rogue1@netcom.com (Rogue1)
rogue@Virginia.EDU
Jeffrey Paul Hosmer
4001 Old Quarry Terrace Alexandria, VA 22306
(703)-768-0863

 

Howdy all!

I know I promised I would write a new story--and there is one in the works--but recently, I looked over "Angel of Darkness" and saw some errors, and I wanted to fix it up. So you now have "Bubblegum Crash! Angel of Darkness" Version 2.0, so to speak.

For those of you who enjoyed the original, never fear. The changes I have made are mainly cosmetic. I fixed some grammatical and spelling errors, and one or two continuity gaffes. (I had Nene without her hardsuit in chapter 4, and with it in chapter 5. Oops. :) Also, I cleaned up the prose a bit, as it seemed a bit choppy to me. Please let me know what you think about the new version as compared to the old.

Also, my address and nickname on the net have changed, due to the fact that I graduated, which threw quite a monkey-wrench into my writing. :) Comments and criticisms should be addressed to rogue1@netcom.com. I can still be reached at rogue@virginia.edu, but I won't be as quick to respond.

I'd like to thank everyone who encouraged me in my writing, but most especially:

 

-- Gryphon, MegaZone, and ReRob and Undocumented Features for inspiring me to write.

-- All the guys on #Eyrie who helped me and made me feel welcome: Gryphon, R-Type, PCHammer, Philip-M, Thug_One, Sinapus, Ashura, Mechaman, CMeadows and others.

-- My roommate Jay and my friend Ryan, who had to listen to me babble on about this, and who were kind enough to edit the first version.

-- The people who wrote me and told me how much they liked my work, especially Arthur Edwards and Ted "Leon" Hsu, who both wrote quite a bit of mail to me (and to which I responded.) Guys, this is my way of saying both thanks and I'm sorry I haven't written in a while.

 

For those who want to know what happens NEXT, "Angel of Light" is being written. I won't give any spoilers here, but you'll see it some time. I promise. Really. :)

P.S. -- What do you think about the 'literary excerpts' I started all the chapters with? Should I keep them, or do away with them in AoL? Let me know.


Bubblegum Crash! : Angel of Darkness

Rogue1 aka Jeffrey Hosmer

August 29, 1994

 

Chapter One

 

"Following the disastrous setbacks of 2033, the GENOM Corporation quickly moved to recover lost ground. Chairman Quincy lobbied successfully for a revision of the Bio-Mechanical Control Act of 2031 to allow the production of intellectually-inferior, "retarded," boomers. Cheaper and easier to build than the more advanced models, they allowed GENOM to reap huge profits from increased Boomer sales.

"GENOM fed the worker-starved labor pool their products, replacing waitresses, construction workers, doormen, trash men, etc., with cheap boomer labor, changing the face of MegaTokyo overnight. Organized labor movements protested, but to no avail. In order to compete with the boomers, many people turned to cybernetic enhancements and, of course, GENOM was there to supply them."

from "The GENOM Legacy" by Matthew Hunter, Jr.

 

MegaTokyo, Japan

GENOM Tower, Night

15 May 2034

 

In an office located at the summit of the GENOM Tower, the man-made mountain of steel and concrete that dominated the skyline of MegaTokyo, a grey-haired man sat, contemplating his domain. The monitors built into the surface of his desk exposed all of GENOM to him: personnel records, stock prices, project reports, and memos. His eyes moved quickly and deliberately from screen to screen, devouring the information as it scrolled by.

A small vidphone on the man's desk began to beep. "Quincy," he said in a strong, gravelly voice, without bothering to look up.

The screen flickered to life, showing the face of a young, thin-faced man in a lab coat. "Sir, your special project is nearing completion. You asked to be told when--"

"I'll be right there. Do not begin until I arrive," interrupted Quincy, Chairman of the Board for the GENOM Corporation as he broke the connection.

 

In a laboratory deep within the GENOM Tower, Quincy now stood before a man-sized transparent tank, examining the pulpy black particles suspended in the fluid it contained. Tubes and wires ran between complicated banks of machinery and the tank, and GENOM technicians scurried around, a few of them glancing at Quincy while nervously checking and rechecking their work. They knew of their chairman's reputation for savagely punishing failure.

"We are ready to begin, Mr. Chairman," said the young scientist who had called Quincy down to the laboratory. If he was nervous, it didn't show. Instead, he exuded an air of arrogance.

"Are you sure, Dr. Yashida? Time and money are no object in this matter. Failure is."

Dr. Miriam Yashida scowled at the implication that he could fail, but controlled himself. "You hired me for my expertise, Chairman Quincy. No one knows more about boomer technology than I do. -No one.- If I wasn't sure that I could do this, I wouldn't have called you."

"Then you may begin," Quincy said, with a patronizing smile.

Miriam activated a preprogrammed sequence on his keyboard, grinning to himself as his computer came on-line. This had been a challenging project and, above almost anything else, Miriam loved a good challenge. Watching the screen carefully as lines of data scrolled up it, Miriam looked for errors, in order to correct them before they could become disasters. This project had too many unknowns to leave it to just machines.

The tank began to glow and a low thrumming noise filled the room. Inside the tank, the particles began to coagulate into a large pulsating mass, slowly resolving itself into a vaguely humanoid shape with a rough, unfinished look to it, as if it were a clay model that had been abandoned by its sculptor.

"Preliminary Cohesion Stage complete. Nanoids have been activated," said Miriam, more to himself than to anyone else. "Beginning AI Activation sequence in three... two... one... Activate!"

Lightning flew between the tank and its attendant machines, filling the room with the smell of ozone. One of the machines shorted out and burst into flame. While technicians rushed to put out the fire, Quincy merely watched the figure in the tank intently.

The figure opened its molten-red eyes.

Quincy nodded, satisfied and spoke one word:

"Largo."

 

<Online. Diagnostics running... Systems at seventeen percent. Memory systems intact. Self-repair systems inactive.>

Where...? No! NO! I won't be beaten again! Not again!

<WARNING! WARNING! Systems being accessed by external operator. Outside system initiating repairs.>

Where am I? What is happening?

"Largo."

QUINCY!

 

Quincy turned away from the tank and spoke to Miriam. "Thank you, Doctor. You and your assistants may leave, now."

"Mr. Chairman, I--"

"Dr. Yashida, this is not open to discussion."

Miriam frowned but he quickly left the lab. Putting up with Quincy's arrogance is far better than prison, he thought bitterly.

As soon as they were alone, Quincy turned back to Largo, who was staring balefully at him from within the tank.

"Well, quite an impressive sight, aren't you?" asked Quincy, sarcastically, using the exact words he had spoken to Largo a year ago, when he had almost succeeded in taking over GENOM.

"What do you want, Old Man?" asked Largo in a gurgling voice.

Quincy smiled at Largo, in a manner not unlike that of a shark. "You are here, Largo, because I want your services for a specific task. I spared no expense gathering your remains after your last encounter with the Knight Sabers."

A gurgling snarl emerged from Largo at the mention of the vigilante band. "Am I supposed to be impressed?"

"Let us drop the pretenses... Mason," said Quincy, using Largo's old human name. Largo's eyes widened. "Oh, don't look so surprised. I knew that you found a way to cheat death. Engram replication, hmm?"

"Get to the point, Old Man," gurgled Largo.

"You have only two options," Quincy said. "Either you work for me, or I spread your body to the four winds. Your consciousness would cover the entire world, trapped in billions and billions of microscopic machines. A hell of your own making, wouldn't you agree?"

"You bastard!" sputtered Largo, furious, and made even more so by his helpless position.

"Ah, but wait. You haven't heard my offer yet. If you work for me, I will provide you with a new body--almost identical to your original one, in fact--and you will have the resources of GENOM at your disposal, answerable only to me."

Largo was silent, staring contemptuously at Quincy.

Quincy went right up to the tank, meeting Largo's gaze with an iron-hard stare. "I want you to take out the Knight Sabers."

...

"What do you have in mind, Mr. Chairman?"

Quincy smiled.

Smile while you can, Quincy, thought Largo. You'll follow those bitches to hell!

 

An Alley, Night

16 May 2034

 

The filthy, trenchcoat-clad vagrant shuffled down the alley, with matted blond hair framing his nondescript face and the dim alley light glinting off the gold chain that hung loosely around his neck. He paid it no mind.

The two thugs at the end of the alley were more attentive.

"Hey, man, nice chain," the big one said in a heavily street- accented voice, swaggering down the alley.

The vagrant ignored him and continued shuffling along.

"I said, nice chain, man. You shouldn't be wearin' it in this neighborhood. Mebbe you should leave it wit me, huh? What you think, Speed?"

Speed giggled madly. "You're right, Snake."

"Of course I'm right, Speed. So, let's just relieve our new friend of his chain, here...."

As Snake reached for the chain, the vagrant suddenly came to life, grabbing Snake's hand and squeezing hard, breaking bones with a sickening crack. Screaming in pain and rage, Snake swung at him with his other hand, catching him solidly in the cheek.

The vagrant didn't react at all to the punch. He turned to face Snake, who recoiled in shock when he saw his would-be victim's eyes. They were a dead grey color, utterly devoid of life.

"Hey! You can't do that!" yelled Speed, throwing himself at the vagrant. Letting go of Snake's hand, the vagrant spun on his heel, presenting his side to Speed's clumsy attack. His left leg snapped out, kicking Speed solidly in the stomach with enough force to break the spine. Speed was dead before he hit the ground.

Snake, meanwhile, cradled the mangled remains of his right hand and ran down the alley. Spotting a telephone booth, he ran to it and pulled the door open. He punched the emergency call button and shouted in the phone, "ADPolice, help! Boomer!"

 

"We weren't doing nuthin'. Just offerin' to lead him to a homeless shelter, yeah. And he jus' ripped into us. Way too fuckin' fast, man! Look what he did to my hand!" Snake brandished the mangled remains of his right hand while a paramedic tried to get him to hold still.

ADPolice Detective Daley Wong sighed as he listened to the thug talk, running his hand through his curly, red hair. He knew that there was probably a lie for every truth in the story, but if a boomer -was- running around....

"Is this the best description you can give us?" he asked. "Medium height, medium build, dirty blond hair, brown trench coat, no distinguishing marks, and a gold chain around neck?" Christ, thought Daley. Half the street people in downtown MegaTokyo fit that description....

"Wait a minnit, wait a minnit.... His eyes, they were grey. But, they looked weird, man, real weird. They was like a corpse's eyes...."

"We'll get right on it," Daley said, careful to NOT look at the thug's hand.

Daley walked down the alley to where Detective McLeod was examining the corpse. McLeod didn't look up. He was a patient, methodical man who didn't like to be hurried.

When he finally looked at Daley, McLeod was all business. "The victim's spine was snapped instantly. The killer had to have a lot of power behind his kick to do this." McLeod's greasy brown hair fell over his eyes as he talked. Paying it no mind, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and tapped them against the corpse. Daley shuddered. McLeod could be such a cold fish at times....

"I would say that it was a boomer, alright," said McLeod, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. "Did that scum give you any leads on where it is?"

Daley shook his head. "We have patrols out. Maybe they'll hit pay dirt before it kills any more people."

"If the chief hears you talking like that, he'll have a fit, you know," commented McLeod.

"Don't I know it. Remember when Leon--"

"Patrol Twenty-three to Detective Wong!" squawked the radio on Daley's belt. "We have a possible match for the suspect. We're at the corner of Fifth and Long, a little alley next to the Chicken Shack."

Daley got out his radio and fumbled with it for a second, never having been very good with machines.

"Approach carefully, Twenty-three. The suspect is very dangerous."

"Roger that. Twenty-three out."

"Think we should head over that way?" asked McLeod.

Daley thought about it. He had a bad feeling about it, his feminine intuition kicking in BIG time.

"Yeah, I think we better."

 

Patrol Twenty-three was spread over the alley, blood and bits of flesh splattered on the concrete walls and around the bodies. A figure, clad in a brown trenchcoat, stood over them.

"Freeze! ADPolice!" shouted Daley, drawing his gun. Beside him, McLeod did the same. The guns were known jokingly as "ADPolice Specials" and were rated as having enough power to stop a charging boomer. That rating was a crock of bull, but the gun offered some protection. Daley felt that he and McLeod together should be able to hold off the boomer until reinforcements arrived.

The vagrant turned to regard the ADPolice officers and began to walk towards them.

"This is your last warning! Drop to the ground and spread 'em!" yelled Daley, more out of habit than of any hope of being listened to. McLeod coolly aimed at the vagrant's chest.

The vagrant didn't seem to hear them. He continued forward.

McLeod and Daley fired within milliseconds of each other. The slugs slammed into the killer's chest and caused him to grunt and stumble backward, but he didn't seem hurt.

"Oh, shit...." said McLeod.

The vagrant charged, moving so fast that the police officers didn't have a chance to fire again before he was within striking distance. A vicious backhand slammed Daley into the alley wall face-first, causing him to drop to his knees, groaning.

McLeod swung around, but the vagrant moved before McLeod could do more than THINK about getting a shot off. The vagrant's leg came up in a super-speed kick and McLeod, remembering Speed's corpse, did his best to roll with it. That saved his life, if not his kidney.

With one target down, the vagrant turned his dead grey eyes back towards Daley, who tried to force his body to move. No dice, his nervous system was having none of it. The vagrant didn't hurry, realizing that speed was not needed to dispose of this victim.

Daley's vision dimmed. That's it, he thought, I'm dying. I didn't even feel it....

But the vagrant hadn't attacked. Instead, he had turned toward the mouth of the alley, where a lone man now stood, blocking the light.

At first glance, the man wasn't much of a threat. He had a medium build and slicked-back brown hair, a few unruly hairs of which fell over his forehead. His clothes were unremarkable, consisting of a leather jacket, t-shirt and jeans, and an ADPolice insignia glittering on his jacket. There were only two things that marked him as out of the ordinary: He was wearing a pair of wrap- around sunglasses, even though it was night, and he had a gun in his hand. The vagrant evaluated him as a threat and charged.

The man coolly brought his gun up. It was smaller than Daley's but there was some kind of attachment on its barrel. The vagrant was twenty feet away.

The man aimed his the gun at the vagrant, coolly sighting along the barrel.

Ten feet.

The man cocked the gun.

Five feet.

BAM! The mini-rocket that had been attached to gun's barrel slammed into the vagrant's chest and exploded out his back. The newly-made corpse fell to the ground, with a huge hole through his torso.

The man checked the body carefully for movement and went over to Daley, tucking his sunglasses into his jacket pocket.

"This is what happens when I leave you alone for one night? You should take better care of yourself, partner," said ADPolice Detective Leon McNichol as he helped Daley to his feet.

"It wasn't an ordinary boomer, Leon," protested Daley. "It moved all wrong. It didn't react the way McLeod and I expected it to--"

"Let's take a look at our bad boy, then," said Leon. Kneeling over the vagrant's body, Leon stiffened. "Daley, look at this."

Daley examined the corpse, blanching.

Leon stood. "This was no boomer. We have to radio HQ."

The remains were human.

 

MegaTokyo Orphanage, Afternoon

16 May 2034

 

The MegaTokyo Orphanage was sterile and functional, with stone grey walls and a box-like shape that made it seem like a fortress. Built soundly, it had survived the Second Great Kanto Earthquake, and looked ready to take on the Third.

A small twelve-year old boy was waiting disconsolately on the Orphanage's front steps. He perked up when he heard the roar of an engine coming up the road and ran down the steps to greet the bright red motorcycle that screeched to a halt in front of him.

"Priss! Hey, Priss!" he shouted as he ran.

Priss, clad in a red-and-black, tight-fitting jumpsuit, removed her helmet and smiled at the boy. "Sho! You're glad to see your 'big sister', huh?" she asked, while piling her brown hair up over her forehead, leaving two long strands of hair hanging straight down just in front of her ears. Her reddish-brown eyes sparkled as she looked at Sho and, dismounting, she swept the boy up in an exuberant hug, lifting him easily.

"Boy, you've really grown! They must be feeding you right, hmm?" asked Priss.

"It's OK, but nothing like Mom's cooking," said Sho, his smile fading.

"Good," said Priss, avoiding the subject. "Let's go see Mrs. Hartman, and then I'll take you for a ride, OK?"

"Really? You mean it?"

"Would I lie to you?"

 

"Priss, I'm sorry to say that Sho's chances for adoption aren't much better now then they were last year," said the small, round, white-haired woman behind the desk.

"I don't see why, Mrs. Hartman. Sho is a great little boy."

"The problem is his age, Priss. I agree that he's a fine boy, but most couples want to adopt infants. The fact is, he may have to remain here until he comes of age."

"Shit," said Priss quietly. She had been put in the care of the orphanage at age twelve and knew what it was like. Mrs. Hartman had been administrator then as well. Priss blushed slightly as she realized Mrs. Hartman was looking at her reprovingly. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Hartman. But, I'm willing--"

"We covered this before, Priss. As a single young woman with no regular source of income--well, we can't let you take care of him. The regulations won't allow it." Mrs. Hartman felt sorry for the young woman before her, but couldn't break the rules. Bend them, yes, but she cared too much for the children in her care to jeopardize her position.

Priss glared at Mrs. Hartman, but she knew she had no answer to that. They had argued about this before.

"Thank you, Mrs. Hartman," said Priss, a little stiffly. "I know you're doing your best." Priss dropped a fat envelope of cash on the desk. No source of income, indeed! thought Priss. Shame I can't tell her about my job. "Here's some money for Sho. Please make sure that he has everything he needs. I'll be back next week to visit him again."

Mrs. Hartman stood up. "Don't worry, Priss, I'm doing everything I can to get Sho a good home."

"Like you did with me?" The words popped out of her mouth. Mrs. Hartman looked hurt.

Priss looked away. Mrs. Hartman had tried her hardest to find Priss a foster home, with no luck and Priss had spent five awful years at the Orphanage before running away.

As Priss left the room, Mrs. Hartman sighed. "I'm sorry, Priss," she whispered to the retreating figure.

 

Sho was looking over the motorcycle as Priss came out of the Orphanage. When he saw her he ran towards her and Priss swept him into another great hug.

Strange, thought Priss, I never thought kids could be so... fulfilling. I wish I could do more for him. I don't want him to go through what I did.

"Ready for that ride, Sho?" asked Priss as she put on her motorcycle helmet.

"All set, Sis!" said Sho, jumping on the bike behind her. She produced a small helmet for him. He put it on and grabbed her around the waist.

"Let's go!" yelled Priss as she kick-started the bike and roared out of the Orphanage. Pulling onto the highway, she opened the throttle all the way. Sho was thrilled by the speed and the feel of the wind going by. The bike, which Priss had dubbed a "Knight Saber Special", could turn on a dime and run like the wind. All too soon, though, the ride came to an end back at the Orphanage.

"Do you have to go now, Sis?" asked Sho despondently.

"I wish I didn't Sho, but Mrs. Hartman is bending the rules just letting me give you these rides. Don't worry, I'm looking out for you, and if you ever need me, just call. Now you behave yourself and study hard." Christ, thought Priss, did _I_ say that?

"Yes, Sis," said Sho quietly.

"I'll be back next weekend, OK? Now I have to go. I'll see you soon!"

"Bye, Sis!" said Sho as Priss left the Orphanage.

 

District Three Projects, Night

16 May 2034

 

Priss pulled up beside an apparently abandoned trailer with the words "Priss and the Replicants" spray-painted on the outside. She allowed herself a small smile and wondered how her old band members were doing. It had been four months since they had broken up and scattered, each going their own way.

Priss, fumbling with her keys, opened a door and entered the trailer, rolling her bike inside. The inside was rather small, but the trailer had a bed, a stereo system, and all the amenities. Sheet music littered the ground, some torn to bits or crumpled into balls and a poster on the wall, showing Priss in a blonde wig, announced the first live concert of Priss and the Replicants. The poster had apparently been torn up at one point and later repaired.

Priss flopped down on the bed. It's just as well that I can't take Sho, she thought. I couldn't raise him on my own, and definitely not here! It's barely big enough for me. And what about the Knight Sabers? How could I explain my absences? What if I didn't come back from a mission?

The Knight Sabers were a vigilante band that wore unique and highly advanced combat armor "hardsuits." Fighting for money, they opposed GENOM whenever they could.

Mrs. Hartman is right, thought Priss, I wouldn't be right for Sho. He needs parents, real parents. I couldn't do it alone....

She glanced over at her nightstand. A framed newspaper photo showed a man in handcuffs being led out of a helicopter, with Daley Wong, flashing a V for Victory sign. The man leading the prisoner was Leon McNichol, without his shades for once. Priss had cut the photo from the papers after Dr. Miriam Yashida had been arrested for attacking the ADPolice building with his boomers, which were defeated by the Knight Sabers. Miriam would have gotten away, but for Leon.

Leon?! she thought, disgusted with herself. What the hell am I thinking? He's an obnoxious jerk, always hitting on me. Bah, I must be going nuts!

Still, she thought, Leon does have some advantages. He knows about me and the Knight Sabers, ever since the night Sylvie died...

That line of thought died as quickly as it had risen.

Despite the fact that she was breaking the law, Leon kept his mouth shut about Priss and the Knight Sabers. She knew he must have figured out who the other members were. They spent too much time together outside of the missions. Once you know who one of the Knight Sabers was, you could find the others.

Maybe's Sylia's rules weren't so hokey, she thought. Sylia Stingray, who had founded the Knight Sabers, had devised a series of regulations regarding their behavior, one of which said that the Knight Sabers should not associate with each other outside of their missions. That rule, like all the others, had long been ignored. The Knight Sabers were like a family, now.

Well, one rule hasn't been broken yet, thought Priss. The one about not getting permanently involved with a man. That rule was for security reasons only, anyway. Linna had a new boyfriend every week and there were no problems. Leon already knows about me....

Her jumbled thoughts screeched to a halt. She didn't like where they were leading at all. She sat on her bed, staring blankly at the picture and thinking of Sho... and Leon.

 

GENOM Tower, Noon

28 May 2034

 

The office was brand new. The desk had just been installed and the carpet still bore the workmen's footprints. Even the vidphone had been bought recently.

A man stood in the room, glowering at his surroundings. The new furniture did not disguise the room, To him, it was old.

He was tall and wiry, but not too thin. His face was unremarkable and his black hair cut in a common style. Nothing about this man stood out, except for his eyes. One was gold, the other silver-grey.

Picking up the desk's nameplate, he sneered at it. It read:

 

Brian Larson

Special Assistant to the Chairman

 

The man went to the outer door of the office and tore it open. Ignoring a startled look from his secretary, he examined the identical nameplate on the door. Sliding it out of its holder, he saw an older nameplate which read:

 

Brian J. Mason

Special Assistant to the Chairman

 

'Larson' gritted his teeth and re-entered the office, slamming the door behind him, speechless in rage.

With a quiet beep, the vidphone flickered to life, showing Quincy's stone-like face.

"Come, come, Largo... or Larson, I should say," said Quincy, chuckling at his little joke. "I thought you would like to have your old office back. You've come full circle," Quincy's voice became full of steel, "and now it's time to break that circle. I've given you another chance and not many people, not even you, my thrice-resurrected friend, get that. Now, you have a job to do, don't you." It was not a question.

"Yes... Mr. Chairman."

Quincy's image faded from the vidphone.

The bastard must have this office bugged, thought Largo. I swear I will one day have revenge for every slight, every wrong he has done me!

Largo's fist slammed into the vidphone, crushing it.

 

Quincy relaxed in his chair. It had been a good day.

Plot what you like, Largo, he thought. If you defeat the Knight Sabers, they'll no longer be a thorn in my side, and I'll find other targets to turn you against. If they defeat you--which is more likely if you don't learn from your previous mistakes--I'll engineer another opponent for them to fight. That would be a shame, since I've already put so much time and effort into you. But while both you and the Knight Sabers are occupied with each other, GENOM can go about more important business with a free hand.

Quincy began to laugh.


Chapter 2

 

"Our AI research is proceeding well and we have totally mastered partial engram replication. By using recent advances in psychobiology and nanotechnology to copy the general pattern of a human engram, Dr. Yuri has proven that we can produce a mentality with as much potential for growth as the human mind. The implications of this procedure are staggering.

"Preliminary testing shows total engram replication, while possible, is undesirable. An attempt to transfer a complete human consciousness would result in madness. Because of this, I have canceled any further experiments into this field for the time being. I'm afraid that Yuri did not take my decision well.

"Recently, though, I have been privately pursuing an interesting corollary of Yuri's engram replication theory. Since we can take human biological information and imprint it on an electronic medium, it should be possible to reverse the process and imprint electronic information on a human brain."

Dr. Katsuhito Stingray
Private Journal Entry
August 20, 2021

 

GENOMAir Flight 383

from Berlin, Germany to MegaTokyo, Japan

31 May 2034, Noon

 

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your seat-belts and place your trays in the full, upright position as we prepare for landing in MegaTokyo," said the boomer stewardess at the front of the cabin. In keeping with GENOM's latest designs, it did not look like a real human being. Its skin was obviously metal and its facial features were kept simple, with a permanent smile.

A woman in a first-class seat stowed her portable computer away in her carry-on and looked out the window at her home. The sun shone brilliantly on the city, except for GENOM Tower, which was sheathed in dark clouds.

Tall and regal-looking, the woman had short black hair and a athletic body. Though beautiful, her face was exceptionally stoic, with very few laugh or frown lines. It made her look like a marble statue, a modern day Galatea.

"Is everything OK... Dr. Stingray? Can I help you... Dr. Stingray?" the boomer stewardess asked, pausing momentarily while the name of the passenger was inserted into its recorded spiel.

"No, thank you," said Sylia Stingray, in a rich and melodious voice. "Everything is fine." Program satisfied, the stewardess turned to the next passenger.

Home again, Sylia thought. A month in Germany in research, and then a month or two here, doing... what?

While she considered this, Sylia's thoughts smoothly and efficiently pursued several trains of thought at once, unlike most people could only pursue one line of reasoning at a time. But this was Sylia's normal mode of thinking.

Focusing her thoughts, she filed the other processes away. When she chose to, she could start them again right where she left off. Perfect memory was only one of several gifts Sylia had been given, a legacy left to her by her father.

Father, she mentally addressed him, are you happy now? I've avenged your death, not once, but several times over. Is that what you wanted?

A series of very crisp and clear memories began to play in her head. Her father in his lab working on a boomer prototype. A door opening. Brian J. Mason standing there with a gun. A shot....

Dr. Katsuhito Stingray had been a brilliant scientist working for the GENOM Corporation in the early 2020s. His team had created a robot capable of duplicating the efficiency and potential of a human, in the hopes that they would be beneficial to mankind.

But GENOM wanted to use boomers in their plans of economic domination, adapted for a variety of fields, including combat. Disgusted, Dr. Stingray had refused to relinquish his designs to them, and GENOM had 'removed' Dr. Stingray from the picture. His death was made to look like a lab accident, and extensive police investigation was 'discouraged.'

Foreseeing this and wanting his dream to continue, Dr. Stingray had prepared a special data unit. He recorded his work, everything he had done on boomers, information on GENOM, and footage of Brian J. Mason assassinating him.

The data unit was delivered to Sylia after his funeral. Using a machine that Dr. Stingray had installed in the house (ostensibly so he could bring home work from the lab), she played the tape. The data unit's information had been forcibly imprinted on Sylia's mind, giving her all of her father's genius, and reorganizing her mind along new paths, almost like an organic computer.

For all its benefits, her new mental organization had the unfortunate side effect of making it difficult to express her emotions, buried as they were under cold, hard streams of logic. This made her seem unemotional when in fact she was not.

Sylia mentally changed subjects. She would never know if her actions would have pleased her father or not. The data unit had had only information, not instructions on how to use it. It had been her choice to use his technology to improve GENOM's hardsuit designs and form the Knight Sabers. But now, perhaps, she had found another way to further his dream. Maybe this was what her father had always wanted her to do, not to fight GENOM physically, but to carry on his boomer research. What she and Dr. Geary were working on in Germany was very important....

But she felt uneasy for some reason, something she couldn't quite pin down. She looked out the window again, trying to see the Tower, but it was hidden from sight.

 

MegaTokyo International

31 May 2034, Afternoon

 

Sylia had only her carry-on, so she skipped the luggage carousel after she stepped off the boarding ramp. Even in the 21st century, airlines were notorious for losing luggage.

"Sylia!" yelled a cute, redheaded, young woman running through the crowd. Despite her ADPolice uniform, she looked more like a student than a police officer. She was followed by a tall, athletic woman with short black hair, dressed in a business suit and studying a mini-computer intently and Priss, who brought up the rear, looking at the first two women in mock disgust.

"Good thing you're back, Sylia," said Priss. "Now maybe you can get these two to behave."

Linna, the black-haired woman, looked up from her computer. "I heard that, Priss."

"Nene's right. You only hear insults when you're playing with stocks," said Priss, sticking out her tongue. Linna didn't respond, her attention focused on her mini-computer once again.

Meanwhile, Nene had wrapped Sylia in a big hug.

"It's so good to have you back, Sylia!" she gushed. "How was Germany? How's Mackie? Didyoubringanything--?"

"Whoa, Nene! There'll be plenty of time to talk about this. There's no need for you to get it all out in the first ten seconds!" said Sylia, smiling slightly.

Nene blushed red with embarrassment.

"Come on, Sylia," said Linna, finally shutting down her micro- computer. "Let's go eat. There's this new country club that I'm a member of--"

"Ooh, there you go again! Bragging about your money!" said Nene. "That's all you talk about! 'Want to invest in this, Nene?' or, 'Can you dig into this company's computer, Nene?' Humph!"

"What are you talking about, Little Miss Cyberpunk?" said Linna. "Just because _I_ made some wise investments with the money we make--"

"You'll just lose it all again," said Priss, joining in the many-times repeated argument. "You always do."

"Oh!" squealed Linna, lunging at Priss, who easily dodged.

"Enough, girls," said Sylia, smiling slightly. "We'll go and try Linna's club and--"

Suddenly a faint beeping noise could be heard. Sylia reached into her pocket and pulled out a small mobile phone.

"It's me," she said. She listened intently for a minute to the person on the other end. "We'll be there right away." She snapped the phone shut and put it away. "Lunch will have to wait, girls. We have a job."

 

ADPolice HQ, Internal Affairs Division

31 May 2034, Afternoon

 

"Is the tape rolling? OK. Detective McNichol, please state for the record your full name and your position," said one of the faceless Internal Affairs officers.

Leon sat on a hard, metal chair in a small interrogation room. Besides the spotlight on him, the only other lights in the room were reading lamps for the Internal Affairs investigators.

Stay calm, he thought to himself. They're just doing their job. This is perfectly normal procedure. Just answer their questions and you'll be fine.

"Detective Leon McNichol, Boomer-Related Homicide Division, Serial Number 517-23-3330LM."

"And your current status?"

"Suspended pending review regarding the incident on Fifth Street on the night of 16 May 2034," recited Leon in a flat monotone. You know all this, you spooks, he thought irately, beginning to lose his temper. "Now can we get this over with? I have work to do, not that I mind a paid vacation--"

"Just a few more questions, Detective McNichol," sneered a new voice. Leon winced. It was Butler, a by-the-book type who held a particular grudge against Leon. This didn't look good.

"You have been informed that you could have had a lawyer present, and you have waived that right, correct?"

"Yes, I have been informed and, yes, I waived that right," Leon parroted back at Butler, matching his tone.

"And you have not been coerced to appear before us, correct?"

"If you don't call withholding my badge and gun until I showed up for this kangaroo court 'coercion', then, yeah," agreed Leon sarcastically.

"Now," said Butler, ignoring Leon's slur, "could you describe, in your own words, what happened on the night in question?"

"It was my night off," began Leon. "I was monitoring the police band when I heard the call about a boomer-related crime involving my partner, so I--"

"That would be Detective Daley Wong, who is currently on medical leave, recovering from injuries sustained on that night, correct?" interrupted Butler.

"Look, if you know so much, why don't YOU tell me what happened?!" said Leon. "I heard the call, and since it involved my partner, I headed over to assist. When I got to Fifth street, Detective McLeod was down and Detective Wong was being attacked by the assailant--"

"Alleged assailant, Detective," said Butler.

"Alright, 'alleged assailant'," growled Leon. "Seeing one officer 'allegedly' down and another being 'allegedly' attacked, I entered the scene. The 'alleged assailant' charged me. I shot him and blew a hole through his chest. It was at this point we discovered that the 'alleged assailant' was not a boomer, but a wired-up cyborg."

"Did you use any unnecessary force, Detective? According to the account," Butler looked over one of the other officers' shoulders at the official report, "you used a modified pistol that fired a mini-grenade at the suspect. Such weapons are not on the ADPolice approved weapon list."

"I used everything I had," said Leon, his voice that of a tired war veteran who's seen too many battles. "If you don't take a boomer down quickly, it can mean your life and the lives of your men. And I have a special dispensation."

"But it wasn't a boomer, Detective. It was an unarmed man," said Butler. He seemed to be gloating. "And your 'special dispensation' was from the previous Chief, not the current one."

"Unarmed? The guy had his reflexes and strength jacked up so high it fried his brain!"

"Please, Detective. Did you know that cybernetic enhancements have not yet been classified as weapons by the courts?"

Leon didn't, and knew then that he was skating on thin ice, but continued forward doggedly.

"That's crazy," said Leon. "The 'alleged assailant' tore apart an entire patrol--"

"Let ME now tell YOU what happened, Detective," said Butler, coming forth into the light. He was a squat toad of a man, with greasy black hair and a permanent five o'clock shadow on his flabby jowls. "You took it upon yourself to play the hero, charged into a scene where you had no knowledge of what was going on, and used an illegal weapon against an human being. What happens next? Are you going to blow away a mother and her child while in hot pursuit of a boomer?" Butler's gloating finally drove Leon over the edge.

"Look here!" shouted Leon, jumping out of his chair and facing Butler directly. "What do you know, you little pissant bureaucrat? All you do is get in the way those of us who do the REAL work of the ADPolice!"

Butler took a step back from the irate Leon, retreating to the shadows.

"Detective McNichol," said one of the faceless voices, "we feel that you should remain on suspension, pending judicial review."

Leon had a horrible sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. See what happens when you lose your temper? said a little voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Daley.

"What!?" asked Leon. "You gotta be kidding--!"

"It's no joke, 'Detective'," sneered Butler. "You're going to court on this one, and I hope they toss you out on your ass."

You idiot! said another voice in Leon's head, one which sounded just like Priss. Look what you've gotten yourself into!

The light went out.

 

MegaTokyo Hospital Emergency Room

31 May 2034, Early Evening

 

"Move it!" yelled the orderly as he pushed the gurney through the halls of the hospital. A doctor in surgical gear rushed up. A computerized-clipboard was snapped into his hand, but he ignored it, preferring to make his own initial judgement on his patient's condition. He didn't like what he saw.

"What do we got?" he asked the head nurse, also dressed in a surgical robe.

"Severe head trauma. Looks like a fracture of the skull with some messy complications. The scan wasn't very clear. There may be brain damage."

"Shit!" swore the doctor as he looked at the clipboard, confirming what she had said. "Millions of dollars on equipment and I get a maybe? Prep OR Four, we're going to have to go in."

"We could wait for the lab results--"

The doctor was looking at a computer-generated X-ray on the clipboard. "No, if we leave this fracture alone there might be major complications later. Look at the placement. Damn, I'm going to have to rearrange my schedule. Do we have a release?"

"It's on file. She works for ADPolice--"

"Is this another boomer case?" asked the doctor as he walked away from the patient to scrub up.

"No, she...." The nurse's voice faded as she followed the doctor.

Nene Romanova lay on the gurney, her head swaddled in blood- soaked bandages.

 

Sylia, Linna, and Priss were in the hospital waiting room, Sylia by the window, smoking a cigarette in a silver holder, gazing out at the stormy skies; Linna on a nearby couch, her head held in her hands, her eyes red from crying; Priss sitting backwards in a chair, arms crossed over its back, staring blankly at nothing.

"Why Nene?" asked Linna, more of herself then anyone else.

"It was an accident," said Sylia, not looking away from the window. "We did everything we could to prevent it."

"But it's not FAIR!" wailed Linna.

"Life's not fair," observed Sylia quietly. She knew it better than anyone.

Linna's outburst subsided. She was closest to Nene, and the knowledge that her friend was lying on an operating table somewhere was tearing her apart.

Priss seemed not to notice.

Sylia, meanwhile, returned to her thoughts, burying the pain under a torrent of calculations, preparing design modifications to the hardsuits to prevent Nene's accident from occurring again.

A doctor in wrinkled surgical garb walked into the waiting room, writing something on his electronic clipboard. He looked around and saw the three women.

"Dr. Stingray?" he asked.

"Yes?" said Sylia, moving towards the doctor. Linna jumped up as well, but Priss stayed in her chair.

"Well, Doctor, your friend is in Post-Op right now," said the doctor tiredly. "The damage wasn't as bad as we feared. We cleaned out some bone fragments and sealed the fracture, but she's not out of the woods yet," he warned, looking serious, forestalling any hopeful outbursts. "She's in a deep coma. Now, there's no cause for alarm yet. She may come out of it within a few days."

"What if she doesn't?" asked Linna.

"Then she might be in a coma for months, or years, or perhaps even for the rest of her life," said the doctor. Linna almost collapsed. While Sylia and the doctor tried to help her, Priss got up and left the room without saying a word.

 

Nene was lying in a hospital bed with various machines monitoring her condition. She had an IV drip attached to her arm, her head swaddled in bandages and was very pale. Every breath she took was punctuated by a respirator and a monitor beeped in time with her heart, like a clock counting down to doomsday.

Priss entered the room and, making sure she was alone, quietly walked over to the bed. Kneeling beside it, she grasped Nene's hand, bowed her head, and felt tears streaming from her eyes.

"Oh, Nene," she sobbed, "I'm so sorry, so very sorry."

 

GENOM Tower, Evening

31 May 2034

 

Largo sat back in his chair, reflecting on his day. In front of his desk, Miriam stood nervously.

"I don't see what you accomplished--sir," said Miriam, remembering at the last minute that Largo detested the name Quincy had chosen for him. "The boomers were destroyed. You knew they weren't good enough to take out the Knight Sabers in the first place, so why did you even send them out?"

Largo looked at Miriam. Then he stood up and looked out the office window at MegaTokyo.

"Miriam, it was never my intention to kill the Knight Sabers today. That one of them was injured, perhaps fatally, was a pleasant surprise. Today was just... a reconnaissance mission, a feint. I sacrificed some pawns to gauge their strength."

"But Chairman Quincy--"

"I will act in this matter as I see fit, is that understood, Doctor?" hissed Largo, casting a venomous glance at Miriam. "Neither you or that old man will tell me how to handle this affair!"

"Y-yes, sir." stammered Miriam.

"Tell me, Doctor," said Largo, in a more conversational tone of voice, "have you ever died?"

"No, of course not," said Miriam, puzzled by the apparent change in subject. Miriam yawned. Just because HE doesn't need to sleep, he thought, he seems to think I don't either. He looked at his watch to see how long he had been up. Twenty hours!? he thought. And barely four hours of sleep before that. And for what? Useless, cowardly, _feints_.

"I have, Doctor," continued Largo. "Twice already, in fact. You should try it sometime, it's an extraordinary experience, quite liberating."

Miriam kept quiet, thinking that Largo's main logic processor was offline.

"Above all else, death teaches you patience, Doctor." Largo whirled around, turning on Miriam viciously. "If it takes me twenty years, I will have my revenge on those bitches!" Taking a deep, albeit simulated, breath, Largo continued more calmly. "But you see, my hatred has grown so vast, that simply killing them won't be enough. They must suffer as I have suffered.

"I shall take everything away from them, piece by piece. Their possessions, their purpose, their very souls. They robbed me of my position, my power, and my humanity. I will return my suffering to them a hundredfold.

"And then, finally, when they are begging for death to take them, I will finish it," said Largo quietly. A gloating smile crossed his face.

 

District Three Projects, Megatokyo

1 June 2034, Before Dawn

 

Priss lay asleep on her bed, tossing and turning restlessly as her mind replayed the events of the afternoon...

 

It was, for the Knight Sabers, a routine call. Four combat boomers had gone rogue, broken out of their storage facility, and were rampaging through MegaTokyo. One of their clients (Priss didn't know who, Sylia kept that information to herself) had requested that they handle the problem.

As usual, they went to Sylia's place, retrieved their suits from storage, warmed up their stealth plane, the Knight Wing (a stupid name, Priss always thought, but Nene had thought it up and had been adamant) and arrived on the scene inside of a half-hour.

The boomers, M-20 "Maulers," were humanoid in shape and carried the following ordnance: twin, shoulder-mounted missile launchers capable of firing up to six mini-missiles at a time; vibroblades extending from their forearms capable of easily cutting through steel and concrete; and palm-mounted lasers as well as the standard particle beam located in their mouths. They were designed for "combat actions against indigenous hostile forces in urban and semi-urban environments." In short, they were intended to hunt down and kill people in their homes.

With their combat programs activated and the citizens of MegaTokyo targeted, the Maulers proved that they were very good at their job.

The Knight Sabers arrived as the four Maulers were tearing up part of MegaTokyo's business section. The boomers moved forward in pairs, covering each other from potential enemy fire while, behind them, burning cars and corpses littered the ground.

It had looked like a pretty easy job. Four boomers, four Knight Sabers. Hardly even odds.

"Knight Sabers... GO!" Sylia yelled, voicing the Knight Sabers battle cry as Priss and the others launched themselves at the boomers.

The Maulers, evaluating the newcomers as a threat, reacted accordingly. Letting off a salvo of missiles, they tried to saturate the area with high explosives, but Nene, in her red and pink hardsuit, used her ECM gear to detonate the missiles in mid- flight.

"Yes!" Nene shouted, pleased. No electronic system in the world could stop her from throwing a wrench in the works, not even state-of-the-art military systems.

The Knight Sabers each paired up with boomer and went to work, each in their own unique style. Following a pre-arranged plan, Sylia and Linna tackled the two nearest Maulers while Priss and Nene tackled the other two.

 

Sylia's style of combat was straightforward and all business, without any reckless displays. She fired her palm-mounted blaster as soon as she was in range, the muzzle flashing several times. She felt the blaster's powerful recoil, despite numerous shock absorbers, run along her arm. The boomer tried to evade, but the blasts inflicted severe damage to the its frame. The boomer tried to close with her, extending its vibroblades to eliminate her before her long-range weapons inflicted too much damage.

Poor choice. As the Mauler closed within hand-to-hand range, Sylia slid HER blade, razor-sharp and made of a super-hard alloy, out of its compartment on her right forearm. The blade sliced cleanly through the Mauler's chest and it fell, riddled with numerous small explosions.

 

Linna was more flamboyant with her target, her movements fluid and graceful. She flung what appeared to be several daggers, hitting the Mauler directly in the chest. The Mauler paused momentarily, but evaluated the damage as minimal and ignored the wires connecting the daggers to Linna's suit. It realized its error a moment later when an powerful electric charge traveled down the wires and scrambled its circuits. It stood paralyzed, trying to cope with the overload, as Linna closed in for the coup de grace.

Long, tail-like streamers extended from her helmet. The monostreamers had edges no wider than a molecule's thickness, and could cut through almost anything. Snapping her head forward with practiced ease, Linna sent them sailing out towards the boomer, and watched with satisfaction as the Mauler's arms and shoulders were sliced cleanly off. The Mauler opened its mouth to blast Linna with its particle beam, but another toss of her head, this time to the side, sliced the boomer into three parts, cut along the chest and waist, which fell to the ground harmlessly.

 

Priss's style showed her preference for getting up close and personal. Priming the explosive "brass knuckles" on her right fist, she slammed them into the boomer's chest before it could react. The original design for her latest suit had not included the explosive knuckles, but Priss had convinced Sylia to install them, claiming they were well-suited for her style of fighting. Actually, she just liked the damage they could do.

But this time, Priss had misjudged the boomer's armor plating. Instead of the exploding through the boomer's chest, the blast propelled the boomer backward, and it landed, damaged but still operational, near where Nene was facing off with her opponent

"Nene!" yelled Priss, running towards the fight. Her Mauler, however, unleashed a salvo of missiles which struck a nearby building and knocked her off her feet with a shower of masonry.

 

Nene, meanwhile, had taken a sophisticated approach with her prey, confusing its scanners with her hardsuit's impressive array of countermeasures. First the boomer couldn't detect a single opponent, then it saw an army. Baffled, it fired at nonexistent targets, wasting its energy and sending its AI into fits. Nene was moving in for the kill when Priss's shout caused her to look back.

The other boomer loomed over her, fist raised. Surprised, Nene tried to evade as the Mauler, opting for its simplest attack mode, swung at her head, not bothering to extend its blade. Nene managed to pull back in time to avoid serious damage, but the glancing blow cracked her helmet and left her head ringing.

Nene backed up, trying to clear her head and focus on what her damaged sensors were telling her, right into the first boomer she had been fighting.

That boomer, its senses no longer clouded, grabbed hold of Nene's legs and swung her into a nearby wall. Nene screamed.

 

For Priss, time had seemed to slow. As soon as she regained her feet, she charged towards the fight, but couldn't close the distance in time. When Nene screamed, Priss's blood turned to ice.

She watched helplessly as Nene slammed into the wall headfirst, her helmet shattering on impact, and fell face-down to the ground, her head covered in blood...

 

Priss woke up with a start and cradled her head in her arms, sobbing.

It's all MY fault, she thought. If I'd only been faster, it never would have happened. Nene wouldn't be in the hospital. She wouldn't be in a coma. She wouldn't be in danger of dying!

Priss stilled the hysterical thoughts in her head. They weren't helping matters. She felt a need to talk to someone. Who? Not one of the Knight Sabers. She KNEW they would blame her. They knew she was responsible. Someone else then, someone who didn't have to be told the whole story....

There's one person, she thought. Reaching for her phone, she dialed a number from memory. The phone began to ring.

 

Leon McNichol's Apartment, Early Morning

1 June 2034

 

Leon slumped in his easy chair. What a day, he thought. I knew Butler had it in for me, but....

Leon sipped the cold beer he had taken out of his fridge and looked around his apartment. It was, to put it mildly, a dump. The wallpaper was peeling, the air-conditioning/heating worked only half the time, there were mice in the walls, and the furniture looked like it had been salvaged from a junkpile. (Actually, some of it HAD been salvaged from a junkpile.)

But Leon didn't care very much. His apartment was a place to sleep and store clothes. His life was his work. WAS his work, he corrected himself. Now that he was suspended, he began to see how trashy his apartment really looked. He would have to clean it up... sometime.

Leon finished his beer and then crushed the can, tossing it toward a waste bin. It bounced off the rim and clattered to the floor. He didn't care.

The phone began to ring. Shit, thought Leon, who could that be? He let it ring a few more times, wondering if they would go away, but it kept ringing. Finally, he picked it up and the vidscreen flickered to life, showing Priss's face.

"Priss!" Leon said, delighted. "What's up?"

"Leon, I... that is, well... I could use someone to talk to," said Priss, a little hesitantly She was upset, and Leon could tell that something awful had happened. She wouldn't call him for just anything. In fact, he thought, she normally wouldn't call him at all.

"What's wrong?" he asked, dropping the flippant tone.

"It's Nene. She's in the hospital--"

"WHAT?!" asked Leon. "When?! How?!"

"She--she's in a coma," said Priss. "Didn't you know? I thought the ADPolice would have told you."

"Well... I'm still on suspension," Leon admitted. He had mentioned his problem to Priss, passing it off as a minor affair.

"I thought you were going before the Internal whatever-you- call-it today to clear that up."

"Well, they didn't clear it up. They want to take me to court. Know any good lawyers?"

"Leon! They can't do that! You're the bes--" Priss stopped herself before she complimented him.

Leon grinned. That may have been the nicest thing she ever said to him.

"Priss," he said, becoming serious again, "don't worry about me. I can handle it. What about Nene?"

"W-why don't you come over here?" Priss looked like she regretted the invitation almost as soon as she made it. "Just to talk, I mean."

"Over at your place? I guess so," said Leon, trying to appear nonchalant. "I'll be over shortly."

"Bye, Leon."

"Bye, Priss."

Before Leon left the apartment, though, he made a quick phone call to ADPolice HQ.

"ADPolice, Naoko speaking," came a female voice, the screen showing a cute brunette. Leon smiled at his luck, Naoko was one of Nene's best friends on the force.

"Naoko! It's Leon. They got you working the night shift now?"

"Just temporarily, Leon. What's up?"

"I just heard from a friend of Nene's. She said Nene was in the hospital."

"What?! I didn't know that!" Naoko eyed Leon for a moment, and guessed what he wanted. "I'll run a check."

"Thanks. Let me know what you find. Also, did anything major go down today? I would call the front desk, but I seem to be persona non gratis today and don't want to test my luck."

"The only big thing was a boomer incident." Naoko's voice became a flat monotone reciting the facts of the case. "Four Maulers went rogue, cause unknown. Fourth ADPolice Unit dispatched but the Knight Sabers appeared on the scene first, for once, and destroyed the boomers. Eyewitness accounts suggest that one of the Knight Sabers was injured in the battle."

"Really? Was it Blue again?" The ADPolice referred to the individual Knight Sabers by the primary color of their hardsuits. Sylia was White, Priss was Blue, Linna was Green, and Nene was Red (she used to be Pink back when her hardsuit was blue-and-pink instead of the present red-and-pink).

"Sorry, Leon. It was Red, actually."

"Red, huh? How?"

"The Knight Sabers were fighting one-on-one when Blue knocked her boomer too close to Red's fight. The boomers double-teamed Red, slammed her into a wall, head-first. The Knight Sabers then finished off the Maulers and left the scene, taking Red with them."

Leon nodded. Priss's call began to make a lot more sense.

"Well, thanks Naoko. I'll call you if I hear anything more about Nene."

"Same here. Bye!"

 

District Three Projects, Early Morning

1 June 2034

 

Priss let Leon into her trailer. Leon scoped the place out. Nice, he thought. Classier than my place, if smaller.

Priss's eyes were red and she looked awful. Leon took her into his arms and held her, instinctively knowing she needed it. Priss relaxed for a minute, taking some comfort from him, before struggling out of his grasp. Leon, expecting that, just shrugged.

"What's wrong, Priss?" asked Leon, taking a seat on a nearby chair.

Priss looked at Leon, wondering for the millionth time why she had called him over. He was an obnoxious jerk most of the time, constantly chasing after her. Yet, she thought, he had his good side....

"Or is this just an excuse to get me over here, hmm?" teased Leon, trying to lighten the mood.

A good side which is not in evidence right now, thought Priss sourly..

"Leon... It's about Nene... It's all my fault she got hurt!" blurted Priss, immediately sorry that she had done so.

Leon looked serious. "Your fault?" he asked. "Bullshit."

"But--"

"Priss, I don't believe for a moment that you are responsible for Nene getting hurt. No way, no how, uh uh. You can't blame yourself for this, no matter what happened." Actually, Leon had a pretty good idea what happened, but wasn't about to tell Priss that.

"But I wasn't able to keep her from getting hurt!"

"No. And you won't always be able to. No matter how good you are, the odds will always catch up with you. That's a fact of life." Leon knew this subject all too well, having lost too many friends in the ADPolice not to know what Priss was going through. Unfortunately, there were no easy answers.

"I should have been faster. If I--"

Leon looked at her and shook his head. "I'm not getting through that thick, beautiful, skull of yours, am I?" he asked rhetorically.

Priss stopped in mid-sentence.

"Priss, whatever happened, it's not your fault," said Leon, slowly and clearly. "Repeat after me: It's not my--"

"Dammit, Leon! This isn't a joke!"

"Who's joking?" Leon asked, seriously. "Priss, you can't take the blame for this. It was an accident, an act of fate, nothing more."

"I can't let it happen again, I just can't. I have to make myself better. There are ways--"

"No!" said Leon, angrily. "Priss, there are horrible risks involved in those methods. Most of them are outlawed. And why are you, of all people, even thinking of it? You hate that sort of thing."

"I don't want anyone else I love dying because I wasn't good enough!" screamed Priss.

The two of them glared at each other. Leon could almost see a chasm between them. Somehow, he had to cross it. He had been in Priss's situation before, but he had been surrounded by close friends who had kept him from going over the edge. Priss, the perpetual loner, was isolating herself, walling everyone off. She had called him, instead of a Knight Saber, because he was an outsider, he figured, ignoring the other obvious conclusion. He was the only one now that could keep her from making a mistake she would regret.

The only thing is, he thought, can I do it?

"Look, Priss," said Leon in a conciliatory tone of voice. "Just listen to me. I know the dangers in some of these methods. In fact, I'm suspended because of them."

"What?"

"ADPolice has been running into a new breed of crazy. Some people go too far in cybernetically enhancing themselves and become sociopaths, sort of like our old friend," said Leon, rubbing his throat where Largo had nearly crushed it a year ago. "They go nuts and if anyone gets in their way, they kill them, without any remorse, like we would step on a bug."

"What's that got to do with your suspension?" asked Priss. Good, he thought, we're on another subject.

"We lost a patrol to what seemed to be a boomer. I came on the scene, blew it away, and discovered that it wasn't a boomer, but a human, though it was hard to tell in some areas."

"I thought cybernetics showed--I mean, they don't make them well enough to hide them." Priss seemed caught up in his story. That's it, thought Leon, keep her occupied.

"This is a new type that uses nanotechnology. The lab boys tell me they use little machines called nanoids to reconstruct your body at the cellular level--or molecular, I'm not sure which. The result is something that looks human but maybe two or three times as strong and fast. The morgue had a horrible time with this body. The nanoids kept trying to repair it. It was like something out of _Night of the Living Dead_."

Priss looked thoughtful.

"Now, Priss," said Leon, "put it all out of your mind and try to get some sleep." He yawned. "Come to think of it, I'm pretty tired--"

"Oh no, you don't," said Priss. "Go home to your own bed." She gave him a playful shove toward the door. "And, Leon?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

Mission accomplished, thought Leon smugly as he left.

Priss went over to a small desk. She found a pencil and a piece of paper and scrawled out a quick note before going to bed.

The note read: Call Dr. Raven about nanotech.


Chapter 3

"Practical nanotech was the brainchild of Dr. Ryan Dillon, a cyberneticist with the Stingray Boomer Research Project from 2021 until Dr. Stingray's death in 2022.

"When Dr. Dillon joined the team, Dr. Stingray and Dr. Haynes had already designed a prototype boomer AI on paper. The problem now was how to make it fit in a human-sized boomer. Searching for the solution, Dr. Dillon researched miniaturization, in particular, the micro-waldoes used in genetic surgery.

"'If,' theorized Dr. Dillon, 'we can make machines that small, why not processors?' Thus the original boomer brain was born, a collection of nanoprocessors serving the master AI.

"After Dr. Stingray died, Dr. Dillon went to work directly for GENOM, where he perfected the nanoid, a mobile nanoprocessor capable of altering its surroundings.  

"GENOM experiments with nanotech were limited to their 'matter-fusion' experiments, which were ideally suited for combat weapon systems. Unhappy with the turn the research had taken, Dr. Dillon contemplated leaving GENOM in 2028. Unfortunately, he died in a tragic motorcycle accident before he could finalize his plans and his patents became exclusively GENOM's.  

"GENOM's experiments in matter-fusion died out sometime in 2029-30, leaving nanotech to the medical community. There was, however, a report from a Dr. Blanchet in 2032 that he had found evidence of matter- fusion in the ruins of Aqua City after a USSD orbital laser satellite accidently discharged and destroyed the abandoned city. Dr. Blanchet died soon afterwards in a drive-by shooting and his 'evidence' was never found, so this report is highly improbable."

from "NanoGenesis"
by Dr. J. H. Perry III, Nt.E.

Dr. Stewart's Office, Afternoon
5 June 2034

 

"Hello, Ms. Asagiri, what can I do for you?" asked Dr. John Stewart blandly, rising from his chair to greet Priss. Dr. Stewart was in his thirties, tall, thin, clean-shaven, with thinning brown hair and a slight paunch. He had an earnest look about his face, though, and an open expression.

Priss shook hands with the doctor and took a seat without being asked. Dr. Stewart looked annoyed for a second, then shrugged and sat down himself. Most people were uncomfortable coming to see him, he knew. They expected some sort of mad scientist, thanks to all those horrible movies.

"I understand you do nanotech cyber-augmentation, Doctor," said Priss who, despite her calm appearance, felt her stomach trying to tie itself into knots.

"That's right."

"What sort of results do you get?"

"Nano-cybernetics is a wondrous new field", Dr. Stewart expounded, genuinely enthusiastic. "We can't work miracles yet, I'm afraid, but we do get some pretty impressive results. We can improve your reflexes to about 200 or 300 percent of normal. Body strength can be increased almost two-and-a-half times. And the nanoids in your system would help you heal faster and more thoroughly than normal."

Priss gave a low whistle of appreciation. Nanotech could do more than she thought. Dr. Stewart looked at her suspiciously.

"Look, why do you want to know about all this? I'll tell you this right now, if you want cybernetics for criminal reasons, you can walk right out that door."

"I was given your name by Dr. Raven," said Priss. "He said you could be... discreet."

"Raven? What does he have to do with this?"

"Its better that we don't go into that, Doctor," said Priss evenly. "The less you know, the better. I am in a very dangerous line of work and I need the enhancements you just described. If you like, you can call Dr. Raven and confirm this." Priss knew that no reputable doctor would do what she wanted, and she couldn't trust the cybernetics black market to do it right. The legitimate medical community frowned on cybernetic augmentation without a sound reason. But Dr. Raven, a scientist who had helped Sylia with the original hardsuit designs, had reluctantly given her the name of a colleague who owed him a few favors.

"That changes things somewhat," said Dr. Stewart, nervously. This could get his license revoked, he knew. "I can do what you want, but it will take time to get the nanoids in. They have to be custom-ordered for each patient. Come back in about five days. If Raven confirms your story, I'll do it.

"In the meantime, I am going to give you a prescription," he said, scribbling something down on a sheet of paper and handing it to her. "You are to take two of these pills every six hours until I see you again. The nanoids will need 'building materials' and this will saturate your system with them. Now, are you sure you want to do this?"

"Doctor, what I want doesn't matter. I _need_ to do this."

Dr. Stewart sighed, but he had done what he could.

"I take it you have your medical file with you?"

Priss handed over a small plastic card. Dr. Stewart ran it through a reader and gasped as Priss's medical file came up on his monitor. Old injuries--knife wounds, torn ligaments, broken bones, and others, some of which had never really completely healed-- filled the chart.

"Five days then, Doctor," said Priss as she left the office.

"I hope I won't regret this," muttered the doctor to himself as he sat down in front of his computer. Changing menus, he prepared Priss's medical file for transfer and sent a copy of it, along with his nanoid request, to his major medical supplier: GENOM.

 

GENOM Tower, Late Afternoon

5 June 2033

 

"Miriam! Miriam! Get in here!" shouted Largo from his desk.

Miriam woke up with a start from the couch outside Largo's office. Shaking his head wearily, he rushed into the office, wondering what had set his boss off this time.

"Look at this, Miriam! This is perfect! Perfect!" said Largo, indicating the viewscreen before him.

Miriam looked at it dutifully, but not really seeing it. Too many hours without sleep were taking their toll.

"I don't get it, sir. It's just a routine medical nanoid requisition. What--?"

"Take a good look at the patient's face," instructed Largo. Miriam did so. "Now take a look at this image."

A picture came up on the screen, next to the first one, of Priss in her hardsuit, but without her helmet. A year ago, Priss and Largo had fought and her helmet had been destroyed in the course of the battle.

Miriam clenched his fists in anger. Later that year, the Knight Sabers had humbled him, destroying some of his finest boomers. He had been sent to jail and he had sworn to punish them for it. Then he saw what Largo wanted him to see.

"They're the same woman!" he exclaimed.

"Excellent, Miriam, excellent. Yes, they are. Priscilla S. Asagiri, or 'Priss' as she likes to be called." Largo settled back in his chair. "I knew her name and face, so I programmed the GENOM computers to alert me to anything relating to her. I think that this opportunity is too good to pass up, don't you, Miriam?"

"Should I prepare some lethal nanoids?"

"No, let's be a bit more subtle. Be creative."

At that, Miriam smiled. This project offered him his first real challenge since he had reconstituted Largo. This should be interesting, he thought, as his mind went to work on what horrors he could inflict on Priss.

"I trust it is to look... accidental?"

"Yes, a bad batch of nanoids that had... unpredictable results. A horrible accident that GENOM will strive to fix in the future. After all, GENOM is a 'respectable company.'"

"Yes, sir!" Miriam rushed out to begin his work.

Largo began to laugh.

 

MegaTokyo Hospital, Room 1754, Afternoon

6 June 2034

 

Linna sat next to Nene's bed, next to a collection of flowers and cards from the ADPolice. She hadn't left Nene's side since visiting hours started. Nene was still deep in her coma, but at least the bandages had been removed from her head, and her hair was starting to grow back in, the short fuzz barely covering her scalp.

Sylia sat back in a chair and looked out the room's window every now and then. She seemed unconcerned, but Linna could see small flashes of worry on her face now and then.

The two women sat there quietly for a time.

Then the door swung open. Linna's eyes widened in surprise as Leon and Daley entered the room.

"Leon! Daley! What are you doing here?" asked Linna, jumping up to greet them. Sylia, meanwhile, faded into the background, trying to remain unobtrusive.

"Well, someone had to drop off the latest offering from the ADPolice," said Leon, indicating a small bouquet of flowers he held. "And Daley was in for a checkup. He went hunting for boomers without me a while back and got banged up." Daley managed a weak little grin. "The docs wanted to take a look at him."

"How's Nene doing?" asked Daley quietly.

"She's still in a coma," said Linna. "The doctors are still optimistic, but it's been days now...."

"Damn!" said Leon. "I wish there was something we could do. A lot of people at ADPolice are worried about her. When she wakes up, tell her that we're planning a huge party for her when she reports back to work."

"Thanks, Leon," said Linna, managing a wan smile. "I'm sure Nene will appreciate it. Oh," she said, motioning to Sylia, "have you met Sy--er, Dr. Stingray?"

"No, I don't think so," said Leon, extending his hand. Sylia took it and shook it lightly.

"Detective Leon McNichol, meet Dr. Sylia Stingray, a friend of Nene's and mine."

"Pleased to meet you, Doctor," said Leon, studying Sylia closely. I wonder if she's number four, he thought to himself. Priss hangs out with Nene and Linna so much, I'm certain that they're Knight Sabers as well, though with Nene it's hard to believe. Nene's 'accident' clinches it, though. Could Dr. Stingray here be the last of them?

To Leon, discovering the identities of the Knight Sabers was a challenge for his detective skills, and that was something he could never pass up.

"Likewise, Detective," Sylia said in her coolest tones, as they shook hands. Priss had told her about Leon, but had alternated so much between praising him and cursing him that Sylia was forced to draw her own conclusions. She knew, however, that there was more to this man than met the eye.

"Say, where's Priss?" asked Leon, looking away from Sylia.

"I don't know," said Linna. "She's been in and out of here a lot. Should I tell her you're looking for her?"

"Nah, that's OK. I just thought...." Leon shook his head. "Well, let me know if there is any change with Nene, OK?" Should I mention what Priss told me? Leon asked himself. No, he decided. It's settled. Priss is alright.

"Sure thing, Leon."

Daley went over to Nene's side and gave her a little peck on the cheek. "Get well soon, Nene," he whispered.

"Come on, Daley, let's get moving."

Leon and Daley left, and Linna and Sylia resumed their silent vigil.

 

Later that night, long after visiting hours were over, Nene had another visitor. Priss went over to Nene's bed, knelt beside her and took her hand.

"Nene," she began in a low voice, "I found a doctor today who said that he would help me, make me stronger, faster and tougher, so that I won't ever let anyone down again. It's funny, y'know. I've been working all my life to be the best at that sort of thing, and here it's being offered to me." Priss gave a short laugh that was almost more like a sob.

"I--I almost said no, Nene. If I go and do this, I'll almost be like a boomer, not human anymore. But I thought about how you got hurt, about how you might die. So, I said yes.

"Now you just rest there and get better, Nene," said Priss, leaning down and giving Nene a little sisterly peck on the forehead. "Nothing will ever hurt you again."

Priss left the room, knowing that the nurses would soon be by to check on their patients. Behind her, Nene stirred slightly, uttering a small moan. But she soon settled back into her coma, as if she had given up....

 

Dr. Stewart's Office, Afternoon

10 June 2034

 

"Ah, Ms. Asagiri, right on time," said Dr. Stewart as Priss entered his office. "Dr. Raven confirmed what you told me, so I guess we can continue. I trust that you have been taking the pills?"

"Yes, Dr. Stewart. I'm ready." Priss's voice was firm and her gaze was fixed steadily on Dr. Stewart. "What do we have to do?"

"Oh, nothing drastic," said Dr. Stewart. He held up a syringe. "I've already prepared the nanoids."

"That little shot?" asked Priss incredulously.

"Don't let its size fool you, Ms. Asagiri. There are millions of nanoids in this syringe, and once they are in your system they will multiply a thousand-fold and go to work, using the materials you've been flooding your system with. You'll have to keep taking the pills for another couple days or so. Keep at it until you feel the changes stop."

"'Feel the changes?'" repeated Priss.

"You think that you _won't_ feel your body changing? The nerves are going to be rebuilt, not destroyed. You're going to feel very tired for a while, because the nanoids are feeding off your body's energy while they work. Make sure you get enough to eat, otherwise they might hurt you by overextending your system. When they're done, most of them will shut down and the rest of them will remain merely to perform maintenance."

"And all this is permanent, right?"

"Well, theoretically, we _could_ make nanoids to undo the work of the first nanoids, but the first nanoids would resist the changes. And while they fight it out, both types of nanoids would be using your body's energy reserves. You might die before they settled the issue. Also, it's more difficult for the nanoids to recreate biological tissue, since we don't understand that as well. Why? Are you having second thoughts?"

"No," said Priss. "I'm ready."

"OK, then," said Dr. Stewart. He had Priss roll up her sleeve, and then took a swab and rubbed alcohol on Priss's arm. Taking the syringe, he looked into Priss's eyes, trying to see any sign of indecision there. Seeing none, he jabbed the needle into her arm and depressed the plunger.

Millions of little machines, small enough to work on the interior of human cells, flowed into Priss's system. The nanoids rapidly spread throughout her body, latched onto the small deposits of minerals that Dr. Stewart's pills had deposited, and set to work.

Priss stood up and rubbed her arm. "I don't feel any different."

"You will," promised Dr. Stewart. "Now let's take care of the paperwork and then you go home and get some sleep."

 

District 3 Projects, Afternoon

15 June 2034

 

Priss got out of bed, slowly. The last five days had been hell. She had slept most of the time, waking only to eat large amounts of food. When she was alert enough to call Dr. Stewart, he only assured her that it was normal.

And her body had been feeling... strange. At first, it had been her muscles. They had been stiff and sore, confining her to bed, unable to move. Even blinking had been an effort. That had eventually passed, but then she had developed a horrible itching, as if every nerve in her body was on fire. Scratching only dug great furrows in her skin, so she had had to sit still, in agony. Now her skin felt funny, rougher than it used to be. But at least she could move around.

She tried to stand and surprised herself by practically leaping out of bed! Trying to correct herself, she reached out to grab hold of a chair, but misjudged it and pushed it away instead, falling to the floor.

Dr. Stewart was right, she thought. I AM faster and stronger! I'll have to be careful.

She found, however, that she could quickly adjust to the changes. Her nervous system, which resembled a network of superconductors now more than anything else, was not only faster, but also gave her very fine control. All she had to do was use it.

Wow, thought Priss. I wonder what my new limits are....

There was a knock at the door. Priss shrugged on a bathrobe and went to answer it.

"Hey, Priss!" said Leon. He stood in the door, quietly placing his foot in the door, in case she slammed it shut.

"Leon? What are you doing here?"

"I came to check up on you. Apparently no one has seen you in a couple days and you haven't been answering your phone."

"Well, I've been busy," said Priss, uncertainly. She opened the door a little too wide.

Leon took the opportunity and pushed his way in. Priss thought of trying to stop him, but quickly decided that it would be useless unless she answered a few of his questions first.

Leon glanced around the room. The bed sheets were wrinkled and sweat-stained, there were the remains of several meals in the sink, and it smelled like a sickroom.

"Have you been ill, Priss?" Leon asked.

"No, I've never felt better," said Priss, and was surprised to feel that it was true. She did feel great.

Leon looked at her closely. Something was wrong.

"Priss, you're holding out on me. What's going on?" Concerned, Leon tried to grab her by her shoulders.

Big mistake. Priss reacted instinctively and grabbed Leon's hands and held them away, moving exceptionally fast. Gasping in pain, Leon dropped to his knees. Startled, Priss let go.

"Priss!" gasped Leon. "What have you done?" Leon looked at her in shock, rubbing his bruised wrists.

That look hurt Priss more than anything else. She knelt down before Leon.

"I'm sorry Leon, I didn't mean--"

"What did you do, Priss? What's happened to you?"

"I... went to see a doctor about nanotech, like you told me about--"

"I told you that it was dangerous! I told you not to think about it! Didn't you listen to me? God, why didn't you listen?!" Waves of guilt swept over Leon. He had bungled things again. His little psych-session with Priss had only made things worse. And Leon had seen too many cases of cyberpsychosis to think that Priss was immune to it.

"I k-know you did," said Priss, shaken by his vehemence, "but it was something I HAD to do."

"Priss, this won't help Nene and it might destroy you, the real YOU, the you inside. I don't want that to happen. I-I care about you. Please, let's try to undo it," pleaded Leon.

Priss looked at his earnest face. He was so worried about her. Maybe she could--

Visions of Nene flying through the air, hitting a brick wall headfirst, filled Priss's mind, replaying themselves over and over again.

"Leon, I... No, I can't do it."

"Dammit, Priss! Why not?"

"You don't understand, do you?" said Priss angrily. Leon was worrying her, and she didn't like that, so she covered it with a good layer of anger. "Do you think this decision was easy?! It wasn't! It went against everything I believed in! I'm almost a boomer now because of this, and I hate that!"

"Then why did you do it if you hate the idea so much?!" Leon yelled back.

"Because it's the only way I know to keep other friends from getting hurt! I have to be the best! And this was the quickest way to BE the best!"

"Priss, you--"

"I think you better leave now, Leon," said Priss, her voice as cold as ice. Who was HE, she thought, to lecture me?!

"Priss, listen to me. I--"

Leon got no farther. Priss grabbed him by his shirtfront with one hand and lifted him clear off the floor. He grabbed at her arm and tried to make her let go, with no luck whatsoever. Walking over to the door, she opened it and casually threw him outside. Leon, surprised and shocked, landed hard and Priss closed her door before he could react.

Leon picked himself up off the ground. Well, he thought, that didn't go well....

Inside the trailer, Priss watched as Leon got into his ADPolice car and roared off.

I'm sorry, Leon, thought Priss. But I know what I am doing.

In the back of her mind, a little voice added a postscript to Priss's thought, one that she didn't like:

I hope.

 

Silky Doll Fashion & Lingerie Shop, Evening

15 June 2034

* Priss and Linna ran into Sylia's building. Minutes earlier, Sylia had activated their pagers, summoning them for a mission.

"What's going on, Sylia?" asked Linna as she struggled out of her street clothes and into the hardsuit undergarment. Made of a special circuitry weave, the undergarment allowed the Knight Sabers to properly interface with their suits, making wearing a suit almost like wearing nothing at all, and it allowed the suits to amplify the strength of the user several times.

"A group of boomers, Maulers, are running amuck in the business district again. It's almost a repeat of the last job. The ADPolice are outmatched--"

"As usual," snorted Priss.

"No time for that, Priss," said Sylia. "Suit up, and let's get moving."

Well, thought Priss, now's my chance to see how these nano- doodads do in a fight.

 

Business District, Evening

15 June 2034

 

"Knight Sabers, Go!" said Sylia as they leapt into battle.

Priss took the lead, moving very, very fast. The Maulers, five of them this time, paused to ascertain the threat Priss posed, and by then it was too late.

Priss smashed into a Mauler shoulder-first, tearing right through it, and put it down for the count immediately. Turning quickly, she leapt straight up into the air, not even bothering to activate her jets.

Sylia and Linna froze in shock as they watched Priss perform a mid-air somersault, aim herself feet-first at one Mauler, and fire her railgun at the other three, simultaneously. It just wasn't humanly possible, not even for Priss, but the railgun's projectiles flew straight and true, while Priss's feet slammed into the neck of the fourth Mauler, decapitating it. The headless boomer fell to the earth, Priss landing on top of it.

 

Largo watched the progress of the Maulers on his computer screen. Miriam stood nearby, looking well-rested for once. As a reward for his work, Largo had given him a day off.

"I would say that this Knight Saber," Largo said, pointing at Priss on the screen, "is performing much better than usual, don't you think so, Miriam?"

"Yes, sir. She's definitely been enhanced."

"When does our 'gift' activate?"

"When she comes under extreme stress, the nanoids will do their job."

"Good."

 

This is easier than I thought, thought Priss as she stood atop the broken remains of the boomer. Maybe this wasn't a bad idea after all. Leon worries too much. She turned to face the three remaining boomers.

The boomers leapt at her en masse. She tried to evade, but even her new speed and strength couldn't help her against three boomers at close range. Two of them pinned her arms, while the other readied its vibroblade to slice Priss in half.

Got to move! thought Priss to herself, panicking. I have to move!

Adrenalin flooded Priss's system as she struggled with the boomers, signaling the supposedly inert nanoids in her body to begin their second operation.

Priss screamed! Billions of nanoids went into overdrive and, true to the laws of physics, that generated heat. She felt like she was being cooked alive. Driven mad by the pain, she broke free of the boomers that were holding her.

Sylia and Linna, who had gotten over their shock by this time, reached the fight. Extending her monostreamers, Linna sliced and diced one of the Maulers while Sylia pounded away at the other two with her palm blaster. The boomers went down quickly, but it was too late. Priss sank to the ground, quivering.

A thousand sensations flooded Priss's mind. She could feel unthinkable changes being worked on her body, flesh and bone changing, shifting. She screamed again in agony.

Linna and Sylia were moving closer uncertainly when Priss's hardsuit suddenly began to bulge and deform. They watched, horrified, as its metal alloys rippled and shifted obscenely, as though something was moving underneath them.

"Priss?" asked Linna, hesitantly, moving forward.

"Don't touch her! Stay back, Linna!" yelled Sylia as she watched Priss in helpless horror. She didn't know what was going on, and she didn't know what to do to stop it.

Priss's hardsuit stopped changing. She stood up and looked around.

"Priss?" asked Linna again, reaching out for her in concern.

Seeing the movement, Priss raised her right arm and fired her railgun at Linna three times, with deadly accuracy.

Linna yelped when she realized what Priss was going to do and jumped backward, kicking in her jets. She managed to avoid the first missile, but the other two hit her in the leg and left arm. She fell to the ground in shock.

Sylia stood still, watching Priss for the inevitable attack, but Priss ignored her, scanning the area impassively.

An ADPolice van arrived on the scene at that moment. Priss focused on it and Sylia took advantage of the distraction to grab Linna and head for the Knight Wing.

Whatever has happened to Priss, thought Sylia, it's too much for me alone. We need to regroup and plan.

As she approached the hovering Knight Wing an ADPolice car drove towards her. Sylia sighed. She didn't have to deal with the ADPolice right now. But, as she was preparing to make a run for the Knight Wing, she recognized Leon and Daley in the car.

The car skidded to a stop in front of her and Leon jumped out. He had wanted to catch the Knight Sabers in action to make sure Priss was alright, but he now saw what he had feared most. Priss had gone over the edge.

"Daley, stay put!" he yelled and ran towards the two Knight Sabers. Sylia was torn. Leon obviously wanted to talk to her, but could she take the time?

"Wait!" Leon yelled. "I know what's wrong with Pr--I mean, your partner!" Sylia stopped and waited. Linna, meanwhile, began to come around and stirred weakly.

"Look, you don't have to talk to me, but please listen. Your partner has undergone nano-cybernetic enhancement." The words ran together as they rushed out of Leon's mouth. "I told her it might drive her crazy, but she wouldn't listen to me!"

Sylia thought about what Leon had said. It made sense. Something more dangerous than cyberpsychosis was obviously at work here as well, but this gave her a start. She nodded to him and then rushed off to the Knight Wing. In the distance, Priss was demolishing an ADPolice unit with ease.

Leon headed back to his car. Daley looked at him questioningly.

"What was that about?"

"Never mind. I'll tell you about it when we both retire."

"Oh. Where are we going?"

"The Armory. I need a suit."

"But you're suspended--"

"They can fire me later!" barked Leon.

 

The ADPolice unit was a smoking ruin and Priss stood amid the carnage, watching for anything that moved. Inside her, the nanoids were connecting her flesh-made-circuitry directly to her hardsuit, making the human parts of her less and less alive.

Priss, the real Priss, watched hopelessly from a little corner of her mind, but she couldn't seem to affect her body, no matter how hard she tried. It had become alien to her. What little she could see of the changes made her feel sick inside. She wanted to run away, to hide from the horror of what she was becoming. But there was no place to go.


Chapter 4

 

"Many psychologists and cyberneticists have been searching for the cause of cyberpsychosis since the first reported cases in the late 2020s.

"Some psychologists believe that cybernetics causes physical or chemical changes in the patients. However, Cyberneticists maintain that cybertech is perfectly safe and that the psychologists are merely suffering from a 'biological bias.' (Let it be noted that several of the supporters of the physiological change theory have gone on record against cybertech.)

"The most likely theory deals with the patients' self-image. Proponents say that some people go insane from the stress of trying to reconcile their self-image with what they have become.

"It is extremely difficult to prove or disprove either of these theories, as no cyberpsychotics have ever been taken alive for study and treatment..."

from "Theories of Cyberpsychosis" by Dr. Ira Sane
Journal of Neural Cybernetics, January 2033

 

ADPolice Armory, Late Evening

15 June 2034

 

"Detective McNichol, you can't--!"

Leon ignored the harried clerk, and he and Daley passed the Armored Trooper Storage Area and, walking toward the High Security Impound Vault.

"Open it," said Leon, stopping before the massive steel door.

"But, sir, it's not allowed!" said the clerk.

"Do it now!" barked Leon. He glared at the clerk. "I'll take full responsibility. Now, open the damn door!"

"Yes, sir," said the chastened clerk.

The clerk keyed in a code on the control panel by the massive door and it slowly opened. Leon walked slowly into the large, dark vault while the clerk illuminated the room's sole piece of equipment.

Leon regarded it distastefully. It resembled a mechanical knight, clad in orange, silver and gold armor, with its mechanical 'face' staring out at nothing. It was not in perfect condition, with one of its arms blown off at the forearm, the remains of a four-barreled minigun above its left shoulder, and large gash exposing its cockpit to the outside.

The D.D. Airborne Battlemover, however, was still the cutting edge of armored suit technology. Developed on the Genaros Space Station, it had fallen under the control of a faction of GENOM who had planned to sell it to the Chinese. Before they could, however, the D.D. prototype had been stolen by two renegade sentient 33/S boomers.

One of the boomers, named Anri, had been wounded in the escape, so the other 33/S, named Sylvie, had used the D.D. to murder people for the blood Anri needed to survive. It had been a desperate decision and only a stopgap solution because, as time went on, more and more blood was needed to keep Anri functioning.

Sylvie broke into GENOM's Product Control Center (GPCC) to steal the specifics of the 33/S series boomer, so that she could synthesize the artificial blood Anri required. Pursued by security boomers, she fled to the D.D. and used it to destroy them. Attracted by the firefight, Leon, in a K-12 Armored Trooper, tried to take her into custody.

Sylvie lost consciousness due to a wound she had sustained in combat and, believing her to be dead, the D.D.'s J-1 Battle Computer took over control of the D.D. and nearly killed Leon. The J-1 would fight until it ran out of power, and then detonate a neutron bomb, which would destroy MegaTokyo. The Knight Sabers stopped the D.D., but Priss had had to kill Sylvie to do it. The D.D. had synchronized its systems with Sylvie's, and only if Sylvie's systems ceased functioning, would the D.D. shut down.

After the Knight Sabers had left, the D.D. had become a point of controversy. The Army wanted it, for "safe-keeping," while GENOM wanted their property back. While they argued, the D.D. collected dust in the ADPolice High Security Impound Vault, untouched save for the removal of its neutron bomb.

"Leon, you're not thinking of using THAT, are you?" asked Daley, unnecessarily.

"It's the most powerful thing we have," said Leon. "It'd be suicidal to take on Blue without it."

"It'll be suicidal to take on Blue WITH it! The Knight Sabers were able to beat this thing before, and it's in rotten shape!"

"If you have a better idea, now's the time to say it." Leon took off his leather jacket and tossed it to the floor. He grimaced as he climbed up to the D.D.'s cockpit. It was still covered with rusty stains from the last occupant's blood.

"You could leave it to the other Knight Sab--"

"Hold it!" came a new voice. Inspector Butler of Internal Affairs strode in. A victorious sneer lit up his toad-like face. "Stealing impounded property, McNichol? This is the final straw. You're going down for this. You'll be lucky if you only get a few DECADES in jail for this stunt. Why, they ought to--"

Butler got no further as Leon jumped off the D.D. and grabbed the collar of his shirt.

"I'm only going to say this once, Butler, so take your head out of your ass and listen! I don't know what your problem is and, at this point, I don't give a damn! There's a maniac out there and this is the only chance we have to stop her. Every minute you delay me, people might die." Leon's voice got very quiet and his eyes grew cold. "If that happens, I will get very, VERY angry. Do we understand each other?"

Butler opened his mouth to protest, but something in Leon's eyes stopped him. For the first time, Butler looked beyond Leon's cocky, devil-may-care facade and really saw him: a man willing to risk his life in defense of others. A man totally devoted to the ideals that had founded the ADPolice, ideals that Butler, in his own way, also served: to protect those who could not defend themselves, no matter what the cost.

"Well," began Butler, "you'll need this, won't you?" Butler held up Leon's ADPolice badge. Leon let go of him and took the badge. Nodding his thanks, he jumped into the D.D.'s cockpit and began to power it up.

 

Raven's Garage, Late Evening

15 June 2034

 

"I'm sorry, Sylia. If I had known that this would happen, I wouldn't have told Priss about nanotech. It's all my fault." Dr. Raven bowed his silver-maned head in shame. Though he was now semi-retired, Dr. Raven had rushed out to help them when he had heard the news. He was wearing his usual rumpled and stained coveralls with "Nobel Prize for Science" written on them.

"What's done is done, Dr. Raven," said Sylia. "The question now is what can we do to help Priss?"

Raven's Garage was an automobile repair shop built at the bottom of a crevasse that had opened up during the Second Great Kanto Earthquake. The outer part of the building was a ordinary garage, but the inner area housed a sophisticated training and repair facility for the Knight Sabers. Linna's suit was being currently being repaired by a Computer-Assisted Repair system while Sylia and Dr. Raven discussed their options.

"We might be able to create our own nanoids to defeat the ones in Priss's system," said Dr. Raven, "using them as virus to reprogram the first set of nanoids and return Priss to normal, but it will take time. Programming nanoids is a complicated procedure."

"Then the sooner we get started, the better. Where is Linna?"

"She said she had to go somewhere, but that she'd be back by the time her suit was repaired."

 

MegaTokyo Hospital, Room 1754, Late Evening

15 June 2034

 

Linna, her wounds bandaged, sat in Nene's room. Thankfully, she had suffered only flesh wounds when Priss attacked her, her armor absorbing most of the damage.

The hospital staff knew her by now and had let her in, despite the fact that it was after visiting hours. She sat next to the bed, telling Nene what had happened. Linna had felt helpless sitting around the Garage, so she went to talk to Nene. On some level, she was sure, Nene could hear her.

"--and she just went wild. She attacked me when I tried to help her. I don't know what happened to her, Nene. Leon said that she's suffering from cyberpsychosis, but why would she do such a thing? She hates cybertech." Linna sobbed quietly. Nene just lay there. Linna watched her friend let the world go by and felt her sadness be replaced by rage.

"It's probably your fault, Little Miss Cyberpunk." she said heatedly. "If you hadn't been hurt, Priss never would have thought of doing this. How does that feel, huh? This is all your fault, and you just lie there and let it pass you by! Get up, damn you!"

Linna turned away, ashamed. Nene couldn't help her condition. It had been an accident. Linna and Sylia had agreed that there was nothing anyone could have done. But Priss apparently had not seen it that way. Tears streamed down Linna's cheeks.

"L-Linna?" said a weak voice.

Linna looked around in surprise, unable to believe her ears. Nene's eyes were open and she was struggling to sit up.

"Nene! You're awake!" exclaimed Linna.

Nene winced in pain. "Ugh... I almost wish I wasn't. What happened? I remember--I remember--" Nene's voice trailed off. Her brow wrinkled in concentration.

"Boomers, right?" she finally said. Linna nodded. "I was hurt? How bad?"

"You've been in a coma for fifteen days."

"Fifteen days?!" repeated Nene, shocked. "What's going on? I've had the strangest dreams about Priss--"

"Priss is trashing the business district right now. She's gone mad from cybernetics she got because you had been hurt," Linna said flatly. It wouldn't do any good to hide the truth from Nene.

Nene blanched. "Then--then it wasn't a dream. Linna, you have to let me help!"

"No way! You're still not OK, and you've been lying in bed for two weeks. You're not strong enough--"

"Linna," said Nene with an uncharacteristic hard edge to her voice, "if you don't get me out of this... this... damn bed, I swear I'll deck you!" Nene didn't usually curse, and it sounded strange coming out of her.

"Ok, ok," said Linna, laughing a little, "let's see if we can get some clothes and sneak you out."

 

Business District, Late Evening

15 June 2034

 

Priss stood over the wreckage of another ADPolice Unit that had attempted to confront her. Its members lay around the ground, wounded and bleeding.

All my fault, agonized the real Priss, deep inside her mind. This is all my fault. I should have known better.

The image changed as the Intelligence, which now ran her body, looked around. She no longer 'saw' as a human would, Priss noted, her sight extending far beyond normal human sight. Only earlier today, she would have thought this wonderful, but now....

Priss was a prisoner, deep within her own mind, trying to avoid the intrusive spikes of pain that the nanoids produced as slowly eradicated everything human about her. She could feel them, like termites burrowing under her skin, leaving dead, numb areas behind them. Slowly, ever so slowly, they worked their way towards her, and she had no doubt that she would die when they finally reached her. When they were done, Priss and her hardsuit would be a single mechanical unit, with nothing organic left.

Let me go! screamed Priss, silently. But it was useless.

>Movement,< thought the Intelligence. >Assessment: Threat. Classification: ADPolice Unit.<

Another Unit was coming forward and Priss leapt to attack.

Priss tried to cry, but her tear ducts had already been replaced.

 

Raven's Garage, Night

15 June 2034

 

"Nene! What are you doing here?" asked Sylia in surprise, when she saw Linna help Nene stagger in.

"She woke up and insisted on helping, Sylia," said Linna.

"No, she needs to be in the hospital. You shouldn't--"

"Sylia, please! Let me help," pleaded Nene. "It's because I got hurt that all this is happening. You HAVE to let me help!"

Sylia looked over Nene carefully. She was having trouble standing, but there was a determined look on her face that told her clearly, 'Don't mess with me.'

"You win, Nene," said Sylia, a slight smile on her lips. "We COULD use your computer skills. Do you feel up to programming in NanoLang?" NanoLang, a specially developed computer language for nanoids, was said to be the most difficult and complicated computer language yet devised.

"In my sleep," boasted Nene. "Put me in front of a computer."

"Let's get to work then."

 

Business District, Night

15 June 2034

 

Priss sat perfectly still. She could have been mistaken for a statue, except for the fact that her hardsuit flexed and bulged unnaturally at times as the nanoids worked.

Suddenly, she heard the sound of helicopter blades in the distance. Turning toward it, she saw an ADPolice helicopter was coming in.

Just before the helicopter would have been within her range, though, it opened its bay door, and a large, metallic figure jumped to the earth. Landing hard, it left a small crater in the scorched pavement and slowly turned to face her. Priss rated it as the primary threat, and let the ADPolice Helicopter fly away. The mech looked familiar, so the Intelligence sent a query down to Priss.

The D.D.? thought Priss. Sylvie? No, she's dead. Let me go, you son of a bitch! Priss screamed, renewing her struggle against her bonds. The Intelligence ignored her.

"Hold it right there!" barked a familiar voice from the D.D. "This is the ADPolice! Shut down your suit and come along peaceably!"

Recognizing the voice as belonging to Leon McNichol, the Intelligence ran down what it had raped from Priss's mind on him. He had a poor record in using powered armor against enemies, but the power of D.D. might compensate for that, so it decided its best option was to destroy him quickly.

Leon? thought Priss incredulously. What are you doing, you idiot? You'll just get yourself killed!

Priss jumped up into the sky, a small spurt of flame from her thruster-pack giving her additional altitude, and readied her particle beams. The booms swung up from her back and clicked into place over her shoulders, a nimbus of energy forming around their muzzles.

Shit, thought Leon, even though he hadn't thought there was more than the slightest of chances that Priss could be reasoned with. Here we go! he thought as the particle cannons fired.

Leon desperately dodged to the left, the D.D. moving fluidly and gracefully, amplifying his motions, yet keeping them under control, and the particle beams lanced into the pavement.

Leon launched the D.D.'s mini-missiles in response, and four of them spiralled up, locked on to Priss. Priss, though, rapid- fired her railgun four times, detonating the missiles.

Shit, thought Leon again, she's better than ever! If I can't take her now, no one will be able to stop her!

Priss ran toward the D.D., attacking hand-to-hand to keep it from firing any more missiles. Leon swung around to meet her, but just as she would have come into his reach, she fired her jets and somersaulted OVER the D.D. Stunned, Leon failed to react as Priss grabbed his waist. Leon watched the world spin as she lifted the D.D. up and THREW it a short distance.

Enough is enough, Leon thought as he regained his bearings. She's playing for keeps. Time to see how this thing really works.

He flipped a switch and the D.D. changed. It stood straighter, looked more formidable and moved more confidently as it took a ready position. The J-1 Battle Computer was now on-line.

Priss launched another attack, charging the transformed D.D.

OK, Priss, thought Leon, let's see you take this!

But as Priss slammed into the D.D., it did nothing to defend itself and went tumbling down the road.

 

Raven's Garage, Night

15 June 2034

 

"Got it!" exclaimed Nene, sitting back from the computer terminal.

"It's finished?" asked Dr. Raven, surprised.

"You bet. The suckers in Priss don't stand a chance against genuine Nene Romanova originals. These nanoids will take them out, no sweat, Pops."

"Doctor."

"Huh?"

"Call me Doctor!" barked Dr. Raven. Linna and Nene laughed at the old running joke and even Sylia allowed herself a slight smile.

"What's the latest on Priss?" asked Linna and they got their suits out.

"She hasn't killed anyone yet, thank God," said Sylia, "but three whole divisions of ADPolice are in the hospital, and countless vehicles have been wrecked. She seems content to stay in the Business District for now, but that might change."

"Sylia, please let me go! I have as much right as you two!" pleaded Nene, coming up behind them, leaning against the wall for support.

"Nene, you can barely walk, let alone fight--"

"My suit--"

"No! You've done your part."

"Sylia, if something goes wrong with the nanoids, you'll need me! I can use the computers on the Knight Wing. I'll stay out of the way!"

Sylia sighed as she considered the determined young woman before her. "Okay, you can come. Wear your suit for protection, but don't enter into combat.

"Now we need to deliver this," Sylia held up a small plastic syringe, "to Priss. You are sure it has to be injected?"

"That's the only way to be sure that the nanoids will work effectively," said Nene beaming, happy that she was able to come along. "Too many variables enter the picture if we try to get her to breathe it or spread it over her hardsuit."

"Why aren't these things ever easy?" asked Linna of the world around her.

 

Business District, Night

15 June 2034

 

"SHHHIIIIIITTTTT!" yelled Leon as the D.D. tumbled head-over- heels before finally slamming to a stop against a building, leaving quite a sizeable crater. The familiar coppery taste of blood was in his mouth and he had cut his forehead against something during that mad tumble, he noticed woozily.

What's wrong with this thing? he thought frantically as he scanned all the controls and diagnostics that filled the cockpit. Wait, what's that?

A small monitor was blinking:

 

J-I STATUS: AWAITING TARGET

CANNOT ACHIEVE SYNCHRONIZATION.

MANUAL CONFIRMATION REQUESTED.

 

What? thought Leon. A multi-million dollar combat computer and it can't tell when someone's attacking it?! Leon directed a few select curses at the J-1's programmer.

The D.D. stood up shakily and Priss, seeing movement, headed toward it at a fast pace.

So now what do I do? thought Leon frantically. Looking over the controls, he saw, for the first time, a blinking cross-hair on his monitors and a small keyboard by his right hand. Manual confirmation, huh? Ok, then, thought Leon. Leon centered the cross-hairs on Priss and hit enter.

The J-1 went into action, moving far faster than its bulk seemed to allow, It charged Priss, who, realizing that something had changed, attempted to dodge. But the D.D. proved to be a little faster, grabbed her right arm, and smashed Priss's railgun with its claw. A quick spin and release sent Priss flying through the air and she slammed into a building in a manner remarkably similar to the D.D.'s, leaving about the same-sized crater.

Ouch! thought Leon. That had to hurt.

The D.D. advanced upon its fallen foe. But Priss was still in this game. Activating her jets, she took to the rooftops.

Damn! thought Leon. What do we do now? The D.D. can't fly! The Airborne Battlemover was designed to be dropped out of aircraft and was not capable of flight.

Priss, now out of the D.D.'s range, prepared her particle cannons to fire.

"Come on, you bucket of bolts!" Leon swore at the D.D. "Do something!"

The J-1 did, however, had a solution to this problem. It fired a spread of missiles into the base of the building and, as Leon watched in horror, the building collapsed in on itself. Priss tried to leap off, but the roof disintegrated beneath her feet, dropping her into the middle of the collapsing building. A huge cloud of dust obscured everything for a few moments and then the neighborhood was shaken by a huge explosion. A gas main beneath the building had ruptured and been ignited. A column of flame rose high in the sky

"Shit," said Leon quietly, as the D.D. weathered the blast. Could Priss have survived that?

Automatic safeties soon shut down the gas flow and everything became still. The D.D. stood quietly, waiting.

A piece of rubble moved.

Leon stared at it, unable to believe his own eyes, as a blackened fist punched its way out of the rubble and Priss climbed out of the ruins. Her suit had numerous cracks, dents, and the paint was burned off, leaving it charred and blackened. The particle cannons, being exposed, had been bent into origami-like shapes and were useless. But she still moved quickly and fluidly to avoid the D.D. as it moved towards her.

 

A little ways off, Daley and Butler watched in horror as the D.D. demolished the building and then in awe as the Knight Saber clawed her way out of the rubble.

"He trashed a building to take her down!" Butler cried. "Is this his usual method of dealing with maniacs? Thank god that place was closed for the night!"

"No," said Daley. "I think he turned on the Battle Computer."

"What Battle Computer?"

"The D.D. has one of the best Battle Computers in existence. Once it has a target, it won't stop until it nullifies that target. Almost nothing can stop it... including the operator," Daley added under his breath.

Butler turned back to the fight, wondering who deserved more luck, the Knight Saber... or Leon.

 

The Knight Wing roared off into the night. All of the remaining Knight Sabers were on board and suited up, including Nene, but the three had little to say to each other. In the meantime, Nene listened to the ADPolice reports and one caught her attention.

"Hey, Priss is fighting the D.D.!" she exclaimed.

"What?!" said Linna. "That can't be right!"

"Well, someone has taken it out there. It's trashed a building to get at her," said Nene. "You don't think--?"

Both women had the same thought at the same time.

"Leon," they said together.

 

Leon shook his head to try to clear the blood that was flowing into his eyes. He was just an observer in this battle between titans, but the D.D. apparently had the upper hand against Priss. It was just a matter of time.

Priss's options were running out. Both the railgun and the particle cannons were destroyed, and melee weapons brought her far too close to the D.D.'s grasp. As she analyzed her predicament, the D.D. unleashed another salvo of missiles and, while she was occupied with dodging, closed in for the kill.

Go, Leon! screamed Priss inside her skull. Anything is better than this!

Priss's evasions brought her too close to the D.D., and the J- 1 took advantage of it. Grabbing both of Priss's legs with its claw, it lifted her up, swung her around, and slammed her into the ground, hard, like it was cracking a whip. While she was stunned, the Battlemover's right foot then pinned her down to the asphalt and the D.D. drew back for the killing blow.

Leon, watching the monitors, was alarmed. The J-1 wasn't going to pull its punch! If it hit her, Priss would be just a bloody mark on the pavement. In a panic, Leon hit the kill switch just as the giant fist was coming down.

The D.D. froze.

Shit! thought Priss. Leon, you idiot!

The Intelligence took advantage of the opportunity as Leon strove to reestablish manual control. Grabbing the Battlemover's foot, Priss pushed up hard and the frozen Battlemover toppled over backwards with a loud crash. Jumping on top of it, Priss sought to disable it permanently. She began to widen the tear in the D.D.'s cockpit armor.

Metal tore and wires sparked as Priss opened up the D.D. like a can of sardines. She soon tore through the Battlemover's main power train, disabling it. Leon could only watch in horror as her blackened, grime-covered hand reached through the D.D.'s armor for him.

Grabbing Leon by the neck, Priss hauled him out of the devastated D.D., the jagged metal tearing at his clothes and skin. Holding him aloft, Priss began to squeeze. Leon clawed desperately at her hand, but it was unyielding. He began to black out.

No! Not Leon! Stop it, you son of a bitch! screamed Priss inside her skull.

"P-Priss," Leon croaked.

STOP IT! LEON!

"l-leon?" came Priss's voice, raspy, distorted, and barely more than a whisper. Leon wasn't even sure if he really heard it. But Priss's hand let go of his throat and he fell to the ground, where, thankfully, he lost consciousness.

 

"Wake up, Detective McNichol," said a voice. Was it time to get up already? Leon opened an eye. He saw a metal figure before him and woke up in a hurry. Had Priss come back to finish him off?

Sylia and Linna stood over him, near the smoking remains of the D.D. The once unstoppable battlemover was just scrap metal now. Leon winced at the thought of how the chief would take that.

"Are you okay?" asked Sylia.

"Yeah, I'm--Ah!" He had deep cuts all over his body, his head was killing him, and his neck felt like it had been in a vise. "Did I stop her?"

"No."

"Ah, well, why mess with my perfect record?" Leon tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a croak.

"How did it go?"

"She's as good as ever, but faster, stronger, I--ow!--I took out her ranged weapons, but that was about it. It'll take a lot to put her down. What do you intend to do?"

"We think we have a cure, but--"

"Give it to me." Leon stood up, forgetting the pain of his injuries. He'd have time to hurt later.

"What?!"

"You'll have your hands full fighting her. Give me the cure, I'll give it to her while you hold her down. Please," he said when he could tell that she wasn't going for it, "let me help."

Sylia looked at him, wondering if she should allow him to risk his life. He had no protection, he was already hurt, and there was no guarantee that Priss could stop herself if she got her hands on him again. But, she remembered, they owed him, and he, more than anyone, deserved to help them try to save Priss. She nodded and handed him the syringe. He could take care of himself.

"Daley!" yelled Leon, motioning for his partner to hurry over. Daley ran over to Leon, with Butler waddling behind him. "Where's Blue now?"

"She's making a beeline for GENOM Tower," said Daley. "We think GENOM's massing their boomers, but it's hard to tell. They won't let our men on the scene, asking for a warrant. Usual GENOM crap."

"It fits," said Leon. "Where else would she go?" He turned to Sylia and Linna. "Let's go."

The Knight Wing came in and Leon, Sylia and Linna boarded it. Daley and Butler watched as it took off into the night sky.

 

GENOM Tower, Night

15 June 2034

 

"Miriam, our 'friend' is coming to us. Have you readied the new boomer?" asked Largo.

"Yes, sir," said Miriam. "The X-Unit is ready. It should be able to stop the Knight Saber without any problem." Miriam had worked hard on the design of the X-Unit, and was confident of its abilities.

"Good. Let us go to the fortified bunker."

"Aren't you going to face her yourself?"

Largo shook his head. "There would be no satisfaction in it. That thing coming here is merely the shell of a Knight Saber. The Priss who humiliated me is dead."


Chapter 5

 

"There's only one way to handle a boomer, or cyberpsycho for that matter. Hit them fast, hit them hard, and don't stop to count the bullets--or the bodies--until they go down. Anything less will just add you to the statistics."

Detective Leon McNichol
from "The ADPolice" by Nagisa Magami

 

GENOM Tower, Night

15 June 2034

 

Priss raced up the access road for GENOM Tower without any apparent strain, despite her condition. When the Intelligence had tried to kill Leon, Priss had managed to take control of her body for a few seconds, just long enough to stop herself. She had started running for GENOM Tower, deciding that if she was going to destroy something, it might as well be GENOM. The Intelligence had reasserted control, but it kept the imperative to head for GENOM. Location made no difference to it.

Priss was in more danger than she knew. Her personality was starting to blend with that of the Intelligence. Though they were still discrete entities, as time went on, they became more and more alike, until nothing was left of the old Priss.

Inside her mind, what was left of Priss's consciousness rested. Regaining control of her body for those few seconds had taken much of her energy, so she now concentrated on hoarding it so that she might try again.

 

Over MegaTokyo, Night

15 June 2034

 

As impressive as the Knight Wing looked on the outside, Leon noted, it was depressingly cramped on the inside. He crawled into a small, one-person compartment that resembled some sort of gunnery position. The chair was uncomfortable, having been designed for individuals in hardsuits, not unprotected humans, and he made a note to recommend a few changes.

What did I expect? he thought as the Knight Wing flew up into the sky. First-class?

One thing he definitely had not expected was to see someone wearing a very familiar-looking red-and-pink hardsuit, sitting over a console wearily.

"Ne--!" Leon kicked himself mentally, he wasn't supposed to know who she was. "I thought you had been injured," he had said, lamely.

"No," she said back to him, shakily, in the electronically- distorted voice used by the Knight Sabers. "I'm fine."

Leon glanced at her, worried. She was gripping her console tightly, using it to keep herself erect. He was certain she wasn't fine, but let the matter pass.

"I'm glad to hear it. So what exactly do we have to do to save your partner, now?"

"The syringe is an antidote: nanoids designed to reprogram the ones inside her already and tell them to undo what they've done. It should work," she finished uncertainly.

"SHOULD work?" Leon said incredulously. "I have a _bad_ feeling about this...." He shook off the feeling and continued, "Any other good news?"

"We only have one shot," Nene said. "If we don't get it to her soon, the changes will become irreversible. There won't be anything human to bring back."

"OK, OK. So, you guys pin her quickly, hold her down, and I stick this into her, all while avoiding whatever GENOM throws our way. No problem," said Leon as he slipped on his sunglasses and smiled his trademark cocky grin. "Piece of cake."

Shit! thought Leon to himself, what have I gotten myself into this time? He took a deep mental breath. Ready or not, Priss, here we come!

The Knight Wing sped toward GENOM Tower.

 

GENOM Tower, Night

15 June 2034

 

Priss reached the summit of GENOM Tower without incident and this worried both her and the Intelligence. It was not like GENOM to allow anyone unrestricted access to the Tower, especially crazed Knight Sabers.

The Intelligence activated the hardsuit's sensors. Infrared: Nothing. Radar: Nothing. Motion Detector: Nothing above standard background 'noise' levels. Aural Sensors: Nothing above standard background noise levels. Electronics Scan: Standard surveillance systems only. Visual Scan: Noth--

Wait! The Intelligence peered into the shadows. Something wasn't right. It ran a concentrated sensor scan on that area. Nothing. It looked again. Something still wasn't right. Priming herself for combat, Priss approached the shadows.

Suddenly, the shadows reached out at HER! Priss leapt backward, narrowly avoiding... whatever it was. It was impressively cloaked against detection, only movement giving it away, and then only as a faint shimmering in the air, like heat waves. Approximating its location, she charged.

Priss hit it fast and hard, and felt it give way beneath her. It felt... wrong, she noted. It wasn't hard and metallic like a boomer. It offered a slight resistance to her charge, and then it collapsed, melting away, like plunging into a mound of jello. She tried to grab hold of it, but it ran through her fingers like water and she soon lost it completely.

She backed away, uncertainly. There was no telling what this thing could do. Suddenly, her right shoulder armor was holed by an invisible spear, that tore through the hardsuit to the flesh beneath. For the first time since she had changed, Priss felt pain and, as it tore through her, she screamed in agony. The wound bled freely, the bright red blood contrasting garishly with the blackened suit.

Priss stumbled backward, the pain diminishing as the nanoids slowly closed the wound, but their effort left her feeling tired and dizzy. The nanoids had been hard at work for hours now, changing her and repairing the damage she had taken in her fights. This took a lot of energy and very little was left. If she didn't have a new source of energy soon, she might die.

Backing carefully away from the shadowed corner, watching for signs of pursuit, the Intelligence scanned for any available source of energy it could use. The initial sweep turned up nothing, so it swept again and this time, it noticed a high voltage power outlet. That would do.

>No sign of pursuit,< the Intelligence noted. >Primary objective: Recharge. Secondary: Eliminate opposition.<

Priss extended her hand towards the outlet, the nanoids reconfiguring her glove to accept the power. Scanning around for her invisible assailant, she plugged in...

...and was caught as the plug changed shape, grasping her hand with a crushing grip. She could hear the sound of her armor cracking. Priss tried to pull back, but it was no use. It held her fast. The "plug" faded from sight, leaving just her hand and a faint shimmering in front of her.

A shape-shifter? Priss thought. What IS this thing?

 

GENOM High Security Bunker, Night

15 June 2034

 

"Excellent, Miriam, excellent!" exclaimed Largo as he watched Priss struggle on the screen in front of him. "You've outdone yourself!"

"It was a simple task for me, sir," said Miriam from the console where he monitored his creation.

Largo appeared not to notice his aide's lack of modesty. "A boomer constructed out of a mimetic poly-alloy. Wonderful!"

"The poly-alloy, or 'liquid metal', is an excellent medium for nanotechnology," Miriam said, pleased with himself. "Every particle of it is governed by its meta-program, and together they combine to control the whole, much like a boomer's central AI. Basically, it is all brain. It can mimic anything it has files on or has come in contact with, and is immune to concussive and energy damage. It simply reforms after being hit.

"Its ability to absorb and emit radiation, give it a perfect stealth field, allowing it to become almost completely invisible.

"What about its limitations?"

"It lacks ranged weapons, because it cannot mimic chemical or energy reactions or, like those needed to launch a rocket or generate a laser or particle beam. It must close to attack, but with its invulnerability and stealth capabilities, it should have no problem closing with any enemy and neutralizing it," Miriam concluded.

"I will have to see how this technology can be applied to me," mused Largo, "providing that your creation survives an encounter with the Knight Sabers."

"I have no doubt that it will, sir. The Knight Sabers ETA is five minutes, plus-or-minus two minutes."

"Can't you do any better than that?"

"No, their craft is heavily shielded against detection, we have no idea where they are."

"No matter." Largo sat back to enjoy the show.

 

GENOM Tower, Night

15 June 2034

 

Priss struggled with the X-Unit that held her captive and finally managed to pull her hand free with a loud sucking sound, bits of her armor being torn away. The Intelligence designated the X-Unit as a very dangerous threat. Best Option: Retreat.

Priss mentally cursed the Intelligence for its stupidity. As it ran low on power, she gained access to more of its functions. She was not impressed with her cybernetic alter-ego. It was a rather simple thing, designed only to fight.

Unfortunately, she thought, it's not losing of control fast enough. By the time I have complete control, I'll be dead.

Priss swung at the slight shimmering before her and smashed into the X-Unit. Again, it just gave way with hardly any resistance at all. The X-Unit then returned the punch with one of its own, sending her flying.

Priss smashed into the Tower's roof, feeling like she had just been hit with a large, spiked hammer. Her armor was gouged in many places and her wounds bled freely. The nanoids couldn't keep up with the damage.

Getting wearily to her feet, she closed with it and swung again at her invisible assailant. Again, it gave way beneath her blows and retaliated. She felt incredibly sharp knife-like objects slash at her and was sent flying through the air again and again.

But, each time, she got back up and charged it again, Priss and the Intelligence working together, with one goal: Victory.

There was no subtlety or strategy in this battle; just sheer raw power. The X-Unit needed time after each impact to recollect itself, Priss noted, so she fought to deny it that time. Unfortunately, she couldn't keep it from hitting back, and each strike was harder than the last.

Priss shuddered mentally as she watched the punishment mount. Her body was badly damaged, worse than it had ever been in her life. There was internal bleeding, bruised and crushed organs, and bones that were being held together only by the barest of connections. And, on top of all that, she felt empty. The fight was burning up the last of her reserves.

Suddenly, a very familiar craft popped into view on the far side of the Tower. The Knight Wing had arrived.

"Knight Sabers... GO!" shouted Sylia as she, and Linna jumped down to the roof of GENOM Tower. They moved carefully toward Priss, not wanting a repeat of their last battle.

No, Sylia! thought Priss frantically. You don't know what you're up against! Get out of here!

The Knight Wing, meanwhile, came to a soft landing nearby and Leon and Nene climbed out, watching from a distance.

Nene! thought Priss. Relief flooded her awareness. Knowing Nene was better, she could....

Priss stopped and then finished the thought. She could die now. That's what her friends were here for, after all. To finish her off.

It's better that this THING kill me than to have to let them do it, thought Priss. And I'd rather die than let this thing win! OK, you monster, let's go!

Together, she and the Intelligence surveyed their options. They could not run, the X-Unit would surely catch them, and Priss never liked to run from a fight, anyhow. They could not win, for no matter how hard they hit the X-Unit, it never seemed to be damaged. But they would not give up. Gauging their resources, they put everything they had into one last blow.

SPLOOSH! The blow sliced cleanly through the X-Unit, causing it to splash to the ground, and lie still.

Priss stood over it, immobile. Her vision was dimming, her strength gone. It took everything she had to just stand there. The Intelligence dwindled away to nothing, and Priss was on the verge of joining it, staying conscious only through sheer will. She numbly watched her opponent slowly reform, not even bothering with invisibility this time, appearing as a large, vaguely-humanoid blob of silvery metal, constantly shifting and changing.

As Priss stood there, it cocked a misshapen fist and slammed it into her head. Priss's helmet, stressed beyond all endurance, shattered, falling to the ground in pieces. A sharp crack was heard and she fell, her head hanging at an unnatural angle.

 

Sylia had watched this in amazement, wondering what Priss was up to. She seemed to be engaged in some sort of pantomime, fighting an invisible opponent. Either Priss was further gone than she thought, or... "Nene, do you scan anything?" she asked, over the suits' communications systems.

Nene, who was could barely stand without Leon's help, activated her hardsuit's sophisticated sensor gear.

"Nothing, Sylia," she replied, struggling to focus on what the scanners were telling her. "Wait a minute, there's something--"

They watched as Priss and the now-visible X-Unit exchanged their final blows and Priss landed in a crumpled heap, her head twisted unnaturally. She did not move.

"PRISS!" everyone shouted. Sylia and Linna charged at the X- Unit which quickly faded back into invisibility.

Leon started to go to Priss, but Nene began to fall as soon as he left her side. He quickly grabbed her and helped her stand. He weighed his options. Nene was the only one who could sense this thing, it seemed, but couldn't get close enough on her own. Priss needed him, but the others could be killed if he delayed.

"I'm sorry, Priss," Leon whispered and he and Nene hobbled toward the fight.

Nene didn't get a chance to scan anything, though, before the X-Unit speared Sylia. Sylia watched in shock and pain as her armor was invisibly punctured. She clutched at her attacker, trying to pull out its spear, but it would not move.

"Sylia!" yelled Linna, rushing forward. She saw Sylia's wound and, extending her mono-streamers, whipped them in the general location of an attacker.

There was a large splash as some silvery liquid, not unlike mercury in appearance, splashed all over the floor. Sylia and Linna approached the puddles cautiously.

"What was that thing?" Linna asked.

"I don't know," Sylia replied. "But if Priss was fighting it, we have to--"

"Sylia! Look!"

The puddles were moving. They ran together into one mass, and then the mass began to grow and transform. A vaguely humanoid, silvery shape stood before them for a second and then it flickered out of sight. The two Knight Sabers were suddenly slammed backward by blows of incredible force.

We have to fight back, thought Sylia. But how? We can't see it and we can't seem to hurt it!

 

Nene and Leon watched helplessly as their friends fought a losing battle. Leon pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He coughed a bit, spitting up some blood.

Damn, he thought, that's never a good sign. He took a long draw on his cigarette, his lungs feeling like they were on fire. He ignored them. It's a good pain, he mused, kept him sharp.

"But first thing tomorrow," he muttered, "I'm going on vacation."

Nene, meanwhile, struggled with her scanners. She just could not get a lock on this thing. The scanners simply refused to admit that there was anything there and she could not program them to compensate for its cloak.

It's no use, she thought, I need more data on this thing!

She began to head toward Sylia and Linna.

"Wait a sec, here!" Leon said, holding onto her arm. "You're in no condition--"

"I need to get closer!" Nene replied, pushing past Leon. She immediately staggered and almost fell. "Please, help me, Leon. I need to find out more about them!"

"Damn!" Leon cursed as he attempted to help her. She wasn't as heavy in her suit as he would have thought, but in his condition, it was all he could do to help her stay upright. "OK, what do you have in mind?" he asked as he watched Sylia and Linna get beaten back again by their assailant.

"Get me within three meters of it. I'll do the rest."

Leon looked at her, shrugged, and said resignedly, "What the hell. You only live once."

They hobbled over to the fight.

 

Sylia saw them coming.

"Get back, you two!" she yelled, and then doubled over as another blow slammed into her stomach. Armor cracked, error-lights began blinking on her helmet display, and she could feel blood from her shoulder wound soaking into her hardsuit undergarment, though adrenalin was keeping the pain away for now.

Nene and Leon ignored her, concentrating on their goal.

The X-Unit, classifying them as too feeble to be a threat, continued to concentrate on Sylia and Linna. But as soon as she was close enough, Nene aimed her right arm at the X-Unit, and fired two cables at its general location. They plunged into its mass, Nene established a link, and she tuned out of the normal world.

 

Cyberspace is a virtual phenomenon. To those inside it, it appears real, but that is an illusion, generated to make it easier for a human user to understand the complex world of the computer system.

Words like 'infinite', 'immense' and 'fucking huge' are often used to describe this realm, depending on who you ask and what circles you travel in. The horizon recedes forever, computer systems are represented by huge geometric shapes which resemble buildings designed by Escher or Picasso and programs are represented by icons, easily recognizable three-dimensional images that identify them and their purpose.

But the cyberspace that Nene's icon appeared in was like nothing she had ever seen before.

Nene's icon looked like her hardsuit, only the colors had brightened. The red was now as red as a ruby, the white so bright it seemed to glare with the power of the sun, and the blue was the color of the Mediterranean on a sunny day.

This cyberspace was a chaotic jumble, moving and flexing around her with large, black, square blocks hanging suspended on a metallic-looking three-dimensional web. The horizon was obscured by the gigantic web and the world was lit only by bright flashes of lightning that traveled the web almost constantly, leaping from block to block.

I don't have much time, Nene thought. It won't take long before this thing tries to dislodge me. Good thing it had some sort of cyberspace programming. I wasn't sure if it would.

Time was different in the cyber-realm. Seconds can seem like minutes. But there is a limit to how fast human thought processes could go, and it's not as fast as a computer.

Nene floated toward one of the blocks. Now to tap in, she thought. Mimicking her earlier actions, her icon's suit extended two cables and plugged them into the block before her.

What's this? she thought in surprise. This isn't a computer, it's hardly more than a few kilobytes of data!

One of the numerous electrical discharges that travelled the web shot into Nene's block. Nene screamed as she was flung off and slammed into another nearby block with a very real sense of pain.

"Owowowow... Think, Nene!" she berated herself. "What's going on here?" She growled in frustration. Then it hit her. "Of course, they're all a part of it. It's the 'web' is what keeps it all together!"

Nene examined the web. It was simple, flexible, and easily broken and repaired. But what if it couldn't reform...?

Suddenly she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. A program icon was approaching. It appeared to be made up of red lightning, flickering and crackling constantly.

Oh, no! Nene though. A killer program!

Killer programs, the banes of cyberspace and the ultimate IC (Intrusion Countermeasures or 'ice'), were designed to induce lethal biofeedback in the body of a cyberspace user. Nene had never encountered one before, but she knew what they were like and this one looked tough. Nene, not able to help herself, wondered if she could program one as lethally complex and efficient. Reflexively, she summoned up a defensive program and a glowing shield appeared around her.

The lightning of the program crashed against Nene's shield, which wavered and collapsed. Nene screamed, as the program reached for her icon. It struck at her and she fought back with everything she had. Light flooded the cyberspace.

 

Eh? thought Miriam in the GENOM Bunker. What's this?

New data was scrolling across his screens. He snarled as he realized that the IC he had installed in his X-Unit had failed, overloaded by a data surge. But what is this data? He watched as it scrolled by, curious. Then he smiled, a truly evil smile, as he realized what he had.

 

Nene, studying the web one last time, wrote a quick program. The program's icon appeared before her, looking like a swarm of iridescent insects.

"Go get 'em, boys," she said, activating the program. The icons buzzed off and descended on the web like a plague of locusts, eating it away, quickly and cleanly, and multiplying as they went. Satisfied, Nene jacked out of the system.

Once back in her body her knees buckled and she would have fallen, if not for Leon. Her cables retracted back into her hardsuit with a snap. Slowly lifting her head, she watched her program go to work.

The X-unit began to have problems almost immediately. Its stealth field shut down as it struggled to reform into humanoid shape, but bits of it kept falling off, splattering everywhere, like a wax figure melting in the sun. It struggled towards the Knight Sabers, but soon collapsed into a puddle and lay still.

"Yes!" Nene said exuberantly.

"Nene, what did you do?" Sylia asked, amazed.

"It had a master program that held it all together," Nene replied. "I shut that down, and POOF! It all went to pieces," she giggled.

Sylia nodded. "I see." With the boomer defeated, her thoughts turned to the reason they were here. "Let's go help Priss now." They turned and saw how their one-time partner was doing.

 

"Miriam! What happened!" Largo yelled as the X-Unit collapsed.

"It was that damn bitch!" snarled Miriam. "She let some sort of program loose in the X-Unit's operating environment!"

"I thought you said nothing could hurt your precious creation, Miriam."

"Sir, I... er, that is, I mean--"

"We will discuss this later, Miriam. After the Knight Sabers have left." Largo's voice sent chills through Miriam's spine. He turned back to the screens, nervously contemplating what fate his boss would have in store for him.

 

Linna came over and took Nene away from Leon, who quickly rushed to Priss's side.

Priss was in bad shape. She lay motionless, her breathing raspy and uneven and her face, now exposed, was cold and metallic- looking, covered with a fine mesh of circuitry. Her hair was gone and her reddish-brown eyes glittered with micro-circuitry. The smell of ozone, blood, and charred circuitry arose from her. She seemed more like a defunct robot than a human being.

"Priss?" Leon asked softly.

Priss's eyes glanced over at him. He looked into them, and despite everything, he could see HER in them. He knew she was looking back at him. Her mouth opened.

"Leon, you... jerk," she whispered, her voice harsh and grating.

"Shhh, Priss. Don't try to talk. You're going to be alright," Leon said. But even as he spoke, he realized how hollow his words sounded. Very little could be done for Priss, he knew. Just to be on the safe side, he injected the syringe he still held into her, but he knew it to be a futile act. He was surprised to feel tears burning in his eyes. He had thought all his tears had been spent after Jeena....

Priss's eyes closed. Her breathing slowed. For a minute, he was afraid she had gone, but then she spoke again.

"I'm... sorry, Leon. I'm such... an idiot... I... should've told... you...before..." Her words trailed off.

"What, Priss? Tell me what?" Leon asked, utterly clueless.

Priss's eyes opened again. She glared at him.

"Idiot," she gasped, "I... love... you."

Leon drew closer to her. He looked into her eyes, deep into the fading spark of life.

"I love you, too, Priss," he said, and was surprised to feel how strongly he meant it. And then, unmindful of how she looked, he kissed her. Time seemed to stop for one long moment. Priss smiled up at him, and then let out one last breath...

Priss's eyes glazed over and stared off at infinity. Leon screamed up into the heavens, full of rage and grief.

Epilogue 1

 

GENOM Tower, Early Morning

16 June 2034

 

"Miriam, your X-Unit failed," Largo said, without preamble. "Can you give me any reason why I shouldn't punish you for that?" Largo's voice was calm, yet had a definite undertone of menace.

"But--but sir," Miriam began, "we succeeded in--"

"_One_ reason, Doctor, that's what I want." Largo waited for a second. "Nothing? Oh, well then," Largo said, striding around his desk. He grabbed Miriam by the throat. He lifted Miriam straight off the floor without any sign of strain. "I really must thank you for this body, while I still can. It's a marvelous piece of work, really." he said as he tightened his grip. Miriam dropped the mini-computer he was holding and struggled with Largo's grip. The computer beeped as it hit the floor and data began to scroll across it's screen. Largo glanced at it, and then looked at it more closely, relaxing his grip on Miriam's neck.

Suddenly, Largo dropped Miriam to the floor and picked up the computer.

"Excellent, Miriam. You always continue to surprise me."

"Yes, sir," croaked Miriam, as he gasped for air.

"Yes, I think I have need of your skills again. We still have Knight Sabers to deal with, don't we? And now, now we have the perfect weapon."

Largo gazed out his window at MegaTokyo, thinking about his foe. "Sylia," he whispered into the night.

Epilogue 2

 

She floated in a warm, comfortable darkness. Then a light appeared in the distance. It rapidly grew brighter--or was she approaching it?--and the warmth left her, leaving her dissatisfied and uncomfortable. She wanted to scream, to protest against this, but she could not. Now, she was heading for the light at a good pace, and became aware of her body as she moved her arms and legs to shield herself from it.

The light washed over her. She sputtered and was seized by a huge coughing fit. Her lungs were full of fluid and she vomited it up in wracking spasms. Air flooded her lungs and, somehow, she was lifted up and placed on something soft. The air felt numbingly cold on her bare skin, but something warm was placed over her, protecting her from the chill.

Her eyes opened. At first, all she could see was a blinding light, but soon shapes became apparent. And the first thing she could make out was...

...the face of Leon McNichol.

"Welcome back, Priss," he said. "Looking good," he added, grinning all the while.

Priss wished she had the strength to hit him.

 

MegaTokyo Hospital, Room 4603, Afternoon

18 June 2034

 

Priss sat in a hospital bed, surrounded by Leon, Sylia, Linna, Nene, Dr. Raven and, she was surprised to see, Dr. John Stewart.

"What the hell happened?" Priss asked. "I thought I was dead."

"Well, Miss Asagiri," Dr. Stewart began, "technically, you were dead. But the nanoids in your system helped prevent brain death long enough for your colleagues to get you here to MegaTokyo Hospital." Priss looked at Dr. Stewart, and then Sylia in surprise. Sylia gave her a slight nod.

"You were in bad shape," continued Dr. Stewart. "The nanoids had turned you into some kind of freakish cyborg, but we got you into a nanotank--" Dr. Stewart paused, considering his patient. "Do you know what that is? It's a new technique, we suspend you in a super-oxygenated solution filled with nanoids. The nanoids are fueled by the solution as they work, rather than by drawing energy from your body. Using the tank, we were able to undo most of what was done to you."

"Most?" Priss asked. She didn't feel any different. She squeezed the metal railing on her bed and watched it crumple.

Dr. Raven spoke up now. "Now don't overdo it. You're still recovering. We didn't want to place too much stress on your system, Priss, so we decided to leave as much in as we thought proper," he said.

Noting Priss's look of alarm, he hurriedly continued. "Not too much, don't worry. Mainly, you're stuck with the original changes you requested, which were pretty extensive, young lady."

Dr. Raven's voice held a tone of reproach and Priss felt embarrassed. He must've felt responsible after I went on my rampage, she thought.

Dr. Raven watched Priss squirm. Truth to tell, he was too happy that Priss was alright to really be angry with her, but she deserved this much. He soon continued.

"Reversing those changes would put you in jeopardy, so we decided to leave them. At some future point, maybe we can reverse them, but it'd be better to let your system adapt to the changes, rather than put that kind of strain on it again."

"Now, Miss Asagiri," Dr. Stewart said, "you must rest. Don't worry, you'll be out of the hospital in a couple of days."

Sylia leaned close to Priss. "It's good to have you back, Priss," she said, and then walked coolly out of the room.

"Don't give the hospital too hard a time, Priss!" Nene exclaimed. She was still a little weak, but was recovering quickly from her ordeal. "They have some -really- cute guys on staff here. There's this male nurse--"

"Hey, wait a minute there! I saw him first!" Linna squealed in outrage.

"You got to catch him first," retorted Nene, who bolted out the door, followed by Linna. Priss, Leon and Dr. Raven chuckled.

Dr. Stewart and Dr. Raven left, leaving Priss and Leon alone.

"Well," said Leon, obviously ill at ease.

"Well," said Priss, who remembered what she had said to him before she had 'died'. She thought about trying to take it back, but then couldn't decide if she wanted to or not.

"Priss, I've been doing some thinking, and, well, I... I got you this," Leon said, handing Priss a small case.

Priss looked at Leon in confusion and took the case. She opened it and gasped at what she saw. A beautiful gold and silver diamond ring lay in the case, throwing off small rainbows as she looked at it this way and that. Priss looked at it in silence while Leon fidgeted off to the side.

"Leon," Priss began, "you're an idiot..."

Leon looked down at his feet, sure that he had gambled and lost.

"...spending so much on my engagement ring. What are we going to live on, huh?"

Leon looked at Priss in shocked surprise. She was smiling at him, tears in her eyes. He gave a little whoop and engulfed her in a great big bear hug. Priss hugged back, stopping only when he gave a little grunt and she remembered that she was stronger than she used to be.

"By the way, Mr. ADPolice Officer, how do you feel about kids?"

"Priss, whatever makes you happy. Anything, everything, ask me and it's yours!" Leon said, giddily.

"Really? Well, there's this small boy named Sho, and..."


BACK