwise show up at her desk as an unacceptable fidget, she pulled off her headband, and fluffed up her hair with her fingers. Then she ran the band through her fingertips to remove imaginary wrinkles and retied it in place, all the while avoiding looking at the two tiny pockmarks that marred the otherwise perfectly smooth, white skin of her forehead. I don't care what he's done, or what he thinks about us, or what Sylia thinks about him, for that matter. We're not assassins. We shouldn't be gunning for him.

It had been a long time since she'd seen Sylia affected this way by an opponent. Now, while Linna could sympathize Sylia's need for revenge against Brian Mason, and certainly had helped her friend achieve the closure she needed, she had never entirely approved of Sylia's obsessive tendencies. Not that I could ever do anything about them, anyway. Linna frowned at herself in the mirror. Short of refusing to fight, and I can't do that. I can't do that at all.

She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the mirror. I hope Sylia doesn't keep us all night. I could really use some time to work on one of the cars and relax a little.

* * *

Monday, February 9, 2037. 3:24 PM

"So?" Daniel Ohara leaned back in his chair and studied his friends and co-workers.

"So," Tony said, "we've studied the records now for most of the afternoon, and..." He trailed off, frowning to hide his embarrassment and consternation.

"And," Hiroe picked up the thread. "And, after looking at all the data as well as passing it through the old 1.13 release of HARUSPEX we still have on the miniframe, we have to admit it. Our friend Reed-san really did turn into something like a macro-scale tachyon for several minutes."

Illya grinned broadly. "Is a most intriguing puzzle, friend Daniel! Many puzzles! A theoretical particle with negative mass a tachyon is; how for him is it possible to change positive mass to negative? There to suggest this is nothing even in most outlandish theory!" Ohara noted that Illya's Nihongo syntax was fracturing more badly than usual -- a sure sign of the man's excitement and interest.

"Not only that," Hiroe added, "but for him to move as slowly as he did after changing his... his 'mass polarity', for lack of a better term, required nearly infinite amounts of energy, because of a tachyon's inverted energy/velocity relationship. Where did it come from? How could he contain and control that much without exploding and vaporizing half the planet?"

"Didn't you hear him? It's maaaaaagic," Tony sneered.

Hiroe nodded. "Yes, it is. It's magic. And it works. And if we are indeed scientists worthy of the name, we should burn with the desire to find out why and how. I mean, imagine it -- an entire new field of endeavor to explore, untouched by any other researchers."

"Except for witch doctors and medieval alchemists," growled Tony.

"I don't know," Ohara said slowly, sliding his fingers up under his glasses and rubbing his eyes. "If just this one demonstration perplexes us so much, how likely are we to be anything other than terminally confused after we see more?"

Illya shrugged massively. "Does it matter? As much data as we can, get. Study it. If one thing we discover that no one knew, if one thing we learn to do that no one has ever done, then worth the effort it was. And if even we don't, the try worth it was."

Ohara nodded slowly. "You're right, of course. We'll keep going."

* * *

Monday, February 9, 2037. 5:40 PM

Once I proved to those merry pranksters who ran IDEC that I was not crazy because I claimed my metagift was magical in origin, we got along much better. It certainly eliminated the demands for specific gadgets. Less than half an hour after my dramatic little demonstration, they set me up in one of their fabrication workshops and let me loose. On his way out the door, Ohara actually said to me, "Build whatever you want. I don't care what it is, as long as it's a technology we don't have yet, we can reproduce it, and you can explain its basic principles to us."

"Cool," I replied.

Well, the first thing I did was check out what I had to work with. The shop was well-equipped for the work that they wanted out of me. A righteous selection of tools and test equipment. Bins and bins of parts -- from big spools of different wires to discrete electronic components for fast breadboarding. A few classic shop tools -- lathe, drill press, coil winder, things like that -- both manual and automated. (The shop was soundproofed, I later found out, to prevent their use from disturbing the rest of the suite.) A mid-size nanofac, capable of churning out objects as large as an end table. Bins of raw materials for the fac. And most importantly, a lovely state-of-the-art desktop workstation, linked not only to IDEC's in-house miniframe but also to the GENOM corporate dataweave (and through that to the Tapestry. Net. Whatever).

The terms of my employment specified that I got maximum access to GENOM's dataweave, at least the maximum available to IDEC, and it looked like they had come through nicely. If Ohara himself had had any higher clearance than they gave me, he wouldn't have been as deeply in the corporate doghouse as he was. Or so I reasoned.

I decided to spend the rest of the day and a fair amount of the night right there on-line. After all, it wasn't like I had anything to go home to -- just my little shithole efficiency apartment, no friends, no family. No cute, perky neighbor I could relax and shoot the bull with to forget the vig business. Just me, all alone. So why not use up that time in work, right? Although I did resolve to give Lisa a call to let her know I was all right. Eventually.

The next thing I did was scrounge up a yellow legal pad and some pencils from the supply closet down the hall. Then I plopped myself into the seat at the drafting table and began to draw up a list of technologies I could kitbash for them right away.

My memory chip design took the number one position on the list. It was at least two orders of magnitude denser and faster than the local state of the art, and I already had nanofac spec files already. (On a separate sheet of paper ripped out of the pad I made a note to remember to bring my helmet to work the next day.)

The second item was gravtech. I hadn't done more than poke at that gravity gun I'd liberated, and I'd much rather examine it with the tools in the shop than eyeball it in my apartment. I added the gravgun to my list of things to bring from home.

I knew the chemical structure of the pseudo-aramid compound on which polykev was based, and with a little help and the right software I could probably reverse-engineer the synthesis process. It wasn't polykev, not without the enchantments, but it did make a decent armor by itself. So I put that on the list, too. I didn't know how it would rate next to that Abotex stuff, but I figured, hey, it's worth a shot.

Turning back to the computer, I did a little research on the state of the art in beam weapons. I noted that they had nothing resembling a proper stunner, and added it of my list of doohickeys to build.

I continued in this vein for a couple of hours before I realized I was hungry. Between the interrogation and the demo, I hadn't really had a proper lunch. I'd grabbed coffee and a bagel from the employee lounge as Ohara escorted me to the shop, but that was it.

(It didn't occur to me until quite a while later to wonder where the hell it had come from. I asked, and Hiroe told me. Turns out the Tower had a very nice bagel place in the food court of the public shopping mall on one of the lower levels. They'd pretty much paid off the owner/operators of a genuine NYC bagel bakery to move to MegaTokyo and open up shop in the Tower. Apparently some higher-up had transferred in from the Manhattan offices a couple years back and then complained about the lack of decent bagels. GENOM responded as GENOM usually did, by throwing money at the problem until it was solved. As a result, a fair number of MegaTokyo locals were now devoted customers, although I really couldn't get behind the idea of a bonito and seaweed bagel...)

Anyway, I got hungry. I ordered a big dinner from a burger place in the food court for delivery to IDEC's offices, and charged it to my new GENOMBank card. Turns out the restaurants in the Tower do this kind of thing all the time for Tower residents. It was still early -- before six -- so the receptionist was still on duty. I let her know I was expecting a dinner delivery and went back to work. By this time I was browsing the GENOM dataweave and occasionally breaking into systems where I didn't belong.

(And I hadn't even had to use a song yet. Biggest, nastiest, most secretive mega-corporation in the world and still some idiots don't change the default admin passwords. Of course, the only reason I could even make the attempt was because I was behind the Tower's outer three firewalls, but even so... Geeze. Some people shouldn't be allowed behind a keyboard. Unless they're on the enemy's side, of course.)

Anyway, half an hour later I heard the cardkey buzz of the shop door, followed by footsteps. "Mr. Reed?" The voice and steps belonged to a girl, probably one of the college-age interns or OLs.

I didn't look up, as I was involved in a very delicate reassignment of certain key access rights to a system that appeared to be the capstone of the Tower's main R&D dataweave. "Mmm?"

"Hi, I'm Chizue, I work over in the research pool. Your dinner arrived while I was talking to Sindra, and I thought I'd bring it to you and welcome you to the company at the same time." She sounded very chipper and perky, more so than anyone had any right to be at this point in the day. A lot like Lisa, in fact, which just fired off another pang of loneliness.

I tried not to lose my focus. "Oh, great, thanks. Just leave it on the counter there, okay?" I waved in the general direction of some free space I remembered seeing earlier in the afternoon. Then I heard a gasp and the rustling thud of a paper bag full of burgers hitting a floor.

Then she screamed.

I knocked over my chair leaping out of it and spinning around -- a usually-fortunate reflex that I have to cries of fear and panic coming from right behind me. Sadly, this time it only made things worse, because Chizue turned out to be delicate, tiny, pretty, and last but not least, the poor girl I had frightened so badly in the hallway during my siege. She raised her arms in front of her face in what would have been a futile attempt to defend herself had I actually been attacking. She screamed again, her eyes wide with panic and recognition behind her forearms.

Oh, god, how do I get into situations like this?

Oh, god, how do I get out of situations like this?

* * *

Silky Doll. Monday, February 9, 2037. 6:24 PM

"I can't believe you went through all this trouble, Sylia," Priss protested.

Sylia smoothed the ruffles in the voluminously-skirted dress as she returned it to its the hanger. "It's no trouble at all, Priss. What did you think of this one?"

"And here I thought we were going to get our powerups tonight," Nene griped quietly to Linna, who nodded, smiling. Lisa, on the other side of Nene, giggled.

"Oh, we are," Sylia responded evenly from across the room; evidently Nene hadn't been quiet enough. "We're also helping Priss select her wedding gown and her bridesmaids' dresses."

Priss gritted her teeth. She stood in front of a three-panel mirror in a T-shirt, jeans and stocking feet. Laundry-basket-sized bundles of filmy white fabric scattered about her feet testified to almost half an hour's effort already expended. "Look, it's not like I don't appreciate it, but you didn't need to go through all this trouble. You don't normally stock this kind of stuff." Her tone rose precipitously. "And I never wear dresses! I only own one skirt!"

"Two," Linna corrected, and Priss whirled on her.

"We're not counting what I wear on stage, okay? That's work clothes."

Eyebrows raised, Linna held up her hands in a gesture of placation. "Okay, okay." Softly, she murmured, "Mou! I'm sorry I said anything," and on either side of her, Nene and Lisa snickered.

"I don't look good in dresses!" Priss escalated into a despondent wail as she held three gowns up to her body in rapid succession, studying herself in the mirrors and then flinging each dress aside. "I'm too butch and I'm going to look ugly and Leon's going to leave me at the altar and I'm going to be alone for the rest of my life!"

Linna couldn't hold it back any longer; she erupted into uncontrollable giggling, which earned her a poisonous glare from her teammate. Next to her, Nene's face contorted into a bizarre expression that tried to combine sympathy, amusement, amazement and disbelief -- and failed utterly. Lisa, thanking her training as a journalist, managed to maintain a look of blank-faced innocence.

Sylia suppressed a sigh of empathy and decided that shock treatment was necessary. Stepping to the singer's side, she laid her hands on Priss' shoulders, and in the most sincere voice she could muster, said, "If that happens, you'll just have to move in with me."

Priss' eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "What?"

Sylia nodded. "We can finally yield to our long-denied mutual lesbian attraction, and spend our declining years in sybaritic Sapphic fulfillment," she continued in even, measured tones. "If that meets with your approval." She quirked an eyebrow at Priss. "Sweetling."

Jolted completely out of her panic attack, Priss stared unabashedly at Sylia's cool, collected visage. "You have got to be shitting me," she said after several long moments.

Lisa, Linna and Nene exploded into uncontrolled laughter and slowly collapsed to the floor and into a pile of quivering limbs.

"Yes," replied Sylia, her tone unchanged. "I am." Then the corners of her mouth quirked upward into a small smile. "Feel better now?"

Priss evaluated her emotional state, and to her surprise, the panic had vanished. "Yeah," she said, nodding. "Yeah, I do. Thanks."

Sylia briefly inclined her head in acknowledgment, then turned to a new gown. "What do you think of this one?"

Priss considered the satiny, frilly item with a mischievous gleam in her eye. "I don't know. Do you have anything in black leather?"

"With or without studs?" Sylia replied without missing a beat.

On the floor, the other two Knight Sabers and their archivist gave up on trying to stand in favor of another gale of laughter.

* * *

Monday, February 9, 2037. 7:02 PM

"You haven't seen your wife in over three years? That's so sad!" Chizue nibbled on her half-a-hamburger and bounced her heels against the foot rest of the stool on which she sat.

The first thing I did when she screamed the second time was fling myself across the room -- away from her. I babbled madly at her, all sorts of reassurances and promises and anything I could think of to make her stop screaming. It didn't work.

We kept it up, the both of us, for quite a while. I attribute the fortunate lack of overly concerned co-workers to the soundproofing on the shop; it ensured we had a private confrontation. So there we stood, me babbling, she screaming, for a good five minutes or so.

She ran out of breath first. Peering out from behind her arms, she eyed me curiously. I was still flattened against the wall furthest from her.

"You're not attacking me." It wasn't quite a question, and it wasn't quite a statement. Her voice was still tremulous, though; she wasn't relaxing any in my presence.

"No," I said softly, from across the room. "I'm not."

Fear vanished from her eyes, wiped away utterly by a sudden surge of indignation. "What, am I not worth attacking?"

WHAT? was the only thought that entered my mind. "No, I'm sure you'd make a wonderful victim," I returned to babbling. "I'm just not attacking anyone at the moment. I work here now, and it would make for bad office politics."

"Oh," she breathed. Then, a beat later, "You work here?"

"Yeah." I relaxed infinitesimally, now that she was talking and not screaming. "Your boss apparently mistook my little rampage last week for a job application." I shrugged. "It seems he liked how I interviewed." A thought then struck me. "You know, out of the three jobs I've had in the last 15 years, that's the second one I've gotten by assaulting the management... I wonder if I've hit upon some hitherto-unknown technique for guaranteeing employment," I mused.

Chizue giggled, and bent over to pick up the sack of burgers. "Here," she said, considerably calmer. "I think this is yours."

To make a long story short (or shorter, at least), I ended up sharing my dinner with her and recounting the tale of my travels and woes. Chizue was surprisingly sympathetic for someone who had only half an hour earlier been frightened unto death of me; I think the burgers helped, as they were very good burgers, even better than Eriko's. Good burgers and a lack of violent intent can make up for a multitude of sins.

Better yet, she believed my story at once -- or else put on a very convincing act. Probably the former, as she did work in a lab dedicated to interdimensional exploration, and was in fact a grad student in advanced physics at GENOM Institute of Technology, doing work-study at IDEC while she earned her Master's. (Yes, we talked about more than just me.) Chizue was less interested in the science and magic of the matter, though, than in my relationship with Maggie; she practically gushed, stars twinkling in her eyes, over how "romantic" it was that I was working my way across universes trying to get back to my wife.

"Tell me about her," Chizue said as she nibbled away at the remains of her burger. "What's she like?"

I smiled and leaned back in my chair. "Maggie's tall, almost as tall as me." Chizue -- all of a meter sixty in height -- giggled. I closed my eyes and went on. "Long and lean, built like a marathon runner. High cheek bones, like a model. A smile that'd melt you down into your shoes. Beautiful auburn hair, like a garnet waterfall." I made a little "mmmm" noise as I envisioned Maggie once again.

"She sounds very beautiful," Chizue said with a little romantic sigh. "What color are her eyes?"

I snapped out my reverie. "Her eyes? Well, that's..." I shut down my mouth before I babbled anything Maggie would make me regret. "Grey. They're grey." I closed my eyes again. "Her voice is a sweet, soft whisper that can caress your ear or shatter steel. She runs faster than the wind. And she can bench-press an elephant and not raise a sweat," I finished with a fond chuckle. Between Maggie's strength and my field, our wedding night had been... well, "tentative" was one word. "Different" was another. But we eventually managed. No children yet; not for lack of trying, mind you, but between our respective mutations and my field, we haven't had any luck at conception. We had been about to resort to a magical intervention, before... I shook myself to exorcise the less-than-happy memories to which that line of thought led.

"And yeah, she's the most beautiful thing in the world to me," I continued.

"That's so sweet," Chizue crooned, then popped the last bit of cheeseburger into her mouth. She hopped off the stool and practically minced across the room to pat me on the cheek. "You're a very devoted husband," she declared with a smile. "And you seem like a really nice guy."

"Uh, yeah," I murmured.

"Which is why I don't understand why you were so violent and nasty the other day."

I didn't quite frown. "Your bosses have been sending boomers after me for months. And the last time they did, one of the boomers killed two kids. That upset me -- a lot."

Chizue's eyes grew wide, and started to shimmer. "Two kids died?" she breathed.

Uh-oh. "But it's okay," I said quickly. "They got, um, medical attention in time, and were resuscitated. They're better now. But it really pissed me off, and I decided to take that all out on your bosses."

She nodded, her eyes still moist, but the threatened tears held back -- for now. "Yeah, I can understand that."

"Just don't spread it around, okay? I'm sure your bosses wouldn't approve."

Her eyes widened again, and her mouth made a little "O". "Oh, I would never do that. Cross my heart and hope to die!"

Uh-huh. If I had her personality pegged right, the story of Ohara's culpability would spread through the company like stage two starpox. I may not have been able to take it out of his hide, but I could make him hurt in other ways. Just because I was taking his money and making toys for him didn't mean I'd made my peace with the man. He still needed to be taken down a notch or two.

Chizue and I chatted for another twenty minutes or so before she announced that she had to leave. I bade her good night, and went back to cracking GENOM's R&D dataweave.

* * *

Monday, February 9, 2037. 9:21 PM

Lisa settled back in on her futon with a fresh bowl of popcorn. One benefit of walking out on the 16 Times was no "homework" -- she frequently had had to piece together assignments before the next work day. And with her copious new free time she had not only taken part in the dress- and armor-fitting "party" at Silky Doll, but had also already taken care of almost half of the pro-Sabers counter-propaganda Sylia had asked her for this week. Add to that the fact that she'd already begun her first forays into a leisurely free-lance career, and Lisa felt quite justified in taking the rest of the night off.

And that meant it was finally time to go back and watch some of the rarities she'd picked up during the Sailor Moon marathon the Anime Channel had broadcast some months before. She'd already gotten through the infamous "Kodomo no Ginzuisho" parody and was just about to start on the American live action version again. It was just the thing she needed to round out an already pretty good day, especially since it would keep her from missing Doug and worrying about him. It had become a frequent preoccupation for her, in the dark of night when she was alone. Lisa swore she would give him hell for all the anxiety she had upon hearing about his fight with the Dobermans and the Boomer Giant.

No, don't start with that. That's why I'm watching Sailor Moon, so I won't get all worked up about Doug. She determinedly crammed a handful of popcorn into her mouth and reached for the remote control.

Someone knocked on her door.

In the days since Doug had gone into hiding, she had managed to bring her explosive reaction to the sound under some degree of control, but her heart still raced at the thought that he might have come back. She forced herself to take a deep breath, carefully laid the bowl and the remote to one side, and slowly rose from the futon. With measured steps she crossed to the door, unlocked it, and opened it.

Standing in the hall was a large winter coat surmounting a pair of expensive slacks, at the other end of which were a set of Italian leather flats, somewhat the worse for wear thanks to the slush outside. The face of a thirty-something woman peered out of the coat's hood. "Excuse me." Her voice was both cultured and hesitant. "Are you Lisa Vanette?"

"Yes," Lisa replied slowly. "Can I help you?"

The woman swept back her hood with one hand, revealing a cascade of lavender hair. "My name is... I'm Kate Madigan. I'd like to talk to you about the Sailor Senshi you photographed."

* * *

ADP HQ. Tuesday, February 10, 2037. 9:00 AM

The phone shrilled, and Leon punched the "receive" button without looking up. "McNichol here."

A videophone window opened on his monitor to display "Visual Not Available" in large red letters. "Good morning, Inspector."

Leon's head snapped up to stare at the blank window as he recognized the voice. "Loo--" he began even as he waved Daley over to his desk.

"Uh-uh-uh, no names, Inspector. And don't bother tracing this call; I've got it routed and redirected six ways from Sunday, and I don't think GENOM would appreciate it if you attempted to storm the Tower because you thought I was calling from there."

Daley, hearing this last, raised his eyebrows and slipped over to another desk to quietly speak into its phone.

"What is it you want?" Leon growled.

"Do you remember what we talked about last week, Inspector? About taking boomers down nondestructively?"

Leon frowned. "Yeah."

"I would like to come to some kind of agreement with you. You seem to know something of my origins. You should be aware that in my native here-and-now I am -- among other things -- basically a cop like you, only with an international jurisdiction. I prefer to work with local law enforcement. I would like to work with the ADP rather than against it."

Leon glanced over to where Daley spoke energetically into the phone. "I can't exactly revoke the orders to capture you, you know."

The Loon snorted. "Maybe not, but I don't doubt that you can turn down the heat quite a bit. Look, here's the deal. Give me a little breathing room, and as long as you try to take down the rogues without destroying them, I'll do everything in my power not only to help, but to protect ADP troops. In fact, I'll put priority on protecting the troops." A momentary pause. "As long as you are sincere about saving boomer lives."

"That's what you really want, isn't it?" Leon asked.

"You bet your sweet bippy it is, McNichol. Not at the cost of human lives, mind you, but if I can save both, I'll do it."

"Just tell me," Leon peered into the small phone window, wishing he had some video whatsoever. "Why?"

There was another pause. "You're in your thirties, I'd say, right, Inspector?"

"Yeah, about that," Leon allowed.

"So you're way too young for the Berlin Wall to have been anything but a page in a history book to you." A deep breath echoed across the line. "I'm not, Inspector. I was there, in my world, in 1989. I helped tear that wall down, with my hands and with my metagift.

"When we first showed up, the people swarming the wall backed off and started to form a mob, figuring we were there to stop them. Hexe -- that's my C.O., she's German herself, by the way -- flew up and hovered over the Wall. She faced East Berlin and spread her arms wide, as if she were trying to embrace the city. Then a curtain of lightning bolts slammed down out of the sky to either side of her and vaporized almost 500 yards of the Wall in one explosive, blinding strike." In his voice Leon could hear the smile creep onto the Loon's lips. "The thunder was deafening, but not as loud as the cheers from the crowd. By then, the rest of us were going to work on what was left, and the crowd flowed back in like the tide to join us."

There was a long pause; as the phone connection hissed softly, Leon began to wonder if the line had gone dead. Then the Loon continued. "It's my job, Inspector. It's my duty. Even as far away from home as I am. I save lives, I protect the innocent, and I free the enslaved. And every boomer ever made falls under at least one of those three criteria."

Leon thought about that. "Well..." he began.

"No need to answer me now, Inspector. I'll find you or the admirable Inspector Wong at the next incident, I'm sure." Daley raised one brow and grinned, mouthing the word "admirable" with obvious amusement. "You can think about it until then."

"I'm making no promises, Loon."

"Doesn't matter, Inspector. I trust you to do the right thing. Have a nice day!" he added brightly, then disconnected. Leon watched, nonplussed, as the video window shut itself and vanished.

"He's good," Daley said, sitting down on the desktop next to his partner. "We traced the call right into the Tower and no further." He chuckled. "The guy's got a sense of humor, you've got to give him that. Guess where in the Tower the call originated, according to Nene."

Leon looked up at him. "Where?"

Daley laughed. "IDEC, of course."

"Of course."

"She tried to backtrack further, but whatever he did to set up the link stopped her cold. There were at least a half-dozen possible connections out of IDEC's trunk that might have been him, but she couldn't figure out which. As far as she could tell, he might as well have been calling from their lobby." Daley shook his head. "Incredible."

"Yeah," Leon said, rubbing his temples. "Incredible."

* * *

Raven's Garage. Tuesday, February 10, 2037. 9:52 AM

Lisa paused the playback on the "hydra" and rubbed her eyes. God. I'm so tired.

She'd been up until two in the morning the previous night, speaking with her visitor -- Katherine Madigan, of all people. Damn. Who'd've thought it? GENOM's own queen bitch on my doorstep, bumming around in Ota without her bodyguards, wanting to talk to me. Not that Madigan had once invoked the name of GENOM or her position there, oddly enough, but it was impossible to be a journalist in MegaTokyo and not recognize her on sight.

Talk about your twilight zone experiences... For the hundredth time, a highly-compressed replay of the night flashed through her mind. They had spent hours talking about Sailor Moon -- and "Sailor Loon", to Lisa's extreme agitation. Still, for all that her reputation painted her as imperturbable and unshakeably in control, Madigan had seemed almost pathetically desperate for any information Lisa could offer. And she had never even once hinted at threats or bribes in response to Lisa's repeated protestations of ignorance, instead only seeming to grow more and more somber and disconsolate as the night drew on.

To her immense surprise, Lisa had found herself feeling for the woman, her compassion fighting down the almost-automatic fear and distrust of someone so highly placed in GENOM. And to compound her surprise, at the end of her visit Lisa found herself impulsively inviting Madigan back on some unspecified future night to watch their favorite episodes together. The offer had evoked the only smile to grace Madigan's face during the entire night -- a small, geniune flash as she replied, "I'd like that, thanks," before vanishing down the hallway.

Lisa shook her head to clear it. I'd say my life was strange, but that'd be redundant these days. One thing for sure, I'm not going to tell Sylia about this until I know what's really going on.

* * *

ADP HQ. Tuesday, February 10, 2037. 10:20 AM

Daley Wong considered himself lucky to have gotten the last of the breakfast miso before the cafeteria staff put it aside in order that the progress of time might turn it into the lunch miso. It wasn't that he had missed his morning meal that day. Not at all; he was just a little peckish. Too hungry for a cup of coffee to substitute for food, not quite hungry enough for a donut; a nice cup of miso fell right between the two. And even though he'd grown up on an improbable mix of Irish and Szechuan cooking, he'd always harbored a fondness for miso soup that occasionally bordered on a craving -- even for the cafeteria's less-than-stellar instant variety.

Stepping out of the serving area, Daley glanced around the dining room for a place to sit. The space was half-full, dotted with groups of personnel taking their mid-morning breaks. After the morning's events Daley wasn't terribly inclined to sit alone, but by the same token he didn't feel like crashing a large group. He turned slowly in place until he spotted a good prospect.

Walking up to the small table and its single occupant, Daley smiled charmingly. "Good morning, Lieutenant. Mind if I join you?"

Bochinksi looked up from his now-empty bowl; from the traces left in it, Daley thought it might have been oatmeal. "Huh? Oh, sure, Inspector. But I'm going back on shift in a couple, so I won't be worth much as company after that."

"Not a problem," Daley said, still smiling, and pulled out the chair opposite Bochinski. Carefully keeping his tray level, he lowering himself into the seat. "I'm not going to take long, myself."

Bochinski shrugged. "Sure, then, go ahead."

"Thanks." Daley seated himself, and then spent a moment savoring the scent of his miso before taking the first sip.

"So," Bochinski said after half-heartedly scraping the inside of his bowl with his spoon, "scuttlebutt says you and Inspector McNichol got a call from the super-powered nutbar this morning."

Daley swallowed a mouthful of soup and resisted the impulse to react. Well, it's not like we were on a secure line or anything. And we wonder how GENOM finds out what's going on in the department... "Yeah," he said aloud.

"So..." Bochinski stared at his empty spoon. "Is it true he's volunteered to help the ADP?"

"Yes," Daley simply said, and returned to his soup.

"You gonna take him up on it?"

Daley lowered his bowl. "Leon's handling this, and he hasn't decided yet. Why?"

Bochinski shrugged. "Just curious. It's just that I've got this strange feeling, like I'm running around on the edges of something big and exciting, but I'm not really involved with it. And I'm kind of feeling like I ought to be. It's weird."

Daley raised his eyebrows and considered this. "Yeah, it is. But you shouldn't be concerned about stuff like that. After all, you're in the ADP. You'll get to be in the middle of all the action soon enough." He aimed a mock-frown at his fellow officer. "Besides, don't you have more important things to worry about?"

Bochinski looked blankly at him.

"Fiancee?" Daley prompted. "Wedding? Plans, caterers, all that?"

"Oh, that," Bochinski blurted. "Kendra and her family are handling most of it." He shrugged sheepishly, and Daley laughed.

Daley smiled. "I can't say as I'm too surprised. How are you going to manage the work situation?"

"Eh, well, we're both going to keep working for now. If... I mean, when she gets pregnant, she'll probably take a desk job, but she'll work right up to the moment they wheel her into the delivery room." Another shrug, this one small and expressive. "You know Kendra."

"Yeah," Daley replied. "We couldn't keep her away from HQ if we tried."

"You better believe it, Inspector," said a mellifluous contralto voice.

Daley looked up to see nearly two meters of stunning amazonian blonde poured into an ADP uniform. "Good morning, Wadderson," he said in greeting.

"Good morning, Inspector," Kendra Wadderson replied, then turned to her fiance and partner. "C'mon, Fido, time to get on the road."

"Yes, dear," Bochinski said with a grin. He stood and picked up his tray. "Later, Inspector."

"Have a safe shift, you two," Daley replied. They thanked him and walked off. He wistfully watched them go. "Ah, young love," he murmured as he returned to his soup. "When will I find some of my own?"

* * *

IDEC. Tuesday, February 10, 2037. 3:52 PM

The next morning I strolled in, waved to Sindra, caught a bagel that Chizue tossed at me, pretended to be civil to Ohara and his accomplices, and then locked myself in my workshop. I had my helmet with me, in the bowling ball bag again. It only took me a few seconds to pull the specs for my memory chip design from it and store them on my workstation. It only took another ten or fifteen minutes to set the nanofac to churn out a dozen or so, already emplaced on circuit boards suitable for testing in the local computers.

That done, I went back to the R&D capstone system I had compromised the night before, and began to study boomers.

Now, the thing to understand was that while this particular system -- which had been given the spectacularly imaginative name of "rdmain" -- was indeed the hub of a dedicated R&D dataweave, and acted as a master security gateway to all the other systems on the weave, it did not give me master access to all the computers linked to it. Most, but not all. There were at least a dozen strands off the main weave which had higher-security gateways of their own, and four of those had names which suggested they handled boomer matters. Naturally, I focused on them.

I cracked the subsystem called "BUMAin" first, for obvious reasons. There I found general development information -- some of it dating back ten or more years. Chassis design, electronics subsystems, weaponry options, musculature -- the damn things were far more organic than any of the "official" literature available to the public suggested. They were practically 50/50 cyborgs built from scratch. If I had known that from the start...

The second system I cracked dealt exclusively with the 33-S models -- the "sexaroids" the Knight Sabers had mentioned during my little visit with them. Illegal on earth, their manufacture ostensibly banned, they were still in use in various orbital habitats -- and the only things that distinguished them from first-class genetically-engineered humans were their brains (which were less constrained than the standard issue model for most boomers), a few job-related "features" that sounded disturbingly like metagifts, and a couple of weaknesses and faults built into their bodies. These last were to cement control over them in the event they ever became rebellious and sought their freedom. One of the memos I found referred to this condition as "disturbingly common", and cited a case where a half dozen or so tried to make a break from one of GENOM's orbital facilities in 2033; two actually managed to crash land a shuttle near MegaTokyo before they were "terminated".

It took me a long time to calm down after browsing through that system.

(It helped me settle down to assemble copies of the most incriminating documents for later dissemination via the Net. By that time I knew of a couple of anonymous remailers with delay options; I would put the "package" up on them that night, chaining and cascading the transmissions between different servers to ensure that at least a few copies reached their destinations -- mainly media, government and human rights organizations based outside of Japan -- before GENOM inevitably trashed the systems.)

The third subsystem was devoted entirely to a subvariety of boomers. These "Covert" models had the ability to masquerade as humans or simple androids, but could "pop" out of their "skins" and manifest as full war machines, effectively doubling their size. I thought back to all the humanoid boomers I'd seen, such as those in the Tower lobby, and wondered just how many of them were disguised weapons platforms.

Knowing GENOM's paranoia, probably all of them.

Anyway, I'd never actually seen a boomer "pop", all the time I'd been there. But there were videos in the archive on the server, and I played them. You know, I've seen a lot of sick stuff in my day, but that really took the cake. There was absolutely no reason for the horrifying way the expansion shredded the human guise except as a psychological ploy, as a terror weapon.

And I wanted to know how they managed to pack a two-meter-tall by one-meter-wide boomer inside what looked like a normal human.

The answer was something called "programmable matter." I'd certainly never heard of it before, but it seemed simple enough, and I wondered if back home someone was working on it. Basically, it's an offshoot of nanotechnology. You nanofabricate a molecule-sized "trap" for electrons called a "quantum dot". With the right support circuitry, you can control exactly how many electrons are fed into the dot. The electrons, having nowhere else to go, automatically form themselves into shells exactly identical to those that form around the nuclei of atoms, except they're a couple of orders of magnitude larger. Since all chemistry is a consequence of atomic shell structure, you now have a "giant" version of whatever element has the particular number and arrangement of electrons caught in the trap -- a virtual, tunable atom. It can react with both other virtual atoms, and real ones, for as long as you keep the power on. You can change the atom programmatically by adding or removing electrons on the fly, too. And the actual power consumption was remarkably small. Incredible idea. Incredible stuff.

And boomer "flesh" was thoroughly laced with programmable matter and its related circuitry. In "covert" mode, it's all inactive. But turn on the power, and Voom! Suddenly you have four times the body volume you had a moment before. And properly arranged, it's all structural -- virtual atoms with real chemical bonds making what amounted to a flexible monomolecular framework woven through the boomer's entire structure. No wonder the things were so damned tough.

But they didn't stop there.

Imagine a semi-intelligent "goo" made up entirely of nanobots, each one carrying a quantum dot or two. Imagine that this goo can network itself to accept and propagate signals from an authorized "controller", and act upon those signals. Imagine that it "knows" a little about simple machines and circuits -- pivots, screws, wires, switches -- and how to build structures to use them with their virtual atoms. Imagine this goo seeping into a gun, and, using a combination of its built-in knowledge and extra data transmitted from its controller, "understanding" how to infiltrate the gun's trigger mechanism and take it over. In about ten seconds. Maybe less. Now imagine that the controller is a boomer with a couple dozen liters of this stuff stored in its body.

Scary, isn't it?

This is the so-called "fusion" boomer, and I had seen one of these in action -- at Bunko's. The lobby boomer with the minigun welded to its arm. Only it hadn't been welded -- bonds made up of nanobots and programmable matter had turned the gun into a very real part of the boomer's own body.

This was a technology I had to report back to the Warriors before some ingenious asshole with the right metagift brewed up a batch in his garage. Assuming that, in the years since I'd been home, it hadn't already happened. I made a copy of the complete fabrication specs for the fusion goo and stashed it in my helmet immediately.

Then I turned my attention to the fourth and final system.

* * *

Tuesday, February 10, 2037. 5:37 PM

With precise, controlled strokes of her pen, Katherine Madigan initialed the final set of requisition forms needed to set in motion her plan to capture the Visitor. All but a mere formality, she reflected, since the forces and supplies she required were already assembled and undergoing last-minute instructions. But a proper paper trail for internal cost-tracking and audits was a necessary part of all but the blackest of black projects, whether or not the project was one GENOM would ever publicly acknowledge.

Madigan closed the blue folder which held the requisitions, and placed it carefully in the upper left corner of her desk, from which a secretary would retrieve it the next time she left her office. Then she closed her eyes and sighed. Only a couple of days to go. So much planning, and still so many things that could go wrong. She resisted the urge to rub her eyes, if only to avoid spoiling the faint lavender eyeshadow she'd decided to wear today. Assuming any had survived the long day -- it'd been hours since she'd looked at herself in any kind of reflective surface.

And on the subject of things going wrong... She leaned back in her chair, eyes still closed, hands lightly gripping the armrests. I must be prepared for the possibility that, in the wake of my recent activities, my loyalty to GENOM might be questioned. Roused by the thought, memories of those activities flashed unbidden through her mind: her confession at St. Jude's; her long, fruitless discussion with the girl who had photographed the Sailor Senshi; the infuriating and terrifying letter from nowhere and the energy she had spent trying to discover its origins; even her reviews of certain business ethics texts. It wouldn't take much for one of the sharks below her to weave a plausible accusation from these -- an accusation which would be uncomfortably close to the truth. And in such a case, events might run too swiftly for her to employ her carefully-hoarded supply of blackmail evidence in time to do any good. She could well find a pair of security boomers in her office before she had any idea that GENOM had declared her a liability.

"Hope for the best, plan for the worst," Father Knecht had frequently said. She now needed an edge in case the worst happened.

Katherine stood, thumbing the door lock button on her desk. Fingertips brushing over another control opaqued her windows -- just in case. There were always security bugs, but her status within the company had long ago ensured most were inactive; those that weren't, fed to logs sealed with a corporate security level so high that only she and Mr. Quincy had access to them. She hoped.

She crossed to the heavy wooden credenza which took up most of one of the office's side walls, set aside the potted plant which normally sat upon it, and carefully pressed her fingers against four apparently innocuous spots in a rapid, syncopated tattoo.

There was a click, and the credenza's thick oaken slab of a top swung up slightly, like the lid of a box.

Katherine lifted it, revealing a hollowed, padded recess in its underside. It was lined with a velvety material, and a strip of velcro tape held a cellphone securely within. A cellphone, she reflected, that could get me "disappeared".

It had been four years earlier, give or take, that she had learned about the OverMind System -- GENOM's secret and as-yet unused world-wide remote-control for every boomer ever made. Not long after that, she had almost died at the hands of the insane "boomer messiah", Largo. During the weeks of her recovery, she had angrily vowed never to be caught so unprepared again, and arranged for the construction of this -- a control unit which employed a tiny subset of the OMS protocols. When activated, it would paralyze every boomer within a hundred meters for as long as its power held out -- five or ten minutes if she were lucky. It was also a functional cellphone that responded to the same number as the identical one she habitually carried.

The implications of what she had done only struck her with the device's delivery, weeks after her rage at her own impotence had faded away. Appalled at her own recklessness, she arranged for the permanent "dismissal" of the technician who had built it (Katherine winced with regret and pain at the thought of how coldbloodedly she had issued that command) and hid the device. She had never used it. She had never even carried it. Until now.

With a ripping noise that was disturbingly loud in the quiet room, Katherine freed the phone from its hiding place and traded it for the one which she withdrew from her pocket. The latter took its twin's place within the credenza top, which she then closed; it latched shut with an audible click.

Now she was ready for the worst.

* * *

Penthouse, Ladys633. Tuesday, February 10, 2037. 7:35 PM

Sylia slowly nodded to herself as she set the earpiece back in its holder and turned off the playback. Much as it had distressed her to do so at the time, it had been the right thing to do to have the listening devices planted in Lisa's apartment.

Katherine Madigan of GENOM calling upon Lisa, alone and all but incognito, to question her about the so-called "senshi" -- and to discuss "Sailor Moon". Sylia shook her head. Curious... and disturbing. This will bear further watching.

* * *

IDEC. Wednesday, February 11, 2037. 1:22 PM

I spent several hours carefully probing and prodding that fourth system. It was far more secure than the other three, which convinced me that it had to hold what I was looking for -- the only thing about boomer technology which was a double-plus hush-hush certified trade secret, the design for the boomer brain. In the end, though, it was resistant to all the mundane techniques I could apply to it without going out into the Tower and trying a little social engineering. I couldn't very well do that, so I did the next better thing. I put on my helmet, called up "Lightning's Hand" and sent my consciousness directly into the recalcitrant machine.

Three minutes later, I had an "invisible" account with administrator clearance and I had patched the OS to automatically clean up any trail I left behind.

(I have to admit, when it comes to cracking systems, "Lightning's Hand" is an invaluable tool. But like any good tool, I save it for the situations where I actually need it -- like this one. Besides, it takes the fun out of cracking when you can remotely reprogram the entire system from the outside. Plus I'd rather not become dependent upon my metagift for things like that; not only wouldn't I always have my helmet with me, but that skill set was something I'd worked long and hard for, and I didn't like to let it get rusty.

Anyway...)

I had been right. The fourth and final system was dedicated entirely to boomer brain design. Unlike the others, though, there was little in the way of active development going on in this area, judging from file dates. There was almost nothing here any newer than the various directory creation dates, and in fact most files were a lot older -- obvious remnants of a transfer from a previous system.

In order to accomplish my charge from the Three, I needed to learn everything that there was to know on boomer brain design. That pretty much covered the entire contents of the machine, as far as I could tell. I wasn't content to simply browse my way around the box, though; even with my enhanced access privileges, I didn't want to spend any more time in this system than I actually had to. So I copied everything over to my machine at IDEC.

There was a lot there -- including several terabyte-sized CAD files which I suspected contained the entire build specs for the standard boomer brain models. I started a transfer to my local machine and while it ran, I ordered in a late dinner. While I waited for it, I set up a little program that hooked into GENOM's intelligence network and would alert me to an ADP deployment -- just in case.

Not long after that, my dinner arrived. I trotted out to the lobby to retrieve it and tip the delivery boy, then retreated back into my lab to scarf down my sesame chicken, broccoli with garlic and fried dumplings. A little while after I had polished it off, the transfer completed. I tossed out the trash left over from my meal and went to work.

Then immediately stopped.

The CAD files were unrecognized by any of the programs on IDEC's machines.

It took me a half-hour to discover that they were in an obsolete format -- one that hadn't been in use for almost fifteen years. It took me another forty-five minutes to find a pirate copy of the package on the Net, download it and install it.

By which time I was frankly worn out by the day's efforts. I shut everything down and resolved to jump feet-first into the task in the morning when I was fresh.

Which I did.

Bagel in hand, I bounced up and down in my chair while NanoCAD 6.71 slowly initialized and spun up a window on my desktop, and as soon as the first image appeared, I dove right in.

And I was appalled at what I found.

Appalled, and a little in awe.

How can I describe this? It was the feeling you'd get if you opened up an Egyptian tomb and found a working atomic pile built from raw pitchblende ore and rough charcoal blocks. The feeling you'd have upon discovering a 19th-Century steam-powered mechanical computer with the processing power of a late-model Cray laptop, buried in the basement of an abandoned Victorian warehouse. It was something that shouldn't have been possible with the available technology, but some twisted genius had figured out how to do it anyway. Just barely.

It was a brilliant piece of hackery, and an excellent first prototype. But that's all it was -- a proof-of-concept implementation that should never have been used as a production spec. Worse, it had been crudely modified by others. I could see the evidence of at least four hands in the design: the original creator, of whom I was increasingly in awe when I saw more and more of what he'd done to make his design work, and no less than three butchers, who had slashed through the golden precision of the original creation to turn it into something controllable. Something marketable.

Whoever that original designer had been -- I found the Roman initials "KS" worked into the circuitry at one point and I presumed they were his -- he had to have been a remarkable polymath, because he mixed cybernetics and biological systems with a facility that quite frankly was beyond my ability to comprehend. As far as I could tell, he hadn't been designing a processor unit for a slave bot, he'd been designing the brain of a new lifeform. This hadn't been it, but it was clearly a significant evolutionary step along the route to it.

I suppose something must have happened to "KS", basically because the brain design was so crude (relatively) but still had so much potential. Even without the expertise to judge the bio half of it, I could see so many places for improvement, and anyone capable of this design in the first place would never have been content to leave it as it was, let alone allow it to be butchered the way it had been and then put on the market afterwards. And since GENOM had no significant competitor in boomers -- and no minor manufacturer's boomers were significantly more intelligent or stable -- "KS" was probably dead, possibly even at GENOM's hand or order. And afterwards, they had gone in and inserted their controls and overrides and governors with all the delicacy of an epileptic rhinoceros. I mean, I'd known they were there, but I'd thought they'd've at least been part of the original architecture.

It was no wonder the poor things went berserk.

Anyway. Something about this conjectural history bugged me -- like I knew something relevant but wasn't able to put my finger on it. I resolved to do some Net searches later for names with the initials "KS" connected to the development of boomers (not just boomers in general, else I'd surely find nothing but "Knight Sabers" sites), just to see if I could shake free whatever datum my subconscious was clinging to so tightly.

In the meantime, I tried to find some quick and/or easy way to release a boomer brain from those obedience circuits so crudely inserted into it. And, while I was at it, I started sketching out some improvements in the cybernetics side of the brain -- because, damn, they were needed, and because I could. I didn't expect that they'd ever get implemented, of course. But I couldn't look at those plans without seeing the kinds of fixes I was sure that "KS" would have wanted to apply to his next-generation design, and not doing anything about them would've driven me nuts.

* * *

By lunchtime I'd already filled up one pad of lined paper with my notes, and had made good headway into a second. The mystery genius had been exactly that -- a genius -- but he took shortcuts and made design decisions I would never have agreed with. Yes, he had been creating a new lifeform. But it had been a disposable one.

As designed, boomer brains were, to put it mildly, expendable components. They had an operational lifespan of ten years tops (and that was my most generous guess) before they simply broke down. Oh, the electronics would continue to work just fine (unless they were used in a high-rad environment like space, in which case both electronics and biologics would eventually fry from the ionization -- shielding had not been a priority). But the neurons would eventually die off, starting slowly and then accelerating, mainly because their support systems were a little less than perfect. Waste product disposal was just a hair under 100% effective, causing the neural tissues to slowly, inexorably poison themselves. And it was, according to the design notes, intentional. Planned obsolescence of a profoundly disturbing, even obscene, variety.

A genius, yes. Designing a new lifeform, yes. But a lifeform with a self-destruct built in. A lifeform that could be used up and thrown out like an old soda can. Or maybe they could recycle the body by popping the lid and dropping a new brain in...

(I shook my head at that thought. Too weird for me at the moment.)

I wondered if "KS" had ever given any thought to what a boomer would do once its brain tissue started dying. Forget about what it would think and feel...

Worse, someone in GENOM took these original kludgy designs and overlaid all those control circuits and behavioral blocks on them, further disturbing the already-delicate balance between organic and electronic systems. Jesus Harold Christ. What a mess.

While I'd trained as a cybernetics engineer, I'd specialized in the wholly inorganic side. Bionics and cyborgs weren't really my bailiwick. But I did know a trick or two, thanks to almost fifteen years of field experience and to my insatiable curiosity. Add that to what I did know about pure electronics, and I now had a sheaf of ideas on how to improve the boomer brain design. I had a pretty good idea how I could not only break a brain free from the GENOM constraints, but also double, maybe triple its lifespan. The method I was starting to lay out could be applied non-destructively to an active brain, cannibalizing and recycling GENOM's add-on circuitry, which -- purely by coincidence, of course -- would free the boomer's mind from all blocks, overrides and coercions in the process. I might even be able to improve general performance as well.

It wouldn't even be a terribly complex job. The problem was, it amounted to a couple of hours of brain surgery. It took too long, it needed to be performed by an engineer or at the least a well-trained tech, and... Well, you see where I'm going. If I were to free the entire population of boomers, I couldn't do it one boomer at a time. It simply would not work, for dozens of realistic reasons.

I spent the rest of the day toying with the idea of maybe redesigning the fusion nanites to do the job, but that turned out to be a blind alley, too. For one, they were too stupid by themselves. They needed a guiding intelligence. Second, GENOM was well aware of the dangers of having its own technology subverted, and all its boomers were fusion-proofed.

The obvious alternative was to design my own nanite to do the job, but the nanotech of this here-and-now was significantly more advanced than that of homeline. I was barely beyond the "Nanotechnology For Dummies" level here; forget about building a whole new nanite from scratch.

Along about three o'clock in the afternoon, I gave up on the subject for the day and decided to do something -- anything -- else instead. So I spent the rest of the day and well into the night taking apart, studying and ultimately rebuilding the gravity gun. And when I tired of that, I finished up a couple other small projects of mine that had been in the pipeline for a while.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 6:35 PM

Katherine Madigan lifted the handset of the scrambled telephone to her lips, punched a number in on the keypad, and spoke one word.

"Go."

* * *

APD HQ. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 6:50 PM

The alert sounded just as Leon began closing down his open files for the day. He gave an ironic half-grin to no one in particular, and reached for his coat.

"Daley!" he bellowed across the suddenly-galvanized squad room. "We've got ourselves a street party!"

"Already on it, Leon-chan," Daley responded from behind him. Leon turned to see him standing, palmtop in one hand, coat in the other. "Six combat boomers converging on Geo City Plaza," he said as the two started striding for the elevators. "We'll get there just ahead of the front line troops." He looked up and shot a mischievous look at Leon over the hand-held computer. "So, are you going to take the Loon up on his offer?"

Leon nodded curtly. "I've already made sure that the squads on duty all had a couple of BRS units each. We'll give the guy a chance." He glanced at his partner, and Daley was surprised by the serious look in his eyes. "One chance. Unofficially. If the casualty rate is notably lower..."

"You'll make a formal recommendation," Daley finished.

"Right."

"Sounds good, Leon-chan. Let's do it."

* * *

Silky Doll. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 6:54 PM

After almost six years of leading a high-powered vigilante group, Sylia Stingray had many ways to learn about an AD Police mobilization. Some, like the monitor tap Nene had placed on the ADP comm grid for her, and which fed into her bedroom, were quite straightforward. Some, like the pager which she wore in the Silky Doll, and which was operated by a dedicated link to an automated news service, were indirect and somewhat slower. Some were intended as extreme backups in the event that all her other lines of information were cut off.

Sylia Stingray did not intend to ever miss an ADP deployment.

It was as she rang up a customer's purchase that the pager went off. After making change and bidding the woman a good night, she withdrew the pager and checked its small screen to confirm that the ADP was indeed responding to a boomer incident. She nodded to herself. It was time to alert her sisters.

* * *

IDEC. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 6:57 PM

I was, as had become usual, putting in a lot of late hours at IDEC. I'd spent most of that day rebuilding the Doberman's gravgun into a crude antigravity system (documenting every step as I went), and I'd been in the middle of my second hour of fine-tuning it when my ADP alert daemon popped up. A set of boomers were on the loose in a commercial district a few kilometers away from the Tower. I grabbed my helmet and the bag I carried it in, keyed in the code for Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound", and found myself teleported back to my little shithole efficiency apartment.

It may have been shit, but it was home, as far as the song was concerned. For the moment.

There, I quickly changed into my full duty uniform, pulled my duster on over it, and ran out to my motorcycle. Less than three minutes after the alert had popped up on my screen, I was roaring my way through and around the evening traffic backups.

* * *

District 3, Near Geo City. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 7:06 PM

Lisa forced herself to act carefully and deliberately as she picked the lock to one of the roof access doors of the Shogakukan complex. With the excitement in the street, it had been simple enough to walk past the distracted security guard in the lobby and onto an elevator. Just a few more deft motions with the tools, and she would once again have her trademark aerial viewpoint. Even better, the publishing conglomerate's complex covered several blocks wrapping almost half of the way around the plaza which served as the entrance to Geo City; far more of it was actually in the underground arcology than above ground, in fact. Pedestrian bridges spanned many of the streets which ran between the complex's above-ground structures, their roofs giving her a convenient route from one building to another should the action move beyond the current battle line.

The lock unlatched with a loud "click!" and she grinned as she slid the picks back into her coat pocket.

Somehow, she thought as she slipped into the chill wind outside, the fact that I'm doing this more for fun than for money makes it even more exciting. She looked up at the broad, gibbous moon, visible in the clear sky, and took a deep breath, savoring the crisp scent of the cold nighttime air. And maybe I can corner Doug before he vanishes. There's no doubt he's going to be here.

She knelt at the edge of the building and lifted her camera to her eyes.

* * *

Geo City Plaza. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 7:15 PM

I got to ground zero just as the line of scrimmage was forming. Ground zero in this case was yet another broad plaza -- the city was rotten with them, a side effect of the planned rebuilding, I suppose. This particular example was broad and square, and in the center of it was a Bauhaus box of glass and steel inhabited entirely by escalators and transparent elevator shafts. Tastefully understated signs of blue block characters above the broad bank of doors announced "GEO CITY" in both English and Japanese. Any other night, they might have been brightly lit, but the only thing that illuminated at the moment was moonlight and the beams from the ADP halogen spots.

About 50 meters in front of the structure, six big, blue and ugly combat model boomers were busily engaged in the task of dismantling a pair of commuter buses and throwing the pieces in random directions. Several merrily-blazing piles of metal and rubber elsewhere around the plaza marked previous efforts, as did the shattered (and in some cases burning) facades of nearby buildings.

It occurred to me to wonder if this Geo City place were owned by one of GENOM's few competitors.

Wong and McNichol were there, bellowing at their people as the ADP forces poured out of their troop carriers. A flight of those stupid little helicopters buzzed by overhead. The boomers ignored the ADP forces except for the occasional warning shot at anyone who tried to get too close. Radio chatter that I'd overheard on my way there had indicated that they'd seemed to be focusing on property damage; while there had been casualties, the count was surprisingly low. That probably accounted for the high number of news crews already on site to cover this particular rampage.

I roared through the still-disorganized picket line the ADP was establishing and then pulled the bike through a 180-degree skid to stop on a dime in front of the two inspectors. To their credit, they didn't flinch. I dropped the turbine down to idle and shouted over the still-loud whine, "Do we have a deal, McNichol?"

He nodded curtly. "Yes. We'll try it your way today," he shouted back. "We don't have all that many of the restraint guns, but there should be enough. If it works, I'll do my best to make their use a permanent policy."

"Fair enough," I shouted back, and hopped off the cycle. "Safepark," I murmured to its computer, and the turbine howled as it sped off, riderless, through the ranks of astonished troops. I looked up to see the inspectors trading a look.

"A boomer bike?" Wong asked.

"Nah, just a fancy autopilot," I replied quickly. "See you later!" And with that, I bounded out towards the action.

* * *

"Doug!" Lisa grinned to herself and took a telephoto shot of him with Leon and Daley. Slowly, she crept along the edge of the building to keep him in sight.

* * *

As Daley watched the Loon hurtle toward the boomers with sense-defying six-meter leaps, Leon slid into the driver's seat of their patrol car and lifted the radio handset to his lips. "McNichol to all forces, attention," he declared. "The Loon will be engaging the boomers in an attempt to distract them. BRS troops deploy to the fore, fire as soon as they get in range. Heavy weapons, cover them but do not fire unless under direct attack. Repeat, heavy weapons, do not fire unless under direct attack. And try not to hit the Loon, guys, okay? He's on our side tonight, got it? Acknowledge!"

As the various squads counted off their acknowledgments, Leon stared out through the car's open door toward the arcology entrance. "Good luck," he whispered, shaking his head.

* * *

"<System. Combat mode on. 'Tubthumping.' Play.>" Nothing like a little insurance.

The moment the boomers caught sight of me, they immediately dropped what they were doing -- not that there was much left of the two buses by that time anyway. Popping out their flight systems, they took to the air and beelined right for me.

When I saw that, I realized three things. One, this was almost certainly a trap set for li'l ol' me. Two, I was going to tear Ohara a new one as soon as I got back to IDEC, because he was supposed to stop pulling this kind of shit. And three, I should maybe turn around and head right back to the ADP line if I were going to lead the boomers into firing range. So as soon as I hit the ground after my last leap, I spun on my toe and ran back full-speed towards the cops. I'd gotten to within maybe twenty meters or so of the line when the first ADP fusillade launched.

A few of the restraint thingies came suspiciously close to me, but I dodged them easily. Not that they would have done more than bowl me over, and maybe not even that; the way I understood it, they were a kind of EMP device, so they couldn't've hurt me. Not even my helmet -- it was too well shielded against that kind of thing. I used Hexe's lightning bolts as the baseline when designing those protections, and if the trademark attack of a weather goddess can't get through, no mortal-built device has a chance. Still, getting hit with one would have thrown me back into the hands of the boomers, and while I was confident I could go toe-to-toe with one (for a little while, at least), I did not want to be the target of a whole gang of them. Again.

Three of the boomers went down twitching, studded with black gooballs; the other three split up and fell back in different directions. I made a sudden right turn to run parallel to the line of ADP forces; my plan was to dash back in and play bait again, but I didn't know if the remaining trio would cooperate after seeing what had happened to their companions.

That's when I saw them.

* * *

"Tacteam G1 to base," crackled through handset. "Target is not cooperating. He's moving too fast for the boomers to get a bead on him, and he's refusing to engage them hand-to-hand. And we already have three 65Cs down."

"What?" Madigan cried, her surprise shattering her control for a moment.

"Confirmed, base. It wasn't the target. ADP is using a new weapon, looks like blobs of tar. Units B2, B3, and B6 took direct hits and appear to be having epileptic fits."

"Damn!" she swore. "Restraint systems. I thought we got those things discredited and discarded years ago! Of all the times for the ADP to dig them out again..." She thought furiously for a moment. "G1, continue to follow the target."

"Acknowledged, base." There was another crackle, and then, "Um, base? Looks like we have a new complication."

"What kind of complication?"

* * *

They were leaping down from the top of a building on the edge of the plaza when I spotted them. A black VTOL aircraft of some sort had just dropped them off on the roof and was already vanishing into the night sky.

The Knight Sabers. Just what I needed -- Lady White and the High-Heel Gang would turn this operation into a bloodbath. Fluidbath. Whatever.

With a murmured command, I opened the ADP channel. "McNichol! Loon. We've got trouble -- the Knight Sabers are here. If they jump in with their usual M.O. ..."

McNichol was on the same wavelength as I was, and I'm not talking about the radio. "They'll open fire on the boomers, the boomers will shoot back, and guaranteed someone's going to get get hurt in the firefight." He sounded more than a little worried and concerned.

"Look, you can handle the last three boomers on your own, I think," I said. "Those restraint systems of yours look pretty damned effective. I'm going to lead the Knights away from the fight so it doesn't escalate." I was already creating, evaluating and discarding potential battle plans, sifting through courses of action until I found one I liked.

"You're going to what?" McNichol squawked, but I shut off the channel without another word. I had my plan.

* * *

"What's he doing?" Daley murmured.

Loon stopped short and glanced at the approaching Knight Sabers, placing himself foursquare in the path between them and the plaza. Then he turned to the watching police and news crews and pressed a button on the side of his helmet. "Ladies and gentlemen," he declared, his voice amplified to reach the entire human side of the conflict, "I'd like to dedicate my next song to those lovely crusaders for corporate peace, those brave hunters of runaway slaves, those freelance murderers whom we all know and love -- the Knight Sabers!" He fingered the button again, then gripped and turned the domes on the side of his helmet like knobs.

* * *

"System set mode split output," I said to the helmet computer the second they got within 30 meters of me. "System set external 'Fat-Bottomed Girls' set internal 'Firing Line'. System play!"

* * *

A moment later, a chorus of voices like a human pipe organ filled the street. As Daley started to chuckle and cough, Leon strained to understand the English lyrics:

"<Are you going to take me home tonight?
Ahhh, down beside that red firelight?
Are you going to let it all hang out?
Fat-bottomed girls, you make the rocking world go 'round!
Fat-bottomed girls, you make the rocking world go 'round!>"

"That's it," Daley murmured with a grin after recovering his composure. "He's dead meat."

* * *

In case it isn't obvious, my helmet's soundproof. Big cups of acoustically-dampening foam cover my ears to eliminate the possibility of unwanted outside noise interfering with the recordings I need for my metagift. There's an external microphone that feeds in sounds from around me, so I can have conversations and whatnot, but shut that off and I might as well be deaf. The acoustic insulation is that good. I rely on the small stereo speakers by my ears for all my hearing needs.

The external speakers, it should be obvious, are completely optional. I don't have to use them, and I have to physically turn them on when I do.

And they don't have to play the same thing as the internal speakers.

The computer in my helmet can run two different songs at once, and route them to different speakers. A phase-inverter circuit filters the external speakers out of the signal coming from the external mike, so I can leave that on and still hear what's going on around me, without interfering in whatever song I'm actually using.

That's what I was doing at that moment. The world heard a no-effect Queen song that I selected to be moderately insulting to the Knights. I heard Gossamer Axe's "Firing Line" -- an explicit song of heavy-metal challenge that did trigger my metatalent:

"<Are you surprised to see me
Standing here at your door?
Thought that it was all over between us, huh?
Thought you could forget about it all?
I'm here
And I'm calling you out
So get your ass out here, boy,
'Cause it's time to get down
To the firing line!>"

"Come and get me, girls!" I trilled mockingly at the Knight Sabers, wiggling my butt at them and then slapping it. Then I ran out of the plaza in a direction that would take us all away from both the boomers and the ADP.

* * *

"That... that... that..." Nene sputtered, almost wordless in outrage after spending a moment puzzling out the meaning of the English words. "I do not have a fat bottom!" she shrieked.

Sylia's temper flared in a way it hadn't since she'd faced off against Mason. How dare he! She'd teach the smug bastard a lesson, she would! "After him!"

Around her, the Sabers, equipped with all their new weaponry, nodded grimly and followed.

* * *

"Damn it, Doug! Stand still!" Lisa growled as she scuttled along the rooftops after him. God! Does he have a deathwish? she thought furiously as she kept up her pursuit. What was he thinking, calling the Sabers "slave hunters" in public? In front of the media, even?

Behind her, some of the news crews in Geo City Plaza were trying to break down their setups and get mobile again. A few of the other stringers might already be on the road, trying to chase down the Sabers and their prey; Lisa had to make the best use of her communicator watch and her advantageous position on the roof to beat the other reporters to the scene.

She glanced up to see Sylia and Priss making a jet-assisted jump over the building in front of her. At least Doug seemed to be staying within the maze-like Shogakukan complex. For now.

* * *

"Tacteam G1 update."

"Go ahead, G1."

"The target has left Geo City Plaza with the Knight Sabers in pursuit."

Katherine frowned. "Say again, G1?"

"The Knight Sabers are chasing the target out of the operation zone, base."

She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Would nothing go as planned? Who would have expected the Sabers to go after the Visitor rather than engage the boomers? It was so out of character as to be inexplicable. Still, she raged at herself internally for not foreseeing such a development.

Despite her anger at herself, though, she managed to keep her voice calm and level -- for the moment. "G1, follow and observe, but do not attack unless the Loon escapes pursuit. Acknowledge."

"Acknowledged, base."

There will have to be another attempt, Katherine thought as the transceiver fell silent. And next time, I must eliminate all possible complications.

* * *

Silently thanking the ADP for its comprehensive and effective roadblock policies, I led the Knight Sabers deep into the maze of empty roads and interconnected buildings adjacent to Geo City. The entire area, save for the streetlights, was blacked out -- whether because of boomer damage or because some smart boy had shut down the power in case of boomer damage, I couldn't tell, but I didn't care. The lights and almost-full moon lit it well enough for my needs, and besides, I just wanted to get them away from the plaza and keep them away long enough for the ADP to finish the job they'd started. Already I'd heard another salvo of globguns, and I hoped that meant another two or more boomers had been saved from violent death.

I decided it was time to face the foe, and stopped in the center of an empty intersection. Overhead, the traffic light creaked on its pivot as the winter wind swung it back and forth. I cut the playback of both songs, shut off the external speakers, and reset the mode to single-output. The Knights had been flitting in and out of the area of effect of the song for the entire chase, and while they might be a little off-balance from the on-again/off-again emotional manipulation, it should fade before they reached me.

Which they were about to. I heard the jumpjets and that poink-poink-poink first, then they came into view. Lady White strode straight down the street at me. Blue and Olive dropped together from the roof of a nearby building. And Pink... Pink dove in from above, silhouetted for a moment against the moon. Her armor had been mated to something that looked like a small jet drone and a three-barrelled machine gun like those the ADP used on their stupid little choppers. I took a quick glance at the others. Blue had her big gauss needler rig again. Olive looked bigger and thicker in the torso than before. And White wore something that looked a lot like a flamethrower and was probably far worse.

Oh joy. I appeared to have been promoted to "extremely serious threat." Only one chance to end this without someone getting hurt (namely me). "<System, 'Under My Thumb.' Play,>" I murmured. As the Rolling Stones kicked in, I turned the PA back on and said, "Ladies, let's talk." Then I focused all my will on Lady White.

"<Under my thumb
The girl who once had me down
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around
It's down to me
The difference in the clothes she wears
Down to me, the change has come,
She's under my thumb.>"

Lady White stopped short and Blue and Olive came to a halt behind and to either side of her. Pink landed, the wings on her fancy backpack thingie folding partway down behind her as she joined her compatriots. White looked at me. "Okay, we'll talk," she replied, but I could already hear the strain in her voice. This was going to be a close one. It was a pity I couldn't get an area effect out of it, but it was the only explicit full-spectrum mind control song I had. Best keep it simple and straightforward.

And no comedy. I valiantly resisted the urge to wave my hand and say, "I'm not the metahuman you're looking for."

* * *

"There's no reason for us to fight, you know," Sangnoir said as they stood facing him in the middle of the street.

"So you say," Sylia ground out. She wanted to agree with him; deep within her she felt a powerful, almost overwhelming desire to do so. But at the same time Sylia knew she had very good reasons to disagree. Trying to voice them was all but impossible; the noncommittal response she forced out was the best compromise she could slip past the compulsion. It was a disturbing, unnerving sensation... if she lost her focus on her contrary reasons for even a moment, she all but forgot she even had them.

"Wouldn't be better if we all just went home now?" He raised his hands in a pleading gesture. "You don't need to fight me or the boomers in the plaza."

"That may be the case," Sylia slowly forced herself to say, barely able to force down the powerful urge to cheerfully and enthusiastically agree with him and do what he said. She began to fear it was a losing fight, and redoubled her concentration.

"I thought we were going to take him down," Priss growled over the private channel.

"Sylia?" Nene said, doubt and surprise at her leader's words plain in her tone.

"Well, then, why don't you go? NOW," Sangnoir declared, a sudden intense urgency in his voice. The indescribable pressure rolled a little further over the edges of her will.

"Yes, yes, you may be right," Sylia found herself murmuring -- and believing.

"What?" Nene shrieked.

"It's him! He's doing something to her!" Priss swung the barrels of her rail cannons to bear on Sangnoir and gripped their handles firmly. "Whatever you're doing, stop it now!" she bellowed.

"Yeah!" Nene carefully aimed her Vulcan at his chest. "What she said!"

* * *

Overhead, Lisa froze at the sight of the moonlit tableau and the challenge: Priss and Nene, their weapons trained on Doug, who stood maybe ten meters from them; Sylia, her posture betraying an uncharacteristic confusion, a bit closer; Linna, almost at Sylia's side, unmoving.

"Shit," she whispered even as she raised the camera to her eye again.

* * *

"I'm not doing anything, ladies." Inside my helmet I grinned while mentally crossing my fingers behind my back. "Maybe your boss just changed her mind."

"Bullshit," Blue spat. "Get'im!"

Damn. I'd been worried about leaving her uncontrolled. Oh well. Thanking Lady Blue for her kind warning, I threw myself into a back somersault as she and Pink opened up on me. The spikes from Blue's gauss cannons missed me handily, but Pink was clever enough to walk her machine gun fire right into my trajectory. My field deflected a lot of it, and my armor intercepted most of the rest, but I had to stifle a cry of pain when a few of the bullets slammed into my flesh. The burning impacts stitched their way across my body and knocked me out of my clean, neat arc and into a sprawling heap in the street.

Even as I tumbled to a halt along the asphalt, I inventoried my wounds by feel. Pink had gotten both of my arms and one leg -- clean punctures or simple creases from what I could tell; and thank god the punctures had all missed bone. I'd have to wait for a moment when I could look to see if she'd hit any major veins or arteries, but I didn't feel like I was hemorhaging. (I've taken such wounds before; I would know, and quickly.) I certainly hurt like hell, but it wouldn't hold me down -- I've kept going with far worse.

But first I had to get back up.

Blue and Pink darted in to cover me with their weapons again. "Not bad, Pinky," I rasped out as I rolled to my hands and knees and focused part of my mind on suppressing the pain of my wounds. "You actually hit me. I'm impressed." Olive approached more cautiously. I would have thought that as their primary hand-to-hand specialist she couldn't add too much to the ranged firepower aimed at me, but then that new heavier torso armor of hers opened up like a pair of double doors to reveal a familiar-looking array of focusing lenses. More joy. "Just remember, though, when the time comes," I went on. "I tried to do this nonviolently. You drew first blood, not me."

"<It's down to me, yes it is
The way she does just what she's told
Down to me, the change has come
She's under my thumb.>"

Behind the three of them, White shook herself free of the song's influence and my suggestions. I could feel her considerable will power reverberate back up the channels of magic as she seized control of her own mind again. Ah, well. I wasn't going to get much use out of the song now. I shrugged to myself and shut down the playback. "Hmm," I continued, a thoughtful tone infusing my voice. "If she's Pinky, does that make you the Brain, Blue?"

"Huh? What?" the Knight in question growled wittily.

Inside my helmet, I smirked. "Nah, I didn't think so."

"You bastard!" Pink snarled.

"Styx and the Stones may break my bones, little girl," I said, smiling wider, "but only true names will ever hurt me."

"Wha...?"

"Ignore him," White said, stepping to the fore.

I inclined my head to her. "No hard feelings, White? I'm just doing what I need to do, you know."

"No one toys with my mind, Colonel," White replied in tones of ice. "No one."

I shrugged, this time for real, and almost didn't wince. "Hey, it was worth a try. After all, you've all been naughty girls for interfering when I told you not to." I slowly got to my feet, and risked a glance at my wounds. The bloodstains were relatively small and slow-growing. Good. "I suppose I'm just going to have to spank you."

I know that I'd threatened to disintegrate their armor right off them the last time I'd seen them, but I hesitated to do so. No matter how misguided they might be, the Knight Sabers were still at least nominally good guys. And they had more than their fair share of enemies. No, I couldn't do that to them unless it was somewhat more than just a life-or-death matter for me alone. I had to go with something different -- something with just as much or more impact, but which wouldn't leave them exposed to their enemies when I was done.

"Yeah, right," Pink snarled. "Wounded and bleeding. You and what army?"

I smiled and shook my head. "No army. I don't need an army. Just a few Warriors." Before they could react, I exploded into another leap backward. "<System! 'With A Little Help From My Friends'! Play!>"

END OF CHAPTER ELEVEN

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(Version 1.1, 22 October 2003)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wadderson and Bochinsky are by way of Twister and Ed Becerra.

"Sweetling" copyright Kris Overstreet and Larry Mann. DYO!

Lyrics from "This Corrosion" recorded by Sisters Of Mercy, written by Andrew Eldritch, copyright © 1987 by Blackwood Music, Inc. (BMI).

Lyrics from "Black Hole Sun" recorded by Soundgarden, written by Chris Cornell, copyright © 1994 by You Make Me Sick I Make Music (ASCAP).

Lyrics from "The Chain" recorded by Fleetwood Mac, written by Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie, and Stevie Nicks, copyright © 1977 by Gentoo Music, Inc., Now Sounds Music and Welsh Witch Music (BMI).

Lyrics from "Ray Of Light" recorded by Madonna, written by Madonna, William Orbit, Clive Muldoon, Dave Curtis and Christine Leach, copyright © 1998 by Warner Brothers Records.

Lyrics from "The Boy in the Bubble" recorded by Paul Simon, words by Paul Simon, music by Paul Simon and Forere Motlobeloa, copyright © 1986 by Warner Brothers Records.

Lyrics from "Fat-Bottomed Girls" recorded by Queen, words and music by Brian May, copyright © 1978 by Queen Music Ltd./Beechwood Music Corp. (BMI)

Fragment of "Firing Line", "recorded" by Gossamer Axe, written by Gael Baudino, copyright © 1990 by Gael Baudino. ("Gossamer Axe" is a fictional band from Baudino's 1990 book of the same name. See the DW2 Concordance -- URL below -- for more information.)

Lyrics from "Under My Thumb" recorded by the Rolling Stones, words and music by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, copyright © 1966 by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

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/

Special thanks to Murmur the Fallen for suggesting Madonna's "Ray of Light" to me in an email he sent me back in May 1999.

Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Joseph Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Delany Brittain, Liza Broadbank, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Helen Imre, Eric James, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Startide Rising.


This page was created on November 9, 2001.
Last modified January 16, 2013.