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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

 

 

13: Eh... I Wonder What The Poor Robots Are Doin' This Season...

A new philosophy and way of life is not given for nothing. It has to be paid dearly for and is only acquired with much patience and great effort. -- Dostoyevsky

The line between good and evil, hope and despair, does not divide the world between "us" and "them". It runs down the middle of each one of us. -- Robert Fulghum

Truth comes as an enemy only to those who have lost the ability to welcome it as a friend. -- Anonymous

 

Geo City Plaza. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 7:44 PM

"And then she crushed my gun." Leon dropped the rough ball of wadded steel into his partner's open palm. Daley's eyes widened as he turned it over and over again in his hands.

Leon had returned from his mad dash seething with a cold, quiet anger, and once he had heard the story Daley could see why. Leon-chan's always been a man of action. It's bad enough that the Knight Sabers can make him feel useless at times... He shook his head, and wondered if Leon even knew that he had blurted Priss' name before taking off after the Sabers. If what Daley suspected about the implications of that slip were true, it just made the effect of Leon's impotence in the face of the Sabers' opposition that much worse. "You know," he finally said after Leon had finished recounting the tale, "I've never liked superheroes anyway."

It was a calculated move, a near non-sequitur intended to jolt Leon's mood, which had been growing increasingly darker as he told his story. But when Leon didn't respond, and the silence between them grew longer and longer, Daley began to fear he'd only made things worse.

"There's something I've been meaning to tell you, Daley," Leon said suddenly, shattering the uncomfortable silence.

Daley grasped at the only straw he could. "I'm sorry, Leon-chan, but I can't let you cheat on Priss," he replied, absolutely deadpan. "I don't care how strong your feelings for me are."

"No, I..." Leon ground to a halt, then his head snapped around to deliver a searing glare in his partner's direction. Daley couldn't help but laugh. After a moment, Leon's dark mood finally broke, and he joined in. When the shared laughter finally tapered off, Daley noted that Leon looked, if not exactly cheerful, at least not weighed down by the cares of the world. "That's the last thing I thought I'd ever hear you say, Daley," he announced with a chuckle as he lowered himself to a seat on the patrol car's fender and watched the last of the ADP troops march back into their transports. "You've finally given up on me?"

Daley unleashed his favorite smirk. "It was either that, or constantly wonder when your lovely wife-to-be was going to show up and kill me." He chuckled. "I opted for the former."

Leon snorted. "Wise man."

With deliberate casualness, Daley continued, "I mean, there's no way I could stop one of those railgun bolts if one of her shots went 'wild' while the Sabers were chasing a boomer."

Leon began to chuckle, but it died in his throat. "Ah... um..." He coughed. "How long have you known?"

Daley gave a sniff of noiseless laughter. "About half an hour. You really should learn to control that mouth of yours, partner. How long have you known?"

Leon shrugged. "Couple of years. Ever since the DD incident."

His partner whistled. "And you've hid it from me all this time. Not bad. Forget what I said about watching your mouth. She's the blue one, I presume? And I suppose you know who the other three are?"

"One for certain, the other two I'm pretty sure about," Leon said. "And no, I'm not going to tell you. Not that you won't figure it out fast enough yourself," he added in a low mutter.

With a careless, dismissive gesture, Daley said, "What, and risk getting my partner and his wife-to-be mad at me? I know you, Leon-chan. You would've busted them wide open if you'd thought any of them were really criminals, regardless of how you felt about Priss."

"Don't be so sure," Leon murmured.

Daley rolled his eyes. "Well, aren't we feeling emasculated tonight." Leon shot him another outraged glare, and he laughed. "Look, Leon-chan, we've worked together for the better part of a decade. I think I know my partner by now."

"I suppose you do," Leon agreed, and then he sighed. "Which in a roundabout way brings us back to what I wanted to talk to you about." He turned and looked directly at his partner. "I'm going to give the Chief my two weeks' notice tomorrow, Daley."

Daley nodded, and sat down on the fender next to Leon. "So you are going to Osaka with Priss."

"Yeah. I've got a job waiting for me there as a captain in their SWAT unit." Leon took a deep breath and then released it. "Plus we're going to be married, after all..."

"I was aware of that, Leon-chan," Daley interrupted with just a touch of sarcasm in his voice. "You did ask me to be your best man." He emitted a sigh himself. "I suppose I was expecting it. After all, you can't ask a newly-married couple to spend their lives so far apart." He paused for a beat. "I'm glad you let me know beforehand, at least."

"You didn't think I'd skip out without telling you first, did you?" Leon asked with a quick grin. "I just figured I'd best get it over with quickly, or the next crisis would come up and I'd never get a chance to do it."

"Yeah, I can see that."

Leon suddenly clapped his partner on the back and laughed. "Look at it this way -- now you'll be the most senior officer in the department."

"Oh, joy," Daley went back to deadpan. "Dealing with the chief and Lisa-chan both. I can hardly wait." Mock panic flashed into his eyes. "Oh no! I don't have a cousin in the ice cream business! How will I bribe Nene-chan?"

Leon laughed again. "Don't worry. I'll tell her to go easy on you." He rose from his seat on the fender and turned to face Daley. "Plus I'll give you Barry's phone number. But you have to arrange your own deals. With both of them."

Daley thrust his lower lip out in an improbable attempt at a pout, and looked to the skies with an outrageous hangdog expression. "Leon-chan's being mean to me!"

Leon rolled his eyes, but chuckled anyway. "Is that any way for a senior Inspector in the ADP to act?" He jerked his head toward the patrol car. "C'mon, get in. We've got a lot to cover before I'm outta here."

As the two officers belted themselves in, Daley mused that it could have been worse -- but not by much. A faint sense of impending doom settled itself in his stomach, and he tried to ignore it.

* * *

Thursday, February 12, 2037. 7:51 PM

That's it, snarled Lisa to herself as she wrestled with the handlebars of her motor scooter, I'm buying a car.

Wetter Hexe had completely disassembled her thunderstorm before taking her leave of this world, and the sudden return of the "natural" conditions had been less than pleasant. Lisa wasn't sure, but she suspected that it was even colder and windier than it had been before the battle royale, possibly some kind of "rebound" effect in the wake of Hexe's changes. Or maybe she just hadn't yet adjusted back to mid-February after her brief exposure to the midsummer-like conditions needed for the thunderstorm. That this was at the very least inconvenient for certain photojournalists riding open-seated motor scooters went without saying. Especially when said photojournalists were rushing to meet up with their mercenary/vigilante friends.

The chill wind gusted along the street, wringing tears from her eyes and freezing her at the same time as it tried to wrest control of the scooter from her hands. The effort it took to maintain control and not spin out into a cold (not to mention painful) pile on the pavement occasionally drew her mind from the topic at hand, but only for a few moments. Then it was right back to the welter of thoughts and concerns that swamped her brain.

To her immense relief, Lisa was living her own life -- and only her own life -- once again. The uncontrollable tide of memories had receded and no longer threatened to swamp her sense of self. They hadn't entirely left (No, I couldn't be that lucky, she grumbled to herself as she took an icy corner with careful deliberation) but their immediacy had faded; instead of the overwhelming sense of personal experience, they now felt like things that she had seen once on TV -- distant, isolated, neutral. Safe.

What made it worrisome, though, was that her relief had begun when Wetter Hexe had kissed her forehead. If the simulacrum of Hexe had in fact been what she'd claimed to be (And Doug certainly thought she was! she noted to herself as she took another corner), Lisa could only guess at the cost. As Doug had said more than once in her presence, the gods never gave anything for free.

As she rounded a final turn onto the street that led directly to Raven's, Lisa tried to weigh the alternatives. She couldn't decide which was worse -- becoming submerged in the hundreds of lives she had "lived" in Doug's homeworld, or owing a favor to a goddess known for her mercurial moods and less than personable ways. No longer being forced to think in the "trade jargon" of Doug's Earth (for all its usefulness while she had been observing, anticipating and analyzing the combat) had made it easier for Lisa to recover her own self-image. At the same time, though, Hexe's charge to her carried its own implicit threat -- the threat of leaving the sidelines, of ceasing to be an observer.

It was a threat that Lisa took seriously. Her professional pretensions to "objectivity" were all that insulated her from the worst of the growing strangeness around her. Abandoning them completely would make the strangeness -- entertaining enough from the outside -- all too real and personal.

She laughed suddenly, bitterly, sending out a puff of frosty breath that streamed past her head as she sped down the street. Who am I kidding? It's been personal since I looked in Doug's wardrobe last summer! I've fought boomers with my own super-powers, for God's sake! A moment's reflection, though, and she amended that thought. I shouldn't deceive myself. It's been personal ever since that night at ADP headquarters four years ago. Since I decided to protect the Sabers instead of exposing them.

Before she could confront that revelation any further, Raven's Garage appeared in the distance, fading into a streetlit view that reminded her of the first time she had ever seen the building. Frowning, she leaned into the wind and sped up.

I can be objective about a lot of things, but not my friends.

* * *

Raven's Garage. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 8:05 PM

The meeting hadn't begun until Lisa had arrived, frozen solid and cursing a blue streak. In the time between dismounting her scooter and taking her seat at the record playback station, Lisa had wheedled Doc Raven into helping her find a good used car, a development of which Sylia silently approved. If she were present at a combat, it took her substantially longer to return to base than the Sabers. And tonight... tonight had been unusually long.

With Lisa ensconced in her usual place, the post-mission review session itself had started out normally enough, but as soon as Sangnoir had become the subject...

"At least he doesn't want to kill us," Priss muttered from where she sprawled on the couch.

Nene leapt to her feet. "How can you say that?" she shrilled. Then she winced. "Ow. I shouldn't've moved so fast." With considerably more care, she returned to her seat and curled up in it once again.

Sylia struggled to maintain her characteristic calm. It would not do to betray her own agitation and contribute to the already-charged atmosphere that pervaded the briefing room. That her mood was growing steadily fouler by the moment didn't help.

Priss snorted without opening her eyes. "Easy. We're still alive. You really think that one you were fighting couldn't have taken you out if she really wanted to, Nene?"

"I had her down for the count before he interfered," Nene huffed, crossing her arms and giving Priss a challenging look. "I didn't see you doing that great against the chrome bimbo."

It was bad enough that the soi-disant "goddess" had actually lectured her in the middle of combat. However, when Sylia had removed her hardsuit, her standard post-battle inspection had revealed yet another sarcastic commentary from the Weather Witch: the character "noroi" carved into the white cerametal of her plastron, just above the bustline. The knife-strokes of its calligraphy were precise and flawless -- and its message was clear. Depending on the context, it meant slow-moving, stupid, or dull in the manner of a battered and misused blade.

Sylia reflected that the mystics who prayed for messages from the gods didn't know how good they had it when the gods declined to speak. So far, the only beings she had encountered who had claimed to be gods had both been arrogant and irritating. And neither had done much to dissuade her from the atheism that she had embraced for more than a decade.

"You know," Linna said, glancing around the room at her teammates. "All Kat needed to do was put her hand, paw, whatever through my hardsuit and into my chest and rip out my heart. She could've done it, too. But she didn't." In an apparently unconscious motion, one hand went to her stomach. Sylia had personally bandaged the three shallow cuts there after they had gotten out of their hardsuits. "And my one good hit on her was pure luck."

Sylia took a long, slow draw on her cigarette -- her third since their return to Raven's -- and savored the sensation of the hot smoke in her lungs. A moment later she exhaled a plume of smoke, a jet of blue in the room's yellow lighting, as she continued to watch the round-table discussion into which the post-combat briefing had degenerated.

"They were all playing with us," Priss announced with a snarl. "And we all got hits on'em that didn't do a thing."

"Hey!" Nene yelped.

As the byplay flowed and swirled around her, Sylia frowned and studied her teammates, her sisters. Priss lay stretched out on the couch, her hands folded and her eyes closed as an uncharacteristically thoughtful expression made itself home on her face. Nene was clearly upset; she huddled in her armchair and clutched a pillow to her breast with both arms as if hoping to squeeze some comfort from it. Lisa, too, was strangely subdued and contributed almost nothing to the discussion; instead, she contented herself with using the "hydra" to scan back-and-forth through the suits' recordings, staring unblinkingly at the images on the monitors with obvious and almost morbid curiosity.

Then Sylia gazed across the room to where Linna stood, in an almost mirror of her own posture. Alone of the Sabers, Linna returned from the fight almost ... serene. And this worried Sylia more than anything else. What did the cat-woman say to her? she wondered. What might she have done to Linna?

Again, the agonizing, horrific uncertainty -- from a world where anything was possible, how could she know what was impossible for them? An obvious power did not exclude inobvious ones -- just because the woman could turn into a cat didn't mean she might not have the ability to warp minds. Sylia wondered for a moment how military commanders from Sangnoir's homeworld could even begin to plan for a battle, never knowing what impossible power might be brought to bear on their forces without warning.

Without opening her eyes, Priss waved a hand lazily. "Okay, most of us. Doesn't matter. We weren't even B-grade opposition for them."

Sylia took her cigarette from her lips and blew out another cloud of smoke. Time for her own contribution. "They were a polished military force, used to fighting opponents of their own power level. We were nothing more than, how did he put it? 'Typical battlesuit goons'. And that was a fraction of their team. I hesitate to imagine the combined strength of their full company." She returned the cigarette to her mouth, inhaled and exhaled again. "Lisa, do you have anything you'd like to contribute? Your communicator trace indicated you were there for the conflict, and you were the last one to arrive here by a margin greater than could be accounted for by the difference in our modes of travel."

Lisa started, shaken out of her video-assisted reflection when Sylia addressed her. "Um." She turned in her seat to look at the others. "I stayed and watched after you left. He..." She stopped, frowned, and then continued. "He talked to the W... to the women for a while. And then they left."

"Left?" Sylia inquired. "How? In which direction?"

Lisa shook her head. "No direction. They just... vanished. Poof. Like soap bubbles."

Linna chuckled, a bemused smile playing across her lips. "Why am I not surprised?"

Sylia watched Lisa carefully as the girl shared a grin with Linna. She no doubt took the opportunity to make contact with Sangnoir, the Sabers' leader mused. In the last few weeks she has received no telephone calls from him, nor has she had the time to seek him out. I will need to come back to this with her later -- in private.

"You've said little so far, Linna." Sylia transferred her attention to the dancer/close-combat specialist. "You actually held an extended conversation with one of them. What did you learn?" Sylia would not admit to anything more than an academic curiosity, but even so, the possibility of discovering something, anything, more about Sangnoir was encouraging.

Linna's throaty chuckle trailed away as the dancer's eyes grew hooded. "Her name was Kat," she said. "And she told me about a world where humans, metahumans, robots, androids, aliens of all descriptions and even some computers are all automatically thought of and treated as people." There was an edge in her voice, a challenge, that Sylia didn't like. "They've had so much experience with intelligent beings that looked like anything from black boxes to jellyfish that they can't afford to be... what did she call it? 'Anthrochauvinist'. They don't care what something looks like, as long as it can think and make ethical choices." Linna fixed Sylia with a steely look that was at odds with her usual cheerful expression. "What was your father really intending when he invented boomer technology, Sylia?"

The non sequitur almost took her by surprise, and caught the other Sabers unawares. There was a sudden hiss of breath from Nene, who had gone wide-eyed at the unexpected question. Priss shot bolt upright, her apparent sleepiness discarded. Even Lisa was holding her breath and glancing between the two women. Sylia pursed her lips. This was an area she had kept off-limits to the Sabers, not by explicit declaration, but by intimidation and by refusing even to acknowledge their questions. Her father and his work was not to be discussed. Ever.

But Linna was not to be put off this time. "I've seen boomers who were sadists, Sylia, and boomers who sacrificed themselves for the ones they loved. I've seen boomers with imagination, and intuition, wit and cunning, and... I don't know, heart for lack of a better word. And I've seen as many of those as I've seen ones which were simple killing machines." She jammed her hands into her pockets and narrowed her brows. "Tell me, Sylia -- which were the aberrations? Did your father intend to build dumb machines, or was he creating people? Because after the last few months, after learning about a version of Earth where everything is so different, after everything the Loon has said, and after everything I've seen over the years, I really need to know."

She drew her hands back out of her pockets and pushed off from the wall to stand, feet slightly apart, arms crossed, all but glowering at Sylia. "So let me ask you the same question he asked, which you never answered. You told him some models 'seem' to be self-aware. Is it more than seeming? Are they people?"

"You have no way of knowing what they told you, told us, is the truth," Sylia said, attempting to deflect the questioning.

"I have no reason to doubt it," Linna countered. "He was more than happy to tell us all about his homeworld, long before he found out that boomers were more than he thought. He had no reason to lie. Neither did Kat. What would it gain her?" She caught Sylia's eyes with her own. "Are. They. People?"

Silence stretched across the room as Linna and Sylia stared at each other, each waiting for the other to break and give in first.

The standoff was broken, not by the capitulation of one or the other, but by a ragged murmur, almost a whisper, that drifted across the room. "I always thought it would be cool if there were real superheroes," Nene rasped, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "I never thought about what it'd be like to be on the receiving end." She inhaled unevenly, as if suppressing sobs deep within her throat. "I don't ever want to visit his world. I don't."

There was a long silence as each of the other Knight Sabers wondered how to answer that declaration. Lisa reviewed her second-hand memories, and wondered if there was something -- anything -- she could safely share with Nene. Nothing came to mind that would not tell too much or violate Doug's confidences. She grimaced and resisted the urge to pound a fist on the desktop.

"Yes," Sylia finally forced out, grateful for the interruption. "Well." She took a deep breath. "Before we adjourn for the night, let me just reiterate something I said in the field: from now on, official Knight Sabers policy is to avoid Colonel Sangnoir. We will not get involved in any boomer incident -- or any other incident -- at which he is present. If he shows up at one of our operations, we leave, unless doing so directly puts an innocent at risk." She coolly eyed the other team members. "Understood?"

A desultory round of acknowledgments circled the room.

"Good." Sylia nodded once, crisply, once again in full control of both herself and the situation. "That's it, then. Have a good evening, everyone." And without another word, she left the room.

* * *

"Everyone's a good guy in their own heads." Priss's comment to her weeks earlier echoed in Nene's mind, as it had since they'd returned to Raven's. At the time, it seemed like a handle on understanding the Loon's behavior. Now she wondered about her own.

After Sylia had dismissed them, the Sabers' leader had promptly sequestered herself in the tiny office that she maintained in the garage. Meanwhile, Nene had seated herself at the "hydra" and pretended to study the sensor tracks from her hardsuit until the others had left. Lisa tried to beg a ride home, to spare herself another unprotected dash through the winter storm, but Nene had forced herself to make excuses why she couldn't. Fortunately for her conscience, Linna had taken the hint and made her own offer; she and Lisa had departed shortly afterward.

Priss had been the last to leave. The singer had said nothing, but she had smiled knowingly and laid a gentle hand on the younger woman's shoulder, squeezing once in encouragement before leaving herself.

Now it was a quarter of an hour later, and Nene was trying to steel herself to knock on the door of the small room that served as Sylia's office at the garage base. She stood staring at the knob for several minutes before taking a deep breath and rapping once, diffidently.

"Come." Sylia's distracted voice was muffled by the intervening door but still clearly audible. Nene pushed on the knob, and the door, which was closed but not latched, swung open easily to reveal the leader of the Knight Sabers, cigarette still in hand, staring blankly at the flickering computer screen before her. "Yes, Nene?" she said without turning.

"I, um... I was just wondering," Nene began in a near whisper, "how long it would take to repair my hardsuit."

Sylia stubbed out the cigarette in an overflowing ashtray and swiveled to face Nene. She gave a faint smile, noteworthy as much for its frank openness as for its weariness. "Don't worry, Nene," she said. "You won't be out of commission for more than a couple of days. I already set the nanotank to fabricate a new backplate for your hardsuit before the meeting; it should be done late tomorrow, and installed the day after that."

"Oh, good, good," Nene murmured. She closed her eyes and sagged against the doorjamb. "I just... I mean, I wanted..."

"Nene," Sylia said softly, and the younger woman's eyes flicked open again. "Do you want to talk about it?"

The redhead smiled weakly. "Can't fool you, can I?"

Sylia's expression grew almost tender. "You have no chance of deceiving your elder sister, you know. Here." She lifted a blue binder marked "Girard Systems" from a stool next to her, and patted its cushion. "Sit down and tell me all about it."

Nene nodded, and perched herself on the stool. She bounced her heels against its legs for a few moments as she bit her lip and considered what she wanted to say.

"Sylia, am I a good person?" she finally blurted.

Sylia's expression softened further. "I have never thought of you as anything but, Nene."

"But I don't feel like I'm a good person any more," Nene murmured. "I... I've been so angry lately, and the things I've done..."

Sylia reached over and took one of Nene's hands in her own. "It's not pretty, but it happens, Nene. You get caught up in the fever of battle," she offered softly.

"No!" Nene cried, then took a great, sobbing breath. "Not me. Not to me. I'm not like that!"

The leader of the Sabers shook her head sadly. "We're not saints, Nene, none of us. We're only human, even you, and being human sometimes means losing control."

Nene shook her head. "You don't lose control, Sylia. Never!"

Sylia chuckled wryly. "Oh, I do. Believe me, I do. You just don't usually see my ... episodes." She chuckled again. "After all, I have an image to protect."

Nene began to laugh, but it suddenly turned to a great, gasping sob, and tears began to spill from her eyes. Before she was aware of it, Sylia had leapt from her chair and wrapped her arms around the crying redhead. Nene's arms clamped around her waist, and she buried her face against Sylia's body, shaking as she moaned into soft fabric there.

"It'll be all right," Sylia murmured, stroking the girl's hair. "You didn't do anything wrong. You're still a good person."

"I wish I could believe that," Nene keened into the muffling cloth. "But I can't. I was going to kill that woman to prove that I wasn't a murderer. What's happened to me?" She lifted her eyes to meet Sylia's, eyes that were flooded with tears. "What's happened to me?" she repeated in a whisper.

Sylia didn't have a quick or easy answer.

* * *

An hour after Nene had calmed down enough to drive home, Sylia sat in her office and lit the last cigarette in her current pack. She took a long drag on it, held the smoke, and let it out in a sigh that did nothing to ease her mind but which contributed to the blue-grey haze that obscured the ceiling.

She had convinced Nene that she was not an evil person, at least for the moment. It wasn't hard to be convincing when you yourself were convinced.

She had to be convinced. If she were to doubt herself as Nene had done... She shook her head with the faintest of movements, almost imperceptible twitches. No. Doubt herself and she would doubt the Mission. And doubting the Mission meant doubting her father.

She could no more allow herself to do that than she would allow herself to dance naked in the lobby of GENOM Tower.

* * *

Thursday, February 12, 2037. 10:53 PM

Nene Romanova sat in her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, and took no comfort in their presence.

On her nightstand sat a cup of hot cocoa that had cooled almost to room temperature, and an untouched slice of chocolate cake which still had some hours to go before it went stale. She wore brightly-striped pajamas of warm cotton flannel, and in her lap was a book.

It had been her favorite book, once. Howard Pyle. The Adventures of Robin Hood. The definitive Japanese translation, first published in 2018.

It was the third copy she'd owned, having worn out two earlier ones with her enthusiastic reading and rereading.

And she could not bear to look at it any more.

After changing and crawling into bed, Nene had retrieved the book from its honored place on the small table that served her as a nightstand. She had fully intended to immerse herself in its tales of bold, heroic derring-do as an antidote to the ugly and distressing events of the night. But as she burrowed down among her plush companions and tried to read, she saw things in the stories she'd never seen before.

The faceless peasants whose taxes doubled when Robin stole their original payments. Oh, they got the money back -- Robin never (well, hardly ever) kept anything for himself -- but sooner or later another tax collector would come.

The nameless Merry Men who fell to the arrows or swords of the Sheriff's forces, dying without a second thought from the author. Heroes all... but still dead.

The stories were all tales of derring-do, yes. Robin versus the Sheriff. But it wasn't really one-on-one, was it? It always played out on a larger stage, and it always affected other people. It had to -- if Robin's cause didn't help the people, what was the point of it? But she'd never realized before... the people paid as well as gained. The fights always spilled over onto them, one way or another.

It spilled over onto all of them. The Merry Men, the peasants, the Sheriff's men -- the spear-carriers, the innocent bystanders, the cannon fodder. Robin never died, the Sheriff never died. Even Prince John didn't die, despite Richard's return.

But so many people around them did.

People like Irene. Like Sho's mother, whose name she had never known. Like Sylvie and Anri. Like Adama. So many she knew, and so many more she didn't.

People -- guilty and innocent alike -- caught up in and run over by events.

As Nene sat there in the dark room, the only light coming from the small lamp on her nightstand, she dropped her face into her hands and sobbed. "Damn him," she whispered through her tears. "Damn him!" she shrieked, and threw the book across the room. Its pages fluttered until it slammed against the wall and then slid to the floor with a dull thud.

In the sudden silence that followed, all Nene could hear was the pounding of her own heart and the harsh rasp of her breath.

"And damn me."

* * *

ADP Headquarters. Friday, February 13, 2037. 8:57 AM

Daley was growing concerned. Leon had been in the Chief's office for fifteen minutes now, and still things were quiet. He glanced at the closed shades blocking his view of the room's interior. By his measure, the Chief should have started yelling fourteen minutes before. All this quiet was nerve-wracking.

Finally, there was a clatter and the office door swung open. Leon stepped through, followed by the Chief. The two men exchanged a few words in an inaudible mutter and then shook hands. The Chief retreated into his office while Leon turned and angled on Daley's desk.

"So?" Daley asked softly.

Leon sighed. "He tried to talk me out of it, even offered me a raise."

"But you didn't take it." Daley studied his partner.

"I didn't take it," Leon confirmed with a sober nod. "In two weeks, I'm out of here."

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 13, 2037. 9:23 AM

"Magnificent!" Chairman Quincy declared, his eyes riveted to the monitor on which the tacteam's assembled footage played. There, the white Knight Saber dueled with an auburn-haired woman in black, laser sword opposing knives that crackled with electrical power. "Magnificent!" he repeated. A disquieting smile played on his lips.

Katherine Madigan stood at her accustomed spot behind and to the left of Quincy as he watched the recordings. She had hoped to use this early-morning appointment with the Chairman to announce her success and present Sangnoir to him. Instead, she could only report her failure in the wake of the unanticipated appearance of four more Visitors.

Upon hearing this, the Chairman had demanded descriptions. When he learned she had video footage, he had leapt upon it with an eagerness that had surprised and frightened her. Once again, he took personal control of the system, in direct contravention of his usual habit, overseeing every aspect of the replays with the mouse/remote. Three times now he'd watched it through, eyes wide and smile broad, occasionally shaking his head and chuckling, sometimes commenting, more to himself than to her. Every once in a while he'd press the bookmark button on the mouse/remote.

When his third viewing of the recording had ended, he turned back to her, that smile -- shark-like, anticipatory, almost gleeful -- still on his lips. "Excellent work, Madigan," he said in tones that barely betrayed an excitement that she had never before seen in the man. "Your failure to capture Sangnoir is understandable and forgivable, given the situation's unexpected developments."

Madigan let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Thank you, sir."

A sly look grew in his eyes. "Did you get their names?" he asked.

He seemed to know the answer already, but she replied anyway. "No, sir."

The smile widened without getting appreciably warmer. "I can give them to you, although it probably won't do you much good. Four of them..." he mused, more to himself than to her, as the smile faded. "Almost certainly simulacra, otherwise they all would have been there. But four... He should not have had the strength to manifest four, not and remain conscious. And if they weren't simulacra... well, we would have lost him, now, wouldn't we? They wouldn't have bothered to stay. Or would they? Still, he should have been rendered unconscious by the power requirement for four simulacra..." Quincy frowned and shook his head. "A puzzle, Madigan, a terrible puzzle."

"Sir?" This was almost as disconcerting as the smile had been.

Quincy shook himself, almost as if awaking from a sudden doze. "Nothing for you to worry about, Madigan," he said, the smile returning. "Nothing at all. Now to those names."

He raised the remote once more, and retrieved a still frame: the White Knight and her opponent, once more. A finger-twitch and the image zoomed in on the woman with the knives. "Wetter Hexe," Quincy announced. "Her birth name is Helene Diedmeier, not that I'd expect her to be making use of it here. The uniform's not one I recognize," he added, more to himself, "but then again, that's no surprise. Elizabeth never could stick with a single design for more than a few weeks at a time."

Another finger-twitch, and a different close-up of the woman appeared on the screen. "As Sangnoir claimed, all four women are far more dangerous than he," Quincy continued. "But she is the most dangerous at all." He turned to face her. "Do not under any circumstances antagonize Wetter Hexe if you should encounter her, Madigan. Do you understand me? Doing so could threaten the survival of GENOM, and I will not have that."

"Yes, sir," Madigan repeated as she ensured that she had the woman's names committed to memory. How does he know all this? How can he know all this? she wondered, although she carefully schooled her features to give away nothing of what she thought.

"I heard her voice last night," he added, his deep voice suddenly infected with a quality that, had it been anyone else other than the Chairman, Madigan would have called "dreaminess".

"Preliminary news reports indicate that most of MegaTokyo heard her orders to Sangnoir." She congratulated herself for her foresight in checking the news digests on her desk upon arriving that morning. "Almost everyone not receiving the sound through some kind of electronic relay felt compelled to grovel or abase themselves." Thank God for small favors, she added silently. Last night had been bad enough without a compulsion to grind my face into my carpet.

"Yes," Quincy rumbled. "Yes, they would." He pointed the remote and thumbed it once more. The blonde cat-woman replaced Wetter Hexe on the screen. "Kat. Real name, Kathleen Avins." He pursed his lips. "Her half-form is far more 'cute' in appearance than I ever envisioned it," he added, again as if to himself.

Madigan frowned. He knows her on sight, but has never seen her before?

The image changed once again, to display the woman of shining metal idly fending off an attack by the blue Knight Saber. "Silverbolt. Real name, Diana Apostolidis. Native of Greece." Quincy chuckled. "The Blue Saber could not even begin to offer her a challenge; she is almost as formidable as Hexe. More so, even, in several narrowly-defined areas."

Another gesture with the remote control, and the last of the four appeared: braided auburn hair, black spandex bodysuit and cowl that bared nothing of her but her mouth, thigh-high boots and opera-length gloves of black leather, their ends folded over into cuffs. Madigan winced at the sight; this was not the best image of this woman that the Chairman could have chosen. She lay on her back upon a cracked and crumbling sidewalk, and what could be seen of her face was bruised and swollen. The pink Knight Saber straddled her body, beating her savagely.

Madigan stood silently for several minutes as Quincy did nothing but stare at the screen.

"Ah, Shadowwalker," he finally whispered, almost tenderly. "Shadowwalker," he repeated louder and more firmly. "Real name, Margaret Viel. Maggie." He fell silent again, but only for a moment. Then he shook his head. "Felled so easily. I am surprised. Or is the Pink Saber far more competent than she has hitherto appeared?"

"Her combat skills did improve notably between her first appearance on the team in 2031 and the Largo fusion reactor incident of 2034," Madigan offered. "Given her propensity for remaining out of direct combat, it's possible that her improvement has continued, but has not yet been noted." Madigan mentally ruffled through her memorized notes for this meeting and changed the subject. "I have forwarded a high fidelity sample of the... of Shadowalker's sonic attack to one of our R&D divisions, in the hopes that we can reproduce it. Given its performance against the Pink Saber, it holds considerable potential for a profitable weapons technology."

"Yes," Quincy mused. "The Germans were working along those lines toward the end of World War II. Have our researchers consult the records of those experiments. In particular, see to it that the Lofer Institute in the Tyrol is 'encouraged' to share Doctor Zippermeyer's private research notes on the subject with GENOM."

"Yes, Chairman." Another mental note. She'd need to write these down as soon as she got back to her office.

"And Madigan?" Quincy paused just long enough to worry her. "You will capture him, and you will bring him here to me. Or I will replace you with someone who can."

She nodded. "I understand, sir. I assure you I will have him here in your office within the week."

Quincy nodded. "Very good, then. Good day, Madigan." He lifted his attention from her, dismissing her from his presence.

As Katherine left his office, she saw from the corner of her eye that Quincy's attention had returned to the monitor, and that he now paged through the stilled frames. "To have been there..." he rumbled, almost wistfully.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 13, 2037, 11:41 AM

Father Knecht and the other Jesuits had long ago instilled in Katherine Madigan an appreciation of elegant, efficient and most of all simple plans. The mercenary-turned-priest had told her more than a few horror stories of operations that had gone wrong, sometimes catastrophically, because of a commanding officer's over-fondness for baroque encrustations of extra steps, sub-plans and contingencies. Given the necessity of adding a distraction for the Knight Sabers to her original plan -- what amounted to a new secondary goal -- Katherine had sought a way to accomplish it which appealed to that appreciation.

She had found it.

Simple, direct, efficient. The Sabers would not suspect that it was a distraction, and it had the added benefit that would eliminate an up-and-coming rival without killing him, while at the same time ridding GENOM of a potentially serious PR liability.

Killing three birds with one stone, she mused with a tiny smile. Can't do too much better than that. And even with the cost of hiring the Sabers we're still under budget. For a moment, pity replaced her pleasure. And perhaps the Sabers will put the poor thing out of her misery. But she didn't think that they would be quite so cold-blooded.

Hm. That was a thought. Historically, the Sabers had been somewhat... inconsistent in their attitudes toward boomers; the target might arouse their pity, motivating them to a rescue rather than a retrieval. In fact, she rather expected it now that she thought about it. If they did, so much the better for her budget -- she would be well within her rights to refuse to pay the whole fee in such a case.

Katherine smiled to herself. If the Sabers rescued the boomer, then its disposal would no longer be her problem -- another savings, even if she didn't get to ruin Sheng as badly as she wished. She'd just have to make sure to leak the right information to the Sabers to make them jump in the direction she wanted.

Now if only she could gut the irresponsible, perverted toads who had authorized the design and production of the BU-33SP series. However, they had long ago passed into that afterlife reserved for those particularly debased cybertechnologists who are determined to destroy themselves with their own lusts. One of GENOM's more extreme retirement plans, enacted when a senior executive had realized the depth of the error involved, had seen to that.

Oh, well. Life is filled with all manner of little disappointments with which we must cope.

She made one more pass through the paperwork on her desk, then signed off on it, placing the plan once again in motion. This had better do it, she thought. Or I'm going to be getting a "special retirement". I've had too many failures and lapses in too short a time -- like not noticing that Lisa-san's apartment was across the hall from Sangnoir's. Thank God I hadn't visited her officially!

Still, the lapse gnawed at her. Perhaps she had already lost her edge, and she just hadn't noticed. How long before the sharks below her scented blood? She needed this operation to finally go right. She needed to have Sangnoir in the Chairman's office, and soon. Or else. It wouldn't matter how much soul-searching she did if her soul had no body to go with it... Involuntarily, her hand dropped to her waist; her fingertips stroked the cellphone there, as if to reassure herself it still existed. She was glad that she hadn't had to use its secret functionality so soon, only three days after retrieving it from its hiding place.

I'm damned lucky Mr. Quincy was in such a good mood this morning. I was expecting to be sacked at the very least for the failure, not complimented on accomplishing what I could in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Katherine frowned as she considered their meeting earlier that morning. Mr. Quincy was quite voluble today, far more so than usual. And what he said...

A few finger taps on the screen of her desktop brought up the notes she had jotted down upon her return to her office some hours earlier. She browsed through the list of names and comments, transcribed as accurately as she could from the chairman's comments. How could Mr. Quincy know all this? Simulacra, the limits of Sangnoir's strength, the capabilities of those women. She shook her head, still frowning. Why, of all things, did he sound almost nostalgic? No one from our world could possibly have this knowledge...

Her breath caught in her throat as the obvious answer made itself known to her. "...unless he's not from our world," she whispered.

But that was ridiculous. Mr. Quincy's personal history was extensively documented, and had been since he had exploded onto the business scene in the middle 1990s.

Then again, Sangnoir had more than enough paper documentation of his own, and he was certainly no native of this universe.

And now that she thought of it, in his own way, the Chairman was every bit as ... extraordinary an individual as Sangnoir was. Even though he was in his middle seventies, Chairman Quincy was remarkably vital and physically powerful. That was something quite rare in elderly males as tall as he was -- at almost 215 centimeters he was a giant of a man. Few persons of such a height reached his age without a huge number of medical problems. But he had never been ill in all the time she'd worked for him, nor, to the best of her knowledge, had he ever even seen one of the company doctors in his office. On top of that, his willpower and charisma were both almost physical forces, and his mind was considered one of the keenest on the planet.

Is it possible? she wondered. Could Sangnoir be our second Visitor, not our first? And could Mr. Quincy be a paranormal, too?

How extraordinary do you have to be before you stop being an ordinary human?

As she laid her hand unconsciously upon her cellphone, she wondered what this meant for her loyalties and duties... and her long-term survival.

* * *

Friday, February 13, 2037, 12:14 PM

Leon sipped his coffee and frowned. "So she didn't actually hurt you?" he asked softly as he reached for the cracked bowl which held sugar packets that Priss had "liberated" from a dozen nearby fast food joints. He grabbed three, tore them open, and dumped their contents into the mug.

Priss shook her head. "No more than the typical boomer might've." With a click, the trailer's small gas heater turned on, and its aging fan rattled its way up to full spin.

They sat facing each other over the small table wedged into the front end of Priss' trailer. Leon "just happened" to be in her neighborhood when it was time for his lunch hour, and he had shown up on her doorstep with the news that he had given his two-week notice to the ADP, along with a bag of burgers and two cups of coffee, steaming in the bright light of a cold winter noon.

Priss had been savaging a guitar all morning, trying to pour all her conflicted feelings about the previous night into the instrument and from there into some kind of musical catharsis. It had been some help, but not quite enough, even though she was sure she had gotten a new song out of it. When she saw Leon's face at the door, she knew he was a fellow sufferer, if not for the same reasons as she, and she let him in to share both lunch and his unease.

"Still..." Leon prompted after the conversation had stalled for a minute.

Priss shook her head, as if trying to clear it. "I might have fought her to a standstill, Leon, but she was holding back on me. She was holding back! We were so outclassed."

Leon thought about the flattened disk of lead and copper that he'd slipped into his shirt pocket that morning, and nodded. "I'm surprised you're taking it so calmly."

Priss gave him a lopsided smile. "Oh, I am, and I'm not. I've been spending all morning dealing with it. You know I'm more a 'doer' than a 'thinker', Leon, but I've been thinking a lot today." The smile drifted away.

'Yeah?" He sipped at his coffee. "Come to any conclusions?"

She nodded, pursed her lips as if about to speak, then blew a long breath out through her nose. Leon waited patiently -- over the years he had learned the importance of patience when dealing with Priss -- until she'd worked out exactly how to say what she wanted to say. "There was something the chrome woman said to me while we were fighting last night. 'Because I am safe in my metal skin I am boomer? Then you are boomer too, safe in your metal skin.'"

She took a bite from her burger, and continued speaking as she chewed. "And you know, I've been thinking about that since last night. What's a boomer, really?" As Leon opened his mouth to reply, she swallowed and waved him off. "No, no, I know what the official word is."

She took a gulp of coffee. "I mean, I hate boomers, you know that. Hate'em big time. But I never stopped and thought about what it was about boomers that I hated."

"And now you have?" he asked.

Priss nodded. "Yeah, I think I've got it figured out."

Leon raised his eyebrows. "Well, let's hear it."

His fiancee closed her eyes for a moment, evidently concentrating on how to put her thoughts into words. "You... you know how I felt about Sylvie."

He knew. They'd spent a long night over a year earlier coming to grips with that, together. "Yeah, I remember."

"And Anri was almost like a kid sister," she continued, eyes still closed. "Just like Adama kinda got to be like a kid brother in the few hours that I knew'im. I didn't -- couldn't -- hate any of'em, even though someone built them." She paused, and took another long, deep breath. "On the other side..." She opened her eyes and looked intently at him. "You remember Largo, right?" Leon gave her a Look, and she said, "Right, right, stupid question. Well, Sylia thinks that Largo might have been, at least partly, some kind of copy of Brian J. Mason."

Leon whistled. "A brain upload? Slick. Except it drove him nuts."

Priss grinned. "Or maybe he was nuts already and it just took the brakes off him. But here's what I'm gettin' at -- Sylvie and Anri weren't boomers, but Largo was. And I don't care that the bastard was born flesh-and-blood, but so was Mason."

"Excuse me," Leon interjected with a frown of confusion, "but you've lost me."

Priss laughed, a sound without any mirth to it. "What I hated about boomers was that they were all monsters that got off on making people suffer and die. That was what 'boomer' meant to me. Didn't matter that I knew people -- human people -- who were like that, too, back when I was running with one gang or another. Boomers did it, it was what boomers were, right?"

"Sounds like a little cognitive dissonance there," Leon said with a gentle smile.

"Yeah," Priss nodded. "Sylia said somethin' like that once." Her eyes grew distant for a moment and Leon assumed she was delving into the memory. Then their focus returned to him, and she continued. "I didn't really think about it -- I'm not always one for thinking much, in case you hadn't noticed..." (and here Leon smiled as he knew he was expected to) "...but that's what I did today. And what I figured out, was that I wasn't hating all boomers because they were boomers. I was hatin' them all because some boomers were sadistic killers. And that was wrong." She shook her head with a bemused half-smile on her lips. "Might as well hate all humans because some happen to be scum like Mason. It's just stupid."

Leon cocked an eyebrow. "So...?" he led.

"So..." She looked almost nervous, as though vocalizing her decision would make it final and irrevocable. "I've decided that I've gotta stop hating boomers, because how will I know if I meet another Sylvie or another Adama if I hate'em right off? Fuck, I blew Adama off when I first met him. It's only because he was a persistent little shit that I got to know him." A fond smile drifted onto her lips for a moment, then vanished as she caught him again with her eyes. "You understand? I've gotta give them all a chance."

"Except for the ones shooting at you," Leon amended with a smile of his own.

Priss chuckled. "Yeah. Except for the ones shooting at me." The chuckle dwindled away, followed by a wistful look. "I mean, it's the least I can do, right? To honor them?"

Leon leaned across the table and kissed her, softly, gently. "Believe me, that's a lot."

* * *

Friday, February 13, 2037, 1:11 PM

"Damn," Lisa swore softly as she scrolled through the page. "Censored again." She closed the browser window without printing a reference copy. At least a complete, unexpurgated copy of the story existed in the Knight Sabers' archives, despite Sylia's displeasure with it.

Lisa grimaced as she shut down the system, and then dropped herself down on her bed. The box spring protested, but she didn't care. I knew the GENOM-owned papers would never print the parts where Doug calls the Sabers slavehunters, but I thought at least one of the independents would have some integrity! She let out a wordless cry of frustration and shook both fists at the ceiling. "Damn it!" she added, for good measure.

Damn it, she repeated in her thoughts. Doug, where are you hiding? God, I wish I knew. I really need to talk to you. Last night really, really shook me up...

She wanted to go out hunting for him, but she hadn't the first idea where to look. She had tried mapping all his appearances since he'd bolted, and looking to see if there was likely central location out of which he could be operating, but it had proved less than useful -- he'd been seen all over the city, and the most probable zone was far too large to be a useful lead. No one had apparently seen him or his motorcycle en route to or from an incident either. Which could mean he's teleporting, dammit, and that just makes it harder.

All she had to go on were rumors and noise. The least outrageous of them said that Doug had attacked IDEC, but that the whole thing had been hushed up by GENOM so as not to upset the stockholders. Lisa believed that just about as much as she believed one that said Doug had been seen entering a flying saucer at Moriyuki Park, but for months now IDEC had been setting up "incidents" to study Doug and his powers. Like the Boomer Giant, she mused. Perhaps if she were to nose about IDEC, and see what they were up to... If she got lucky, she might even catch a team heading out on one of those "incidents", and she could corner Doug afterwards...

Yes! She sat up abruptly. That's what I'll do. I'll head over to IDEC right now!

Her phone rang.

Just as soon as I take this call, she mentally amended, and without turning toward the console she snatched up the handset. "Vanette here," she said, forgetting for a moment that she wasn't in the city room of a newspaper.

"Good afternoon, Lisa-san." The feminine tones were cultured and faintly amused, and Lisa had almost turned all the way toward the phone console to see the video image before she recognized them. The speaker was less distressed than when they'd last spoken, which had made a difference in the sound of her voice. She was also far more elegantly dressed. The combination of the two had altered her just enough that it had taken Lisa a few moments to place the caller.

"Madigan-san!" she said, a bit more brightly than she'd intended, but now that she had a plan of action, her momentary dark spell had already started lifting. She finished turning to see a head-and-shoulders view of the lavender-haired executive on the phone's screen. "Hello! What brings you to call?"

Katherine Madigan looked briefly disconcerted, then displayed the faintest hint of a smile. "Didn't I tell you to call me 'Kate'?"

Lisa swallowed her nervousness at the implications of this level of familiarity and smiled back. "Sorry... Kate-san. it's just, well, I'd have to be an idiot not to know who you are, and, well..."

Madigan waved off Lisa's protest with a careless gesture. "Think nothing of it. As to why I'm calling, well... I was wondering if you'd be free some night next week to do some watching together. Just us girls?"

Uh-huh, Lisa thought. Still, it might give me a chance to find out what her last visit was all about. "Let me see," she said into the handset, and turned to her desktop machine to call up her schedule. "How about Thursday night?"

Pale purple hair rippled like a curtain as Madigan dipped her head to check her own schedule, somewhere off the bottom edge of the screen. "Actually, that would be perfect." She nodded and looked up. "I have a... major presentation on Friday, and some relaxation the night before would be just the thing for me. Shall we say, sevenish?"

Lisa returned the nod. "That works for me. Where do you want to get together?"

Madigan frowned. "My apartment would be a bit problematic, as I'll have the materials for my presentation all over the place, and frankly, they're quite confidential. Would it be too much of an imposition if I were to visit you again?"

"Not at all. As long as it doesn't bother you that my place is quite a bit downscale from what you're used to..."

Her caller laughed, a surprisingly pleasant sound. "Lisa-san, you should have seen the places I lived during and right after college. I found my visit to your apartment to be positively nostalgic. Besides," and to Lisa's utter surprise Madigan shared a conspiratorial wink, "I was never half the housekeeper you seem to be. To this day, I'm utterly dependent on my maid service. Trust me, you have nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Well, if you're sure..." Lisa began.

"Quite." Madigan smiled. "Would it help if I brought ice cream?"

Lisa laughed. "I think ice cream could convince me not to be self-conscious. Swiss vanilla almond fudge?"

"Done," announced Madigan. "I'll see you Thursday night, then. Enjoy your weekend, Lisa-san."

"You, too, M... Kate-san." Lisa frowned at the verbal stumble.

Madigan simply chuckled again. "Don't worry, you'll get used to it."

"Oh, I hope so. Good-bye!"

"Good-bye!" And the video screen went dark.

"Well," Lisa announced to the otherwise-empty apartment as she hung up then sat back and regarded the telephone. "That was... unexpected."

The phone rang again.

"...and so is that," she sighed, then lifted the receiver again. "Moshi-moshi!"

"Hello, darling, it's Momma," a piercing soprano voice announced into her ear as the familiar face appeared on the screen.

Lisa resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Hi, Momma. What's up?"

"I'm just calling to see how my little girl's doing this week!"

An evil impulse drove its way from her id to her mouth without engaging any of the brain cells in between. "Oh, I'm okay, Momma. I just got off the phone from arranging a date with my dear friend the assistant to the chairman of GENOM."

Her mother's shrieks of surprise and delight were audible in the apartments on either side of her. I think I'll let her go on for a few more minutes before I tell her that Kate's a woman and that it's not that kind of date, Lisa thought with an evil grin.

* * *

IDEC. Friday, February 13, 2037, 1:42 PM

I went home. I did a post-mortem on the fight, and then I crashed. By the end of my analysis -- which, by the way, I flunked myself on -- I was running solely on fumes and caffeine from a cup of mint tea I'd made myself, and the latter was about to run dry. I had almost no energy reserves to speak of, so I could barely heal myself before crashing; I managed to knit my broken ribs back together and scab over the worst of the wounds and that was it. I did manage to undress myself before falling into the chirping metallic hammock that pretended to be my bed.

Of course, I had to get up a mere five and a half hours later. Most other days, five hours' sleep would've let me pop right up, fresh and energetic, but that morning I felt like an extra in a George Romero movie. My energy reserves were there -- I finished healing myself before getting into the shower -- but I simply hadn't gotten enough sleep to shake a general feeling of headachy exhaustion. "Gods help me if I have to fight anyone or anything today," I muttered to myself as I got dressed.

I made it to work without crashing my bike, and stumbled into the lobby, carrying my helmet in via the bowling ball bag again. I managed to be polite and friendly to Sindra as I tottered through to the cube farm beyond -- she was still a little twitchy, poor thing -- but I only grunted when Chizue threw me my morning bagel.

I had already taken a couple bites from it when I pounded on Ohara's door.

"Come," was the muffled reply.

"Good morning, and aren't we the picture of health," he said as I staggered in and put down the bag.

I didn't feel like clever repartee that morning. "I thought you were going to quit it with the fucking boomers."

Ohara put down his pencil and looked up at me with honest surprise in his eyes. "We did."

"The bunch that I fought last night all locked on to me just like the little army you deployed against me at Bunko's. You're telling me they weren't yours?"

"They certainly weren't," Ohara declared. "Why the hell would we do that? We have you already. The only reason we sent boomers after you was to capture or test you, and to study what you could do. We can do that a lot more safely -- and cheaply -- here in the Tower."

If I hadn't been so fried from the aftereffects of the battle, I probably would have thought of that myself. I hadn't, though, so I made the universal gesture of "oh what a schmuck I am" by wiping my hand down my face and groaning as the obvious implication finally made itself known to me. "Oh, great. Just great," I growled. "A third player's joined the game."

Ohara thought about that for a moment, then nodded soberly. "I think you may be right."

"I know I'm right." I rubbed my eyes and wished for some aspirin. "Gods, I hate this world."

Ohara smiled his little not-smile smile. "I don't blame you. I'm not too fond of it myself sometimes."

* * *

The employee lounge had a medical station with packets of aspirin. I took three -- packets, not individual aspirin -- and washed the tablets down with the strongest tea I could brew. Then I made my way to my lab, locked the door behind me, and dropped heavily and gracelessly into my chair.

"Oy," I said to the empty room. "Vey."

The empty room declined to respond.

I groaned and rubbed my eyes, then leaned over to pull my helmet out of the bag. Today's task list started with listening to whatever Knight Saber traffic my codebreakers had intercepted and recorded. I set the helmet on the desktop and turned it so that the faceport and goggles faced me. I regarded it wordlessly, thinking not about the valuable intelligence stored in its volatile memory, but instead on Hexe's reprimand to me the previous night.

I had indeed gone too far.

The thought of what I had done to Pink, what I had been about to do when Hexe stopped me... it made me nauseous. I shouldn't have lost control like that. I don't lose control like that -- hadn't in years. Not since... not since before Arcanum and his mixed bag of surviving metahuman slave/flunkies left the planet.

It's one thing to kill to protect an innocent or a teammate, or to defend one's life. It's another thing entirely to kill in a fit of rage.

I'd let myself get caught up in rage. And over what? A packet of sculpted energy that happened to look like Maggie. How pathetic could you get? I got angry because Pink had punched a glorified puppet in the form of my wife. I had almost killed a real person to defend a make-believe one. God.

I couldn't do it any more. I couldn't face off against the Sabers any more. It was so pointless -- it didn't decide anything, and did nothing whatsoever to advance my only real goal: freeing the boomers. Fighting them wasn't solving the problem, just dealing with symptoms.

So I decided right then and there that if I were going to ever fulfill the charge made to me by the Three, I'd better get my act together. I needed to spend more time in the lab than on the streets. I needed to finally understand the problem, address the cause, and develop a real solution to the whole mess. I simply could not afford the luxury of knocking heads with the Sabers any more.

And that made the recordings in my helmet utterly superfluous.

But I listened to them anyway, before I did anything else.

* * *

Well, now I knew their names. Celia. Linna. (Or maybe "Lynne", spelled English and pronounced roughly Japanese.) Pris. (I knew a Pris, once, an android. She'd been a sweet kid, before that arms smuggler killed her.) And the last one. It wasn't the archaicism I'd thought it was at first, it was her name; and I wasn't sure how to spell it -- Naynay? Neinei? Something like that. Probably a nickname of some sort -- maybe she always voted "no" at their meetings. Or maybe she liked horses -- Neigh-Neigh?

Nah. That was too strange, even for me.

Celia was obviously White. Judging from the comments the other three made about their opponents, it was relatively easy to assign armor colors to them: Pris was nothing like my long-lost, sweet-tempered friend -- she was Blue, and a potty-mouthed little hothead if I ever met (or was) one. Linna was Olive and seemed the most level-headed of the four. I still liked her, especially after she chose to talk to Kat instead of finishing her off. And the very first exchange I'd heard during the fight made it clear that Pink was "Nay-Nay".

(You have to admit, it was the most distinctive of the four names. If I could have just settled on a spelling, I might have tried a search for her in the online telecomm directory for MegaTokyo. Just in case it wasn't a nickname. But that seemed far too unlikely. Pity, that -- I'd come to the conclusion that I owed the girl an apology.

Anyway.)

I wiped the recordings immediately after listening to them.

After that, I went back to studying the designs for the electronic side of the standard boomer brain. I had gotten to the point where I was starting to model the various components via a simulator, watching how they affected the other synthetic parts as well as the neural tissue to which they were attached. I wanted to make sure that the "brain surgery" that I had come up with would have no unexpected consequences.

It was a bit of an eye-opener, actually. On a number of levels.

Over the past couple days I had pretty much puzzled out all but one of the major systems installed in a boomer brain, as well as their relationships to each other and the organic part of the brain. I confirmed that my initial impressions from the CAD files were correct -- the GENOM behavioral hardwires were a physical overlay imposed on top of the original design. If you were to visualize a boomer brain as a stack of circuit boards (which it's not, not even close, but the image is useful), the controls GENOM imposed were all on the topmost board, with the occasional wire snaking down to a lower level.

This was very convenient for me. It meant that if I could find the right tool for the job, I could pull out those circuits without damaging the basic functioning of the brain itself.

My only real concern was a big black box on the CAD files that was labeled simply "OMS". It had hooks into all the rest of the GENOM hardwires, particularly those that controlled autonomous operations, which I found very strange. "Orbital Mind-control System"? I wondered to myself, then shook my head vigorously. Naaah. No need to be silly. Then I dove into investigating it.

What I found was... nothing. It was an utter cypher. What little documentation existed on the brain design treated it as if it weren't there. Literally. Circuit traces that in the CAD files ran into (and presumably through, given their behavior in sim) the OMS were uninterrupted in the docs. The simulations that I ran didn't help, either; they showed no signals were ever sent to or from the OMS, regardless of the inputs I applied to the rest of the brainboard. Oh, signals could be sent to the OMS, but that required some kind of trigger to come from the OMS in the first place. Without details of its contents and operation for the sim to act on, though, none of the bit-twiddling I did with the black box's inputs would ever make it respond in any way.

I'll admit it made me curious as hell. It had an electronic finger in every virtual pie possessed by the brain, and that concerned me big time. But eventually I had to give up on it -- there was simply no information to work with and too much else I had to pursue. I finally decided that it was either something designed but unimplemented, or reserved space for some future expansion that hadn't yet been needed or wanted. The latter seemed probable when I realized that the "OM" in "OMS" most likely stood for "Optional Module".

Then again, it might have been the boomer version of a cortex bomb -- a remote self-destruct. But what I discovered later that day more or less eliminated that possibility.

By mid-afternoon, I had learned one other thing that shook me rather thoroughly. The behavioral controls were far better than I had given them credit for at first. Crude as they were, clumsily as they were implemented, they worked. Oh, the brains used for construction bots and other simple labor models could be overworked or stressed into a state not unlike a psychotic collapse in a human, but it required either extensive negligence or deliberate (and considerable) effort.

The controls on the brains for their combat models were even stronger.

It only made sense, after all. If you're building a self-willed AI killing machine that's roughly equal to a light tank in power, you want it to stay sane. Not to mention under your control. And as ugly as those modifications to the original designs looked, they did their job. In spades.

Combat boomers couldn't berserk. They could not spontaneously rampage. The only way a combat boomer could "rampage" was if it were ordered to.

Obvious corollary: There was no such thing as a "rogue" boomer.

(Well, to be fair, it could happen. But it would take something on the order of deliberate tampering with -- or ill-conceived additions to -- the brain's core directives. And that was all but the same as "being ordered to", to my mind.)

That discovery rocked me back on my heels for a good hour or so.

I mean, I should have come to that conclusion earlier. How many boomers had acted rogue until I came within sensor range, and then changed tactics to deliberately target me? And didn't I start my personal campaign by trying to work out a pattern to boomer attacks? A pattern in this case would imply purpose, not chance.

I had to face facts. None of the rampaging combat boomers I had fought during my stay in MegaTokyo had actually broken free of their programming, but in fact had been complying with it to the letter, had been in fact specifically programmed to act "rogue."

And that meant that I had been way off base in at least some of the accusations I'd flung at the White Knight Saber. I owed her as well at the very minimum a partial apology, that was clear. It's one thing to slaughter an escaping slave. It's another entirely to kill what amounted to a programmed assassin -- regrettable, as the individual underneath all the programming may well be an innocent, but if they cannot choose to stop, and your life or that of others is in danger, what else can you do? I rested my head in my hands and sighed. My whole time in this world had been one bad decision after another.

That didn't imply that they weren't still slaves. In fact, it pretty much proved it conclusively to me -- you don't impose that kind of control on something that doesn't need it. There was also the fact that I couldn't tell a boomer from a human by magesight -- that spoke volumes right there. Plus, I had no reason to believe the Three had played me falsely. That is, of course, assuming I had interpreted their rather vague charge properly. This time.

I didn't doubt that there were boomers who wanted to be free, on some level or another. Maybe I was too pessimistic and it was possible -- rare but possible -- for a boomer to break its restraints and run free. The documentation on the discontinued 33S model (and its submodels) certainly made it clear that they "suffered" from that kind of "problem" frequently enough that it had become a liability. For all I knew there might be some kind of boomer underground helping the rare "escapee". If they did exist, though, the last thing they would do would be tearing down a street shooting things up -- not if they were anything approaching sane.

It was all starting to remind me terribly of Arcanum and his Servant Factor virus. Virtually the same idea, except instead of building his metapowered goons from scratch, Arcanum "rewarded" J. Random Henchperson (or worse, some poor normal abducted off the street) with a dose of the virus, which not only gave its victim a whole sheaf of powerful metagifts, but also permanently rewired their brain structure so that they were programmed to obey Arcanum unthinkingly.

Worse, Arcanum had had a virtually unlimited supply of the stuff. As best as we could figure, one or more of his legitimate businesses probably churned it out unawares, under contract to some front company. From there it vanished into the shadowy underground in which his criminal/terrorist/revolutionary network lurked.

So just like GENOM had a never-ending supply of combat boomers, Arcanum always had a new band of meta-thugs to throw at us. And even if we could capture them, there was nothing we could do about their programming; they were Arcanum's forever. Even though Arcanum and his organization disappeared from our Earth long ago, we still have dozens of these unfortunates left in holding cells all over the world, dammit.

At least I could remove GENOM's obedience programming, if I could just get inside their braincases.

* * *

Amarok Brokerage. Friday, February 13, 2037, 1:42 PM

Linna settled into the lush, leather armchair and positioned herself so that she could watch the glass door to the employee lounge. At the moment the room was empty except for her, for which she was thankful. Most of her co-workers, seeing her there with her cellphone to her ear, would assume it was confidential business with a customer and let her have her privacy. Not all, though, and she had to keep an eye out for the few who would barge in regardless. She didn't want to risk anyone overhearing this conversation.

"Okay, Nene, we can talk now," she said after activating the scrambler. "What's up? Why aren't you at work?"

"I called in sick," the quiet voice all but whispered across the phone line. "I needed... I needed some time by myself."

Concern creased Linna's forehead. "Are you okay? The Loon didn't hurt you worse than we initially thought, did he?"

"No, no!" Her denial was sharp and loud, in contrast to her earlier softness. "I just... needed to think."

"About what he said?"

"Yeah. And some things Sylia said." Linna heard Nene draw a deep breath. "You think he's right, don't you?"

Linna scratched her left temple just below her headband. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. And so do you, if you think about it."

"How can you say that?" Nene shrieked across the connection.

"Was Sylvie a person or a thing?" Linna asked quietly. "How about Anri?"

"That's different!"

Linna shook her head, even though it went unseen by Nene. "Not at all. They were people. You can't even deny it yourself. But if they were more than machines, other boomers can be, too. It's simple -- one could be a fluke, but two means there could be more. A fluke that happens twice isn't a fluke. It's a pattern."

"Then you already thought the Loon was right."

"Yeah, kinda. I've been thinking about this since Largo; the Loon just made it a little more immediate." She chuckled. "Dumb machines just do not act like Largo did."

"Then how..." Nene began.

"How can I keep doing what we do?"

"Yeah." Complete confusion was evident in her tone.

"The same way a cop or a soldier does what he does." Linna pursed her lips for a moment and thought of how to phrase what she wanted to say next. "I've killed boomers to protect others or defend myself. I'll certainly kill more in the future. But I don't do so lightly. I remember each one I kill. And I honor each life taken. I recognize the need, but I regret it at the same time."

"That's very... I thought you said you hadn't been religious since you were a teenager," Nene said after a moment, with something that sounded like the beginnings of a smile in her voice.

Linna shrugged. "I haven't practiced Shinto since I was 15. Doesn't mean I'm not spiritual."

Nene snorted. "You, spiritual? You're the most materialistic person I know!"

"They're not necessarily incompatible, you know."

"If you say so," Nene replied doubtfully. A pause, and then she continued, melancholy seeping back into her voice. "I'm still confused, though. If you've felt that way for so long, why are you pushing Sylia to answer these questions?"

Linna sighed, and crossed her legs. "Look, for as long as I've known her... for as long as we've known her, Sylia's always idolized her father. Maybe even seen him as a martyr of sorts. True?"

"Well..." Nene's tone was reluctant.

"Now, if there's anything at all, no matter how small, to what the Loon said, that means that Doctor Stingray was at the very best oblivious to the morality of creating a race of intelligent slaves. At worst, he knew exactly what he was doing, and didn't care." Linna shrugged. "Either way, he certainly doesn't come off as the shining hero we'd all like to think our parents are. And Sylia doesn't want to admit that her father might have had feet of clay. She's in denial. And so are you."

"I'm not in denial!" Nene's voice peaked suddenly, then dropped. "Not any more."

"Good," Linna declared. "And maybe my questions will shake Sylia out of hers. Until she at least admits the possibility, there's no chance of finding a better way. You see?"

"Yeah," Nene said. "Yeah."

* * *

AD Police Headquarters. Friday, February 13, 2037, 2:17 PM

"Anything else, Leon?" Fuko looked up over her shoulder from her sketchboard at the ADP inspector.

Leon rubbed his chin and stared at the drawing on the board. "No, I think that's it."

"Right," Fuko said, and slid the pencil in her hand carefully into its proper place in her kit. She released the clips holding the page on the board, slid the sheet of paper off, and laid it next to three other drawings on the table next to her. "I'd ask you if you were trying to trick me into drawing an American-style comic book for you, except about 7:30 last night I heard a voice in the thunder and ended up curled into a ball, whimpering." She shivered, and Leon put his hand on her shoulder.

"You and most of MegaTokyo," he said softly.

"Well, yeah, but not being alone doesn't exactly help me feel better about it," she snapped, and he quickly withdrew his hand. "Sorry," she said in a far less angry tone. "Just the thought of it... The gods are supposed to be remote, distant from ordinary humans. Not standing in the streets yelling at them."

"She just claimed to be a goddess," Leon offered. "Doesn't mean she actually was one."

Fuko laughed sadly. "Oh, she was, Leon, believe me. The fear of the gods lurks in every human soul, and mine responded to her." She shook her head slowly. "Hell of a thing for an atheist to say, huh? I guess I better start attending services again."

"If you say so," he replied, dubious.

She turned her swivel chair around to face him more directly. "I still can't get over how you were so close to her, and were unaffected."

Leon shrugged. "Well, I was distracted by everything else going on." He fingered the folded sunglasses hung on the breast pocket of his shirt and grimaced. "Plus my ears were ringing like mad from all the loud noises already -- regular thunder, sonic booms, that one woman... screaming, for lack of a better word. I didn't actually hear the voice in the thunder that everyone else did."

Fuko giggled, her entire countenance brightening again. "And here I was, thinking you were some kind of superman for standing up to it at such close range." With a smile, she turned back to her kit and began closing it up.

Leon snorted. "Yeah, right. Some superman. I was lucky to leave that war zone under my own power. If any of them had decided I was some kind of threat, I'd probably be a grease spot now."

Still fitting pencils and other tools of her trade back into the kit box, Fuko said, "I thought you said you shot one with your Earthshaker."

"I did," Leon replied. "Apparently that wasn't enough to qualify me as a serious threat." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the flattened bullet. With a quiet little "click", he laid it on the table next to the drawings. Fuko looked at the source of the noise, raised her eyebrows and looked at him. The corner of her mouth twitched, and finally she cooed, "Poor baby! Your big, bad gun isn't up to the job any more."

"Fuko," he growled.

"You know, there are treatments for that now... therapy and drugs that can do wonders."

"Fuko!" She was laughing outright now, and Leon felt an unfamiliar rush of heat in his cheeks. "Stop. Please."

Laughter subsided back into spurts of giggling. "Oh well, since you asked so nicely."

"Thank you," he said, trying to gather the shreds of his dignity back together. "I doubt anything short of an antitank weapon would have worked on those women, Fuko. I tell you this, either they build really strong buildings in the Loon's world, or the construction and insurance companies are making out like bandits."

"Probably both," she said.

* * *

IDEC. Friday, February 13, 2037, 2:30 PM

Daniel Ohara lifted the handset to his ear and punched in a four-digit sequence. Obediently, a ring tone began to sound.

He resisted the urge to mimic the 20th-Century comedienne who had occasionally portrayed an obnoxious telephone operator. His dignity had already suffered enough, and there was no need to wound it further.

The ringing suddenly cut off and a tired-sounding voice blurted "Yo?" into his ear.

"'Craig'," Ohara said with elaborate patience. "We had another demonstration of your power scheduled for, oh... right now."

"Huh? We did?" Through the phone line came the mixed sounds of a keyboard clicking and papers shuffling. "Oh, damn, we did. 'Kay, I'll be right there. Sorry."

The other end hung up before Ohara could add anything of his own. He returned the handset to its cradle and looked up at Hiroe and Illya. "He'll be here any..."

The outer door to the testing chamber flew open with a slam. "I'm here, I'm here. Let the bells ring out and the banners fly," a lackluster voice announced with a notable dearth of enthusiasm.

"...minute," Ohara concluded. Hiroe snickered and Illya chuckled, to both Daniel and Tony's annoyance. He raised his voice. "We're in here, 'Craig'."

Douglas Sangnoir stumbled into the control booth facing the isolation chamber, leaned against the doorjamb, and ran a hand through his short blond hair. "Sorry I'm late. I've been a little out of it today."

"We know," Illya replied. "Are most interesting articles on today's newspages."

"Joy," Sangnoir muttered as Ohara studied him. Not much had changed since their encounter earlier in the day. For the first time in their acquaintance, the extradimensional was not crisply alert and preternaturally graceful. Instead, he resembled a man who had just come out the back end of a weeklong bender and wasn't yet sure whether or not he had survived the experience.

"You look horrible," Hiroe blurted out. She leapt from her seat to seize Sangnoir by the arm. "You come here and sit down. Last night must have been simply awful for you." She forced the younger man down into the chair she had occupied as he tried to mumble thanks.

"Ah. I see Hiroe's maternal streak has resurfaced." Tony, impeccable in his Italian suit, had arrived, sarcasm in hand.

"No need to be quite so snide," Hiroe growled.

"All right, people," Daniel jumped in before the level of interpersonal friction could rise any further, "let's get started."

As agreement circled the room, Sangnoir focused slightly bleary eyes on him and asked, "Okay, what do you want me to do?"

Ohara glanced at his people. In the wake of the morning's news, a flurry of email memos had quickly determined the general nature of today's tests.

"Well," Hiroe coughed and began. "We..."

"We've seen you do a state transform on your own body's matter," Tony interrupted. "We want to see something like the papers said you did last night -- creating matter out of nothing."

"But we'd rather you didn't produce any... people," Hiroe hurried to add, shooting a glare at Tony. "Something inanimate would probably be better for all concerned."

"Hm." He pretended to ponder this. "So I suppose large, dangerous animals are also out?"

Tony glared at him. "Yes," he barked.

"Pity, that." Sangnoir smiled sweetly.

"Well, you're in a hostile mood today," Ohara dryly noted.

"I think I have the right to be," Sangnoir snapped. "In the past twenty-four hours I've played bait for a dozen combat boomers, almost got into a screaming match with the white Knight Saber, berserked and nearly killed the pink Saber, had my emotions royally yanked around, gotten the shit kicked out of me, and been shot three times -- <on the ceiling if you want me, twice on the pipe if the answer is no>..." he suddenly warbled in English. Then he winced and rubbed his temples. "Owitch. Not to mention that I have the reaction hangover from Hell because I overdid it with my magegift, plus I got thoroughly dressed down by an avatar of my C.O. from back home." He stared with bleary eyes at Ohara as everyone around the table blinked at the summary. "If you can at all avoid it, never go to work for a god."

"I don't intend to," Ohara responded wryly.

"Good. Because they show up in the damnedest places to make your life miserable, whether you're on duty or not." Sangnoir sighed, rubbed his temples for a moment longer, then looked up and around the table. "Okay, you want a solid energy projection, something inanimate. I suppose you need me stripped to my skivvies again for the sensors and whatnot."

"I'm sorry, but, well, yes," Hiroe stammered. Hiroe actually looks embarrassed, Ohara noted with some small, private amusement.

Sangnoir stood and strode to the entrance of the isolation room, unbuttoning his shirt as he did. "It's a good thing I remembered what my mom always used to say: 'Always put on clean underwear in case you unexpectedly have to demonstrate your metagift to a bunch of voyeuristic physicists.'"

"Like hell his mother said that," Tony muttered as Illya chuckled.

"Did you leave your sense of humor in your other suit today, Tony?" Hiroe hissed at him.

"The guy gets on my nerves, what can I say?" he growled back.

"I love you, too, Tonykins," Sangnoir called from the chamber as he peeled off his jeans. Hiroe tittered behind her hand and Illya simply smirked as Tony fumed.

"Can we please try to approximate a professional atmosphere here?" Ohara felt like rubbing his own temples. Already.

* * *

IDEC. Friday, February 13, 2037, 4:12 PM

After spending almost an hour playing lab rat for Ohara and his unindicted co-conspirators, I actually felt a little better. I managed to twit everyone at least once, and exercising my metagift actually seemed to clear some of the cobwebs out of my head.

I went back to my lab after the meeting broke up, and managed to think a little more clearly than I had earlier in the day. Things were starting to look up since I'd gotten in that morning. I now had detailed technical specifications for the changes needed to free a boomer brain from its constraints. I began laying them out in a form suitable for programming into a nanite of some kind. Even though I still had no way of creating or hijacking a nanodevice that could do the job, I still held on to the hope that I could find or make something that could get past the defenses that boomers had against such things.

In the spirit of this new burst of optimism, I also began planning for my departure from this universe. I knew I wasn't going home from here -- the Three had made it pretty clear. I wouldn't be walking a "twisted path" as they had put it if my next step were my last. So that meant preparing for another random universe. Which in its turn meant that I needed trade goods -- in short, more gems. Lightweight, easily hidden, concentrated wealth in almost any culture, they're the perfect medium of exchange for the dimensional traveler on the go. Like me.

The gems into which I had converted my "honorarium" from the Collegium had come in very handy indeed on my arrival here, even though I hadn't intended them for that purpose. I had depleted my supply, though, with all my unexpected expenses, and I needed to restock.

Fortunately, I had the resources of GENOM at my fingertips. GENOM, which was so diversified that its right thumb didn't know what the forefinger was doing, had a number of lapidary firms under its umbrella. IDEC made use of them on occasion -- sapphire bearings, industrial diamonds, stuff like that. I simply ordered a fistful or so of jewelry-quality stones and charged them to my expense account. They'd get next-day shipped automatically and I would have them on Monday.

Not that I expected to be leaving then, but one never knows...

That reminded me that Lisa still had that diamond I'd given her as a potential "down payment" on a Knight Sabers rescue. Well, after the previous night's events, that idea was now a wash, but I decided that I wouldn't ask for it back. It's not that I was actually hurting for it, anyway. At least, not now.

While I was ordering the gems, I toyed with the idea of requisitioning a ton of high-ticket items from GENOM's internal supply system, just to mess with both GENOM and IDEC. I could imagine the scene when something arrived:

Chizue: "You have a crate from the military weapons division in here?"

Me: "Yeah, read the label. It's great."

Chizue: "Contents: 1 (One) Pulse-Laser, Plasma, Phased, 40 Watts."

Me: "Just what you see, pal."

I chuckled to myself at the image, then thought about it. I could probably mount one of those boomer-portable particle beams on the cycle... if only I had a decent power supply. As it was, I would barely have enough power for the grav unit. Once installed, turning it on would put such a load on the turbine that fuel consumption would double, maybe triple. Which wasn't too bad, the turbine was remarkably efficient (if I do say so myself), but still... If only I had a 'drillium cell, dammit.

Yeah, and while I was at it, if only I were home, too. Dammit.

Anyway, thinking about the cycle reminded me that all I needed to do with the grav unit were the final bench tests before making a housing and installing it -- that, and packaging the conversion guidelines and posting them to a delayed-mail server or two out on the Net. If Ohara and his technothugs thought I would hand them something that profitable, they were nuts. I was sending it right out into the public domain -- with a copyleft on it, to boot.

In the meantime, I would hold off on my malicious mail ordering until right before I was about to leave. Fewer repercussions that way.

At least for me.

The perfect topper to my day came at about four PM. I was heading to the staff room for my seventh cup of tea that day. The fastest route there from my lab led me past the big doors to the lobby -- the ones I had forced my way through during my siege. As it turned out, they weren't merely wood-toned, but real wood and beautifully finished; I'm glad I hadn't had to zap them.

Anyway, as I passed by, I thought I heard a familiar voice -- muffled to the point of incomprehensibility but still familiar. On the office side of the doors was a security monitor hooked to a wide-angle camera that covered the entire lobby. I stopped and checked out the image to see if... yeah. It was Lisa, pleading with Sindra for a chance to talk to someone, anyone... Knowing her, she just got seized with an impulse to look into IDEC, and came running right over instead of booking a proper appointment. I sighed, got my tea, and went back to my lab to leave a message on her machine.

* * *

Friday, February 13, 2037, 6:34 PM

Lisa kicked off her boots at the door, then stepped in a meter or so to divest herself of her coat.

"Can it get any colder?" she demanded rhetorically as she hung the coat up. At least it's not snowing today, she consoled herself as she flopped onto her futon and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms and legs as she growled invective about IDEC under her breath. She'd just have to try again, that's all.

Several minutes went by as she massaged her limbs and slowly adjusted to the warmth of her apartment. Finally, she sat up straight and sighed in pleasure. Muuuuch better.

Glancing about the room, her eye fell upon the "message waiting" light atop the v-mail display on her bureau. Groaning, she hoisted herself to her feet, trudged the meter or two over to it, and pressed the "Play" button.

A "No Video Available" notice flicked into existence on the unit's small screen as a familiar voice came from the speakers. "'S me, Leese. Meet me tonight at the place where you lived for fifty years, at an hour equal to the number killed at Kent State there in 1970."

There was a click, then a brief tone, then nothing.

"Doug?" Lisa almost shrieked. Then she rewound and listened again to the message.

Eriko's, definitely Eriko's, she thought frantically. But when? Where the hell is Kent State? Who was killed there? Then, welling up out of the depths of her memory came a snippet of a song in English that she knew she'd never heard before -- four men singing in a braided harmony, with a simple orchestration and outrage in their voices:

"<Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming.
Eight dead in Ohio,
Eight dead in Ohio...>"

Eight, eight tonight. She glanced at her watch, then out the window. No way in hell am I going to try to make it there on my scooter, not in this weather. That means mass transit.. which means I have to leave now if I'm going to be there on time!

She dashed for the door and began pulling on her boots.

* * *

Ladys 633 Building. Friday, February 13, 2037, 7:02 PM

"'S me, Leese. Meet me tonight at the place where you lived for fifty years, at an hour equal to the number killed at Kent State there in 1970."

Sylia swore softly under her breath as she listened to the recording for the fifth time. Sangnoir had finally made contact again with Lisa, but his message had been so cryptic as to be nonsensical. Of course, she sneered at herself. He's a professional, he's not going to come right out and tell her where and when in plain Japanese.

It might as well have been plain Japanese as far as Lisa had been concerned, though. According to the logs relayed by the other surveillance devices planted in Lisa's apartment, the Sabers' archivist had listened to the message twice, thought for a moment, then made a dash for the door. Not for the first time since reviewing the logs, Sylia cursed the circumstances that had left her minding the Silky Doll until early evening that day; had she not been working, she might have checked on the bugs soon enough to set a tail on Lisa. As it was, Sylia had no idea where she might be now.

A pre-arranged code? she wondered, then shook her head. It would have sounded more innocuous. It must be some kind of shared experience to which he's referring. But what? A few seconds' searching on the Net had turned up the Kent State reference: four protesters were killed by National Guardsmen who had fired on an anti-war demonstration at the American college in 1970. Four o'clock would seem to be the time -- except that the log indicated the call had been received shortly after four PM, and Sangnoir had clearly said "tonight". Presumably more of the protesters died in his universe, Sylia mused. But how many?

Not that that would help her without an idea of what and where "the place where you lived for fifty years" could possibly be. One of the most infuriating things about dealing with Sangnoir is that you can never draw a solid, inviolate line between the literal and the metaphoric with him, she thought with an angry frown. He dances along that line and gleefully scuffs it out with every bootprint.

For all she knew, Lisa could really have spent an actual fifty years "somewhere else" with him. For some reason she was hard-pressed to name, Sylia felt disquieted and disturbed by the possibility that Lisa might now have three or more times the life experience that Sylia herself possessed.

Sylia scowled at the thought. As she reached for the recorder to play back the message once more, her phone rang, and she diverted her hand to that device instead. "Silky Doll, Sylia Stingray speaking," she said, slipping into her "smile for the public" persona.

"Ms. Stingray," came another familiar voice that was considerably more welcome than Sangnoir's. "This is Fargo Fine Fabrics. We have a special order which we'd like to discuss with you tonight, if that's possible?"

"Why, certainly," she said with a pleasant tone that was only partly forced. Any distraction was welcome if it got her mind off Lisa and Sangnoir.

* * *

Eriko's All-American Diner. Friday, February 13, 2037, 8:01 PM

Lisa dashed through the outermost doors of the diner, pausing only a moment to pull off her hat and stamp her feet free of slush before continuing through the inner glass doors at a more stately pace. A blast of warm and fragrant air, redolent with the scents of all manner of dishes, greeted her. Smiling broadly, she closed her eyes and breathed it in deeply. A moment later, she opened her eyes once more and returned her attention to the matter at hand.

The restaurant had recovered so completely from the damage inflicted in the boomer attack six weeks earlier that it appeared never to have been damaged at all. Just like every other time she'd visited, Eriko's was packed, mostly with students from the nearby university. Lisa popped up on her tiptoes and craned her neck to look over and around the crowd, trying to locate Doug. Without thinking about it, she stepped further into the diner, close enough to begin to overhear the conversations -- some mundane, some surreal -- around her:

"Excuse me!" A large woman with long dark hair sharply berated her companions. "DON'T! TAUNT! GODS!"

A small, wiry fellow at another table took a long drag off his cigarette and announced, "I could stomp his butt no problem."

"Yes, yes, we know, shut up," impatiently replied the man in glasses across from him.

Lisa stepped in a little further, still searching. She tried to look down the long row of booths that ran under the broad glass window facing the street, where she and Doug had sat during her first visit to Eriko's. Unfortunately, two tables' worth of patrons chose that moment to get up and leave. The dozen or so persons milling about and putting on coats blocked her view entirely. "Dammit, where is he?" she whispered to herself.

"Lisa-chan!" An unexpected female voice cut through the low, constant noise of murmuring diners and clattering dishes. Lisa started and whirled as she was all but tackled by a girl her own age. She was slender but powerful, with a mop of shaggy brown hair and large, expressive eyes. In addition to jeans, T-shirt and a leather jacket she wore a brilliantly red wrist brace, and a small bandage spanned the bridge of her nose. She hugged Lisa fiercely, then released her and stood back to look her over.

"Y-Yu-Yume-chan?" Lisa stuttered in surprise and delight.

"It is you!" the other girl declared with a friendly grin. "I haven't seen you in ages!"

"Not since graduation, I think," Lisa replied wryly. "It's great to see you! How are you doing, Yumeko?"

Yumeko shrugged without losing her smile. "The usual. Working like a dog at the gym, sleeping like a log the rest of the time."

"I'll bet," Lisa chuckled. "I've been following your career -- congrats on qualifying for the Olympics."

"Thanks, but you know you could have been there with me, Lisa-chan." Yumeko took Lisa's hands in hers and winked conspiratorially at her. "C'mon, wanna give it a shot?"

Lisa laughed. "Sorry, no, I'm way out of shape. I wouldn't want to drag you down with me."

"Sweetheart, we've got to go." A tall, redheaded man came up behind Yumeko and laid his hands on her shoulders.

"Dad," she said, looking back and up at him, "you remember Lisa Vanette, don't you?"

"I certainly do," he rumbled. "How are you, Lisa-chan?"

"Oh, hi, Mr. Van V--" She stopped short as he held up a warning finger and wagged it, smiling at her. "Bert. Sorry!"

"I'll get you properly trained one of these days," he said with a chuckle.

"Maybe." Lisa grinned. "Anyway, I'm doing just fine, thanks." She narrowed her eyes and looked a suddenly-sheepish Yumeko over. "Although Yume-chan looks the worse for wear."

"Oh, this?" The other girl waved her brace-covered hand around carelessly. "Just a bad tumble I took during practice. It's nothing. I'll be fine in no time -- you know I heal fast."

Bert coughed conspicuously. "Well, I hate to break up this reunion, sweetheart, but your mother is going to be getting out of the studio any minute now, and if we're not there on time, she'll rip us both a new one." Bert winked broadly at Lisa and she laughed again; Yumeko's mother was, she remembered fondly, the mildest of women.

Yumeko made a face. "Sorry, Lisa-chan. Gotta run. But let's trade numbers so we don't lose track of each other again!"

"Yes, let's!" Lisa pulled out her palmtop as Yumeko did the same, and a brief exchange of data later, the two were hugging once more and trading goodbyes.

"Call me!" Yumeko shouted over her shoulder as she and her father shouldered their way through the doors.

"I will!" Lisa waved until they vanished into the crowd on the sidewalk outside, smiled for a moment, then turned around to look for Doug. The earlier crowd of departing customers had cleared out (had in fact streamed around herself and Yumeko during their reunion) so she glanced back along the front of the diner.

Twice her eyes slid over the black-haired man with a mustache before she realized it was Doug. He was watching her without the faintest hint of a smile on his face. When their eyes met, he grinned and gave a small nod. He was sitting in their old booth, a pair of menus and two glasses of ice water already on the table in front of him.

Lisa chuckled, dodged around yet another table of gamers ("He's a half-elven pirate with a wooden leg..." said one; "And a hook for a head!" called out another as the table collapsed in laughter) and made her way to the booth, where she stood for a moment looking down at him. "Hi," she said softly, almost bashfully.

His grin softened into a gentle smile. "Hi, yourself." He waved at the empty bench seat opposite him. "Have a seat."

"Thanks," she said, and peeled off her coat. She folded it carefully and laid it on the far end of the bench, and placed her hat atop it. Then she slid into the booth herself, taking a moment to savor the slick, cool surface of the cushion with her fingertips as she settled herself in.

As she looked up, her eyes fell upon a paper napkin placed foursquare in the center of the placemat before her. Scrawled on it were the words, "Call me Craig. Crumple this napkin and pocket it."

As Lisa followed the second instruction, Doug handed her a menu and asked, "Old friend of yours?"

"Yeah," she replied with a fond smile. "We were in gymnastics together from preschool to high school." Lisa turned her head and gazed wistfully out the broad window, studying the passersby in the slushy street. "Now she's on the Olympic team."

"Another 'Tenacious Tara'?"

Lisa opened the menu and scanned it quickly. "Better," she said confidently. "She's going to sweep every event and come home with an armload of gold at the next summer games, I promise you."

"Good for her." Doug nodded, then stared intently at her. "My sources tell me you were poking around IDEC today."

Lisa started. "How did..." Her eyes narrowed. "Your message was timestamped before I even left the Tower. You're working there, aren't you?"

He nodded. "Yup."

"But why? They were sending all those boomers after you!"

"That's exactly why," he said calmly. "If they have me hard at work in their labs, available for any analysis they might want to run, then they won't be inclined to dispatch squads of combat boomers into the streets to find me. And besides, there's an old saying: Keep your friends close, and..."

"...And your enemies closer," Lisa finished. "That makes a sick sort of sense, actually. I'm surprised they let you out to talk to me, though."

"Why?" he replied. "I'm not a prisoner, after all, I'm just another technician -- albeit one with highly specialized skills. They don't keep me in a cage."

She shook her head. "Weird."

At that point Eriko, who sashayed over to take their orders, interrupted them. By mutual silent consent, they waited until she had returned to the kitchen before continuing their conversation. During that time, she studied the changes in his appearance, which though minor were disconcerting. His entire aspect seemed to have changed, from wholesome surfer-type to a vaguely greasy, sleazy used-car-salesman kind of look. She wondered how much of it was really the hair color and mustache, and how much might be some kind of subliminal cues she simply wasn't noticing.

"Can you do me a favor, Leese?" Doug asked as soon as the kitchen door, as ostentatiously aqua as Eriko's uniform, swung shut behind her. Its porthole-like window glinted in the fluorescent light.

"What's that?" Lisa yanked her eyes from the kitchen back to Doug's face.

"Stay away from IDEC, please? Professionally, I mean."

She inclined her head and studied him. "Why?"

Doug sighed. "A few reasons. One, they're providing my cover at the moment. The Knight Sabers probably would love to see me dead, and I'd prefer to keep disappointing them."

"The..." Lisa began, but Doug held up a hand.

"Please, Lisa." He was more serious than she had ever seen him before. "I'm also working on a project there that if it pans out will let me move on -- probably not back to my own world, but at least on the way toward it. You can understand that this is vitally important to me?"

Lisa felt a sudden pang in her chest. Doug, gone? Really gone? "Yeah, but..."

"The last thing I need is the world plus dog deciding IDEC looks like a tasty media target, Lisa," he said soberly. "When I've finally got this thing I'm doing completely debugged, it'll be really big. But until I can get it there, I simply can't have people poking their noses into where I work and ultimately into what I'm doing."

Her reporter's instincts took over. "How big is big?"

Doug studied her for a long moment. "World-shaking big," he finally said. "GENOM may have a hard time recovering big."

Lisa whistled softly.

"Now," Doug continued, "if you take my advice, and if you don't draw any attention to IDEC, and if you promise to be careful and keep yourself safe, I'll see to it that you have all the relevant info on what happens -- the ultimate exclusive." He raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Do we have a deal?"

Lisa played with a strand of her hair as she considered this. "I need to know one thing. I'll keep it quiet until you give me the okay, but I want to know now: what is this project of yours?"

Doug grimaced. "I suppose you're going to insist on that?"

She smiled sweetly. "I can always make your life hell."

"Right," he growled. "Okay, long story short: boomers may have been designed to be slaves, but GENOM put extra circuitry in their brains to make sure they stay that way. I'm looking for a way to kill those circuits -- permanently -- in every boomer ever built."

Lisa whistled again. "Just a little job you've set yourself. No wonder you want to keep out of sight until you're done with it." She nodded to herself. "And you're doing this why?" She knew what he had told the Sabers, but wanted to hear what he would tell her.

"I've got my reasons, and all you need to know is that they're good." He leaned forward, all the usual humor missing from his face. "Do we have a deal, Lisa?"

She closed her eyes and weighed the options, balancing the benefits against the costs. After nearly a minute, she opened them again. "Okay," she said slowly. "We have a deal."

Doug relaxed from a tension she hadn't realized he'd been under, and slumped back into his seat. "Good. Good. I'm glad you agreed, Leese. You're so damned inventive I was getting really worried about running interference against you."

"Heh." Lisa grinned. "Lois Lane, eat your heart out."

Doug's brow furrowed. "Who?"

She waved it off. "Local pop culture reference. Don't worry about it. So," she leaned in toward him. "How are you going to do it?"

His face fell. "That's the problem. I know exactly what to do. If I had the time and the tools, I could do it by hand. But that's not practical on a large scale, which is where I really have to work. I need..." He frowned again. "What I want is to make it something like a disease -- an organism or nanite that can spread quickly from boomer to boomer. Call it a freedom plague. But their original designer and GENOM were way too smart for me -- boomers are already proof against that kind of thing." He took a sip from one of the glasses of water. "They have the most amazing immune system analogue..."

Something about that tugged at a thread of memory, but it didn't want to come free. Lisa frowned in concentration. "'Craig', I..." she began, but was interrupted before she could finish the thought.

"Here you go, you two." Eriko materialized at the end of their table with a shining aluminum tray in one hand. "Gyro for the lady, and cheeseburger for the gentleman," she announced, matching deed to word with quick, efficient motion. "Enjoy your dinner..." She smiled knowingly at Lisa. "...and the rest of your date."

Doug laughed and thanked her. Lisa said nothing as Eriko swivel-hipped away to her other customers. Instead, she focused on trying to track down the rogue memory that still refused to present itself completely at the front of her mind. Disease, disease... there's something there that I can almost remember... Oh, right!

Doug must have seen her face light up because he looked at her curiously and said, "Leese?"

"'Craig', maybe this will help." She bit her lip as she tried to gather the shreds of memory. "There was a rumor on the streets, a few years ago, about a company -- a competitor to GENOM, I think -- that had come up with some kind of boomer plague. But I can't remember if there was any more than that. If they -- and the plague -- really existed, GENOM probably destroyed them one way or another and buried them so deep that no one could ever find them again." She played with her utensils for a moment. "Normally, I'd write off a story that vague as simply an urban legend, except..."

Doug's eyebrows shot up. "Except...?"

She bit her lip for a moment. "Well, this part isn't just newsie folklore, because I saw it happen, during my first internship while I was still in college. The reporter who was mentoring me told me about the rumor. He'd first heard it himself just a couple years earlier, and right after I got there he started investigating it in his off-hours. I guess having an intern freed him up enough that he finally had the time for it." She shrugged, then ate a few french fries. "He hadn't done much more than make a few inquiries when, well, he got discreetly but firmly 'leaned on'. I was there the morning that a sharky-looking guy with a couple of musclemen showed up in the office to suggest that it wasn't 'in his best interests' to pursue the matter." She sighed. "After that, he never mentioned it again."

Her dinner companion frowned. "That's a lot of trouble to go through for something that supposedly doesn't exist."

She didn't say anything, just nodding as she attacked her gyro for the first time.

"GENOM?" Doug continued.

Lisa gave another little shrug. "Maybe. I don't really know. But someone didn't like having that rumor circulated." She gritted her teeth. "I'm sorry, that's not much to go on."

A thoughtful look had settled onto his face as he laid down his partially-eaten cheeseburger. "No, no. That's incredibly useful. It gives me some direction for my researches, at least. You see, assuming the rumor is based on some shred of truth, finding a record of it in the internal GENOM files would prove that what I want is possible. Knowing that, I'd have an edge on trying to duplicate it." Then he shrugged and grinned. "And if I find nothing one way or the other, then I'm no worse off than I am now."

"Are you sure?" She toyed with her gyro.

"Oh, yeah," he replied heartily. "It's the best lead I've had in a while."

She looked up from her dish and smiled tentatively. "Good. I'm just sorry I don't remember more."

Doug reached across the table and laid his hand over hers. "Don't agonize over it, Lisa. Just that little tidbit alone could make a big difference." He squeezed her hand, then withdrew his own, stealing a french fry from off her plate in the same motion. With a smile, he winked at her and tossed the fry into his mouth.

She laughed, her mood suddenly lightened. "So I take it you're planning on lying low for quite a while?"

Doug nodded. "As long as it takes. Since IDEC was my primary pursuer, it should cut down on the boomer incidents a bit. Not entirely," he added, his eyes suddenly hooded. "Someone else is after me now, I think -- last night's boomers were definitely targeted at me. I wish I knew who sent them."

"I have some police contacts, you know," Lisa pointed out. "They took those boomers in unharmed, right? Maybe the ADP has been able to find out who sent them."

"Huh. I hadn't thought of that." His face brightened. "Could you do that for me? See if they uncovered anything?"

"Sure! I'll call my contact tomorrow." Lisa took a bite out of her gyro. "So, topic change. You just working in the Tower day and night, or do you, like, have a real social life again?"

"Me? Social life?" Doug snorted. "There's maybe one person I can talk to at IDEC without wanting to punch their face in. And I don't talk to anyone outside of IDEC. Some fun." He grimaced again. "You?"

She shrugged. "The usual. Hanging with the girlfriends when I'm not working." A sly smile crept onto her face. "Oh, and I made a new friend not long ago. Name of Katherine Madigan."

Doug managed to put down his drink before he could be caught in a spit-take. "Katherine Madigan?" he hissed incredulously. "The Katherine Madigan? Lavender hair, second in command of GENOM, her reputation alone kills plant life at ten meters? That Katherine Madigan?"

Lisa rolled her eyes. "She's not that bad. She came by my place to ask me about the photos I took of 'Sailor Loon', and after we talked for a while I found out that she's as much of a Moonie as I am." As Doug frowned in confusion, she pursed her lips for a moment and continued. "I know about her reputation, and to tell you the truth it makes me nervous, too. But when we talked she seemed more... well, sad and tired than anything else. Hardly the uber-bitch 'Lord High Executioner' type they make her out to be."

"I dunno," he said, shaking his head. "Ohara and his crew are scared shitless of Madigan. He literally fears for his life where she's concerned. And given what I've overheard in the Tower, he may well be justified." He reached over and took her hand again. "You just be careful when you're with her, okay?"

She slid her plate away from their clasped hands and said, "Don't worry. I will." Taking a french fry of her own and dipping it into ketchup, she added, "Kate may be everything they say, but I don't think that's all she is. People are complicated, after all. As you of all people ought to know." She slid the fry into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

"Yeah." He drew a deep breath. "Yeah."

"So," she said with sudden, excessive brightness, "why didn't you tell me that I'd be stuck with fifty years' worth of memories from that song you used on me?" Not looking at him, she lifted her gyro with one hand and took another bite out of it.

Doug blinked dumbly for a moment with the impact of the conversational whiplash. "Um..."

"I mean, I was starting to go a little nuts there, what with remembering everything from your world. And I do mean everything -- for a while last night I was pulling up the Class Gamma personnel reports on the Warriors just by thinking of them, and those exist only as files on the Mansion megaframe!" Lisa shook her head. "And even now, I still know things like that. But it was bad last night -- very bad. I was starting to lose myself. I..." Her tongue stumbled over itself as some power seemed to awaken in the back of her mind.

He is not to know. It was like an echo in her mind, the faintest trace of Wetter Hexe's voice, and in spite of herself, Lisa nodded.

"I... managed to overcome it," she finished lamely in the face of his obvious concern. "I think the worst of it is past now." She scowled at him suddenly. "But you should have warned me about the side effects!"

"There aren't any!" he protested.

"The hell there aren't!" she shot back in low hiss. "You clearly expected me to remember how many people died during the Kent State Massacre in your world. You knew I'd remember enough to know that!"

Doug rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, I knew you'd remember a fair amount afterwards -- what would be the point of the song if you didn't take something away with you after it was over? But nobody's ever had the kind of reaction you're talking about."

"Well, what makes me so special?" she demanded quietly.

He shook his head in confusion. "I don't know. Maybe it's the local laws of nature. I mean, my metagift seems to work normally, but every once in a while there are these little... twists. Or maybe it's just the mana level here in the city. I've never actually lived in a place this flush with magical energy for so long. Even Haven wasn't as saturated with mana as MegaTokyo is! I honestly don't know what my metagift might be doing with all that extra power floating around." He looked down into the palm of his open right hand. "I'm surprised my field isn't acting up somehow, now that I think of it. But it's the same as it's ever been."

Lisa considered this. "Well, you told me that your power is constantly taking in magical energy and... doing whatever it does with it that makes your field. Maybe it just has a low limit and it's always been processing as much as it can handle. It doesn't matter that it has more to work with, now, it just can't pull it in any faster."

"Yeah," Doug said, nodding thoughtfully. "That's probably it." He looked up at her and grinned. "Hey, check you out -- Lisa the magical theorist! We'll make a wizard out of you yet."

She rolled her eyes. "Puh-lease. I've had enough of that already. The day I mess with magic again..." She shuddered. "No, thank you. I don't want to be a wizard."

"Geeze, it was just a joke, Leese," he muttered. "It's not like you or anyone else in this world has the magegift, far as I can tell."

Her brow furrowed, she peered at him. "You keep saying that. How can you tell?"

"Magesight." He tapped a finger against his temple, right behind one eye. "If anyone out there in the city had an active magegift, I guarantee you I would have noticed it by now, even at a fair distance." He shook his head. "In all the months I've been here, I haven't seen anyone with even a minor magical talent. And if we assume that MegaTokyo is a statistically representative sample for the rest of the world, then that means it's pretty likely that no one's out there using magic at all."

"So we don't have to worry about getting our own version of Arcanum, huh?" Lisa busied herself with finishing off her gyro.

Doug snorted. "Yeah, and thank your lucky stars for that. Bad enough you have Quincy -- make Quincy a wizard, add a fondness for casual genocide and international terror along with an obsession about real estate, and you have Arcanum."

Lisa shuddered again. "No, you have him, and that's quite enough for me."

"No, we don't," Doug said softly. "Not any more."

"Yeah?" Lisa raised an eyebrow as she sensed a story. "Did you guys finally bring him down? That's one thing I don't seem to have a clear memory for."

Doug shook his head glumly. "I wish. No, he and his organization just... up and vanished one day. The word that reached us said he'd left Earth entirely, looking for another world he could take over with less trouble."

She whistled softly. "Damn. And of course you can't be sure he won't come back."

"Nope." He gave a wan smile. "We can always hope some extraterrestrial beastie ate him, but I don't think we'd be quite that lucky."

Lisa bit her lip and gazed thoughtfully at the remains of her gyro. "No, I suppose you wouldn't, at that."

* * *

The Majestic Theatre. Friday, February 13, 2037, 9:32 PM

As the house lights came up for intermission and the crowd behind them stirred, Sylia turned to her companion.

"'Fargo's Fine Fabrics'?" she asked.

Fargo shrugged. "I do what I have to." He motioned with his head. "Come with me. I need a smoke."

Sylia nodded, and the two of them rose from their seats and made their way through the lines for bar and restroom that snaked through the upper lobby.

"I didn't realize you liked classic theatre," Sylia offered conversationally as they made their way down to the front doors of the theatre. Unconsciously, her hand went to the breast pocket of her blazer, to make sure her ticket stub was still there.

"Like I've told you before, Sylia, there's a lot about me you don't know." He smiled as he held a door open for her. "As it so happens, I've been waiting for a revival of 'Phantom of the Opera' for years." Together they stepped to one side of the theatre entrance.

Sylia let one eyebrow rise as she withdrew a cigarette from her case and let Fargo light it. "Is that so?"

"It is," he replied with a smile. Once again his normal rumpled appearance had been banished. Sylia considered him, and thought that tonight he once again actually looked... dapper, for lack of a better word, and she smiled at the idea.

"I have to admit," she said, "that there are aspects of the story that do appeal to me."

Fargo grinned as he exhaled a cloud of smoke into the chill air. "Wait until you see the second act opener."

"Really." She allowed another hint of a smile.

He inhaled again on his cigarette. "Really." He looked up into the glowing pink-orange clouds of the night sky as he rummaged in a pocket. Sylia stepped closer to him, as if she were approaching him for warmth and affection. After a moment more of searching, Fargo pulled out a microdisk, which he slipped into her hand, which she had laid at his waist. Sylia made it vanish with the smallest of motions.

"The disk holds details on the job," he said, more quietly, and she leaned closer, continuing the illusion of a couple exchanging intimacies. "An upper-level GENOM executive based in Yokohama has apparently pissed someone off, and they want him ... embarrassed and disgraced."

"How?" Sylia whispered.

Fargo shrugged. "That's up to you. But according to the information I was given, he owns a custom 33S, in obvious defiance of the law." He gave her a sly smile. "That should be enough right there."

She nodded, murmuring a wordless agreement. "Anything else?"

"Yeah." Fargo took another long drag on his cigarette, driving the fire all the way down to the filter. Exhaling, he dropped the butt to the sidewalk, where it sizzled in a puddle of salt and meltwater. "The customer has a schedule they need you to abide by. No earlier than next Friday morning, no later than that evening. Something about timing matters for maximum effect."

"And the offer is?" Sylia whispered romantically in his ear, and smiled to herself when she saw him shiver. He's not the only one who can flirt mercilessly, she thought with some amusement. Better enjoy it while you can, Fargo, because that's all you're ever going to get. It didn't hurt that it helped her exorcise some of the anxiety she was feeling over Lisa's meeting with Sangnoir. It was certainly less destructive than some of the other options open to her.

"Um." Fargo cleared his throat as he tried to regain his suddenly shaky composure. Sylia smirked to herself. "The usual amount -- 25, half on acceptance, half on completion."

"I'll have to consult the others," she breathed into his ear as a bell rang briefly inside the theatre lobby. "I'll get you an answer by tomorrow noon."

Then with a private smile, she whirled away from him. "Ah, well, intermission's over. We'd best hurry back to our seats. After all," she glanced back at him with an absolutely straight face, "I understand that the second act opener is something that should not be missed." She strode through the door, unhurried, stately.

Fargo grimaced, then grinned suddenly, and followed her back into the theatre.

* * *

Friday, February 13, 2037, 11:49 PM

She slid between the sheets with a hiss of silk against satin. "Lights out," she murmured, and the apartment computer complied, obedient, faithful.

Faithful.

For years, GENOM has been her creed, her catechism, her god. She had been its good and faithful servant, and had been rewarded with paradise on earth.

In the dark, as she drifted into the threshold between wakefulness and sleep, Kate could admit to herself that it was no longer enough. Her faith was dead. Her god was a hollow idol. And what had seemed Paradise was as much a prison.

And even though she could never acknowledge it while fully awake, not even to herself, she didn't care any more.

Absolute good.

Absolute evil.

When it came time to make a choice, she knew on which side she would be.

END OF CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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(Version 1.1, 20 October 2003)

This work of fiction is copyright © 2003, Robert M. Schroeck.

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

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

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

"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.

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

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

Special thanks to Bert van Vliet and Amanda Stair for the use of their characters, SkyKnight and Yumeko Asagiri!

Additional material in this chapter written or inspired by Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, and "Captain Kangarooski".

Additional dialogue by Helen Imre, Attila Imre, Joe Avins and Joe Mucchiello.

Lyrics from "Ohio" recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, words and music by Neil Young, copyright © 1970, by Broken Arrow/Cotillion (BMI). Lyrics from the alternate version of "Ohio" written by the version of Neil Young native to Warriors' World and copyright by him.

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

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

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

Other chapters of this story can be found at:

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

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

http://drunkardswalkforums.yuku.com/

Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Joe Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Helen Imre, Eric James, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.


This page was created on October 17, 2003.
Last modified August 17, 2011.