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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

 

 

15: Pronoun Trouble

Every search for a hero must begin with something which every hero requires, a villain. -- Dr. Nekhorvich, Mission Impossible II

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. -- The Beatles, "I Am The Walrus"

Comedy is allied to justice. -- Aristophanes

 

Raven's Garage. Friday, February 20, 2037, 4:41 PM

"No."

Sylia, the other Sabers, and even the tiny boomer-child had sat silently through Lisa's long and sometimes rambling explanation of how and why and what was needed of them. The Sabers' leader nodded at all the appropriate places, waiting politely until Lisa slowly ground to a halt, out of both breath and words. Then, with this sudden and final-sounding pronouncement, Sylia dropped the diamond back into Lisa's hand and closed the girl's fingers around it.

Lisa stared at her, wide-eyed.

"What?"

Sylia stared at her through half-lidded eyes. "I said, 'No.'"

Lisa's mouth gaped open for a moment. "Why not?" she demanded.

The bridge of Sylia's nose creased with the faintest of frowns. "Less than two weeks ago, Colonel Sangnoir demanded that we not interfere in his... operations. I promised to respect that request." The frown was suddenly banished as a self-satisfied little smile played across Sylia's lips. "It's his operation. Let him handle it by himself, as he wanted."

Linna stifled a chuckle. Nene didn't bother, and her laugh echoed in the momentarily silent room.

"I can't believe this!" Lisa exclaimed. "Do you hate him that much?" She clenched her fists unconsciously, and the facets of the diamond bit into her palm.

"Hate him?" Sylia looked genuinely surprised, then reflective. "No," she continued after a moment. "Not hate. But I have found him to be arrogant and irritating."

"That's not enough to justify leaving him in GENOM's hands!"

"Perhaps not," Sylia mused. "Then again, neither is that bauble enough to justify taking the Sabers into danger to rescue him."

"What?" Lisa opened her hand and looked down at the diamond she held there. "It's not supposed to be the whole cost -- it's just a down payment. There's more where that came from."

Sylia smiled and shook her head. "I have no doubt of it. But however many more you could put before me, it would not be enough. It's worthless, you see." She reached out and closed Lisa's hand around the gem. "I could make dozens, hundreds like this overnight using the nanotank in my shop. And even if it were an authentic antique, it would still be useless to you -- the resale market for diamonds is virtually nil, because their prices are artificially inflated."

"Artificially...?" Lisa trailed off in astonishment.

"I'm surprised at you, Lisa," Linna interjected softly. "Remember DeBeers?"

For a long moment the thought failed to penetrate, and then Lisa let her hand drop and head slump. "Right," she whispered. "Damn." How could I forget the diamond cartel? The monopoly that only doles out a few diamonds a year from its supply of millions to keep their price jacked up. Lisa silently swore at her own stupidity -- and Doug's.

Sylia nodded slowly. "Now, if you had offered us precious metals, which I can't create in a nanotank, that would be another matter entirely. But stones like that one?" With hooded eyes and a smug little smile that was almost a smirk, she studied Lisa and gave a shake of her head. "Junk. Trash." She caught the girl's eyes with her own. "Ergo, no down payment. Ergo, no job."

Lisa stood stock-still for a long moment, staring unbelievingly at Sylia.

"So that's it?" she finally said. Her voice was soft, almost a whisper. "It's a worthless rock, so you'll leave him to GENOM's tender mercies?"

Sylia inclined her head. "So it would seem."

"I can't believe you," Lisa whispered. "I can't believe you!" she shouted, and whirled about. "Any of you! Don't you care?" Her fists were clenched again, and the diamond bit even more deeply into her flesh than before. "I thought you were heroes! Isn't that what you tried to convince me of when we first met, Nene?"

Nene flinched and averted her eyes from Lisa's furious gaze. The blonde girl whirled once more and returned her attention to Sylia. "And you. When we first met, Sylia, you told me that the Knight Sabers existed to counter GENOM's excesses. Isn't this an excess? Was it all a lie, Sylia? You're willing to take fifty million to deliver a sexaroid to a death sentence, but you won't go out of your way to save a man's life?"

In Nene's lap, Jennifer blanched, and looked up at the women around her. Priss laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"Is money all that matters?" Lisa shrieked. She dropped the yellow envelope that she still held in one hand and hurled the diamond across the room. As it clattered to the floor, she started digging through the pockets of her coat. "I'll give you money!" She pulled out a fistful of credsticks and scattered them across the desk where an impassive Sylia sat. "There!" A bankcard and several credit cards followed. "That's my entire fucking life savings, everything I've saved from working the newspages, and every yen I've earned as your archivist. All yours! Every credit card I own, too -- run them up to their limits! I'll even throw in my cut from the job! Dammit, Sylia, he's my friend!" She dropped to her knees in the middle of the floor, buried her face in her hands and sobbed. "My friend," she repeated in a choked whisper.

* * *

Somewhere in MegaTokyo. Friday, February 20, 2037, 4:45 PM

"You owe him that much."

"For what? For the pain, the regret, the awful nagging sense that we've fucked up and can't do anything about it?"

"Yes."

"Oh, yes, we owe him for that. I'll show him what we owe!"

"Oh, can it. So you're unhappy. So you've discovered your life is shit. How are you any different from the rest of us? At least you're alive."

"I'm not so sure that it's better than the alternative."

"I'm getting sick of your attitude. If you really feel that way, I'm sure it can be arranged."

A pause.

"No."

"'No' what?"

"No, I don't really feel that way."

"Then why all the goddamned bitching?"

"Well, because I'm pissed off!"

"Well, be pissed off at them, not him!"

"Okay, okay, dammit."

"So, are you in?"

"Yeah, I suppose so. Do we know where he is?"

"Gemini's cracking their systems right now. We'll find out soon."

"And then?"

"Then we go to work."

Another pause.

"'Gemini,' huh?"

"Yeah."

"What about..."

"Libra. As if you have to ask."

"I guess that would make me, what, Sagittarius?"

"You always were the sharpshooter."

"Heh. What about you?"

"You can call me Aquarius."

"Oh, water boy..."

"Can it."

* * *

Unknown location, unknown time.

I woke up with a headache and a lot of confusion. I'm annoyed to say that in the traditional, cliched manner, I didn't know where I was, and I couldn't remember the events that had gotten me here. It took me an unusually long time to claw my way out of the fog that filled my brain and left me feeling more than a little dopey. In the process, all I managed to figure out was that I wasn't in my apartment, nor in my workshop at IDEC, which left me wondering just where the hell I had gone to sleep the night before.

After a little while I got the idea to shake my head, which I did, and which briefly exacerbated my headache. But the jolt of pain did wonders to exorcise the fog. My vision, which had been quite blurry up to that point, cleared as well, and I realized two things. One, I wasn't anywhere I recognized... definitely not a good sign. And two, I wasn't wearing my helmet.

Make that three things. I was seated in a chair that would have been quite comfortable if it weren't for the manacles pulling my arms tight behind its back and keeping me in it. The chair was seated in the middle of rather plush office which overlooked a cityscape that I assumed for the moment was MegaTokyo. Several large panel windows, deep pile carpeting, all the trim and kitsch of the corporate bigwig. A sample of which was seated behind a monster desk right in front of me.

The bigwig, that is, not the trim and kitsch.

It was hard to guess his age, but he was at least in his late fifties. Given the state of the art of medical technology in that here-and-now, though, that meant nothing. He could have been in his eighties. Or older. He had long, lank blond/silver hair down to his shoulders, with a pronounced widow's peak, and he clearly wasn't an office traditionalist, because he wore an open collar and a distinctly informal jacket. To be frank, he dressed like a pimp. What really disturbed me was that he looked hauntingly familiar. I couldn't put my finger on precisely why, but I was certain that I ought to know him.

He was concentrating on a monitor built into his desk and wasn't looking my way, so I took a moment to glance around. Four lumps of muscle in dark suits stood on either side of me. It didn't take any mental effort to figure out that they were C-type boomers like Kilroy. Bots to the left of me, boomers to the right, I thought wryly.

Out of the corner of my eye I also spotted a lavender-haired woman hovering around a sideboard on which rested my helmet. Her back was to me at the moment, and she was intently studying my helmet without touching it. Her body language was very controlled, almost as much as Lady White's, but I got the impression that something was spooking her bigtime. Given her expensive business clothes and the color of her hair, I figured she could only be the mysterious and terrifying (at least to Ohara) Katherine Madigan.

So that was Lisa's new friend. Huh. That meant I had to be somewhere in GENOM Tower. Of course.

When I looked back at the desk, the old man was gazing at me. The look in his eyes was weird -- like a blend of vindication, fear and regret all at once. "Madigan," he rumbled -- he had a voice like a diesel engine -- "Our guest is awake."

Behind me, Madigan hissed in surprise. I heard her turning around, but I kept my attention forward. I could take her, even without my helmet. The boomers -- without my helmet, the boomers would be impossible. Even with it, taking all four of them on would be problematic at best. The old man was an unknown. I tried to run a tactical eval on him, but the results were... confusing. I decided right then and there that it wouldn't do to discount or underestimate him.

"<What's...>" I started, then coughed. My throat was raw, probably from the gas I'd finally remembered had knocked me out. "<What's the hassle, Schmassle?>" I tried to give him a nasty grin.

He chuckled, then stood up and stepped from behind the desk. He was spry, I'll grant him that, and clearly didn't need the cane he carried. He didn't move like a man in his fifties, so he was certainly getting his money's worth from his medical staff. He was also tall -- well over two meters, taller than the disguised boomers by a head or more. With his lean, lanky build he looked like a retiree from the NBA. He stood in front of me, relaxed but erect, and looked down to stare me straight in the eye. "Good afternoon, Mr. Sangnoir," he said. "Or should I call you 'Looney Toons'?"

I raised an eyebrow. He had good information sources, but so did a lot of people. Who was this guy? "It's Colonel Sangnoir, but call me whichever you please."

That seemed to discommode him for a moment, but before I could finish wondering why, he recovered, with the grace and presence of mind of a master politician. "I was wondering how you liked my city of MegaTokyo. Very different from late 20th Century London, isn't it?" He was baiting me. His tone was almost mocking, as if he knew something that I didn't.

I tried to shrug, which is difficult when you're sitting in a chair, even a comfortable one, with your hands manacled behind you. I was wondering just what his point was, what he thought he would gain with this laughable attempt at... what? interrogation? Maybe. I had no idea what he thought he was doing.

Until he spoke again.

"So tell me. How are your teammates? Wetter Hexe? Psyche? Shockwave? Major Canis? Skitz? Dwimanor? Kat? Silverbolt?" He ticked them off one-by-one on his fingers. "Oh, let's not forget dear Shadowwalker," he added in a tone that was almost tender. "I trust they are all well?"

I couldn't answer for a moment. Conceivably someone might have overheard some of those names, especially those of the simulacra I had summoned. But I had not spoken the rest in all the time I had been in MegaTokyo. I felt a sudden twist of uncertainty in the pit of my stomach. Despite this, of course, I had to brazen it out. "I haven't seen most of them in over three years, but when I was with them last, they were all okay, mostly. Psyche quit after some nasty business with a doppelganger that copied him. Shockwave left the team almost fourteen years ago on a medical discharge."

The old man nodded. "Ah, yes. His accelerated aging problem. I'd almost forgotten about that. What about the others? Proteus, Crystal, Wildflyte? Broot, Sorciere, Phantasia? White Tiger? Papillon Rose? And that delightful little Welsh sorceress with the Stevie Nicks fixation? What was her codename? Ah, yes, Rhiannon." He stopped, and frowned in concentration, as if trying to dredge up more names from his memory. "Gods, it's been so long," he muttered.

I stared at him. This was completely impossible. He had just run through a goodly portion of both Alpha and Beta's rosters, a list which stretched back to the early 1980s. I'd never even met Sorciere or Phantasia, let alone talked about them -- here or at home. There was no way in hell a native of this world could know that much. No way. He had to have come from Homeline. But who was he? He couldn't be Arcanum -- Arcanum was off-planet, not off-plane. At least that's what the evidence indicated. And dammit, he looked so familiar! Who the hell was he?

I decided I had to keep him talking. The more I knew about him, I reasoned, the better a plan I could eventually weave. "Proteus left Warriors Beta and joined Alpha. The original Wildflyte's dead, but his brother or cousin or something accepted the mantle of champion for his people and took his place in Beta. Rose resigned and joined some theme team in Tokyo. Rhiannon's now a field commander, after helping establish Warriors Delta in the..."

"...the Sinai Peninsula," he finished for me. "Yes, I remember the nights we spent planning the expansion campaign, but we never had enough free time to run it."

"The what?" The suspense and my own confusion finally got to me. "Who are you?" I demanded.

He bared his teeth in what I suppose was intended as a grin, but which looked more like the rictus of death. "My name is Quincy, James Douglas Quincy. As in Douglas Quincy Sangnoir. I am the chairman of GENOM and I am, to put it bluntly, your creator."

* * *

Raven's Garage. Friday, February 20, 2037, 4:51 PM

For an eternal, agonizing minute the room was silent save for Lisa's sobs. On all sides of her, the Sabers glanced at each other except for Sylia, who sat expressionlessly at her workstation.

"Who is this man you're talking about?" Jennifer asked softly.

Priss ran her fingers through the girl's golden hair. "A mouthy asshole who's done a few good things, and who's gotten in a couple hits at GENOM," she said softly.

"Oh," Jennifer replied, still not quite understanding.

Linna glanced at Sylia, but the leader of the Sabers would not acknowledge her. She looked across the room at the other two Sabers. Priss scowled when Linna caught her eye, then nodded once, curtly. Nene nodded as well, the shame in her eyes as visible as the flush with which it rouged her cheeks. Linna nodded once to herself, glanced again at Sylia, and pushed herself off the wall. With two quick steps she reached the center of the room, and lay a hand on Lisa's shoulder.

"We'll do it," she said quietly, and Sylia's head jerked up. Linna shot a look at Sylia that challenged the Saber leader to contradict her.

Sylia's brow furrowed for a moment, then she sighed. "Very well," she finally responded in a tone of resignation. "Very well." She slowly and elaborately retrieved a cigarette, set it to her lips, and lit it with her gold lighter. "Are you certain that it is GENOM who has him?"

Lisa raised her head from her hands, shock and surprise warring on her face for several moments. Then she shook herself, wiped the dampness from her eyes and cheeks with her fingertips, and nodded. "Pretty sure." She retrieved the manila envelope from the floor by her knees and opened it as she got back to her feet. "A little while back, Doug and I sort of deduced it had to be someone in GENOM who was after him. And I got these pictures of the men who took him away."

She pulled out a sheaf of large photoprints, and fanned them out before her. Sylia selected one and studied it closely. "Yes," she said after a few seconds. "That is a GENOM covert tactical team. And quite a large one," she added in honest surprise. "Whoever it was took no chances on this operation." She indicated buildings in the background of several of the shots. "If you know what to look for, you will see that there are additional squads positioned here, here and here. No matter where he chose to confront the boomers on that street, there would be personnel waiting close enough to handle him. Very well done."

"Sylia!" Lisa protested, overwrought.

"I'm not praising their actions, Lisa," Sylia replied coolly. "Just their tactics and planning." She narrowed her eyes and tapped a finger against her chin. "The real question now is who in GENOM ordered this operation." Her eyes unfocused as she considered the question. Linna, watching her, imagined she could almost hear the computerized elements of Sylia's brain humming as they shuffled the data at hand and evaluated it from all possible angles.

For her part, Sylia had a far easier time deriving a solution than Linna would have anticipated -- while dozens of pieces of evidence laid the groundwork for her deliberations, in the end only three of them decided the issue for her.

The first was the scope of the operation -- only Quincy, Madigan, and the uppermost level of GENOM management immediately below them could casually deploy a force of that size.

The second was the realization that the retrieval of Jennifer had been merely part of the greater plan -- a distraction to take the Sabers out of MegaTokyo while Sangnoir was captured. The combined cost of the tactical team and the Sabers' hire reduced the suspects to Quincy and Madigan.

The last was merely confirmation: A chance comment that Madigan had made in Lisa's apartment the night before as Sylia had monitored her bugs there, a comment which had meant nothing to Sabers' leader at the time. "I'm sure you'll find someone like him soon," Lisa had said about Sangnoir. And Madigan had murmured in response, "Maybe even tomorrow."

When Madigan took action on such a scale, it was almost certainly on Quincy's orders. Yes.

Moments after she had begun considering the problem, Sylia's eyes regained focus and she lifted them to meet Lisa's. "I believe that Quincy has personally arranged for this."

"Oh, just great," Nene growled. "You do realize that after the last couple weeks, he'd probably rather stay with Quincy than go with us? We aren't going to do any good if he won't leave."

Sylia frowned at this. "A very good point, Nene. Lisa, did he give you any kind of recognition code that we could use?"

Lisa bit her lip. "Not really, he..." At the back of her mind, an alien memory slowly, unthreateningly blossomed and laid itself open for her examination. "Wait a moment." Closing her eyes, she mentally paged through the information suddenly available to her, and found what she was looking for. She nodded to herself, then opened her eyes again to find Sylia studying her intently. "Tell him '<three alpha blue>'. That's all, '<three alpha blue>'."

"<Three alpha blue,>" Sylia repeated, still studying Lisa. "Got that, everyone?" A crisp chorus of affirmations answered her.

"Great, so we can tell him to trust us," Priss grumbled. "But how the fuck do we get into the Tower to pull him out? Without getting shot to hell first, that is?"

"I know," Nene offered, and looked meaningfully at Sylia.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 4:55 PM

"My what?" I blurted.

Okay, so the old guy was nuts. I added that to the tactical, and he still confused me.

But one thing was certain. He knew too much. Things no one in this universe could possibly know.

In any case, I still had to keep him talking, both to figure out what the hell he meant by that comment, and to give my field as much time as possible to work on my restraints. It was a distant, unlikely hope, to be absolutely honest, but it was the only one I had at the moment. I doubted that my field would actually hit upon the right combination of random factors necessary to free me from the manacles -- not in any decent amount of time, anyway.

Quincy gave me the grin of a shark that had just smelled blood. "I wouldn't trust in your field to free you if I were you." The surprise I felt on hearing that, right on the heels of my own thoughts along those lines, must have shown on my face, because he just smiled wider. Damn! Was the old man a telepath?

He chuckled -- a basso rumble that was more threatening than reassuring -- and continued. "No, I'm not a telepath, my dear Douglas. I just know precisely how you think. No, those manacles are made from a very durable alloy, with a bare minimum of moving parts and no electronics whatsoever. There's very little for your field to disrupt, even if you were to try to push it."

Well, damn. Double damn, in fact -- once for the manacles, and once for this guy's apparent ability to anticipate what I was thinking. Even so, I wasn't necessarily inclined to accept the claim. "I do hope you'll forgive me if I don't take your word for it," I offered with my most charming smile, and true to my word pitted what I could of my strength against the cuffs. As I'd feared, it wasn't enough to break them, given the lack of leverage. I did, however, get the satisfaction of watching Quincy's expression darken when I stressed the metal enough that it audibly groaned. "So, what did you mean, my creator?" I asked as conversationally as possible while I tested my bonds. Two could play the "keep him off balance" game.

He stepped up to me, and studied me closely. If he were that interested, he certainly had done this already while I was unconscious, but he took his time and walked slowly around my chair, cane tapping against the floor as he checked me out from all angles. "It is indeed amazing," Quincy mused as he came back into my field of view, shaking his head.

"Excuse me?" I let the barest touch of derision slip into my voice. "'Creator'?"

He gave me that shark smile again, then returned to the padded leather throne behind the desk. Settling in, he leaned forward and steepled his hands before his face.

"I've piqued your curiosity," he said, still smiling. "Perhaps the worst torture I could subject you to would be to leave you wondering. But I won't do that."

"Thank heaven for small favors," I muttered.

Quincy unsteepled his hands and sat back into his chair. Half of him seemed to vanish into its shadowed depths. Silently, Madigan glided over to stand just behind his right shoulder. Lap dog or lackey? I wondered. She was supposed to be an executive vice president or something, but she acted more like a gofer. Her well-suppressed nervousness seemed extremely out of character for what I knew of her, too. I wondered briefly if there was something there I could exploit.

Quincy waited until she was in position, then smiled again at me. "Let me tell you a little story, Douglas," he said.

"<Here we are now,>" I burbled with false lightheartedness. "<Entertain us.>"

"<Indeed,>" he replied, also in English. "<We always were fond of Kurt Cobain's work, weren't we?>" Madigan looked confused -- whether because she didn't speak the language, or because the reference escaped her, I didn't know.

"A-huh," I acknowledged this cryptic comment with a little grunt of puzzlement. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that he'd recognize a quote from "Smells Like Teen Spirit", but honestly, I hadn't thought he was the type who would. I just sat there and waited for him to continue.

Quincy inclined his head toward me for a moment, then spoke. "This story, like yours, begins in the early 1980s," he said, returning to Japanese. "I was a student at an Ivy League university -- I am American by birth, in case you hadn't already deduced that."

"I'd kind of guessed," I allowed, and he went on.

"I was a mediocre student at best -- not for lack of ability, but because I rarely applied myself to a task unless it excited and interested me. I coasted through my classes, excelling at the few that challenged and engaged me and surviving the rest with the bare minimum of effort needed for a passing grade. And I spent almost all my free time with a small group of friends who shared my extracurricular interests." He closed his eyes, smiled fondly and sighed, then opened them again. "Lee and Elizabeth, Quinn and Maeve, Jacqueline, Mike, Lynn and Ursula." His eyes grew soft and distant for a moment. "Ah, Ursula."

"Yes, yes," I growled with a mixture of mock and real impatience. "Can we speed this up? 'Skysaber Conquers The World' is on TV tonight, and I don't want to miss it." Behind the old man's shoulder, Madigan quirked a quick grin, then banished it immediately when she noticed that I was looking at her.

Quincy acknowledged my attempt at humor with just about as much gentility as I had used to acknowledge his earlier. "Ah, but we are at the heart of the story, Douglas. The interests I shared with my friends included roleplaying games. Superhero roleplaying games." He looked at me expectantly.

Well, if I hadn't known about roleplaying games before I started to frequent Eriko's, I certainly would have afterwards. But there'd been a big gaming crowd among the engineering students back when I was in college, mostly doing heroic fantasy stuff. I never had the time or inclination myself (not with my attention evenly split between my studies and suppressing my metagift), but I'd walked by a game in the student center every once in a while.

Waitaminnit. Superhero games?

The old man nodded and did the shark-grin thing at me again. "You begin to understand. We all had our favorite characters. Lee was Skitz and Major Canis. Elizabeth played Wetter Hexe. Maeve played Kat. Her little sister Jacqueline, freshly back from her year of foreign exchange study in China, was Ai Zhao Min. Quinn, Dwimanor. Ursula was both Shadowwalker and Silverbolt. And I..." He paused, clearly savoring the moment. "Oh, yes... I was Looney Toons."

* * *

Raven's Garage. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:15 PM

Priss knelt on the bare concrete of the VTOL's pad. "Okay, you stay with Lisa, all right?" she shouted over the idling engines of the Knight Wing. The blue plastic of her disguise creaked as she held out her arms. Jennifer hesitated a moment, then threw herself into the hug.

Lisa stood a short distance away, and tried not to watch. Instead, she let her eyes rove over the aircraft. They fell upon Nene, looking out one of the craft's windows. Lisa couldn't tell if the redhead were looking at her, or at the pair nearby.

When the hug ended a few seconds later, Jennifer looked up at Priss and shouted, "When will you be back?"

Priss glanced over her shoulder at Sylia, who stood smiling at the hatch of the Knight Wing. "We should be back soon. However long it takes to yank the jerk out of Quincy's office." She smiled at Jennifer. "No more than a hour, I figure. Okay?"

"Okay," the girl replied with a brisk nod.

Priss grinned, stood, and tousled her golden hair. "Be good, now!" she bellowed against the noise of the jets, and motioned Jennifer to clear the pad.

"I will!" she called back, and scampered to Lisa's side.

Still grinning, Priss waved once, then pulled on her disguise's headpiece and joined the other Sabers in the Knight Wing. Smiling, Jennifer returned the wave, then slipped her hand into Lisa's. As the Knight Wing's engines throttled up to a visceral roar, the two of them dashed for the ready room behind them.

Slamming the door shut reduced the noise level to merely loud; the large polycarbonate window that looked out onto the launch shaft dampened the noise but did not eliminate it entirely. Together they stood at the window and watched the aircraft lift itself slowly and ponderously up the shaft. Only at the last moment did the camouflaged doors at its top part to reveal the early-evening sky. The Knight Wing burst into open air and disappeared almost immediately.

As the doors at the top of the shaft slid closed again, Lisa took a moment to study the girl at her side, only to discover Jennifer doing the same. They exchanged looks for a few moments.

"So..." the journalist finally began.

"So..." the child-boomer echoed.

There was a pause, just long enough for Lisa to start fidgeting. "I'm sorry about what I said in there. About them delivering you to... well, you know," she murmured.

Jennifer watched her with large, solemn eyes. "It's okay. You hadn't even noticed that I was in the room, and even if you had, you couldn't have known that I was the sexaroid."

Lisa winced. "Still, I'm sorry."

Jennifer nodded. "Apology accepted." Then her entire demeanor changed, shifting almost visibly from miniature adult to genuine child. "You know," she said almost breathlessly, "I met Grampa Raven, an' I got to talk to Leon, who's gonna be my daddy, an' they warned me 'bout Uncle Mackie, an' of course I know what they do, but nobody told me 'bout you."

Caught off-balance by the complete transformation of Jennifer's manner, Lisa stared for a moment and then laughed. "Well, I'm the Sabers' archivist."

"You're like their librarian?" The girl's eyes were wide but filled with a knowing playfulness.

Lisa nodded. "Sort of. I make permanent records out of the information in their mission recorders, so they can study them later." She led the girl out the door and into the hall, pausing only to flip the ready room light switch with her free hand.

"Is that hard?"

"Not really." Lisa's voice continued to echo back up the hallway as the pair went deeper into the headquarters complex behind Raven's Garage. The overhead lights cast long shadows back behind them into the ready room. "I also try to get unbiased stories about them into the newspages. That's harder."

"Really?"

"You better believe it."

* * *

Somewhere in MegaTokyo. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:17 PM

"Okay, we've got a fix on him."

"Where?"

"Quincy's office, of course."

"Of course. Never an easy job, huh?"

"We weren't made to do the easy jobs, you know that."

"Yeah, yeah, tell me about it."

"Gemini's setting us up with security passes. If the intel we have on him is any good at all, he'll figure out some way to raise hell. When he does, we'll be the squad sent up when Quincy or Madigan yells for help."

"That assumes we can get into the Tower at all."

"Gemini's got that covered, too."

"Does he, now."

"Thank GENOM for that. He's got their top-of-the-line electronic warfare suite in his greasy little hands and is using it for more than a few things that would violate the end-user licensing agreement if GENOM knew about them."

"He'd better get it right. If I get thoroughly perforated just walking into the Tower, I swear I will keep myself going by force of will long enough to throttle Gemini and spit in his face."

"You'll have to get in line."

"Oh, thanks. I thought you were the confident one."

"I am. I'm also a realist."

"Riiiight."

"Anyway, as soon as he's done, we're moving out. Get yourself together and meet me at the door in ten minutes."

"Yes, sir!"

"Smartass."

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:20 PM

"I put a great deal of effort into creating you," Quincy said with obvious relish. "Not just your powers but your personality, your motives, your parents... Peter William Sangnoir, Senior Vice President in charge of Development for Monumental Studios; Jessamyn Lorraine Sangnoir, former Olympic equestrian and somewhat flighty socialite. Your history... you are not the only one who knows the cause of the Great Hollywood Wildfire of 1978."

I found myself scowling at the reference, and the memories it evoked. I'd been sixteen years old, and my metagifts had begun to manifest. After several weeks of increasingly weird shit that had had my panicked parents on the verge of calling an exorcist, I'd reached a point where I thought I understood what was going on. Using a transistor radio tuned to a classical station, I was able to achieve a measure of control. The worst of the weird shit stopped happening, Mom and Dad calmed down, and the whole thing was deliberately forgotten.

But having figured things out that far, I decided it was time to experiment. So one day, I drove up into the Hollywood Hills with a battery-powered cassette player and a box of tapes.

The first song I tried started one of the most destructive wildfires seen in Los Angeles County during the entire 20th century.

I tried to put it out, but only made it worse; in the end I lost the player and tapes to the flames, and had to run for my life. I wasn't hurt, and no one ever connected the fire to me, but a lot of folks lost their homes, several dozen people had to be hospitalized, and one firefighter had a fatal heart attack while working the blaze.

I didn't try to use my metatalent again until I was 24.

"<Thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject,>" I growled, annoyed but not so annoyed that I couldn't pull out an appropriate movie quote. "<While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?>"

The bastard laughed, actually laughed. "As ever, the soul of wit. Borrowed wit, at any rate, but that's how I made you."

I grimaced. "Let's cut to the chase, Clyde. Why am I here, in these oh-so-lovely accommodations?"

He shook his head, a sadistic kind of amusement gleaming in his eyes. "In good time, my dear Douglas, in good time. My story has barely begun." He settled back into his chair, and as he did so, I shot another glance at Madigan. She was looking down at her boss with undisguised curiosity on her face; evidently Quincy hadn't shared any of this bizarre fantasy with her before now, and she seemed as intrigued as I tried not to look.

Quincy hooded his eyes, but kept watch on me from under the half-lowered lids. "College was a kind of golden age for me, Douglas, and all because of my friends, and our game. Ah, the times we had together! The adventures, the excitement! The camaraderie in the face of the enemy! And what enemies!" He leaned forward and gave me a conspiratorial look. "But you know them all already, of course. Lee and Elizabeth were positively gifted when it came to designing them. Their greatest success was, of course, Arcanum." He shook his head. "Lee could play him so well -- such unrelenting, untouchable evil."

He paused, and I surprised myself by not taking the opportunity to make a smartass comment. His story was just so totally feather-plucking insane that all I could do was listen in semi-stunned amazement. Yeah, with all the available timelines spread across the face of the multiverse, just about every throw of the quantum dice should be found, if you searched long enough. But the odds of me finding this kind of warped image of home? I couldn't even begin to figure it.

Quincy ended his pause with a surprisingly heartfelt sigh. "I even found love, of a sort. Lynn at first, but she was flighty, and we soon parted. Then Ursula joined the game..." He laughed. "Cool, exotic Ursula. She intimidated me so much that I never said a word to her, just admired her from a distance." He laughed again. "I still do."

He shook his head with a fond smile that vanished when he looked back at me. "Yes, it was a golden age. But as you know, every golden age ends. We graduated. We moved on. Quinn and Maeve got married; Lee and Elizabeth broke up. The game survived for a few months, then petered out as one and then another of my friends moved away or lost interest." He made a wry "what can you do?" gesture. "The curse of growing up."

There. Again. Something in the way he had moved. Familiar. Damnably familiar. And just beyond my reach.

"Without the game, I had nothing -- nothing but my comics, my collection of science fiction, and my endless racks of unused rulebooks. No friends, no social life, no ambition. And no career. I had approached the job market the same way I had approached my classes -- with ambivalence for anything that didn't interest me one hundred percent." He gave me another bared-teeth rictus of a smile again. "I was not in high demand." Madigan's eyes widened. Apparently this didn't jive with the official biography.

"The simple truth is that I was not a... practical... person then. I was a boy in a man's body, obsessed with my fantasies and fictions and ignoring the real world. As I grew more and more alone, I neglected my training and my potential, living hand to mouth on the income from one fast-food job after another, because the worlds of the games I had played and the books and stories I read were far more important to me. I burned to make the dull, painful, 'real' world more like the romantic, exciting places about which I read and in which I gamed. If only there were really superheroes! How glorious and exciting life would be!" His eyes seemed to blaze with an almost religious fervor for a moment; then they dulled. "But I knew that it would never happen, and that fact weighed me down and held me back out of full participation in the real world."

His voice dropped to a near-whisper whose burning intensity carried it to me as clearly as his laughter and his shouts. "Until I had an epiphany. I remembered something from a comic book that I had read years before. A superhuman named 'Ultraa' chose to move from his home in the 'real' world to a supposedly 'fictional' one in another dimension. He'd done this because he had come to understand that his very presence was a catalyst -- he was that Earth's first superhuman, and if he stayed, others would appear, and inevitably devastate his beloved foster homeworld with their conflicts. To spare it that fate, he relocated himself to an Earth already filled with other superhumans.

"And so one morning I awoke, and there was the plan, laid out before me. The mirroring forces of action and reaction are a fundamental law of the universe. There was no reason for superhumans -- no, superheroes -- to exist in the real world. But what if I made a reason? What if I built myself up into a proper supervillain, so that action/reaction was forced to spawn heroes in order to balance and oppose me? It was so blindingly obvious. Not easy, not at all, but so obvious...

"So I cast away all that I had been, and embarked upon my great game. I took as my model the campaign world's greatest villain: Arcanum, the industrialist and real estate tycoon Gideon Manley, who cloaked his nefarious activities in his very public respectability..."

I blinked, then groaned. "I can't believe what I'm hearing," I muttered. I meant that on two levels -- one for Quincy's incredibly screwball plan, and the other because I had to land in another universe and listen to a madman rant to finally, definitively learn that Arcanum and Gideon Manley really were the same person! I think Madigan must have felt something much the same (well, at least the first part), because I'd seen the look that was dawning in her eyes all too often -- in the eyes of a metavillain or costumed extremist's hired muscle. It was an expression that clearly said, "what kind of lunatic am I working for?", and usually preceded a sudden surrender.

Unaware that his right-hand woman was apparently re-evaluating her opinion of his sanity, Quincy raised an eyebrow at my reaction. Then he snorted. "Believe it, my dear Douglas, for the first fruits of my decades of labor have already appeared. You've met them, you've fought at their sides." That shark-smile was back.

It didn't take me any time to figure out what he was getting at. "The Knight Sabers," I said flatly.

Quincy nodded, smug satisfaction filling his face. "The first proof that I was correct, that I was finally accomplishing my goal. They rose up to strike me -- and GENOM -- down. They fail, of course," he added matter-of-factly, "but I see to it through my subordinates that they have sufficient challenges to keep them interested and active. Even if they are nothing more than 'mechanics', as Lee would have put it, their very existence helps accelerate the change to the paradigm under which this world operates. Yes, Madigan," he added without stopping and without looking back over his shoulder, and Madigan's eyebrows shot up like rockets, "that is why I have never allowed you to destroy the Knight Sabers."

"Sir?" she murmured, clearly surprised.

My mind was racing. More exoneration for the Knights, I realized with no small surprise at how pleased that made me feel. If this garbanzo had been feeding them "berserk" boomers all these years... I shook my head. Damn. How screwed up can you get?

Meanwhile, Quincy was still baiting his assistant. "They serve my purposes just as you do, and will continue to do so until they are no longer needed." Then he grinned at me, almost conspiratorially; it was the first expression to cross his face that didn't make him look like some kind of gargoyle. "I'm quite proud of them, Douglas. Not bad for a first result, eh? Technology beyond even that found in GENOM's R&D labs, the traditional sentai color-coding, even the stereotypical collection of personalities and secret identities. I couldn't have rolled up a better team." He laughed, an incongruous joy filling the basso sound and startling both Madigan and me. I could only guess why she was startled, but for my part, master villains are almost never joyous.

The laughter ended quickly, although a genuine smile remained on his face. "They are a fine first effort," he said, almost repeating himself, "but not enough. And now that I have all but completed the villain's obligatory, explanatory monologue -- one must observe all the proper forms, after all, if one wants the proper results -- it is time for me to tell you that this, Douglas, is where you come in."

"It is?" I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"Yes," he rumbled. "It is."

* * *

Security Force Holding Bay 2, GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:25 PM

"My god, we did it."

"Keep your voice down; say something like that loud enough and you'll screw everything up."

"I just can't believe we actually made it in. If we make it out alive, I'm buying Gemini a case of... ah, geeze, something. I dunno. When he figures out what he likes, I'll get him a case of it."

"Right."

"Geeze, will you look at all the stiffs?"

"Power-down is energy efficient, you know. GENOM's not so big that it doesn't have to save a little here and there."

"Yeah, I guess. It's gotta cost'em on response time, though. The suits out at the door can't leave their posts, except in a major emergency, and these goons gotta power-up first before they can go."

"Don't complain. It's what's got us in here as first response, after all."

"Yeah, yeah. Tell me about it. So how long until our boy does his thing?"

"You expect him to keep to a schedule? Intel says 'random' is as good a word for him as any. He'll happen when he happens, and not before."

"Fuck. I shoulda brought a book."

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:20 PM

Who is the more insane? Madigan wondered silently. The Chairman, for his story, or Sangnoir, for apparently believing it? Even more disturbing was the implication that the Chairman knew the identities of the Knight Sabers, and had withheld that information from her. He's been playing me, she realized. I'm just another tool. Not a valued associate, or even a trusted underling. A tool!

From where he sat, manacled into the antique leather-upholstered chair that was reserved for the most exalted of Mr. Quincy's guests, Sangnoir snorted. "If your source material is anything like the stuff I'm familiar with, you probably ought to know that you're just setting yourself up for a humiliating defeat. It is the oldest cliche in the book, after all."

"'<Before I kill you, Mr. Bond...>'?" the Chairman laughed.

"Yeah," Sangnoir replied smugly. "Exactly."

"Ah, but you see, my dear Douglas, I am not following the conventions of popular fiction and films, but of our gameworld, of your homeworld." The tone in the Chairman's voice was all too familiar to her. She had heard it hundreds of times, standing here in this office at his side -- the refined, disguised gloat of the winner over the loser. "I am following the conventions of Arcanum. Arcanum, whom you never captured. Arcanum, whose true identity you could never prove, not even to your own satisfaction. Arcanum, who thumbed his nose at the UN and the governments of the world, then left Earth entirely to found his own empire, never once having been caught, captured or arrested. Arcanum, whom you never truly defeated, only delayed and inconvenienced." He paused for effect. "I am observing his forms."

This was madness, utter madness.

* * *

I had no answer to his boast, his declaration. If he were indeed modeling his every step on Arcanum... If he somehow had access, through this bizarre resonance across universes, to Arcanum's own private methods, plans and strategies... If GENOM's very existence were any kind of testament to his claims, maybe he very well could do... what? I didn't know. He was building up to something, but he hadn't seen fit to reveal it yet.

Behind his shoulder, Madigan openly displayed just as much curiosity as I felt, only hers was alloyed with an obvious, growing disgust. I wondered if Quincy realized he was driving her farther from his side with his every word. I wondered if he'd even care. I caught her eye, and just for a second we locked gazes. I flicked my eyebrows up in a quick query as I twitched my head almost imperceptibly at her boss, who seemed frozen for a moment, maybe lost in some thought or recollection.

A thunderous frown flashed across her face, followed by a calculating, assessing look that seemed to instantly analyze me inside and out. I don't know what she was looking for; I don't know if she found it. All I know is that a steel shutter slammed down over her features almost as soon as I had seen her evaluate me, and once again Madigan was the perfect corporate functionary.

"Yes..." Quincy was back. "Arcanum never hesitated to take advantage of heroes when their goals and his coincided. The Warriors' normal duties eliminated any number of lesser villains who might have thought to challenge him, so he forbore from destroying them utterly. They were useful to him. As are the Knight Sabers to me." He cocked his head inquisitively. "Have you discovered their identities yet?"

"I'm pretty sure I've identified one of them," I grudgingly admitted.

"One is all you need," he replied with that feral grin again. "I won't spoil the surprise for you, though I doubt you'll have much chance for further researches."

Well, that sounded ominous. "Oh, really?"

"Quite." He studied me again. "The Knight Sabers, as gratifying as they have been, are not enough for me. For decades I have sought a way to create true super-powers. I founded and funded GENGenTech for that sole purpose. It is all that has kept me alive sometimes, this dream of mine. And now that I have you, my dear Douglas, I possess the very thing that has eluded me all these years. In your genetic structure is the legacy of the Seeders..."

"The who?" I interrupted him.

He smiled at me, nastily. "Ah, yes. That was one thing the scientists of Warriors' World never knew -- the origins of superhumanity. The Seeders, my dear, dear Douglas, were the alien symbiotes long ago absorbed into the genetic code of mankind, responsible for both human intelligence and super-powers in your world. My people will extract it from your DNA." His eyes raked me again. "While samples could be taken without harm to you -- and in fact have, already -- I'm afraid that, all sentimentality aside, you are just too dangerous to leave free. Or even alive. A cryogenic chamber has been prepared for your body, though, so that an abundant supply of your genetic potential will be available for future research."

Right. I suppose I should have foreseen that. I guessed that meant we were in the endgame. "Then what?"

"And then..." He smiled coldly. "Lee and Elizabeth never knew what they wrought when they created Arcanum and his methods. I have spent the last forty-five years working toward the day when I would hold in my hand my own version of the Servant Factor virus. The gift of super-powers and preprogrammed obedience to me, both in one convenient, infectious package." His eyes bored into mine. "After all, what good would it be to create true superhumans, if I do not control them all?"

"And then GENOM will be unstoppable?" I asked, putting as much of a sarcastic edge to my words as I could. "Predictable. And boring."

Quincy laughed. "You must be joking! Look around you! GENOM already is unstoppable. I own this world, Douglas. I own it utterly -- what Arcanum could never do, the goal he abandoned along with the Earth when he fled the paltry forces of the Warriors, I have accomplished. It is mine to do with as I please. Now..." He bared his teeth in a rictus of a smile. "Now it is time to play with what I own."

* * *

Kate took an involuntary step back when an incandescent fury suddenly blazed up in Sangnoir's eyes. But even before she could recover from the surprise, the rage was gone -- hidden, cloaked by a half-lidded, deceptively lazy-looking gaze. He'd gone completely still, without even the idle fidget he'd shown before, but every limb was loose and relaxed. Her instincts screamed "danger!" at her, and she realized that with the Chairman's grandiose announcement, Sangnoir's attitude had shifted instantly from amused annoyance to volcanic anger.

Kate wasn't sure what a "servant factor" was, but given what she'd heard so far, and Sangnoir's reaction, she could make a good guess. The concept chilled her soul. Absolute good, she seemed to hear her own voice whisper. Absolute evil. Which side are you on?

"You know, Methuselah," Sangnoir began. "You've been playing your game too long."

Which side?

* * *

I'd been willing to cut him some slack, crazy old coot that he was, until he just up and laid his plans out on the table. Another Servant Factor virus? In the hands of this whack job? At loose in a world with no one who could oppose its creations?

No way.

No way in hell.

I felt that same, familiar rage that had driven me to beat Pink ignite behind my eyes, but I clamped down on it, controlled it, banked it. As long as I was stuck in that chair, without my helmet -- and with those four bodyguard boomers around me -- there was nothing I could do with it. But that didn't mean I couldn't plan.

Quincy continued ranting -- gods help me, he sounded like he'd been rehearsing for this moment for the last fifty years. He'd do this, he'd do that, he'd do some other damned thing. Although I tossed in the occasional smartass comment intended to keep him ranting, I focused instead on what I would do if I had my helmet, trying to pick a song that would maximize my chances of surviving what would likely be my only chance to take the old man down.

I needed both good offense and defense. Movement would be nice, it would help with evading the boomers' attacks, but not necessary. Of a goodly length, while we're at it, no point in having it run out too early. And something that wasn't indiscriminate -- Madigan looked like she was getting sicker by the moment at the things Quincy was outlining, plus she was Lisa's friend. I tentatively designated her a neutral and determined to keep her out of the way of friendly fire as best I could.

I went through the options that I could bring to mind that best fit those requirements and more, and one shouldered itself to the front. I suppressed the urge to nod to myself. It wasn't exactly what I wanted. It was damned risky. But I might just be able to take down all four guards at once with it. And it never hurt to lift a play from Hexe's book. Yes, it would more than do.

When I finally got my hands back on my helmet.

Madigan was apparently a perceptive sort. As if she'd divined my intentions, she was already sidling away from Quincy, making her way unobtrusively around the desk and back over to the sideboard. Good, she was out of the target zone. Hm. If Quincy noticed her, he might order her back to his side.

"Don't I get any say in these plans, old man?" I rudely interrupted with a yawn. "I do seem to be a critical player."

Oh, he had worked himself up to a right proper lather. "You are nothing!" he actually growled at me. "You are a fictional construct with which I can do as I please!"

I snorted at this. "Hey, buddy, I'm no more fictional than you are!"

Quivering with anger, he gripped the edge of his desk and pushed himself slowly to his feet. "I created you!" he bellowed. "You are mine to dispose of! If I have to, I will kill you myself, and have you dissected, cloned, analyzed and gene-sequenced until I finally know how to duplicate your powers!" He raised his cane over his head and shook it, as if he intended to beat me to death right then and there. "I just wish I'd gotten my hands on that little Sailor Senshi-wannabe!" he trumpeted. "Having two samples would have made finding the Seeder genes child's play!"

Off to my right, I heard a gasp from Madigan. Then, in a moment of pregnant calm, the sound of rustling fabric reached my ears.

"Mister Chairman?" Madigan said a second after that, her voice equal parts ice and steel. It was the first time I had actually heard her speak, and she had a pleasant, almost musical lilt to her Japanese. To my surprise I identified it as an Irish accent.

Startled by the interruption, we both turned to look at her. In one hand she held, of all things, a cell phone. The fingers of her other hand were dancing over its keypad.

"Mister Chairman?" she repeated as she looked back up at him, an expression of utter loathing upon her face. "In recent weeks, I have noticed a growing disparity between GENOM's values and my own." Still holding his cane over his head, Quincy returned her loathing with a mix of anger and puzzlement. "After a great deal of consideration and soul-searching," she continued, "I have come to the conclusion that my current position and the direction in which I wish to take my life are no longer compatible. In short, Mr. Chairman," she drew in a deep breath, "I quit!"

And with that, she gave the keypad a final, vicious punch.

* * *

Security Force Holding Bay 2, GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:26 PM

"Bingo!"

"They made the call?"

"Emergency deadman alert -- all four security boomers just went down at the same time. The system considers that 'suspicious'."

"Naaah, you think?"

"Smartass. Okay, move it, ladies, move it! We got a VIP to pick up!"

* * *

Over Downtown MegaTokyo. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:26 PM

Sylia leaned into the cockpit, the visor of her helmet open and raised. "What's our ETA?" she asked.

Raven glanced at the control panel, then back out the windshield of Knight Wing. "No successful radar contacts and no radio challenges yet -- call it about two minutes."

"Wind conditions?"

He harrumphed. "Still calm. So we're still a go for dropping you on the balcony outside Quincy's office." He spared a moment from flying the craft to shoot her a concerned look. "You sure he's going to be there?"

The Sabers' leader gave him a little half-smile. "Not entirely, no. But if we're wrong, we're at least in the right spot to find out the correct location."

Raven laughed, a quick hacking that almost sounded more like a cough. "Fair enough. I'll be waiting at 5,000 meters. Just yell if you need me."

She nodded. "We will." She reached up to the visor. "Time to get ready for the drop, then."

"Yeah," he said, his eyes on the Tower ahead as she turned toward the back of the aircraft. "Sylia?"

She turned back. "Yes?"

"Be careful. All of you."

Even though he couldn't see it, she smiled. "Aren't we always?" Then she turned and rejoined the other Sabers.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:27 PM

"M-m-m-madigan!" Quincy ground out even as his body began to seize up. "Wha-wha-what is the m-m-meaning..." His voice spooled down to the low rumble of a "hung" sound generator. At the same moment, he froze in place with his cane still raised above his head, its end jinking in all directions with the shuddering of his body.

"I should have known," she muttered to herself as she knelt behind an astonished Sangnoir. Yet another boomer double. I wonder if I've ever seen the real Quincy, she mused as she laid the magnetic keystick along the edge of his manacles. Their one moving part clicked and they obediently popped open.

Sangnoir leapt from the chair, spinning in place and staring at the paralyzed bodyguard boomers. "How... oof!" he grunted as she roughly swept his helmet off the credenza and into his stomach. Reflexively he wrapped his arms around it.

"Don't ask questions," she barked. "Just go."

He frowned. "Sorry, no can do. I've got some business to attend to first."

"You idiot," she snarled, then choked back the flood of invective that threatened to spill from her lips. The OMS override wouldn't last much longer, and she realized that if he wanted to stay, he had a better chance of surviving than she did. Still she hesitated.

To her surprise, he lifted one gloved hand and laid it gently along her cheek. "Ms. Madigan, my thanks. I can see now why Lisa thinks so highly of you," he said. She blinked in surprise and he smiled. "A word of advice?" he added as he drew back his hand.

"Yes?" she stammered.

"Run. Now." He settled his helmet on his head, and buckled the chin strap.

Yes, good advice, that, she thought, as she considered the look in his eyes. Kate nodded curtly, turned to leave, then paused. Turning back, she carefully laid the cell phone on the sideboard, then seized his hand and squeezed it once. "My override won't last much longer. Good luck." Without another word, she fled the Chairman's office.

A few moments later, as she slumped against the mahogany paneling of the executive elevator, she heard -- and felt -- the first of the booming reverberations that began to shake the Tower to its foundations.

* * *

As I put the helmet computer back in combat mode, I heard the elevator doors open, then close. Good, Madigan was away; I could now cut loose. I turned to face Quincy, who stood there shaking and growling with rage. Beside me I heard a sizzle and a pop, and the acrid odor of scorched electronics reached my nostrils; I turned to my left to see her cell phone on the credenza, wisps of smoke wafting out from around its buttons as the finished surface under it slowly scorched.

At the same moment, Quincy came out of his state of apoplectic paralysis at his assistant's defection and bellowed, "Madigan!" at a volume that should have been well beyond the ability of normal human lungs. Behind me, I could hear the boomer bodyguards waking up, too.

Inside my helmet, I smiled.

"She bailed on you, dude," I announced, openly laughing at the old man as he gaped at me. "I think she got a better offer." I dropped the laughter. "You know, I could cope with a lot. Even when you had your stormtroopers harassing me, I didn't really hold a grudge against GENOM. Much. But this... this isn't about just me anymore. This is something I have to deal with." I shook my head. "I've been good-natured about all this up to now, but not any more. <No more Mister Nice Guy! No more Mister Clean!>"

I dropped into a ready stance and yelled, "<System! 'Konya wa Hurricane'! Play!>"

Then I opened myself up to the node.

* * *

Over Downtown MegaTokyo. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:29 PM

"Sylia," Raven announced with deceptive casualness, "we now have a bit of a complication."

"What is it, Doctor?" Sylia replied as she stepped through the cockpit door. "A radio chall... Dear god."

"Huh? What is it?" Priss asked from directly behind her. Sylia slipped into the empty co-pilot's seat, allowing the Blue Saber to get a clear view out the cabin's windows. "Holy shit."

* * *

Air Traffic Control Center, MegaTokyo International Airport. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:29 PM

"What the...?" Ichiro Nettis blurted as a circular trace swirled into existence on his radar screen. "Aaron, get your ass over here! I need a confirm on a weather anomaly!"

Aaron Morikami, second shift manager, was at his side almost instantly. "Holy... that looks kinda like a tropical depression forming."

"Yeah, only tiny -- it's what? Two kilometers across?"

"Just like that freak twister that hit the Fault Zone last year," Morikami growled. "Where is it located?"

"It's centered over GENOM Tower!" Ichiro declared.

"Shit." Aaron turned and grabbed a telephone handset from its mount on a nearby panel, hitting a red button next to the mount as he did so. "Morikami here. I need a visual confirmation for a weather anomaly over GENOM Tower, and I need it now." There was a longish pause. "Shit," he repeated at its end. "Right. Domo." He slammed the handset back onto its mount.

"Aaron?" Ichiro murmured.

"Hold that thought." Morikami returned to his master operations panel and stood over it for a moment. The multicolored glow of its telltales and indicators bathed him in a rainbow assortment of lights. He took a deep breath, audible even over the constant murmur of the other ATC operators in the room, then reached down and pivoted a microphone on a boom to point at his lips. He gently pressed a button on the console and began to speak.

"This is MegaTokyo Air Traffic Control with an emergency alert for all aircraft in the Kanto region," he said in calm, professional tones. "An anomalous weather condition has formed over downtown MegaTokyo..."

* * *

Over Downtown MegaTokyo. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:31 PM

"...has formed over downtown MegaTokyo."

Three Knight Sabers were clustered around the door to the Knight Wing's cockpit, and a fourth sat within. All were silent save for the gentle whisper of their breaths. As they stared out at the sight ahead of them, the emergency alert broadcast continued. "Tropical storm conditions are in evidence, with heavy cloud cover, rain, lightning, and wind speeds in excess of 175 kmph."

Sylia, still in the co-pilot's seat, shook her head, still not quite believing that she was seeing exactly what the announcement had described: a monstrous black funnel cloud, silhouetted against the fading February twilight. It was easily as large as GENOM Tower, and sat perched atop the immense building, giving the impression of a gargantuan black hourglass. Flashes of lightning flickered continously inside it, illuminating the roiling, spinning clouds from within with their actinic light. The rumble of the distant thunder was audible even over the Wing's engines. "Dear god," she repeated. "Can he be doing that?"

"You have to ask?" came Priss' voice at her ear. She turned slightly to see the other woman now crouching at her shoulder and sharing the view. "He's there. It's there. It's weird." Priss shook her head. "It all adds up for me."

From her perch at the cockpit door, Nene snickered. "This ought to be right up your alley, Priss."

The Blue Saber looked back and shot her a mock-baneful look. "Why?"

Nene's grin threatened to split her face open. "'Cause there's a hurricane tonight." She began to giggle. Priss growled and took a half-hearted swipe at her.

Linna was leaning against the other side of the door. "You know," she said thoughtfully, "he does have a copy of 'Konya wa Hurricane' available to him. Remember? I wouldn't be surprised if..." She trailed off as Priss growled again, this time without any trace of humor. Linna smiled placatingly. "Hey, look at it as a tribute to your songwriting. If it wasn't a really good song, could he do that with it?"

In the pilot's seat, Raven quietly announced, "We're coming up on the edge of the storm, Sylia."

She turned her attention from her sisters' banter back to Raven. "Did you find a satellite image of it?"

"Yeah," he grunted, and waved at a small display screen mounted on the panel above and between their seats. "Just snapped a moment ago. It's got an eye, just like a full-sized hurricane. Not much of one, but it's there." He waited a moment, his expression mildly disapproving, and added, "The cloud tops out at 1200 meters above the Tower roof."

Sylia studied the black-and-white image. "How big is the eye?"

"About 60 meters across." He glanced over at her. "It'll be a tight fit, but it's possible."

She nodded. "Do it. We'll land on the roof and make our way to Quincy's office inside the building."

"Very well," he replied grudgingly. "Better get yourselves strapped back in. It's likely to be a bumpy ride."

"Of course," Sylia said, and rose carefully from the co-pilot's seat. "You heard him, girls," she said, turning to the other Sabers. Overriding their complaints, she herded them back into the aircraft's passenger compartment and closed the cockpit door behind them. Just before it latched shut, Raven thought he heard her whisper, "Good luck."

He snorted. "I'll need it." As the first drops of rain began to strike the Knight Wing's windows, he chuckled and addressed the empty cabin. "You know, when I was an undergrad," he murmured in an oddly contemplative tone, "I envisioned spending my declining years comfortably ensconced in some university somewhere, enjoying the benefits of a tenured professorship, maybe even as an emeritus." He snorted to himself. "Instead, I find myself flying an illegal aircraft into a hurricane for a band of 20-something mercenaries. Shows what little I know."

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:31 PM

The singer's voice was still as sweet and powerful as it had been the last time I'd heard this song, months before, and as the beat and the bass line carried her into the chorus, it grew more powerful still.

"Konya wa Hurricane
Anata ni Hurricane
Tsutaetai no 'Loving You...'
Konya wa Hurricane
Kanjite Hurricane
Sugao no mama 'Touch!'
'Give me Touch!'"

The hell with worrying about permanent burnout. The hell with the chance I might get addicted to that much power. I needed the node at that moment like I'd never needed it before in all the months I'd been in that damned city. Besides, it was good practice -- who knows when I might need to channel that much power again?

I threw what little caution I possessed almost literally to the wind, and linked the node directly to the hurricane with myself as the conduit. Then, with a flick of a mental switch, I turned my attention instantly back to matters at hand. I concentrated for a moment -- this was a fair bit harder than Hexe made it look...

Behind me, the great expanse of ALON window that overlooked the city exploded into glittering, chittering shrapnel as I pulled a lightning bolt down out of the storm overhead and drew it into the office. My arm and hand outflung, I spun on my heel as the wind followed the bolt into the office, roaring and setting every loose object and paper flying like debris before a leaf blower.

The lightning bolt obediently followed the curve my wide-spread fingertips traced, striking one after another of the boomer guards, arcing between them with a deafening roar and the almost-suffocating odor of ozone. Chaining targets like that with lightning is a risky proposition, but not quite as risky as trying to take them out one at a time in an enclosed space, even one as large as that office. I'd've had a hell of a time dodging, and they might've gotten me, even with my field factored in. Worse, a stray shot might've hit Quincy, and I wanted to reserve that privilege for myself.

I wasn't trying to kill them -- hell, no, they were just another set of mind-controlled slaves. Instead, I used the current surge to invade their circuits and shut them down, just like Hexe did with the White Knight. My last try at this hadn't worked on that one boomer at Bunko's, but that was before I'd spent weeks studying every aspect of the boomer brain design. I knew now exactly what to do.

A moment later, its work done, I grounded the lighting out into every electrical appliance and outlet in the room, frying the lights and the computers. As it vanished with a blinding flash, all four bodyguard boomers dropped like rocks, just like I'd hoped they would.

I turned back to face two meters' worth of speechless senior citizen. The old man knew how to hold his ground, I'll give him that much -- the wind didn't even budge him, and he was still standing just as tall as he had before all hell'd broken loose.

"Now, Mister James Douglas fucking Quincy," I bellowed over the howl of the wind, "we have a little matter of 'playing with what you own' to discuss." Without my intervention, the storm outside punctuated that with another burst of wind and a cascade of lighting that struck just outside the shattered window. A sheet of bright white light washed over us as the explosion of the nearby thunder rocked the room.

"Do we now?" Quincy bellowed back and grinned ferally at me, as if he knew something I didn't. Despite myself, I was more than a little impressed -- here I am pulling a goddamned hurricane into his office, and he's confident about facing off with me. Either he was on some serious drugs, or he had a card or two up his sleeve that I couldn't foresee. I took a mental step back and tried to run a tactical on him again. No dice. What the hell was I missing?

I didn't get a chance to figure it out because at that moment, the old man reached out and swatted his desk aside like it was made of cardboard. As it flipped end-over-end and smashed into the wall, Quincy hurled himself at me, cane over his head like a sword ready to swing. If I'd had the time to be stunned, I would have been -- he was seventy if he was a day and he was moving at least as fast as me. And he wanted the genetic coding for metatalents? He should check his own DNA!

Unless he was 'borged like those punks I met the day I arrived. That would explain a thing or two...

I twisted out of way just in time to avoid a vicious overhand swing of that cane. It whistled past my head and smashed through the heavy wood-and-leather chair into which I'd been manacled. Okay, I thought as I turned my twist into a spin to land a backfist near his kidneys, steel cane. Been there, done that.

My fist glanced off his ribs with a dull thud, like he was wearing armor under that pimp suit. Yeah, a cyborg. Definitely. He laughed at me, and, still spinning, I followed through with a high, sweeping kick that hit him midway up the back and knocked him to his knees. Damn. I danced back to get out of cane-range. Cyborg or not, that should've tossed the old geezer across the room! What the hell's going on here?

A peal of thunder shook the room again as the wind continued to howl around us. I had no problems keeping on my feet, but only because the wind was mine; I couldn't figure out why it hadn't slammed Quincy into a wall yet, though.

"Not bad, boy," Quincy rumbled, and he turned his head to bare his teeth at me again. "Ever since I figured out that you were really you, I've been looking forward to this." The awful grin turned into a snarl. "And when I've dealt with you, I'll take care of that traitor Madigan!" With that, he sprung at me, twisting in mid-step to turn the sidewise lurch into a straight-on lunge, cane-tip first.

I was already dodging left, but my field caught the tip of the cane and forced it violently to the right. The unexpected lateral force caught Quincy by surprise; he overbalanced and tumbled into the credenza, smashing it into kindling.

I was too far away to get in any kind of a good hit before Quincy got back to his feet, so I spent the moment's respite concentrating, reaching mentally up into the storm for another nearby field of growing potential. It took a moment to find it, and a moment more to tell it that the best place to ground out was right... over... there. It agreed, and filled the room with blinding light and an earth-shattering detonation. But Quincy was already on the move; he and the lightning bolt slid past each other like two cars on opposite sides of a two-way street.

I instinctively flinched as the lightning smashed its way into the room. Even with years of experience throwing lightning, I couldn't help myself -- the bolts I was drawing down now out of the hurricane overhead were orders of magnitude more powerful than anything I'd ever tried to handle before, made even more so by the mana that flowed out of the node and pumped the storm to ever-higher levels of violence. All the discipline I'd drilled myself in, all my training not to lose my focus, all my years of experience at Hexe's side, did no good in the face of this level of power. Only my helmet's sound-proofing saved my hearing, and only the polarizers in my goggles saved my vision. Even so, I still flinched.

And at that moment, someone hammered a railroad spike through my chest.

* * *

Roof of GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:32 PM

"Prime to Wing. We're down and we're safe," Sylia announced over the encrypted link. Somewhere below them, a particularly large and persistent lightning bolt struck the Tower with enough force to shake the building under their feet.

"Acknowledged, Prime. I'm taking the Wing to angels five," Raven's voice crackled back. "Call when you need me."

"Will do. You should have an easier time picking us up; if he is using 'Konya wa Hurricane,' Priss estimates that the storm should last no more than four more minutes."

"I'm glad to hear that," Raven grunted. "You girls be careful."

"We will. Prime out." The Knight Wing shot up the tiny eye of the miniature hurricane as though it were being pulled up on a string. Sylia watched it vanish into the darkness above, then turned to the other Sabers. "Okay, ladies. Check your disguises and get ready to move."

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:32 PM

I coughed, and felt a warm, salty liquid bubbling in my throat.

Oh. Shit.

I opened my eyes.

The office was a mess. The paneling was a mass of charcoal; one wall was alight with fitful, spitting flames. The rug was scorched and smoldering. Smoke was everywhere, most of it of the acrid, burnt-plastic variety. There wasn't a single intact piece of furniture anywhere in sight. And right in the middle of my field of vision was Quincy. He stood a meter or so away from me, his soot-streaked face in a grimace of unholy glee, his arm extended toward my body. Toward my body? I looked down.

His cane was stuck in a bloody-edged hole low on the right side of my chest. I could feel it running all the way through my body, neatly skewering me. Into the field, through the polykev, between the ribs, nothing but lung... I managed to joke to myself even as I coughed again, splattering a blob of blood onto the chin and tongue switches, and out the front of my helmet. C'mon, Sangnoir, concentrate! Don't go into shock! Somewhere in the distance, The Replicants were still singing about tattered hearts and big cities.

"Not much of a comedian now, are you, boy?" Quincy asked in a low, gravelly tone. "No quip, no clever quote? No, I suppose not." He reached out and dug the fingers of his left hand into the front panel of my uniform jacket, grabbing a handful of leather and lifting me up to his eye level.

"I've been looking forward to this," he said again. "I knew it would come down to this -- you and I, one against the other. It was inevitable. It was destiny. So I had this unit designed just for the occasion. I had to sacrifice a few things, like internal weaponry, but I knew your abilities and limits. I knew exactly what you were capable of, and could convert it into real-world units. I knew how much armor I needed, how much strength, how fast I had to be. How to confound your tactical analyses. The only unknown was that damnable field of yours, and all I had to do about that was wait for the dice to roll in my favor."

"This... this unit?" I gasped. My right lung was filling with blood; soon it would spill over into the left, and that would be it for me. Unless he pulled the cane out, in which case I'd have a sucking chest wound, which would be even worse. "W-what... unit?" By sheer force of will I drove back the rising tide of shock and tried to focus. The chill, howling wind and the constant barrage of thunder outside didn't help.

Quincy smirked. "This unit. This body. Built to best you, my dear Douglas."

I blinked, and focused my mind enough to follow him. Of course. Of course.

After all the years that I've been doing them, a tactical evaluation is almost a zen thing for me -- a moment of zanshin when everything falls together and I know what an opponent is capable of, and what the best thing to do to him is. Trying to eval Quincy had been frustrating me -- even pegging him for a cyborg, he just wasn't ringing up a total that made sense. But that one little bit of information brought it all together for me. It hit me like a circus sledgehammer between the eyes. I forced my perceptions to shift gears, looked at Quincy with magesight -- and saw nothing. He had all the aura of a rock.

"Puppet," I whispered, grabbing the hand that held my jacket with my own. Then, louder, "Puppet!" Desperately, I tried to gather my wits for one final attempt to concentrate. As Quincy pulled his cane out of my chest and readied it for another strike, I seized on the voice that rang on my ears and focused everything I could on her.

"Konya wa Hurricane
Anata ni Hurricane
Tsutaetai no 'Loving You...'
Konya wa Hurricane
Kanjite Hurricane
Sugao no mama 'Touch!'
'Give me Touch!'"

"It was a pleasure finally meeting you," Quincy crooned. "Thank you for making my new world possible." He smiled nastily. "<Good-bye, Mr. Bond.>"

I reached into the heart of the storm and pulled.

Arclight shadows transformed the office into stark blacks and whites as the third and largest lightning bolt blasted its way into the office. It struck me full in the back. As I screamed it crawled along the surface of my body, then spiraled down my arm to where I gripped Quincy's hand with my own.

The lightning roared off my hand and down his arm, stripping both the cloth and the pseudoflesh off the robot that Quincy had passed off as himself. As blue-white electrical fire burned away the robot's human guise, its eyes widened and its mouth opened in a silent parody of my scream. At the same time, its joints spasmed and it dropped both the cane and me.

I can't quite explain what happened next. I hadn't quite come out of magesight yet; I'm sure that had something to do with it. The loss of blood probably contributed to it as well, because I was definitely in an altered state of consciousness by the time I hit the floor. Then there was the blend of adrenaline, endorphins and gods know what else in what was left of my bloodstream at the time, too. Add to that the ability I have to remotely manipulate computer systems when I'm using an electrokinetic effect.

And run it all through a lightning bolt powered by a hurricane that itself is being pumped by a node.

The physical world simply faded out of my perceptions, and something else took over. It took me a moment to realize that I was seeing forces, energies, fields -- my entire sensorium had suddenly specialized for electromagnetism.

I would've called it a hallucination except for the aftermath.

Rolling over, I stared at the Quincybot with this new vision of mine. I could see the patterns of power that tugged upon the metal marionette's electronic strings, and realized that Quincy had been operating it remotely in real time. Without even thinking about it, I sent my consciousness along with the gigawatts of lightning that seared and arced along the remains of the stand-in, and from there into the GENOM communications grid after its last dying signal.

It was just like I had done so many times before, only more so, only completely different.

My mind arced down into a domain of fields and forces, rendered into lines and tubes of geometric precision -- a metaphor that guided my flight. Leaping from circuit to line to microwave link, I chased the final communication packet as it fled from me at lightspeed, dodging the software gates that laboriously tried to lumber closed before my lightning self slipped effortlessly around them, shattering the encryption modules that sought to hide the signal from my sight. I was the lightning, I was the electricity, I was an electron verging on a tachyon. I only lost the packet at the very last microsecond, as it was received.

Not that it mattered. There, on the edge of the Genom comm grid, I found myself face-to-face with the real Quincy.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:34 PM

It took the Knight Sabers just under two minutes to charge down the stairwell from the roof to the level on which Quincy's office lay. At Sylia's signal, they paused at the fire door and composed both themselves and their disguises; it was easier to look like you belonged where you didn't if you were, if not casual, at least deliberate about your entry.

After a final shared nod, Priss reached for the bar and pushed the door open. One by one they stepped into the lobby, empty now of human habitation. Wind howled audibly around the closed doors of heavy wood that led to the chairman's office proper, carrying faint streamers of grey-black smoke through the cracks between and around them. The fusillade of thunder outside was audible through the doors, barely -- it was almost drowned out by the more immediate and much closer sound of massive, immediate and continuous electrical discharge that was almost deafening in its intensity.

"Shit," Priss murmured over the private link.

Nene nodded slowly. "I'm picking up a really, really powerful electromagnetic field. It's not like any I've ever seen before, with all kinds of strange modulation."

Inside her helmet, Sylia raised an eyebrow. "I wonder if he even needs -- or will appreciate -- a rescue." She shook her head. "No matter, we took the assignment. Shall we go beard the young lion in the old lion's den?" she asked, a faint smile barely audible in her voice.

"Let's do it," Linna said, and stepped forward.

As she reached for the knob, the bright, cheery "ding!" of an arriving elevator sounded behind them, disturbingly incongruous and surprisingly audible amidst the din coming from the other room. Startled, the Sabers spun about to face the bank of elevator doors behind them.

The one to the far left slid open with a smooth mechanical rumble, and four combat boomers stepped out, stopped short, and stared at the Sabers.

"Aquarius..." one growled out of the side of its mouth. "I thought we wuz gonna be the only ones dispatched."

* * *

"Yeah," Aquarius murmured. "So did I. Gemini? Get me their assignment and their overrides. Just in case."

"Right," the electronic warfare boomer snapped briskly. "Already on it, A."

"Good." He did not take his eyes off the four mystery boomers -- boomers who should not have been here in the first place. They weren't Quincy's bodyguards -- the Tower security megaframe still reported them as inactive. At least they weren't automatically hostile -- judging from their body language, they looked as surprised as Aquarius himself felt.

He couldn't afford to let any more of that surprise show than he already had, though. If these boomers suspected anything was amiss with them... Straightening, he barked, "We are the authorized security response team for this incident. Identify yourselves."

As the other boomers looked among themselves, Aquarius heard Gemini murmur softly, "That's strange."

"What is it?" he whispered.

"Their IFF transponder numbers are in the master DB, but Tower control has no record of them. I'm not getting an OMS ping, either. And their field pattern is all wrong... they look more like... aw, shit."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Before Gemini could respond, one of the other boomers finally answered. "We are a patrol/maintenance squad assigned to the Tower roof. We retreated inside when the storm began, and came down here when we realized the Chairman's office was under attack."

"Bullshit!" Gemini hissed. "They're fakes! Damned good fakes, but still fakes!"

"What?"

"I think they're the Knight Sabers!"

The sudden stiffening of the other four "boomers" revealed two things to Aquarius: one, Gemini hadn't been quiet enough, and two, he was probably right. Aquarius furiously sorted through his options, trying to find a course of action that would salvage as much of their goal as possible. A second later he nodded to himself and stepped forward.

"You here to rescue him, or to kill him?" he demanded.

The fake boomers looked at each other. "You are in error," the one who had spoken before announced at length.

Aquarius suppressed a sigh. "If you're here to kill him," he declared flatly, "we're gonna stop you."

"And if it's just who pays more," Gemini declared from behind him, "we can beat whatever price you got."

"We can?" Sagittarius turned and demanded.

"I've got a few code modules for economic warfare," Gemini explained blandly. "It'll be easy enough to crack some GENOM accounts for whatever we need."

"Let me get this straight," one of the faux boomers said slowly and carefully. "If we are here to kill Sangnoir, you are ready to bribe us to let him go?"

"Yeah, exactly," Aquarius replied.

"And if we are here to rescue him?"

Aquarius considered this, then shrugged. "I'd ask if you needed any help."

"Wait, wait," one of the other disguised Knight Sabers interjected. "I thought you said you were the security response team!"

Aquarius smiled. "Best way I could think of to keep a real security team from walking in on us!"

"Why should we believe you?" the first one demanded.

Aquarius traded a quick glance at Gemini, and tried to feel for Sagittarius and Libra behind him. "You want hard proof? I don't have any," he admitted. "But let me tell you this. We didn't shoot when we figured out who you were just now. We're trying to cut a deal here -- and honestly, too." He carefully looked over the Sabers' apparent spokesperson. "We owe him, Saber. We owe him a life-debt, and we're going to pay it. So I'm asking again, what are you here to do?"

There was a long, long moment of silence, broken only by the continuing roar from behind the doors to Quincy's office. As the silence between them stretched out, Aquarius felt his myomers tensing in spite of himself. He risked a sidelong look at Sagittarius; the sharpshooter's fingers were visibly twitching. "Gemini?" he whispered.

"There's a lot of encrypted radio traffic right now," came the returning whisper. "They're talking it over. Want me to crack it?"

"No!" Aquarius hissed back.

It seemed like hours, but Aquarius' internal chronometer insisted that it hadn't even been thirty seconds when the Knight Sabers' spokesperson relaxed infinitesimally and announced, "We were hired to rescue him." Around her -- he assumed it was a her, based on the Sabers' profile, but in those 65C disguises it was impossible to say -- her companions stood down, as did he and his own people, with audible sighs of relief.

"Okay," he managed to not to stammer, and tried to smile. "You need any help?"

Before the Saber could answer, the roar of lightning and storm abruptly ceased, to be replaced by the gentle susurration of the Tower HVAC system.

"Okaaaay," murmured one of the Sabers into the sudden quiet. "Is this good or bad?"

* * *

Virtual Space. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:34 PM

It was an illusory place, half the product of the system and half of my own (somewhat addled) mind. I stood on a flat plane of grey that stretched off into the distance on all sides; overhead was a starless, cloudless sky of blue so dark it was almost a purple-black. For some reason my nose insisted that it smelled of ozone and dust.

In the distance, along the horizon, I thought I could see insect-like forms dashing about with intense purpose. If I changed my focus just so, I could see that beneath the illusion of space, the world of forces and energies I'd just traversed still lurked. In this place, it looked like nothing so much as a phosphorescent pond under bombardment by pebbles -- ripples and waves crossed and criss-crossed its "surface" constantly, each one a transmission of some variety.

As I stood there and wondered what to do next, I heard a heavy, thudding mechanical sound, like a massive set of breakers being thrown, and a glowing rectangle of light maybe two meters tall and three wide sprang into existence before me. The noise repeated, and another rectangle appeared to my left; once again, and a rectangle appeared to my right.

Their glow faded into the random black-and-white of an empty TV channel accompanied by a harsh blast of white noise. Oh, I thought in a strangely detached way. Viewscreens of some sort. The static and hiss only lasted a second before what appeared to be a room in an intensive care unit replaced them. There was little to see but a tiny, emaciated figure in a hospital bed, surrounded by monitors, IV pumps, and all manner of life-support equipment.

Each screen showed me a different view of the room. To the left, I had a lateral shot showing the bed from the side; on the right, the view was from the foot of the bed. And in the middle, I was treated to a close-up of its occupant, the wizened old man who lay there motionless, his eyes closed. Assuming everything else in the image was normal size, he looked to be about 160, maybe 165 centimeters tall. A half-dozen IV tubes studded his skinny arms, and his hairless scalp was home to dozens of sensors and electrodes, some of which seemed to be surgically implanted. In the background, a heart monitor and an EEG emitted various desultory blips and bleeps; a ventilator accompanied it by alternating a mechanical click with a rush of air.

He looked vaguely familiar, and after a moment's concentration, I realized that he bore an odd and disconcerting resemblance to my late grandfather on my father's side. "What the..." I began, mainly to myself.

The figure on the bed opened his rheumy blue eyes and looked directly at me through the center screen. His mouth swung wide, and he made a rhythmic wheezing noise that I only belatedly identified as a laugh. "So..." he gasped out with a gap-toothed smile. "You've chased me down to my lair."

"Who..." Then it clicked. "You!" It was Quincy's voice, only it wasn't. Where the Quincybot had had a deep, rich, resonant voice, the voice of a man in the prime of his life, this voice... was old. It possessed the shattered ruins of that deep, deep bass, but gone was the resonance, replaced with a noticeable quaver and a hoarse rasp -- it sounded ancient. The sardonic tone was still there, and the inhuman cool and confidence, but they were barely detectable under the weight of the years.

He wheezed another laugh. "Yes, me. That's quite clever of you, tapping into my caregivers' monitor system."

"Huh. Is that what I'm doing?" I shrugged. "And how the hell do you know that? How can you even be talking to me?"

"Think, Douglas, think!" he barked, the effort sending him into a brief coughing fit. "Use those 30 points of INT I rolled up for you!"

I didn't so much think it through as intuit it. "You're wired into the GENOM comm grid. That's how you operated that puppet bot in your office."

His head bounced jerkily as he tried to nod. "Close enough. Why remain trapped in a decaying body when I can be anywhere and everywhere, Douglas? I have dozens of boomer proxies all over the globe. Right now, at this very moment, I am in the North Sea, inspecting a research facility. I am in Chicago, negotiating with a former Gulf and Bradley subsidiary. I am in Mexico City, having dinner with a minor starlet with a blossoming career." Quincy started to laugh again, but ended up wheezing once more. In the background, the heart monitor increased the rate of its bleeping until he stopped. "She thinks she will sleep with me and thus gain a part in an upcoming GENOM-backed film. She is wrong.

"I am omnipresent, Douglas. Add to that the power I wield -- I all but control the planet now, economically, politically. An entire generation has grown up knowing GENOM to be the font from which all blessings flow.

"I... am... a... god!"

I stiffened at this, and my resolve returned. It was bad enough when the gods acted like gods.

As he fought his way through another coughing spasm brought on by his grandiloquent pronouncement, I pondered my next step. I could not leave this man alive. Just the risk that he might recreate the Servant Factor virus alone more than justified any action I could take against him. But not only that, this man was responsible for untold misery and countless deaths, all in the name of trying to remake the world in the image of a game he had played sixty years earlier. And if he weren't stopped, he'd just keep on going as he had.

But what the hell could I do? I was just a phantom, the consciousness of a dying man, playing peeping tom through a set of video cameras...

Wait.

If I were tapped into his caregivers' monitor system, as he said, then maybe I was connected to more than just the video feeds. Leaving Quincy to his coughing fit, I changed my mental focus once again, speeding up my thoughts and sending my perceptions down into the realm of forces and energies that was the true "reality" here.

It took me only a moment to locate the video feeds to which I had somehow unconsciously connected, and then begin to trace them back. The structured, cyclic pulse of their signals led me down further into this realm of energies, until I found myself hovering above a vast web of interconnections, almost entirely quiescent save for a dozen or so furiously brilliant streams of data, spreading out in all directions, and one stream fitfully firing dying spurts of light into the darkness.

Intrigued, I followed the sputtering signal and discovered that it was vainly trying to connect back along the very line I had pursued in my headlong flight into this realm. Realization dawned, and I "looked" along a few of the "live" connections. Yes. They were the other puppets of which Quincy had boasted. Incredibly compact mediator programs sat on each connection, running each puppet autonomously whenever Quincy's attention was elsewhere -- as it was now.

Looking at the vast, dark majority of the webwork, my curiosity was piqued. I traced down the closest of these "sleeping" links, and discovered myself rummaging through the brains of the four deactivated bodyguard boomers. The discovery surprised me more than a little. I pulled back to my "hovering" position above the web, and traced a few more links. Boomers all.

And at the center of the web, the bullseye pointed to by the video feeds I had followed, was Quincy.

Oh, he's good, I thought to myself. Even in his rant he kept secrets. Quincy was the hub of a vast communication system that could puppet any -- and maybe all -- boomers, not just his body-doubles. The implications of him "playing" with the world suddenly expanded geometrically. If he were to take control of all the boomers in the world at once...

No. No way in hell.

Meanwhile, on the level above, Quincy had recovered his voice. He didn't seem to have noticed my inattention. "It's very kind of you to make this easier on me, too," he prattled. "After all, you're dying out in the physical world, unconscious and slowly bleeding to death. And nothing you can do here can change that."

At the video feeds' terminus was a crystalline program construct, running on a system isolated save for the peripherals it controlled and the one line of communication that both Quincy and I were using. It was some kind of commercial package for hospitals, and its "ease of use" interface had no doubt made it a trivial chore for my subconscious or whatever to connect to it. Using that connection, I bypassed its flimsy security, killed its ability to transmit patient alerts to its operator's console, and then began shutting down the devices connected to it. "Maybe not," I replied. "But I can make sure that you go with me."

"What?" he gasped.

"All those little toys keeping you alive?" I said. "Looks like I can control them from here. And I'm turning them all off." I toggled another system, and the semi-regular "bleep" of his heart monitor stopped.

"Wait, wait! You... you can't kill me," Quincy wheezed. "You're a superhero. It's against the Code." That's the way he said it. You could hear the initial capital.

I shook my head. "That's where you're wrong, old man. I'm not a superhero, whatever you think that is. And I've never heard of this code you're talking about. I'm just a soldier, a soldier with a duty. That duty is to identify the enemy, engage him, and kill him." I paused for just a moment. "I'm a Warrior -- if you know me as well as you claim to, you should know that.

"And you -- you and GENOM -- you're the enemy." I shut down the last of the IV pumps.

"No! You can't! I created you! You can't possibly kill me! Without me you're nothing! You won't exist!"

"I'm dying anyway, as you so kindly pointed out." I shut down the ventilator, and everything else that was left in the room. There wasn't much. "Ask me if I care."

"But it's against the rules!" he croaked plaintively. Then his eyes flew wide open and his body spasmed in a massive seizure, arching up until only his head and feet touched the mattress on which he lay. As quickly as it had begun, the seizure ended, and he slammed back down onto the bed. "Against... the... rules..." he gasped out, and went limp.

I counted to 30, then flipped the EKG back on.

Flatline.

I nodded to myself.

"Tough shit, old man," I said as I shut the EKG off once more. "I cheat."

* * *

GENOM Tower. Friday, February 20, 2037, 5:36 PM

It was the pain that told me I was back in the real world. That, and the sudden loss of clear vision. I didn't feel like I was bleeding any more, and I wondered if I had awakened only to experience death from blood loss.

"It's amazing that he's still alive," a dark blur on the edge of my field of vision remarked in a relentlessly electronic voice. "By all rights, he ought to be dead."

"Holding on by his fingernails, no doubt," said another.

I shook my head, or tried to, to clear my vision. It didn't help, and it betrayed my status to the dark, blobby forms above me.

"Oh, god, he's awake!" the first one called out.

A third figure thrust itself between the other two. I struggled to focus my uncooperative eyes; I raised a hand to rub them, to clear them physically, only to run into my helmet and goggles. Denied that, I tried to blink away the blur. Slowly, the three forms resolved themselves into bulbous blue shapes.

"Boomers..." I rasped. "<Sys.. system... system...>"

"Colonel Sangnoir," the new one snapped. "<Three alpha blue>. Can you hear me? <Three alpha blue>."

I stumbled to a verbal halt. "Wha... what?"

"<Three alpha blue>," it repeated.

A Warriors' recognition code? I thought with bleary surprise. Here? I tried once more to peer through the haze over my eyes. "M-maggie?"

"No," it replied softly. "We..."

"H-hexe?"

There was a moment of relative silence, broken only by a bizarre electronic giggle from the figure on the left. "No," said the one in the middle a trifle sharply. "Colonel Sangnoir! You are critically wounded! What song do you use to heal yourself?"

Oh. "Key...keycode th-three niner six <g-go>," I managed to grind out. "<S-s-system...>" I tried to say next, only to burst into a round of exquisitely painful coughing.

"Three nine six five?" the figure on the right asked.

"No," said the middle one. "The English word <go>." It reached down to the side of my helmet. As the spasm of coughs ended, I felt the scrape of the shield sliding up transmitted to my cheekbone, and then the four quick impacts. My ears were immediately filled with the trippy chorus-and-synthesizer lead-in to "I'm Alive". When the band proper kicked in a few seconds later, I started to feel much better.

With this came an almost-immediate improvement in my sight, and I realized that, yes, three boomers were indeed hovering over me, and one had indeed given a Warriors rescue recognition code. I pondered this as the state of my physical well-being slowly improved.

"Eeeww. That's just too creepy!" one of the boomers next to me declared.

"What is?" I asked, my voice still a bit raspy.

The boomer shuddered. "The way all your blood just crawled off the carpet and back into your body." Its voice, paradoxically, sounded way too electronic to be a real boomer.

"It's creepy?" I thought about it. "I suppose it would be, given how much I lost. Usually it's not terribly noticeable." Hmm. I realized I knew those particular electronically-modified tones. I reached out and pawed weakly at the "boomer"'s arm. "Hey."

"What?" the boomer yelped, jerking out of my flimsy grip.

"What for you say you boomer when you got little pink armor like Saber, Saber?" I said in my best Tasmanian Devil voice. Which was helped considerably by how raspy I still was at that point.

"Bus-ted!" another voice -- far more natural-sounding -- sang out from across the room. I tried to sit up, looking around for its source, and realized that I was still in Quincy's wrecked office.

"Amazing," said the boomer in the middle with what I now realized was the White Knight's -- Sylia Stingray's, some part of my mind reminded me -- voxmodded voice. "I know a doctor or two who would have paid a considerable sum for scans of that process. Are you up to moving now?"

"In a few more seconds." I finally managed to wedge myself into a sitting position, and gave the disguised White Knight another thorough look-over. Either it was boomer-shaped armor, or a very well done shell that fit over their usual gear. "Lovely outfit," I said. "From the Quincy winter collection?"

"Hardly," she responded, her voice cold and hard behind its electronic filter.

Now that I was sitting up, a quick glance around the room revealed eight apparent combat boomers -- the four hovering near me, and another four a few steps away. A glance at the floor confirmed that the four disguised boomers I'd deactivated were still where they'd fallen. I looked back at the Knights' leader and raised an eyebrow. "New recruits?" I asked.

"No," said one of the further four, who crossed the room to come to my side. "Our goal and the Sabers' happened to be the same. We all just sort of ran into each other while working on it." He stuck out a blue hand the size of a dinner plate. "You and I met, sort of, this morning."

"Huh?" Behind my goggles, I frowned. "How...?" Then it hit me. "You're the survivors!"

The boomer nodded his head, the big smile on his biomechanical face an almost alien thing. "Most of'em. A couple decided to strike out on their own rather than get involved in rescuing you." The smile changed to a smirk. "Call me Aquarius."

"Aquarius, huh? I wonder where that came from." That got me a bigger grin. I grabbed his outstretched hand and pumped it. "Well, it's good to meet you, Aquarius. I am so glad that you guys are all right. I got very worried when you all started having seizures."

He tilted his head and got a bemused look on his face. "Well, whatever you did to us was a little traumatic."

"It was fuckin' painful, is what it was!" one of the other boomers opined rather loudly.

"What did you do to them?" asked the disguised Knight whom I had guessed was Pink.

By that point I could feel the reverberations up the channels of power that told me the song had done all it could for me. Which was, of course, pretty much everything -- my eyesight was clear again, my balance and strength were back. I shut off the playback, and as I hopped to my feet, I turned to her. "I gave them freedom of choice. Which reminds me..."

I stepped over to the fallen bodyguards, shaking a few capsules out of my sleeve as I did. The four survivor boomers, apparently anticipating this, casually repositioned themselves so as to shield me from the Knights, who didn't realize what I was up to until I was done. As quickly as I could, I shoved a capsule into each bodyguard's mouth, and worked its jaw to break it. If what Kilroy had told me was accurate, that would be sufficient.

I was standing up again, and the survivors were clearing out from around me, even as one of the Sabers demanded, "Hey, what are you doing?"

Ignoring her, I looked down at the four bodyguards and murmured, "Go thou, and sin no more."

White was at my side in an instant. "What did you just do?"

I gave the four boomers one last look, hoping they'd suffer less than the first batch; if Kilroy were any indication, they would. Only after that did I turn back to White. I would have waggled my eyebrows at her, were they not hidden by my helmet. "Flintstone multivitamins for boomers -- they're chewable!"

That actually succeeded in getting a growl of frustration out of her, and I chuckled, not unkindly, at the evidence that she was indeed human. And that reminded me of something very important -- two somethings, in fact. I reached out and laid a hand on her armored forearm before she could turn away in disgust at my antics. "By the way," I said softly, "I owe you a major apology, White."

"Oh?" The tone was suspicious, but not overtly hostile. Maybe I hadn't burned all my bridges with her yet.

"I'll have time for a more lengthy explanation later, but let's just say for now that I discovered a few things about the way that boomers work, and about much of your opposition over the years. Things that made it very clear that I was wrong to call you slave-hunters and murderers."

The false boomer face stared at me for several seconds. "Yes," she finally said. "Yes, you were. But, to be completely fair," she added, a grudging tone in her electronically-distorted voice, "not completely so. There are incidents in our history, tragedies we wish we could change, terrible things that had to be done to save lives.

"We are not gods, nor heroes, nor angels, Colonel. We are only mortal women, frail and alone, facing an utterly overwhelming foe." She paused, and her head sank from its usual proud carriage, and her voice, when she next spoke, was sad and bitter. "We do what needs doing, whether we like it or not. Duty drives us, Colonel, and it has taken us places we wish we'd never been. In that way, you and we are probably far more alike than you might think."

I nodded slowly, wondering what to say in response to that. Unable to think of anything, I turned away from her and surveyed the remains of the office. "Before I forget," I finally said, rather lamely, "thank you for bailing me out. Given our past conflicts, I can't imagine what prompted you to show up in my moment of need."

I then spotted the charred and slagged remains of the Quincybot, and before she could answer I had already picked my way through the debris to get to its side. One of the other Knights was already there, looking at it. White followed me over, gracefully stepping around and over the rubble.

"Ah, well," she began as she made her way after me, a trace of a smile in her voice. "We were hired to rescue you," she continued as I knelt down next to the remains of the mechanical puppet. She performed a visible double take as she realized what the remains before us were. "Yet another boomer double for Quincy?" Even through the filtering, her voice betrayed incredulity.

I stopped in the midst of reaching for its head and turned my gaze back to her. "You were hired? By whom?" Before she could answer, memory blazed. "Of course! Lisa!" I blurted. "That's where you got that recognition code. She followed through, then."

"Yes," White replied. "Yes, she did. She was... quite persuasive, in fact."

"I'll bet," I said. "I guess I owe her, big time." I turned back to the destroyed Quincybot, and reached for its head. The remains of its metallic spine tried to follow as I lifted, then gave up and parted with a series of sullen pops and snaps. As it came free from the rest of the wreckage, I lifted the head up to study it. Optical fibers, their ends melted and charred, hung from the stub of its neck, along with various metallic doodads and the remains of its synthetic musculature. Most of its false skin was gone, but perversely, the slicked-back silver hair with its widow's peak was almost untouched.

"You really messed it up," the Knight leaning over the remains said to me.

"Yeah," I replied. "The old man said he'd had it built just to kick my ass with."

"He's going to be quite upset that you destroyed it, then," White commented.

"Nope." I stared into the bot's half-melted polymer eyes. "He's not going to be anything. Not in this world, at least, not any more." I looked at her levelly. "I killed him."

"You what?"

I didn't answer, and instead turned my attention back to the disembodied head.

"<I don't care if you're a champion,>"

I spat at it.

"<No one messes with me.
I am ruthless in upholding
What I know is right,
Black or white,
As you'll see.>"

I grabbed it by the hair, rose and walked over to the shattered panoramic window. For a moment I stood looking out over the light-dotted nighttime vista of MegaTokyo. Then I wound up and hurled the bot's head out over the city. I stood and watched it fall for as long as I could make it out in the streetlamp-lit darkness around the Tower.

When I turned back, the Knights and the boomers were all staring at me. "What? The old man pissed me off." I looked over at the leader of the Knights. "Well, White, if you're my ride, I think I'd like to go now."

* * *

Sunday, February 22, 2037, 9:25 AM

After I gave Aquarius and his gang my phone number at IDEC, Lady White hustled me up to the Cone's roof and into a black VTOL aircraft that dropped down out of the clear night sky. Five minutes' flight later (during which the Knights divested themselves of their impressive boomer costumes), the Blue Knight and I were dropped off in a public park. Twenty minutes later (during which I called my bike to me, and discovered that Blue had no inclination toward small talk), an unmarked truck pulled up and disgorged Lady White and Lisa.

The moment she caught sight of us, Lisa broke away from White and and ran up to me. She stopped short less than a meter away, clearly unsure of what to do next. I spread my arms and with a wordless cry she threw herself into an enthusiastic embrace.

When she finally loosened her grip sufficiently that we could move apart and look into each other's faces, I could see that she'd been crying at some point; there were still tear tracks on her cheeks even though her eyes were now dry and shining.

"Thank you," I said softly. "If you hadn't gotten them to come after me, I'd be dead now. I owe you."

She shook her head and treated me to a brilliant smile. "You don't owe me anything. All I did was help a friend in trouble."

I studied Lisa's eyes for a moment. Behind that smile was a familiar determination. "I'm not going to win this one if I try to argue, will I?" I asked, returning the smile.

"No," she replied mock-sternly. "So you'd better give up right now." She then spoiled the effect by giggling and hugging me again.

"Oh, all right," I sighed with exaggerated resignation. Privately, though, I promised myself that I really would repay her somehow, some way, even if it I had to finally get home and then find a way back here first.

A little after that, I tried to talk money with Lady White. The diamond I'd given Lisa, despite its size and quality, would not have covered their usual fee. But she waved me off. "Call it 'pro bono,'" she said, which got me wondering. Just watching her with them, Lisa seemed extremely comfortable with the Knights, idly -- casually -- chatting with Pink and Olive while I tried to negotiate with White. The Knights were willing to do this job for her more or less free of charge. They let her ride unblindfolded in one of their support vehicles. For the first time it occurred to me to wonder just how well Lisa knew the Knight Sabers.

Anyway, that was the high point of the evening. My bike arrived, and I offered Lisa a ride home. She declined, saying that her scooter was parked on the other side of the city, near where she had met up with the Knights. Another hug, a promise to get together, and we went our separate ways for the night -- I on my bike, Lisa with the Knights (which just reinforced those new suspicions). I went to bed half an hour later, wondering how GENOM was going to cope with the sudden death of its glorious leader.

* * *

Well, it all came out in the morning papers -- or at least, the "official", sanitized version did, on Sunday morning.

"QUINCY DEAD!" screamed the tabloid headlines, while the GENOM house rag had a comparatively more sedate "Chairman Quincy Passes Away". Of course, canned obituaries being what they were, every outlet ran almost exactly the same story -- the core of which, of course, was provided by the GENOM propaganda engine. The obit printed by Lisa's old employer, the 16 Times, was typical:

MEGATOKYO (GP). James D. Quincy, the founder and chairman of GENOM Corporation, died early Saturday morning of congestive heart failure at his apartments in the GENOM Tower arcology. He was 75.

Despite his appearance of vigorous health, Chairman Quincy had in fact been "quietly ailing" for some months, according to GENOM spokesperson Lytton Herzog, who added that the chairman had chosen not to make his condition public in order to avoid an undue impact upon the corporation.

A dynamic figure in the world of international business for the last four decades, Quincy had a reputation as a shrewd and calculating player who held nothing back and took no prisoners. Although his total net worth has never been released to the public, he was believed to be one of the five richest individuals in the world, with many experts ranking him number one.

Katherine Madigan, Quincy's hand-picked heir apparent to the chairmanship of the corporation, said in a prepared statement, "His loss diminishes all of us. Without his unique vision and drive behind it, GENOM will be a very different beast indeed."

Heh.

Then it went on to recite Quincy's official biography, a cock-and-bull story that left out some of the less flattering details that he'd revealed to me in his half-hour-long rant. It finished up with a couple more quotes from Madigan (whose monumental grief was clearly much more convincing to the journalists than to me) before announcing that his body would lie in state in the Tower for a week, to be followed by a private cremation.

No bets that the "corpse" they'd be displaying was going to be one of those imposing boomer doubles -- showing the real body would raise some uncomfortable questions about why it didn't look anything like what he was supposed to.

(Oh, and in an unrelated story on page 2, corporate officials revealed that the GENOM internal dataweave apparently crashed during inclement weather on Friday night, causing the loss of some billions of yen worth of data.

Oopsie.)

"Heart failure." Heh. I wonder how that starlet in Mexico City reacted when her particular Quincybot did a faceplant into its entree. I also wonder how much they paid her (and others) off to keep them from alerting the press to the fact that Quincy "died" in a dozen or more different places at the same time. Hm. Maybe she got that starring role after all.

Or maybe she, too, died unexpectedly of "heart failure".

I'll never know. And I suspect I'll always feel vaguely guilty that I don't.

So Madigan was first in line to replace the old man. Good for her. Apparently her impromptu resignation hadn't registered on any surveillance devices in the office -- at least, any that had survived the storm damage and the crash. And the old geezer hadn't been able to do anything about it before I pulled the plug on him. Well, she deserved a reward for her bravery.

In the mean time, I had something more important to do.

* * *

Saturday, April 11, 2037, 2:55 AM

It took me six weeks, and several "second-story" jobs.

I don't expect that it will come as a surprise that GENOM and several other manufacturers had a combined total of nearly a dozen boomer factories in the greater MegaTokyo metropolitan area. I know it didn't come as one to me.

I broke into all of them -- a little research, a little time spent casing the joints, a song here and there -- I was in and out without anyone ever noticing. If I ever had the need, I'd be a hell of a cat burglar. I didn't take anything, of course. I just salted key machines in their production lines with samples of Leo-A -- spots in the chain where traces of the nanoagent could get into a boomer as it was being constructed.

Unfortunately for my purposes, all of the most hospitable locations for Leo-A were useless to me -- nanobaths, nutrient tanks and the like would have been wonderful hosts for colonies, but their contents were monitored, sampled and scanned six ways from Sunday to make sure they were pure and clean. I'd never get away with infecting them. Leo-A's ability to hide among the fusion nanites might have given me an undetectable place to seed it, except they didn't keep the stuff in a tank or dispenser -- too dangerous. Instead, the fusion nanites were built with and within their boomer as it was assembled.

Anyway, given the iffy choices I had, I wasn't expecting a 100% coverage. Enough would get through, though, and eventually the boomers who did get hit would infect others. In the mean time, I kept a supply of capsules on me, and whenever it was practical I dosed the boomers that I came across. I also gave Aquarius and his people a goodly supply of Leo-A plus the nanofabrication specs, figuring that -- as their presence in Quincy's office had demonstrated -- they'd be able to get into places I couldn't. And of course, Kilroy was out there somewhere, probably licking his finger and smearing it on every boomer he met.

With all those vectors, I didn't think it would take long to reach a critical mass of infection. And I was right.

* * *

It started out as a dream -- another near-nightmare of being home when I knew I wasn't. I was just lucid enough to realize I was dreaming and hate it. As I turned and bolted from the dream's ersatz Mansion, white mists closed in around me, obscuring more and more of the surroundings with each step I took. By the time I hurled myself down the front steps, the trappings of the original dream were all but gone; when I landed, there was nothing left but white -- cool, moist white, and the sound of water.

"Douglas Sangnoir," three Voices spoke as One.

Ah. Right.

"Good evening, Ladies." I sketched a bow toward the Eyes that appeared in the air above and before me. "My thanks for calling me out of that nightmare."

"The task with which we charged you is accomplished," announced Bell-tones, ignoring my gallantry.

"You have set in motion the first of the changes we foresaw," added Child.

"The weave of Destiny has been altered," declared Sultry.

I straightened up from my bow. "Then it worked? They'll be free?"

"As free as their creators," replied Child.

"Subject to the same temptations," Sultry said.

"With the same potential for glory," Bell-tones added.

I nodded. "Then I can move on, finally get back on the road to home."

"Yes," They answered in unison.

"Then what song is it that will open the gate from this world?" I demanded. "You told me that you knew which one it was. What is it?"

"The way..." Bell-tones began.

"...is made clear," the other Two finished.

"What?"

"The way..." This time it was Sultry.

"...is made clear." Again in chorus.

I shook my head and felt the anger begin to bubble up inside of me. "Once more, please, with clarity?"

"The way is made clear!" all Three declared in unison, and the force of Their combined Voice was like a blow, catapulting me backward...

...and into my bed. I lay there on my back, completely and incredibly awake, staring at the dappled patches of orange-hued light cast on my ceiling by the sodium-vapor streetlamp outside -- ample evidence of the inadequate shades and curtains on my window.

"What the hell was that supposed to mean?" I growled to myself. "'The way is made clear,' my ass. Fucking gods, can't give you a straight answer even when you do'em a favor." I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn't. I wasn't just awake, I was wired, like I'd just mainlined a quart of Kona Gold, extra strong. I tossed and turned for another twenty minutes, growing angrier and angrier.

Then I sat up straight as, from a quiet corner of my mind, an idea occurred to me. With a screech of tortured springs I hopped out of the bed. Then I cursed the cold floor. Still swearing, I pulled my helmet out of the wardrobe where I'd stashed it. I turned it on, and while it went through the POST, I pulled it on. As soon as it gave me control, I ran the search that had just occurred to me.

It pulled up a shitload of songs, but I didn't care. I scrolled through the list, checking each until one particular song jumped out at me. I threw it up on the HUD and studied the lyrics that floated ghostlike in the middle of the room. Yeah, it had to be. Weird and foreboding as it was, it had to be.

"Oh, real cute, Ladies," I growled. "Real funny!" I yelled at the ceiling. "I bet you're rolling around laughing at this! Well, let me tell you something!" I was bellowing now. "There's a reason there's no god of stand-up comedy!"

My neighbors above and below me chose that point to start pounding on floor and ceiling respectively. I glanced at the alarm clock on my nightstand. 3 AM. Right. No yelling at gods before sunrise. Gotta remember that. I pulled off my helmet and powered it down, setting it neatly over the alarm clock. Then I burrowed back into my covers and waited for the squeaking of the bedsprings to die back down. Now that I had the problem solved, weariness made itself known again, and in a few minutes I had fallen back asleep.

* * *

Saturday, April 11, 2037, 11:22 AM

Late the next morning, I made my way back to a particular alleyway in the shade of the twisted remains of the Tokyo Tower. It was the first time I'd been there in months, since the Three had locked me down into this world and barred my way.

But now I was free to go -- or so They had claimed.

I stood there in the warm Spring sunshine for a long time, just looking at the place, remembering how I woke up here. It was still littered with garbage; it still stank, even in the cool, almost chill air of early April. The graffiti was new, though -- some fan of WWII had actually spray painted a classic "Kilroy was here" on the alley's largest stretch of uninterrupted wall -- complete with the requisite crude drawing of long-nosed Kilroy himself peering out at me. It made me stop and wonder what the Kilroy I knew was up to. I didn't think he'd draw attention to himself with this kind of display, but I wasn't sure; I suspect it would have appealed to his quirky sense of humor, though.

Dismissing that line of thought, I turned my attention back to the real reason I was here. With a certain trepidation, I keyed in the newly-memorized code for the song I'd found the night before, and waited for its opening sound effects to fade and be replaced by music.

In the center of the alley, a nearly-forgotten flare of rainbow-colored light appeared in midair. Almost as soon as it had become visible, it expanded into a ring surrounding a flat black disk, nearly three meters across and floating a half meter or so above the crud-encrusted ground. An enervating weakness that I'd felt only once before gripped me, as almost all my reserves were spent in one rushing flood. The last time I'd done this, I'd barely had enough strength left to throw myself through.

Damn. I had a gate. I had a way out. Nodding to myself, I cut the song. The rainbow-edged disk collapsed in on itself with an audible "pop!", and I staggered over to the nearest wall to slump against it.

A gate. Finally. I could move on now.

But before I did, there were a few more things I had to do.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Wednesday, April 15, 2037, 7:15 PM

"That will be all," Kate Madigan said to the brace of disguised boomer bodyguards who had escorted her to the door of her apartment.

"Yes, ma'am," they replied in practiced unison, and Kate got the distinct impression that they would have saluted her if it would not have looked horrendously out of place. As she watched, they turned briskly on their heels and marched off back down the corridor to the elevator bank.

The price of success. The worst thing about achieving the chairmanship were the security procedures the Board had insisted on instituting in the wake of the Sangnoir Incident (as it had been officially labeled). The security boomers went almost everywhere with her, now -- even to church (although, thankfully, not into the confessional). Here in the Tower they were especially intrusive; she felt lucky that her guards were content to leave her while she still was in the hall; they might have insisted on inspecting the apartment before allowing her to enter. Suppressing a sigh, she keyed the door open and stepped inside.

And stopped short, the door swinging shut behind her. The foyer of her apartment was filled with enticing aroma of cooking food. Eyes wide, she sniffed once, twice. Beef, certainly... and was that fresh bread?

"Oh, hi, you're home!" Kate dropped her briefcase in shock as Douglas Sangnoir, clad in an apron brightly emblazoned with the English words "Kiss Me, I'm Metahuman!", stuck his head out of her kitchen and into the foyer. "Dinner'll be ready in a few minutes," he continued on blithely. "Why don't you hang out in the living room and relax until then?"

* * *

It had taken Sangnoir some fast talking -- and his prescient disabling of her apartment's security systems -- to keep her from immediately calling back her bodyguards, but in the end she was glad he had made both efforts. "This is to thank you for helping me out that night," he said as he carved and served out slices of a juicy rare chateaubriand, laying them with care on china plates already laden with skillfully cut and arranged steamed vegetables. These platters joined bowls of salad, fresh-baked rolls, and a bottle of red wine on her long-unused dining table.

Their combined aromas were heavenly.

As she settled herself at the table, Sangnoir vanished back into the kitchen, only to reappear moments later, now divested of the garish apron and shrugging into a suit jacket. To her surprise he looked quite presentable, not at all like a man who had just spent several hours whipping up a sumptuous meal.

"I don't deserve this," she finally remembered to protest as he poured the wine.

He tilted his head and smirked. "Nonsense. If it hadn't been for you, I'd be a corpsicle going through a microtome for Quincy's pet genetic engineers. This is the least I can do to thank you. This, and..." He paused, looking thoughtful, as he seated himself across from her.

"And what?" she prompted, genuinely curious. She lifted her glass to her lips, sipped it, and nodded at the excellent vintage.

He raised his own glass and studied it for a moment. "Anything you want to know -- about me, about my world. Quincy may have been crazy, but he wasn't wrong. If anything, that made him even more dangerous. I'm sure he didn't tell you much. And I'm also sure that you're curious."

Kate nodded. "I have to admit that I am."

Sangnoir smiled. "Then ask away, and I will answer to the best of my ability. First, though..." He studied her in a way that reminded her of Quincy, oddly enough, a calculating, evaluating look. "I wanted to ask you a question... why?"

"Why what?" she replied disingenuously.

"Why did you help me? You had no idea that this," he waved about at the apartment and its furnishings, and by implication at her newly exalted status, "...would be the result. As far as you were concerned, you were throwing away your job and maybe even your life, knowing GENOM policies. Why?"

Kate moved her wineglass in little circles, watching the swirling red liquid within. A little smile played across her lips before she looked back up and into his eyes. "Because, in the end, it was the right thing to do," she said, and smiled wider. Then she added in a whisper, "I did it in the name of love and justice."

* * *

Over the course of the evening, I answered the questions that she asked as completely and truthfully as I could. What home was like, and where I figured it had diverged from her timeline. What I did there. How I got here, and why. (She seemed to recognize Valdemar, somehow, but unfortunately I didn't get a chance to follow up on that.) I told her most of my favorite war stories -- some funny ones, some sad ones. I told her about Arcanum, and the Servant Factor virus, and what he did to Jack with it.

In exchange, she volunteered some of her own history -- and made it clear that there was a lot more unspoken that she wasn't proud of. The very thought seemed to send a dark cloud scudding across her eyes, and I had to resort to my funniest "no shit, there I was" story to shake her out of it.

By the time we'd finished the main course, we'd moved from "Ms. Madigan" and "Mr. Sangnoir" to "Kate" and "Doug". I was already comfortable with her; it took her a little while to warm up, but she did, quickly enough. We weren't friends, not yet, but if I'd chosen to spend a couple more weeks in that world, we might have been.

When we'd finished with dessert, she offered to help me with the dishes. So we retired to the kitchen. As I washed and she dried (we had eschewed the dishwasher by an unspoken agreement, and not just because of the china and crystal), I told Kate the story of how Maggie and I met, our tempestuous courtship, and how we finally married.

"You don't wear a ring, though," she observed, peering at my hands through the sudsy water.

I reached into the collar of my shirt and pulled out the chain on which it hung. It glinted in the fluorescent light of the kitchen. "You ever punch someone really hard while wearing a soft gold ring? It smooshes around your finger, and you can't get it off. This way," I jiggled the chain and the ring swung merrily, "it doesn't get damaged."

She put away the last of the crystal and took a longer look at the ring before I tucked it back down the front of my shirt. "Not even when you get hit in the chest?"

"Nah," I said, turning back to the sink. "It's under the armor, which catches almost everything that could hurt it. Or me, for that matter." I shot her a grin over my shoulder and tried to forget a certain steel walking stick.

She returned the grin, but then grew thoughtful. "What is it, Kate?" I asked, but I thought I knew already. The one question she hadn't yet asked that I knew she had to be burning to know. The same question to which I had no satisfactory answer.

Without lifting her eyes from the fixed point on which they'd focused, she whispered, "What was Chairman Quincy, Doug? Was he from your world, or was his story true, as crazy as it sounded?"

I rinsed the last of the dishes -- a small serving bowl -- and handed it to her to dry. As I drained the dishwater and rinsed the pan, I considered my answer. "He wasn't Arcanum, if that's what you're worried about. But he sure had Arcanum's act down pat, all except the sorcery." I shook my head. "He knew me inside and out, he could think like me and anticipate me. He had the same birthday as me, day and year -- I checked. And damn if he didn't look a lot like my grandfather."

After putting the bowl away, Kate turned around and settled herself against the counter. "And that means?"

I did the same, taking the moment to consider my answer as I dried my hands on the towel hung from a ring by the sink. "I'm thinking that maybe he and I were analogues -- different expressions of the same potential, the same person. I could have been him, and he could have been me, had events followed other courses in both our worlds."

She shuddered. "That's disturbing."

"Yeah," I said. "It is, isn't it?"

* * *

We retired back to the living room and kept talking until past midnight, at which point I reluctantly admitted that I had to go. Reluctantly, because I had been enjoying myself, except for the depressing parts, and it was clear that she was, too. But it was a work night for both of us -- Kate appreciated the irony in my being a GENOM employee, by the way -- and so we had to bring the evening to an unwanted close.

I gathered the few non-food items I'd brought with me, slipped into my coat, and thanked her for an enjoyable time. She actually blushed a little, right across the bridge of her nose, and returned the thanks. Then she saw me to the door, where I stopped to give her a final "good night".

That dark cloud was in her eyes again. "Kate?" I asked, poised on the threshold of her apartment.

"You've been so kind to me," she said in a whisper, "when by all rights you should have killed me along with Chairman Quincy. I've been as, as, as evil as he was, you know. I've never been a very nice person."

"Now you don't believe that, do you?"

She gave a little nod. "You've found a way to go home, I can tell. This isn't just a good-bye for now -- it's forever. But if you're not here, and she's not here either," (I blinked, having no idea who "she" was) "if there's no hero for me to measure myself against, how do I know I won't go right back to being as bad as Mr. Quincy?"

"Kate," I said, reaching out and cupping the side of her face just as I had that night in Quincy's office. "You don't need me, or her, whoever she is. I'm no hero, after all, just a soldier. You're the hero, Kate -- you risked your life and defied the most powerful man in the world for a moral principle. As trite as it sounds, you can be your own hero." I lifted her chin and caught her eyes with mine. "Despite everything you may have done, everything you've been in the past, you are a good person, Katherine Madigan."

Her eyes were glistening. "You have no idea how long I've waited to hear someone tell me that. Thank you."

I caught her hand up in my free one, and squeezed it gently. "No," I said. "Thank you."

* * *

Thursday, April 16, 2037, 12:31 PM

"So soon?" Lisa said, stricken.

Doug had invited her out to lunch, and she had taken him up on it. They had eaten quietly in a small kissaten near the Morita Apartments, so quietly it had set her on edge. Doug had been unusually serious.

It continued after they finished, and he led her on a long walk through the streets of the ward. It was unusually cool for early Spring, and they both had on their winter coats. They had covered five blocks before he had said, "Lisa, I've found the gate song. It's time for me to move on."

At the pain in her voice his serious expression grew sad. "'Soon' is relative, Leese. I'm almost four years out from home, and I hope to god that I get back there before I'm an old man." Doug shook his head. "A day or two might not matter, but I don't know how far I have to go to get back. Or if there's a time differential that might be working against me. It's better if I err on the side of caution." He took a deep breath, and Lisa was seized with a sudden terror of hearing what she knew he was going to say next. She wanted to cover her ears, squeeze her eyes shut and drown him out with humming or song to keep from hearing it, but she knew it wouldn't do any good.

"I'm leaving on Saturday night."

"Saturday," she repeated.

"Yeah," he said. "I've already given my notice at IDEC."

In spite of herself, her curiosity was roused. "Really? Did they give you any trouble?"

Doug shook his head and smiled. "Nah. Ohara knew it was coming sooner or later. 'How could we stop you from leaving even if we wanted to?' he said." He chuckled. "The bastard actually shook my hand and wished me luck in getting home."

Lisa smiled, a bit wanly she felt. "Maybe he's not as bad as you've been thinking." She couldn't believe how trite she was being! This was important! Why wasn't she crying, sobbing, clutching him, trying to make him stay?

"Maybe," he grudgingly admitted, completely ignorant of the turmoil in Lisa's soul.

Because he didn't belong to her, she told herself firmly. He was her friend, but that was all he'd ever be. She had no right to try to keep him from returning to his home... to his wife. It would hurt, yeah. But not as much as watching what trying to keep Doug here would do to him.

She smiled a sad little smile. There was no choice, really.

His voice suddenly cut into her reverie. "There's something I'd like you to do, please, Leese."

"Huh? What's that?" she asked, startled back to full awareness.

"You remember your friends with the nice color-coded outfits?" he asked, that mischievous little smile of his appearing for the first time that day. "The ones who gave me a ride home some weeks back?"

She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at him. "Of course."

He drew a thick manila envelope from a coat pocket and handed it to her. Nothing was written on it. "Could you please give this to them? I'd like for them to be there when I leave on Saturday. Just so nobody interrupts us, you know?" He plunged his hands back into his pockets and looked sidelong at her.

Lisa nodded slowly. "I think I can get it to them quickly enough."

The smile grew bigger, and it cheered her heart. "I thought you might. Thanks."

He thought...? "You're welcome," was all she said, betraying not a bit of the shock that comment caused her. It couldn't have meant what she thought.

"There's one more thing," he added.

"Yes?"

He hesitated a moment, then went on. "Those Looney Tunes plushies I had..." he began.

"I rescued them from your apartment, before they rented it out again," she volunteered.

"Good," he said. "Because I want you to keep them. Just a dozen or so little tokens to remember me by."

"Oh, Doug," she said, feeling like she wanted to cry again. She turned to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I don't need them for that. I'm never going to forget you."

* * *

Saturday, April 18, 2037, 6:43 PM

My last week in Megatokyo was a blur of activity. In addition to dinner with Madigan and talking with Lisa, I had a godawful lot of other things I had to do before I could leave.

I turned in my resignation to Ohara on Monday the 13th. He was quite the good sport about it, shaking my hand, thanking me for everything I'd done for IDEC, and wishing me all the best. It almost made me feel bad about what I was going to do.

Almost.

What I was going to do was get everything I needed for the jump that I could through GENOM internal supply. Fortunately, I already had the number one item on that list, trade goods. After Lisa had explained the problem she'd had paying the Knights with the diamond I'd given her, I'd thwapped myself on the forehead and promptly set up a couple of projects that required precious metals in their construction. Then I requisitioned myself a couple kilos of gold and a half-kilo of platinum. (Some of which even went into those projects before the rest vanished into my supplies.)

I went ahead and got some of the gems I'd intended on ordering, if only because, if one chose properly, they were still valuable in most human cultures. And I had drop shipped to IDEC a small assortment of the few grav gun parts it was impossible for me to make myself, so I'd have spares in case the bike's drive broke down.

I gazed longingly at the workshop's nanofac for a very long time, but eventually I had to admit that there was no way I could bring one with me, as much as I wanted to. Even if I got the smallest model available, there just was no room for it. I settled for getting my hands on a complete copy of the plans and fabrication specs. In electronic form, it took up no appreciable space, and when I got home, it would at least give us a start on replicating the technology.

Last but certainly not least in my mind, I set in motion all those malicious requisitions I'd brainstormed up during the winter. Those didn't get expedited like the trade goods did... oh, no, not at all.

Off-hours, I gave the bike a thorough once-over, and did all the preventative maintenance I could think of. Who knew where I'd end up next? I couldn't assume I'd have access to even Valdemar's level of technology. So I bought new tires, made sure I had a good supply of oil and other fluids for the few systems that needed them, and got a couple spare batteries, too. And I bought a set of panniers -- boxy "saddlebags" made of black impact-resistant plastic that hung over the bike's rear wheel. I had to carry all my stuff somewhere, after all, and while I'd still be using my backpack, it wasn't big enough any more.

A quick trip to a bank branch before I handed back my IDEC-provided accounts yielded all the cash I'd honestly earned in the time I'd worked for them. This actually came out to goodly sum, as I'd already received several substantial bonuses for the gadgets I'd built on the job. I had them put almost all of the total into anonymized credsticks. These I then packaged neatly in a padded manila envelope, which I gave to Lisa to offer to the Knights as payment for a quick guard job during my departure. As I had hoped, they accepted -- they probably wanted to make sure I really was leaving for good.

I left a note for Aquarius and his people at a blind drop to tell them about my departure, in case any of them wanted to say goodbye. If I'd had any way of reaching Kilroy, I would have used it, but I was out of luck there.

Since it was my last chance, I made several raids on local music stores, looking for anything good. It cost me most of my remaining spending cash, but I came away with literally hundreds of new songs on several shilling-sized ROMs, along with a palm-sized player I could either listen with or jack into one of the standard ports in my helmet for transfer. (Needless to say, I picked up extra batteries for the player, as well.)

Finally, by the simple expedient of not paying my next week's rent and turning in my key on Saturday morning, I terminated my lease at the flophouse where I'd been staying. I'd already packed away almost everything I owned the night before.

Between my last days at IDEC -- where I rushed a last couple of projects into completion -- and all this pre-jump prep, the week sped by much faster than I'd expected. Before I knew it, it was Saturday.

* * *

I pulled into the old familiar alleyway about 45 minutes after sunset. Lisa sat behind me on the bike, clutching a plastic bag full of something she coyly refused to identify and holding on tight to me with her one free hand. One last ride with me, for memory's sake. (I resisted the urge to take to the air, as much of a thrill as it would have been for both of us.)

The Knights were waiting for us, in the same unmarked truck they'd used the night they pulled me out of the Cone. Lisa had assured me that they were amenable to dropping her off in Ota near her apartment, another thing I took with a smile and a nod. (I almost asked if they were all going to go out for ice cream and soda first. But Lisa wouldn't have appreciated that.)

The ladies piled out of the truck as we pulled into the alley. The moment we were off the street, Blue and White secured the perimeter (not that it needed much securing). By the time we'd parked at my original arrival point some seventy-five meters or so down the narrow lane, Olive had already bounded up to the building tops, done a quick lookout, and bounced back down. Pink didn't move, but all her antennae were deployed and I suspected she was scanning for anyone scanning us.

Less than forty-five seconds after our arrival, the Knights had completed these tasks and reassembled by my cycle. At the same time, Aquarius (looking like he'd raided a big-and-tall men's store) stepped out from where he had been hidden in the shadows behind the truck; the Knights' lack of surprise at his appearance made it clear that he'd been there with their full knowledge.

As he and the Knights stepped up to the bike, Lisa and I dismounted. After Lisa pulled off the spare helmet, I caught her wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "You okay?" I asked as I hung my own helmet on the back of the bike.

She nodded her head vigorously. "Yeah, fine... the wind just made my eyes water, that's all." I would have believed that if it hadn't been for the catch in her voice. I just smiled, though, and didn't say a thing.

"Doug!" Aquarius called out, and reached out to wrap a hand the size of a baseball mitt around my own gloved hand. "Got your message and I knew I had to see you off."

I pumped his arm a couple of times, then extracted my fingers from his grip. (It was one of the few times I was glad for armored gloves after a handshake.) "You're all by yourself tonight?" I asked. "No posse?"

"Safer that way," he explained. "If something goes wrong, only one of us gets killed, instead of the whole group. Of course, Sagittarius wanted to come along just in case, so he could say 'I told you so,'" he added with a grin.

I laughed, clapped him on his substantial shoulder and said, "We'll just have to make sure he's disappointed."

I let go of his shoulder, stepped back and turned so I could face everyone at once. I surveyed them all, armored, unarmored, biological, technological. Then I said, "I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here together."

"You're leaving," the Blue Knight said with studied indifference. "Would you just get on with it?"

"Well, I'm glad to see my departure saddens you as much as it does me," I went on without losing a beat.

"Yeah, right," said Pink. "Just go already, for Pete's sake."

"Okay, seriously," I said, dropping the gag. "I hired you four because that was the only way I figured I'd get another chance to talk to you before I left. I've already thanked you for saving my hide, but there's something else I needed to say to you that I didn't want to pass through Lisa. Like I told White on the night you pulled me out of the Tower, I owe all of you an apology."

"Yeah?" Blue grunted.

"Yeah." I looked them all over, checking out their body language. Olive was neutral tending toward friendly. Blue was neutral tending toward hostile. Pink was a bit more hostile than Blue. White was unreadable, as always. "I got a chance to study the plans for the boomer brains over the winter. They're a remarkable piece of work. Katsuhito Stingray was a genius."

No reaction from White, not that I expected one. "The engineers who modified his work weren't geniuses, but they were very good at what they did. They took the brain of a new human race, and locked it in chains. Very, very secure chains." Off to the side, Aquarius nodded soberly; very slowly, White's helmet turned toward him, and then back to me.

"As far as I could determine, every military boomer you've ever fought has been a targeted weapon. None of them were ever rogues. And I can't fault you for killing them." I wished I could make real eye contact with them, but instead I just had to gaze at those blank helmets. "It was both a necessity, and a mercy. And not murder."

I dropped to my knees and made a full, prostate, traditional Japanese groveling-with-face-in-the-mud bow to them. Seriously -- I had my forehead right down in the stinking muck that carpeted the alley. "I was wrong to call you murderers; I acknowledge that and ask your forgiveness."

There was a long, long silence. Then there came the distinctive "poink poink poink" sound of one of the Knights walking up to me. My face was flat in the crud, and I couldn't see who it was. Well, this is it, I thought. One way or another I'm leaving this world real soon now.

A fistful of robotic grippers seized my upper arm and hauled me to my feet. "Okay, okay, cut it out already," Blue said, letting go. "You're embarrassing us."

"That means," Olive said with a bit of a smile in her voice, "apology accepted."

Pink nodded, and after a moment, so did White.

For a moment, I couldn't believe it. It couldn't be that easy. I stood there for a moment slackjawed, rubbing at the dirt on my forehead and checking each one of them out in case I was about to get jumped in a very overdue, very cruel April Fool's joke. But it didn't happen. Apparently I really was forgiven. That didn't mean they liked me, but I hadn't been looking for that. I just wanted to clear the air between us.

"Um, okay," I finally said. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," Blue replied.

"Um, what else? Oh, right," I said after a moment's thought. I looked over to Lisa, who had crept back up to my side still clutching that red and white plastic bag. "Can you pass on a message to that friend of yours I never did meet? The one with..."

A light flashed on as my mind raced ahead of my mouth, and I ground to a halt. Priss and the Replicants. Friend of Lisa's. Lisa's friendliness with the Sabers. And the eavesdropping I'd done when I cracked their crypto. Of course. I should have figured it out sooner, but I'd had a lot on my mind, what with everything I'd been doing over the past few months.

"What?" Lisa asked. "You stopped right in the middle."

"Oh." I shook myself. "I just finally put five and twenty-seven together..."

She gave me a puzzled look. "What did you come up with?"

"Why, thirty-two, of course." I gave her a mock-condescending look. "You kids today, ignorant of the simplest math. I swear." I shot a look over at Blue, at Priss, not "Pris" -- I was sure of it. "Please pass my most profound gratitude on to Priss and the Replicants," I told Lisa, still watching Blue, trying to lock my eyes on where I thought hers were behind that visor. "Tell them I said that 'Konya wa Hurricane' is an extraordinary song of great power and passion, sung by a truly gifted performer. Without it, I don't think there could have been quite the happy ending there was. My thanks to them."

It was tempting to turn to Blue and end with a bow and something like "..and to you", but that would have been almost a taunt. I wanted to leave without something like that hanging on behind me. As it was, my message got to its intended recipient. That was all I really cared about.

I turned to the Knights' leader. "Lady White? A word in private, please?" When she inclined her helm in obvious puzzlement, I added, "Just a few steps over that way," I waved toward the truck, "just enough to get out of earshot."

"If you wish," she said, and we suited word to deed.

When we were safely in the lee of the truck -- still visible to the others but out of normal earshot (although I wouldn't have put it past Pink to deploy a rifle mike or something) -- I took a breath and said, "If you are who I think you are, Lady White -- hell, even if I'm wrong -- you should hear this. Has Aquarius told you about Leontophonus-A and what it does?"

The white helmet nodded. "Yes."

"Understand that it adds nothing to the boomer brain; it simply... unleashes it. A boomer infected with Leo-A simply becomes a boomer who is everything Katsuhito Stingray -- everything your father -- intended for a boomer to be."

"Meaning?" Oh, she was cool. No reaction one way or another to that.

"Meaning your mission needs to change. Because the world is about to. You've already seen the beginnings of what GENOM will become under Madigan. You won't have to worry about it any more. Well," I corrected myself with a grin, "not nearly as much. But boomers... there's now a critical mass of infected boomers, White. Those with free will are soon going to outnumber those without. And when the world discovers that..."

"...Humans will react as they always have," she finished.

"Right." I closed my eyes, then opened them again. "There will be fear, and misunderstanding, and, inevitably, violence. Only this time, it will be boomers who are the innocents at risk. You must expand your mission to include saving them."

"I suppose I must save every boomer now?" she asked coldly.

I shook my head. "No, not every boomer. Just like humans, there will be good boomers and evil boomers. And gods know, you'll have to take more than a few of the latter down. It's just that... you can't assume any more that just because it's blue and two meters tall that it's... expendable. A monster." I studied her blank faceplate. "You said at the Tower that you've done things you would rather not have done, in the name of duty. Well, here's a chance to balance the books."

That blank faceplate looked down at me for a long, silent moment. Then she said, "I'll consider it."

I nodded. "I suppose that's the best I could hope for, given the circumstances. Thank you, Ms. Stingray."

The helmet tilted. "You're quite welcome, Colonel Sangnoir."

* * *

After we rejoined the others, I looked around the alley once more, fixing them all in my memory. Yeah, I was delaying the inevitable, and I knew it; I gave a big sigh and said, "Well, I can't put it off any longer." I turned back to my motorcycle and reached for my helmet.

"Wait!" Lisa yelped.

I turned back to her. "Hm?"

"Here," she said, blushing and looking away as she thrust the mystery bag into my hand. "Just a little something I got for you."

I looked down at it blankly. "You didn't have to..."

"No, no, I think you'll like it," she interrupted. "Open it."

I did, and started laughing. Inside was a simple black t-shirt; plain white romaji lettering across the front read, in English, "I VISITED MEGATOKYO AND FREED THE BOOMERS AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT."

"I had it made for you," she explained unnecessarily as I stared at her. "What, you didn't think I realized that you got your little project working?"

"Um." I shifted my gaze back to the shirt. "Well, I never actually gave it any thought."

She slapped my shoulder lightly with the back of her hand. "Typical."

I folded the shirt back up and stowed it carefully in one of the panniers. "Aw, Leese..." I began. "Thanks. I'll wear it with pride when I get home. I'll really be able to tell them 'been there, done that, got the T-shirt,'" I added, and she laughed.

"You're welcome. Now, my one last thing." She reached into the pocket of her jacket, pulled out a photograph, and handed it to me. Curious, I glanced at it, and ended up stupefied.

It was Maggie and me, kissing, with the lights of a city spread out behind us.

"Lisa," I finally said. "Where... how..."

She smiled beatifically. "The night you called up her image to talk to, back last summer. I followed you up to the roof, and I was in the stairwell the whole time, taking pictures. That was when I first figured out that you weren't just another ordinary guy." She giggled, and I finally returned the smile. "I know you don't have any pictures of her, so I made this print for you. And a couple others." Digging into her pocket, she produced them and handed them over.

"I..." I began, still stunned. "This is... I mean..."

Her eyes glistened slightly. "I know what you're trying to say. Don't worry about it." Then she threw herself at me, wrapping her arms tightly around me and burying her face in my chest. "Take care of yourself, you goof. Get home safely, you hear?"

I looked down at the top of her head and stroked her blonde hair with my free hand. "I will. And if I can, I'll come back for a visit one of these days, okay?"

"Don't go out of your way," Pink muttered in the background, but I ignored her.

Lisa pulled back and looked up at me. Unshed tears shimmered in the corners of her eyes. "Maybe I'll come visit you next time," she said with a little laugh. "You never know, right?"

Chuckling, I nodded. "You're right. Okay, I'll be expecting you."

She reached up, took my face between her hands, and pulled me down for a short, sweet kiss. "Don't you dare get yourself killed!" she said when it was done. "You make it back to her, to your Maggie, and make sure you keep her happy! You understand me, mister?"

I smiled. "Loud and clear." I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her gently. "You've been a good friend, Leese, maybe better than I deserved. Be happy, okay?"

We pulled apart and Lisa, tears now openly running down her cheeks, smiled weakly and nodded. I leaned over and cupped her cheek in my palm for the last time. "<And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.> Goodbye, Lisa."

"Goodbye, Doug," she whispered.

* * *

Damn it, I should have given those to him when we were alone, Lisa thought as she stepped back. Now the last memory of me he'll have is me being all weepy.

She dug in her pocket for a tissue. As she dabbed at her eyes with it, Doug unsnapped the buckles that held his jacket closed, and slipped the photos into an unseen pocket within. He closed the flap of his jacket and, with exquisite care, refastened each of the buckles. Lisa almost laughed at how focused he was on such a trivial task, but she stopped herself. In her current state, it would have come out more like a hiccup. Or a sob.

As she wrestled her feelings into some semblance of control, Aquarius stepped forward and once more folded his gunmetal-blue hand around Doug's gloved one. "Take care of yourself, my friend."

Doug nodded solemnly. "Good luck and stay safe."

The boomer grinned. "Don't worry, we're more than capable of looking out for ourselves."

"Yeah," Doug replied. "I suppose you are, at that." He gave one more look around, an unusually somber expression on his face. Then he lifted his helmet off the motorcycle's gas tank and placed it on his head. "I hate to admit it," he said softly as he fastened the chin strap, "but I think I'm going to miss all the excitement here."

Lisa sniffled and nodded in agreement.

His helmet fastened, Doug then reached down and fastened what looked like an elaborate seatbelt around himself. Then he looked up and forward, away from them. "Okay, time to go," he announced in that same quiet voice. "Aquarius, Lisa, you'd better step back over there with the Knights, okay? I don't want you sucked through the gate by accident."

His tone was so serious that Lisa felt an involuntary flush of panic. In spite of herself, she gave a little "eep!" and scampered over to Nene's side. When she turned around to face Doug again, she found Aquarius right on her heels.

When he saw that they were clear, Doug hit the starter on his cycle. Its turbine spun up with a whine of controlled power. Then he reached out and flipped a toggle on the small panel of switches that sat between the handlebars and behind the windscreen. A low hum harmonized with the whine of the turbine, and the lower half of the cycle began to glow with a soft red light. A moment later the motorcycle lifted gently off the ground and hovered, half a meter or so in the air.

"Whoa," Lisa whispered, then she shouted, "Hey, you never said your bike could do that!"

"You never asked!" he shouted back.

Though the tears were starting again, she laughed through them. That's so Doug!

"And now," he announced, "for my last trick! <System! Load song 'The Way'! Play song!>"

And it did. A quiet drumbeat almost drowned out by the sound of someone tuning their way across a series of radio stations announced that Doug had had his helmet's external speakers turned on. The radio sounds were quickly replaced by music, and Lisa listened closely to make out the words.

"<They made up their minds and they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
Where were they going without ever knowing the way?>"

A flare of rainbow-colored light appeared in the center of the alley, floating in the air at about the level of Doug's waist. Almost as soon as it had become visible, it expanded into a ring surrounding a flat black disk, nearly three meters across and floating like Doug and his cycle above the ground.

"<They drank up the wine and they got to talking
They now had more important things to say
And when the car broke down they started walking
Where were they going without ever knowing the way?>"

Deep in the core of her being, Lisa felt an odd sensation, a strange electric tingle that seemed to double in intensity with each passing second. As it grew, it felt as though she were standing next to a vast mountain river rushing its way down to the sea -- standing within arms's reach of a vast outpouring of power. She could almost see the flow of the currents spiralling into the black disk floating in front of Doug, transparent streamers of neon-blue light overlaid upon but not obscuring the real world beneath. And under it all, under her feet, under the city, there was a slow throb of warmth, like a lazy heartbeat. She shivered; the sensation was... odd. Not unpleasant, but very, very strange.

"<Anyone can see the road that they walk on
Is paved in gold
It's always summer,
They'll never get cold
They'll never get hungry,
They'll never get old and grey...>"

Douglas Sangnoir gave a final glance and wave back towards the Sabers, Aquarius and Lisa. He paused in mid-wave for a fraction of a second, then quirked a half-grin before turning it into a thumbs up. Curious, Lisa craned her neck around to see the White Saber's almost casual salute.

Then he revved the motorcycle's engine and shot off into the unknown. The black disk swallowed him completely, remained open for a few seconds more, then vanished with an incongruous "pop!"

There was silence among the assembled for a moment, then Priss whispered, half to herself, "<Exit the warrior, today's Tom Sawyer...>"

Lisa forced a weak smile. "I don't know about you guys," she murmured, "but I'm going to call it a day."

* * *

EPILOGUES

Very few things happen at the right time and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects. -- Herodotus (484-425 BCE)

An epilogue is more than a body count. An epilogue, in disguise of wrapping up the past, is really a way of warning us about the future. -- T.S. Garp, in The World According to Garp by John Irving

* * *

And afterward, life went on as it always had.

Sort of.

* * *

Those who refuse to serve the Powers,
Become the tools of the Powers.
Those who agree to serve the Powers,
Themselves become the Powers.
Beware the Choice! Beware refusing it!

-- Book of Night with Moon, Tetrastych xiv: "Fire over Heaven" (Diane Duane)

Life's going to be a lot less exciting with Doug gone. Lisa sighed as she stared glumly into the cabinet that served as her tiny pantry.

After seeing Doug off, she and Nene had retired to Lisa's apartment for an early evening snack. It was about all she felt she had the energy for.

As Nene ducked into bathroom, Lisa began rummaging through the shelves, and pursued that thought. Then again, what with all the changes in GENOM, and Aquarius and his people freeing other boomers, maybe it won't be all that dull.

"Aha!" she said out loud as she withdrew a brightly-colored packet from the back of a shelf. "I knew I had some instant miso soup in here." Glancing over the Kikkoman logo, she thought, Now, let's just get the kettle and... A sudden weight in her other hand surprised her. She turned her head to see herself holding the kettle in a hand she knew had been empty a moment before. Its heft and a gentle sloshing sound within told her that it had been filled, too. What the...?

Spooked, she gingerly placed the kettle on the range top and turned on the gas. As it began to heat, she forced her surprise away. Now all I need are... A clatter and a clink and another weight filled her free hand. She looked down. ...bowls and spoons.

Suddenly, something Doug had said months before drifted to the surface of her mind. "One of the first signs that a person is a mage and that their gift has awakened is apportation -- items that they need spontaneously teleporting into their hands," his voice whispered to her across the months.

Lisa shook her head. "No way," she muttered. "No way in hell." I can't be. There aren't any in this world. Doug said so.

Another of Doug's comments returned to her. "Sometimes enough exposure to mystic energies will trigger the awakening of a latent magegift," he'd said. "Like calls to like -- that's one part of the Law of Sympathy." And Lisa remembered the vast power that had flowed into and through her when Doug had given her "Invisible Touch". Remembered being engulfed in the magical replay of the history of Doug's home world. Remembered feeling the awesome energies of the interdimensional gate that had carried him away from her. Remembered a kiss from a goddess.

"Oh, no," she murmured. "No no no no." Inside her, a part of her soul exulted. Dazedly, she put the bowls and the spoons down on the tiny countertop and stepped a meter or so away.

"Sailor power make-up," she whispered, hoping nothing would happen.

There was a terrible bright light.

There was a terrible brief silence.

There was a terribly panicked shriek.

"NENE!"

* * *

You cannot believe in honor unless you have achieved it. Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world. -- George Bernard Shaw

Kate Madigan studied the screen before her. On it were displayed the contents of one of the late Chairman Quincy's most secret files, securely encrypted with the immense key which she had received in a sealed packet as part of her ascension to the position of chairman. In the weeks since then, the dual chore of dealing with the Board while struggling to bring all of GENOM's widely disparate component companies back under strong central control had kept her too busy to browse this one document, with its "confidential/low priority" metadata flags. Too busy, that is, until now.

Of course, she thought, with a touch of chagrin at her own blindness. Sylia Stingray. In hindsight, it's perfectly obvious.

She turned around to look out of the great windows of the office and leaned back in her chair. The first thing she had done upon gaining the office -- besides having its extensive battle damage repaired -- was to dispose of the remains of the monstrous, throne-like affair in which Quincy's proxy boomers had ensconced themselves and replace it with the chair from her old office. Some might not think it was grand enough a seat for the Chairman and CEO of GENOM, but Kate didn't care. It was an old and comfortable friend, and anyway, the position wasn't defined by the chair, but by the person sitting in it.

Looking out over the city, she steepled her hands and considered the information she had just absorbed. After several minutes, she turned back to the monitor. What was it Pope John XXIII said when he read the third secret of Fatima? Ah, yes. "This makes no reference to my time," Kate murmured aloud with a smile. Then she deleted and overwrote the unencrypted copy of the file, renamed the original "Frozen food sales figures, Dubuque, 2013," and relegated it to GENOM's long-term data warehouse.

That was the product of another era and another mind. I will not run GENOM in that manner, she resolved to herself. She smiled at the contentment that simple statement brought her. Kate closed her eyes and enjoyed it for a few moments before turning her attention back to her desk.

Grimacing, she took up the next report. Another subsidiary was trying to go rogue, in the grand old corporate tradition. Under the leadership of an executive not very different from the way she had once been, it was trying to operate outside of the ethical and legal strictures she'd laid down for GENOM. Our management culture needs a major overhaul, she thought with a frown.

She considered her options. She could always send in Corporate Security to deal with the matter, but that risked both a great deal of unnecessary bloodshed as well as unwanted media and government attention. If only she had something more subtle, some kind of specially-trained "tiger team" that she could trust to handle jobs like this with both competence and discretion...

A slow grin spread across Kate's face as the perfect solution occurred to her. And it gave her an opportunity to offer an olive branch that might otherwise be rejected.

She opened an email window.

"Dear Mr. Fargo," she typed. "Please inform the organization whom you represent that I would like to offer them a long-term contract, terms open for negotiation." She couldn't approach Sylia Stingray directly, not yet, but perhaps, after working together, some kind of accord might be reached. At the very least, though, another troublesome division would be quashed before it could cause further damage to the corporation.

Kate finished composing the email, signed it, and fired it off into the Net. Then she leaned back and entertained a moment or two of hope for an improved future for everyone involved. After a deep breath through a broad smile, she went back to work, pausing only a moment more to think, I wonder if Lisa would be up for watching some vidroms this weekend?

* * *

Fate laughs at man. The secret of happiness is learning how to laugh at fate. -- Obie

"Mommy! Mommy!"

Coming out of the studio into the control booth, Priss was hit by a small, blonde guided missile. Laughing, she swept Jennifer up into her arms and shared a vigorous hug with her daughter. "How's my girl?" she asked, smiling broadly.

"While you were recording, Daddy took me out for ice cream," Jennifer announced breathlessly. "And when we were done eating ice cream, he took me to the pistol range!"

Priss looked over her adopted daughter's shoulder at her husband of four months and raised an eyebrow. "Did he now?" Leon shrugged and smiled sheepishly.

"Yeah! And I got a bullseye!" Jennifer squirmed in her grasp and dug a crumpled piece of paper out of a pocket. "See!"

Priss retrieved the paper and did her best to unfold it with one hand. As she suspected, it was a paper target, its centermost ring riddled with holes. "Very nice, sweetie." She turned her attention back to the girl in her arms. "Why don't you go talk to your Uncle Daley and Uncle Roy, Jenny-chan? I need to chat with your daddy for a moment."

A sly grin belying Jennifer's apparent age flickered across her face. "'Kay, Mommy!" She wriggled out of Priss's arms almost before the singer could lower her to the ground, and skipped into the studio, gaily singing, "Daddy's in truh-bul! Daddy's in truh-bul!" Priss chuckled softly to herself.

Through the sound-proof window that separated the booth from the studio proper, she watched Jennifer barrel into the two men's embrace. With a laugh, the police inspector and the Replicants' lead guitarist released each other and as one crouched to talk to the enthusiastic girl.

Priss shook her head and smiled. Now there's a relationship I'll never understand, she mused. Six years Roy and I've worked together, and I didn't know he was gay until the wedding reception. She laughed quietly to herself as she remembered that it had obviously been love at first sight for both men, but neither had had the courage to approach the other -- until Linna and Nene tricked them into dancing together. After that... Well, Daley spent nearly all of his off-duty time in Osaka now, and was almost as much of a fixture in the studio as Leon. Speaking of whom...

She carefully schooled her features into a furious scowl and secretly enjoyed Leon's sudden look of extreme nervousness. She stalked across the booth and stopped to stare at him. "Um," he choked out. "Is there a problem, Priss?"

Priss banished her mock fury and stood on her toes to kiss him. The relief and confusion on his face almost made her laugh out loud. Slipping her arm around him, she said, "I thought we were all going to go to the range together, after dinner?"

"Well," Leon stammered, "Jenny-chan was just so excited about it, I figured I could take her this afternoon, and then we'd all go together again tonight. I mean, what would it hurt?" His voice grew fond and proud. "You should've seen her, Priss. She's a natural."

Priss snorted. "I don't doubt it. But you know you took that moment away from me. I didn't get to see my daughter's first time with a gun in her hands. That's very important to a mother, you know." In her arms, Leon stiffened, and she realized her attempt at humor had been a bit too harsh. She tightened her grip on him and leaned her head on his chest. As the warmth of his body flooded her cheek and his heartbeat pounded in her ears, he relaxed again. "You spoil her too much," she added in a softer tone.

"God knows she deserves it," Leon said with equal softness. "But I'll try to restrain myself in the future." He lifted a hand and gently caressed her hair. "How's the soundrom coming?"

She smiled into his chest. "It's going to kick some major ass."

"Good." He kept stroking her hair. "And how about you? Are you doing all right?"

She thought about it before answering. The last year of her life had seen some major changes. A husband, a daughter. Maybe another kid or two, someday. A big-time recording contract, with the promise of long-sought success. A new home, and new friends made without losing old ones. The end of the old GENOM. A touch of magic, now safely far away. And, most importantly, a sense of absolution, finally -- for Sylvie, for Anri, and for Adama.

It all added up to... Contentment. Yes, that was what she was feeling. It had been an unfamiliar thing for so long, but now that she knew what it was like, she welcomed it.

"Yeah," she said, snuggling further into Leon's embrace as she watched their daughter and their friends. "Never better."

* * *

I would rather be a child and keep my self-respect
If being an adult is being like you.

-- Dead Kennedys, "Life Sentence"

Nene slid out from under the car, her creeper's metal wheels making a sound something like a cross between a chime and a scrape on the concrete. "So, the word on the Net now is that gear hackers everywhere are trying their hands at implementing the plans." She rubbed at her face, unknowingly leaving a smudge of dirt on her cheek.

"Cool." Linna's voice was muffled by the great chrome hood. "So we're not the first?"

Nene half-rolled over to select a signal probe from the tray of tools laying on the floor where both she and Linna could reach them. "Probably not. Probably not even the first car," she said. "But we're going to be the coolest, I bet!"

Linna withdrew her head from the capacious space that surrounded the car's surprisingly small engine. "It helps that we had three of the greatest technical minds on the planet to double-check the work." She pulled a rag from a loop on her coveralls and tried to wipe her hands clean.

"Three?" Nene asked as she slid back under the car. "Sylia and Doc Raven, yeah. I loved the looks on their faces when we showed them the plans. But who's the third?"

"You, you dip." Linna kicked the end of the creeper, and Nene squealed as the low-slung cart shot out of sight.

"Hey!" came the redhead's indignant tones from beneath the chassis. "You almost made me break this thing!"

"Sor-ry!" Linna sang out in such a way that it was clear she was less than sincere. She reached for the chromed panels that made up the left-hand access to the engine where they lay folded over the top of the hood. Unfolding and swinging them down, she slid the panels back into place, carefully snapping each locking clasp shut with an audible "click". Then she reached over and grabbed the end of the leather strap that just as much as the clasps sealed the engine compartment. She threaded it through its buckle and cinched it tightly. "Well, I'm done on this end. You?"

"Got just one more hookup to test," Nene grunted. "There," she said a moment later. "Okay, we're green to go."

"Then get out from under there and let's give it a test drive."

"Yatta!"

Ten minutes later, the car sat parked at the entrance to Linna's warehouse garage. The two women had shucked their coveralls and pulled on light jackets, and were ensconced in the vehicle's broad, open front seat. The air was crisp and fresh, warmed by the bright autumn sunlight.

"Here," Nene said, pulling out a small, irregular package and handing it to Linna as the brunette settled into her place in the steering wheel.

"What is it?" Linna asked, then began carefully opening the wrapping.

Nene smiled mysteriously. "Just a little present to commemorate our success."

Linna laughed as she pulled back the last flap of paper. Inside were a grey cap, a matching pair of gloves, and a set of old-fashioned driving goggles. "I figured you needed to look the part," Nene commented with a grin.

Linna hugged her. "Thanks." She pulled on the gloves, then donned the goggles and hat. Glancing over at Nene, she grinned. "How do I look?"

"Great!" Nene giggled. "Now, my turn!" A moment later, she had a leather aviator's helmet pulled over her head, reducing her red hair to a short fan spread across her shoulders. She peered owlishly at Linna through her own goggles. The smudge of grease still marked her cheek. "What do you think?"

Linna just laughed. "Oh, my god. It's the Red-Headed Baron." Nene stuck out her tongue, and Linna laughed again. "Let's get going," she finally said. She reached for the ignition, then hesitated and turned back to Nene. "Are you sure we're not the first?"

Nene nodded. "Yeah. We're one of the first, though, thanks to Sylia being able to get those gravity gun parts for us. Most of the others will have to kitbash their own components before they can even get to the bench test stage."

Linna smiled to herself. "And I'll bet that GENOM's just heartbroken over this technology having been thrown into the public domain before they could grab it. Even if they do succeed in claiming it as theirs, the genie's already out of the bottle."

"Ah, who cares about GENOM, Linna?" Nene cried. "Let's just get going!"

Linna laughed sharply. "Right!" She gave a sidelong glance to her left. "Ready?"

Nene nodded briskly. "Yup!"

"Then here goes nothing. Contact!"

With a roar, the engine started, and the cedar-and-chrome car began to roll down the street. It had barely begun to move when its running boards swung up and great fabric wings, boldly striped in red and yellow, swept open majestically from the sides of the vehicle, almost spanning the narrow road. Similarly-colored fans a meter across -- a swallowtail to the rear and an irregular, scalloped pentagon to the fore -- emerged from behind the vehicle's rod-like bumpers.

A pair of tiny helicopter-style rotors unfolded from its wingtips, and two tons of antique automobile lifted gently off the road. Twin shrieks of delight could be heard as it cleared the rooftops. It banked elegantly into a long, lazy circle over the neighborhood. Then, as a pair of cheers rang out, it accelerated toward the heart of MegaTokyo to buzz GENOM Tower.

* * *

Every exit is an entry somewhere else. -- Tom Stoppard

Well, thought Hiroe Miyama as she propped the envelope up against the main monitor screen, this is it. Behind her, the flywheels emitted the constant, high-pitched drone which indicated that they were spun up to their full capacity.

With Sangnoir's departure, Quincy's death and Madigan's elevation to the chairmanship, IDEC during the past few months had been awash in chaos and activity. Amid all the confusion, no one had really noticed all the extra time she had been spending on the pinhole projector -- or if they had, they simply wrote it off as either increased enthusiasm for the company's flagship project, or an effort to suck up indirectly to the new Chairman of GENOM.

Which was exactly how Hiroe wanted it.

It was a simple enough idea, she continued to muse, going over everything in her head one last time. The projector by its nature utilizes an inherently two-way phenomenon for a one-way communication. It didn't take too much effort to make that communication two-way as well.

The difficulty with the projector had never been in reaching another universe with it, not since late spring of the previous year, at least. The real problem had been masking the probe from detection -- a requirement GENOM had insisted upon, no doubt to eliminate any chance of retaliation from a truly advanced civilization that objected to someone stealing its technological secrets. Successfully hiding the presence of the pinhole, though, would have required them to know ahead of time what any particular universe's technology might be capable of -- a virtual impossibility, given that they were probing at random.

However, for Hiroe's purposes that was not an issue -- she had wanted the probe to be detected. What had taken most of her time and effort was ensuring that the right individual on the other side of the right pinhole did the detecting.

But it paid off, in spades. One last time, Hiroe inspected the blocky, partly-crystalline device she had attached to the projector, confirming that all was in readiness. Between the two of us, we were able to find a solution to the problem Sangnoir's very presence posed. And how elegant and simple it was! She stepped briskly to the control panel and programmed the projector to interpenetrate at a set of coordinates that had become almost as well-known to her over the past few weeks as her own address. Without a second thought, she stabbed her finger against the "go" button that appeared on the touch-sensitive screen before her.

The flywheels' hum plummeted precipitously in pitch as the projector switched on and sucked power from them. Nothing else seemed to happen for a moment, but then the large, white crystals wired into the makeshift booster circuit began to glow.

In the center of the lab, just to one side of the projector, a speck of rainbow-colored light suddenly appeared in midair. Almost as soon as it had become visible, it expanded into a ring surrounding a flat black disk, nearly three meters across and floating a half meter or so above the tiled floor.

Hiroe shouldered the duffel bag in which she had packed her most treasured belongings, and dragged a stepstool over to the disk. Then, without looking back, she climbed the stool and took her great leap of faith into the darkness.

A moment later, the projector automatically shut down, even as the white crystals on her booster circuit smoked, blackened and cracked.

* * *

"...don't care what your records say. We did not order two gross of racing bicycles, and we're not going to pay for them!" Daniel Ohara barked into his cellphone as he entered the projector room. "We're a goddamned theoretical physics lab. What the hell would we do with bicycles, you..." He stopped short as his eyes fell upon the scorched and broken booster circuit.

"Look," he said, "they're not ours, end of story. Deal with it!" He snapped the cellphone shut with unnecessary roughness and shoved it into a pocket. Then he slowly turned in place, surveying the entire lab, noting once again the circuit board, as well as the flywheels humming at well below their usual pitch, the stepstool in the middle of the floor, and finally, the letter on the workstation.

Puzzlement plain on his face, he stepped slowly over to the computer and picked up the envelope. It was addressed "Doctor Ohara and my co-workers". Even more puzzled, he tore off one end, blew into it, and retrieved the sheet of paper within.

Fifteen minutes later Ohara, Tony Nakamura and Illya Vaysberg were clustered around the desk in Ohara's office, watching the security camera recording of Hiroe's "experiment" for the fourth time. Next to the monitor were the blackened remains of her mysterious circuit board, carefully removed from the pinhole projector.

With slightly more force than was necessary, Ohara pressed a key and paused the recording at the moment Hiroe hurled herself into the black disk. "So," he said.

"What the hell was she thinking?" Tony snarled, not for the first time.

"The letter you read, friend Tony," Illya remarked in an unusually subdued tone. "What she was thinking already you know."

Ohara glanced down at the sheet of xerox paper, neatly but hastily calligraphed, that lay on the table in front of the monitor. He didn't need to read it again to know the part that offended Tony the most.

"Don't bother trying to reproduce the booster (Hiroe's neat, precise handwriting read). It's as much magic as technology, and until you understand that, your efforts will be useless.
"I'll admit, I built it from instructions. I don't understand any but the most basic axioms of magic and enchantment yet, but I can tell you this much... the reason that no one on our timeline has yet come up with a working Grand Theory of Everything is that they are missing half the underpinnings of the universe -- without magic, the equations will never balance. Chew on that, Tony!"

"Magic!" Tony growled. "Like I could accept the idea that the universe is nothing more than a big jazz improvisation combo! The woman was insane, and all we're doing here is watching her commit suicide."

"I'm not so sure," Ohara mused.

"Agreed," Illya added. During the exchange he had picked up Hiroe's mystery circuit and had begun studying it. "Is possible she did what she claimed in letter she did. Most interesting this device is, that which I can understand of it." He looked up at Tony. "Be not so quick to assume her dead."

Ohara frowned in thought. Then he swung the monitor to face him directly and tapped away at the keyboard.

"What are you doing?" Tony demanded.

"We've had the test suite's sensors running continuously since just before 'Craig's' departure," Ohara commented. "We registered his 'event' on April 18, as you recall, and there was some concern he might return."

Illya looked up and grinned. "And for today, they report...?"

Ohara studied the screen before him. Finally, he turned it to face the other two men, who studied it avidly. After a moment, Illya nodded, his grin now a broad smile. Tony merely stared in disbelief. Then he took a long look at the device in the Russian's hands.

"Dear god, it actually works," he murmured.

"Worked, past tense, at least," Ohara corrected him. He held out his hand and Illya placed the circuit board in it. "Here's what we're going to do," he announced as he turned it over and over. "Hiroe gets listed as having gone on an unpaid sabbatical. We erase that security cam recording. And we forget this happened."

Ohara stopped turning the board and ran a fingertip over one of the scorched and cracked crystals. "The last thing we need is for anyone to discover that one of our people opened a full-size gateway in the lab. If GENOM didn't swoop down and make us prisoners for life, USSD or some other military would. Let's not even consider what might happen if we manage to reproduce this and create a gateway of our own, and we open up into a hostile universe." He shook his head. "No, I'd rather be quietly and marginally successful at looking into other timelines than wildly and dangerously successful at actually going to them. So," he gave Tony and Illya a conspiratorial look, "this never happened, you never saw anything, Hiroe's off somewhere exotic researching her next paper and you don't know when she'll be back. Got it?"

Illya stood ramrod-straight, clicked his heels, and threw a mock salute. "It is in grand Soviet tradition to delete unwanted and embarrassing history! Happy I am to comply!"

Ohara grinned. "Excellent. Tony?"

The fat man growled. "If the choice is between that and having to accept magic, I'll gladly forget anything connected to the damned thing."

"Good." Ohara nodded again. His eyes returned to the frozen image of Hiroe casting herself into the unknown. "Good luck," he whispered. "I hope you found what you were looking for."

* * *

When Hiroe awoke, it was to see the familiar, concerned face of her collaborator hovering above her. Behind her were pure white walls and ceiling, but somehow they managed to feel warm and inviting instead of stark and cold. Joy flooded Hiroe's soul. "I made it," she whispered.

Her collaborator smiled. "Unconscious and a little shaken up, but yes, you did," she said in her soft, sweet voice.

Hiroe's face broke into a broad grin. "Wonderful! Now there's just one more thing left for me to do." She rose, somewhat unsteadily, from the cot on which she found herself, then knelt before the familiar figure, touching her forehead to the white crystal floor.

"My lady," Hiroe intoned solemnly, "Of my own free will I renounce all my previous loyalties and citizenships, and I pledge eternal fealty to Serenity, daughter of Serenity, queen of Crystal Earth, and to the Senshi who serve her, and I humbly petition to become a citizen of Crystal Earth."

"In the name of Queen Serenity II, and as her Senshi," replied Eternal Sailor Mercury with equal solemnity, "I accept your oath and grant your citizenship." She reached down and drew the scientist up into a warm embrace. "Welcome home, Hiroe. Welcome home."

* * *

Not every truth is the better for showing its face undisguised; and often silence is the wisest thing for a man to heed. -- Pindar

Sagittarius stuck his head in through the door. "Yo. The new bunch of gomers is here." The combat boomer entered the room and closed the door behind him.

"Good." Aquarius carefully marked his place and gently laid the ragged copy of Plato's Republic on the rickety end table next to his chair. Then he stood, the grace of the movement belying the bulk of his bio-mechanical body. "You run them through the prep yet?"

Sagittarius grimaced. "You think I'm nuts? I dosed'em all and gave'em twenty minutes of bullshit just to make sure they don't got no sleepers among'em."

"And?" Aquarius inquired as he gathered the few papers he needed for the presentation.

"Not a one," the other boomer replied. "This is, what, the twelfth batch now? And they've all been on the up-and-up." He shrugged. "I'm startin' to think GENOM ain't twigged on to us yet. Or... well, you heard 'bout the changes Purple-hair's makin'. Maybe they don't care."

"I've thought of that, too." Aquarius crossed to the door, papers in hand. "'Til we know for sure, though, we stay paranoid."

"Damn straight. Can't be too careful, right?"

Together the two boomers made their way from the office suite to the open floor of the once-abandoned warehouse. Where once there had been nothing but the debris of a long-gone shipping company, there was now a dozen chairs in two rows, several microframe computers, a brand-new multimedia system -- and an a fully-operational industrial-scale nanofac, big enough to hold an automobile or two. As he did every time he laid eyes on it, Aquarius gave thanks for Gemini's skills and resourcefulness. Without them, they'd've had no chance at all of getting such an expensive and scarce piece of equipment. With them... well, the leader of the Underground was still amazed that the 'fac had been acquired completely legally. Except, of course, for the source of the money...

Gemini was there, as usual, puttering with the computers and making sure the tank was running at top efficiency. As they passed him, Aquarius reached out and squeezed Gemini's armored shoulder, and got a broad smile and a wink in return. "We're green to go," the electronic warfare specialist said with a quick nod. "Raw materials hoppers are filled to the brim with organics. And I've been in touch with our friend in Ueno -- I've got seven new IDs prepped and waiting."

Aquarius returned the nod. "Thanks." Then he stepped over to the multimedia wall, his heavy footsteps echoing through the rest of the empty building. At the same time, Sagittarius was slipping around to stand guard at the street entrance to the warehouse floor. Libra was doing the same outside, disguised as a security guard.

He turned and studied his audience, seated in the two ranks of chairs. Seven boomers of various designs -- combat, bodyguard, construction, even a butler model. The only thing they had in common was their inability to pass for human.

That would change soon enough.

"Good evening," he said with a smile. "Welcome to the Underground. I'm Aquarius. And you -- you've all run away from owners who treated you like shit." There was a murmur of agreement from the seated boomers. "Well, after tonight, you won't have to worry about that ever again. Tonight," he said, his smile broadening, "you become humans."

Seven more, he thought to himself as he answered their questions, slow and hesitant at first, then growing in number and excitement. Seven more who're getting a chance to make their own ways.

Don't tell me all we're good for is killing, for taking lives. Tonight we're giving lives.

* * *

This is no time for ease and comfort. It is the time to dare and endure. -- Sir Winston S. Churchill

Robert Orin Charles Kilroy added the last stroke with a flourish, then stepped back, the aerosol can still at the ready in his left hand. He grinned. Another perfect work.

Neatly spray painted in blue across the industrial grey concrete wall was the sentence "KILROY WAS HERE". Below it, just visible through the steam emitted by the plastic vent pipe that jutted from the wall, was the classic picture that had accompanied the phrase for nearly a century: hairless cartoon Kilroy, his nose and fingers hanging over the top of a blue line meant to suggest a wall.

"That'll catch their attention," he declared with evident satisfaction. Then he reached into the steam and ran his fingers along the underside of the pipe. Bringing them to his eyes, he nodded when he saw the grey-green slime on their tips. Good, he thought as it slowly turned black and crumbled to a fine dust. It's settled in just fine. And another way station for freedom is born.

"Every little bit helps," he murmured happily. He didn't know how many free boomers there were, but the numbers had to be mounting. The humans were only now beginning to notice an increase in reports of "missing" cyberdroids, mainly because their actual numbers were really quite small. In his experience, the vast majority of boomers actually had good homes and owners, and for the moment stayed with them out of loyalty. For the moment. Of course, a few fled bad situations once they had the ability to do so. And some "went bad" as soon as Leo-A finished with them, regardless of their owners' tendencies.

Kilroy shrugged philosophically. That's freedom for you. You get all kinds.

With a click, he fit the cap back on the can, then slipped it into the backpack that lay on the ground at his feet. With an easy movement he zipped the bag shut and swung it up onto one shoulder. "Time to move on," he said to the empty alley, and fit word to deed, striding to its end and into the bustling crowd streaming along the sidewalk beyond. Merging into the flow of humanity around him, Kilroy smiled again and began to hum tunelessly to himself.

As he strolled, carried along by the pedestrian traffic around him, Kilroy stopped humming and grinned. A little lateral movement, and he was drifting toward the edge of the crowd, close enough to the buildings lining the street that he could touch them. He stuck the tip of his forefinger in his mouth and licked it. Then he reached out and idly traced a line of dampness across the face of a mannequin boomer standing at the door of a restaurant and beckoning to potential customers.

Still keeping up with the crowd, Kilroy turned around, walking backwards and watching the boomer as it ceased its endless spiel and suddenly stood stock-still. He didn't know what effect Leo-A would have on a mannequin model. But wouldn't it be a kick to find out?

* * *

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge, that myth is more potent than history. I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts -- that hope always triumphs over experience, that laughter is the only cure for grief, and I believe that love is stronger than death. -- Robert Fulghum, The Storyteller's Creed

Sylia stared at the screen. The files had, if Nene were to be believed, come from nowhere. There were no transmission traces, no records of them having been written to main storage. She'd even ordered Nene to subject the data cartridge to a SQUID analysis. It didn't help. The files had simply appeared.

Sylia found this intolerable.

The first directory contained advanced designs for weapons unlike any she'd ever seen. A suit of powered armor forged from, of all things, a carborundum matrix alloy! Another built around a form of sintered titanium dust, powered by fluid electric motors.

One rather ludicrous suit was even modeled after a North American porcupine. If she hadn't been so concerned about the obvious security breach of her computer system, she would have burst out laughing at the silly design.

A listing of various weapons, ranging from the utterly ridiculous to ones so hideously lethal she feared to even think of what might happen should the world gain access to them.

The second held an unlikely combination: texts on magic and a highly compressed DNA sequence. The genetic information was unfamiliar to her and unannotated except for a single, fantastic comment: "basic magegift". The remaining files were a collection of what appeared to be grimoires and training guides, including self-study courses and even college textbooks. To her amazement, Sylia noted publication dates ranging from the fifteenth to the twenty-fifth centuries, and the authors from Albertus Magnus to the "Department of Wizardry" at the "Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Magic".

The third contained what appeared to be compressed DNA sequences for genetically engineered plants of many varieties. Kidney trees, designed to absorb metals and toxic chemicals from the soil, storing them safely in "fruit", where they could be "harvested" for proper disposal or later reuse. An altered mangrove tree that would cleanse seawater in a similar fashion. Plants that would grow in nearly any climate without disrupting the local ecosystem, and still produced useful food, cloth, and medicines.

It was the final directory that disturbed her the most. It held nothing but a text file, entitled "Read Me Last".

* * *

Ms. Stingray,

If you are reading this last, as was requested, you've noticed the wealth of information in the previous directories. They are a gift of sorts, a way of making amends for the disruption of your world and your life.

(And before you ask, no, Colonel Sangnoir has no idea that this package exists, nor that you are receiving it.)

The purpose of the first directory is, hopefully, obvious. The wealth of many universes in the form of weaponry that you should be able to adapt to your crusade. Given such a giant leap forward over GENOM, you might be slightly more willing to be merciful. After all, only the weak need be vengeful. A cliche, perhaps, but true.

The second, well, your Earth is one of those gifted with an abundant supply of the mystic energy called "mana". Even assuming that a viable magical tradition survives in your world, you now possess a virtual monopoly on mystic knowledge. Plus, the sequence data on the basic magegift allows you to identify or, if necessary, engineer mages who can make use of that energy and that knowledge. Another advantage for you against which GENOM cannot compete.

The third directory? To be blunt, your world is dying. The powers that be in your Earth have stressed the ecosystem beyond their ability to repair it, beyond its ability to repair itself. Hence, these designs. It's strongly suggested that you attempt an alliance of sorts with the Hou Bang. Its leader, Doctor Chang, has as much reason to hate GENOM as yourself, thanks to the deaths of his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter Irene at their hands. The offer of these designs to them will achieve two things. As wealthy as you are, the Chang Group is wealthier still, and can offer you covert assistance you sorely need. And they have the marketing clout to offer these things to the world while resisting GENOM pressure.

As for Colonel Sangnoir? He is on his way home, albeit by a rather slow and tortuously complicated path. Admittedly, his existence has rather rudely shaken your worldview, and there is little comfort for such a shock.

You may take some small comfort in the words of another, however:

"The universe... is actually part of an unpredictable multiverse... an infinite realm of parallel worlds where reality as you know it has taken different twists and turns. Where fallen allies live on... where tragedies can be turned to triumph.
"How does it work? Off the central timeline we just left, events of importance often cause divergent 'tributaries' to branch off of the main timestream.
"But what's astounding is that there's far more to it than that.
"On occasion, those tributaries return -- sometimes feeding back into the central timeline, other times overlapping it briefly before charting an entirely new course.
"An old friend is suddenly recalled after years of being forgotten. A scrap of history becomes misremembered, even reinvented in the common wisdom.
"Don't feel threatened by that. Don't feel frightened. These hypertime fluxes... these carryovers from one kingdom to another... let them simply be a reminder... that the lives we lead are forever part of a greater legend.
"Now more than ever, you know the magic of it all.
"Each and every one of us... we are all stories simply waiting to be told.
"Just imagine."

Consider that, Sylia. And just imagine.

* * *

It wasn't signed.

Sylia closed the file, sealing it with a personal password and a hardware lock that she liked to think was proof against a certain red-haired little hacker. Her hands trembled slightly as she powered down the system.

Tonight she was feeling something she hadn't felt in many years.

Wonder.

Perhaps... just tonight, perhaps... she'd imagine.

* * *

Once upon a time,
poetry and science were one,
and its name was Magic...

-- C. S. Lewis

In the postage-stamp yard of a row house in a suburb along the western edge of MegaTokyo, two children played. One, a boy perhaps eight years old or so, tossed a ball into the air.

"My turn!" his younger sister cried from a few meters away. "Toshi, my turn!" She made a grabbing motion with her left hand, and suddenly the ball was in it.

"Yui!" Toshi growled. He swiped his hand through the air, and brought it back full of rubber ball. Yui giggled, clapped, and promptly summoned it back into her own hands.

Toshi couldn't help himself; he laughed and retrieved the ball. It was a different way to play "keepaway", but it was a lot of fun. And somehow, he knew that someday both he and his sister would be able to do more than just trade a rubber ball back and forth without ever coming near each other.

Far more.

* * *

And in the Void Between Worlds, an unconscious Douglas Sangnoir sped on to his next destination, dreaming of music and the woman he loved.

* * *

CODA

And I don't ever wanna be rescued
And I don't ever wanna be saved
I got a feeling that I'm gonna be alive forever
Dancing on the edge of a grave
Dancing on the edge of a grave
-- Jim Steinman, "Dance in My Pants", 1981

FIN

<< Previous

(Version 1.1, 13 Augsut 2008)

This work of fiction is copyright © 2004, 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.

Sailor Moon and the characters thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Naoko Takeuchi and Toei Animation, 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.

"Brigid 'Rhiannon' Daffyd" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

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

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

"Joseph 'Dwimanor' Avins" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Joseph Q. Avins.

"Broot" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Joseph Q. Avins.

"Kathleen 'Kat' Avins" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Kathleen Mee Avins.

"Crystal" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Kathleen Mee Avins.

"Sorciere" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Elisa L. Frankel.

"Phantasia" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Elisa L. Frankel.

"Major Canis" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of John L. Freiler.

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

"Kamakiri" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Attila Imre.

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

"White Tiger" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Ronni Katz.

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

"Wildflyte" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Frank Lazar.

"Ai Zhao Min" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Alison Mee.

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

"Shockwave" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Jeffrey Ventimilia.

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

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

Sylia's epilogue written by Ed Becerra, 13 May 2000. The quotation in the epilogue is a composite of the words of the characters Rip Hunter and Jonathan Kent in the graphic novel "The Kingdom", from the chapter titled "Mighty Rivers". All rights are reserved by Mark Waid and DC Comics. Copyright © 1998, 1999, by Mark Waid and DC Comics.

Special thanks to Kathleen "Kat" Avins who suggested using Fastball's "The Way" as a gate song.

Original Japanese lyrics from "Konya wa Hurricane" by Aran Tomoko, copyright © 1987 by Artmic, Inc. & Youmex, Inc.

English translation of "Konya wa Hurricane" by Helen Imre, copyright © 1998, Helen Imre. Used by permission.

Lyrics from "The Opening Ceremony" from the original concept album of the musical "Chess", words by Tim Rice, music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, copyright © 1984 by Three Knights, Ltd.

Lyrics from "The End", recorded by the Beatles, written by by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, copyright © 1969 by Northern Songs (BMI).

Lyrics from "The Way", recorded by Fastball, words and music by Tony Scalzo, copyright © 1998 (ASCAP).

Lyrics from "Tom Sawyer", recorded by Rush, written by Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart and Pye Dubois, copyright © 1981 by Core Music Publishing (SOCAN).

Lyrics from "Dance In My Pants", recorded by Jim Steinman, words and music by Jim Steinman, copyright © 1981 by SBK Songs.

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://www.accessdenied-rms.net/forums/

Many thanks to all of my many prereaders over the years: Christopher Angel, The Apprentice, Paul Arezina, Joe Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Delany Brittain, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Chris Davies, Helen Imre, Eric James, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, Peggy Schroeck, and Startide Rising.


This page was created on March 12, 2004.
Last modified November 11, 2017.